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John Bowen (c. 1780–1827)

by E. Flinn

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John Bowen (1780-1827), naval officer and superintendent, was baptized on 14 February 1780 at Ilfracombe, Devon, England, the son of James Bowen (1751-1835), a master in the navy and later rear admiral, and his wife Elizabeth.

He began his naval career in March 1794 and served in several ships before February 1798 when he graduated from the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and as a midshipman joined the Argo, which was commanded by his father. Except for a brief period from June to December 1801 Bowen remained with the Argo until April 1802 when as a lieutenant he joined the Lancaster, Sir Roger Curtis's flagship on the Cape of Good Hope Station. His next appointment was in H.M.S. Glatton, carrying convicts to New South Wales. He arrived at Port Jackson on 11 March 1803 and Governor Philip Gidley King soon appointed him to relieve Joseph Foveaux at Norfolk Island. This appointment was cancelled a few days later, and Bowen offered his services to form the settlement which King had previously decided to establish at Risdon Cove, Van Diemen's Land. The expedition sailed in June but was damaged and delayed by storm, and did not finally clear Port Jackson until the end of August, with Bowen in command of the Albion. He arrived at Risdon Cove on 12 September 1803, three days after the Lady Nelson. The original settlers at Risdon Cove, which King instructed Bowen to name Hobart, were 49 in all, including 21 male and 3 female convicts, members of the New South Wales Corps and free settlers and their families.

In January 1804 Bowen, in the whaler Ferrett, left for Sydney nominally to take there a member of the New South Wales Corps who had been implicated in the robbing of the government store, but in reality to request King to relieve him of his duty at Risdon Cove so that he could return to naval duty in the war against France. On 5 February 1804 Bowen sailed in the Integrity for Port Phillip and Risdon Cove with dispatches from King to Lieutenant-Governor David Collins at Port Phillip, instructing him to remove his settlement to the Derwent or Port Dalrymple, and requesting Bowen to deliver up the Risdon settlement to Collins. On his arrival Bowen found that Collins had already left for the Derwent. Bowen followed, but the Integrity ran into difficulties and he transhipped to the American Pilgrim, which arrived on 10 March. Not until 8 May did Bowen deliver up the settlement at Risdon Cove to Collins, who had formed a settlement at Sullivan's Cove. During this time Collins did not interfere with Bowen, although the Risdon settlement was on restricted rations, no land was under cultivation on government account and only two free settlers had tilled the soil.

Towards the end of 1803 Bowen had explored the Richmond area, discovered coal and named the area the Coal River. In May 1804, after he had banished eight convicts to Hope Island in Storm Bay, Bowen went to the Huon River and, although he did not venture far upstream, was not impressed by what he saw. While at Risdon, Bowen lived with Martha, daughter of James Hayes, who gave birth to two daughters, Martha Charlotte (1804-91, married Dr Robert Garrett) and Henrietta (1805-23).

Bowen finally left the Derwent in August 1804 in the Ocean, and in January 1805 sailed for England in the Lady Barlow. He refused monetary recompense for his services at Risdon Cove, declaring that he had accepted the position solely to aid his interests in His Majesty's service. King made available funds amounting to £100 to defray Bowen's expenses and recommended him for the promotion he desired. In May 1804 Bowen had been promoted commander and in January 1806 he became captain. From 1806 to December 1809 he was in the Camilla, which in 1807-08 took part in the blockade of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In February 1811 he wrote to Robert Peel, under-secretary of state for the colonies, suggesting that he should succeed Collins as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land. In a subsequent interview at the Colonial Office the objection was made that as a naval officer he could not command troops. He wrote again in August disagreeing with this objection both in theory and fact, and explaining that he had long felt a lively interest in the colony and had shared the privation and difficulties of first starting it. He wrote to Peel again in March 1812 seeking the lieutenant-governorship if it became vacant again.

In 1812-16 he served in the Salsette on the India Station. Returning to England on 13 May 1825, he married Elizabeth Lindley Clowes (Clooes), a niece of the countess of Newburgh. After a long and painful illness he died at Ilfracombe on 20 October 1827.

He is commemorated by a monument at Risdon Cove.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 4-5, series 3, vol 1
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Lond, 1928, 2 Melb, 1939)
  • Tasmanian, 14 May 1828
  • Critic (Hobart), 16 June 1922
  • CO 201/65.

Citation details

E. Flinn, 'Bowen, John (c. 1780–1827)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 May 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

John Bowen, c.1890

John Bowen, c.1890

State Library of Victoria, 49332848

Life Summary [details]


c. 1780


20 October, 1827 (aged ~ 47)
Ilfracombe, Devon, England

Cause of Death


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