Political Biographies of the Mayors of Portsmouth (1836-1900)

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1847-1848. 1862 died in office
PROFESSION:- Civil Engineer. Building contractor.
WARD:- St Paul
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate November 1850.
RESIDENCE:- 36 Kent Road Southsea.
DECEASED:- December 11th 1862 aged 58.
BURIED:- Milton Churchyard.
Thomas Ellis Owen, sometimes described as the man who built Southsea, was born in Middlesex, in March 1805 (N.1). Owen studied in London and completed his education in Italy - which possibly influenced his architectural style. (1) He came to Portsmouth in the 1820s where his father had been appointed Chief Surveyor to the Royal Engineers. Thomas was himself employed by the government on the procurement of land and property.
Owen showed early, but unsuccessful, political ambition. In 1835, prior to the election of the new Borough Council, the wards held meetings to select their preferred candidates. St Thomas' Ward met on the 17th December to draw up its short list. This was perceived by Owen as being politically biased because only Reform or Whig supporters were chosen. The next day Owen, nominally a Tory, chaired a further meeting of the St Thomas' burgesses at the Blue Posts (owned by Andrew Nance snr) during which their faction drafted another short list of candidates. Owen's name was included. At the election the entire nine candidates of the 'Reform' group were elected. Owen came eleventh with 95 votes. Following the Aldermanic elections of 31st December 1835 there occurred a vacancy in St Thomas' Ward for another councillor. Owen found himself head to head with Benjamin Bramble for the seat. He lost by 177 votes to 111. (2) From this may have evolved his distaste for elections.
In the meantime Owen realised the potential of Portsea Island as a development site and began to purchase land and build speculatively. In 1837 he started developing in the Kent Road area with Queen's Terrace. Ruin was predicted. He soon confounded his critics and in the next twenty-five years built a total of 106 villas and 54 terraced houses. Politically by 1843 he found a ward that would support him and in November was elected for St Paul's. Thereafter Owen's rise to civic prominence was meteoric compared to others who served as chief magistrate. Within four years of his election to the council he is mayor - without holding the position of alderman first. As such it is perhaps remarkable that he only occupied the mayoral chair twice throughout his nineteen year tenure on the council.
The details of his first election are perhaps noteworthy. At the council meeting of November 9th 1847 Cllr J. Hoskins seconded by Alderman Jackson, nominated Owen for mayor. Whereupon Cllr G. Sheppard (St Thos) proposed Alderman Scale, seconded by Cllr Leggatt (St Paul). Cllr H. Ford (A.S.) then proposed Cllr G. Pratt (St John). At this point Owen stood saying he was prepared to accept the nomination but felt it should be unopposed opining that a contest for the post was undignified. Cllr Pratt's nomination was Withdrawn. Cllr Sheppard then said he would withdraw Scales' nomination if the seconder Cllr Leggett - would also. Leggatt declined. Despite his dislike of elections Owen allowed his name to go forward. The ensuing ballot showed:- Owen 24, Scale 20. Forty-nine councillors were at the meeting. Twenty-four votes was not a majority of those present. After further discussion Bramble was nominated in place of Scale. Another vote was taken which produced for Owen 28 for Bramble 17. So Owen was elected. (3)
During his mayoral year Owen was associated with a number of events. In May the steam basin (No. Two Basin) in the Dockyard was opened by Her Majesty. There were other pleasant duties to oversee such as the grand opening of the new Clarence Esplanade in August 1848. Finally in October the London & South Western Railway Coy opened a second 95 mile rail link to the capital via Fareham & Eastleigh - journey time again 3 - 4 hours. At the close of his mayoralty he received the customary vote of thanks.
