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Sir John Joseph (Jack) Rowell (1916–1996)

by J. S. Douglas

This article was published online in 2020

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Sir John Joseph Rowell (1916–1996), solicitor, company director, and community worker, was born on 15 February 1916 at Toowong, Brisbane, elder child of English-born parents Joseph Alfred Rowell, tailor, and his wife Mary Lillian, née Hooper. Jack was educated at Toowong State School before winning a scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School (1929–33). While studying part time at the University of Queensland (BA, 1950), he served articles of clerkship with the solicitors Fitzgerald & Walsh, and was admitted to practice, through the Solicitors’ Admissions Board, on 14 February 1939.

Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July 1940, Rowell joined the 2/10th Field Regiment, a Queensland-raised artillery unit; he was promoted to captain in January the following year. The 2/10th deployed to Malaya as part of the 8th Division the next month. Following Japan’s entry into World War II, the regiment saw action in January and February 1942, first on the mainland and then on Singapore. When Singapore fell on 15 February, Rowell was imprisoned at Changi and was later transferred to Sandakan in Borneo and then to Kuching, where he remained until liberated on 12 September 1945. His fellow prisoners included other talented Australian lawyers whom he joined in running legal education classes in the camp. Suffering from malnutrition, he returned to Brisbane, where, after hospitalisation, he was demobilised and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 16 January 1946.

On 29 August 1947 Rowell married Mary Kathleen de Silva at St Stephen’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane. Returning to the legal profession, he practised in the same building as the Liberal Party senator (Sir) Neil O’Sullivan. The two amalgamated their practices in 1957 to form Neil O’Sullivan & Rowell. Active in the profession, Rowell was a member of council (1956–70) and president (1964–66) of the Queensland Law Society; he was then a member of the Law Council of Australia’s executive, which organised the Commonwealth Law Conference in 1965.

Rowell’s most enduring professional legacy was his involvement in the development of legal aid in Queensland, which, until the 1960s, had depended mainly on voluntary work by members of the profession. Developments in Britain and Victoria inspired the Queensland Law Society to promote legislative change to enable interest earned on moneys in solicitors’ trust accounts to be used for legal aid, and to help provide fidelity funds to reimburse clients whose solicitors had defaulted on their obligations. Having been involved in the negotiations with the State’s attorney-general, (Sir) Peter Delamothe, in 1966 Rowell became the society’s representative on the minister’s advisory committee and then chairman (1966–79) of the Legal Assistance Committee established under the Queensland Legal Assistance Act 1966.

In 1979 the committee merged with the Federal government’s Australian Legal Aid Office to form the Queensland Legal Aid Commission and Legal Aid Office, with Rowell as chairman. He filled this role until his retirement in 1990, bringing to an end his more than twenty-five years of guiding legal aid in Queensland. His part in securing the legal profession’s involvement, dealing with the uncertainty of funding in the thirteen years of the Legal Assistance Committee, and then presiding over the amalgamation of the Commonwealth and State schemes was described as ‘Herculean’ (Headnote 2005, 9), and demonstrated his public-spirited approach to legal practice.

Appointed CBE in 1974 and knighted in 1980, Sir John continued in practice into his seventies, and then remained as a consultant to his firm. He served as honorary consul for the Federal Republic of Germany (1963–86); contributed his expertise to the faculty board of the University of Queensland Law School; chaired (1981–90) the advisory committee of the Brisbane Youth Advocacy Centre; held office as honorary treasurer (1970–77) of the Good Neighbour Council of Queensland; and presided over the Australia-Britain Society (1988–94). He was president of the Queensland Hotels Association (1963–69) and of the Australian Hotels Association (1965–69). A board member of several companies, he was chairman (1971–80) of the Brisbane Gas Co., and a director of its parent company, Boral Basic Industries Ltd (1974–87).

A gregarious and shrewd man with many friends, Rowell was tall, well dressed, and imposing, ebullient in company and genial by nature. Survived by his wife, three of his four sons, and two daughters, he died on 5 May 1996 at Auchenflower, Brisbane; after a Catholic service, he was buried in Toowong cemetery. All of his surviving children qualified as lawyers, his sons succeeding him in the firm he had established.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Addison, Susan. ‘Sir John Rowell.’ Proctor 10, no. 5 (1990): 1, 4
  • Australian War Memorial. ‘2/10th Field Regiment.’ Accessed 1 November 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Boral Basic Industries Ltd. ‘Boral the 1970s: The Brisbane Gas Company.’ Accessed 1 November 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Cohen, K. T. Enhancing Access to Justice: The History of Legal Aid Queensland, 1979–2004. Brisbane: Legal Aid Queensland, 2004
  • Gerber, Paul. ‘Law Reform in Queensland.’ University of Queensland Law Journal 6, no. 2 (1968–69): 74–76
  • Gregory, Helen. The Queensland Law Society Inc 1928–1988: A History. Brisbane: Queensland Law Society Inc, 1991
  • Headnote, LAQ News. ‘Courage and Commitment—Sir John Rowell.’ January 2005, 9, 13
  • Murray, Gwenn. ‘Brisbane Youth Advocacy Centre—Providing Access to Justice for Young People.’ Flinders Journal of Law Reform 261 (1997): 270
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX6348

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Citation details

J. S. Douglas, 'Rowell, Sir John Joseph (Jack) (1916–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 22 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1916
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


5 May, 1996 (aged 80)
Auchenflower, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lung)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations