Henry Cowper was 25 when he came to Brisbane to take up the role of Assistant Colonial Surgeon at Moreton Bay. (Assistant was just part of the title – he was the only medical officer at the settlement.)
He arrived at the same time as Captain Patrick Logan became Commandant, to a couple of huts and tents, few supplies and sixty or so convicts who were desperate to escape. There had been no medical officer in the settlement in its first months of operation, these duties were performed by the Commissariat officer.
Cowper managed to administer medicine in appallingly primitive conditions for 7 years, until his behaviour brought an end to his career at Moreton Bay. In the words of Assistant Surgeon Murray, “He is a most uncouth original, a most excessive grog-drinker and smoker, and the most ill-tempered and quarrelsome man I ever saw.” Captain Logan described Henry Cowper as his own worst enemy.
What made Dr Cowper so irascible? A look at his background provides some clues.
Early life and training
Cowper was born in East Riding, Yorkshire in June 1800, the eldest son of William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) and Hannah Horner. Two younger brothers followed Henry, and in March 1808, his father was ordained. The same year, Henry’s mother died.
Henry’s father had already been recruited by the Rev Samuel Marsden to emigrate and take up a role as assistant chaplain in NSW. William Cowper remarried – to a young lady named Ann Barrell – and took his family to Sydney in August 1809.
Henry Cowper was 9 years old when his world changed from the life of a curate’s son in rural Yorkshire to life in a rough and tumble colonial town, with a new stepmother and a father whose evangelical approach to his duties ran him ragged.
Five years later, all pretence of childhood vanished, as 14-year-old Henry was apprenticed to, and studied under, the surgeon Dr William Redfern at the convict hospital. He wasn’t the first medical student in Australia – that honour went to James Shears in 1813 – but he was certainly the youngest. When poor Shears died in 1814, Henry Cowper took his place.
It wasn’t the studious, gradual study of medicine as we know it today – the apprenticeship involved participating in surgery (before anaesthetic), attending on convict patients – which included witnessing floggings and treating the results, dressing wounds, and even relieving as surgeon when Dr Redfern was away. All before he was 17. An adolescence spent amputating limbs and dressing the wounds of lashed prisoners must have taken its toll on the emotions and behaviour of Cowper.
At 17, Henry took the position of Assistant in the Hospital, and he was entitled to a salary and free rations. Salary and entitlements became a constant issue with Dr Cowper throughout his life.
Already, young Henry had some discipline problems. In 1819, he (and Redfern) incurred “His Excellency’s feelings of disapprobation for their conduct” when they neglected to forward sufficient medicine to Newcastle “for the use of a large body of fellow creatures”.
Cowper was accused of ingratitude and poor behaviour (by Redfern), bad record-keeping in the dispensary and even theft during his tenure at the Hospital. Evidence to the Bigge Inquiry states that the sloppy, ill-disciplined and possibly dishonest young man was kept on because of his father’s status within the Colony. Indeed, all the references to Cowper at the time mention him in the context of his sainted father. That helped, but at the same time, it must have irritated the young man.
Cowper had his supporters, notably the Inspector of Colonial Hospitals, Dr Bowman, who would remain a devoted friend and admirer, and the young man was accredited as a surgeon when barely 20. His education was finished the following year by a trip to England to study for his MRCS.
In October 1824, Dr Cowper was back in the Colony, and agitating for a grant of land as a surgeon now employed at Parramatta, and, of course, as the eldest son of Rev. Cowper. The reply, 6 months later, was terse. It requested that Cowper “through some respectable channel, the means which you profess and propose to bring land into cultivation.” Rev Cowper’s son notwithstanding, His Excellency wasn’t going to grant valuable land to an arrogant young jackanapes.
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 8 September 1825, page 1
Government and General Order
COLONIAL SECRETARY’S OFFICE, SEPTEMBER 7th, 1825.
The Governor has been pleased to appoint, until the pleasure of His Majesty is known, Mr. HENRY COWPER as Assistant Surgeon on the Colonial Medical Staff.
