The “Boxes of Delight” project reveals the amazing but true tale of the Bown family, by Lauren Perrett

“Boxes of Delights” was an 18 month project funded by the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme. It focussed on the archives of two long established firms of Cirencester solicitors (now merged as Sewell Mullings Logie LLP).  Our online catalogue now holds detailed descriptions of both firms’ archives:  Sewell, Rawlings & Logie collection  D181 and Mullings Ellett & Co collection: D1388. Their clients came from far afield, not just Cirencester, so the documents reflect this spread with many deeds and estate papers relating to the South Cotswolds area.  A team of volunteers contributed over 1,000 hours support to the project, and here Lauren, one of the team, reveals the results of some of her work:

Bown bundle image

The Bown family papers bundle

When investigating a box which contained the letters, receipts and wills of the Bowns family of Cirencester, it was unclear what treasures this would unleash. The family history uncovered by these documents, found in the box D1388/box9447/1, consists of crime, transportation, bigamy, the attempt to claim money from an un-dead man, all relating back to the death of the Grandfather John Canter. It appears the Bown family was corrupt in more ways than one.

The story involves the death of a Mr. John Canter who leaves in his will money to his son, Robert, and three grandsons, Robert, Alfred and Fredrick, with their solicitor, a Mr. Stevens of Cirencester, being the one to distribute the money. Robert senior appears to be a slippery character by trying unsuccessfully to claim two of his son’s inheritance money after Robert Junior dies and Alfred is transported. Robert senior continually attempts to provide evidence of the death of both his sons, with no luck, and a letter from his wife to Mr Stevens in 1843 describes how the account of Robert’s death was false. After attempts to better his situation, he tries twice to move to America. On the first attempt his ship sinks off the coast of Liverpool killing his wife and child, described in a lively account to Mr. Stevens. It appears he is married to another woman before heading off to America without his wife, in which his wife describes in a letter that Robert marries again in America. Therefore, his wife in England implies heavily that Robert senior has at least two, possibly three wives, committing bigamy.

Fredrick appears the most successful son of the three, initially corresponding with Stevens to try to gain some money from his Solicitor. His letters later show he is in New York with a successful business, a wife and child. He makes it clear he is not in the same category as his father who he does not associate with, giving more evidence that Robert senior is an undesirable man.

Robert is the youngest of the three brothers and never gains his inheritance from his grandfather due to tragically dying before his twenty-first birthday. There is speculation to the cause of his death, with Robert’s father claiming he drowned after trying to swim to shore after his ship sank in New Orleans, and another account claiming he died of yellow fever. His father and brother, Fredrick, both tried to take his inheritance.

Alfred is the most interesting character in my opinion as he begins the story asking for money from Mr Stevens to help get him and his wife out of poverty. He disappears and then writes to his wife explaining he is a freeman working in Tasmania to better his and her chances in life. He writes to his wife telling her to follow him to Australia, but the truth emerges that he was sent over as a convict and is working in Australia under another name, William Little. His wife, Ann, appears to not know what to do, and after years of no response from him his Father tries to claim his inheritance money. He claimed Alfred died in 1840 when records show Alfred sent his wife a letter in 1843, saying he was a freeholder in Tasmania. This clearly demonstrates how not one, but both parties are lying about their situations, making the story increasingly difficult to piece together.

The accounts of the Bowns family illustrate just how an unknown box can release a world of treasures, allowing an insight into death, crime, poverty, all through one dysfunctional family. It is clear this family would not allow their ties to get in the way of a potential individual success, and an increase in wealth.

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