John Owens

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The Late John Downes Owens. State Library of Victoria (IAN27/12/66/4)
Bendigo Goldfields Petition Cover, August 1853. State Library of Victoria (MS 12440) and Condemned them to hard labor on the Public Roads of the Colony - A proceeding Your Petitioners maintain to be contrary to the spirit of the British Law which does not recognise the principle of the Subject being a Criminal because he is indebted to the State
That the impost of Thirty Shillings a Month is unjust because the successful and unsuccessful Digger are assessed in the same ratio
For these reasons and others which could be enumerated Your Petitioners pray Your Excellency to Grant the following Petition
* First. To direct that the Licence Fee be reduced to Ten Shillings a Month
* Secondly To direct that Monthly or Quarterly Licenses be issued at the option of the Applicants
* Thirdly To direct that new arrivals or invalids be allowed on registering their names at the Commissioners Office fifteen clear days residence on the Gold Fields before the License be enforced
* Fourthly To afford greater facility to Diggers and others resident on the Gold Fields who wish to engage in Agricultural Pursuits for investing their earnings in small allotments of land
* Fifthly To direct that the Penalty of Five Pounds for non-possession of License be reduced to One Pound
* Sixthly To direct that (as the Diggers and other residents on the Gold Fields of the Colony have uniformly developed a love of law and order) the sending of an Armed Force to enforce the License Tax be discontinued.
Your Petitioners would respectfully submit to Your Excellency's consideration in favour of the reduction of the License Fee that many Diggers and other residents on the Gold-fields who are debarred from taking a License under the present System would if the Tax were reduced to Ten Shillings a Month cheerfully comply with the Law so that the License Fund instead of being diminished would be increased
Your Petitioners would also remind your Excellency that a Petition is the only mode by which they can submit their wants to your Excellency's consideration as although they contribute more to the Exchequer that half the Revenue of the Colony they are the largest class of Her Majesty's Subjects in the Colony unrepresented
And your Petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray etc.


John Downes Owens was born in 1809 at Shropshire, England, son of John Owens, surgeon and his wife Martha Downes. He was a medical practitioner and goldfields leader. He studied medicine and claimed membership in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1839 and a doctorate of medicine in 1840. In 1850 He sailed to Australia in 1850 as surgeon in an immigrant ship for Sydney and Adelaide and after a short stay went to South America and then to California where he visited the goldfields. He returned to Sydney in the Queen of Sheba on 1 January 1852 and went to Melbourne followed by Bendigo where as one of the first doctors he had a lucrative practice. In 1853 he practised in the Ovens District for a few months and, indignant over the shooting of a miner by a policeman, began to involve himself in miners' issues. The miners rallied round him and elected him their representative at the inquiry but it was never held.[1]

At Melbourne in 1853 Owens presided at a meeting of the Colonial Reform Association on the land question and joined the deputation to La Trobe asking that squatters be given no privileges detrimental to the interests of the community. In Bendigo, where he again took up practice, he was a leader in the agitation for a reduction in the miners' licence fee, arguing that it be completely abolished. He was a spokesman for the miners in an interview with La Trobe from which he returned to Bendigo with government messages of conciliation. In January 1854 when the Bendigo miners were seeking representation in the legislature Owens and James Egan Wall were their delegates to the Legislative Council, where they asked to be heard on the new constitution bill.[2]

