Anthony Collins has just published a book of photographs of Birmingham buildings built by his great grandfather’s building firm John Bowen & Sons, which built the Victoria Law Courts and many other well known public buildings.
John Bowen was born in the village of Rochford near Tenbury Wells in 1844 and reputedly walked into town with a sack of tools on his back at the age of twenty three in 1870, before starting on his own in 1875.
He had served an apprenticeship as a carpenter and it is believed worked for a coffin maker before opening his own building and joinery yard in George Street Balsall Heath. One of his first projects was the Red Carriage Bridge in Cannon Hill Park before winning contracts to build some of Birmingham’s Victorian terracotta board schools the first of these being in Kings Heath and in Tindal Street and Mary Street Balsall Heath. These were followed by Wesleyan Churches and Swimming Baths for the Birmingham Corporation.
John Bowen could not have arrived in town at a better time as Joseph Chamberlain was clearing the slums under the Artisans Dwelling Act of 1875 and forming a brand new street to run between New Street and Lancaster Circus, which we know today as Corporation Street. Building sites were leased on ninety nine year leases and many entrepreneurial businessmen took leases and all needed builders. John Bowen was there to step in, and records show that he built at least thirteen buildings which included department stores, office buildings, the Central arcades, and most well known of all the Victorian Law Courts. In its day Birmingham’s Victorian Law Courts were regarded as the finest building in the country. Birmingham solicitors and barristers know that these courts remain one of the City’s gems today and are well worth a visit even if not summoned to appear.
John Bowen went on to build the Wesleyan Central Hall opposite the law courts which replaced an earlier Central Hall which the firm had also built and which after only ten years had become too small for its growing congregation. The firm went on to build the Hollymore Aslyum at Rubery and worked on the Hall of Memory site before finally going into administration in 1963.
Although living in Moseley which at that time was in Worcester, and becoming the High Sheriff of Worcester in 1916, John Bowen was a Birmingham man too. He not only made his money here but used Birmingham solicitors, instructing Alban Buller of Buller Jeffries and making his Will with Coley & Tilley.
Anthony is continuing to research the company of John Bowen & Sons and is keen to learn more about the firm from anyone who comes across records of the firm. The book can be purchased for £5 plus postage online at – www.johnbowen.org – or by contacting him direct on 07979 247400