Informal East India Company Lunch

Yesterday’s lunch at the Gilbert Scott restaurant, St Pancras, was enjoyable with a group interested in various aspects of the East India Company, admittedly at a later period than that of Captain Thomas Bowrey. As Derek, our organiser said, there was unlikely to be another conversation such as ours going on in London at the time. In fact, for us, it was probably the most interesting discussion anywhere.

We became so involved that the time flew and a couple of us had to dash for our trains before the coffee.

To give you some idea of what it was like, our conversation ranged from knowledge of preventing scurvy before the time of Dr James Lind – Bowrey’s household and ship victualing accounts included large amounts of lemon and limes and there are accounts of mariners knowing that they had to make for land as soon as scurvy appeared on board – and incidences of people connected to the East India Company committing suicide by jumping from windows – apparently a frequent occurrence but not something recorded in Bowrey’s papers. In his time, it seems that people were more likely to blame others for their misfortunes. It seems, later, that personal guilt was more common.

It has been great fun attending conferences and celebratory meals since I finished writing Bowrey’s biography. It is a shame that it has all come to an end for this year but it is now the beginning of December and Christmas is looming up ahead of us and we have received our first three Christmas cards. However, the festive season will just be a short interlude. My diary for next year is already filling and I look forward to continuing to bring Thomas Bowrey to the attention of the world.


Thomas Bowrey and the Naval Hospital Greenwich


I was checking Facebook this morning, thinking that I really should think of something to write in this blog when I came across this cutting. It is just the sort of letter that Captain Thomas Bowrey, some time resident of Greenwich, would write was he around today. He was never shy about making his views known, frequently petitioning Parliament and Queen Anne.

Bowrey was the son and nephew of naval officers who served in the Commonwealth and Royal Navies. He bequeathed £5 and a mourning ring worth £20 to his cousin, John Middleton, who was an in-pensioner at the hospital. He also remembered the poor seamen of Wapping in his will.

Despite making a fortune in the East Indies trade, Bowrey never forgot that the lives of many mariners were not as comfortable as his. In this, he was following in the footsteps of his father. Captain Thomas Bowrey senior, as master of the ketch Roe, petitioned the Commonwealth Admiralty on behalf of his crew who had received neither wages nor prize and were in dire straits.

He not only believed that old, sick and injured sailors should be looked after but was passionate about the importance of what they did for the safety and prosperity of this country. Was he alive today, he would be reaching for his well-used quill and writing to one of those new-fangled daily newspapers to make known his views on the proposed new name for the Royal Hospital.



Networking for Thomas Bowrey

Since I finished writing the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey and started to search for a publisher, I have been keen to improve the visibility of him and his papers. Not only is his life story incredible if it was fiction, you would think I had gone too far – but I believe many more people need to know about the archive he left behind.

I had repeated mentioned Bowrey’s papers and how I am creating a more detailed catalogue, so I will say no more about that here. Alongside this, I have been networking – it feels almost constantly. I started with the Secret Lives conference at Hinckley at the end of August and the Families in British India Conference a month later. In October, it was the Whitechapel History Fest and, earlier this month, the Samuel Pepys Club annual dinner. Each of these events has  been very different but all greatly enjoyable.

Still to come this month is tomorrow’s Local History Conference of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Museum of London. With the theme of An Emporium for Many Nations – London Shaped by Trade, I am really looking forward to this event where I shall be mixing with other like minded people. Finally, at the end of the month, I shall be meeting for lunch with a small group that is the East India Company Club.

It has been great fun – so much more fun that work-related networking – and I have made some really great contacts but I shall be pleased when December arrives and I can take a rest in the lead up to Christmas. What about the New Year? Well, I already have some dates for talks in my diary so it looks like December will be spent polishing up my talks!

The Tragic Case of the Worcester

My fifth and final talk based on my research into the life of Captain Thomas Bowrey is the Tragic Case of the Worcester. I have stalled posting about this because I have said so much about the Worcester here and, in a short talk, there is nothing new to be said.

It is worth, however, highlighting just how relevant the story, set in the early years of the eighteenth century, is to our life in 2018. The key issues – the media, fake news, the Union of Scotland and England, piracy and slavery – are very much “on topic”. The light it throws on Bowrey’s paranoid micro-management demonstrates how little human nature has changed.

Bowrey’s commercial paranoia led to the Scots suspecting the true objectives of the voyage of the Worcester. However, the true objectives of whaling, slave trade and gaining commercial advantage at all costs were considered acceptable at the time – much less so today. That the Worcester was involved in piracy was fake news but believed by the Scottish mob stirred up by the infant newspapers. This we can all recognise despite it happening well over three hundred years ago. As for the union of England and Scotland: that question did not die with the referendum  – the other referendum ensured that.

Yes, the tragic case of the Worcester remains relevant today. That is why so much is still being written about it and not just by me.

Thomas Bowrey – The Family History

Although I came to Thomas Bowrey through my family history interests he is not an ancestor and nor is my biography of him a family history.  Additionally, what I did not understand when I started writing my book is how much of his story I would need to leave out. My proposed talks are an opportunity to air some of the stories I could not include.

The talk I am featuring today is story of how I discovered the truth of Bowrey’s origins. While editing some of the papers of Thomas Bowrey, Richard Carnac Temple uncovered some of his family tree, speculated about some potential relatives and made false assumptions about his birth. This erroneous information was perpetuated and even included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

During my research, I solved this mystery and was able to reconstruct his genealogy. I am not going to reveal this here – you will need to buy my book once it is published! Alternatively, you could attend one of my talks which uses this case study to demonstrate how to use additional sources to confirm genealogical data.

The Long Paper Trail

How excited most of us would be if we discovered a little room under the roof that no one knew about before! … In one corner there was a curious old chest. It was a romantic moment. Would there be Spanish doubloons or emeralds from the newly-discovered land of Peru lying in that ancient coffer? Eagerly the old fastening were undone, and to everyone’s disappointment nothing was seen but a bundle of letters.

Quaker House Library D1-5 f4

This undated cutting from an unknown newspapers announce the discovery of Captain Thomas Bowrey’s papers to the world about 1927. They had been discovered almost 15 years earlier. Despite the reported disappointment the discovery does have a romantic attraction for historians of every hue. When I started to follow the trail of this find I did not expect to uncover a saga of just what not to do with such an important find.

Shuffled to destroy any context for undated documents, forcefully straightened and chemically treated it is surprising that so many manuscripts survived their discovery. Split up, sold and donated – shared around multiple archives and families, many documents can no longer be traced. By some good fortune the bulk of the find now resides in just two repositories – the London Metropolitan Archives and the British Library. However, despite being known to many academics and other researchers, there is difficulty in accessing much of the information contained within the papers.

Much of this information relates to ordinary people of interest to family and social historians. There are hidden gems of interest to other researchers. I have attempted to bring some of these into the light by my posts here, especially in my year of On This Day post. However, there is so much more which my manuscript catalogue, when completed, will make the papers fully accessible. I just need to get it finished, Meanwhile, the discovered of the papers and their subsequent journey will be the subject of my third talk.