Service Numbers: Commissioned Officer, Officer
Enlisted: 1 July 1877, Enlisted as a Trooper in the 'Reedbeds Cavalry' (Colonial Militia) pre-Federation. The date is nominal
Last Rank: Colonel
Last Unit: Sea Transport Staff
Born: Cottenham, England, 20 January 1851
Home Town: Lockleys, City of West Torrens, South Australia
Schooling: Fulham Public School
Occupation: Orchardist and Politician
Died: Natural causes, Lockleys, South Australia , 6 July 1940, aged 89 years
Cemetery: West Terrace Cemetery (General) Adelaide, South Australia
Memorials: Lockleys & District War Memorial - former RSL Sub-Branch and Memorial Hall, Naval & Military Club of SA - Boer War Roll of Honour
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Non Warlike Service

1 Jul 1877: Enlisted British Forces (All Conflicts), Trooper, Commissioned Officer, Enlisted as a Trooper in the 'Reedbeds Cavalry' (Colonial Militia) pre-Federation. The date is nominal

Boer War Service

1 Oct 1899: Involvement Australian and Colonial Military Forces - Boer War Contingents, Lieutenant Colonel, Commissioned Officer, 4th Imperial Bushmen

World War 1 Service

25 Mar 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Colonel, Officer, Sea Transport Staff

‘one of Nature’s gentlemen . . . a perfect soul who never told a lie or turned away from danger’.

Senator Alexander John McLachlan (1872-1956) - http://biography.senate.gov.au/mclachlan-alexander-john/ describing James Rowell

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Biography contributed by Steve Larkins

Colonel James Rowell, CB, VD, MiD
From the Australian Dictionary of Biography - see citation details below.

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 (* correction - 3rd Light Horse Regiment Ed) 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.  (Addition - he was President of the Naval and Military Club of South Australia from 1902-1935.  a record for longevity which still stands).

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. According to his son, Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Rowell, "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.


Citation details
S. F. Rowell, 'Rowell, James (1851–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rowell-james-8283/text14515, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988


Biography contributed by Steve Larkins

Colonel James Rowell - from the Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate 

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 194-196.

Colonel James Rowell was the epitome of the turn of the century military man: composed in manner, dignified in bearing and of distinguished appearance. He was born at Cambridge, England, on 20 January 1851, the son of John Rowell, a gardener, and his wife Susan, previously Smith, née Hall. In 1855, he came to South Australia with his parents where they established an orchard at Lockleys near Adelaide. After an elementary but sound education at the Fulham Public School, Rowell joined his father on the family property in which he later inherited a third share.

Rowell had military aspirations from an early age. An accomplished horseman, he joined the local cavalry in 1877, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1880. Rowell was promoted to captain, major and lieutenant colonel in 1881, 1885 and 1895 respectively. In 1897, he commanded the detachment of South Australia’s military forces at Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations in London. From May 1900 to August 1901, he led the 4th Imperial Bushmen’s Regiment in the Boer War. For his distinguished service during this conflict, Rowell, by now a full colonel, was mentioned in dispatches and received the CB and the Queen’s Medal (four clasps). In 1901, he assumed command of the South Australian Mounted Brigade, prior to the reorganisation of the colonial military forces under the newly created Commonwealth of Australia; he relinquished this position in 1910. Rowell also commanded the 10th Australian Infantry Regiment from 1904, and was actively associated with the citizen forces. Recalled to active service during World War I, Rowell acted as military commandant of South Australia for a period in 1916. Between April 1915 and March 1917, he made a number of journeys on troop transport ships to England and Egypt in command of AIF reinforcements.

Imbued with a strong sense of public duty, Rowell was a member of the West Torrens District Council for sixteen years and its chairman for twelve. He was also a champion of primary producers’ interests, serving on the South Australian Board of Agriculture and, for almost fifty years, as president, committee member and councillor of South Australia’s Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society. Rowell was president for several years of the District Councils’ Association and vice-president of the Local Government Association. He stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Union candidate for the House of Assembly seat of Adelaide at the 1910 general election. His political hopes were finally realised on 24 May 1917, when he was appointed to fill the casual vacancy arising from the resignation of W. H. Story with a term of service to expire on 30 June 1917. In the interim, however, Rowell became a successful candidate for the Senate at the 1917 federal election.[1]

Rowell’s contribution to parliamentary debate centred almost entirely upon two subjects: returned servicemen and their families, and primary industry. He supported the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Bill, which sought to provide pragmatic assistance to former servicemen: ‘The able-bodied amongst our returned soldiers will not require charity. What they will probably look for is to be replaced in the occupations which they followed before they went to the war’.[2] Rowell also favoured government attempts to assist returned soldiers to purchase homes. He stressed that those who had fought in the Boer War should not, as hitherto, be excluded from the assistance available under the War Service Homes Bill. Rowell saw ‘no reason why men who have served in the wars of the Empire should be debarred from coming under the Act. The men who fought in the South African war had no gratuity given to them when they returned’.[3]

A supporter of the Murray River waters scheme, which he considered ‘one of the most important works going on in Australia’,[4] Rowell nevertheless was cautious in his enthusiasm for certain ambitious national initiatives in the area of rural industry, such as the proposal to introduce a national wheat bulk handling system. While not an opponent of the proposal in principle, he considered it unsuitable for wheat distribution in South Australia.[5]

He also had reservations about the duties being levied on certain items essential to rural industry, concerns which derived primarily from his experience as a farmer in South Australia: ‘a large number of Australian fruit-growers . . . have lost faith in the quality of the Australian production. The imposition of the duties shown in the schedule means placing an extra burden on those fruit-growers who feel compelled to use the imported commodity’.[6]

During World War I, Rowell served on a Senate select committee that investigated the effect of liquor consumption upon Australia’s soldiery. The committee, which was appointed on 10 January 1918, tabled its final report on 21 November. Rowell was in agreement with the majority report, which came out against prohibiting the importation, manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor on the grounds that ‘the diversity of opinion expressed [by committee members] is such that your Committee cannot recommend legislation with this object in view’. Rowell also served as a Temporary Chairman of Committees (1922–23). He was defeated at the 1922 election.[7]

Rowell was twice married: on 10 June 1874 at the Wesleyan Church, Fulham, to Elizabeth Marchant, who died in 1881; and on 20 September 1883 to Zella Jane Williams, a schoolteacher. Colonel Rowell, as he was known, died at his home, ‘Cottenham’, at Lockleys on 6 July 1940 aged eighty-nine. His wife, four of his five sons and two daughters survived him.

One of Rowell’s sons, General Sir Sydney Rowell, himself a distinguished soldier who retired as head of Australia’s military forces, described his father as ‘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’. Rowell’s fellow South Australian, A. J. McLachlan, saw him as ‘one of Nature’s gentlemen . . . a perfect soul who never told a lie or turned away from danger’.[8]


Derek Drinkwater

[1] Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 July 1940, p. 12; S. F. Rowell, ‘Rowell, James’, ADB, vol. 11; Photograph, PO 474/43/02, AWM.

[2] CPD, 27 July 1917, p. 584.

[3] CPD, 25 August 1920, pp. 3763–3764.

[4] CPD, 6 December 1918, p. 8901.

[5] CPD, 27 July 1917, p. 581.

[6] CPD, 30 August 1921, pp. 11379–11380.

[7] CPP, Report of the Senate select committee on the effect of intoxicating liquor on Australian soldiers, 1918.

[8] Rowell, ‘Rowell, James’, ADB; CPD, 7 August 1940, pp. 244–245.