Bowles Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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There were many early variants of Bowles, Bolle, Bolles, Bowls,
Boals, Bowle, Boles, and finally Bowles. Some Bowles were once
Bould and Boulds, names which have remained as a separate regional form. Boles and Bowles both continued into the 19th century. But now Bowles is generally the standard spelling.
The recognized forebear of the Bowles line is Alleyne Bolle who resided in the 1200’s in Bolle Hall on the head of the Swine river in Lincolnshire. He is possibly of Norman descent and the name
originating from Bouelles in Normandy. Other suggestions are that the name is of Saxon origin, Boll meaning “steward,” or comes from a Viking named Bolla.

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England. The original line continued until Elizabethan times when Sir John Bolle was the dashing captain at the capture of Cadiz. Three branches said to have derived from these Bolles were those of Gosberton, Bromley/Chislehurst, and Osberton:

  • the Gosberton country seat was Scampton Hall in Lincolnshire. There is early evidence, in the 1450’s, of their presence in Kent. The draw of London and its trade opportunities appeared to be the reason.
  • a possibly related branch also settled in Kent in the late 1500’s. Proximity to political power in London enabled William Bowle and his successors to secure and hold onto
    the oddly named “Groom of the Tents and Pavilions,” in essence an exclusive license to supply the army with tents.
  • the third Bowles branch was started by William Bolles
    from Suffolk, one of the commissioners executing the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Out of these profits, he acquired property at Osberton near Worksop in Nottinghamshire.

While some of these Bowles faded away in time, many remained to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves in London during the 17th and 18th centuries. Some stuck to trade. John Bowles started his glass factory in Southwark, London in 1677. Others Bowles sought adventures abroad. Enterprising Bowles headed for Virginia and Maryland and later to the Caribbean.

Ireland. However, the earliest emigration was to Ireland, following Cromwell as “adventurers for land in Ireland.” Thomas Bowles arrived in Cork in 1648. Bowles were later to be found elsewhere, particularly in Limerick. They generally remained staunch Protestants in a Catholic land. As sectarian strife mounted in the early 19th century, many departed for Canada.

America. The Bowles in America were first of the merchant/planter class, initially in Virginia and later, as opportunities there diminished, in the south. Other Bowles did arrive and settled elsewhere. Two notable later Bowles, both with Indian associations, were William Bowles and John “Chief” Bowles.

The Federal Census of 1920 showed that the old slave-owning states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri still had the largest number of Bowles in the United States.

Canada. Bowles from Ireland came to New Brunswick, Montreal, Quebec City, and various parts of Ontario by the 1820’s. Charles Bowles, who arrived from Tipperary in the late 1820’s, was the forebear of a formidable Bowles family, including Annie Bowles, the mother of a future Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Bowles Pearson.


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Sir John Bolle and the Green Lady of Thorpe Hall.  Tradition has it that amongst the prisoners taken at Cadiz in 1595 it fell to the lot of Sir John Bolle to take charge of a lady of extraordinary beauty and of distinguished family and great wealth.  The noble knight treated her with the care and tenderness which was the right of her sex.

This generous care evoked feelings of gratitude that ultimately warmed into love. She threw herself at his feet and entreated him to allow her to accompany him back to England as his page. But the gallant knight had a wife at home and demurred. The beautiful and inconsolable lady retired to a nunnery, there to spend the remainder of her days in sorrow and seclusion.

On Sir John’s return, he sent as presents to his wife a profusion of jewels and other valuables, amongst which was the lady’s portrait, taken as she was, dressed in green. The picture was hung in Thorpe Hall. The picture, being in green, led her to be called the Green Lady.

Superstition has it that the old hall was haunted by her and that she used nightly to take her seat by a particular tree near the mansion. It was also said that, during the lifetime of Sir John’s son, a knife and fork were always laid for her at table, if she chose to make an appearance.

John Bowles and His Southwark Glass Factory.  Glass used to be scarce in England and a privilege of the aristocracy. Pane glass would come from Normandy to meet their needs in coaches and pictures; whilst the secret of looking-glass plates remained the preserve of the Venetians and was jealously held. Glass also required a special ingredient, a weed known as barilla which yielded carbonate of soda, and this could only be sourced from the Mediterranean.

The late 17th century saw a change in house construction as sash windows came into fashion to replace the old lattice casements.
This created a new demand for glass. And it was John Bowles, a
well-to-do and well-connected merchant, who first met the demand.

He came by this business by a combination of luck, opportunism, good contacts, and business planning. The Duke of Buckingham had secured the royal license for making glass in England. However, his charter was revoked when he was declared a traitor and thrown into the Tower.

John Bowles eventually secured the concession and was able to outmanoeuvre a rival group who were operating a small glass-making business at Ratcliff in Southwark. He financed there on a six-acre site new glasshouses and workshops and recruited foreign craftsmen who brought with them their skills in glass-making. The plant opened in 1677. Its main product was crown glass, so named because it was made for many years with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate.

The premises at Ratcliff were imposing. They included a house of some size, stabling, a coach house, a garden and an orchard, and were approached through an archway which bore the Bowles arms. John Bowles’ business was handed down through four generations. But a fire broke out in 1794 which destroyed most of the buildings. Only a wharf onto the Thames remained.

