Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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BOWEN, Sir Charles Christopher, K.C.M.G.

(1830–1917).

Civil servant, Magistrate, Speaker of the Legislative Council, educationist.

A new biography of Bowen, Charles Christopher appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

C. C. Bowen was the elder son of Charles Bowen, and was born at Milford, County Mayo. He was educated first in France where he learnt to speak the language fluently. He went to Rugby and then to Cambridge to study law; but his father's decision to settle in Canterbury prevented his taking a degree. Together with his parents, his sisters Anne and Letitia, and his brother Croasdaile, Bowen arrived at Lyttelton in the Charlotte Jane in December 1850.

In his first year in Canterbury, Thomas Hanmer, Stuart Wortley, Charles Maunsell, and Bowen – four young bachelors – lived together in Lyttelton in what Charlotte Godley called “Singleton House”, and in November 1851 they gave a ball of “unrivalled splendour”. Bowen was for two years private secretary to Godley riding from end to end of the South Island and visiting Domett at Nelson. In 1852 he was appointed Secretary of Police, and during his period of office, Mackenzie, the sheep drover, was arrested and sentenced. Bowen also held the position of chief clerk in the Provincial Treasury. He and his brother Croasdaile were both good cricketers and in an early match, played in 1853, they made equal top score, each scoring 22 runs. In 1855 he became Provincial Treasurer, in place of Simeon, who returned to England; and Bowen's father succeeded Simeon as Speaker of the Provincial Council, a position he filled with great credit to himself.

Charles Bowen and Crosbie Ward bought the Lyttelton Times from Ingram Shrimpton in 1856 for £5,000, and both of them took an active part not only in the management but also as contributors.

Bowen was a lay member of the first Diocesan Synod held in Canterbury in 1859, and was a church property trustee. He was an original committeeman of the Mechanics Institute, an early member of the Christchurch Club (1856), and of the Canterbury Jockey Club (1859). In 1859 he sold his interest in the Lyttelton Times to a syndicate of which William Reeves was the principal, and resigned his various other posts in preparation for a trip to England. He sailed in the Vallisneria on the last day of 1859, being the only passenger, and crossed the Andes in company with Clements Markham, a noted traveller and geographer. Bowen's description of their journey gained him his F.R.G.S. During his stay in America he formed friendships in the literary world with such men as Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes, and in later life was proud to recall that he had been in Lincoln's company when the President announced the outbreak of the American Civil War. He met and married in England, in 1861, Georgina Elizabeth, the sister of his friend Clements Markham. He published a book of poems in this year. In 1862 he returned to Canterbury with his wife in the Matoaka and resumed his post as Receiver of Land Revenue. In 1864 he was appointed Resident Magistrate for Christchurch, a post which he, with his refined tastes and gentle character, must have found distasteful. A procession of hopeless drunkards and hardened prostitutes passed before him, begging for “one more chance” – a request which he too often granted, only to be greeted by the same offender the following morning.

At a dinner given in June 1862 to commemorate the opening between Lyttelton and Christchurch of the first electric telegraph in New Zealand, Bowen was credited with being the originator of the idea. He secured the necessary vote of £1,500 from the Provincial Council in 1858. When W. S. Moorhouse went to Auckland in December 1862 to attend the sitting of the General Assembly, Bowen was appointed Deputy Superintendent during his absence. He was very interested in acclimatisation, joined the society, and was its chairman in 1868. When the splendid statue of Godley was unveiled in Cathedral Square in August 1867 he was chosen to deliver the address – a high honour, though one FitzGerald undoubtedly would have received had he been available.

The enthusiastic furtherance of the cause of education ran like a thread through his life and was the most fruitful of all his activities. He was president of Canterbury College Union in 1872 and was an original governor of Canterbury College. After the synod of 1872 he read a paper on the secularisation of schools in which he pointed out that secular, as opposed to denominational, schools must come. A leader in the Lyttelton Times strongly supported him. This action showed that he had the courage of his opinions and was a clear-sighted man—it must have been a difficult step to take for one who was a strong supporter of the Church of England.

