My Sussex Bowles Family History


My Dad rarely talked about his forebears. He had grown up in a family business and perhaps it was all too close to him. But my Mum would talk about her side all the time. It was always the Bowles, the Bowles, the Bowles. The stories would just come out about that wonderful late Victorian family and all their fabulous offspring. Being young, it didn’t really register and then she died.

My Uncle Geoffrey, who was nine years older, was slightly closer in time to these Bowles and had many early reminiscences. Fortunately, he agreed to write down all of his memories for us and that was one of the last things that he did before he died.

This Bowles history comes very much from his account.


The first family sighting is in Leicestershire. Samuel Boulds was a tailor in Desford, a village a few miles west of Leicester. He married Mary Button there in 1798 and they had five children, Samuel, Elizabeth, John, Ann, and Joseph.

Did the family come from Leicestershire? Boulds was the most used variant of Bowles in the county. Or was Nottinghamshire the origin? There were many more Bowles there, including the family at Worksop. Or could it possibly have been Staffordshire? Bould was a local Staffordshire name. We don’t have any indication.

Two of the sons, Samuel and John, picked up their father’s tailoring trade. Samuel stayed in Desford but John, perhaps second in the pecking order, moved to Brighton on the south coast in the early 1830’s. The name he then used was Bowles.

At the age of 31 John Bowles married Mary Ann Pelling of West Tarring (now part of Worthing) in Brighton in 1834,  Mary Ann’s father Henry had been a shoemaker, but after being found drunk and disorderly, got by as a local gardener.  Her two younger sisters meanwhile had already gotten married and had both moved away from home – Jane with Charles Bushby to Tasmania and Charlotte with Stephen Lorden to Kent.

John set up a tailor’s shop, first at 2 Steine Lane and then, from 1845 to 1862 when he probably gave it up full-time in George Street, first at number 50 and subsequently at number 55. Steine Lane has long since vanished but George Street remains much as it was; and you can still imagine their shop and them living upstairs or next door. A son, Henry John, was born in 1845.

Henry John Bowles

Uncle Geoff painted an endearing picture of how Henry John Bowles met his wife.

“My grandfather Bowles was the headmaster (from 1880) of Hanover Terrace Primary School and was also the amateur conductor of the Brighton Sacred Harmonic Society, which, apart from other occasional concerts, did an annual show of Handel’s Messiah in the Dome during Holy Week.

One year the committee were recommended a soprano soloist from Wakefield, our Emily Attree. She was invited down for an audition, duly sang at the performance and married Grandpa six weeks later. Who said that the Victorians were stuffy!”

Henry, aged 22, and Emily, aged 20, were in fact married in 1867. There is a beautifully preserved photograph from this time of Emily in a long black evening gown with music in hand as if about to sing.

So far so good. But there are some unexplained mysteries about this time.

First, how did a man from such a poor background become so cultured?
second, what exactly were his relations with his parents?

The birth record shows clearly that he was the son of John Bowles and Mary Pelling. Yet this was over ten years after they had married, he was 42, she 36, and their marriage up to that time had produced no children. The 1871 Census shows the son at 50 George Street established as the head of the household and the parents relegated to livers-in. John Bowles died soon after. But his wife ended up in a workhouse where she died in 1874. How could the son have allowed this to happen?

The Bowles and the Attrees

The Bowles and the Attree families were to get closer over the years.   Emily’s father John had in fact been born in Sussex (these Attrees were an old Sussex family) before leaving for India with the British army where he had married.  He and his family returned to England in the 1840’s and he was a schoolmaster in Lancashire and Yorkshire before retiring back in Sussex.

Emily’s younger sister Lucy came to live with Henry and Emily before marrying in Brighton in 1890.  She and her husband later settled in Berkshire.

Meanwhile her elder sister Sarah had married John Oldham in Lancashire.  They departed for Montevideo in South America in 1864, John going out there to supervise the laying of the telegraph cable between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  He remained there as manager of the Eastern Telegraph Company until his death in 1910.  His presence paved the way for the Bowles’ eldest son Stanley to leave for Montevideo in 1896.

There was, curiously, a geographic connection between this Attree family and my own Shelley family from West Firle in Sussex.  John Attree was the son of Jesse Attree, a blacksmith in West Firle.   He was transported to Australia in 1815 for stealing pigeons from Lord Gage of Firle Place.  Lord Gage graciously allowed him to return to West Firle in 1822 on the expiration of his sentence and he lived out the remaining thirty years of his life there.

Henry and Emily’s Family

Henry and Emily became the patriarchal late Victorian family. They had moved around this time to Athelstan House, 157 Ditchling Rise, a large house on the hill rising to Ditchling Road. There were nine children to bring up, four boys and five girls. This was Uncle Geoff’s depiction of his various aunts and uncles.

“The first child, Alice, an absolute terror to us all, became head mistress of a school in Erith, Kent.

