The Two John Owen’s – Longford Father and Son Watchmakers

The death of watchmaker and repairer John Owen junior in February 1923 marked the end of over six decades of service in Longford, northern Tasmania, by John and his father, also John (senior). They undertook watchmaking, musical instruments, and general repairs and were actively involved in community affairs from about 1859 to 1923.

Born on 15 November 1856 in Hobart to watchmaker and jeweller John Owen senior and his wife Mary (formerly Rankin), John junior moved to Longford with his parents at a young age. Mechanically minded and clever, John junior most likely learned specialised skills from his father. In 1879, he entered the Sandhurst Exhibition in Melbourne and received the Silver Medal in the juvenile section for his manufactured organ barrels. Music was a life-long love of John’s, not just in his work repairing organs; he was also a member of the Longford Orchestra for many years.

In November 1887, John senior experienced health problems and transferred the entire business to his son. He died a few months later, in January 1888. John junior continued serving the Longford community with clock, watch, and musical instrument repairs. He was also involved in and supported many community organisations, including Longford Regatta Association, South Esk Rowing Club, Longford Homing Pigeon Society, Longford Racing Club, Longford Garden Club, and working bees.

Larger premises formerly occupied by chemists Webster and Sandall became the home of the watchmaking business in 1890. John continued maintaining the Christ Church town clock and, in 1890, manufactured and fitted additional parts to enable the clock to strike the half-hour. By 1906, the half-hour strike mechanism had been removed, and with Longford residents keen to have it functional again, John was approached to do the job. He quoted £10. As with all mechanical town clocks, the maintenance and caretaking were constant. With the council requiring it to be spot on time, John checked it three times a week, so in 1912, he applied for a £2 salary increase.

John was serving his community at a Christ Church rectory working bee when ‘he caught a chill,’ which was the beginning of health problems that led to his death at the Launceston Hospital on 16 February 1923. He was 66 years of age. Two sisters, Mrs Mary Wright and Mrs Annie Mohr, and extended family members survived John. His burial took place alongside his parents at the Longford Methodist Cemetery.

John Owen (senior)
John Owen senior arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the convict ship William Jardine (1) in November 1844, recorded as a native of Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales. His alleged crime was stealing a sheet of copper, a stave, a hammer, and a dowelling machine from Her Majesty’s Stores at Holyhead Dockyard in North Wales. Sentenced to fourteen years transportation (a sentence fixed by law – possessing items marked with a broad arrow was punishable according to Acts of Parliament), John was fortunate to have his sentence reduced to seven years.

On arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, John was recorded as 5’ 6 ¼”, 19 years old, single, Protestant, illiterate, and only able to speak Welsh. He served his initial twelve-month probation period at Oyster Bay Probation Station south of Hobart. By 1846, he worked briefly in his trade, assigned to Hobart watchmaker James Robe of Liverpool Street. Valuable tools, wheels, and other watch parts, the property of James Robe, were found under John’s bed. Despite claiming he was innocent, John received a sentence of twelve months imprisonment with hard labour. At the end of the twelve months, John was assigned to grazier James D Toosey at Cressy in the north of the colony. In October 1850, he was charged with ‘feloniously receiving under the value of £5’ and sent to Impression Bay on the Tasman Peninsula for eighteen months imprisonment and hard labour in chains. Twelve months later, John received a Free Certificate.

On 1 September 1853, John married Mary Rankin at St Andrews Scots Church in Hobart. Two children were born in Hobart to the couple, Ann in 1854 and John junior in 1856. John senior was reported as a watchmaker in Murray Street in November 1856 when giving evidence in court relating to a burglary at Hobart solicitor Morton Allport’s house. The Owen family moved to Longford in the late 1850s, where another daughter, Mary, was born in October 1859. Sadly, Mary Owen senior died at the young age of 27 on 31 July 1860 at Longford.

John went on to build a fine reputation for his work in the community and further afield.
The Launceston Examiner of 10 October 1876 reported:
LONGFORD. Mr John Owen, watchmaker here, who some time back repaired the lock of an iron safe for a Launceston solicitor, and subsequently another belonging to our municipality, has just returned from Hobart Town, where he has succeeded in effectually repairing a valuable self-acting organ belonging to H J Buckland, Esq., Curator of Intestate Estates. It appears that Mr Owen’s ability had become known to this gentleman, who sent for him to come down and undertake the repairing of an instrument which none of the Hobart Town professionals could manage.

In 1886, John met Reverend John Owen from North Wales at the railway station when he visited Tasmania. As a fellow countryman and namesake, John was most likely appointed to show him around the district during his brief visit. Reports mentioned he was a watchmaker of Marlborough Street at this time.

John Owen senior died at his residence in Longford on 7 January 1888, recorded as 59 years old.

Daily Telegraph 9 January 1888
It is my painful duty to record the death of an old resident here, Mr John Owen, watch and clockmaker. He has been living at Longford for the last 25 years, having come from Hobart almost immediately after his arrival in the colony. He unfortunately lost his wife under painful circumstances many years ago and was left with three little children, one of them a baby. The care and devotion he manifested towards his family won the respect of all who knew him, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his self-denial rewarded by having his son and daughters grow up to maturity in a highly creditable manner. As a workman, he was exceedingly skilled, doing work at times which Melbourne hands had failed in; as a neighbour he was remarkably kind, always ready to lend a helping hand in nursing sick people, etc. His removal from our midst leaves a blank which will not easily be filled up.

© Sallie Mulligan, October 2023.

Tasmanian Archives: CON33/1/62, CON18/1/43, CON14/1/30, RGD37/1/12 no628 Marriage 1853, RGD33/1/5 no1322 Birth 1854, RGD33/1/6 no12 Birth 1856, RGD33/1/37 no1500 Birth 1859, RGD35/1/29 no733 Death 1860, RGD35/1/57 no388 Death 1888.
Newspapers: North Wales Chronicle 26 March 1844; Cornwall Chronicle 20 November 1851; The Hobarton Mercury 9 September 1854, 8 September 1856; Colonial Times 7 October 1856; The Mercury (Hobart) 7 July 1879; The Examiner (Launceston) 23 February 1886, 9 January 1888, 8 July 1890, 10 December 1890, 21 February 1893, 7 December 1912, 17 February 1923; Daily Telegraph 8 November 1887, 12 July 1890, 8 December 1890, 2 November 1897, 6 August 1906, 19 February 1923, 20 February 1923.

1. Daily Telegraph 12 July 1890
2. J Owen Longford watch key (Photo: Paul Ruston)
3. Convict broad arrow symbol
4. J Owen senior pocket watch label (Photo: Graham Mulligan)