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James Rowell (1851–1940)

by S. F. Rowell

This article was published:

James Rowell (1851-1940), by Hammer & Co., 1917-23

James Rowell (1851-1940), by Hammer & Co., 1917-23

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23504916

James Rowell (1851-1940), soldier, orchardist and politician, was born on 20 January 1851 at Cottenham, near Cambridge, England, son of John Rowell, gardener, and his wife Susan, formerly Smith, née Hall. The family migrated to South Australia in 1855 because John Rowell, by then a yeoman farmer, hated the tithe system and wanted more land to farm. He acquired some 100 acres (40 ha) at Lockleys (the Reedbeds) and established an extensive orchard with many fruits and a vineyard. James was educated locally at Fulham Public School and very early in life helped his father to establish his property. On his father's death he inherited a third of his land and became an orchardist. He married Elizabeth Marchant at the Wesleyan Church, Fulham, on 10 June 1874; they had a son and a daughter. Elizabeth died in 1881 and on 20 September 1883 Rowell married a schoolmistress, Zella Jane Williams. From this marriage there were four sons and a daughter.

James Rowell is best known for his association with the Volunteer Military Forces of South Australia before Federation, then with those of the Commonwealth. A fine horseman, he began in the ranks of the Reedbeds cavalry in 1877 and was commissioned lieutenant in the South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1880. He was promoted captain in 1881, major in 1885 and lieutenant-colonel in 1895. He commanded the South Australian Contingent to Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in London in 1897 and in 1900, as a colonel, he raised and took to the South African War the 4th Imperial Bushmen's Contingent. For his war service he was appointed C.B. and he was mentioned in dispatches. His eldest son, Charles Frederick, served as a trooper in South Africa. After Federation James Rowell was closely identified with the Citizen Forces and ended his service in 1910 as commander of the South Australian Brigade. He also served as a consultative member of the Military Board, Australian Military Forces.

Rowell returned from retirement in 1916 to be briefly military commandant in South Australia, having made several voyages to Egypt and England as officer commanding troops on transports carrying reinforcements for the Australian Imperial Force. His sons Lindsay Hugh and (Lieutenant-General Sir) Sydney Fairbairn both served with the A.I.F. as did his nephew Frank Milton Rowell, who commanded the 3rd Brigade at Gallipoli and died of wounds received there.

But there was much more to James Rowell's life than soldiering. He made himself highly skilled in the horticultural field and did much to advance the interests of the primary producer in South Australia. He served on the South Australian Board of Agriculture and for nearly half a century was a councillor of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia and for some years its president. He had a long period as a member of the West Torrens District Council and was its chairman for twelve years. He also served as vice-president of the Local Government Association, and as a member of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens Board and the Central Board of Health.

A staunch Conservative, Rowell came late to politics outside the sphere of local government. He was unsuccessful in an election for the Legislative Council early in the century but was elected to the Senate in 1916, losing his seat in 1922. He spoke infrequently in parliament, but according to one distinguished member of the Senate 'Rowell always voted the right way'.

Like so many who live and work close to the soil, James Rowell was a simple, uncomplicated man. He had deeply rooted religious convictions; he held the belief that man was born to serve; he was generous to a fault, with a temperament that was rarely disturbed. He may have had some enemies; he certainly had legions of friends. Survived by four sons and two daughters, he died on 6 July 1940 at Lockleys.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • London Gazette, 16 Apr 1901
  • Journal of Agriculture (South Australia), Sept 1915
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 July 1940.

Citation details

S. F. Rowell, 'Rowell, James (1851–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Rowell (1851-1940), by Hammer & Co., 1917-23

James Rowell (1851-1940), by Hammer & Co., 1917-23

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23504916

Life Summary [details]


20 January, 1851
Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, England


6 July, 1940 (aged 89)
Lockleys, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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