Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bowra, Charles Woollett

Updated July 23, 2014

Charles Woollett Bowra, merchant, was listed as a resident of Hong Kong from 1841 to 1854. He was the founder and name partner of the chandlery firm, Bowra, Humphrey & Co., The company presented itself as ship chandler of the British Naval Department and general auctioneer in 1850.

Selected Bibliography: Tarrent, William, The Hong Kong Almanack and Directory for the Year 1850, Hong Kong: China Mail, 1850.

The following is a story I wrote about the Bowras on November 25, 2011 which I published in my other blog: Hong Kong's First.

Charles Woollett Bowra. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kent
The Bowras

Bowra & Co., Ships’ Chandlers and Sail-makers opened its door at 13 Queen’s Road on August 31, 1843 as one of the first godowns and chandlers known to have established in Hong Kong. Owner Charles Woollett Bowra (b.1818 – d. July 11, 1856, Spencer House, Cobham, Surrey, England) was an ex-army officer who came from a family with religious and some military backgrounds[1]. Charles probably came to Hong Kong at the time of the First Opium War and was later joined by brother William Addenbrooke Bowra and sister Rosa Millicent Bowra. It was unclear to me which army unit he was with, and when and why he resigned his commission. Clearly he was too young to retire. Charles was a well respected business owner and had formed an informal society of tradesmen, among them were Thomas Ash Lane, Ninian Crawford (the two founders of Lane Crawford which today remains a high-end department store), Charles Markwick, James Smith and George Duddell. Lane and Bowra were their acknowledged leaders. In 1851, Charles took charge of collecting subscriptions from among his colleagues to stage a grand display of English fireworks to take place at the Parade Ground, the first ever to be witnessed in Hong Kong. It cost 20,000 pounds sterling and had to be ordered from Britain nine months in advance. This was the highlight of the Queen’s coronation anniversary celebration. 

Charles was never married but when he returned to the UK in 1854, most probably due to ill health, he brought home a daughter named Alice Augusta. Incidentally, there was a record of a Miss. Bowra, identified as the daughter of the owner of a chandler, who attended a ball held on board HMS Agincourt in 1845[2]. Charles was 27 of age in 1845, he could not possibly had then a daughter old enough to be invited to a ball. Unless, it was mistaken that this Miss. Bowra was not the daughter, but the kid sister of the chandler owner - Rosa - who turned 20 of age in 1845. And then, the daughter who went home with Charles was much much younger.

Associated with the family business were Charles' friend turned brother-in-law, Alfred Humphreys (d. December 1, 1856) and elder brother William Addenbroke Bowra (b.1816 – d. September 4, 1866). Humphreys started a partnership business with a William Henry on September 8, 1843 - Henry Humphreys & Co. - only a week after the inauguration of the Bowra & Co. The company was housed inside Bowra & Co.'s godown at Queen's Road. I have no information if theses two companies were linked together, or if they were related merely as landlord and tenant. In 1846, Humphreys married Charles' sister, Rosa Millicent Bowra (b. September 9, 1825 - d. December 31, 1911) in Macau[3]. It was around this time that Humphreys started yet another venture, named Hemphreys & Co., with ship captain A. H. Fryer, who was a resident of Macau and owner of the Albion Hotel in the Portuguese enclave since September 1843. 1846 had proven to be an eventful year for Humphreys, as Charles and he merged their businesses on August 31 to become Bowra, Humphreys & Co. Charles, Alfred and Fryer became the principal partners of the new firm. Charles' elder brother William Addenbrooke seemed to hold a more junior position in the company. Captain Fryer started his own firm, A.H. Fryer & Co., in 1848. It was unclear to me if he remained a partner in Bowra, Hemphreys & Co. after his own firm was established.

Hong Kong Revenue Stamps with firm marking of Bowra & Co.
The firm centered its activities at Whampoa, so much so that Humphreys himself lived in a house-boat (known those days as a “chop”) moored at Whampoa. A severe storm broke out on October 20, 1848 and several chops were destroyed at Whampoa including Humphreys'. He and several servants were rescued with great difficulties. There was however no mention of Rosa, his wife. Quite likely she stayed at a different residence on land. Bowra, Humphreys & Co. was listed at first in size in 1848 among the ships’ chandlers and auctioneers. The auctioneer dimension of the company would be proven an important and lucrative addition. The firm was also the first company to have its own water boat selling water to ships at anchor. By 1850 they had become auctioneers for the Royal Naval Department. The brothers-in-law partnership lasted only four years. For some reason, Charles and Humpreys split on December 31, 1850 and went on to running their respective businesses separately. Later on Humphreys, Rosa and their daughter Emily Rosette returned to the UK. After Charles died in 1856, Rosa took care of his daughter Alice Augusta. In his will, Charles left Rosa a large portion of his estate, but independent of Alfred and stipulated further that they were not be used by him at any time. I can't help but think that surely something untoward must have happened with the business partnership between the brothers-in-law in Hong Kong.

