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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gowing, John Ellis Symonds (1835–1908)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Ellis Symonds Gowing (1835-1908), retailer, was born in 1835 at Cranley Hall, Eye, Suffolk, England, eldest son and one of ten children of Ellis Symonds Gowing, gentleman farmer, and his wife Charlotte, née Lanchester. With the future of farming bleak in the aftermath of the repeal of the Corn Laws, John Ellis sailed for Sydney in 1857 with £400, in an American ship, the Commonwealth, arriving on 25 December intending to buy farming land. His parents and siblings followed him in 1858. Though they prospered it was not as farmers.

Gowing found work in a warehouse on the harbour front, then in retailing with David Jones, becoming head of the mercery department, living on the premises as retail staff did, sitting at the head of the table and carving the joint at the staff evening meal. In 1863 he opened his own drapery business in Crown Street, East Sydney. He entered into partnership on 4 November 1868 with his brother Preston Robert (1839-1900), who had been working as a storekeeper in Victoria. They set up the Mercery and Glove Depot, at 318 George Street, which John managed for £200 per annum plus half the profits of the business. A year later a new mercery warehouse, Edinburgh House, was opened at 344 George Street. On 3 May 1874 at St Peter's Church, St Peters, John married Elizabeth Andrews, a milliner from Cambridgeshire.

Two years later Preston married Mary McClelland and in 1878 he gave up his job as manager of another outfitters to work with John. When they opened a second store, at 498 George Street, opposite the Central Police Court, their youngest brother Charles Mac (1854-1932) joined them as 'dog walloper'—chasing dogs to prevent them from fouling the pavement. Gradually ladies' gloves and silk umbrellas became less important and Gowings became known as a high-class, gentlemen's outfitter. John believed in listening to his customers, treating them as he would his friends and stocking the best quality goods he could sell.

During the depression of the 1890s Gowing Bros began to advertise as a cash business, while still trying to maintain their reputation for class. In supporting local manufacture and their 'advocacy of the Australian article', they also appealed to rising nationalist sentiment. The store hoarding in 1896 described them as 'Austral clothiers, mercers, hatters'. 'Australian wool for Australian people' became one of their slogans. Mail order country customers were offered Marrickville tweeds from John Vicars & Co., and 'bosker' rugs manufactured expressly for Gowings in their Austral workrooms. With his full, unruly beard Gowing himself looked not unlike a typical swaggie.

Preston died on 5 January 1900 at Leura. In 1907 John arranged the transfer of the business to Preston's son Robert Preston and his own sons Preston Lanchester and Reginald Mack. John died quietly at his home, Lyndhurst, in Middleton Street, Stanmore, on 2 October 1908, survived by his wife, three daughters and five sons. After a service at All Saints', Petersham, he was buried in the Anglican section at Rookwood cemetery, where in addition to the graveside rites an 'impressive masonic service' was conducted by the worshipful master, Brother J. Rickard of the Prince Alfred Masonic Lodge, Petersham, which Gowing had helped to found.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Gowing, Gone to Gowings (Syd, 1993)
  • Gowings a Pictorial Review (Syd, 2001)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Oct 1908, p 12, 6 Oct 1908, p 6.

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Gowing, John Ellis Symonds (1835–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


Eye, Suffolk, England


2 October 1908
Stanmore, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence