Bowles Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bowles Surname Meaning

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.

Bowles Surname Resources on The Internet

Bowles Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to Ireland, America, and Canada

England. The original line from Alleyne Bolle 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.  John Bolles of this line departed for America on the Prester John in 1623.

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.

London.  A new Bowles line, of unknown origin, began with Thomas Bowles, a printer and publisher of engraved pictures who set up shop near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the 1690’s.

The business continued over four generations and produced some of the most famous prints of portraits, political cartoons, London landscapes, and world maps, all of which were much in demand. Through a propitious marriage secured in 1799, Henry Carrington Bowles built a family estate at Myddleton Hall in Enfield, Hertfordshire.

In 1677 John Bowles started his glass factory in Southwark, London.  John Bowles’ glass business prospered through four generations and another hundred years. William Bowles owned a related glass factory in Vauxhall from whose profits he was able to buy a country seat in Worcestershire, Burford House, and become a local MP.

Others Bowles in London sought adventures abroad at this time. Enterprising Bowles headed for Virginia and Maryland and later to the Caribbean.

Kent.  There were also Bowles in Kent nearby. One family history records Bowles who were yeomen farmers in the Weald of Kent in the 17th and 18th centuries and blacksmiths in the 19th. A number of Bowles were to be found in the coastal towns of Deal and Dover. Many were seafarers. Others were local tradesmen. Today the name Bowles is associated with an outdoor recreation center near Tunbridge Wells.

Ireland. The earliest Bowles emigration was to Ireland, following Cromwell as “adventurers for land in Ireland.” Thomas Boles or Bowles arrived in Cork in 1649.  His line included British soldiers and ministers.  Bowles in Laios, Carlow, and Tipperary date from the early 1700’s.  Perhaps the longest-lasting Bowles presence has been in Limerick.

However, in the late 1700’s, the tensions between the Catholics and the landowning Protestants were rising.  The following atrocity may or may not have been true; but was believed by many Protestants:

“A Catholic group attacked the home of  Thomas Boles when he was away. They killed his entire family with the exception for one young child who had been put in a sack, hung on a peg on the wall, and covered with coats and wraps. When the father came home, he took his daughter and straight away departed for Canada.”

Many other Protestants decided to leave as well. And Canada could provide a British New World option for them.

America.  The Bowles’ arrivals into America would seem to divide between earlier English merchants and settlers and later Irish arrivals.

Bowles Merchants/Planters.  John Bowles was an early arrival.  He was believed to be onboard one of the three ships that brought relief supplies to the Jamestown colony in 1610.  He returned with Sir Francis Wyatt and 1,200 other planters in 1621.  He owned a plantation on the eastern shore of Warwick Grove and died in 1664 a wealthy man.

Later settlers in Virginia included Thomas Bowles in Hanover County and Gideon Bowles in Goochland County where there was a gold mine nearby. Gideon and his wife had twelve children and their offspring were equally prolific. One of their sons, Anderson Bowles, moved first to Kentucky and then to Missouri where he owned a plantation at Fenton until the time of the Civil War. Other Bowles’ offspring were to be found in Kentucky and Illinois.

Other Bowles plantations were set up later in the south as opportunities diminished in Virginia. In 1830, James Bowles moved his family from Virginia to new lands in Mississippi. Within ten years, James, his wife, and three sons had died. But their spouses, children and grandchildren remained, continuing to run large plantations in Lafayette County. Green Berry Bowles’ Ammadelle plantation was the largest, about 4,500 acres, and was worked by some 80 slaves. There is a Bowles cemetery to the south in Choctaw County.

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.

Bowles in New England. The most notable line here started with John Bowles who came to New England on the Hopewell in 1636.  He settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts where he co-founded the local grammar school.  His descendant Samuel Bowles or Bolles co-founded the Hartford Times newspaper in 1817 and later the Springfield Republican.

Later Bowles Arrivals.  Other Bowles were the later immigrants from England and Ireland, artisans and settlers who sought a new opportunity. Out of this stock came two remarkable individuals.

The first was William Bowles, a native of Maryland who had as a young lad enlisted in the British army but then, hating the discipline, deserted.  He then allied himself with Indians, married the daughter of a Chief, and had great ideas about a future Indian nation.  However, he was in the end undone in 1803 by an American agent who conspired with the Indians against him.

