Law Hall of Fame logoBorn on November 25, 1787, James Dowling cut his law reporter teeth as a parliamentary reporter. He was called to the bar by the Middle Temple on May 5, 1815, the year after he had married Maria Sheen. In 1819, their son James Sheen Dowling was born (later, Mr. Justice Dowling of the NSW Supreme Court at Sydney).

From 1821 to 1827, his main source of income lay in his law reports, as law reporter, of the prestigious King's Bench (K.B.) series. He and his partner Arthur Rylands tried, unsuccessfully, to upseat the competitor law reports of their peers Barnewall and Cresswell.

His brother Alfred Septimus Dowling (1805-1868) was also a lawyer and law reporter, and later employed his nephew James Sheen Dowling.

In 1827, he asked the Colonial Office for a judgeship offshore and was offered Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island. He declined and then accepted an appointment to the other side of the world, to a convict colony; Australia, then known as New South Wales. He arrived aboard the Hooghly in February 1828 and into a live dispute between his chief justice Francis Forbes and the Governor General Ralph Darling.

Dowling later remembered first meeting the two:

"The Governor appeared a cold, stiff, sickly military person. I absolutely froze in his presence. The Chief Justice appeared very unwell, seemed very unhappy, and had a round-head republican look.… I devoutly wished myself back again in London to go on with the quiet, slavish drudgery of my bygone days."

James DowlingJames Dowling was quickly acquainted with his new constituency, including his visits to the infamous Norfolk Island penal colony, the first of which occurred in September of 1833.

In 1837, Dowling became second chief justice of N.S.W., succeeding Forbes. In 1838, he was knighted and entitled thereafter to be referred to as Sir James Dowling.

Dowling maintained running feuds with his benchmates especially Justice John Willis. Of his personal life:

"Ten children, four of whom died in infancy, were born to Dowling and his first wife, Maria Sheen, whom he married in 1814. After her death twenty years later, he married, in September 1835, Harriet Ritchie, the widowed daughter of John Blaxland. Adequate provision for his family and their advancement was the never ending concern of the fond parent. In 1828 he received a grant of seven acres (2.8 ha) on Woolloomooloo Hill, then the eastern fringe of the town of Sydney, on condition that he erected a house thereon of the value of £1000. On this grant he built Brougham Lodge, naming it after his patron. In the same year, he received a grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha) in the County of Durham. His salary was then £1500 as a puisne judge; it rose to £2000 when he became chief justice."

The Chief Justice, Sir James Dowling collapsed on the bench on June 27, 1844, even as he frustratingly waited for the paperwork for his health sabbatical back in England to be approved.

He never made it and died in Australia on September 27, 1844 at Sydney.

But James Dowling's law reporter habits learned in England had followed him to Australia. His detailed notes of his trials and decisions have been published by New South Wales as part of their State Records.

In his legacy can be found the story of one man's mark upon the law not just as a law reporter of the well-known Dowling and Rylands Law Reports in the motherland, but also of a trailblazer in a harsh colony where it was to him to hold up the banner of justice.


  • Currey, C.H., "Dowling, Sir James (1787 - 1844)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966), pages 317-320.
  • Dennis, Joseph Tracton, Sir James Douglas, 1840 (painting). Original held at the State Library of NSW.
  • Holdsworth, William, A History of English Law, Vol. 13 (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1952), page 429
  • Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore (New York: Pan Books, 1987).
  • Smith, George, Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922)