Throughout his residence in Portsmouth Owen was linked with a number of other project. In 1838 he was engaged by the council to draft a plan for the extension of the Camber Docks, and later supervised the construction. He worked closely with Dr Engledue on the building of the Royal Hospital. He also supported the development of railways and the public acquisition of the water supply. In matters of religion he was regarded as being Evangelical giving the land and founding St Jude's church in 1852 - at his own expense. He also throughout his political career supported the acceptance of the Public Health Act (PHA) of 1848 which was the major political issue of the late 1840s and early 50's. On this item he could be outspoken on occasion. In matters of drainage he argued that a comprehensive system of arterial drainage was possible at moderate cost. He condemned those who thought otherwise saying the only reasons he had heard against the proposed measure came from people having properties the improvement of which they would have to pay for themselves. They were therefore more concerned with their own pockets than with the public good.
During a council meeting of 17th March 1851 (4) he made a hard hitting speech concerning the heavy financial burden imposed on the community by the all pervading presence of the military. Owen noted that the heavily rated borough of Portsmouth shouldered a financial burden which ought to be part carried by the government. The Dockyard may be the economic engine of the borough but it generated mass unemployment in slack times - the unemployed becoming a financial impost to the Portsea Union. In a long speech he also cited the Army saying that Anglesey barracks had become the focus of local depravity, "It is notorious," he said, "that soldiers bring with them prostitutes . . . and these prostitutes find their way, diseased for the most part, into our poor house. Most are not native to this place. Mainly they have been seduced by soldiers whom they then follow to this town. Thus it is inevitable there will be an increase in the rates in places where soldiers are located." He went on. 'There exists another evil in connection with the presence of soldiers here. Soldiers' wives. Many cannot go abroad with their husbands and therefore become a burden to the parish. Also soldiers discharged from the army in Portsmouth. The parish has either to support them or send them on their way at parish expense." He continued that the government had put its veto on all private enterprise on the shores of this borough (e.g. Mill Dam Dock project) contrasting it to Southampton where the warehouses paid rates. He concluded noting that in 51 parishes the average poor rate was 2/6d in Portsea it was 6/8d. Alas, despite Owen's support, the Public Health Act was not accepted until after his death.
The matter of Owen's election for a second term is also interesting. The contest with William Grant Chambers was covered extensively in the press. (5) A convention was thought to have been established that no ex mayor was to be re-elected while there were others ready and able to serve. Chambers' supporters wanted this observed. Others claimed they should select the best man for the job regardless. Both candidates were respectable businessmen of good habits. But Owen was seen as better qualified - plus the fact that the rates from his properties made a very useful contribution to the local exchequer.
So, despite the fact that Owen had only attended four council meetings out of eleven in the past year, the convention was ignored. (it was also hinted that Own would be knighted in the near future so Portsmouth would have another 'Sir' as chief magistrate.) At the vote Owen polled 30 votes to Chambers 23 but his term was short. Owen died suddenly of a heart attack on the afternoon of 11th December 1862. In the morning he had been seen riding in his carriage. He enjoyed a light lunch and retired to his study. At 3.30 p.m. he was found dead.
In 1837 Owen married Miss Catherine Higgins daughter of J. Higgins Surveyor of government works. They had one daughter Louisa who in turn married the Rev T.R. Brownrigg - vicar of St Jude's. Owen's funeral service was held at the church 17th December and an impressive cortege followed the coffin to Milton Churchyard where he is buried in the tomb of his late father-in-law James Higgins. Owen's widow died three years later in Dublin. Her body was brought to Portsmouth where she was also interred with her late husband in May 1865. When the present Milton church was built in 1913 all the graves were moved and the present whereabouts of Owen's grave in unknown.
Norman Gordon
N. 1. Per research by Sue Pike - Owen's biographer.
Obituary Portsmouth Times 13th December 1862 & 20th December 1862. Also Hampshire Telegraph 15th December 1862.
(1) See Portsmouth papers No 32. 'The Houses and Inhabitants of Thomas Ellis Owen's Southsea.'
(2) Hampshire Telegraph 21st December 1835, 28th December 1835, 4th January 1836 and 11th January 1836.
(3) Hampshire Telegraph 13th November 1847.
(4) Portsmouth Times, 23rd March 1851.
(5) Hampshire Telegraph 15th November 1862.