For the Gowan family, from Wexford, the Troubles dated back to eighteenth century when 20 year old Philip Gowan made the break from the old country, selling his properties in Tipperary and moving to London to make a new life as an ‘American’ merchant.
Philip Gowan (1778-1856) was descended from Scots who had colonised Ireland in the 17th century as a result of the government-sanctioned Plantation of Ulster, when land was confiscated from members of the Gaelic nobility. Philip’s great-grandfather, John Gowan, had been an officer in William of Orange’s army and had amassed large estates in Wexford. Philip’s uncle, John Hunter Gowan, was an Irish loyalist and leader of the Wingfield Yeomanry, aka the 'Black Mob'. His brutality was infamous and in 1798 his men were responsible for a reign of terror when the Catholic peasants of Wicklow and Wexford rose up against British domination. Men were flogged to death, homes were burned, and suspects were tortured with caps of burning tar. Gowan was said to celebrate the atrocities by stirring his punch with the amputated finger of an elderly man who had admonished him for his crimes by wagging his finger. John Hunter Gowan remains a hate figure in local nationalist tradition.
Philip Gowan was already settled in London when he married Cecilia D’Olier in Dublin in 1814. They lived at first in Bedford Place in Bloomsbury where six of their children were born. Cecilia was descended from a French Huguenot family; her great-grandfather, Isaac Olier, escaped to Holland during the Edict of Nantes, adding the prefix D' to his surname. In 1688 he followed William of Orange to England and then on to Ireland where he became a merchant. Cecilia’s father, Jeremiah D’Olier, was a goldsmith and co-founded the Bank of Ireland. D’Olier Street in Dublin is named for him.
Becoming a member of the London Stock Exchange with offices in Billiter Square, Philip’s firm of Gowan & Marx specialised in trading American bonds and we know Thomas Jefferson traded with them in the 1820s. Gowan & Marx financed Moncure Robinson, who designed a revolutionary locomotive which caused a sensation when it was launched in America; he named the engine ‘Gowan & Marx’ after his backers. The Russian ambassador heard about the engine and tried to persuade Robinson to go to Moscow to build locomotives for the Czar.
It seems likely that it was Philip Gowan’s neighbour at Billiter Square, Charles Druce, legal advisor to the Dulwich Estate, who introduced the Gowan family to Dulwich. Gowan moved to Wood Lawn, then an entire terrace rather than the existing house of the same name at 105 Dulwich Village, in 1822 and lived there until his death in 1856, aged 71. His wife, Cecilia, remained at the house until her death in 1860 and is buried in West Norwood cemetery. Wood Lawn was obviously a happy place for the Gowans and some of the family continued to live there until 1878. It was said that Philip had the 300ft lawn laid with special turf from Epsom Downs - perhaps this is why the house had the word ‘lawn’ in its name.
On 25 January 1833 their son, Charles Cecil Gowan had been baptised at Christ’s Chapel in Dulwich. He grew up at Wood Lawn, the youngest of Philip and Cecilia’s ten children. On 26 January 1860, Charles married Elizabeth Anne Cutcliffe from South Molton in Devon. They lived briefly in Sydenham before moving to The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common.
Charles Gowan (1833-1895) started his working life as a clerk to a wine merchant in the City but around the time of his marriage he left there to join the family firm, which by now had become the City’s principal dealer in US securities. As the British Empire stretched across the globe from Canada to India, Gowan & Marx were well placed to take advantage of the opportunities and business was good.
Gowan & Marx were a successful firm but also behaved with exemplary honour. In 1845 a bond they had offered in St Domingo defaulted, but they reimbursed their subscribers in full. In 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated the news caused Gowan and Marx to cease trading even though the firm was widely known to be ‘extremely rich with assets far beyond its liabilities’. It opened again a few days later, ‘paying 20s on the pound’ (ie full value) despite the difficult economic environment.
In March 1873 Charles Gowan and his wife moved into Bell House in College Road, just down the road from Charles Gowan’s childhood home.
Charles and Elizabeth had four daughters, Mary, Frances, Alice and Annie and a son, Frederick. They were very much involved in the local Dulwich community, funding coal, blankets and Christmas dinner for the poor and when Charles Gowan recovered from serious ill health, he presented a white altar cloth to Christ’s Chapel ‘as a thank-offering for his recovery’. Their daughter Annie presented some paintings to the Reading Room (now the Old Grammar School) in the Village at the same time. Charles Gowan died in 1895 and Dulwich’s connection with the Gowan family ended.
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