James Bowen

1751-1835. He was born in Ilfracombe, Devon, the eldest son of Richard Bowen, a merchant captain who traded in Africa and the West Indies. He was the brother of Captain Richard Bowen who was killed in action in 1797, and of Captain George Bowen, who died at Torquay in October 1817. Another brother, Thomas, died as a midshipman in 1796, whilst the second oldest brother, John, entered the East India Company Marine.

James Bowen initially joined his father in the merchant service in 1764, and by 1774 he was commanding a ship in the African and West Indian trade. In early 1780 he joined the Navy and went out to the Leeward Islands as the sailing master of the Alert 14, Commander James Vashon. After this vessel returned to England from Jamaica in January 1781, she saw duty on the North Sea station. Here, Bowen was appointed the sailing master of the Artois 40, Captain John MacBride, in which he fought at the Battle of the Doggersbank on 5 August, following which action he took to a fishing boat to reconnoitre the Dutch fleet in the Texel. Thereafter, he remained with MacBride whenever that officer was employed in the next ten years of peace, seeing service in the Druid 32 from 1783 and the Cumberland 74 when she was commissioned during the Dutch Armament in the autumn of 1787. In 1789 he was appointed the Inspecting Agent of Transports in the Thames, a position he retained until 1793.

Admiral James Bowen

At the commencement of the French Revolutionary War in 1793, the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Lord Howe, engaged Bowen as the sailing master of his flagship Queen Charlotte 100, in which he fought at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, holding a memorable exchange with Howe as they broke the French line. As a reward for his service he was appointed the prize agent for the fleet, in which role he was to acquire considerable fees. Being desirous of furthering his career, he was commissioned lieutenant with Howe’s interest at the age of forty-three on 23 June, which although an effective reduction in status, paved the way for his eventual elevation to the rank of captain. At the Battle of Groix on 23 June 1795 he was the first lieutenant of the Queen Charlotte, which was then commanded by Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas.

Bowen was promoted commander on 29 June 1795 and was posted captain of the Prince George 98 on 2 September as flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian, the commander-in-chief designate of the Leeward Islands station. Bowen shared with that officer the tribulations of trying to reach their station, originally setting sail on 16 November before having to return through bad weather, and then removing with Christian to the Glory 98 in December, before transferring with all their officers and men to the Thunderer 74 in February 1796. After departing Portsmouth with transports on 16 March, the Thunderer captured a French privateer and her prize on passage, and she eventually reached Barbados on 1 May, although by that time Christian had left the ship off the Azores to proceed to the Caribbean on a frigate. The admiral rejoined the Thunderer at Barbados before leaving her weeks later to return home, leaving Bowen’s command to sail for the Jamaican station where she served under the orders of Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. On 19 January 1797 Bowen sat on a court of inquiry into the conduct of Captain Hugh Pigot of the Success 32, regarding that difficult officer’s thrashing of an American merchant captain. It appears that in February he exchanged with Captain William Ogilvy into the Leviathan 74, which ship arrived at Plymouth from the West Indies on 10 April under his command.

After almost a year on the beach, Bowen was appointed to the Argo 44 at Spithead in March 1798, and he was ordered to join Commodore Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron off Havre de Grace. Whilst off the mouth of the River Seine on 4 May, he picked up Captain Sir William Sidney Smith, who had dramatically escaped from imprisonment in Paris on 24 February. In September his command formed part of the escort for the East Indies and Lisbon convoys under the orders of Captain Robert Carthew Reynolds of the Pomone 40, and in the course of this duty they had to resort to subterfuge to prevent an attack from the Ireland-bound French force that was defeated by Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren on 12 October. The Lisbon convoy arrived in the Tagus on 28 September, and having embarked General Hon. Sir Charles Stuart and his suite at that port, the Argo proceeded to Gibraltar. Here they joined Commodore John Duckworth’s squadron which sailed to attempt the capture of Minorca, in the course of which expedition the Argo re-took the Peterel 16 from her Spanish prize crew on 13 November, after that vessel had struck her colours to a superior force the day before. Bowen was then present when Minorca surrendered without bloodshed to General Stuart on 15 November.

On 6 February 1799, in company with the Leviathan 74, Captain Henry Digby, the Argo gave chase to two Spanish frigates off Majorca, and with the sail of the line near at hand she was able to make an easy capture of one of them, the Santa Teresa 34. Ten days later, acting under the orders of Captain John Markham of the Centaur 74, the Argo and Leviathan joined an attack on the town of Cambrils in Salou Bay, which, after the Spanish had fled their battery, saw the boats of the squadron burn five settees and bring out another five vessels. Bowen was next entrusted with two missions to the Dey of Algiers in March and May to negotiate the purchase of provisions, in the process of which duty he secured the release of six British seamen who had been held in captivity for fourteen years. Such was his fermentation of friendly relations with the Dey that he was also gifted a Turkish sabre and two Arab horses.

A period with the Mediterranean fleet ensued during its pursuit of the Brest fleet, which had escaped the blockade of that port on 25 April 1799, and having embarked Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent and his suite at Mahon on 23 June, the Argo deposited the commander-in-chief at Gibraltar two weeks later. Here, before being driven off, she was handily placed to shadow the enemy fleet as it sailed towards Cadiz. On 31 July she re-embarked St. Vincent for his voyage back to England, and on 6 August she captured the richly laden Spanish packet Infanta Amalia 12 off Portugal, this vessel being bought into the service as the Porpoise. Having arrived at Spithead on 16 August, the Argo sailed for the Thames twelve days later to undergo repairs at Sheerness before going around to Spithead in mid-November.

