John Bowen 1785 – 1854 Biographical Notes

John Bowen
A sketch of John Bowen, taken from PSANHS 131 (1987), where it is unattributed, but assumed to be somewhere in Somerset Heritage Centre DD/CLE.

            John Bowen (1785-1854) was born in Bridgwater, Somerset. He ‘was taken from school’ at the age of 11, but subsequently took every opportunity for self-education. He was apprenticed to Thomas Pyke, brazier and bell-founder in 1799 but became restless and left to seek adventure, eventually joining the Navy. After being shipwrecked he returned to Bridgwater and resumed his apprenticeship with Pyke.

            He moved to London in 1805, and in 1806 he started work with George? Robinson, a lighthouse contractor. He married Jane Briggs in 1806. He worked in the Farne Islands, 1807-8 Northumberland, to install a temporary light.

            He went to India in 1808 for the Hon. East India Company, erecting lighthouses and making machinery. Bowen returned home in 1812 for a two-year break, during which time he took a course in practical mathematics from Peter Nicholson, the mathematician and architect. He returned to India and the East India Company, and carried out consultancy work for Calman and Brown of Calcutta.

            In 1816 Bowen joined Calman and Henry Jessop (a son of William Jessop of the Butterley Co), in charge of an adventurous mission to transport the cast iron components of a large iron bridge, and a pumping engine, upriver from Calcutta to Lucknow. 70 boats and 900 boatmen were employed. The items had been made by the Butterley Co in Derbyshire and shipped out round the Cape. The 2627 individual bridge components, weighing 750 tons, were delivered to the river bank at Lucknow, but there they were to remain for many years, *no finances having been provided to erect the bridge (the bridge was not constructed on arrival at Lucknow because the Nawab had died and his son was not interested in it). It was not constructed until the 1840s. The bridge, designed by John Rennie, had been ordered by the Nawab of Oudh to carry a private road across the River Gompti.

            Bowen returned overland to Calcutta, but bad health forced his return to England. He became a wine merchant in Bridgwater, in partnership with Morley and Charles James Chubb, and involved himself in local affairs. He was also a writer, producing in 1821 a pamphlet critical of how Christian missionaries treated Hindoos, and in 1825 updating Peter Nicholson’s New carpenter’s guide : being a complete book of lines for carpenters, joiners, cabinet-makers, and workmen in general, on methods entirely new founded on geometrical principles; explained, in theory and practice, by numerous engravings, wherein the utility of every line is fully exemplified.This included a Memoir of Nicholson.

            The wine merchant partnership was dissolved in 1830 but the business was continued by John Bowen, alone. Bowen later became engineer to the Bridgwater Turnpike Trust, and was involved in the design of the market house on Cornhill.

The Cornhill market hourse, designed by Bowen. No doubt the dome was influenced by Nicholson’s book, and perhaps the lantern sky-light by his time working on lighthouses. Note the pineapple of plenty on the lantern’s spire. This picture shows the market house closer to Bowen’s own time: the lantern seems to have been modified over the years, while the railings, intended to keep away livestock, were removed. © Blake Museum K20

            He was a churchwarden at St Mary’s and in 1830 produced a study showing that as all the pews were rented to the better-off of the town, this prevented the poor from attending: this is clearly the reason for the construction of Holy Trinity church, in 1839. John was also instrumental in the construction of St John’s and his son’s baptism was the first one to be held in the new church.

           Bowen was a social reformer, and opposed the 1832 Reform Act, he edited a newspaper called The Alfred from 1831 to 1833, but gave it up as the result of violent opposition, which included an attack on his house.

