As part of my continuing effort to understand the life of my 5 x great grandmother, Elizabeth Holdsworth, formerly Collins, née Gibson, I’ve been revisiting the information I’ve managed to gather about her younger brother, Bowes John Gibson. I only discovered Bowes John’s existence a few years ago, and the discovery provided a gateway to a wealth of new information about the Gibson family. I continue to be intrigued by the difference in experience between Bowes John, a wealthy broker whose sons served as military officers in India, and Elizabeth, whose sons worked as tallow chandlers, builders and shoemakers in London’s East End.
My latest research into Bowes John Gibson and his family has also been prompted by a renewed interest in my ancestors’ connections with the East India Company. I’ve written before about the Boulton family’s involvement with the Company (a subject to which I plan to return in due course), and more recently I posted about the Champain family and their link with the East Indies. In forthcoming posts, I intend to explore the lives and careers of Bowes John Gibson’s children, but in this post I’m collecting together what we know about the man himself, in more or less chronological order.
Bowes John Gibson, my 5 x great uncle, was born at Tower Hill, London in 1744, in the seventeenth year of the reign of George II and one year before the Jacobite rising. He was christened at the parish church of St Botolph, Aldgate, on 4th November. As far as I can determine, he was the only son of my 6 x great grandparents John and Mary Gibson. Bowes John had five older sisters – Jane, Mary, Elizabeth, Frances and Ann – and a younger sister, Sarah, who would be born two years after him. My 5 x great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson would have been eleven years old when her younger brother was born.
The reason for Bowes John’s unusual first name is still something of a mystery. He was obviously given the name ‘John’ after his father, but ‘Bowes’ could be a family name – perhaps the surname of John Gibson’s mother? – or it might be a tribute to a friend, business associate or even hero of John’s. As we shall see, Bowes John would himself give a number of his children the names of naval or military heroes, at least one of whom I believe he knew well. Discovering the ‘Bowes’ connection might, in fact, throw some much-needed light on John Gibson’s own origins, but that particular quest will have to wait for another time.
Six years before he was born, Bowes John Gibson’s parents had taken possession of Woodredon, a country estate near Waltham Abbey in Essex, a gift from Mary Gibson’s widowed mother Mary Greene. Although, like his siblings, Bowes John was born in the family’s London house at Tower Hill, it is likely that he spent much of his childhood at Woodredon. If my speculations about John Gibson’s career are correct, then the early years of Bowes John Gibson’s childhood would have coincided with his father’s bankruptcy and conviction for fraud. One of the reasons I remain uncertain as to whether John Gibson, the coal factor who was imprisoned in the Fleet, was identical with my 6 x great grandfather, is that he and his wife Mary had two children (Bowes John and his sister Sarah) during these years, and that they managed to keep possession of Woodredon until after John’s death in 1763. Not only that, but their children did not seem to be unduly affected financially by these supposed disasters. Their daughters all made ‘good’ marriages: that is, they all married men of either property or respectable professions, even if one of them (my 5 x great grandmother Elizabeth) appears to have contracted her first marriage, to landed gentleman John Collins, in secret. And Bowes John himself, as we shall see, was not held back from launching a profitable career with the East India Company.
Given that later career, it’s almost certain that at some stage Bowes John was sent away to school, probably in London: possibly at Merchant Taylors, where a number of his forebears had been educated. I’ve found no record of his attendance at a university, and given what we know of the family’s history, it seems more likely that Bowes John would have been apprenticed, perhaps to a London merchant, as his nephews John William Bonner and John Godfrey Schwartz would be some years later. In the absence of records covering these formative years of his life, we can only speculate.
What is certain is that during his later childhood and youth, Bowes John would have seen all five of his older sisters married – Jane to William Coates in 1752 (when Bowes John was eight), Elizabeth to John Collins in 1753, Ann to Charles Gottfried Schwartz in 1754, Mary to William Hunter in 1760 and Frances to Michael Bonner in 1761. Jane and Elizabeth both married Essex farmers, but the husbands of Ann, Mary and Frances all appear to have been mariners or merchants. If my theory that their father John Gibson was a lighterman and coal factor is correct, then there would surely have been good reasons for Bowes John pursuing a maritime career. What we don’t know, since the records are unavailable, is the precise route that he took to reach the position that he had attained by 1790, when London directories described him as an auctioneer and broker in the service of the East India Company.
