BOWYER, Anthony (1633-1709), of Camberwell Green, Surr. and the Inner Temple

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1685 - 1687
1690 - 1698

Family and Education

b. 4 Aug. 1633, 1st s. of Sir Edmund Bowyer† by his 1st w. Hester, da. of Sir Anthony Aucher† of Bishopsbourne, Kent.  educ. Christ Church, Oxf. matric. 1651; I. Temple 1653, called 1661, bencher 1682, reader 1686, treasurer 1696–8.  m. 14 Feb. 1673, Katherine, da. and h. of Henry St. John† of Beckenham, Kent, s.p.  suc. fa. 1681.

Offices Held

Chairman, cttee. of elections and privileges 1694–5.

Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695; gov. friendly soc. for widows 1696; cttee. charitable corp. 1707–d.


The Bowyer family was well established on the south bank of the Thames, having first settled in Camberwell in the mid-16th century. Bowyer’s great-uncle, (Sir) Edmund†, had represented Southwark under Elizabeth, while Bowyer’s father had wielded sufficient influence to become a Member for Surrey in the Cavalier Parliament. Although revealing a much closer attachment to Whig principles than his father, Bowyer was later acclaimed as a non-party figure, his epitaph citing him as ‘generally esteemed in his lifetime and universally well-read, especially in the laws of his country, which gave him an equal aversion to tyranny and anarchy’. Despite his Whiggish leanings, Bowyer managed to secure an unopposed return to James II’s Parliament, only to encounter a bitter reversal of fortune when finishing bottom of the poll at the election of 1689. This disappointment could be swiftly forgotten in the aftermath of his victory at Southwark in February 1690, when he was returned alongside the controversial Whig John Arnold*. In common with Arnold, Bowyer subsequently emerged as one of the most prominent Members in the campaign for moral reform, thereby displaying a crusading zeal which was reflected both in his work as a magistrate and through his generous local benefactions.1

At the outset of the 1690 Parliament Bowyer was identified by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) as a Whig, and during the ensuing sessions he established himself as a most active Member. His metropolitan background was reflected in his close involvement in commercial issues, including appointment to the committee to prepare a bill to regulate the East India trade. He was also named to a drafting committee for the regulation of wines. Attentive to constituency affairs, he was nominated for a committee to draft a bill to improve the repair of highways and streets. In addition, he twice acted as a teller in the course of the session: on 13 May, in support of setting a seven-year limit to a bill to confirm the privileges of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and three days later, to oppose the amendments made by the committee of the whole to a supply bill. In a matter of more obvious political significance, Bowyer had argued on 26 Apr. that the proposed abjuration oath was an indispensable safeguard during the King’s absence. However, three days later, when the House discussed the potential threat posed by English Catholics, he seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance by requesting clarification of the term, ‘a reputed papist’.

Although there is no evidence to suggest a specific connexion with Ireland, Bowyer’s anxiety over its future, particularly with regard to its Protestant communities, may have been increased by a visit to Ireland earlier in the year, an ‘Anthony Bowyer’ having been granted a pass on 7 Mar. to travel across the Irish Sea. Apart from appointment to committees on Irish issues, his other activity revolved around issues of more local significance, most notably his management of another bill to erect a court of conscience in Southwark. Selection for the committee to prepare a bill to regulate the King’s Bench and Fleet prisons reflected his local magisterial responsibilities, and a concern for law and order was also suggested by a nomination to the drafting committee on a measure to secure the highways from robbers. He also sponsored a measure to incorporate the proprietors of the York Buildings waterworks in London. Although there could be little doubt concerning his metropolitan loyalties, his political allegiance was viewed with some suspicion by Robert Harley*, who, having initially listed Bowyer as a Country supporter in April 1691, later amended this assessment to ‘doubtful’. Subsequent assessments of Bowyer’s politics consistently bracketed him with the supporters of the Court, but his continued endorsement of reforming initiatives no doubt gave Court politicians grounds to suspect him.

