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The Strange Military Career of Michael Bowles

by Tom LaPorte

as published in the 2019 Edition of Carloviana: The Journal of the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society


My previous article entitled ‘A Carlow Family in Canada’ in the 2009 edition of Carloviana just touches on a son, Michael, born about 1745 ‘in Killaban parish near Carlow’. Michael had served in the British Army for 21 years and retired to Nottingham with a military pension. The discovery of that discharge document was the loose brick in my wall which redirected my focus to Ireland after years of seeking my ancestors in England from where my very Victorian grandmother had sworn the Bowles came to Canada. This led to the discovery of a deed memorial from 1726 at the Property Registration office in Dublin showing that Michael’s father had been a shoemaker with a shop on Tullow Street in Carlow. Three successive generations of the Bowles family would serve in that trade in Carlow until 1831 when they emigrated to Canada to set up a similar shop in Quebec City.

 The research in my article was wrong on one important point. I had identified Michael as having returned to Ireland by 1801; probably to support his two brothers, both shoemakers in Ballickmoyler, whose homes had been burned during the United Irish Rebellion of 1798. Further research has shown that Michael died in Nottingham in 1799 and that it had been his son Michael Bowles Jr, along with his two brothers, all born in England, who had gone to Ballickmoyler for a few years before going on to Canada.

In my previous article, I had also badly missed the mark on Michael’s career in the British Army which has now revealed itself as a tale of disaster. His regiment had been devastated by tropical disease while stationed in Jamaica with the rest of the regiment being lost at sea after being hit by a hurricane upon their recall to England, with Michael as one of the few survivors. Corporal Michael Bowles then participated in the making of military history as his next regiment was selected to evaluate a new system of tactics which involved intensely drilled battalions of line infantry marching in disciplined formation and firing in devastating volleys before advancing which would become the standard throughout the British Army and which would be used with great success by Wellington against Napoleon.

But the most notable aspect of Michael’s career was his strange connection with Charles Stanhope, the 3rd Earl of Harrington. What was the connection or obligation which caused an English Earl to take an Irish carpenter, a son of a Carlow shoemaker, Corporal Michael Bowles, along with him through his Colonelcy of three regiments between 1779 and 1792?


Michael Bowles1, was born. c.1740 near Carlow, the son of a shoemaker. He left home to work in the mills of Manchester at about 18 years old. He worked as a carpenter there and between 1769 and 1778 he married and raised a family there. As he had enlisted in the British Army in 1771 he must have been assigned to posts near home in his first 7 years of service but those records have not been found. His next 14 years would be more interesting. This detail from Michael’s discharge papers from 17922 shows his origin as near Carlow and his 21 ½ year’s service in the British Army.

Military Service

Not much is known about that first period in service but in 1779 he joined the 3rd Earl of Harrington’s newly formed 85th Foot as a Corporal. His rank would imply that he did have some battlefield experience but I have been unable to find any record of it. When the 85th sailed to Kingston, Jamaica early in 1780 the newspapers reported the departure of “one of the finest corps that ever left the shores of England for the Antilles”3. They also reported the brave but unwise decision made by Harrington’s wife to accompany the regiment, just days after having had a baby4.

