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John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908–1971)

by J. B. Hopley

This article was published:

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John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908-1971), by unknown photographer, 1942

John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908-1971), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 022783

John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908-1971), parliamentary officer and soldier, was born on 7 October 1908 at Bondi, Sydney, son of John James Stevenson, a commercial traveller born in the United States of America, and his Sydney-born wife Caroline Maude, née Rowlstone. Educated at Canterbury Boys' Intermediate High School, John took an office job, played hockey, and drove racing cars at Maroubra speedway. He was appointed third clerk on the staff of the Legislative Council in 1933 and second clerk in 1939.

After beginning compulsory military training in 1925, Stevenson had enlisted in the 45th Battalion, Citizen Military Forces, in 1927. Commissioned lieutenant (1929), he was promoted captain in 1934 and transferred to the artillery in 1937. On 13 October 1939 he was appointed major, 2nd/3rd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall and 11 st. 6 lb. (73 kg) in weight, he had a dark complexion and black hair. In January 1940 he sailed for the Middle East. He commanded the 16th Infantry Training Battalion from November before rejoining the 2nd/3rd in Palestine in May 1941. On 16 June that year at St George's Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem, he married Rita Anne Hanscombe, the deputy-matron of the 2nd/1st Australian General Hospital. Two days later the 2nd/3rd moved to Syria to engage Vichy French forces.

Stevenson took command of the battalion on 21 June. He was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel on the 25th, twice mentioned in dispatches, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership during the battle of Damour. After the armistice in July, his unit helped to garrison Syria and Lebanon. It sailed for Australia in March 1942, but was diverted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and did not disembark in Melbourne until August. By 21 September the 2nd/3rd had reached Papua.

On the Kokoda Track, Stevenson proved himself to be a confident leader and an adept tactician. He was wounded in his left ear on 22 October, but remained on duty until the 27th when he handed over his command. By then he had lost four stone (25 kg) in weight. On 25 November he rejoined the depleted 2nd/3rd on the Sanananda Track. The battalion was relieved on 19/20 December and returned to Australia in January 1943. Stevenson was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier on 31 March and given command of the 11th Infantry Brigade, which had been deployed for the defence of north-east Queensland and Merauke, Dutch New Guinea. Under its enterprising leader, the brigade fought on Bougainville from December 1944 until hostilities ceased in August 1945. Stevenson accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces on Nauru and Ocean islands, relinquished his command in December, came home in February 1946 and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 30 May. He was appointed a commander of the Order of Oranje-Nassau (1945) and C.B.E. (1947).

In 1946 Stevenson returned to the Legislative Council as usher of the Black Rod and first clerk; by 1954 he was clerk of the parliaments. Applying his knowledge of procedure and practice with common sense, he kept the council running smoothly. He was generous in his advice to members and a stickler for proper behaviour in the chamber. In 1954 he introduced the first of a series of consolidated indexes to supplement official parliamentary records. A man of decided opinions who supported the bicameral system, he openly advocated the (successful) 'No' vote in both the State referendum on the abolition of the council in 1961 and the Federal 'nexus' referendum in 1967. On issues of defence, he was prepared to criticize governments of any political persuasion.

Resuming part-time duty with the C.M.F., Stevenson commanded the 5th Brigade in 1948-51 and, as major general, the 2nd Division in 1957-59. He was honorary colonel of the 3rd Infantry Battalion (Werriwa Regiment) in 1957-60 and of the University of New South Wales Regiment in 1963-69, president (1962-66) of the United Service Institution of New South Wales, patron of the 2nd/3rd Battalion Association and president of Double Bay sub-branch of the Returned Services League of Australia.

During the Depression Stevenson had helped to run a boys' club at Christ Church St Laurence. He later worked to rehabilitate former prisoners. A Freemason and a Rotarian, he was a councillor (from 1958) of the National Roads and Motorists' Association and a member (from 1961) of the Archives Authority of New South Wales. He was also president (1963-65) of the Imperial Service Club, and a member of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 4 July 1971 in Fiji and was cremated in Sydney with Presbyterian forms and full military honours.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (Canb, 1961)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 4 Aug 1971, p 7
  • Australian Library Journal, Aug 1969
  • Open Road, 1 Dec 1969
  • private information.

Citation details

J. B. Hopley, 'Stevenson, John Rowlstone (1908–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908-1971), by unknown photographer, 1942

John Rowlstone Stevenson (1908-1971), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 022783

Life Summary [details]


7 October, 1908
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


4 July, 1971 (aged 62)

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.