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Bowden, Edmund (1801–1847)

by Charles Bateson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Edmund Bowden (1801-1847), medical practitioner and superintendent, was the son of Ambrose Bowden, a London chemist and druggist. He was apprenticed on 8 December 1816 for five years to H. E. Bull, of the Cornwall Infirmary, Truro, and on 13 February 1823 received his certificate as an apothecary from the Society of Apothecaries, London. Next year he was in business as a chemist and druggist in Judd Street, Brunswick Square, London, but by 1827 was practising as a surgeon in Sloane Street, Chelsea; although his name does not appear in lists of medical graduates, he had taken lectures on medicine while at Truro. In 1838 he was surgeon to the Chelsea and Brompton Dispensary, an institution founded in 1812 to 'serve the poor and insignificant'.

This appointment may have turned Bowden's attention to the plight of criminals, for, two years after his marriage at St George's Church, Hanover Square, on 20 April 1841, to his second wife, Philippa Bull Powell, matron of Hanwell Asylum (St Bernard's Hospital) in Middlesex, he and his wife were named as superintendent and matron of the new Female Penitentiary at Hobart Town. Their joint appointment was due to the adoption of Stanley's new penal plans, which aimed at reforming rather than punishing criminals. The Bowdens were paid a joint salary of £500, with a further £300 yearly to Bowden for also discharging the duties of medical inspector of the penitentiary. Papers in the Tasmanian Archives suggest that Bowden at the time was in charge of Hanwell Asylum, but surviving records of the asylum itself make no mention of him in any official or unofficial capacity, and it seems that only his wife was on the staff at Hanwell. The Bowdens, accompanied by their daughter and a number of assistants, including six female nurses from Hanwell, reached Hobart in the convict transport Woodbridge in December 1843. On 4 February 1844 H.M.S. Anson, a former 74-gun three-decker, arrived at Hobart and was fitted out as a reformatory hulk, each of her decks being divided into four wards. She was moored on the Derwent near Risdon, where Bowden later bought Restdown, the Gregson home.

Women convicts who had arrived by the Woodbridge and the Angelina were transferred to the Anson and the Bowdens and their staff took charge. By September 1844 there were 519 convicts on the hulk. On Mrs Bowden's suggestion the women were employed making female clothing and men's shirts as well as straw hats. Although the hulk was inconveniently placed for supplying the town with domestic labour, it seemed to operate with modest success as a reformatory, but on 3 September 1847 Bowden died. His wife succeeded him as sole superintendent, but protested at her salary being fixed at £400. Early in 1848 she applied for twelve months leave, as her brother, Dr Powell, was dying in England and her own health had suffered through her husband's death. She sailed from Hobart on 23 February and on 25 July applied for a further six months leave on the ground of ill health. The Anson experiment now came under fire from anti-transportationists as well as householders eager for cheap labour and, although Mrs Bowden ably defended it, the establishment was broken up in 1851.

It is difficult at this distance to evaluate this attempt at penal reform. Bowden was a capable and conscientious if undistinguished surgeon, and Mrs Bowden appears to have been the driving force in the organization and direction of the reformatory. She was the daughter of Thomas Powell, a surgeon, and at Hanwell Asylum, the largest institution of its kind in England, she had been the principal assistant of Dr John Conolly, who as superintendent in 1839-44 instituted a regime of humane treatment, every form of mechanical restraint being absolutely discontinued. Conolly attributed much of the success of his pioneer work in the treatment of the insane to Mrs Bowden, and she undoubtedly was peculiarly well fitted to serve as matron of the Anson.

A daughter of Bowden's first marriage, Amelia Gilbert, eloped from Hobart with William Carter junior, in the Louisa on 30 March 1847; they were married at St James's Church, Sydney, on 7 April.

Select Bibliography

  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 22 Feb 1848
  • Hanwell Asylum papers (St Bernard's Hospital, Middlesex, England)
  • correspondence file under Bowden (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Charles Bateson, 'Bowden, Edmund (1801–1847)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bowden-edmund-1807/text2057, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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