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Bowker, Richard Ryther Steer (1815–1903)

by Ben W. Champion

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Richard Ryther Steer Bowker (1815-1903), physician and surgeon, was born on 30 August 1815 at Campsall, Yorkshire, England, son of Thomas Dawson Bowker of Hatfield, and Elizabeth, née Steer, of Temple Belwood, Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire. In 1831 he was apprenticed to the Nottingham General Dispensary (M.R.C.S., L.S.A., 1838). In 1836 at Paris he obtained diplomas in botany and materia medica, and in 1839 took the M.D. and Dip. Mid. degrees of the University of St Andrews. He practised for some months at Bingham in Nottinghamshire and relieved as surgeon to the Union Hospital and Dispensary. He visited Australia in the emigrant ship Shepherd, and in the Georgiana arrived in Melbourne in February 1841. He practised outside Melbourne for some months. He was registered as a medical practitioner by the New South Wales Medical Board on 9 July 1842. He signed on the whaler Caroline out of Sydney for one voyage.

At Sydney in October 1842 Bowker was asked by Dr McPhee, principal medical officer of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, to accept appointment to the Loyal Union Lodge in Newcastle, with the right of private practice. After six months the lodge thanked Dr McPhee for 'sending' so efficient and professional a gentleman as Bowker; this resolution had been carried with the honours of the order. Bowker stipulated that midwifery, bottles, castor oil, leeches and over two miles (3.2 km) travel must be extra to the sum of 22s. a year for each family paying for his services. His vote in the lodge in 1842 helped to pass the rule that an ex-convict must be free by servitude or by emancipation for at least six months before being accepted as a member. He resigned in December 1844 but on 2 March 1846 was notified by the lodge that his return would be welcomed. He went back in December 1847 and was reappointed. Meanwhile he had been surgeon in April 1846 on the Lady Flora Hastings which twice carried cargoes of coolies totalling 546 from Calcutta to Mauritius, and in March 1847 on the Fiandra when 200 coolies were transported from Madras to Durban.

Bowker was presented in 1851 with plate worth 150 guineas by the people of Newcastle for his services to the community and as senior surgeon to the hospital. He was so busy that he advertised that he could not take any new patients. In 1851-53 he was absent from Newcastle on medical research. Soon after his return he went to England for further study (L.R.C.P., F.R.C.S., 1854). On 11 November 1858 he married Lydia Frances, aged 28, third daughter of James Phillips of Bona Vista, Paterson.

Bowker was appointed a justice of the peace and a member of the borough council. His ten-year advocacy of sanitation culminated in 1868 in a wave of civic pride sweeping the district. He constantly objected to intramural burial of the dead. To his horror, rain and spring water percolated from the heights, which included the much used cemetery of Christ Church, to the wells and swamps of the lower town, where surface water was still used for domestic purposes. Infant mortality was very high. The councillors selected an area at Waratah as a cemetery but Bowker showed that Waratah would some day be a suburb of Newcastle and then intramural burials would recommence. Despite his fellow councillors he demanded land, out in the open, away from any suburban area, and the Sandgate cemetery has stood for many years, a tribute to his sagacity. He also advocated an adequate scheme for the clearance of night soil and demanded that the council engineer prepare a drainage plan; since the town was built on a hill, the accumulated filth could easily be drained into the harbour and eventually swallowed by the sea. Against much opposition he argued that the fever which each summer caused Newcastle Hospital to open a special ward was due to poor housing, no ventilation and marshy conditions. He would 'drain to Cure'. Bowker also wanted a reticulated water scheme and always protested when small sums were proposed for local pumps, especially those installed near refuse dumps.

People came from near and far to obtain Bowker's services; even hotels and boarding houses advertised that they were 'within easy walk of Dr Bowker's surgery'. Over the years he had many assistants and many interests outside his profession. Two of his ships, the Lavina and Susan, carried coal from Newcastle to Sydney. He owned much property, some of his land being in strategic city positions; his twenty-two acres (9 ha) at Waratah were especially valuable. He bought Bona Vista at Paterson, once owned by his wife's family. His home in Tyrrell and Perkin Streets was built for him by George Bewick and sold in 1873 to the Dominican nuns. In 1896 he created a trust for the benefit of his nine children, with his eldest son Robert as administrator.

Apart from reading the classics in the original Bowker's chief interest was in the efficient management of his property at Paterson where he bred his race-horses. The sport of racing was improved through his guiding hand. One of his purchases was Maid of the Lake, a mare admitted to the stud book only after her descendants won many races. She had 6 wins and 12 placings from 18 starts and her offspring, Black Swan, won 15 races and was placed 33 times from 58 starts. At the stud Black Swan produced the Sydney Cup winner, Lady Tranton, and the dam of the Melbourne Cup winner, Lord Cardigan, owned by the mayor of Newcastle. A brown mare, Carnation, was a winner at Randwick, Newcastle and Bathurst and raced under his groom's name, Towns. In 1868-74 Bowker achieved his greatest success and pleasure with a black horse, Sir Solomon. His record of 150 wins has never been beaten. He was sired by Cossack, who was bred by Thomas Icely of Coombing Park, Carcoar. Cossack had been purchased by G. Reynolds whose property Tocal adjoined Bona Vista. Mark, Zara and Roberto il Diavolo also contributed their wins.

Bowker represented the North-Eastern Boroughs in the Legislative Assembly in 1858-59 and Newcastle in 1877-80. He introduced two bills to raise the qualifications for medical practitioners; both failed, as did a similar bill in 1879-80, for want of a quorum. He had moved his home to Avoca House, Darling Point, in 1873. On 30 December 1887 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and held the seat until his death at his home on 3 April 1903. He was buried at Paterson Anglican churchyard. His wife predeceased him by twenty-five years and he was survived by six sons and three daughters. Of the sons four became medical practitioners, one a veterinary surgeon and one a dental surgeon.

Select Bibliography

  • 'Obituary: Richard Ryther Steer Bowker', Australasian Medical Gazette, 20 Apr 1903, p 171
  • Independent Order of Odd Fellows, minutes and letters (University of Newcastle Library)
  • Bowker journal (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ben W. Champion, 'Bowker, Richard Ryther Steer (1815–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/bowker-richard-ryther-steer-3033/text4453, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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