Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Bowden (1778–1834)

by V. W. E. Goodin

This article was published:

Thomas Bowden (1778-1834), schoolmaster and pioneer Methodist, was born in Devonshire, England. He came from vigorous Puritan stock, and early proved the strength of his religious convictions by preferring dismissal to work on four Sundays in the year. He found his vocation when he opened a school in Exeter. He rose rapidly to become master of Great Queen Street Charity School in London, where he impressed Samuel Marsden with his efficiency and piety. He was invited to go to New South Wales and, when the salary was raised to £100, he accepted. He was the highest paid teacher when he arrived in the colony with his wife and family in the General Graham in January 1812. He was given charge of the more important of the two charity schools in Sydney, where his work met with much approval. Bowden's zeal for Methodism soon found expression and a class meeting at his home on 6 March 1812 has been accepted as the beginning of the Methodist Church in Australia. Soon afterwards two classes were formed in Sydney and one in Windsor, and to secure a qualified missionary Bowden penned a powerful and touching appeal on 20 July 1812. It was successful, and Samuel Leigh commenced his Australian labours in 1815. No religious, educational, or philanthropic appeal found Bowden wanting in time or energy. Between 1814 and 1816 he helped to form the Philanthropic (later Benevolent) Society, the Sunday School Institution, and the Bible Society, and continued year by year to serve them as secretary or on their committees.

In 1818, when the Female Orphan School was moved to a new building near Parramatta, Bowden was asked to draw up rules for a male orphan school in the vacated premises. His scheme was sensible and included most essentials, even apprenticeship for the senior boys. He was appointed master and opened the school in January 1819 at a salary of £100. Both scheme and master worked with great efficiency, and this was officially recognized by a bonus payment in 1820. Next year, however, all government schools were organized on the Anglican system of teaching. Bowden had been using the Lancastrian method, and much against his religious principles he was compelled to change. When the Male Orphan School was transferred to Cabramatta in 1824 he lost interest, sought escape from his troubles in intoxicating drink, a weakness he had exhibited previously, and was removed from his position in March 1825.

Bowden had acquired extensive farm lands at Kissing Point. After he had failed to establish the Australian Academy, a boarding school for boys, he devoted himself to farming and to his religious pursuits. He died at the home of his son-in-law, James McDougall, near Singleton on 13 September 1834.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Colwell, ‘The Lay Pioneers of Australian Methodism’, Methodist, 15 July, 5 Aug 1911
  • Bonwick transcripts, missionary (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CSO out letters, v 25 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

V. W. E. Goodin, 'Bowden, Thomas (1778–1834)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Devon, England


13 September, 1834 (aged ~ 56)
Singleton, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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