A humble home

Today’s post presents the story of William Bowen, a prominent Christchurch builder, as told by his residence at 441 Madras Street. Archaeologists recorded this building using building archaeology techniques before and during its post-earthquake demolition. 441 Madras Street was initially numbered 9 and then 13 Madras Street before the Christchurch’s street addresses were reorganised in 1911.

William and Ellen Bowen emigrated from Birmingham in 1873 and settled in Christchurch (Macdonald Dictionary of Canterbury Biography B604). William plied his trade as a carpenter in the city over the next decade. In 1891 William and Ellen purchased an empty section on the St Albans extension of Madras Street (LINZ 1891). Here William constructed the house that became the Bowen family home.

The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.

The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.

Over the next 18 years William developed a very successful construction business in Christchurch, becoming one of the city’s foremost builders. As well as his St Albans residence, William owned large premises on Kilmore Street in the central city from which he operated his construction business (Press 2/3/1910). William worked on many major building projects in Christchurch. Some of these became well-known buildings of 19th century Christchurch, such as the Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street (Press 2/1/1907) and Warners Hotel in Cathedral Square (Press 12/7/1900). William was also very active in the building industry’s political scene, being the director of the Industrial Building Society (Press 21/5/1897) and president of the Builders and Contractors Association of Canterbury (Press 29/7/1906). He also seems to have enjoyed participating in Christchurch’s social and recreational clubs. William was vice-president of the Christchurch Amateur Rowing Club (Press 3/9/1904) and a member of the Canterbury Automobile club, for which he drove a ‘French car’ in their Easter rally (Press 8/4/1904).

William Bowen's professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).

William Bowen’s professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).

William also dabbled in property development. The year after they purchased 441 Madras Street William and Ellen Bowen bought the neighbouring property at 443 Madras Street and built a house there before selling it in 1896, presumably for a profit (LINZ 1890). This building was also recorded by archaeologists before it was demolished.

William Bowen died in 1909 (Star 8/10/1909). At the time of his death he owned another house and section at 483 Madras Street and two more undeveloped sections on Madras Street near Canon Street (Press  8/12/1910). The auction of his estate in 1912 provides an insight into his lifestyle through the list of chattels.

Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).

Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).

In contrast to his thriving professional and social life, the archaeological investigation of his house at 441 Madras Street revealed a surprisingly modest residence. The Bowens purchased 441 Madras Street at a time when the outskirts of Christchurch were rapidly developing their suburban character. William Bowen, with his residential life in St Albans and large business premises in the inner city, was typical of the movement towards separation of work and living space that was becoming increasingly common as the city of Christchurch grew and developed.

The section at 441 Madras Street was originally larger than it is today, with room for stables, a carriage shed and a motor shed (perhaps used to house the French car’ that William drove in the 1904 Automobile Club rally). However, the house itself, with eight rooms, was surprisingly modest for a man of means with a large family. In contrast, John Cracroft Wilson built himself an 11-roomed house in Cashmere for his family of three (in the 1850s). Bowen’s house was a single-storey weatherboard villa typical of those constructed in late 19th century New Zealand and, like most villas, was formulaic in design. The house was situated on the street front, with a verandah on its front elevation. A central hall ran the length of the house, with rooms opening off to either side.

Floorplan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.

Floor plan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.

No overt indications of conspicuous display were identified in the house. One might have expected a man such as William Bowen to have had a two-storey house, with ornate decorations, such as stained glass and cast iron work, on its exterior. The only stained glass around the front entrance of 441 Madras Street was installed in the 1980s. However, several decorative features were recorded inside. These included a mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door, a moulded plaster hallway arch, and several ornate ceiling roses and picture rails. These features are not unusual in late 19th century Christchurch houses, and are particularly common in houses occupied by the respectable middle-class.

Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.

Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.

