ROWELL, James (1851–1940)
Senator for South Australia, 1917–23 (Nationalist Party)

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.


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.

ROWELL, James (1851-1940)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1917–23

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1917–23

Select Committee on Intoxicating Liquor—Effect on Australian Soldiers, etc., 1918