            Bowen was appointed a Guardian of the Poor for the Bridgwater Union, but resigned in 1837 over conditions at the Bridgwater Workhouse, and employed a great deal of energy in efforts to reform the situation. He wrote letters to The Times and to Parliament, as well as a series of pamphlets, detailing, for example, 27 deaths in six months, and reporting 94 deaths from dysentery following cost-cutting in food purchasing. He also appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on the Operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1838, as did his friend, William Baker, a Bridgwater currier and natural historian. In 1846 and 1847, when farming conditions were bad, and rural poverty rife, John Bowen wrote under the nom-de-plume “Inquirer”, and published in The Bridgwater Times, a series of letters describing visits he made to homes of the rural poor in a number of the parishes of the Bridgwater and Langport Poor-law Unions. He described 75 visits in ghastly detail, where local farm workers lived in near destitution, in hovels, many in a state of near collapse. A great many workers and their families were in bad health, and all had scant help from the Guardians of the Poor and the relieving officers they employed. A number of readers replied to his letters. People of today whose perceptions of the mid C19 country life come from reading novels or seeing TV productions, will have no idea of the truth. Paul Mansfield transcribed the letters, and privately published in 2012 a limited edition of: John Bowen’s Tour of the Bridgwater and Langport Unions, 1846-47: The Somersetshire Peasantry. 132pp. A copy is to be found in the Somerset Studies Library, Taunton. John Bowen as “Inquirer”, published in the Bridwater Times in 1848, another series of articles on the Sanitary Condition of Bridgwater and Langport, which were in similar mode. Paul Mansfield transcribed these also, and published them in the March 2006 edition of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries.

            Bowen’s first wife died in 1837, and he subsequently married Jessie Nicholson, the daughter of Peter Nicholson.

            Bowen died on 29 March 1854. and was buried at St John’s church, Bridgwater, next to his friend William Baker whose grave he had purchased.

            Expanded from the account of Bowen in Grace’s guide to British industrial history.

Tony Woolrich, 27 November 2020

For Bowens scientific biography, see here.


In about 1900 Isabella Metford annotated a copy of Jarman’s History of Bridgwater. On page 153, where he mentions 1832, she’s scribbled:

“I believe it was after this election in 1832, a hotly contested one, that John Bowen invited the most respected leaders of both sides (many of them previously old friends of different opinion) to a summer evening gathering at his house for the purpose of re-forming ties somewhat loosened by the recent conflict. My uncle Thomas Clark (a great friend of John Bowen’s) said that ‘Bowen’s the only man in Bridgwater who could have done it’ and that it was a complete success.  From Thomas Clark’s account of the attack on Mr Bowen I judge it must be rather exaggerated here.”

BHG Collection

Bowen’s Bibliography

Missionary incitement and Hindoo demoralization : including some observations on the political tendency of the means taken to evangelize Hindoostan by John Bowen. Publisher: London : J. Bowen, 1821. Copy in S.S.L. Taunton.

A letter to the Rev. T.T. Biddulph … occasioned by his “Cursory remarks” on a pamphlet entitled “Missionary incitement and Hindoo demoralization.” by John Bowen. Publisher: London : for the author, 1822. Copy in the S. S. L. Taunton.

Reply to “Missionary Incitement, and Hindoo Demoralization” … by Mr. J. Bowen, etc. by John Bowen. Publisher: Serampore : Mission Press, 1822.

A Letter to the Rev. T.T. Biddulph, A.M. Minister of St. James’s, Bristol, &c. &c. &c. Occasioned by his “Cursory Remarks” on a Pamphlet Entitled “Missionary Incitement and “Hindoo Demoralization.” By John Bowen. Publisher: London : Printed for the Author, and Sold by Sherwood Neely and Jones, 20, Paternoster Row ; Smythe, Taunton ; and Poole ; and Binning, Bridgewater, 1822.

Vindicae seramporianae : or, A review of a pamphlet by Mr. John Bowen entitled “Missionary incitement, and Hindoo demoralization, including some observations on the political tendency of the means taken to evangelize Hindoostan”. by John Bowen; Publisher: London : Published by Kingsbury, Parbury and Co., 1823.