The house had five fireplaces, four of which remained in their original condition. These fireplaces had moulded timber surrounds and were decorated with embossed patterns or colourful painted tiles. One fireplace was of particular interest. Along with decorative tiles, the fireplace had embossed panels emblazoned with the words ‘The Congo’ and the head of a mustachioed man flanked by two lions. This man was identified as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American journalist and explorer famous for uttering “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” upon discovering the missionary in Tanzania in 1871. Stanley had a long and complicated association with the Congo region, one that has subsequently been approached with criticism (Driver 1991). It is not clear why Stanley’s head was considered appropriate decoration for a suburban fireplace in Christchurch. Perhaps it was created in celebration of his feats of exploration. Or perhaps it was produced by a fireplace manufacturer named for the Congo. At the height of his popularity, Stanley’s image was used to sell “everything from soap to Bovril” (Driver 1991: 134).

Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.

Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.

The historical sources depict William Bowen as an extremely industrious and successful tradesman, active in both professional and social organisations. He was not only employed on major construction projects, but dabbled in property development and was presumably wealthy. The archaeological examination of his residence adds a new dimension to this image. While a comfortable residence, 441 Madras Street was more modest than what could have been expected of a prominent tradesman with a large family. It is possible that the house was built before the height of William’s success, and the family did not feel the need to change it. Alternatively, the residence could be attributed to William’s personal taste, and presumably that of his family, and may have been related to his religious faith.

William Bowen was a member of the Methodist (Wesleyan) church, and prominent in Methodist affairs in Christchurch. Several contemporary newspaper items indicate that both William and Ellen were active members of the St Albans Crescent Road Wesleyan Church (Press 1/5/1897) and that William was president of the Wesleyan Sunday School Union (Press 8/12/1900). The Methodist church emphasised discipline and social responsibility (Shoebridge 2012), and their religious affiliation no doubt influenced the Bowens’ lifestyle, including the house William built for his family on Madras Street.

Rosie Geary Nichol


Driver, F., 1991. Henry Morton Stanley and his Critics: Geography, Exploration and Empire. Past and Present 133: 134-166.

LINZ, 1890. Certificate of title, CB144/91. Landonline.

LINZ, 1891. Certificate of title, CB147/38. Landonline.

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.

Shoebridge, T., 2012. Methodist Church. [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/methodist-church.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.

4 thoughts on “A humble home

  1. Dear Rosie, Katharine & team,

    WH Bowen was our mother’s mother’s father, & so to me this article is priceless!.
    Many thanks to all involved in researching & publishing this.
    Hopefully it may lead to finally making contact with descendants of our NZ lineage. 🙂
    You may be interested in two ‘connections’ I’ve discovered with my own research:-
    1. WH Bowen’s daughter Ida Ellen Cox Bowen (our grandmother) married Roger Sunley from Wellington NZ. One of the Sunleys (I think a William Sunley?) was a friend of Dr Livingstone & managed a plantation in Africa. He outfitted/supplied various expeditions Dr Livingstone undertook. William? later returned to NZ.
    Ida (our grandmother) had a sword & scabard hanging on her wall, that belonged to one of the ‘White’ rescue party that went looking for Dr Livingstone, however I believe Stanley got there first?. Probably this item was given to Roger Sunley.

    2. WH Bowen built the NZ Express building, & the manager was Robert James Jay, originally from Dunedin. Robert married Ida (William Bowen’s daughter) ! 🙂
    And so, these two (WH Bowen & Robert James Jay) were our great grandfathers; on our mother’s side.

    Warm thanks,
    Noel Brettoner

  2. I was researching family history, and is the name THOMAS CHRISTMAS BOWERN (different spelling)….born 24/12/1823, in Middlesex, descendant of a William Bowern in your research?………….Lesley

  3. Hi Katharine & Lesley,

    As yet I’ve not dug very deep into W.H. Bowen’s ancestry, so cannot at this stage comment in that regard. However I have managed to go back into the 1700’s for his wife; Ellen Cox.
    Katharine, are you aware of any surviving descendants of William (“Bill”?) Bowen?.
    One of his daughters married a Redpath.

    kind regards,
    Noel Brettoner

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