Bowles in Limerick.  The longest-lasting Bowles presence in Ireland perhaps has been in the city of Limerick.  Henry Bowles was a respected clothier on Catherine Street in the early 1800’s and the Rev. Frances Bowles preached to the faithful in the 1850’s.  The following limerick was ascribed to him:

“A vicar, the Reverend Bowles
Took care to protect all our souls;
With a stern but fair grin
He would steer us from sin
And make godly living our goal.”

Later, George Bowles was the city’s Chief Air Warden during World War Two and Richard Bowles was, until recently, Limerick City’s goalkeeper.

William Bowles Among the Muskogee Indians.  William Bowles, a native of Maryland, entered the British army at the age of fourteen as a foot soldier. After a year’s service against his countrymen, he sailed in 1777 with a British regiment to Jamaica as an ensign and from there to Pensacola. Here he was deprived of his rank for insubordination.

Disgusted with military discipline and fond of a roving life, he contemptuously flung his uniform into the sea and left Pensacola in the company of some Creeks. He lived upon the Tallapoosa for several years and acquired the Muskogee language to great perfection. He visited the lower towns and there married the daughter of a Chief.

His elegant and commanding form, fine address, beautiful countenance of varied expressions, exalted genius, daring and intrepidity, all connected with a mind which fitted him to sway the Indians and traders among whom he lived.

In 1803, at a feast given by Indians in the Creek town of Tukabatchee, Bowles declared himself president of all the Indian nations present. However, the next day Colonel Hawkins, an American Indian agent there, had gained enough support among the Indians to have him captured and put in irons. He was placed in a canoe full of armed warriors who then rapidly rowed down the river. Arriving at a point in present day Dallas County
Alabama, the canoe was tied up, the prisoner set upon a bank and a guard set upon him.

In the night, the guard fell asleep. Bowles gnawed his ropes apart, crept down the bank, quietly paddled across the river, entered a thick cane field, and fled.

At the break of day, the astonished Indians arose in great confusion. But they saw the canoe on the opposite side of the river, which Bowles had foolishly neglected to hide, and they were soon on his track. By the middle of the day, they once more made him a prisoner. He was conveyed to Mobile and thence to Havana, where, after a few years, he died in the dungeons of Moro Castle.

John “Chief” Bowles and the Battle of the Neches.  John “Chief” Bowles was eighty three years old when he led his Cherokees against Texan troops in the Battle of the Neches in 1839. The following is an eyewitness account of that battle:

“Throughout the battle his voice could be heard urging his troops on. He was a magnificent specimen of manhood. His horse was shot several times and fell to the ground, throwing off his rider. The chief slowly rose to his feet and as he walked away he was shot in the back by Henry Cromer. Bowles took several steps and fell and then rose to a sitting position. He was approached by Captain Smith. I said, “Captain Smith, don’t shoot him,” but as I spoke, he fired, shooting the chief in the head.

Bowles’ body was mutilated by the Texans. His unburied body lay for several years on the spot where he fell.”

On a little plain above the Neches river some 12 miles outside Tyler, Texas, a small monument stands like a forgotten sentinel. The inscription reads: “On this site the Cherokee Chief Bowles was killed on July 16, 1839, while leading 500 Indians of various tribes against 500 Texans, the last engagement between Cherokees and whites in Texas.”

Nothing else marks the site. The monument seems austere, a grudging acknowledgement by the state of Texas of a troublesome enemy.

Early Bowles in Canada.  St. John in New Brunswick was the early entry port for immigrants. Starting around 1815, many Irish immigrants, mostly Protestant initially and tradesmen by profession, came to the city and formed the backbone of its workforce.

The early Boles seemed to have arrived there in two main family groups, Hugh Boles and his family around 1818 and Thomas Boles and his family around 1827.  Robert Boles and his family were early arrivals into Nova Scotia from Tipperary in 1825.

The Rev. Richard Bowles, a descendent in Canada of these early
emigrants, looked back on these times with a certain even-handedness.

“Tradition has it that these Bowles had served in the Irish Constabulary by which England had made effective her will on that green, rebellious, and freedom‑loving island. But it seems probable that, by the time of the fourth or fifth generation of them, their English blood had become at least eighty percent Irish. They were no longer cold‑blooded, calculating, rational and highly reasonable folk. Rather, they had become warm‑hearted, hospitable, sociable, highly emotionalized, a bit irresponsible, impetuous, hilarious and blessed with a high disregard of consequences.”

That may be stretching it.  But there was evidence in Bowles families over time of inter-marriage and some Bowles becoming Catholic.


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Alleyne Bolle of Bolle Hall in Lincolnshire is the reputed founder of the Bowles family.
Sir John Bolle was the daring adventurer for Queen Elizabeth
in the attack on Cadiz in 1595.
Thomas Bowles started his renowned printing and publishing
business in London in the 1690’s which was passed down over four generations.
John “Chief” Bowles’ father was Scotch/Irish, his mother Cherokee. He became a Cherokee Chief, but was massacred with his people by Texan troops in the Battle of the Neches in 1839.
Paul Bowles from New York achieved success as a musical composer and later, after he had moved to Tangier in 1950, as a writer and author of such novels as The Sheltering Sky. His wife Jane Bowles was also an accomplished writer.

Select Bowles Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hampshire)
  • 7,500 in America (most numerous in Virginia)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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