By His Excellency’s Command,
F Goulburn Colonial Secretary.
In 1826, Cowper travelled to Moreton Bay to work under Captain Logan, thus relieving the establishment in Sydney of his turbulent presence. Until the pleasure of His Majesty is known indeed.
In Brisbane Town Cowper found himself practicing medicine for the convicts and officers in a large tent. Logan set about putting up proper buildings, but it was 18 months before Dr Cowper had use of a hospital.
And to add to his exhausting duties, no chaplain was assigned to the Moreton Bay convict settlement, which meant that until March 1829, Henry Cowper was called upon to read (as a lay person) Divine Service every Sunday, and conduct burial rites for the dead, whom he had attended in their last moments of life.
Just how gruelling being the only medical officer at Moreton Bay was we can see in Spicer’s Diary on Sunday, January 11, 1829. There were 156 patients in the Convict Hospital, attended to by Dr Cowper and six convict attendants. He still had to find time to read Divine Service.
Food was scarce. Medicine was scarce. Dr Cowper had a taste of his own when his medical supplies did not arrive from Sydney, and he had to plead with Dr Bowman for essentials. Cowper kept surprisingly meticulous records in Moreton Bay, given his teenage inattention to detail in the dispensary at Sydney.
The diseases that killed the most patients were pneumonia and dysentery. Febris (fever) saw 161 admissions in the year 1827-8, and Ophthalmia 231 admissions. Low food rations, hard work, water drawn from a festering lagoon and the tropical heat combined to make the settlement vulnerable to eye and intestinal disease.
For Cowper, slaving away in the heat with few provisions and 6 assistants (wardsmen, dispensers etc.), the relief of smoking and drinking would be welcome. He was practicing medicine in the most difficult conditions – small wonder the man had a temper.
He did get out of Moreton Bay occasionally, but it was invariably to Sydney to give evidence in the trials of those convicts accused of murder and grievous bodily harm.
Expert Evidence in the Supreme Court
The first mention we have of Dr Cowper as a witness is in the trial of William Johnson in March 1828 for the murder of Morris Morgan. His evidence was thorough, and would not be out of place at a modern trial:
I examined the body, and found on the right side of the head, on the upper part, a fracture of the skull; there was also, on the same side, posterior to the upper wound, and in a line nearly parallel to the lower jaw, an incised wound so deep as to have gone between two vertebrae, cut through the vertible artery, and partially divided the spinal marrow; to this latter wound I immediately ascribe the death of the deceased, as, had there been no other wound but that on the skull, with very great care he might have recovered; the incised wound must have been given with considerable force, on account of the great collection of muscles in that part of the human frame.
In 1830, he gave evidence in the case of Henry Muggleton and others, charged with murdering Mark King. His evidence of the morning after the murder is striking in its portrayal of the treatment of the accused group, and the mistrust of Captain Logan:
Mr. Henry Cowper, recalled—After the man had been taken to the hospital I went to Mr. Parker’s, and on my way I saw Cuff and Walsh handcuffed to a tree and ironed; they were both very pale; at a little distance I saw Muggleton and Brown handcuffed to another tree, and Muggleton had strings tied tight round his legs, so as to make them swell; he had ulcers on his knees; Brown stated then, that he and three other persons had agreed to murder Mark King; Brown repeated this to me in the cells; he sent for me, and said he would not say anything till he saw the Attorney General; when before Captain Logan, Muggleton said, he committed the murder, and no one else had any hand in it.
By 1832, the unpredictable Henry Cowper did not care to attend Court to give evidence, although he was in Sydney for that purpose.