The story of the 85th Foot is one of the worst in the British Army’s history. Quartermaster records show that the force included 10 companies with each company consisting of a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, two drummers and 70 private men plus the regiment’s colonel, 2 majors, 1 adjutant, 1 chaplain, one quartermaster, one surgeon, 1 assistant-surgeon and 2 fifers for the grenadier company; a total of 830 men.5 The Annual Register for the regiment is slightly different, giving its total as 29 officers and 733 noncommissioned officers and rank and file.6 The conditions in the camp in Jamaica were so severe that the 24 December 1780 muster at Up Park Camp in Kingston7 (above) shows that by that date, of those 750 to 800 men during that 300 day period, there were four officers and 165 non-commissioned officers and men sick in hospital and quarters; and 2 officers and 130 men had died. Michael’s particular company had shrunk to the captain, the lieutenant, no ensign, 1 of the original 4 sergeants (plus a second Sergeant, the former Corporal Michael Bowles), 1 of the 4 corporals, 1 of the 2 drummers and only 25 of the original 70 men. Michael was promoted to Sergeant when the other Sergeants died. The decimated regiment was ordered home the next year, sailing in various ships accompanied by an English fleet. Most of the 85th were on three captured French ships which were being transported back to England. Harrington’s NCO’s (his sergeants and corporals) were mentioned in a dispatch the captain sent to the Admiralty as having been taken aboard the captured French flag ship, the Ville de Paris.8 The fleet sailed from Bluefields, Jamaica, heading for New York but encountered heavy weather and steered northwards to try to make Halifax; but it was struck by a hurricane resulting in the loss of most of the fleet. Hope was held out for months as occasional ships from the fleet managed to straggle back to England but the three ships that the 85th were on remained overdue until a single survivor reported the sinking with all hands of the 3 ships including the loss of the Ville de Paris carrying the N.C.O.’s.9 That should have been the end of Michael but I next found him in the 85th’s muster roster at Dover Castle with Harrington in 1782 waiting for the overdue regiment to arrive, not knowing yet about the extent of the losses to the hurricane. That muster lists the company’s three sergeants as Michael Bowles at Dover and two others on board the Ville de Paris. It also lists the great number of men still thought to be either in Jamaica or on their way back and only a few of the 85th waiting at Dover with Harrington.10 Michael’s presence there is explained by a news item in a paper the year before, mentioning the arrival of ‘a vessel from Jamaica, which brings home Lord Harrington and his suite passengers, with the officers of some of the young regiments, who are come home to recruit, the regiments being so reduced by sickness, as to render it necessary to incorporate the remainder of the privates with the old regiments.’11 After the extent of the regiment’s loss was realised the 85th was disbanded with the surviving men being assigned to other regiments while Harrington was given the command of the 65th Foot in Ireland on 12 March 1783. The rosters of the 65th Foot for 1783 have not survived but the next roster now in the National Archives was taken at Mullingar, Ireland and covered the period from 1 January to 31 March 1784.12 It shows Harrington as the Colonel of the regiment and surprisingly, Corporal Michael Bowles was also there. Comparing the names in the 65th’s roster with the 85th’s roster, Michael was the only one of the survivors of the 85th regiment to accompany Harrington to his next command. None of his surviving officers had even transferred with him. Michael was again a Corporal, probably as his promotion to sergeant in Jamaica was only a field promotion necessitated by the death of most of the company’s sergeants. Michael remained with the 65th until March 23, 1787, the full term of Harrington’s command. In 1784 the 65th had the unique role of being the regiment used to evaluate a new system of tactics brought forward by General Sir David Dundas, Adjutant-General of the Army in Ireland. His Principles of Military Manoeuvers was published in 1788. His thrust was to avoid the light infantry tactics employed by Cornwallis and William Howe in North America, and instead favoured the drilled battalions of line infantry marching in disciplined formation, as exemplified recently by Frederick the Great’s Prussians. Captain Mackay’s company of the 65th had only one sergeant and two corporals to drill their 50 men in these new tactics so Corporal Michael Bowles would have had an active involvement with the field work. The test met with such success that according to Memoirs of the Earl of Harrington13, “the progress that was made in it, and the evident utility to be derived from it in execution, steadiness, celerity and order, were fully exemplified at the time, which induced other regiments to follow the example; so that shortly after, it became general in both kingdoms.” These new tactics were “by the King’s orders directed to be implicitly followed by every regiment in the service” and were used with great success by Wellington against Napoleon. They were described as ‘The New Manual and Platoon Exercises, as practiced by His Majesty’s Army’ when they were illustrated by the London printer John Bowles in 1795.