Next a son, Stanley, who took part in the first Olympics of 1896 as a hundred yard runner (but came nowhere), and went out to South America and worked for the Eastern Telegraph Company in Montevideo. He was killed on a golf course at the age of 28 (in 1899) when a whirlwind picked up the hut in which he and his companions were sheltering.

Next came John, but here again we have a mystery. For his name was never allowed to be mentioned in my grandfather’s house, except that he drank!

The next child was my Aunt Lilian – and what a character. She had a really beautiful voice and became a concert hall singer with the stage name Lilian Lea. She sang in command performances in Windsor, so she must have been really good. I can remember hearing her records (those old old ones with a recording only on one side and beginning with the announcement “This is an Edison Bell record.” Collector’s items now.

Aunt Lilian went on a tour of the US in 1920 or so, met a stage producer by the name of John Lester and then married a Frank Edwards who was a gag-man in the silent days of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. He turned out to be religious maniac, working in the Hollywood studios devising custard pie routines for six or seven months of the year and then carting off Aunt Lilian (and her daughter Lily by John Lester) to Honolulu in an annual attempt to convert the natives to his particular form of religion. When the cash ran out, he returned to write more gags.

He died just before the beginning of talkies; but as sound-on-film became a must, Aunt Lilian set up a studio as a teacher “ex-gold medallist of the Royal Academy” (which she never was) and made a fortune teaching the early stars of the talkies how to learn a universal diction. Daughter Lily married the manager of Enrico Caruso but it didn’t last long. And I long since had no thought of cousin Lily until I heard that she was still alive at the ripe old age of 88.

The next in the Bowles line was my Aunt Nelly. She too went out to South America and married the manager of Eastern Telegraph in Buenos Aires. Their only daughter Doris Burden still lives in Pasadena, California and I hear from her quite often. We have a special bond. It was she who taught me to ride a bike when I was seven years old. Doris must be 80 at least now.

Next Bowles child was my Uncle Wally, a bit of a wag, a man quite convinced that he was the best player of the one-string fiddle in England, and the father of my cousins Thelma and Audrey. Thelma took up singing as a profession with some limited success and Audrey married someone, but no news of either for years and years.

Next to the font was Olive, who married a martinet Stanley and had three sons, Stanley, Laurie and Denis. Aunt Olive died of TB; and it was one of those things that stick in the mind – the day she died she asked for a dozen oysters and, in one of them was a pearl which Stanley had made into a tie-pin. This did not stop him marrying the maid some three months later, resulting in his sons disintegrating as a family.

The next living child (a still-born intervening) was my mother Edith, born in 1884. She had a normal schooling under the eyes of her father and graduated to the oddly-named New Home and Colonial Training College in Dulwich. She passed out with full honours with a teaching career in mind. But somewhere along the line she met my father – and that was that.

The last of the Bowles dynasty was my Uncle Frank. Again, a fabulous voice as a boy resulted in him being selected as a Chapel Royal Chorister. Free tuition, attendance at most of the State functions, et al. He never married; and, after someone stole his music-case on East Croydon station, he never sang again. He lived and died in the Croydon Borough Accounts Department.”


The children had mainly left home by 1910 and grandfather Bowles retired in 1911; although he remained active in social functions as a Forester and Freemason. In my album, there is a charming photograph of him and his wife in formal attire late in their lives – he standing in a dinner jacket, white bow-tie, and a watch-and-chain dangling from his waistcoat, she to his left sitting in black evening dress, frilly bodice, and white silk gloves.

Uncle Geoff recalled a very special moment in 1917.

“Grandma’s portrait has a very nostalgic appeal for me. It was a gift from all the then Bowles family and their respective husbands, wives, and children (I remember that my contribution was two weeks pocket money – sixpence). It was painted by Harry Mileham, the artist who did all the pictures in St. Thomas’s Church in Hove.

The presentation was made on grandparents’ Golden Wedding anniversary when a big party was held at Ditchling Rise. I can only just remember it. Grandma died two years later; and Grandpa outlived her for only another two years and he left the portrait to my mother in his will.”

My uncle may have got the date slightly off.  The painting, commissioned by the family to Harry Mileham, was done in 1924.

The portrait now hangs in my living room.

Lilian Bowles and Frank Edwards

My uncle left us with a sketch of Lilian Bowles from the Brighton perspective.  A correspondent Terry Mortimer has given us another view of her life with Frank Edwards.

“Although many may know him as Frank Edwards the silent film gag man and part time missionary/evangelist, he is of far more interest in his various alter egos – including Nat Clifford the music hall artist in England from 1893 to 1914 and Frank Terry the vaudeville performer and silent film writer/actor in the US from 1915 to the 1930’s.

He met Lilian Lea (Lilian’s stage name) when she played in a very successful pantomime season in Australia in 1909/10 with him.  I assume that their romance developed from there – even though both were probably already married and the relationship might have been regarded as scandalous by some prudish Edwardians.  In late 1914 they went to the United States and lived there for the rest of their lives and had two children Frances and Madeleine.  Were they ever married?  I very much doubt it.

