End of the Line: The Victoria Owstons

· Australia, End of the Line Series

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.”

The grave of Christopher and Dorothy Owston and some of their children.

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.

All Saints Church, Thorpe Bassett (from Wikipedia)

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.

Map of Owston’s Plantation on the Daly River (from Ian Hillock’s thesis).

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.”

Owston Avenue, Rosebery, NT (from Google Maps).

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.



1841 England and Wales census. Findmypast.com.

1851 England and Wales census. Findmypast.com.

Allen’s South Australian Almanac & Directory 1854, p. 200.

Australian electoral rolls, 1903-1980. Ancestry.com.

Births, deaths, marriages: Victoria.  (2012). https://online.justice.vic.gov.au/bdm/home.

Cheshire Marriage license bonds and allegations 1606-1905. Findmypast.com

Chester, St John the Baptist, Cheshire, England; Diocese of Chester parish registers of baptisms c1538-1910. FindmyPast.com.

Cholmley, A.J. & Whiting, C.E. (1948).  The parish registers of Rillington.  Leeds: Yorkshire Parish Register Society.

“Deaths” (1893, November 8). The Argus, p. 1.

“Deaths” (1898, June 13). The Argus, p. 1.

Deceased search. (2012).  http://deceasedsearch.com/index.php.

“Deceases persons’ estates.” (1936, July 22). The Argus, p. 10.

England Marriages 1538-1973. Findmypast.com.

England & Wales deaths 1837-2007. Findmypast.com.

Garran’s South Australian Almanac & Directory 1854, p. 278.

Hillock, I.M. (1999).  Plantation agriculture in the Northern Territory (1878-1889).  Master of Education (Honours) thesis submitted to the Department of Education, Northern Territory University, Darwin, NT.

“Intestate estates.” (1933, August 24). The Argus, p. 9.

Leadbetter, B. (2012).  South Australian birth, marriage & death directory.  http://www.familyhistorysa.info/births-marriages-deaths/.

Manchester Rate Books 1706-1900. Findmypast.com.

New South Wales Government Gazette, 1878, p. 3633.

Ouston, R. J. (2004). 2003 Directory of Ouston/Owston families. Highbridge, Somerset, UK: Roger J. Ouston.

Owston, J.M. (2012).  His name is my name too: A Y-DNA study of the Owston surname and its variants.  http://www.owston.com/dna/Owston_Family_Y-DNA_Study.pdf.

Owston, T. J. (2011). Owston family: Sherburn based branch of the family East Yorkshire with links to other branches. http://freespace.virgin.net/owston.tj/owstonln.htm.

“Owston v. The Bank of New South Wales” (1877, March 14).  The Sydney Morning Herald, pp. 7-8.

“Pensioner with £500: End of a lonely life.” (1933, June 1). The Argus, p. 6.

“Place names register extract: Owston Avenue” (1982).  NT place names register. http://www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/placenames/view.jsp?id=7415.

Scott, J. (2011). Great central state: The foundation of the Northern Territory. Adelaide, SA:  Wakefield Press.

Tanner’s Melbourne Directory 1859, p. 263.

Wise’s Victorian Post Office Directory, 1904.

Wise’s Victorian Post Office Directory, 1914.


Comments RSS
  1. Gaynor Johnson

    I have it that William Owston (born 1818) married a woman called Elizabeth by whom he had at least one child and John Owston (1733 – 1809) married Mary Leadley, rather than Headley. I descend from John Donkin’s sister, Mary who married Thomas Bricklebank in 1771 and they had eleven children.

    • jowston

      There were two William Owstons in this region at this time. The other one was a member of the Thornholme family and was married to Elizabeth. Their son John was buried three days after his christening in 1852. This other William Owston (born in 1821) died in Malton in 1897. The one in this sketch descended from the Thorpe Bassett Owstons died in Australia in 1893. The two are often confused. To compound the issue is an older William Owston of Sherburn married Elizabeth Hudson in 1851 – he was from the Ganton family.