Nicholson’s New carpenter’s guide : being a complete book of lines for carpenters, joiners, cabinet-makers, and workmen in general, on methods entirely new founded on geometrical principles; explained, in theory and practice, by numerous engravings, wherein the utility of every line is fully exemplified. Introduction and revision by John Bowen. Publisher London : Jones, 1831. Peter Nicholson (1765 -1844) was a Scottish architect, mathematician and engineer, and Bowen’s father in law. See the extensive article Peter Nicholson (Architect) in Wikipedia. Digitised by the Hathi Trust.

Letter to His Late Majesty; containing a refutation of some of the charges preferred against the poor: with some account of the working of the new poor law in the Bridgwater Union … by John Bowen. Publisher: London, 1835. Digitised by Google Books from a copy in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The Reform Poor Law, with some account of its working in the Bridgwater Union. by John Bowen. Publisher: London : John Hatchard, 1837. Copy in the S. S . L. Taunton.

Second edition (of a letter to His late Majesty, containing) a refutation of some of the charges preferred against the poor : with some account of the new poor law in the Bridgwater Union by John Bowen 1837.

Twelve Letters to the Editor of The Times – The New Poor Law …Bridgwater Union. By John Bowen. Publisher: London : John Hatchard, 1837. Digitised by the Internet Archive, 2015, from a copy in the Library of the Medical School, Bristol University

The New Poor Law, with some account of its fatal operation on the sick and helpless poor in the Bridgwater Union. by John Bowen. Publisher: London : John Hatchard & Son, 1838.

New Poor Law : the Bridgwater case : is killing in an union workhouse criminal, if sanctioned by the Poor Law Commissioners? A question raised on certain facts deposed to on oath before a late committee of the House of Lords, and humbly submitted to the serious and early consideration of both Lords and Commons by John Bowen. Publisher: London : Published for the author by J. Hatchard, 1839. Copy in the S. S. L. Taunton.

The union work-house and board of guardians system Author: John Bowen, of Bridgewater; Robert Peel. Publisher: London : J. Hatchard & Son, 1842. Copy in the S. S. L. Taunton.

Proposed Joint Stock Building Society Bubble By John Bowen. Publisher: London : J. Hatchard & Son, 1843. Copy in S. S. L. Taunton.

The Russell Predictions on the Working Class, the National Debt, and the New Poor Law, dissected, etc. by John Bowen. Publisher: Hatchard & Son ; London, 1850.

A brief memoir of the life and character of William Baker, F.G.S. … Prepared principally from his diary and correspondence. by John Bowen, of Bridgwater. Publisher: Taunton, 1854. Language: English. Copy in the S. S. L. Taunton.

His Memorial

An obelisk in St John’s Churchyard, the inscription reads:

West Face: In memory of John Bowen born Feb.25, 1785,died March 29, 1854; Take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again. This monument is erected by his widow as a tribute to his memory.

South face: Also to the memory of John, eldest son of the late John Bowen, esq, who died at Melbourne, Australia, April 14, 1883, in the 43rd year of this age. Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden and I shall give them rest.

East face Blank.

North face: Here in the same vault with their lamented father are buried Agnes, aged 3 years and Edward Nicholson, aged 4 years and six months, the beloved infant children of the before named John Bowen and Jessie his wife who died of scarlet fever May 29 and 4 June 1850. Not lost but gone before. Edward Nicholson Bowen was the first child christened in St John’s Church. Also here are interred the remains of Peter Nicholson Bowen, their third son who died at St Clements, Jersey in the 10th year of his age, Nov 4, 1858. These were the grandchildren of Peter Nicholson, the great mathematician.

An illustrated account of the memorial and St John’s churchyard can be seen elsewhere on this site.

