Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Owen Stanley (1811–1850)

by Francis West

This article was published:

Owen Stanley, n.d.

Owen Stanley, n.d.

National Portrait Gallery (UK)

Owen Stanley (1811-1850), naval officer, was born on 13 June 1811, the eldest son of Edward Stanley, bishop of Norwich, and Catherine, daughter of Rev. Oswald Leicester, rector of Stoke, Shropshire, England. His brother was dean of Westminster and his uncle Lord Stanley of Alderley. Owen entered the Royal Naval College at 15 and after training shipped as a volunteer in the frigate Druid in January 1826. Two months later he became midshipman in the Ganges and spent the next four years on the coast of South America, serving chiefly in small ships on surveying work; in 1830 he was employed under Phillip Parker King in the sloop Adventure on a survey of the Straits of Magellan. He passed his examination for promotion to lieutenant in June 1830, returned to England five months later, and next May was commissioned lieutenant while serving in the Belvidera with the Mediterranean Squadron. For five years on this station he again served in small ships on surveying work, this time in the Greek archipelago. He then joined the Arctic expedition which left the Orkneys in June 1836, sailing in the Terror and having charge of astronomical and magnetic observations during the voyage towards the North Pole.

As a lieutenant at 26 he received his first independent command, the brig Britomart, in which he sailed in 1838 for the East Indies Station and Australasian waters, chiefly on surveying work. When the expedition to establish a northern colony at Port Essington sailed in September 1838, the Britomart accompanied it, Stanley being made a magistrate and a commissioner of crown lands for the purpose. He visited the new colony again in 1841, and described the settlement in November as 'all well, and on the best possible terms with the Natives', and its commandant, Captain John Macarthur, as the victim of official incompetence and naval interference. Stanley was not solely engaged upon surveying work, however, for his duties took him in 1840 to New Zealand where, under the orders of Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson, he was sent in July to the Banks Peninsula where French emigrants were expected to form a settlement upon land bought by Captain Langlois from the Maoris of Akaroa. Stanley, taking with him a police magistrate to station there, preceded the French arrival and succeeded in establishing good relations with the French commandant, Lavaud, who saluted the British flag. For his behaviour in a delicate situation Stanley was highly commended by the Admiralty, having already been promoted commander in April 1839.

In 1841 Stanley was at Singapore on his way to the fighting in Burma and thence returned to England, where in 1844 be achieved post rank as captain and two years later received command of another surveying ship, Rattlesnake, destined for the East Indies Station. In December 1846 he was ordered from England to Australia to survey the region of Hervey Bay in a new project for establishing a colony in that part of North Australia. This plan was abandoned, but Stanley sailed from England, taking with him the naturalists, Thomas Huxley and John MacGillivray, under orders to survey New Guinea waters. November 1847 found him on the Australian coast at Port Curtis, surveying the harbour which he thought a very good anchorage, before setting out in the next year northward to New Guinea. In June 1848 he offered protection and assistance to the ship which carried Edmund Kennedy's expedition to Cape York and then proceeded to the Louisiade Islands off south-east New Guinea to make a survey of the archipelago. Upon this mission which lasted throughout 1849 he contracted an illness of which he died in Sydney in March 1850.

Stanley's achievement was principally scientific. Made a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society for his surveying and observation work, he charted considerable sections of the north-east Australian coast, made a track of the Arafura Sea, and charted the channels and islands of south-east New Guinea. He was admired as a careful and competent seaman by MacGillivray and was a warm friend of Sir John Franklin, but he was condemned by Huxley for cowardice because of his reluctance to land on New Guinea shores for fear of conflict with the natives; however, Huxley was angry not to be able to collect specimens ashore and made no allowance for the disease with which Stanley was then afflicted. His work is commemorated in the name of the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 19-22, 25, 26
  • W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary (Lond, 1849)
  • J. MacGillivray, Narrative of the Voyage of HMS Rattlesnake … 1846-1850, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1852)
  • J. Huxley (ed), T. H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of HMS Rattlesnake (Lond, 1935).

Citation details

Francis West, 'Stanley, Owen (1811–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Owen Stanley, n.d.

Owen Stanley, n.d.

National Portrait Gallery (UK)

Life Summary [details]


13 June, 1811


March, 1850 (aged 38)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.