William Addenbrooke was the first child of Robert Bowra. His name started appearing in Hong Kong from 1846, although he might have arrived earlier. William brought his young wife Emily to Hong Kong, who unfortunately died on July 10, 1850 at the age of 28. William A., as in the case of Charles, was a well respected member of the community. He was appointed a juror in 1855. The appointment was clearly regarded as a symbol of status at those times in the colony. Upon returning to the UK, William settled in Durrington Lodge, Surbiton with his only son, Frederick William.

Key employees of the Bowras seemed to be choice candidates for juror appointments. Milton Adams Harsant (b.1823-d. June 1, 1856) and brother Frederick May Harsant, William Cunningham, William Harding and George Harper were jurors in 1850s and 1860s. F.M. Harsant were appointed for no less than ten years.

The most notable Chinese employee was comprador Wei Kwong 韋光 (b.1825 Heungshan, present Zhongshan , also birthplace of Sun Yet-sen - d.1879 Hong Kong) who joined the firm in 1843 after attending school in Singapore. Wei became a Supreme Court interpreter in 1855 and  two years later went on to work for the Mercantile Bank of India, London and China as its comprador until he died. He left behind an estate valued at HK$170,000 – a substantial sum considering the whole of Tung Wah Hospital was built on a government grant of HK$115,000 in 1869. Wei had three sons. Wei Yuk 韋玉 alias Wei Bo-shan 韋寶珊 (b.1849 Hong Kong – d.1922) attended Leicester Stoneygate School in England and Dollar Institution in Scotland. He succeed his father as Mercantile Bank's comprador in 1879. He was appointed the Senior Chinese Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council in 1914, and was invested CMG in 1908 and knighthood in 1919. Wei Yuk was one of the first four Hong Kong Chinese to have become a Freemason. Both the other two sons were lawyers. The Oxford-educated Wei On 韋安 was Johnson Stokes & Master's first local solicitor. He joined the Hong Kong law firm in 1879. Wei Pui 韋培 was qualified to practice as a barrister in Hong Kong on October 22, 1888. I do not know with which firm.

I am writing down the names of some other Bowra employees that I have found and hope that one day there will be story about them I can tell. They are W. Stevenitt, J.C. Buchanan, F. Thompson, H. Rutherford and George Augustus Frederick Norris who was with another firm MacEwen & Co. in 1859 as an auctioneer. There was also the name of J.H. Bowra which appeared alongside those of Charles and William A. a couple of times in the Jardine Matheson Archive. I too hope that some day soon I will be able to find out who J.H. Was.

Humphreys sold his business interests in Hong Kong some time between 1851 and 1856 before returning to the UK where he died on December 1, 1856. I have no information what did happen to Bowra & Co. after William Addenbrooke left Hong Kong.

Two of Bowra's clients/partners stood out from the rest.

SS The Queen
Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry, USN, chartered a small steamer (130 tons) from Bowra, the Queen, in 1853 for $500 a month. The Queen was put under the command of Lieutenant George Henry Preble (promoted to Rear Admiral on September 30, 1876) as a part of the coalition sea forces organized by James Stirling, who headed the Royal Navy's East Indies and China Station, against the Chinese pirates and Taiping rebels. The primary purpose of the Queen was to protect American citizens in China. Armed with four four-pounder guns and one twelve-pound howitzer, the Queen must be a good looking ship, since Preble had this to say about her, “It is a little singular to have under our republican flag a vessel so styled.” The Queen was later, probably in 1855, sold to a Chinese company but put under the command of a Captain Endicott and a crew led by Europeans. She no longer served the United States Navy. In 1857, the Queen was captured by Chinese soldiers, the captain (not sure if this was Endicott) and several European were killed and the vessel burned.