The first definite record that we have for Bowes John Gibson after his baptism dates from 13th October 1766, when he was almost twenty-two years old. It was on this date that he married Elizabeth Hendly at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, the location suggesting that he, and perhaps his mother Mary (who had been widowed three years earlier) had already moved from Tower Hill and Woodredon to Mile End Old Town. Certainly the first tax records that we have for Mary in Mile End Old Town date from that same year. Elizabeth was said to be from the parish of St Mary’s in Lambeth, but to date I’ve been unable to find out anything more about her.
There were two witnesses to the marriage. One was Bowes John’s younger sister Sarah Gibson. The other was a certain ‘Edmd. Affleck’. Two decades or so later, when Bowes John Gibson’s sister Sarah came to write her will, she would leave twenty pounds to ‘my godson Edmond Affleck Gibson son of my … brother Bowes John Gibson’. I’ve yet to find a baptismal record for Edmond, but since he must have been born some time between 1766 and 1789, he was definitely the child of Bowes John’s first marriage to Elizabeth Hendly. It also seems likely that he was named after the Edmund Affleck who witnessed Bowes John’s and Elizabeth’s marriage. However, the more interesting question is whether that person was the Sir Edmund Affleck, later baronet, son of Gilbert Affleck of Dalham Hall, Suffolk, who served as a naval officer, attaining the rank of Rear Admiral in 1784, two years after distinguishing himself in the Battle of the Saintes in the Caribbean, and who served as M.P. for Colchester from 1782 till his death in 1788? He is certainly the only Edmund Affleck that I can find in the records. Affleck would have been in his early forties at the time of Bowes John Gibson’s marriage and probably still a naval captain. Is it possible that Bowes John Gibson served under Affleck (there was a difference of about twenty years in their ages), or that they had encountered each other through the former’s work for the East India Company? Alternatively, might Affleck have been an associate of Bowes John’s late father John Gibson?
The next record that we have for Bowes John Gibson is for the baptism of his first child with Elizabeth – a daughter named Esther or Hester – at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 8th August 1767. Bowes John is described as a gentleman and their address is given as Mile End Old Town. As I’ve written before, we know from a database of Mile End Old Town residents that ‘Mr John Bozey Gibson’, described as a ‘gent’, and his wife Elizabeth, occupied a house on the north side of Mile End Road and that, certainly by 1768, John’s mother Mary was living on the southern side of the same road. There is a note in the record stating that Mary’s was a new house. In that year she was paying land tax of £19, while in the previous year her son was paying £10, suggesting a smaller property. There is also a record from 1768 of a Mary Gibson paying land tax of £18 on a second house in nearby White Horse Lane.
The baptismal record for the next Gibson child is intriguing, both because it indicates a change of address, and because it seems to suggest that Bowes John was not at this stage working for the East India Company. Ann Gibson was christened at the church of St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey, on 9th February 1771. (This was the church at which Bowes John’s sister, and my 5 x great grandmother Elizabeth had contracted her second marriage, to my 5 x great grandfather Joseph Holdsworth, some eight years earlier, and where members of his sister Frances Bonner’s family would christen their children a decade or so later.)
The Gibson family’s address was said to be ‘Grange’, which might mean Grange Road, or it could denote a general area, in which case it could be the same house that they were living in three years later when their address was Long Walk, on the other side of Bermondsey Square (see map above). When Ann was christened, her father’s occupation was given as ‘brewer’. How are we to interpret this? Had Bowes John retired from a maritime career by this stage, or was he yet to begin his association with the East India Company? The occupation is intriguing because we know that, towards the end of his life, his father John Gibson had also set himself up as a brewer, with the support of his mother-in-law Mary Greene. Did Bowes John inherit his father’s business, or at least his brewing equipment?
When his third child, a boy, was baptised at the same church on 10th July 1774, Bowes John Gibson was once again being described simply as a ‘gentleman’ and now the family’s address was definitely Long Walk. The name that Bowes John gave to this first son – Grey Dockley – might be a tribute to another relative or friend. There was a Dockley family living in Bermondsey around this time, and Edmund Dockley, a gentleman of the parish of St Mary Magdalene, made his will in 1789, though he makes no mention of the Gibsons nor of any relative with the first name Grey. (As we shall see, the Dockley name would be kept alive by Bowes John Gibson’s son John Thomas, who named one of his sons Charles Dockley Gibson, but this may have been in memory of his brother, rather than a tribute to the Dockley family.)