Goldfields Involvement, 1854

Fifty years ago to-day a strange and stirring scene was enacted on the Bendigo gold-field. It was the culminating point to a bitter protest against the tyrannous treat-ment of the diggers by the administrators of the British Government. On the hill where All Saints' Pro-Cathedral now stands the gathering had assembled, and on that afternoon—the 21st August, 1853—every miner wore the symbol of disaffection, a piece of red ribbon. But why had these 20,000 miners risen in their angry might to make a mammoth demonstration of this character? Only the younger generation need be told. The ranks of the pioneers who took part in the red ribbon movement have been broken and sundered, but for years afterwards the story of their fight for justice was on every tongue, and their triumph, in the end, was no light thing to be forgotten in a day. With the increase of diggers, and the decrease of gold, the license fee of 30/ per month began to gall. It was resented by those who could not pay on the practical grounds of poverty, while others objected on the plea that it was an unjust tax. On every hand, almost; the tax encountered an enemy, while the method of collecting it was nothing less than barbarous. The taxgatherer and the taxpayer were brought into violent contact the one in harsh authority, the other in a spirit of stubborn rebellion. The digger did not want to escape his fair share of taxa-tion, and if the gold-laced officialdom of the hour had but reduced the tax to a moderate amount, it would have been cheerfully paid by the general body of diggers, and the aggregate revenue would have been larger. Moreover, a license was a necessity for security of tenure, as in those days a swarm of desperadoes were ready to rush in and possess themselves of a rich claim did opportunity offer. But the Government sought to press the yoke of authority so heavily on the neck of every miner that its action had an effect quite opposite to that intended. The law, in its majesty, demanded that the digger, should show his last receipt, at all hours of the day or night, and the digger replied. "I'll see you d..... first." This, at least, was the predominating spirit of the rough, and ready miners, who were led by men, the very mention of whose names appears to annihilate, time and space, and bring the old Bendigonian back into the sunshine of youth, when the battle for British liberty was fought and won.
Not only against the license fee, but against the general official administration, were the diggers incensed and it was considered the height of enjoyment to bam-boozle the police. There is the humorous as well as the serious side of pioneer life, and, notwithstanding the ominous temper of the people, the ring of loud laughter was frequently heard while a digger hunt was going on. it is remarkable, when looked at over a space of 50 years, that the tragic Eureka Stockade incident of 3rd December, 1854, was Ieft to Ballarat. It might easily have taken place, at an earlier period on Bendigo, but, no doubt, the leaders of the insurrectionary movement, did a great deal to. hold the 40,000 people constituting the gold fields population in check. The diggers were all armed, and they had the numbers. Under the circumstances, their, self-control was ad-mirable. They had already successfully fought against a step to increase the license fee to £3, and as the anti-license movement had taken a firm hold at each of the important goldfields, it was determined to resist strongly the arbitrary conduct of the Government. A monster memorial, signed by 31,000 diggers of Bendigo, Castlemaine, and McIvor, was presented to Governor Latrobe, but the reply came that no changes would be made in the existing laws. As a matter of fact, Latrobe called the diggers "grievance mongers," and threatened to let them hear the cannon roar. This, in itself, was eloquent of the demeamor of the administration.
