Captain Bowyer, RN was at the heart of the Liberal political establishment in Southampton in the 1840s and 1850s. He was born on 1 August 1789, the eldest son of William and Dorothy (nee Tomkyns) Bowyer, married at Bromyard in Herefordshire on 25 October 1787. He was baptized on 14 December at St Andrew's Church, Holburn.
His father was a side clerk in the King's Remembrancer's Office. It was a responsible position. The duties of the office were connected with the recoveries of penalties and debts due to the Crown. The office was also the deposit of documents relating to the passing of lands to and from the Crown.
The family lived in Serjeant's Inn in Fleet Street. A younger brother of William Bohun - Charles Bowyer, born 8 June 1792 - followed his father as a sworn clerk in the King's Remembrancer's Office. Charles later lived in Farleigh House in Hampshire (William Bohun and his wife were visitors there at the time of the 1851 census). The Exchequer connection was reinforced in October 1817 by the marriage of William's eldest daughter - Frances Bowyer, born 26 March 1797 - to a son of Richardson Harrison, Remembrancer of the First Fruits and Tenths of the Clergy. William Bowyer died on 16 July 1827, aged 64 years. The distaff side of the family came from Herefordshire, succeeding to property in Buckenhill near Bromyard in 1768. Several of the Tomkyns family, including Dorothy's brother Thomas, were attorneys. The Bohun family of Warwickshire was related by marriage. Bohun Tomkyns fought at the battle of Trafalgar as a 13-year old midshipman.
William Bohun Bowyer entered the Royal Navy, aged 13 years, as a First Class Volunteer on 9 May 1803. He had a distinguished career (summarized in William R O'Byrne, A naval biographical dictionary). A midshipman in July 1803, Bowyer first saw action against the French flotilla off the Channel Islands. He was not at Trafalgar but, serving in the Aeolus under Captain Lord William FitzRoy, was present in the action off Ferrol on 4 November which saw the capture of four French ships of the line that had escaped the initial battle. He later served in the West Indies on the Ramilles, present at the reduction in December 1807 of the islands of St Thomas and Santa Croix.
In October 1808 he transferred as Master's Mate to the Venus and was present at the siege and subsequent surrender of Vigo in Spain. Bowyer was promoted to Lieutenant in May 1810, being engaged later that year on board the Norge at the defence of Cadiz. In April 1811 he was serving in the Thais off the coast of Africa. Ill health caused him to invalid in 1812 to the Aquila on the Baltic and Brazilian stations. He later joined Ceres (1814), the Queen Charlotte (1815) fitting for the Mediterranean and the Amphion, which he left in April 1816 previous to her departure for South America.
He accepted a land-based commission on 14 February 1817 as Inspecting Commander in the Coast Guard. He consequently took up residence in Southampton. It was no sinecure. His remit included the coast between Hurst Castle and Christchurch Head, a notorious stronghold of smugglers given the proximity of the New Forest which afforded many areas of safe sanctuary. He was responsible for the capture of Thomas Pearce, head of a 200-strong gang of smugglers organized on military lines (Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, 28 November 1822).
Promoted to the rank of Commander on 15 January 1823, Bowyer left the preventative service in April 1828. In October he was given command of the 18-gun sloop Dispatch, then at Plymouth but transferred the following January to the Irish station. This was his first and only independent command. He was placed on half pay on 17 February 1830 and promoted to the rank of Captain. He was placed on the retired list on 1 June 1850 and promoted, with no increase of pay, to the rank of retired Rear Admiral on 9 July 1855.
Captain Bowyer was a member of that close clique of politicians who ran the Liberal interest in Southampton in the 1840s and 1850s. His social position and his well-deserved reputation as a gallant naval officer were important attributes to the party. He presented loyal addresses from the Liberal Corporation to the Crown. He seconded the nomination of Liberal candidates at parliamentary elections. He was active in election committees and political canvasses and was a regular at Liberal dinners. The Hampshire Advertiser, 14 August 1841 maliciously tried to quantify his exertions in the Southampton election earlier that year: he had kissed all the Liberal babies to the number of 347, and had endured 32 fits of indigestion at the Radical feeds. Bowyer was a close ally of Richard Andrews, regarded (to quote the Advertiser again) as "the hack and all-work man of the Liberal coach-maker [Andrews], who had the dispensing of the small patronage of Government in Southampton". He was similarly close to Thomas Leader Harman, proprietor of the Liberal newspaper the Hampshire Independent. They were regular correspondents during the time that Harman was absent in the United States of America.
Bowyer himself was at the centre of what his political opponents saw as an appointment ruse in the last days of Lord Grey's Liberal Administration. On 10 August 1841 he was appointed by Lord Minto, First Lord of the Admiralty, to command of the 46-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Madagascar, then being recommissioned after extensive repairs in Portsmouth Dockyard. Six days later Bowyer wrote a private letter to Lord Minto directing that the appointment be cancelled "at his own request". A replacement captain - John Foster - was appointed on 18 August. The Hampshire Independent, 21 August 1841 saw the appointment as "no more than a just compliment due to him from the Government", which he declined for reasons connected with his health. The Hampshire Advertiser, 14 August 1841 had a different gloss. The appointment was made in the expectation that it would be refused. The Madagascar was fitting out for the west African coast to help suppress the slave trade: a posting far from congenial for an overweight 52-year old (likened by his political enemies to the bloated boa constrictor then attracting huge crowds to Surrey Zoological Gardens) whose last command had been eleven years ago. It was believed that refusal would forestall further potentially embarrassing requests for place in an age when the government was actively downsizing the Royal Navy. Bowyer was, however, retained on the navy list and continued to receive half pay.
William Bohun Bowyer married into a family with strong East India Company connections. Frances Beek, who he married at St George's Church in Hanover Square, London on 25 May 1819, was the daughter of the late Captain Beek of the East India Service. She was born (c.1794) in Madras. They are listed in Southampton at 16 Portland Street (1834), Millbrook (1839), 8 Blechynden Terrace (1841-47) and 7 Cranbury Terrace in Northam (1849-59).
A nephew, and an executor of his will, was George Sclater Booth (1826-94): son of William Bohun's younger sister Anna Maria and her husband William Lutley Sclater of Hoddington House near Odiham. George Sclater Booth (the surname Booth was added in 1857) was Conservative MP for North Hampshire between 1857 and 1886. He was president of the Local Government Board under Benjamin Disraeli and was responsible for taking forward Disraeli's great programme of urban reform. In 1887 he became Baron Basing of Basing and Byflete and the following year was chosen as chairman of the first Hampshire County Council (Oxford dictionary of national biography).
A younger brother - and similarly a nephew to William Bohun Bowyer - was Philip Lutley Sclater (1829-1913), ornithologist, friend of Charles Lucien Bonaparte and founder and editor of Ibis, the journal of the British Ornithologists' Union and still being published. His eldest son, William Lutley Scalater (1863-1944), was president of the BOU from 1928 to 1933. Both appear in the Oxford dictionary of national biography.
William Bohun Bowyer died on 8 October 1859, aged 70. He left effects valued at 'under £4000'. He had been a Southampton magistrate for nearly three years, appointed along with other additional magistrates on 1 December 1856. His obituary in the Hampshire Independent, 15 October 1859 spoke of "the bluntness and straightforward qualities of a British sailor". His widow Frances died in April 1873. Both were buried in St Luke's Church.
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