THE GOWAN FAMILY
Charles Gowan helped finance American infrastructure such as railways. He lived in Bell House with his wife, five children and a large retinue of staff.
Charles Cecil Gowan was born in 1822, grew up in Dulwich and lived there almost all his life. On 25 January 1833 he was baptised in Dulwich College chapel and as a child he lived at Wood Lawn in Dulwich Village, which still exists. His father, Philip and mother, Cecilia were both from Ireland, though Cecilia was born D’Olier and originally from a French Huguenot family. Philip had emigrated to London to make a new life and started as an ‘American’ merchant, co-founding the City firm Gowan & Marx and becoming a member of the London Stock Exchange. The firm specialised in American bonds and we know Thomas Jefferson traded with them in the 1820s.
Gowan & Marx financed Moncure Robinson, who designed a revolutionary locomotive which caused a sensation when it was launched in America; he named the engine Gowan & Marx after his backers. The Russian ambassador heard about the engine and tried to persuade Robinson to go to Moscow to build locomotives for the Czar. Gowan & Marx were a successful firm but also behaved with exemplary honour. In 1845 they offered a bond investing in the Republic of St Domingo which defaulted. They reimbursed their subscribers in full. They also donated to charity and supported Guy’s Hospital. In 1878 they gave money to the Abercarne colliery disaster fund after 268 men lost their lives in a mine explosion.
Charles Cecil Gowan was the youngest of a family of ten with six brothers and three sisters, many of whom like him continued to live in Dulwich when they grew up. Coincidentally, while he had been growing up at Wood Lawn, further down Dulwich Village the Withington boys were growing up in Bell House. Charles’s brother, William Gowan married Arthur Withington’s sister-in-law, Louise, and moved to America to farm.
On 26 January 1860 Charles Gowan married Elizabeth Anne Critcliffe who was from South Molton in Devon. They lived briefly in Sydenham before moving to The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common, a house that still exists today. Charles Gowan was still working in the family firm which had become the City’s principal dealer in US securities. In 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated the news caused Gowan and Marx to cease trading even though it was widely known to be ‘extremely rich and had assets far beyond its liabilities’. It opened again a few days later, ‘paying 20s on the pound’ (ie full value) despite the difficult economic environment.
As the British empire stretched across the globe from Canada to India, Gowan & Marx were well placed to take advantage of the opportunities opening up and business was good so in March 1873 the Gowans moved into Bell House, just down the road from Charles Gowan’s childhood home. Charles and Elizabeth now had four daughters, Mary, Francis, Alice and Annie and a son, Frederick. They were very much involved in the local Dulwich community, funding coal, blankets and Christmas dinner for the poor. After Charles Gowan recovered from serious ill health he presented a white altar cloth to the chapel ‘as a thank-offering for recovering from a dangerous illness’. Their daughter Annie presented some paintings to the Reading Room in the Village at the same time.
In 1885 thirteen acres were taken from the Bell House garden to form Dulwich Park. The garden had extended to roughly where the lake and stream are in the park but the Gowans were still left with three and a half acres for their garden. There was some concern over establishing a park in Dulwich, with local residents worried it might ‘lessen exclusiveness’ and even become a ‘playground of the poorest classes’. When his lease was called in to be adjusted for the loss of land to the park, Charles Gowan took the opportunity to ask for annual leases in case he was unhappy with the effect of the park and wanted to move quickly. The Estate Governors were sympathetic and negotiated his lease on a year-by-year for the next few years.
The Gowans had a large domestic staff to care for them. Their cook Mary Parry came from Devon, like Mrs Gowan, while their four other female servants came from London and the home counties. They were all young girls in their teens or twenties and their jobs as parlourmaids, housemaids and kitchenmaids were likely to be very hard, especially looking after the Gowan girls, who were around the same age as them. Many young female servants at this time were moving to factories and department stores as these jobs were easier and offered more leisure time and independence. Given the growth of the middle-class this meant the demand for maids began to outstrip supply. In the four censuses covering the time Charles Gowan had a house of his own in Dulwich, the four female servants were different people each time and this would not have been unusual, girls would have left for other jobs or to get married (a married woman could not continue to work as a maid in a respectable household). Women like Elizabeth Gowan would have spent a large part of their day managing servants and recruitment was a perennial topic of conversation. When Mrs Gowan advertised she always asked for experienced staff, she had no time or inclination to train inexperienced girls. In 1887 she placed an advert for a parlourmaid, specifying that she must be a ‘good waitress, clean plate well and thoroughly understand her duties’. Good cooks in particular were highly prized as it was hot, heavy work and skilled cooks were sometimes bribed to leave a friend or family’s establishment to work for an unscrupulous or desperate mistress.
Their son, Frederick, grew up at Bell House and became a stockbroker. In 1909 in Wandsworth he married Sophie Meyer who was from Germany and the following year they emigrated to Canada where he became a stockbroker in Vancouver. On 23 April 1918 he enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force even though he was 54 years old (on his army forms he is described as 5ft 4 in with grey hair). He was discharged as medically unfit in November of the same year. Of their daughters: Mary married William Forbes Gooding, a coffee planter, and moved to Somerset where they had one son, Cecil. Francis and and Annie never married but lived with their mother while in 1915, aged 47, Alice married Edward Ellison Sutton Schuyler, an army captain and governor of HM Prison, Portland. They lived in Hampshire near her mother.
On 16 December 1895 Charles died at Knowle Hall in Bridgwater, Somerset, a large country mansion he had been renting. He was described as ‘formerly of Copthall Court [where his firm was based] and Bell House Dulwich’. He left £64,000 and his wife, together with his brothers-in-law James and Edward Hore were his executors. His wife inherited the furniture and effects at his house on the Isle of Wight and the right to occupy it and Bell House for her life. The other executors got £100 apiece. The bulk of his estate was left to his wife and children. In 1897 Elizabeth Gowan transferred the lease on Bell House to Harman Tidy and with her three unmarried daughters she moved first to Winchester then to Bournemouth.