Mr. Henry Cowper was called by the Crown Officer, but was not in attendance, and the case was stopped for some time, until a constable was despatched to warn Mr. Cowper; the constable returned, saying, that he had seen Mr Cowper, who would come up as soon as he could. Another pause took place, and the constable was again sent, who returned, stating that Mr. Cowper had told him he could not come, but would write to the Attorney General. His Honour Mr. Justice Dowling recorded the testimony of the constable at the instance of the Solicitor General, and ordered the witness’s expenses to be stopped, and notified his wish, that other steps should be taken against Mr. C. for contempt of Court. His Honour observed, that repeated observations had been thrown out respecting the great expenses of the Court. arid it was probable that this circumstance, which was one of numerous others, would afford some explanation of the manner in which the expenses were incurred. He was determined to pursue the same course with all witnesses who neglected to attend to their subpoenas. The Solicitor General thought the present might have a salutary effect in providing for the despatch of business in the Court.
Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Wednesday 22 February 1832, page 2
Ouch. Those expenses were dear to Cowper’s heart.
The Colonial Secretary’s Office expended much ink on the question of allowances, rations, expenses and advances to Dr Henry Cowper from 1818 until 1833. In 1829, Rev William Cowper intervened to beg the Government for more time for Henry to repay a salary advance. Instalments were decided on, and the ever benign and supportive Dr Bowman also tried to help.
Death on the Treadmill
The Windmill at Spring Hill was erected in late 1828 (the exact date is unknown), to grind the wheat and corn from the crops growing at the settlement. The sails of the windmill only worked sporadically on windy days, so a treadmill was installed as a means of powering the grinding mechanism. It was also a handy tool for discipline, Logan found.
On 10 September 1829, a 32-year-old convict named Michael Collins was working in a group on the treadmill. Collins, who was probably exhausted, and definitely underfed under the strict rations set by Captain Logan, became entangled in the treadmill and died from terrible crushing injuries.
Collins’ horrible death seems to have been the catalyst for a simmering resentment between Surgeon Cowper, Commandant Logan and chaplain Reverend Vincent, (who had only arrived that March) to turn into open hostility. Quills flew on official paper through September 1829, as each man presented his written grievances to the other, and to their superiors.
The first shot was fired on 11 September by Rev Vincent, who sought from Lt Bainbrigge (acting in Logan’s absence), a Coroner’s warrant and funeral report before the interment could take place. Lieutenant Bainbridge replied that day outlining the arrangements in Captain Logan’s absence.
The next day, the ink of the settlement was being used in earnest. On 12 September, the Rev Vincent wrote to Bainbrigge and Logan, requesting an official funeral report, and an inquiry. Lt. Bainbrigge replied to Vincent that Dr Cowper had made a report that Collins should be interred immediately. Attached was a settlement order from the Lieutenant to Vincent for disobedience of orders.
Rev Vincent also wrote that day to the Archdeacon in Sydney, setting out his complaints about the military authorities and Surgeon Cowper, the death of Collins, and finished by formally requesting that he be recalled to Sydney.
13 September was a Sunday, and hostilities subsided briefly, as a no doubt awkward Divine Service was performed for the convicts and the military.
On Monday, Henry Cowper and Captain Logan corresponded about the funeral. Captain Logan was so incensed by his own version of the turbulent priest that he forwarded a copy of Vincent’s Archdeacon letter to the Colonial Secretary, and in his covering letter demanded that Vincent be removed or he, Logan, would resign immediately.
Correspondence took a long time to arrive in 1829. In this case, letters to the Colonial Secretary and Archdeacon were conveyed by horse to a boat to a ship to Sydney to a horse and to the recipient. But by the end of the year, Rev Vincent and his family were returned to Sydney, not without incident (rough handling of the Rev’s luggage causing one last official flutter).
Death of Logan
In October 1830, Captain Logan, about to be relieved as Commandant by Captain Clunie, went on a last expedition to explore what is now the Somerset region of South East Queensland. He left the party he had travelled with, intending to rendezvous with them at the Limestone station (Ipswich).
The party returned to Limestone, but Logan did not. A search party was dispatched, but met with no success, finding only a deserted campsite. By now several days had passed, and those at Brisbane Town were becoming concerned. Dr Cowper took a party of soldiers out to Logan’s last-known location to search in earnest. It was Cowper who discovered a blood-stained waistcoat and scattered pages of Logan’s journal. The following day, he located Logan’s horse dead in a creek, and a shallow grave containing Logan’s remains. The Commandant had been beaten severely at the back of the head, and Cowper believed the injuries were inflected by waddies (indigenous people’s war clubs).
