The Bowring family – from wool merchants to international shippers

Benjamin Bowring I (1710-1776), fuller of Exeter, was the ancestor of ‘our’ Bowrings.  His family were wool merchants and non-conformists and had many links with Moretonhampstead through the Unitarian chapel and through the wool trade.

John Bowring (1792-1872), grandson of Benjamin I, scholar, diplomat, first Governor general of Hong Kong, son of an Exeter wool merchant, was educated in Moretonhampstead at the school run by the Unitarian minister, James Bransby, and wrote an account of it in his autobiography  that ‘he didn’t think much of it!’.  When he returned to England he founded the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science & the Arts.  He received a knighthood.

Benjamin Bowring II (1778-1846), grandson of Benjamin I, started as a clock & watchmaker in Exeter (the Devon wool industry was beginning to decline by then), sold some clocks to a trader from St John’s, Newfoundland (who was exporting cod to Devon), and decided to set up business in Newfoundland.  This was the start of a trading empire which moved into shipping and developed in St John’s, Liverpool, New York and London – it is now a vast international corporation.   Members of the Bowring family travelled back and forward to Newfoundland before the days of steamships, his sons taking it in turns to run the business on either side of the Atlantic.  Two of his sons married Moreton girls.

Charles Tricks Bowring (1808-1885), son of Benjamin II, married Harriet Harvey, daughter of George Harvey, tallow chandler and soapmaker of Moreton.

Edward Bowring (1819-1873), another son of Benjamin II, married Emma White, daughter of Thomas White of Moreton, and sister of William White, a Moreton solicitor, and bought Borohaye House (now Coppelia) in Court Street when he retired (see More about Borohaye).  Edward, Emma and three of his children are buried in the Unitarian graveyard, the Bowring and White families were among the strong supporters of the Unitarian Chapel..

Thomas Bowring (1847-1915), Edward’s eldest son, followed his father into the shipping business, developing the New York office and marrying Annie Kinsman How of New York.  After 1891 he divided his time between London and his home in Moretonhampstead, Pitt House in Ford Street.  He was a notable benefactor to Moretonhampstead, giving us the Bowring library (1902), with a reading room and an upstairs room fitted as a billiard room which filled an important social role as a men’s club.  He took a great interest, being President of the Billiard and Snooker Club and donating prizes.  He also set up the Bowring Prize for the school children and a scholarship fund to send a child to secondary school in Newton Abbot.   He gave generous endowments to the Unitarian Chapel, and built Hornhills House and twenty-five cottages which he called Kinsman’s Dale after his wife.  He also set up the Dartmoor Duck Farm Ltd. which reared chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys for the market, and provided him with eggs and poultry for the table in his London house!  The ducks used the old mill pond below Kinsmansdale, a relic of the old fulling mill which was once used for making serge.  Sir Thomas and his brother Henry are buried in the Unitarian graveyard.

B. Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring (King & Co, 1877)
Arthur C. Wardle, Benjamin Bowring and his descendants, a record of mercantile achievement (Hodder & Stoughton, 1939)
Lewis David Keir, The Bowring Story (Bodley Head, 1963)