In 1785 the 65th was ordered to America to defend Canada from the encroaching newly-independent US. However, Harrington obtained permission to remain in England. The muster taken at the Cove of Cork in May 1785 as the troops were preparing to sail14 shows that Harrington had chosen three soldiers from the 55 men in Captain Mackay’s company to remain in England on a recruiting assignment. The three were Captain John Mackay, Sergeant William Johnson and Corporal Michael Bowles. That number would grow somewhat before the ships sailed though, as the first muster taken in Quebec a month later shows that as well as Harrington having been given the King’s Leave to remain in England, another 8 of the company’s 23 officers had also obtained King’s Leave to remain in England.15 The recruiting party had grown to 12 men including one more officer and still including Corporal Michael Bowles. The first roster taken in Quebec in 1786 shows that Michael, still recruiting in England, had been promoted to Sergeant.16

On January 26, 1788 the colonel of the 29th Regiment died and the King immediately assigned that command to Colonel Harrington. Again he brought just a few men with him. The muster rolls for the 65th regiment shows that Lieutenant William Harness and Ensign, the Honourable Augustus Barry, were exchanged to the 29th Regiment on 18 March 18 1788.17 Michael would follow them, on paper, just 6 days later. The muster roll of the 29th Foot shows that Harrington assumed command on 27 January, Lieutenant William Harness had exchanged from the 65th regiment on 19 March but was now absent on the Colonel’s leave and Corporals Michael Bowles, Thomas Whitton and Thomas Grainger had joined from the 65th regiment on March 24 and were on a recruiting assignment since then (as of 24 December 1788).18 Sergeant Michael Bowles’ transfer was not done through regular channels though as while he was already at the 29th by 24 March, he was only discharged from the 65th on 23 June 1788. There is no indication that Michael ever actually had to report to his new regiment though as the last musters of the 65th and all the musters taken during his 5 years with the 29th all show him as absent on recruiting assignment.

This was now Michael’s third regiment under Harrington’s command. He would serve in these three regiments from 1779 until February 1792 without ever seeing combat at a time when the British Army was facing both the Americans and Napoleon. For a lowly NCO, Michael Bowles really seems to have been looked after well. The rosters do not tell us why19.

In 1792 Michael was discharged and was awarded an army pension for his 21½ years service as being ‘worn out from service to His Majesty’.20 Michael signed his acceptance of his discharge papers in Nottingham where he seems to have married again. In fact it appears that he married and had three children in Nottingham while he was on his recruiting assignments.

Michael had married twice in Manchester before his departure for Jamaica with Harrington in 1780, but there are baptismal records for parents Michael and Hannah Bowles at St Nicholas, Nottingham during the period that our Michael was recruiting: Mary on 17 June 1786; Charlotte on 20 March 1789 and David on 3 June 1792. I haven’t found any other reference for a Michael Bowles in this area. There is also only one Michael Bowles marriage in this area in this period in the online records and that was a widower, aged 35, to a Hannah Gosling, widow, aged 23 on 23 September 1782 at Witton-cum-Twambrooke Chapelry, Cheshire. Witton is about 20 miles SW of Manchester where Michael originally settled in England and where people from many miles around went to find work in the factories there.

After discharge from the Army

After his discharge in 1792, Michael appears to have settled down in Nottingham. The first mention of Nottingham in Michael’s service history is a reference in 1782 when Colonel Harrington and Michael had returned from Jamaica and were based at Dover Castle. The remainder of the 85th had been recalled but had not yet arrived in England. While they waited at Dover, there is one note of an attempt to rejuvenate the regiment with recruiting parties being sent to Nottingham and Northampton. As the sole remaining Sergeant, Michael would have accompanied those recruiting parties, particularly the one to Nottingham as we find him settled there later.

In 1797/98 he served for 6 months as a recruiter when the Loyal Nottingham Foresters were first formed with Major James Murray as their commander. This was possibly the same person as the Drummer James Murray who had served with Michael in the 65th Foot on recruiting assignments for Harrington from 1785 until 1788. At a time when army commissions were purchased, promotions could come quite quickly. Harrington himself had risen from an Ensign in 1770 to a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1776.