List of the Bowen’s Manuscripts held in the Somerset Heritage Centre

Ref DD/CLE, Box 1

  1.  Journal of a journey from Calcutta to Lucknow with the iron bridge, October 1815-June 1816. This relates to a bridge supplied by the Butterley Company. The original volume is very fragile and a modern tanscription is to be found in vol J in Box 4 of this deposit.
  2.  Speech of Edmund Burke at the trial of Warren Hastings, 1794
  3.  Bundle of misc correspondence, 1818
  4.  Engraving of the Nawab of Oude
  5.  Selection of letters, family papers, etc. Includes printed statement by Bowen on the seating at St Mary’s Church, Bridgwater, c 1830.
  6.  Statement on India.
  7.  The Builder 17 May 1851, with misc press cuttings.
  8.  Folder of family papers (includes an account by Bowen of steam engines for use in India, c 1810.
  9.  Box of misc press cuttings.
  10.  Pocket diaries of Peter Nicholson, 1838, 1840 (mostly addresses)
  11.  Minutes of a meeting of the subscribers to the endowment of St John’s, Bridgwater.
  12.  Child’s diary, 1862
  13.  Report of the select committee on prisoners in Pentry, 1823
  14.  Mrs Bowen’s passport
  15.  Panorama of an indian port — rolled onto a wooden mandrel
  16.  Legal papers about Bowen’s estate.

DD/CLE Box 4 This comprises a collection of mostly notebooks containing transcripts and indexes to all the Bowen MSS, made by Miss L Cole who researched his life extensively.

  1.  Letter books, India and England (1809-1821) LB I and LB II
  2.  Scrap book 1785-1854
  3.  Summary of the contents of the scrapbook
  4.  Letter books misc (1816-1819) ML I and ML II
  5.  Indian Journal transcripts J I and J II
  6. Summary of the Indian Journal
  7.  Bridgwater Elections, BE I, BE II, BE III
  8.  Election notices, HN
  9.  Bridgwater people, 2 vols
  10.  Bridgwater Directory BD I BD II 12) Indian letterbook ML III
  11.  Church rate books, Pew books, election lists
  12.  Report of vestry meeting on poor rates (1830)
  13.  Notes from the Bridgwater Alfred BA I, BA II, BA III
  14.  Miscellaneous information, 2 vols
  15.  Journal of Thomas Clark TC
  16.  Index and summary of the journal of Thomas Clark
  17.  Scrap book of John Bowen in India. On p 35 he says he became a pupil of Peter Nicholson and helped him in the composition of the articles for Rees’s Cyclopeadia.
  18.  Misc volumes on elections, one dated 1835.
  19.  Blue book of misc information on elections, inns etc. Indexed.

DD/CLE Box 5

  1.  Index to Bridgwater places and buildings
  2.  Index to Bridgwater names
  3.  Papers on Peter Nicholson
  4. Index of names and places
  5. Set of folders tied together on:-
  6.  Bowen family history
  7.  Memoirs of J.J.Calman
  8.  Memoirs of Echoes by M.T.Sturge
  9.  Notes on Andrew Crosse
  10.  Memoirs of Kate Ward, 1825-1925
  11.  Bruce Dilkes notes
  12.  Parish registers
  13.  Poole pedigrees
  14. Set of folders tied together on:-
  15.  India and the Butterley works
  16.  Jessop
  17.  Butterley Ironworks etc
  18. Set of folders tied together on:-
  19.  Bridgwater misc, inc early postcard by Gillo
  20.  Folder of index notes
  21.  Bridgwater castle
  22.  John Bowen, personal papers & Bridgwater Alfred
  23.  Inns
  24.  Peter Nicholson, inc portraits
  25.  Index to Jarman
  26.  Bridgwater people. File includes Anstice, Allen, Axford, Chubb etc
  27. William Baker
  28.  Notes on the Reform Bill
  29.  Chronological index to Bridgwater Alfred
  30.  Reform Bill
  31.  Chronologies
  32.  Bridgwater people – census records
  33.  Miss Coles correspondence, 1 bundle
  34.  Biography of John Bowen by Miss Coles, Opening pages completed only. MS and TS versions
  35. MS on John Bowen’s adventures at sea c 1805

See also Bowen’s Testimony in the House of Lords Select Committee hearing of 1838.