Edith Cowan’s name is familiar to most Australians. She has a federal electorate named after her, as well as a university. Her face appears on the $50 banknote. But her husband James Cowan is almost forgotten.
Edith’s fame is well deserved. In 1921 she became the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won the state seat of West Perth. But prior to her election she had spent a lifetime working to improve the rights and welfare of men, women and children in her home state of Western Australia.
As I was writing The Edward Street Baby Farm, I was conscious of Edith Cowan’s tireless activities in the background of all that went on. She was on the committee which, in 1890, set up the House of Mercy, a home for “fallen women”. The home unwittingly provided baby farmer Alice Mitchell with many of her clients.
Mrs Cowan was also on the committee which established the Children’s Protection Society in 1906. That organisation took a keen interest in the Alice Mitchell case and its outcome.
The reluctant public servant
But it was James Cowan who played the most prominent role in the Edward Street story. He was the police magistrate who in 1907 found himself appointed as acting coroner for the inquest into the death of Baby Booth. It was he who sent Alice Mitchell to trial for murder.
It was not a role he took on willingly. In fact, according to Peter Cowan (his grandson and Edith Cowan’s biographer) James was a diligent but reluctant public servant all his life. Had life played out differently for him, he would have preferred to live in the country and run his own farm.
James Cowan grew up in a rural area. His father, Walkinshaw Cowan, arrived in the Swan River colony in 1839, as secretary to Governor Hutt, and married locally-born Elizabeth Dyer in 1842. Not long after James’ birth in Perth in 1848, his parents moved all their belongings by bullock cart to York. There his father took up the role of Native Protector and Justice of the Peace.
At the age of sixteen, James was appointed post master and secretary to the Bench of Magistrates in York. In 1870, he moved to Perth to become clerk to Police Magistrate Landor. That began a career as a public servant which often involved him filling several roles simultaneously.
At one point he became part owner of a cattle station with his brother. But his dream of being a farmer and working on the land never came to fruition.
Marriage to Edith
James met Edith Dircksey Brown, his future wife, while she was a student at a boarding school run by his sisters. They married in November 1879, not long after he became Registrar to the Supreme Court. He was thirty, Edith was eighteen.
Their marriage lasted until Edith’s death in 1932. While Edith had to overcome the prevailing attitude that women were not suited to public life, James faced the less obvious problem of being a husband publicly out-shone by his wife. Despite the jibes he sometimes suffered, and the unspoken mocking, he supported her with good humour and provided the stability that she needed in her hectic life.
During the 1907 inquest, acting coroner Cowan sometimes came across as uncertain and prone to making gaffs. As a police magistrate, he had a dry wit, but often seemed unsympathetic to those who appeared before the bench. But Peter Cowan’s biography of his grandmother suggests that, while Edith was respected by all, it was James who held the family together and elicited the lasting affection of his grandchildren.