And so it happened that just a half century ago the great meeting was held on Hospital Hill to make a demonstration, which thrilled the hearts of every miner who at-tended, swayed by the one common impulse to raise his voice in denunciation of oppres-sion and wrong. Fully 90 per cent, of that vast throng had mounted the red cockade; horses and dogs were decorated with the red symbol of liberty, and the deep undercurrent of excitement, which ever and anon rose to the surface and found vent in uproarious cheers, showed the tense nature of the position. The commissioners thought the dig-gers were going to take possession of the camp, and Governor Latrobe sent a body of soldiery and his promised cannon to the field. But the men maintained a constitutional demeanor. With a deep-throated and vociferous burst of cheering, they carried a resolution against the license system, and adopted the red political insignia by way of evincing their earnestness in the cause. Dr. Jones was in the chair, and amongst those present were. Mr. W. D. C. Denovan, who is still a citizen of Bendigo; Mr. G. E. Thomson, solicitor, who first started a restaurant, and be came the prime mover in the agitation; Captain Brown, Dr. Wall; Mr. E. N. Emmett, Mr. Ferrars (the secretary); Mr. Alfred O'Connor, and Dr. Owens, who was a prominent advocate for the men on the Ovens goldfield, and who, in conjunction with the late Mr. Angus Mackay, was one of the champions of the diggers. Others prominent in the crusade on behalf of the diggers were Captain Harrison, Mr. Robert Benson, Captain Baker, and Mr. R. R. Haverfield. It can readily be understood that the refusal on the part of the Government to abolish or reduce the fee put the climax on the public wrath, and the diggers were more determined than ever. On the 27th August, 1853, another great meeting, was held on Hospital Hill. The rain poured down in heavy showers, but it could not damp the ardor of the men, many of whom marched from White Hills, flying the red ribbon in their hats, the wild Skirl of the Scotch pipes increasing their enthusiasm. The meeting resolved that the diggers would pay only 10/, per month as the license fee, and no more Meanwhile, at Waranga the Goulburn diggings, the commissioners were foolish enough to attempt to compel the diggers to pay the old license fee, and they made a number of arrests. This was too much for the endurance of their comrades. A large body of diggers, fully-armed, marched to the gaol, demanded the instant liberation of the imprisoned men, and the terrified commissioners complied with remarkable celerity. This, incident greatly alarmed Governor Latrobe, who rushed to the Legislative Council of Victoria, proposed at once to abandon the license fee altogether, and to substitute some "other " tax. And, laughable as it, may appear, so confused did the authorities become that in a few days two proclamations, diametrically opposed to each other, were posted at the various gold fields. One set forth that the fee for the following month need not be paid, while the other stated that the diggers must pay the license fee as usual! The first was issued by Governor Latrobe, and the second by Chief Commissioner Wright, in charge of all the goldfields. Here, indeed, was a pitiable exhibition, of administrative imbecility and disorganisation. The Bendigo anti-license committee went at once, to the commissioners and asked them what course they meant to pursue. They declared that they would not attempt to collect the fee until a new law was passed. As already stated, the diggers did not want to see the fee abolished, and the committee told the authorities that they should make it 10/ per month. The sugges-tion was adopted, but inexplicable as it may seem, the addled headed Government accepted the immediate quiet and peace that set in on every goldfield as a sign of submission.
Accordingly the fee was raised to £1 per month; or £2 per quarter, or £8 per year. But they went a step further by imposing a £50 license on storekeepers, butchers, green grocers, etc., and even the humble vender of cabbages, had to pay the £50!' The diggers of Bendigo took all this quietly enough, owing principally to the fact that the slopes of White Hills were beginning to yield up their rich treasures, and a wide vista of apparent wealth was once more opening up. Later 0n however, the agitation was renewed with all the old vigor.
But it was decreed that the price of the miners' liberty was to be the shedding of human-blood, and the price was paid and the liberty dearly bought at Ballarat, when the memorable Sabbath morn attack was made on the double-breast work forming the strong-hold of the insurgents at the Eureka Stock-ade in the closing days of 1854. The sensational episode resulted in inquiry and a complete change in the law. Instead of the license fee, with its man-hunting incidents, the authorities granted miners' rights at £l per year to render the miner secure in his holding. Event this distant date a feeling of satisfaction is experienced at the reflection that no jury was found to convict the Eureka Stockade rioters, and they were acquitted.[3]