William was the eldest son 0f Thomas Bowles, from the London family of printers, who had emigrated to Maryland in 1758.

The second was John Bowles, the son of a Scots Irish trader and a Cherokee woman.

“John Bowles was the son of a Scotch/Irish trader and a full blooded Cherokee woman. His father was killed and robbed by two men from North Carolina in 1768 when he was twelve. But within the next two years this fair complexioned auburn haired boy had killed both of his father’s slayers.  He then moved south with some followers into Louisiana where he joined up with the Cherokees who lived there.”

He later became their Indian Chief.  John “Chief” Bowles died in 1839 when he and his Cherokees were attacked and slaughtered by Texan troops.

By contrast, another John Bowles came to Texas in 1848 and was an early settler in Bell and later Uvalde county.  “His Bowles family were bold and fearless men and aided greatly in exterminating the hostile Indians there.”

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.

Ontario.  The first Bowles into Ontario came in the late 1820’s. Charles Bowles arrived from Tipperary and worked for two years as a stone mason in Toronto before buying land and homesteading in Peel county.

“He secured a yoke of oxen and an ox sled and, one morning in the spring of 1828, he and his wife just hitched up the oxen and put all their belongings on the sled and headed northwest for their promised land, their New Jerusalem.”

Other Bowles from Ireland soon joined them in their shanty backwoods home. These Bowles raised a formidable family including Annie Bowles, the mother of a future Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Bowles Pearson.

Bowles Family History in Sussex

My own Bowles family line is in Sussex on the south coast of England.  It started with Boulds tailors in rural Leicestershire and John Bowles leaving there for Brighton in the 1830’s.

From this humble origin came an extremely well-to-do and musically talented late Victorian family in Brighton.  Three of the children sought opportunities abroad – Lilian with her fabulous singing voice in Hollywood and Stanley and Nelly in Montevideo because of a family connection with the Eastern Telegraph Company there.

Just click below if you want to read more about this:

Bowles Surname Miscellany

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 outmanoevre 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 center 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.

Reader Feedback – John Bolles on the Prester John.  I am a John Bolles descendant from Osberton in the United States. Recently another descendant posted an article that mentioned John Bolles having come to America on a ship named Prester John in 1623. So far we have been unable to find any record of this ship and we are very curious about it.

Claire Britton-Black (

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.

Reader Feedback – John “Chief” Bowles.  I’ve known about Chief Bowles my entire life and am trying to trace his mother and father’s ancestry. I’m always curious as to who scholars and relations have as his parents and am also curious as to who you might think they were. I have two working theories and would love to hear your thoughts.

Matthew Boles – direct descendant (

Reader Feedback – Pocahontas and Chief John Bowles.  The History of the Bowles Family 1907 book by Thomas Farquhar ends with my several greats grandfather Greenville Peter Bowles buried in Uvalde, Texas.

We were told by my father Florin Bowles Sanchez, whose grandfather was Emmett Bowles of Eagle Pass, that there was a connection to Pocahontas.  From what I have seen, the possibility of Cherokee Chief John Bowles’ son or grandson or of the Chief himself married Frances Bolling who was related to Colonel Robert Bolling.  Other than seeing some genealogy listings online, I do not have such proof.

Paulette Sanchez (

Reader Feedback – Bowles from Kentucky and Texas.  My mother’s family are Bowles. Her dad named George Bowles was from Hopkinsville, Kentucky and migrated to Lubbock county, Texas in the early 1900’s.

A few notable facts about George Bowles’ family.  His father, John Bowles, killed his (John Bowles’) son-in-law, wife, and himself in Kentucky in the early 1900’s. I have an original newspaper article about this. John Bowles’ brother was a founding father of Shallowater, Texas (in Lubbock county).  He was killed in a gunfight with another wealthy landowner in Shallowater. The man that killed him also died in the gunfight.

My mother’s first cousin, Carl Bowles, was a famous outlaw and one of the subjects of The Hothouse (Inside Leavenworth Prison).  A more distant relative is Jim Boles, the actor.  He originally spelled his name Bowles and was from Lubbock.

My name is David Touchstone. My cousin Rebecca Komarek has done research on the Bowles family.

David Touchstone (

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 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.

Bowles Names

  • 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.

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)

Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *