Our third encounter with the “End of the Line” series takes us to the continent of Australia where one man built a business empire; however, the son who carried on the surname died tragically as a recluse. Termed as the Victoria Owston Line, the final male passed in 1933 and an unmarried sister died three years later. Although this line has connections to South Australia, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory, its base was located in and around Melbourne, Victoria.
The Victorian Owstons were descended from a line of gentleman farmers of the Thorpe Bassett Branch of the Sherburn Family of Owstons and is delineated as follows:
The Victoria Owston Line started with William Owston (1818-1893) who was a son of Christopher Owston and Dorothy Donkin. While not unusual for the period and for rural areas, the Thorpe Basset Branch contained some interrelatedness. Christopher and Dorothy were probably third or fourth cousins, as each descended from Donkin families from the parish of West Helslerton.
In addition, the Owston ancestry converged, as Christopher’s grandparents John and Jane Owston were first cousins. John Owston’s father was the founder of the Thorpe Basset Branch of Owstons and his uncle, William (Jane’s father), was the originator of the now extinct Kirby Misperton Branch. Eventually, the Kirby Misperton group spelled the surname as “Ouston.”
Photo by Charles & Judith Owston.
Although Christopher and Dorothy Owston had nine children, only four lived past the age of twenty: Eliza, who never married (1816-1871); Henry (1817-1890), the antecedent of the Well Close Mount and Michigan lines; William (1818-1893); and Jane (1821-1892), the wife of Rev. John William Rolls (1818-1889).
The early life of William Owston is not known and he is not listed in his mother’s household in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. There is great difficulty in tracing William. Because the name is a common given name among Owstons, he is often easily confused with others bearing the same name. In England, researchers have confused him with William Owston (1821-1897) of the Thornholme family. In Australia, two other William Owstons were living at the same time as William Owston of Victoria.
Shipmaster William Owston (1824-1903) of Fremantle, Western Australia was his contemporary and the confusion was compounded in that both were involved in shipping and other ventures. Both conducted business in the Northern Territory, albeit the Fremantle William Owston’s activities there were minimal by comparison. In addition, the Victorian William Owston had an office and did business in Sydney where another, but younger, William Owston lived. In regard to Sydney, the Victorian William Owston is the subject of numerous legal discourses as he successfully sued the Bank of New South Wales in 1877 for false charges the bank brought against him for fraud.
The William Owston of this sketch was born in Thorpe Bassett, North Yorkshire on 27 July 1818 and subsequently christened on August 9 of the same year. He married Mary Ann Ridgway Hampson on 24 January 1850 in Manchester, Lancashire – the daughter of Robert Thomas Hampson and Martha Ridgway. Mary Ann was born in early 1821. She married William Owston under the surname of Patchett – the name of her first husband, Frederick Patchett, who she married on 21 May 1838 at St. John, Lancashire. A Frederic Patchett is listed as dying in Manchester during the first quarter of 1841; however, it is not known if this was her first husband.
In 1852, William Owston is listed as living in a house owned by G. Bewley at 6 Percival Street in Manchester’s Chorlton upon Medlock Township. By 1853, the couple is recorded as living in Brighton, South Australia. William and Mary Ann produced five children with the first being born in Adelaide, SA, while the others were born in Victoria. All of the children were saddled with multiple middle names and were christened as follows:
- Dortheana Eliza Jane Owston (1854-1929),
- Mary Ann Emma Charlotte Owston (1857-1858),
- Mary Ann Emma Charlotte Owston (1858-1859),
- Adolphe William Christopher Cook Owston (1860-1933), and
- Aveline Ada Mary Emma Wise Owston (1863-1936).
Many of the names could be traced to William’s family. Dortheana probably was named for William’s mother – Dorothy. The tertiary names for his son Adolphe came from William’s own and his father’s Christian names. In addition, William had sisters named Mary Ann, Eliza, Jane, and Charlotte. His grandmother was Mary Cook who married John Donkin. William also had a first cousin named Emma Wise and a niece named Ada Owston.
Although unusual today, it was a fairly common practice to name a child after a deceased sibling; hence, the two daughters named Mary Ann Emma Charlotte Owston. While they were probably named for their mother rather than their aunt, this cannot be ascertained. The given names of Adolphe and Aveline probably had their origins in their mother’s lineage as well. To the best of my knowledge, no other Owstons bore these appellations.
While in South Australia, the local directory listed his concern as W. Owston & Co., Shipping and General Agents in one directory and as W. Owston & Co., Shipping Agents in the other. The business is listed as “produce merchants” in the directories for Melbourne and Sydney.
Although he was only involved in the cultivation of crops in the Northern Territory from 1879 to 1883, it was one of William Owston’s best known business endeavors; however, it was not a success. His upbringing as a farmer in Thorpe Bassett gave him the opportunity to persuade the government of South Australia (which administrated the Northern Territory at the time) to allow him to begin farming along the Daly River.
Owston introduced sugar cane, maize, and other crops into the area. It is said, to the chagrin of other plantation owners, he treated the aboriginal workers with decency and respect. In his dissertation, Ian M. Hillock, provided further exposition about this pioneer planter:
He was a man of tremendous energy and wide experience. Yorkshiremen are often recognised as being straightforward, bluff and are often characterised by a nature that does not suffer fools gladly. Owston was all of that. There is also not much doubt as to his competence as a farmer and manager.
