Born in Dedham, Essex, Downes entered the prestigious Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in early 1848 at the age of fourteen; the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon (q.v.) was a fellow student. His first preference being the Engineers, Downes was instead posted to the Artillery in 1852 with the rank of 2nd lieutenant and was one of the privileged few to attend the Duke of Wellington’s funeral on 18 November. Two years later with war declared on Russia he served in the Crimea War from May 1855 to February 1856 being evacuated the day before the fall of Sebastopol. This campaign was to be Downes’ only active service in an armed conflict. Upon returning he was posted to various positions in Britain when in 1877 he was recommended to the post of Commandant of Military Forces of South Australia (1877-85, 1888-93); he was credited with changing a poorly disciplined volunteer force into a highly trained and proud unit.
Between 1885 and 1888 Downes served as Secretary of the Victorian Defence Department having been enticed to the position to serve under Sir Frederick Sargood (St. Kilda Cemetery), Victoria’s first Minister for Defence and the only colony to have a separate Defence Department. Largely a civil position, it did not suit Downes’ outdoor nature and in 1888 he returned to South Australia. In November 1891 he suffered injuries as a result of a horse riding accident and reluctantly resigned from the position two years later due to poor heath to return to Victoria where he resided for a period at Geelong before moving to Brighton.
In 1899, he was enticed out of retirement by the government of Sir George Turner (St. Kilda Cemetery) to command the military forces of Victoria, a position he held until being placed on the retired list with the rank of major-general in 1902; he was held in high regard for his “professional competence; moderation in the exercise of his powers and for integrity in discharge of his duties”. During this period he oversaw the equipping of five contingents for overseas service to South Africa, as well as the transfer of the Victorian Defence Department to the Commonwealth upon Federation. Reared in the tradition of service and duty to your country, Downes was a “kind-hearted, charitable man” who had his fair share of life’s disappointments.
He died in 1923 at this daughter’s residence, 81 Outer Crescent, Brighton predeceased by his wife Helen née Chamberlain (d 1903) and was accorded a military funeral; one of four sons, Major-General Rupert Downes (1885-1945) had a distinguished career in both world wars and died in the same plane crash that killed Major-General George Vasey on 5 March 1945.
ADB Volume 4 1851-1890 (D-J).
The Argus 16 & 17 October 1923.
The Herald 15 October 1923.
The Age 16 October 1923.
“The Victorian Historical Magazine” (August-November 1970).
(Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B10226)