To mark the twenty-first anniversary of the founding of Canterbury it was proposed to form an astronomical society, with the idea of getting an observatory built sooner or later. The project was received with enthusiasm by the learned men of Canterbury – of whom there were a remarkable number – and Bowen spoke strongly in favour of the idea. He sat on the Bench for the last time on 13 December 1874 and the legal profession of Christchurch gathered before him when T. S. Duncan, president of the Canterbury Law Society, expressed their sorrow at his departure. He had accepted an appointment under the New Zealand Government as member of the Executive Council, Minister of Justice, and Commissioner of Stamps. It therefore became necessary for him to be elected to the House, and he chose Kaiapoi as his seat. In the election his opponent was Joseph Beswick, a man of no great standing but with a strong local following. Bowen, however, had little difficulty in defeating him. This meant he had to leave Canterbury for some time, and a subscription therefore was raised to mark the people's gratitude for his services to the province. He was presented with silver to the value of nearly £400, and the presentation was made by the Superintendent, William Rolleston in the Oddfellows Hall in February 1875. In December of that year he had to fight another election and Beswick ran him close owing to the feeling in Kaiapoi over the new railway which would ruin its business as a port. He was returned for Kaiapoi in 1877.

During 1873 and 1874 Bowen was chairman of the Board of Education, a position which enabled him to do the work near his heart of starting new schools. In 1877 he reached the peak of his career when he brought forward his Education Bill which established the system of free, compulsory, and secular education. As was his way, he was conciliatory in his methods of getting the Bill through the House. As Minister of Justice, Bowen drew on his experiences as Magistrate to introduce many prison reforms, in particular, the system of good conduct marks which enabled prisoners to reduce their terms of sentence.

When the Whitaker-Atkinson Government was defeated, Bowen retired. He continued to represent Kaiapoi till 1881, when he paid a long visit to England. On his return he confined himself to local affairs and business; but in 1891 he was appointed one of the last of the life members of the Legislative Council, and he was Speaker of the Council from 1905–15. He was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand from 1881 to 1882 and again from 1888 to 1915. He was chairman of the North Canterbury Board of Education, April 1886. When he returned from England in 1897 he was appointed Canterbury manager of the New Zealand Trust and Loan Agency. For many years Bowen lived at Middleton on the Riccarton Road and planted many of the trees there, thus indulging one of his hobbies. He retained his fondness for the classics and continued to read French. In 1914 he received the honour of K.C.M.G. He died at Middleton on 12 December 1917, aged 87. His widow survived him by four years.

A parliamentary correspondent, describing Bowen in his old age, wrote: “he was an Irishman of the placidly benevolent type, with short and comfortable figure, clean-shaved kindly face, and a voice even, gentle, soft, and low. He speaks clearly but quietly, with a slow, sedate inflection, and stands calmly to his task with his hands buried deeply in the side pockets of his capacious jacket.”

After reading the above description, one finds a slight difficulty in reconciling the picture with the impression given by his letters to Selfe in the Hocken Library, Dunedin. Here he gave full rein to the prejudices of the day, had nothing good to say about the hated Australian, and was scathing about the even more-hated Scot. He agreed with other letterwriters that Canterbury was going to the dogs and was no longer a place for gentlemen to live in. When anyone not belonging to the select upper circle got a good well-paid job, he showed as much rage and jealousy as anyone else. Too much notice should not be taken of these sallies; he was only expressing the Victorian prejudices of his time and his class. A hundred years ago the eccentricities of Englishmen were allowed full play, and opinions were expressed with a vigour that would now be restrained. Bowen was one of the finest and most valuable of the early settlers, cultivated, active, always working for the good of the province and the country. Wynn-Williams once said in a speech that the two most highly esteemed names in Canterbury were C. C. Bowen and George Gould.

by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.

  • Selfe Letters, (MSS), Hocken Library
  • Men of Mark in New Zealand, Cox, A. (1886).


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