Advocate RW Bowen – the ‘St Dunstan’s effect’

Advocate RW (Mike) Bowen was widely known in South Africa during the years between 1922 and 1948 as the most prominent ‘St Dunstaner’.  He often featured in the news for his tireless work on behalf of blind people, his work as a defence lawyer and his political work as the Member of Parliament for a Cape Town constituency.

What did it take to transform a disfigured and blinded war veteran, Mike Bowen, into a persuasive defence advocate and politician, renowned for his powerful condemnation of racial discrimination and the promotion of the rights of disabled people?  There are several factors which brought about this transformation.  Perhaps the most important factor was the rehabilitation facilities for blinded soldiers provided by St Dunstan’s in London.  Not only did St Dunstan’s provide the skills to enable him to deal with his disability but is also brought him into contact with Eleanor Gillies who became his wife.  Eleanor provided him with constant support and encouragement throughout their married life.  Another factor was the medical skills on the battlefield and in reconstructive surgery.  With his face repaired and skills learned at St Dunstan’s, Mike was able to begin his legal education at Cambridge University and the London law society of Gray’s Inn.  St Dunstan’s also took care of all his university fees and his qualifications allowed him to flourish as a powerful advocate in the legal courts of South Africa.  His legal knowledge played a vital role in his parliamentary career in drafting the legal framework of the Bind Act of 1936 as well as the drafting of the constitutions of the South African National Council for the Blind and the Athlone School for the Blind.  

The story of Mike Bowen’s journey from the battlefield to parliamentarian is told in the biography of Advocate RW Bowen, ‘Blindness and the Power of Inner Vision’.

Mike was born in Durban and after leaving school began employment in administration but, finding this rather boring, decided to try his hand at diamond prospecting in the alluvial diggings near Kimberley.  When war broke out in 1914, Mike volunteered for service in the South African army which had joined the British Empire forces.  After seeing action against forces loyal to the Kaiser in German South West Africa and in North Africa, Mike found himself in trenches in the Somme battlefield, Vimy Ridge, Flers and Arras before being ordered to Flanders in 1917 for the Battle of Passchendaele.  As Mike and his platoon were in the front line, ready to attack the German force, a high explosive shell detonated close to the soldiers.  A piece of flying shrapnel shot across Mike’s head, slicing off the bone structures beneath his eyebrows, orbital cavities and upper nose. He was grievously wounded and blinded.  First aid was administered in the muddy first aid posts and base hospital before Mike was transported by ship to Dover and then London. He eventually came under the care of surgeons trained by Dr Harold Gillies to reconstruct his facial structures.    

Mike Bowen’s new life and his integration back into society really began at the St Dunstan’s Institute for Blinded Soldiers where he met his tutor of Braille.  Mike had the good fortune to have Eleanor Gillies assigned as his Braille tutor.  She was the sister of Harold and the relationship between tutor and blind pupil blossomed into love.  Mike and Eleanor, known to friends as Lil, were married in Cambridge in March 1919.  It was Harold and Lil who recognised that Mike was an intelligent character with great cognitive abilities.  They persuaded him to apply for a place at Cambridge to study law. Eleanor acted as Mike’s ‘eyes’ taking notes in lectures and tutorials which he transcribed into Braille.  Mike graduated from Cambridge in 1921 and then qualified as a barrister in London.

Mike and Lil returned to South Africa in 1922, settling in Cape Town where Mike set up his chambers.  He soon became known as a formidable defence advocate and often acted in a pro bono capacity for poor people especially for those of the underprivileged mixed-race community.   Using the example of her father, Robert Gillies, who had become a Member of the New Zealand parliament, Eleanor influenced Mike Bowen to enter politics.  He was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1929 to represent a Cape Town constituency under the banner of the South African Party led by General Jan Smuts.

His parliamentary career was noteworthy for his interventions on two issues, racial discrimination and rights for disabled people, especially the blind.  Discrimination against those who were not classified as ‘white European’ blighted South African society.  Since the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging following the defeat of the Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Afrikaner population took an increasingly dominant role and diminished the influence of the English-speaking South Africans.  Much of Bowen’s parliamentary career was spent in opposition to the ruling Afrikaner National Party which was laying the foundations of the infamous post-war apartheid legislation.  As legislation ensuring the suppression of the black and mixed-race population was introduced, Mike Bowen was forthright in condemning the proposals in the most trenchant language.

Mike was also responsible for drafting legislation to safeguard the rights of blind people and steered the 1936 Blind Act through the parliamentary processes.  Working with others, he was instrumental in founding the first school in South Africa for blind mixed-race and black children in 1927.  The Athlone School for the Blind started with only six pupils but is still educating blind children today with a roll exceeding four hundred.  Mike’s legal knowledge was also used in the efforts to establish the first national body to work on behalf of blind people in South Africa and his contribution was recognised in him being appointed as the first Chairman of the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB) in 1929.  Mike recognised the unstinting support provided by Eleanor throughout their married life and in parliamentary debates spoke up for women’s rights.  Mike was a keen supporter of the South African branch of St Dunstan’s.

Mike Bowen was elected unopposed in the May 1948 General Election but his death two months later deprived the parliament of one of its most able members.  Mike left the enduring legacy of the school for blind children, the Blind Act and the continuing work of the SANCB.  St Dunstan’s can be proud of the transformation which it produced in Mike Bowen’s life.

Article by - Hilary Marlow