Lilian’s first child Lily was born in England in 1899.  Some sources say that Frank Edwards was the father, but personally I would doubt this.  John Lester was said to have been the father from various sources.”

Lily would say later that there had been a scandal between Frank Edwards and the Bowles family in Brighton.  Apparently she adopted the Edwards name.  She said that her mother Lilian and Charlie Chaplin were close friends and liked to go shopping together.

By the 1930’s Frank Edwards was a key member of Laurel and Hardy’s gag team.   Then he discovered religion.   He left Hollywood to become a missionary, administered a leper colony and built a mission hall in Honolulu  He later retired to Burbank, California where his death was recorded in 1948.   Lilian meanwhile had died six years earlier in 1942.

Their daughter Frankie lived in California and visited my parents once in England around 1980, bringing with her a family ancestry chart.

Bowles in Uruguay

Thanks to this website we also have had contact with our Bowles relatives in Uruguay, the descendants of Henry Stanley Bowles who went out there in the 1890’s but died on August 15, 1899 when he was caught up in a whirlwind on a golf course.  Gloria Bowles wrote the following from Montevideo:

“I don’t think it was correct that he ran in the Olympics in 1896, as by that time he was in Montevideo and had married Adelina Brooks.

At that time there were many English companies in Uruguay, in telegraph, waterworks, trains, banks etc.  There was a substantial English community and there were all ‘friends.’  Stanley sang in a choir and played sports.  He played football for the Montevideo team and in 1890 they played the Buenos Aires team and he scored a goal.  It was the first Uruguayan goal in international football, they say.

They had one son, Henry Stanley Bowles, born in 1899, just before he died.  Stanley was also athletic, being the first South American winner at 100 meters.  He went to study in England at the age of 12 but soon returned as World War One was beginning and he studied in Montevideo at British schools.

The athleticism ran in the family as his son, also Henry Stanley, ran in the 100 and 200 meters in the British schools and later in national championships.”

Many of these English families – including the Bowles and their Oldham and Macadam relations – were buried in the British cemetery on Rivera Avenue in Montevideo.  They also sent their children to the British school in Montevideo which opened in 1908.

Bowles Family History

  • Samuel Boulds (1776-1848) of Desford, Leics. married Mary Button in Desford in 1798
  • – Samuel (1800-1868) m. Mary Leake
  • – Elizabeth (b. 1801) m. William Pegg
  • – John Bowles (1803-1872)
  • – Ann (b. 1805) m. Francis Storer
  • – Benjamin (1821-1889) m. Ann Woollam
  • Jesse Attree (1780-1852) of West Firle married Mary Holman in Seaford in 1804
  • – John (1805-1865)
  • – Jesse (1807-1877)
  • – Charles (1809-1862)
  • John Bowles of Desford and Brighton married Mary Ann Pelling (1809-1874) in Brighton in 1834
  • – Henry John Bowles (1845-1922)
  • John Attree of West Firle married Eleanor Glynn (1805-1834) in India in 1829
  • – Sarah Attree (1830-1898) m. John Oldham in Lancashire and departed for Montevideo in 1864
  • – George Attree (1833-1915) m. Ellen Barraclough
  • remarried Sophia Thorley (1818-1889) in India in 1837
  • – Mary Ann Attree (1844-1913) m. William Drever and lived in Montevideo
  • – Emily Attree (1847-1925)
  • – Lucy Attree (1861-1934) m. Charles Walls
  • Henry John Bowles of Brighton married Emily Attree of Wakefield, Yorkshire in Brighton in 1867
  • – Alice Bowles (1870-1937)
  • – Stanley Bowles (1871-1899) m. Adelina Brooks in Montevideo
  • – John Bowles (1874-1913) m. Fanny Ewens
  • – Lilian Bowles (1875-1942)
  • – Walter (Wally) Bowles (1878-1931) m. Jessie Andrews
  • – Ellen (Nelly) Bowles (b. 1880) m. Alfred Smith in Buenos Aires
  • – Olive Bowles (1882-1920). m. Stanley Mills
  • – Edith Bowles (1884-1941) m. Joseph Foster
  • – Frank Bowles (1887-1963)
  • Stanley Bowles of Brighton and Montevideo married Adelina Brooks (1876-1954) in Montevideo in 1896
  • – Stanley Bowles (1899-1976) m. Flora Miles in Montevideo in 1925
  • Lilian Bowles of Brighton and Los Angeles
  • perhaps married John Lester in California in 1897
  • – Lily Edwards (b. 1899) m. Earl Howard
  • perhaps remarried Frank Edwards
  • – Frankie Edwards (b. 1922) m. Bob Meng
  • – Madlyn Edwards (b. 1925)
  • Edith Bowles m. Joseph Foster (1882-1944) of Brighton at St. Saviour’s Church in Brighton in 1908




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Written by Colin Shelley

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