That he was well versed in the best science and practice of the agriculture of his day is evidenced, not only by his ability to select from virgin land one of the very few areas well suited to his purpose, but also by the testimony that has come down to us of his successful cultivation. This could only have been effected by someone who was thoroughly capable and able to farm successfully with limited resources. There was, in any case, no one who could have helped him given the circumstances of the Territory in those days.
The many different crops that he pioneered are still the crops that are seen as being proper to the Daly River, and even sugar, though not attempted as a commercial crop today, is still grown there for domestic purposes. On the other hand the land allocated to the Daly River Company broke many hearts and has never been able to be brought under subsequent successful cultivation.
Finally Owston had the sense to realise when the game was not worth the candle. In spite of the tremendous amount of energy, time and money that he had expended on the ill-fated project, he still had the strength of character to extricate both himself and his partners in a timely fashion and not indulge in false hopes.
His impact on the Northern Territory is seen in that 99 years after he withdrew from region, William Owston was honored on August 13, 1982 by the Palmerston City Council with the naming of Owston Avenue in Roseberry. According to the records, it was “Named after W Owston of Melbourne who was granted 4050 hectares of land on the Daly River in 1879-1880 for the purpose of sugar cultivation. Unfortunately, the venture was unsuccessful and by 1883 Owston had abandoned the plantation and put all his machinery up for sale.”
At the age of 75, William Owston died on November 5, 1893 in Malvern, Victoria. Although he was survived by his widow and three children, his death notice interestingly mentions his connections with two Church of England ministers. Owston is listed as being the great-grandson of the late John Cook, the vicar of Rillington, Yorkshire and the cousin of Rev. Thomas Owston, rector of Sutterby.
William Owston was buried in Melbourne Cemetery. Of his survivors, his widow followed him in death on June 9, 1898. His three surviving children, Dorethea, Adolphe, and Avaline never married and the lineage and surname died in their generation. Interestingly, the trio altered their surname in the election records and the directories during the first decade of the twentieth century.
During that decade, the three were known by the double-barreled surname of Cook-Owston. They may have attempted to pay homage to their great-great grandfather, the Rev. John Cook. Cook, who was first listed in the Rillington parish register as curate in 1764, was inducted into the vicarage of the parish on 1 March 1775. He held that post until his death in 1802. The siblings dropped the “Cook-Owston” variant and returned to the “Owston” surname by 1914.
The three siblings continued to live together with Adolphe as the breadwinner as an engineer; however, the papers reported that he was a retired architect when he died. Dorotheana was the first to pass away in September 1929 at Glen Huntley, Victoria. Within four years, Adolphe died and the circumstances surrounding his passing were chronicled throughout Australia. The reports of his May 30, 1933 death, however, were not flattering. Melbourne’s paper, The Argus, provided the greatest detail and is recreated as follows:
While there was £500 in notes in an old tobacco tin near his bed, Adolphe Owston, aged 67 years, of Lillimur road, Ormond, formerly an architect, died at his home on Tuesday morning. He was apparently undernourished. He and his sister had been drawing the old-age pension for a considerable period.
Having been summoned by Owston’s sister, who lived alone with him, First-Constable Robbie entered the house on Tuesday and found Owston lying dead in the hall. He had died from heart disease. Unable to learn anything of the dead man’s relatives from the sister, Constable Robbie was searching for papers in Owston’s bedroom when he found a pile of old tobacco tins near the head of the bed. Many of them were empty and Constable Robbie was throwing them aside when he found in one a bundle comprising five £100 notes, one £10 note, one £5 note, and two £1 notes.
Other tins contained sixpences, threepences, pennies, and half pennies rolled in pieces of brown paper. By further inquiry it was learned that the house and land, worth £900, was owned by Owston and that he had withdrawn an amount of about £500 from a bank before he applied for the old-age pension. After some persuasion, the sister placed the money in the State Savings Bank.
The house in which Owston lived has been an object of curiosity for many years. Occupants of the police station which overlooks the rear of Owston’s house had not seen Owston’s sister for four years. Owston was sometimes seen about dusk in the shopping centre of Ormond. He allowed nobody to enter his premises.
Although reported as being 67, Adolphe William Christopher Cook Owston was actually 73 at the time of his death. The house in which he passed – the same that was an “object of curiosity for many years”– is no longer standing. A beautiful modern-day residence can be found on the same lot today.
With the payment of expenses, his estate was valued at a little over £487. Within three years, the last of William Owston’s children, Aveline, died on June 13, 1936 in Fairfield, Victoria. Her estate was valued at £477. While Dorotheana and Adolphe were buried in the same grave in Melbourne’s Springvale Botanical Cemetery, Aveline’s burial location is not yet known. With the passing of these three siblings, not only did the Victoria Line’s propagation of the surname end, the line became completely extinct.
The question remains why William Owston’s business acumen and social responsibilities were not evidenced in his children. While the three siblings continued to be listed on the voting rolls until the time of their deaths, it appears that they became increasingly reclusive, exhibited obsessive compulsive tendencies, and perhaps became paranoid of others. This is a tragic end to what once was an Australian legacy – which may only be remembered by a street that bears the family’s surname.
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