Post 1854 Experiences

In May Owens moved to Brighton where he bought land but a depression in values soon caused him financial loss and he went to Mount Blackwood where he had a successful practice. He contributed to the Age until December when he announced his plan to publish his own weekly journal. In December 1855 Charles Hotham was at last persuaded to nominate him to the Legislative Council to represent the diggers. In March 1856 he retired from the council and patented a gold-washing machine which was found too uneconomical to run.[4]

Owens was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Loddon District from November 1856 to August 1859 and in August 1861 won a seat for Mandurang, holding it until he resigned in 1863, 'too consistent and high minded' to succeed in politics. He served on eight select committees, including that in 1858 on the Lunatic Asylum at Yarra Bend in which he was greatly interested. In that year during debates on the medical practitioners bill he asked many questions and moved that unqualified medical practitioners who had been practising since 1849 should be allowed to continue to do so. He was appointed acting health officer at Queenscliff in 1864, briefly resident surgeon at Pentridge gaol in 1865 and next year secretary of the royal commission on the Wine and Spirits Statute.[5]

Dr Owens died at Windsor on 26 November 1866 and was buried in St Kilda Cemetery. His cousins E. and W. Anderson were chief mourners.[6]


DEATH OF DR OWENS. We regret to have to announce the very sudden death of Dr. J. D. Owens, so long connected with the public affairs of the colony. The deceased gentleman has recently been employed as secretary to the Wine and Beer Commission, and spent the afternoon of the 27th in assisting Mr. Johnson, analytical chemist, in certain experiments undertaken in coinection with his official duties. Returning to his residence in Windsor, Prahran, in the evening, he partook of food, his housekeeper observing nothing unusual in his appearance. About ten o'clock, after she had retired for the night, she heard her master call her, and on going to him she found him insensible. She immediately went for Mrr. Johnson, but on returning with him it was found that Dr. Owens had died in the short interval. Medical aid being procured, there was found to be reason to suppose that epilepsy had been the cause of this very sudden death. No doubt the cause will be fully disclosed before the coroner. Before entering upon his recent duties, Dr. Owens spent two years at Queenscliffe, in the public service, as the locum tenent of Dr. Robertson, health officer there. Previously he had been a member of the Legislative Assembly for several years. Elected to represent the Bendigo gold-field before the Constitution Act came into force, he was frequently re-elected, until he closed his Parliamentary career by resigning his seat about the time the present Ministry came into office. He was a somewhat active member of the strongly democratic section in the Assembly, and took for some time a prominent part in the debates on certain subjects. Mr. Owens is also understood to have written for the press at intervals. His sudden death will be a painful surprise to many public and personal friends.-Argus. The Geelong Register states that as so very much hss been said and so many fears raised with reference to the crops sufferingjust now with rust 'we have been at some pains to ascertain the exact state of matters. From our inquires we have been at some pains to ascertain the exact state of matters. From our inquires we have come to the conclusion that their is only the very slightest ground yet for any uneasiness. We can speak with reference to the Barrabools, Mount Moriac, Moodewarre, Connewarre, "Winchelsea, Birregurra, Colac, and Ondit, which certainly com prises a very large proportion of our farming district, and within these there is no rust worth mentioning. Indeed, it has not shown itself at all in most of the places named. --Love You' E.sExiES.-The visiting minister of one of the numerous Sunday Schools which are established at the White Hills, in the course of his inculcation of religious precepts, told his hearers that they should " love their enemies." Shortly afterwards the teacher was exhorting the scholars on the evils ofdrink, which he described as an enemy, I when one of the shrewd Australians immediately replied, " Why Mr -- just told us to love our enemies."-Bendigo Advertiser. [7] [8]

See also


Bendigo Goldfieds Petition

Red Ribbon Rebellion


In 1853 John Owens spoke to the diggers at Beechworth:

Do you know what the word representation means? Of course you do! It means that of those who by wealth, or station, or authority, are placed over you, do wrong, you have the power of compelling them to do right. At present you have no such power ... This should not be. [9]

(To the Editor of the Bendigo Advertiser.)
Sir,—I have read in your issue of this morning, a very interesting and well written article on the old pioneers of Bendigo and their doings, from the pen of our venerable and much respected old friend Mr. J. N. Macartney. As he has written from the date of 1854 I write as a 53 man to set him right in one mistake he has made. He places our worthy Minister of Mines at the top of the tree, which he has no right to occupy. Mr Burrowes was not known to fame until 1860, when he stood for the borough council and was elected. The men who first stood by the mining community, and gained their right, were Captain Harrison (1852), Captain Brown, Dr. Jones, George Edward Thomson, Mr. Ferris or Fervars, J.E. Wall, Mr Dixon, Captain Baker, Robert Benson, Dr Owens, Wm. Hopkins, E. N. Emmett, W. D. C. Denovan, James Dumphy, and others, all 1853 men. The big anti-license meeting was held in August of that year on the present site of All Saints' Church, attended by some 20,000 people. In the same year Mr. Angus Mackay (now the Hon. A. Mackay), E. Harrison, and R. R. Haverfield represented the press at the meetings of the period, and did good service both to the miners and the government.—
Yours, etc.,
19th November, 1881.[10]

Further Reading

Corfield, J., Wickham, D., & Gervasoni, C. The Eureka Encyclopaedia, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2004.


  1. Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 March 2019.
  2. Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 March 2019.
  3. Bendigo Advertiser, 21 August 1903.
  4. Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 March 2019.
  5. Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 March 2019.
  6. Allan Johnston, 'Owens, John Downes (1809–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 March 2019.
  7. McIVor Times, 20 November 1866.
  8. Read more here: and…
  9. Dr J.D. Owens, Diggers' representative, Reeds Creek Petition.
  10. Bendigo Advertiser, 26 November 1881.

External links