The third session saw Bowyer pursue familiar interests, particularly a bill to improve the general standard of the highways, which he steered through the House. He also presented a measure to pave and clean the streets within the bills of mortality, was nominated to the drafting committee for a bill to explain the acts for the settlement of the poor, and chaired the committee of the whole on the London orphans bill (11 Feb. 1692). Such diligence did not deter him from more controversial issues. Focusing on Irish affairs, on 30 Nov. 1691 he successfully moved for provision to be made to enable Irish Quakers to signify their loyalty, thereby demonstrating his support for the Quaker affirmation championed by other moral reformers. His backing for electoral reform, a perennial Country cause, was also revealed when he was first-named to the committee on the bill to prevent false and double returns. He was also keen to voice his opinion over more politically charged matters of public finance. On 8 Jan. 1692 he spoke in favour of the bill to lessen interest rates, and 11 days later contributed to debate on a proposal to raise a 4s. poll tax. Although he may have shown some sympathy towards English Catholics in the first session, Bowyer revealed little compassion for the Irish rebels, opposing on 5 Feb. an attempt to omit from the Irish forfeitures bill a clause to enforce the surrender of remainders on entailed estates. Thereafter, the campaign to settle the debts owed to the London orphans absorbed most of his parliamentary energies, and on 18 Feb. he acted as a teller to block the reading of the Lords’ bill for the orphans’ relief. In a more factional guise, on 15 Feb. he had opposed a clause tacked to a poll tax bill which would have revived the bill of accounts. He subsequently played a prominent role in the House’s examination of William Fuller, the spy languishing in King’s Bench Prison. On 22 Feb. Bowyer reported to the House on Fuller’s deteriorating health, and he was one of the Members subsequently ordered to take Fuller’s information on oath. He reported back to the Commons the next day, on which occasion he suggested that Fuller was dying. However, his prognosis proved incorrect, and in the next session he was granted leave by the House to give evidence at Fuller’s trial.

Bowyer’s assiduity continued in the 1692–3 session, and included two appointments to drafting committees. On 18 Nov. he spoke against the second reading of a bill to prevent the sale of live cattle, his opposition rooted in a professional anxiety that its provisions ‘altered the old ways of trial by jury’. In the following month he sought to block a bill from the Lords for halting abuses in the butter and cheese trade, although controversy over this commercial measure evidently rested with the decision of the Upper House to introduce a new levy with the bill. In the new year Bowyer twice acted as a teller: on 18 Jan. 1693, in support of a motion to introduce a private estate bill; and on 27 Jan., to agree with the resolution of the committee of the whole to levy a duty on the export of rabbit fur. In between these tellerships, he had attempted to block a motion to allow the Hamburg Company to export cloth to the Continent. There followed a series of important speeches from Bowyer, beginning on 28 Jan. when he rose to support the triennial bill, arguing that ‘he thought long Parliaments very pernicious, and it was one of the articles of your bill of rights to have frequent Parliaments’. Expressing undoubted Country sympathies, he also sought to raise the issue of placemen, by observing, ‘I have heard this present House said to be very well-officered, which I desire to prevent’. Given such political sentiments, it was no surprise that on 7 Feb. he spoke in favour of the clause which called for a Parliament to be held every year. In addition to these constitutional concerns, Bowyer remained closely involved in commercial matters, and spoke on 17 Feb. against the bill to encourage woollen manufacture, arguing that ‘it would prejudice our navigation’ by allowing foreign goods transported in English ships to evade import duties. He then acted as a teller on 20 Feb. in opposition to the revival of the Licensing Act, a stance which possibly reflected a lingering mistrust of the power of the executive. Moreover, three days later his concern for ‘the security of the government’ actually led him to support a motion to enable all Protestants to keep firearms. Similar anxiety over the Catholic threat probably lay behind his appointment on 24 Feb. to the committee to address the King over the mismanagement of Irish affairs. His final speech of the session, on 8 Mar., saw him take a predictably tough line over the disgraced commissioner for the Irish revenue, William Culliford, whose expulsion from the House Bowyer urged. Although evidently eager to expose governmental corruption, Bowyer was identified by Samuel Grascome soon after the end of the session as a supporter of the Court.2