Bowen’s command next spent time on convoy duty, taking a fleet out to Lisbon in February 1800 and passing Plymouth on 3 May with the homeward-bound Oporto and Lisbon convoys to arrive at Portsmouth in the following week. In June the Argo sailed from Spithead for the Channel Fleet with military stores, and by September she was cruising off Corunna where she captured the Spanish lugger San Antonio. Amongst several other captures was a letter-of-marque carrying a valuable cargo, the San Fernando 12, on 21 October after a fifteen-hour chase, and on 8 November she arrived back at Portsmouth with her prize.

Admiral Bowen

On 20 December 1800 the Argo departed Portsmouth for the Cape with three Indiamen in company, and by 5 April 1801 she was at St. Helena to collect another convoy, with which she arrived in the Downs in early June. Bowen later received gifts from the East India Company for his diligence in bringing home their fleet. Having collected troops from Cowes on 24 June, the Argo arrived in Portsmouth on 28 June and then sailed again two days later with the Carysfort 28, Captain Adam Drummond, and flat-bottomed boats under Bowen’s overall command. Their destination was Madeira, which island was to be occupied by the British at the request of the Portuguese. The expedition had to put back into Torbay on 11 July, but then proceeded to successfully fulfil its mission, and Bowen was later rewarded by the merchants of Madeira for defending their vessels. After a further voyage to Guinea, the Argo returned to Portsmouth from the West Indies on 9 March 1802, and on 5 April she sailed from Portsmouth for Woolwich to be paid off.

In March 1803 Bowen was appointed to the Dreadnought 98, and after commissioning her at Portsmouth on the 14th, he raised Rear-Admiral John Holloway’s flag just days later when that officer arrived to superintend the equipment of the Channel Fleet. Bowen relinquished his command in early April to join the Puissant 74, which in May began to rig as a sheer hulk at Portsmouth, and in June he accepted a civil role with his appointment as a Commissioner of the Transport Board. Upon commencing this employment, he was presented to the King by Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis in July.

Throughout 1805 Bowen was responsible for laying down moorings for the Channel Fleet in Falmouth Harbour, and as part of his duties he also spent some time in Ireland working on the improvement of the naval defences. In February 1806 he briefly returned to active service as the captain of the fleet to Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent in the Channel Fleet off Brest, seeing employment aboard the Formidable 98, Captain Francis Fayerman, and later the Hibernia 110, Captain Tristram Robert Ricketts. He was presented to the King once more by St. Vincent in June before being replaced by Rear-Admiral Samuel Osborn in July and returning to the Transport Board.

In December 1808 Bowen superintended the embarkation of a cavalry troop at Falmouth, and shortly afterwards he sailed for Portugal with sixty-seven transports. Acting with Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, he arrived at Corunna from Vigo Bay on 14 January 1809, and following the Battle of Corunna on 16 January he superintended the re-embarkation of the late Major-General Sir John Moore’s army, for which service he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. He was back at Portsmouth by the beginning of February, and here with many other senior military officials he visited the wounded troops at Haslar Hospital. A further recognition of his efforts came in early April when he attended a private levee with the King and a more public gathering with the Queen.

At the end of June 1809, he arrived with his family at Portsmouth to superintend the embarkation of troops for the Walcheren Expedition, in February 1811 he attended a levee held by the Prince Regent, and in October he superintended the return of one hundred French prisoners to Morlaix from Portsmouth, these men having previously been detained aboard a cartel. Continuing at the Transport Board, in May 1814 he attended yet another of the Prince Regent’s levees.

In February 1816 Bowen’s role was amended to that of a Commissioner of the Navy and Victualling Boards, he attended Court again in June 1818 and March 1821, on the latter occasion introducing his son to the King, and in September 1822 he visited Plymouth with other officials. During June 1823 it was announced that he was to retire through ill health, but he nevertheless continued in employment, joining the Comptroller of the Navy, Sir Thomas Byam Martin, in sailing from Ilfracombe to Milford Haven in July 1824 to attend the launching of the Vengeance 80. He eventually retired from the service with a five hundred guinea pension on his promotion to rear-admiral in July 1825.

Admiral Bowen died on 27 April 1835 at Ilfracombe.

He married the sister of Captain George Hardinge, and they had three sons and several daughters. The eldest son, James, died whilst captain of the frigate Phoenix 36 in the East Indies in 1812, the second son, John, who also became a captain in the later stages of the war, died in 1828, and the youngest son, St. Vincent, took holy orders. Bowen’s wife died at Wincanton whilst returning from Ilfracombe to London on 22 October 1822.

An eccentric character who was famous for carrying a pink umbrella, Bowen was highly regarded by his fellow officers, and particularly by Lord Howe who rarely praised anybody. Popular and honest, kind, and considerate, he spoke in a singularly blunt and resolute tone. A brilliant seaman, he was determined in action, being more the bulldog than a tactician. Amongst his many areas of expertise, he was reputed to have a greater knowledge of the Scilly Islands than any other officer in the Navy.