The Gibsons were still living at Long Walk when their son John was born two years later. He was christened at St Mary Magdalene on 21st July 1776, three weeks after the American colonies declared their independence from Britain. A daughter named Mary Ann was born at the same address, and baptised at the same church on 28th February 1780.
A year later another son was born at Long Walk and christened on 15th April 1781. Despite my best efforts, I’m still unable to make sense of the child’s name in the parish register. There seem to be three names: the first beginning with ‘S’ has been transcribed by Ancestry as ‘Silvamens’, the second might begin with a ‘C’ and be something like ‘Crossen’ or ‘Crosser’, and the third might be ‘Hood’. Given Bowes John Gibson’s habit (as we shall see) of naming his sons after military and naval heroes, I wondered if ‘Hood’ might be a reference to Sir Samuel Hood who took part, with Edmund Affleck, in a famous encounter with the French navy in the Caribbean at about this time?
Less than a year had passed before another son was born to Bowes John and Elizabeth Gibson. George Milsom Gibson was christened at St Mary Magdalene on 7th January 1782. From what I can gather, the original George Milsom was an officer in the Madras Native Infantry: interestingly, the same force in which George Milsom Gibson would later serve. (I’m grateful to Barbara Haynes for this information.) I haven’t come across any information suggesting that Milsom was a national figure, so once again it’s possible, as with Edmund Affleck, that Bowes John Gibson knew him personally, perhaps because of his own service either in the military or with the East India Company (if the two can be so easily differentiated). Might George Milsom have been George Milsom Gibson’s godfather, and have guided and supported him in his later military career?
By contrast, the name of Bowes John Gibson’s next son, John Thomas, appears quite pedestrian. By the time this child was born, in 1785, the Gibsons seem to have moved back across the Thames. John Thomas Gibson was baptised at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 13th September 1785, when the family’s address was given as Mile End Old Town. A daughter, Matilda Ann, would be born there two years later and christened on 8th October 1787. Three years later, Bowes John Gibson’s last child with his first wife Elizabeth was born. Carleton Gibson was baptised at St Dunstan’s on 17th May 1790. As I’ve noted before, this child may have been named after Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Carleton (the unusual spelling seems to suggest so), the British Army officer who led the eponymous raid of 1778 against American revolutionary forces: he died in Quebec in 1787. Once again, even if this is the case, it’s difficult to determine whether Bowes John named his son as a tribute to a national hero, or in memory of a friend or comrade in arms. At the very least, Bowes John’s naming habits for his children suggest a fierce patriotism and a close interest in military and naval affairs.
I’ve yet to find records for two other children who we know were the product of Bowes John Gibson’s first marriage. The will of his unmarried younger sister Sarah Gibson, made in 1789, mentions her nephew and godson Edmund Affleck Gibson (see above) and her niece Elizabeth Gibson, both said to be the children of her brother Bowes John Gibson.
We know that at least two of the children from Bowes John’s marriage to Elizabeth died in infancy: Matilda Ann in 1789 at the age of two and Carleton in 1794 at the age of four. Both were buried at St Dunstan’s. Grey Dockley Gibson also died in 1794, but he would have been twenty years old at the time. There is a burial record for him from Brading, described in the record as being in Hampshire but actually on the Isle of Wight, on 31st July that year. The name is so unusual that it must be the same person, though why he was living in Brading is a mystery: is there a naval connection, perhaps?
The only child of Bowes John Gibson mentioned in his mother Mary Gibson’s will of 1788 is Esther, his eldest daughter (also named in Sarah Gibson’s will of the following year). However, this need not be significant, since very few of Mary’s other grandchildren are named in her will. Esther was the first of the Gibson children to marry. On 21st September 1790 she married Thomas Lay at St Dunstan’s church. Bowes John and Elizabeth were both witnesses, as was Susanna Ford, the sister-in-law of Bowes John’s nephew John William Bonner, who had married Sarah Ford nine years earlier (Bowes John was one of the witnesses). Thomas Lay was a mariner and perhaps also a shipbuilder. He and Esther made their home in Mile End Old Town and would have at least two children, the first named Bowes John after his grandfather being born in 1792, and the second, William Henry, in 1797.
Bowes John Gibson’s first wife Elizabeth died in the early days of 1793 and was buried on 12th January at St Dunstan’s church. No information is given in the parish register about the cause of death, but one imagines that she must have been exhausted after giving birth to at least twelve children in the course of twenty-seven years of marriage.