James Erskine Murray and some people from Kutai, a historic region in East Kalimantan[4]
James Erskine Murray (b.1810 – d. February 17, 1844), second son of the 7th Baron Ellibank, Scotland, was a barrister who gave up his practice in 1843 and afterward bought the brigantine Warlock on which he sailed to Australia and thence to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, he met and befriended William Addenbrooke and soon the two decided to go into partnership and to embark on a trading expedition to Borneo. Murray sold the Warlock and together with W.A. Bowra, bought the 90-ton schooner Young Queen and the 200-ton brigantine Anna. Murray set sail to Borneo probably in January 1844 and finally arriving at Tongarron (Tenggarong) the following month, after entering the River Cote. The Sultan, who resided in Tongarron, seemed pleased with the presence of the visitors. The friendly appearance however wore off in a matter of days and on February 16, the expedition parties were treacherously attacked by masked batteries and gunboats. They slipped their cables and make attempt to fight their way out of the river. After twenty six hours (thirty six hours, according to a different source) of continuous fighting, they reached a few miles of the mouth of the river. Here they were met with a numerous fleet of boats blocking their way. It was here at the last and the most desperate attack where Murray was killed. He was struck by a two-pounder on the breast. After their escape, the expedition parties ran into the HMS Samarang and came under her protection. At Samarang's command was Captain Edward Belcher, who in 1841, then a Commander, made the first survey of the Hong Kong harbor. The engagement with the Kutai forces had killed three including Murray but wounded only four (five, according to a different source).

Here is the other side of the story. After entering Tenggarong, Murray went to Kutai and met with the Sultan, Sultan A.M. Salehuddin. Murray asked for land to establish a trading post and exclusive rights to run steamer in the waters of the Mahakam, but in return the Sultan only permitted Murray to trade in the Samarinda region alone. Unsatisfied with the results of the meeting, and after a few days, Murray fired volleys of cannon balls from his vessels towards Sultan's palace, and the Kutai troops duly returned fire. The exchange of fire led to an all out engagement. Eventually, Murray's lost the battle and fled to the sea. Five wounded and three dead (including Murray) on the part of the expedition parties were recorded, no accounts of casualty on the Kutai side was mentioned.
[1] His grandfather, the Rev. William Bowra (b.1747 - d. June 2, 1816, Clavering), was Vicar of Clavering, Essex (January 1, 1801 – October 15, 1816 ). His uncle - the fourth son of William - Frederick (b. - d. 1823, Albany Barracks, Isle of Wight) was a Lieutenant in the 64th Regiment of Foot while his father Robert worked as a junior clerk at the Adjutant General's Office of Horse-Guards.

[2] The ball was organized by the officers of the Agincourt, and was probably the first such social event held in Hong Kong. Agincourt was a third rate ship of the line and flagship of the Commander-in-chief of East Indies and China Station, Tomas John Cochrane.

[3] The marriage took place on February 17, 1846 and was performed by Chaplain Josiah Thompson of the Royal Navy. Thompson, promoted to Chaplain on April 12, 1843, served on HMS Minden from April 12, 1843 to June 1844 and on HMS Aligator from August 30, 1846 to December 1848. The Minden and Aligator were respectively the first and second hospital ships ever stationed in Hong Kong.

[4] A friend of mine has alerted me there is a possibility the European featured in the photo may not be Murray: the attire of the man in the photo does not correspond with that of the 1840s.

Selected Bibliography:
Anglo-Chinese Calandar 1847, printed at the Office of The Chinese Repository. China Directory 1862, Printed by A. Shoetrede & Co., Hong Kong. The Chinese Repository, various year. Clavering Online [internet]. Clowes, William Laird, The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present, Vol. 6. The Fifth Report of the Commissioners Appointed under an Agreement, concluded on the 10th of July 1805, between the East India Company and the Private Creditors of the late Nabobs of The Carnatic, Ordered by The House of Common, 9th February 1810. Friend of China, various dates including August 31, 1843; September 8, 1843;and April 20, 1844. The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, From July To December, 1823. Volume XCIII. The Hong Kong Directory, various years. Indonesia Tourism Blog [internet]. Janus: Jardine Matheson Archive. Kent, Stephen, the great-Grandson of Rosa Millicent Bowra. Lim, Patricia , Forgotten Souls - A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery, Kong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. Miles, Dawn,a descendant of Eliza de Roussiere who was the mother of Charles W. Bowra. Dawn's web page - Charles Viscount de Roussiere – should give you very helpful information about the de Roussiere and Bowra families. Dawn's genealogical research on her family is simply remarkable. Information she shared included those found in Charles W. Bowra's will as well as Eliza Bowra's death certificate. The Navy List, 1844-1879. The Pall Mall Gazette, March 16, 1867. Peam, B.R., Erskine Murray's Fatal Adventure in Borneo, 1843-44. Preble, George Henry, The Opening of Japan, A Diary of Discovery in the Far East, 1853-1856, University of Oklahoma Press. Smith Carl T., Chinese Christian: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong, Oxford University Press 1985.


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