Michael’s discharge papers after his 6 month stint recruiting for the LNF were signed by James Murray, Major and Commander of the LNF, in Manchester on April 11, 1797 while Michael signed his acceptance of this second discharge at Nottingham 4 days later. His discharge states that Michael served as a Sergeant for 6 months and was discharged at his own request being only engaged to recruit for said term, he was 48 years old, 5 feet 7 inches high, dark complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, born in Ireland and by trade a Joiner (a carpenter).21

Likely he was the Michael Bowles buried at St Mary, Nottingham on 20 August 1799.22

If this was our Michael and he then died at Nottingham in 1799, Hannah would have been left with three children and without support and would likely have soon remarried or possibly would have to go into a workhouse. So far I can’t find any further trace of Hannah or the three children online.

One of Michael’s boys, Michael Jr. (b. 1778, Manchester) had also joined the British Army but was injured in Wellington’s occupation of Egypt in 1801 and was pensioned out with impaired vision. He then returned to the Bowles family home in Ballickmoyler where he appears in the minutes of the nearby church at Castletown by 1807.



1 More information on Michael Bowles (including Images of all the muster books which he appears in from 1779 to 1792 ) can be found at:

2 The National Archives, Kew Gardens, Richmond, Surrey; War Office, Records of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, Discharge Documents of Pensioners : WO 121/13/168

3 Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, Volume 128, Part 1; H. Colburn, Hurst and Blackett Publishers, London, 1872; Notes Illustrative of the Services of the 85th Regiment of Foot, p. 326

4 The baby survived to become the 4th Earl

5 Ibid, p. 325

6 Ibid, p. 326

7 National Archives, War Office, General Muster Books and Pay Lists, 85th Foot 1st Battalion: WO 12/8812

8 Letter-books and Order-book of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, 1780-1782, Volume 1, by George Brydges Rodney, Baron, Printed for the New York Historical Society, J.J. Little & Co., 1932, p. 492-493, Letter from Captain Richard Curgenven aboard the Ville de Paris [Port Royal Harbor, Jamaica] 13th July 1782

9 Colburn’s United Service Magazine, Vol. 128, p. 328-329

10 National Archives, War Office, General Muster Books and Pay Lists, 85th Foot 1st Battalion: WO 12/8812

11 The Kentish Gazette, June 27, 1781, p. 3

12 National Archives, War Office, General Muster Books and Pay Lists, 65th Foot 1st Battalion: WO 12/7378

13 The British Military Library: Comprehending a Complete Body of Military Knowledge, and Consisting of Original Communications, with Selections from the Most Approved and Respectable Foreign Military Publications, Volume 1, pp. 336-337; J. Carpenter and Co., 1804, London

14 National Archives, War Office, General Muster Books and Pay Lists, 65th Foot 1st Battalion: WO 12/7378

15 Ibid

16 Ibid

17 Ibid

18 National Archives, War Office, General Muster Books and Pay Lists, 29th Foot 1st and 2nd Battalions: WO 12/7378; Muster Books for the period 25th Jun 1787 – 24th Dec 1788

19 If anyone is in a position to help with solving this question there are files in the National Archives at Kew Gardens and in the Derbyshire Record Office that need to be checked. Please contact me for the details.

20 National Archives, War Office, Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Discharge Documents of Pensioners; Period 1792 Feb – Apr, p. 350-351

21 National Archives, War Office, Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Discharge Documents of Pensioners; WO 121/146/77

22 National Burial Index for England & Wales, Nottinghamshire Family History Society The New Manual and Platoon Exercises, as practiced by His Majesty’s Army, 1795 Michael Bowles_Layout 1 09/09/2018 13:50 Page 4

See The Bowles of Canada

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See The Bowles of Great Britain

This page was last updated 12/21/18