Six years after the death of Elizabeth, and when he himself was already fifty-five years old, Bowes John Gibson married for a second time. He married Mary Catherine Bretman on 6th April 1799 at the church of St Matthew, Bethnal Green. I assume that this was Mary’s home parish, but if so, that’s all I’ve managed to find out about her. I suspect that Bretman is a German name, and that Mary might have belonged (like Charles Gottfriend Schwartz, who married Bowes John’s sister Ann) to the burgeoning community of German merchants and manufacturers in East London.
There’s a curiosity about the births of Bowes John Gibson’s next two children. On 28th October 1798, Edward and Eliza Gibson, described as the son and daughter respectively of Bowes John and Mary Gibson, were baptised at St Matthew, Bethnal Green, the same church where Bowes John and Mary would be married a little less than six months later. Edward was said to have been born on 15th November 1796 and Eliza on 1st October 1798. If it weren’t for the birth dates of these two children, one might imagine that they had actually been born to Bowes John’s first wife Elizabeth, and that their baptisms had been delayed for some reason. As it is, either the date of Bowes John’s second marriage is wrong, or we have to imagine that they had two children out of wedlock, albeit when they were engaged to be married. Alternatively, perhaps Bowes John and Mary were initially married in a different kind of ceremony (in a German church, perhaps?) and the wedding at St Matthew’s was by way of an Anglican blessing on an existing union. This would certainly explain the relatively long delay between Elizabeth’s death and Bowes John’s second marriage: one imagines that a middle-aged man with a large number of children, at least two of them under ten years old, might have been in a hurry to marry again.
Mary Catherine Gibson would be almost as prolific in childbearing as her predecessor Elizabeth, producing a further six children in the next twelve years or so. James Charles Gibson was baptised at St Dunstan’s on 20th October 1800; William Henry on 9th March 1803; Elizabeth on 25th May 1804 (presumably her namesake from Bowes John’s first marriage had died by this time); Matilda Henrietta on 25th July 1810; and Bowes Charles on 30th July 1817, though he was actually born six years earlier in 1811.
The second of Bowes John’s children to marry was John Thomas Gibson, who married Henrietta Eliza Horn on 20th February 1811 at the church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, in Bloomsbury. As discussed in an earlier post, Henrietta was the daughter of the noted German-born composer Charles Frederick Horn (another German connection) and the French-born Diana Arboneau Dupont. Henrietta’s brother Charles Edward Horn, a musician, singer and actor, had been at school in Lambeth with John Thomas Gibson and his brother George, and from his memoirs we gain a fascinating insight into their early lives, which I’ll return to in another post. On leaving school, both John Thomas and George Gibson entered military service in India, while their old schoolfriend Charles Horn trained as a musician and earned money as a music teacher. Among his pupils were ‘two Miss Cohens in Goodman Fields, for 5 shillings a lesson, two taking a lesson in one hour, twice a week’. He writes:
My teaching at Mr Cohen’s and Miss Babbington’s went on, and my visits in Goodmans Fields were often [di]versified by visiting old Mr Gibson and his daughters for, although my schoolfellows and associates were in India, it was delightful to go a[nd] see the old place we used to see our friends in.
Three years after his brother’s marriage, George Milsom Gibson died in India. The inscription on his grave in Vizagaptam reads as follows:
Sacred to the memory of Major George Milsom Gibson Commandant 1st batt. 2nd Reg. N.I. who departed this life 5th of May 1814 Aged 33 years.
‘N.I.’ refers to the Madras Native Infantry. It’s unclear whether George died in battle or of natural causes. Either way, one imagines that news of his son’s death was a heavy blow to Bowes John Gibson in his declining years.
The ‘old Mr Gibson’ of Charles Horn’s reminiscences – i.e. Bowes John – died at the age of 73 in 1817 and was buried at St Dunstan’s church on 28th August, four weeks after the baptism of his youngest son Bowes Charles. The parish register records that Bowes John Gibson died of old age, and was buried in the family vault. In his will, made some thirteen years before his death, Bowes John notes that the children from his first marriage have all been ‘handsomely provided for’ and only mentions by name his daughter Esther and sons George Milsom and John Thomas Gibson. This suggests that, in addition to the children already mentioned who died in infancy and youth, five other children – Ann, John, Mary Ann, the mysteriously named ‘Silvamens’, Elizabeth, and Edmund Affleck – probably did not survive to adulthood.