      As for the elder John, the parish register, the bishops transcripts, the records of the Archdiocese of York, and Yorkshire Marriage index all have her name as Headley. The H is plain to see on the parish registers and on bishop transcripts. She signs the license as Headley.

      • Gaynor Johnson

        You are argumentative! I am a professionally trained genealogist with over thirty years of experience behind me. I have “The Parish Register of Thorpe Bassett (1604 – 1837)”, published by The Yorkshire Archaeological Society (1990) and I have also read a website, which contains the transcript of a Will, published by a descendant of the Owston family who is researching his ancestry. The only other William Owston’s baptism found in my book for the years 1604 and 1837 is found on page 16 – (quote) “1667/8 – Feb 23. Gulielmus f. Thomas Owston bapt.” (end quote). I am not aware of another William Owston born in this period in Thorpe Bassett that I could be confusing him with. I am satisfied that the William Owston who was born in 1818, who is blood related to me via my maternal grandfather, married Elizabeth. What happened to this couple after the birth of their child is uncertain. It is possible William remarried and emigrated to Australia, but I have seen no evidence as I live in the UK, not Australia. As for Mary’s surname, someone read it as Leadley (also a family name for me), which is a surname that can trace its origins to North Yorkshire, which is no coincidence. You are forgetting that most people were uneducated in those days and surnames often changed their usual spellings, which genealogists like myself call “variants”. I don’t know about yourself, but I descend from the Donkin family of Thorpe Bassett. My ancestor is the paternal grandfather of Dorothy Donkin who married Christopher Owston on 14th February 1811 in Thorpe Bassett. I don’t recognise the name Adolphe as occurring on either the Donkin or Owston family trees and it would be unusual for a family from rural North Yorkshire to have connections with somewhere exotic like Fiji. It would sound more credible if William Owston was from a family of sailors or merchants, than farming stock. And if I’m wrong about my William Owston’s descent, how come I know his sister, Jane married John William Rolls, a non-conformist minister and that William was one of nine children, most of whom died in infancy or unmarried? According to your list of References (sources), most of your research has been conducted in Australia via the Internet or via publications. There is no evidence you’ve seen UK parish registers on your website.

      • Gaynor Johnson

        P. S. Incidentally, the William Owston of this page married Mary Ann Ridgway Patchet in Manchester, Lancashire (in the west of England) in the March Quarter of 1850.

  2. jowston

    First of all, I wasn’t being argumentative; I was stating what I have discovered through solid research – I’ve been part of research team that tackled the Owston/Ouston families over the years. And if we are now throwing around qualifications, I began almost exclusively researching the Owstons beginning in 1978. I also have a research doctorate, been published, am a member of numerous genealogical organizations, a peer reviewer, and have won two research awards – one of which was an international award. So, I know a thing about research. And yes, I did/do use the parish registers.

    Most of this research has been gathered together in a booklet by my ninth cousin, Roger Ouston, who compiled it over the years. Timothy Owston, to whom I believe you have referenced his website and I worked with Roger on providing the information for this book. Roger gathered it into one volume that has over 12,000 Owston related family members. Rather than sourcing every parish record, I sourced Roger’s book. We started working together on this project in 1990.

    2. The Owstons in this region were very fluid in the parish where they lived. If you’ve traced as many Owston lines as we have, you would have seen this. So, it is easy to confuse individuals, as the often have the same forenames names. There have been at least 94 men born with the name William Owston since the 1500s.

    3. I never said that William 1818 wasn’t your relative. If you look at my lineage chart, it shows that he is. I stated the William who married to Elizabeth wasn’t your relative, as he was a different person. I previously believed that the 1818 William Owston was married to Elizabeth; however, further research of these individuals indicates that this idea was flawed. There is no marriage record recorded for a William and Elizabeth in this area or era other than William of Sherburn (of the Ganton family) and Elizabeth Hudson.

