John Bowen 1785 – 1854

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 the elder son of Edward Bowen, a shipwright, who came from Glamorgan, and married the daughter of a shop-keeper named Hayes.

John’s formal education was limited, and as a young boy his mother taught him to read. He read aloud to her as she worked at her quilting frame. For a time he attended school in Bridgwater, but left at the age of 11 to assist his father. He was passionate for self-education and taught himself trigonometry in his spare time. John went to work as a shop-boy for an iron monger and later was apprenticed to Thomas Pyke, the hardware manufacturer.

John broke his apprenticeship and ran away to Tenby where he joined a company of players. Finding he lacked any acting talent he enlisted in the Navy. His ship was wrecked in the Bay of Biscay and he eventually arrived home in Plymouth where he was hospitalised for several months. Bowen returned to Bridgwater where he took up his apprenticeship with Pyke.

He moved to London in 1805, presumably when his apprenticeship expired, and in January 1806 saw Nelson’s coffin lying in state at Greenwich. He obtained work with a man named Robinson, a contractor engaged in supplying and installing lighting apparatus for Trinity House. In August 1806 he married Jane Biggs, about whom scarcely anything is known.

In the winter of 1807-8, following a disastrous ship-wreck there, he was sent to the Farne Islands, Northumberland, to put up a temporary light, and in 1808, after the Hon. East India Company had requested Trinity House to send an experienced man to erect lights around the coasts, he was selected, aged 23, leaving his wife behind.

Between 1808 and 1812 he was engaged entirely in the building and repair of lighthouses. He returned home for a two-year break. During this time he visited his relatives and undertook a course in practical mathematics from Peter Nicholson(1765-1845). Nicholson was a foremost writer on building techniques and on the mathematics of structures and carpentry.

Bowen found it impossible to find work to match his skills and experience, so returned to the employment of the East India Company. Whilst in Calcutta Bowen undertook consultancy work for Calman and Brown of Calcutta, an engineering firm there, involving the design of machinery. In 1815, Bowen undertook the transportation from Calcutta to Lucknow, by the river system, of a pre-fabricated iron bridge, and a pump made by the Butterley Company of Derbyshire to the design of John Rennie. The bridge was not erected into the 1840s. Bowen made a life-long friend of Henry Jessop, a son William Jessop, the owner of the Butterley Company.

Bowen was a sick man when he returned to Calcutta, so he resigned his post and returned to England and Bridgwater.

He set himself up as a wine merchant in Little Chandos Street and built himself a house in Friarn Street, Friarn Place, and became involved in local affairs. He adopted a son, John Calman, the child of his Calcutta engineering friends. They were visiting him in Bridgwater, when Mrs Calman went into labour and died soon after. Calman returned to India leaving his child with the Bowens, where he, too, shortly died of fever.

Whilst in India, Bowen had become very critical of the activities of Christian Missionaries towards the Hindus, and published a book about it in 1821 that created some controversy. He was, however, very complimentary of the behaviour of the Hon. East India Company’s staff. He was assisted an author to write a book about Warren Hastings

Bowen became engineer to the Bridgwater Turnpike Trust and re-built a portion of Bristol Road. In about 1827 he designed the domed and pillared 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

From the late 1820’s he was an Overseer of the Poor for the town, and a Churchwarden at Saint Mary’s. Here he attempted to reform the pew-rent system there in place, which effectively barred the poor from attending services. Bowen was editor of The Alfred, a newspaper, 1831-3, but gave it up as the result of mob violence during which his house was attacked and he was injured following the election in December 1832 over his editorial stance of opposing the Reform Act of 1832.

The new Poor Law of 1834 grouped workhouses into Unions, and a new workhouse was erected at Northgate which opened in 1837. Bowen was appointed a Guardian of the Poor for the Bridgwater Union. He was highly critical of the entire ethos of the new Poor Law and for about ten years spent his time criticising it, writing letters to the Times and other newspapers, as well as writing books and pamphlets, and getting up petitions. Conditions at Bridgwater were not good and Bowen resigned in July 1837, the better to fight his cause.

After these events, Bowen’s life is obscure. His wife died in 1838, and he subsequently married Jessie, the daughter of his teacher, Peter Nicholson, with whom he had four sons and two daughters. She died in 1895.

His oldest friend was William Baker, the Bridgwater natural historian, and on Baker’s death in 1853, he wrote, for the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, an extended memoir, which was published as a book in 1854.

Bowen died in 1854. His funeral was private and the newspaper account was very brief, simply recording that it that taken place. His monument may be seen in the graveyard of Saint John’s Church, Bridgwater, near to that of his friend William Baker.

Source: Somerset Heritage Centre Bowen Mss, DD\CLE/1. Within this, DD/CLE/P/1 contains a large scrapbook containing John’s own autobiography.

Additional references
Buchanan C A, John Bowen and the Bridgwater Scandal, Proc. SANHS, 1987, 131, 181-201.
Includes a portrait, primary references and 89 footnotes

A P Woolrich 26 January 2011