In the 190 years since Logan’s demise, there have been theories that Logan was murdered by convict absconders, who had been living with the indigenous people of the Somerset region. Logan’s reputation as a tyrant has been recounted in song “Moreton Bay”, a series of articles by E.A. Hall in the “Sydney Monitor”, accounts by former prisoners and an inquiry at which Cowper gave evidence. If the man was as bloodthirsty a brute as Hall’s articles -written during Logan’s lifetime – claim, it seemed reasonable to assume that men who had suffered under him would strike and kill him. The only real evidence we do have is Cowper’s.
A new Commandant, who believed in better rations and improvements as a result of an inspection by Dr Bowman, meant that by 1830-31 the health of the colony was improving. Dr Cowper had been given an assistant, Dr Murray, the author of the famous quote about Cowper’s intemperate and irrational behaviour. “I really think he is half-insane. However, he is aware of his dreadful temper for he speaks about it and he says he is quite sure he will be confined in a madhouse.”
Cowper continued to tend to the health of the settlement, but he was now over 30 and beginning to burn out. In February 1832, he had failed to give evidence in the Supreme Court, and in November of that year, he destroyed his career as a military surgeon in a scandal.
Cowper had returned to the Bay from attending another court case in Sydney, and invited the master of the brig “Governor Phillip” to his quarters for a tot or three of rum. As the evening wore on, someone – the evidence was contradictory – decided that the party should continue at the Female Factory (Gaol). Richards climbed the fence to the establishment, availed himself of some keys, and with Halden, the Hospital Clerk, went inside to share the rum with some of the inmates. Cowper followed, but waited on the veranda while the bacchanal took place, apparently.
At daybreak, the three men returned to the Hospital, no doubt the worse for wear. Two female convicts feigned illness and were brought to the Hospital, where Cowper unwisely decided to administer the hair of the dog to them. When the women went back to the Female Factory, they were very drunk and cursing freely, causing a report to be made to Commandant Clunie.
An inquiry was convened, and it was decided to dismiss Cowper, Halden and Richards. Dr Bowman tried to intercede on Cowper’s behalf, and even suggested an exchange of positions with the surgeon at Norfolk Island.
“In the early period of that settlement (Moreton Bay) Mr Cowper was subjected to many privations, and had a very arduous duty to perform, in doing which he acquitted himself in such a manner as to gain approbation of his superiors and I believe this the first complaint against him. Under these circumstances I feel it my duty respectfully to request His Excellency to suspend his decision for the present, and as Mr Cowper has conducted himself well eight years at this settlement, I may venture to hope his future conduct will merit the leniency His Excellency may now be pleased to extend to him.”
The Governor would not be moved, and Henry Cowper was sent to Sydney. Perhaps this was kinder to him – the seven years spent at the Moreton Bay Penal Colony may have brought him “approbation”, but it also brought hardships and trauma to an already difficult young man. Norfolk Island might have been the last straw.
The incident was considered a serious breach of trust and discipline in the 1830s. In the 20th century, authors Sir Raphael Cilento and Ross Patrick both described it as “a prank of the sort dear to the heart of the medical student of all times.” In the 21st century, issues of power and gender would negate the blithe dismissal of the act as a prank.
Dr Cowper went into private practice in Sydney and rural New South Wales. In 1837, he married Eliza Laura Prince, a governess, and settled in Tallagandra to alternate medical practice with life as a married farmer and grazier. Financial problems plagued Cowper from 1839 and he was insolvent for the decade prior to his death. His family helped when they could, but Cowper was too deeply in debt for them to pay his way out of bankruptcy. The Hassall Correspondence (State Library of New South Wales), refers in passing to Dr Cowper in 1848 being in better health than previously. On 05 June 1849, Dr Cowper passed away at Gundaroo, Yass, New South Wales. An inquest on 11 June 1849 found that he died of natural causes.
