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John Bowie Wilson (1820–1883)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published:

John Bowie Wilson (1820-1883), by unknown photographer

John Bowie Wilson (1820-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

John Bowie Wilson (1820-1883), politician and free-thinker, was born on 17 June 1820 at Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Rev. John Wilson, D.D. Educated at Irvine, he migrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney in the North Briton on 18 July 1840. After eight years in squatting, mostly on the Monaro, he returned to Scotland. Restless, he soon joined his brother, a medical practitioner in the United States of America, and assisted him for three years. Estranged from his father's religion in adolescence, he developed a lifelong interest in spiritualism and dabbled in phrenology. In 1854 he re-emigrated to Australia. Unsuccessful as a gold digger at Araluen, he practised hydropathy and began to call himself doctor. On 9 July 1859 at Braidwood he married Julia, daughter of Thomas Bell. That year he won the Goldfields South seat for the Legislative Assembly and was re-elected in 1860.

An ultra-radical, Wilson soon became obsessed by a desire to abolish all state aid to religion. In 1861, during the debate on (Sir) John Robertson's land bills, he moved to have the Church and school lands declared waste lands to ensure that any money raised from them went to consolidated revenue; but Robertson suspected the move as a plot to defeat his legislation. In 1862 he voted against (Sir) Charles Cowper's successful bill to abolish state aid to religion, arguing that it did not go far enough. Although calling himself a liberal, he opposed the Cowper-Robertson government at every opportunity and late in 1863 joined the conservative (Sir) James Martin's ministry as secretary for lands. In the 1864 general elections he won the rural seat of Patrick Plains despite being accused in verse of putting place before principle by (Sir) Henry Parkes; however, the government was defeated.

Again secretary for lands in the Martin-Parkes coalition in 1866-68, Wilson tried to rectify some of the anomalies of Robertson's land laws, but was popularly believed to favour the squatters in whose social milieu he sometimes moved. He was active in improving the city's recreation areas. In the 1869 elections he was defeated in two country electorates, but in 1870 won a by-election for East Sydney in a campaign organized by John Davies and the Protestant Political Association. In 1868 he was granted the right to retain the title honourable and wear the uniform of an executive councillor after he ceased to hold office, but was chided by the secretary of state for the colonies for his over-eagerness in applying for the honour while in office.

Despite his taste for the trappings of place, Wilson maintained radical connexions, advising the eight-hour movement on tactics in 1870. Active in the temperance movement, he was in 1868 president of the Excelsior division of the Order of the Sons of Temperance and in 1869 an executive member of the New South Wales Alliance for the Suppression of Intemperance. In 1869-70 he twice failed to amend the Sale of Liquors Licensing Act of 1862 to eliminate all but the largest hotels, and later presented a petition containing over 15,000 signatures 'of the mothers and daughters of Sydney' praying for the outlawing of dancing and music in public houses. Wilson was again secretary for lands in the 1870-72 Martin-Robertson ministry. Defeated in the 1872 elections, he withdrew from politics and put his experience to good use as a land agent with George Ranken. He also had interests in mining ventures. In 1875-77 he conscientiously attended meetings of the Sydney, City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board and in 1876-77 was a member of the royal commission on oyster culture.

In 1882, although in ill health, Wilson headed a commission to report on Lord Howe Island; he strongly criticized Captain Richard Armstrong, the government resident. Two parliamentary select committees of inquiry into Armstrong's dismissal criticized posthumously Wilson's methods and report, but he was strongly defended by Robertson. He died of dilatation of the heart on 30 April 1883, survived by his second wife Elizabeth, née Gowing, whom he had married on 5 July 1873 at Strathbogie, New England, by their son and daughter and by four daughters by his first wife. An active free-thinker in his later years, in 1882 he was the first president of the Liberal Association of New South Wales. He was buried without religious rites in the Unitarian section of Rookwood cemetery: Rev. Charles Bright delivered the panegyric. His estate was valued for probate at £15,088.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Buchanan, Political Portraits of Some of the Members of the Parliament of New South Wales (Syd, 1863)
  • R. R. Armstrong, Capt. Armstrong, R.N. (Syd, 1885)
  • N. Turner, Sinews of Sectarian Warfare? (Canb, 1972)
  • Empire (Sydney), 6 Dec 1864, 30 Sept 1869
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 16 Aug 1867
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1869
  • Sydney Mail and Town and Country Journal, 5 May 1883
  • Liberal (Sydney), 12 May 1883
  • P. Loveday, The Development of Parliamentary Government in New South Wales, 1856-1870 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1962)
  • CO 201/543/241.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Wilson, John Bowie (1820–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Bowie Wilson (1820-1883), by unknown photographer

John Bowie Wilson (1820-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


17 June, 1820
Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland


30 April, 1883 (aged 62)

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.