At the beginning of the fifth session, constituency affairs again dominated Bowyer’s concerns for, along with his fellow Southwark Member John Arnold, he was ordered on 28 Nov. to prepare a bill to answer the petition of poor prisoners held in King’s Bench and the Fleet. Accordingly, he was subsequently the principal manager of the resultant measure to explain a recent Act to release poor prisoners. Magisterial interests to the fore once again, he was also closely involved with a bill concerning the registration of deeds. The new year saw Bowyer’s parliamentary standing recognized by appointment to the chair of the committee of elections and privileges, his first report occurring on 18 Jan. Bowyer featured as a teller in four divisions: on 26 Feb., to block the engrossment of a bill to suppress hawkers and pedlars, a measure which he again tried to obstruct in a division on 31 Mar.; on 5 Apr., to reject a provision proposed for addition to a poll tax bill; and, finally, on 16 Apr., to counter a clause in a bill to encourage privateering against the French.

In the final session of the 1690 Parliament Bowyer sought to accelerate the campaign to regenerate the nation’s morals, acting as the principal manager for a bill to suppress profane swearing. Moreover, his reforming zeal was suggested by appointments to drafting committees for bills to regulate the press, and to improve prisons. In the course of 1695 his reputation as a charitable benefactor was further enhanced by his selection as one of the commissioners for Greenwich Hospital. In the Commons itself, professional self-interest was the most likely cause of his close involvement in the House’s debates over stamp duties, an association which led him to take the chair of the committee of the whole on that subject. He was subsequently one of the two Members ordered to prepare measures based on the committee’s resolutions, and acted as the main sponsor of the resultant bill to explain the recent Stamp Act. His final recorded action in this Parliament occurred on 1 May when he was teller against a proposed amendment to a supply bill.

Although one report suggested that he might lose his seat to Sir George Meggot at the Southwark election of October 1695, Bowyer managed to maintain his place with some comfort, and later had the pleasure of seeing Meggot’s petition against the return rejected by the House on 27 Dec. as ‘vexatious, frivolous and groundless’. However, in the new Parliament Bowyer proved much less prominent, confining his activity in the first session to legal and electoral reform. In December he was named to the drafting committee to regulate proceedings in the courts of Equity, and the following month was one of only two MPs ordered to prepare a bill to prevent irregular proceedings by returning officers. His politics remained as consistent as his interests: he was cited as a likely supporter of the Court for the division over the proposed council of trade on 31 Jan. 1696, and voted in late March for fixing the price of guineas. He also found no difficulty in signing the Association.

However, prior to the next session Bowyer’s reputation was threatened by allegations that the recent quartering of troops at Southwark had been obstructed by local magistrates. Fortunately for him, all the Southwark justices were acquitted ‘with honour’, and Bowyer subsequently proved his loyalty to the Court on 25 Nov. by voting in favour of the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. Two days prior to that division Bowyer had maintained his reforming interests when acting as a teller to block the committal of a bill for the further regulation of elections. Before the session was over his good name had once again been tarnished by scandal, after an accusation was laid before the House on 28 Jan. 1697 that he had ‘received a present to favour the prisons’ in Parliament. This new charge, coming so soon after the controversy over the billeting of troops in Southwark, may well have been part of a deliberate campaign to discredit Bowyer, who had no doubt made many enemies in the course of his political and magisterial career. Whether co-ordinated or not, the attack was unsuccessful, for the House quickly voted the story ‘false and scandalous’, ordering the imprisonment of the accuser as well as the removal of the offending libel from the Journal. The only other significant duty Bowyer performed in the remainder of the 1695 Parliament concerned another personal crusade, reporting as he did on 6 Feb. from the committee on a bill for the relief and employment of the poor. By that time he had already established himself as one of the capital’s leading philanthropists by becoming in November 1696 a founding governor of a fund to help poor widows.3

