Virginia Barton

A lovable and loyal philanthropist

Catholic Herald, 19 April 1991


Review: The Life and Writings of Sir George Bowyer by Dorothy Heffernan (Newmark Editions, two volumes, £24.90)


Whilst the subject of this biography holds centre stage, everybody who was anybody in the Catholic milieu of the last century is to be found in these two volumes.

We are justly proud of our biographical tradition in this country, and we have here yet another example of that exhaustive research, carefully compiled and presented to the reader in simple prose.

03090_1_200pxSir George Bowyer’s may not be the first name we think of when we call to mind the “great” Catholics of the 1800s, but he knew everybody, and his position in society ensured that everybody knew him.

He is an outstanding example of the “nineteenth century gentleman” and his biographer has done full justice to the man – philanthropist, MP, Knight of Malta, lawyer, author, friend. Sir George lived a long and full life (1810-1883), a life of good deeds that is inspiring to read about today.

Sir George Bowyer was born at Radley Hall, near Abingdon, in the building that is now the well-known Radley College. Financial difficulties decided a family move to Italy where the young George was mainly educated. He was a law student at Middle Temple, and in 1839 was called to the Bar. By 1841 he had written two books on law.

His Italian experiences no doubt accounted for his life-long interest in Italian history and politics, and may have contributed to his conversion to Catholicism in 1850, although he himself attributed this to the influence of Cardinal Wiseman’s writings. Whatever the reasons, he became a devoted son of the church and spent the rest of his life promoting, and defending, Catholic causes. This was a brave action by a public figure at a time when cries of “No Popery” still rang loud across the land.

When the hierarchy was reestablished, Bowyer, the brand new convert, gave his energetic support and advice to the new Cardinal (Wiseman), and shortly afterwards to John Henry Newman, whom he stoutly supported in the famous Achilli libel trial.

In 1860 Bowyer succeeded to the baronetcies of Denham and Radley; his wealth increased and so did his acts of charity. These are so numerous it is not possible to list them here. He embarked on the costly business of building the church of Our Lady and St Edmund in Abingdon, the presbytery, and adjacent school.

Another notable act must be his association with the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth in London. Cardinal Wiseman had founded a small Catholic hospital in Great Ormond Street with the help of the Sisters of Mercy. These nuns had recently returned from the Crimea where they had impressed the demanding Florence Nightingale with their courage and dedication. Sir George built a convent for the sisters, and a church. The hospital became the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, whose ranks Sir George had joined in 1858.

There were considerable difficulties and some unpleasantness (all carefully recorded in this book) associated with the hospital, which was eventually relocated in St. John’s Wood. Bowyer’s church was re-built there, stone by stone, and it is no accident that the heart of the faithful knight and benefactor is buried there in front of the high altar.

As the Liberal MP for Dundalk, Sir George was a doughty champion of Catholicism in the House of Commons. He struggled to bring the plight of the poor in Ireland, and at home, to the notice of fellow MPs. He was a tireless worker for the underprivileged for whom he spared neither his purse nor his time.

His biographer does not gloss over his less agreeable characteristics, but the reader is left with the impression of a loveable and loving man, generous and loyal. This inspiring and spirited book is one that every library concerned with Catholic history will wish to own.


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