    Another problem is that John’s 1851 birth and 1852 death conflicts with William and Mary Ann’s marriage in 1850. Further research has William (1818) living on Percival Street in Manchester in 1852 as he shows in the Manchester Rate Books. William and Mary Ann were living as husband and wife in South Australia in 1853. Now, if William (1818) was having a child to Elizabeth in 1851 (as his proposed wife), this would be bigamy. If they were not married, then the child would have been baptized under her surname – which remains unknown.

    4. What about William, Elizabeth, and John? John’s birth, the third quarter of 1851, was registered to Malton. His christening occurred at Settrington on June 5, 1852 – he is listed as being from Scagglethorpe, the son of William, a labourer, and Elizabeth. His burial occurred at Settrington on 8 June 1852. Elizabeth died and was buried at Settrington on 13 November 1852 aged 25.

    William Owston, a watchmaker was living in Malton in 1851. He was born in Scarborough in 1821. His birth record at Scarborough on 1 AUG 1821 to Michael and Hannah places him in the Thornholme family of Owstons. He was a non-conformist (Baptist). This may explain why John was baptized when he was near to death and possibly why there are no current records of either of his marriages that we could find. These marriages do not appear to be in the CofE records and were not registered with the GRO. It is unusual that they do not show in either.

    William is missing from the 1861 census. He is listed in the 1871 census for Malton as a Jeweler and as unmarried. He and his second wife, also named Elizabeth, are in both the 1881 and 1891 censuses at Malton. William died 3rd quarter 1897. There is no further reference to Elizabeth.

    5. The evidence that this William Owston was one and the same as the son of Christopher Owston and Dorothy Donkin comes from his obituary in The Argus (of Melbourne) from Wednesday, 8 November 1893, page 1.

    Owston—On the 5th inst. at Stewart street, Malvern, William Owston, son of the late Christopher Owston of Thorpebassett [sic], great-grandson of the Rev. John Cook, vicar of Rillington, and cousin of the Rev. Thomas Owston, rector of Suttersby, England.

    6. Just because someone was from a farming family, did not preclude a person from becoming a mariner. A case in point, my 3rd great grandfather, also a William Owston, came from seven known generations of yeoman farmers and husbandmen. As a young man, he left Ganton and went to sea as a merchant sailor, later was pressed into service, then back in the merchant ranks, then as a contract pilot with the RN, then as an RN master, and finally back to the merchant service – all with no family background in seamanship; he returned to farming when he settled in Upper Canada in 1820 – very wild country at this time. He lived in Ganton; Scarborough; Edinburgh, Scotland; back to Scarborough; Verdun, France; back to Edinburgh; Cork, Ireland; Maker, Cornwall; and three locations in Canada.

    William Owston’s (1818) activities, although in exotic locations, was either farming or running his produce shipping concern.

    7. In the article, I acknowledged that Adolphe was an unusual name for an Owston, but that was his name from birth to death. Why that name? One could only speculate, but he was William’s son based on Australian records.

    8. Mary’s name is spelled Headley in the original records and in the Yorkshire marriage index. I doubt this is a variant spelling. A variant would be phonetically similar. A variant of Leadley might be Ledly, Leadly, Leatley, Leatly, Letly, Leadlie, or Leatlie. Headley would not be a variant. These are two distinct, but similar, names much like Weston and Heston or Ruston and Duston. There are Leadleys that married into the Owstons, but they are all from Scarborough. Someone may have read the name as Leadley, but the Malton parish registers and bishop’s transcripts record it as Headley. This was not a literacy issue, as Mary signs her name plainly as Headley.

    See http://owston.com/family/owston/Headley.pdf

    If you do a search on the Headley surname, you will see that it is frequently found in the historic East Riding.

    I am not being argumentative, I am stating my case. I’ve been researching the Owstons/Oustons for 38 years.

    Finally, as far as William Owston’s marriage to Mary Ann, I hadn’t found this before. Thanks for providing it. I didn’t search outside of Yorkshire. Australian records listed it as occurring in 1851 and not 1850. The Patchett name is from her first husband, Fredercik Patchett. Hampson was her maiden name. Thanks for finding this record. I have added the information above.

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