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Moses Bowness, Cumbria's Victorian celebrity

Sue Premru
Sue Premru
Moses Bowness researcher

The Coniston copper mine
The Coniston copper mine where Moses Bowness' father worked

Moses Bowness built the largest photographic business in Westmorland and practised in Ambleside between 1856-1894, where, as an early photographer, he had many notable sitters for his carte-de-visites.

He was born into a copper miner's family in Coniston in 1833, and died after a tragic accident in 1894, after which several of his earlier apprentices went on to establish their own businesses in the area of the country now known as Cumbria.

Herbert Bell purchased his archive, and went on to become an honorary librarian of the Armitt Museum in Ambleside.

Cat Bank early cottages,Coniston
Cat Bank cottages, believed to be a former home for the Bowness family

Victorian work ethic

Moses was an example of the Victorian ethic of self-help - a man of little education but of great enterprise.

At the age of 17 he was working as a farm labourer while his 11 year old brother was at the mine with their father.

It is of speculation whether he was encouraged by the radical Linton who had bought nearby Brantwood, and later sold the rat-infested cottage to Ruskin.

He went on to build his photographic establishment, farm 500 acres and become Secretary to the Hawkshead Agricultural Society.

Royal connections

He was also director of the new Gas Company, he encouraged the tourist trade in Ambleside, exhibited his photographs in London, gave evidence to the Railway Enquiry, worked to save Stock Ghyll and made some reputation as a poet.

Photo collection
A collection of photographs that were taken by Moses Bowness

It is not known how he came to take up photography, but he must have been well enough established by 1857 because in May he went to nearby Grasmere to photograph the young Prince of Wales and his party on their tour of the Lakes - a long description of the tour was given in the local Westmorland Gazette.

From then on he displayed "Photographer to HRH the Prince of Wales" on the reverse.

Married life

By 1861 Moses was a married man with a growing business. He had married Isabella Slater, 16 years his senior, widow of a local builder who ran his private hotel, and with children who were to help his business.

He met, photographed, and sold the books of John Close, the controversial poet who reciprocated by advertising Moses' business in them.

He married his second wife in the register office at Kendal 18 months after the death of Isabella.

Moses Bowness printed material
Moses Bowness was also engaged in printing and hand-colouring

She was the much younger Helena Huddlestone, one-time heiress of a director of the East India Company, who had already borne several of his children.

They lived in Belmount, the Georgian house later bought by Miss Owen, a friend of Beatrix Potter. It is now owned by the National Trust.

He survived for a few days after being thrown from his carriage near the ferry at Esthwaite, and was buried in his father's grave at Coniston.

Helena was sole heir. She sold up and left the district. All that remains today to remember Moses are a few entries in old gazetteers. He became a forgotten man.




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