Dr Henry Cowper’s medical legacy is as the first qualified medical practitioner in the State of Queensland, the man who introduced medical treatment into the convict settlement, and whose records are still available today to illustrate life at the settlement. He also has a physical legacy in the city of Brisbane.
Captain Logan named an area to the south of the settlement after Dr Henry Cowper, and the Cowper’s Plains convict station was established there in 1828. At that time, it was quite a distance from Brisbane Town, but now is a south-west suburb of the city. Until the 1870s, the area was known as Cowper’s Plains, but the spelling gradually changed to Cooper’s Plains to reflect the pronunciation. And it is fitting that Cooper’s Plains is home to the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Hospital and the Forensic and Scientific Services Campus of Queensland Health – also known as the John Tonge Centre, where 21st century doctors and scientists practice the clinical forensic medicine and research that Cowper paved the way for in the early 19th century.
- N. S. Pollard, ‘Cowper, William (1778–1858)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966.
- https://digitalculturalheritageconference.com/wickham-terrace-windmill/ Site has a 3-d model of the Windmill as it was in 1840, including the treadmill and the sails.
- Observatory, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Queensland, Ca. 1908, Accession number: D7-5-91. (9999).
- Queensland State Archives Agency ID11077, Moreton Bay Hospital:
- 10809 Registers of Out-Patients Treated 25/3/1829-1/1/1848
- 10820 Daily Register of the Numbers of Persons at the Moreton Bay Settlement 1/4/1829-31/1/1848
- 10821 Monthly Abstracts of the Daily Register Kept at the Moreton Bay Settlement 1/9/1829 1/1/1848
- Early Commandants of Moreton Bay, Journal of the Royal Society of Queensland, volume 7 issue 2: pp. 385-390. Cranfield, Louis R. (Louis Radnor), 1927- Brisbane Queensland, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1964.
- Some Notes on Coorparoo, The Historical Society of Queensland Journal, volume 3 issue 2: pp. 67-79. Stewart, Cumbrae, Brisbane, Qld. The Historical Society of Queensland, 1940.
- Medicine in Queensland, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, volume 6 issue 4: pp, 866-941. Cilento, Raphael, Brisbane, Qld. Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1962.
- Settlement in Queensland in the “Logan” period. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, volume 7 issue 3: pp 437-455. Fraser, D.W. (Douglas Were) Brisbane, Qld. Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1965.
- John Tonge Centre photograph: ABC News.
- New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s papers 1788-1856, special bundles, 1794-1825.
- New South Wales – Colonial Secretary. Letters Relating To Moreton Bay And Queensland Received 1822 – 1860: Letters Received 1828 – 1829, 1829-1830, 1830-1831, 1831-1832, 1833 – 1836 and papers Filed with them.
- Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 8 September 1825, page 1
- Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Monday 24 March 1828, page 2
- Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Thursday 9 July 1829, page 3
- Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), Wednesday 2 June 1830, page 2
- Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Wednesday 22 February 1832, page 2
- Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), Wednesday 7 March 1832, page 2
- Colonist (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Saturday 2 March 1839, page 2
- Colonist (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Wednesday 10 July 1839, page 4
- Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842), Monday 11 July 1842, page 2
- Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842), Friday 29 July 1842, page 2
- Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 23 September 1842, page 2
- Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 11 November 1842, page 2
- Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Saturday 20 May 1843, page 2
- Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), Friday 19 July 1844, page 3
- A History of Health and Medicine in Queensland, 1824-1960. Patrick, Ross. University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld.
- Marsden Papers Mitchell Library, vol. 5, p 40
- Hassall Correspondence, Mitchell Library, vol. 4 p 695
- Bigge Report, Mitchell Library, Box 26.
- Wentworth Papers Mitchell Library, 4753
- Queensland State Archives Series ID 18209, Letter book of Captain Logan (1827)
- Cowper Family in Australia: portrait of William Cowper.
- John Oxley Library: Portrait of Captain Logan
- Queensland State Archives Series ID 3739, Moreton Bay Penal Settlement Maps and Architectural Drawings