Having remained a largely anonymous figure in the final session of the 1695 Parliament, Bowyer decided not to stand at the Southwark election of July 1698, at which his seat was secured by the Whig brewer, John Cholmley*. Rumours subsequently circulated that a ‘Bowyer’ was likely to stand as a candidate at the Surrey election held a week later, but no member of the Camberwell family featured at that poll. Even though Bowyer was now out of the House, a parliamentary observer identified him soon afterwards as a Court supporter, thereby suggesting that his decision to retire was not motivated by political differences. A preference for local affairs, particularly charitable projects, provides a more likely explanation, especially since in April 1699 he confessed that he was ‘so little an inquirer after news’. In his absence, his half-brother Edmund sought to emulate his success by standing for Southwark at the election of November 1701, but the challenge was easily rebuffed by the sitting Whig Members.4

Away from Westminster Bowyer found many avenues through which to channel his reforming energies. From the turn of the century he used the Surrey quarter sessions to prosecute immorality and profaneness, showing particular thoroughness with regard to Southwark and Rotherhithe. He also featured as one of the earliest subscribers to the SPCK, and in May 1701 was reported to have been willing to donate an annual £20 or £25 to fund local charity schools. The charitable corporation for the relief of poor debtors later became another favourite scheme, and Bowyer did not neglect to follow his ancestors’ example by proving a generous patron to the poor of his native Camberwell. His will also bore witness to his concern for the care of the sick, prescribing that in the event of a complete failure of his line, the Bowyer estate was to go to Greenwich Hospital ‘if there be any seamen actually in it’, and, if it were empty, to St. Thomas’ Hospital, Southwark. His epitaph, raised by his wife, did not fail to pay tribute to his generous nature, boasting that ‘he did justice, showed mercy and was a friend to the poor’. After Bowyer’s death on 28 June 1709, a pamphleteer was moved to publish a funeral oration in Bowyer’s honour, taking the opportunity to launch a bitter attack on prevailing immorality and High Church zealotry. This broadside also left a convincing portrait of the high-mindedness of the deceased justice:

          severe in virtue and upright in mind,
          and so made fit to regulate mankind;
          he first reformed himself and then the state,
          a pattern for the modern magistrate.

Although the family mansions stood for over a century as lasting reminders of Bowyer’s extensive influence in Camberwell and its environs, none of his successors achieved his prominence either locally or nationally.5

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. Manning and Bray, Surr. iii. 406, 408–9; IGI, London; J. Aubrey, Surr. i. 181; Surr. Arch. Colls. iii. 220–6.
  • 2. Bodl. Rawl. A.79, ff. 84–85, 89; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 499; Luttrell Diary, 50, 117, 141, 156, 172, 187, 201, 235, 320, 374, 391, 407, 430, 444, 471.
  • 3. Evelyn Diary, v. 211; Add. 70070, newsletter 29 Oct. 1695; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 565; iv. 120, 175; Friendly Soc. for Widows (1696).
  • 4. Northants. RO, Isham mss IC1590, John Isham to Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, 2 Aug. 1698; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF/1093(6), Bowyer to Edward Clarke*, 5 Apr. 1699.
  • 5. Surr. RO (Kingston), QS2/1/8, pp. 234, 271; QS2/1/9, pp. 53, 69; Chapter in Eng. Church Hist. ed. McClure, 3, 6, 7, 125, 131, 135; Sel. Charters, 257; Manning and Bray, 448; PCC 48 Smith; Aubrey, 181; Funeral Satyr in Memory of . . . the Late Mr Anthony Bowyer . . . by a Friend of Dr Sacheverell’s Club (1709), p. 5; D. Allport, Colls. of . . . Camberwell, 68–72.