The Bowles family was widespread in Berkshire and the branch centred in Longworth and Charney Basset seems to have been affluent. John Bowles, born there in 1700, married Mary Justice of Appleford in 1724. They lived at Charney, then moved to Long Wittenham near Mary’s family, and in around 1740 moved again to Abingdon. One incentive may have been Abingdon School, where two of the Bowles’ five sons were soon enrolled; another, the fact that Mary’s brother Thomas was a prominent citizen there – he would be mayor in 1753. Members of the three next generations of John Bowles’ family remained resident in Abingdon and were prominent in local affairs.
John died in 1754, and, following family tradition, was buried at Longworth. His will shows that he was active as a maltster and farmer, though it is not clear where he farmed. The two youngest sons, James and Thomas, made their careers as stationers in London with their elder brothers as shareholders. James died in 1782, Thomas in 1788, both unmarried. The three others, John, William and Richard, became prominent citizens of Abingdon in their turn.
The oldest, John jnr, became a lawyer and was Abingdon town clerk for a time. He did well financially and among his acquisitions was a 300-acre estate at Milton Hill, some five miles south of the town. The second, William, flourished as a maltster, brewer and farmer. He acquired, mostly on lease, the estates of Fitzharris and Lacies Court on the northern boundary, and resided at Fitzharris. He was mayor in 1786, and three times Master of Christ’s Hospital. Like his maternal uncle Thomas, he was an extreme Tory, and when the Corporation applied for a new charter that would effectively exclude Whigs from local influence, it was he who financed the project.
The third son, Richard, studied at Oxford and became vicar of Lechlade in Gloucestershire. When already middle-aged, he married a local lady, Kitty Bampton, no longer young, ‘but with a considerable fortune’. This enabled him to return to Abingdon about 1773 as rector of St Nicolas. It was nominally the vicar of St Helen’s who was responsible for St Nicolas and the rectory should have been a sinecure, but the system was not working well and he did have to support the church. In his will he endowed a ‘Sunday lectureship’ which would effectively provide the vicar that St Nicolas didn’t have. When he died in 1804, his wife returned to Lechlade and had him buried there, breaking with the Bowles family tradition.
As John and William approached their sixties, they must have worried about the lack of heirs for their considerable wealth. In 1786, William married Ann Woodley, a local woman half his age and of a lower social station. It seems to have been almost a clandestine affair; the marriage took place in London, not in Abingdon. William jnr was born a year later, and two daughters followed.
When William married, his housekeeper became redundant and moved over to John’s household. Their son Thomas was baptised at St Helen’s in 1789, bearing his father’s surname and identified as ‘born of the body of Martha Murrill’. John’s will regarded Thomas as a legitimate son and heir, and treated Martha generously. When ‘Martha Murrell, spinster’ died in 1834 she was a relatively wealthy woman.
Thus there were only two male Bowles in the third generation. Thomas preferred the life of a country gentleman to that of a townsman, and lived on the estate his father had bought, rebuilding Milton Hill House as a prestige residence. He married Hester Sophia, daughter of the lawyer Samuel Sellwood who had been one of his guardians after his father’s death. He divided his activities between the affairs of the county and of the town: he was high sheriff of Berkshire in 1830, and a prospective parliamentary candidate for the borough in 1832, but withdrew when it became plain he could not win the seat. He died in a flu epidemic in 1837, leaving a large and affluent family. His eldest son, John Samuel (1816-1884), remained active in town affairs, patronising local good causes and speaking for it in the county quarter sessions where, as a borough, it was not directly represented.
William junior’s life was less successful. In 1810, he bought an estate at West Malling, Kent, and went to live there. According to a Bowles family historian, he married a Miss Rowan and they had two daughters. There was a Rowan family with West Malling connections, but no trace has been found in the public records of this marriage or of its offspring. If there ever was such a marriage, the lady must have died young, for in 1819 William sold the estate and returned to Abingdon.
He continued in his father’s footsteps, being mayor in 1824 and becoming a governor of Christ’s Hospital. In 1824, he married Caroline Anne Stephenson of a legal family in London. There were seven children of whom six survived, but Caroline Anne does not seem to have taken to Abingdon. From 1828 the family was living elsewhere for much of the time, in Paris, Devon, and at various places in Hampshire. When in 1839 William sold up in Abingdon, including the leases and contents of Fitzharris and Lacies Court, it was probably no longer the family home.
Sadly, the money ran out and the marriage broke down. Evidence given in an 1829 lawsuit shows William to have ignored financial advice and made imprudent investments. He built a substantial house on his land at Lacies Court which he sold at a loss to the vicar of St Helen’s, Nathaniel Dodson. Rumour had it that this was to pay off a gambling debt. The 1841 census shows the wife and children in Clapham – they later moved to Ryde in the Isle of Wight – and those of 1851 and 1861 have William living alone as a lodger in London. He died in Tottenham in 1870.
Some of the descendants of Thomas Bowles remain in the Abingdon area, but the status of the Bowles family as members of Abingdon’s financial and social elite lasted only three generations.
The authors thank Caroline Cannon-Brookes for helpful discussions and for access to the Bowles family history notes made by Major-Gen H. Bowles in 1925.
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