Naval hero’s luck runs out


From “Our Strange Past”, by George Blaikie



Not every young man in Australia gets a poem written in his praise, to be sure. One who did hit such a lyrical jackpot was Lieutenant John T Ewing Gowlland, of the Royal Navy, a gentleman of Kentish extraction.

In 1872 this young fellow saved thirty survivors from the wreck of the brig Maria on the north Queensland coast.  As a result, a dinner was held in his honour in Sydney, and many fine things were said in tribute to his courage and character.

A Mr Alexander Oliver [who subsequently married Jack's youngest sister Eliza Celia], a survivor of the disaster, attended the dinner and produced a poetic tribute from his pocket and insisted on reading it aloud:-


            Hail, Gowlland, man of Kent, our Navy’s pride,

            To famous mariners by birth allied.

            Thou, who deep versed in geometric art,

            Provids’t the seaman with his priceless chart,

            Wherein are seen, inscribed black and white,

            The rocks and soundings of each bay and bight  . . . . . . .


And so it went, on and on.  The rest was in the same vein and can be taken for granted.


No doubt Lieut. Gowlland took the paean of praise in his stride because he had become accustomed to success and the salutations it brought.


In the 1840s it was not easy for a youth to enter the Royal Navy College at Greenwich.  Gowlland, however, got in without trouble, easily completed the strenuous course, and, predictably, became school captain.


At the age of sixteen he was to be found bobbing around the Baltic eager to engage any of England’s foes who might confront him.  An enemy did turn up and cannons boomed and men fell bloodied until Midshipman Gowlland was the only officer remaining on his warship.  Someone had to get the battered British ship home, as well as tow the enemy prize that noble craft had taken.  All England applauded the way the 16-year-old lad had done his duty.  The Lords of the Admiralty gave him a medal.


The time came when maps had to be made of the troubled waters off the Australian east coast right up to New Guinea.  Lieut. Gowlland arrived in Sydney and, inevitably, most of the eligible local lassies sought to attract the attention of this handsome, bemedalled young naval officer.


As a shrewd young fellow, Gowlland son chose the hand of a millionaire’s grand-daughter.  Her grand-daddy was a merchant prince named Simeon Lord, who was transported from England in 1791 for stealing “tenpence worth of cloth”.  Lieut. Gowlland did not let this stain on the character of Simeon Lord stand in the way of wedlock with his grand-daughter.


In 1872 the ship Maria sailed for New Guinea in a glare of publicity, loaded with speculators from Sydney who had the idea that mountains of gold were waiting for them on the tropical island to the north.


But the Maria disappeared with 100 souls aboard.  A great public shout went up for a rescue party to be sent to look for survivors.  The theory was that the ship had gone ashore on the Queensland coast where the Aboriginals had a particularly fearsome reputation.


A bold leader was needed for the rescue party.  Who better than Lieut. John T Ewing Gowlland?


Gowlland was given command of the first ocean-going steamer built in Australia  -  the Governor Blackall.  He found the wreck of the Maria near Cardwell on the north Queensland coast and rescued thirty survivors.  The remaining seventy had been lost to sea and savages.


On his return to Sydney as the heroic rescuer, Lieut. Gowlland was given a public dinner and the poem to his honour was read to loud applause.


Word of his deeds reached England and Gowlland was ordered home to be elevated to the rank of commander.



John Thomas Ewing Gowlland in full dress uniform


By 1874 Commander Gowlland was ordered back to Sydney to make a map of Sydney Harbour.


This time he went to work in a humble butcher’s rowing boat, normally used to take meat out to ships.  The craft was broad-beamed and stable enough to allow Commander Gowlland to stand up with his sextant and take his sights.


Cold winds were blowing on a day in August, 1874, when Gowlland directed his boat to a reef off Dubroyd Point, Middle Harbour, an ideal spot from which to take readings.


A big wave came sweeping through the Sydney Heads and the normally stable butcher’s boat suddenly turned turtle. Some of the crew swam ashore.  Two didn’t.  One of the two lost was none other than the dashing Commander John T Ewing Gowlland.


Who knows what heights he might have reached if it had not been for this unexpected mishap ending a career that was so full of promise?


When he died, he was only thirty-six years of age.  Such is life.



George Blaikie was a well known Australian columnist.  He wrote regularly for the old "Sun" newspaper in Sydney roughly 1960-80.  This was one of his columns dealing with historical curiosities.  Two of his books "Great Australian Scandals" and "Remember Smith's Weekly" are available in second hand shops in Australia.



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