Russell Bowlby (1792-1865) > Part 6 | HEATHER'S HISTORICAL SOCIETY
RUSSELL BOWLBY (1792-1865)

PART 6: Church, Establishment and Press

There was an inextricable link between Russell Bowlby's political and religious views. It was his non-belief in Christianity and his campaign to relax the control of the Church of England, which contributed early in the next decade to his withdrawal from political life.


St Hilda's was the established church in the town. However, there were many Protestant dissenters some of whom were Scots settling in the area with the growth of the shipping industry. They worshipped predominantly at the Scottish Presbyterian Chapel built in 1740 and the Scots Chapel in Heron Street erected in 1770. Both were enlarged in 1817. By 1827 there were eight other religious establishments not controlled by the Church of England; a United Secession, an Independent Calvinist, two Baptist and four Methodist. The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Chapter Row, which was built in 1800, seated 1700 people. (1)

The concession of Catholic emancipation by the government in 1829 was welcomed in South Shields in contrast to hostility of the magistrates and clergy of Gateshead, Bishopwearmouth, Monkearmouth and several rural parishes (2).

Without parliamentary representation, it was the Magistrates that expressed the views of the people with Nicholas Fairles as the Senior Magistrate; he was conscientious in his pursuit of not only of parliamentary representation but also in addressing the concerns of the residents including that of religious liberty. The fact that marriages could only be solemnized in the Church of England regardless of the religious denominations of the couples was a cause of much dissatisfaction especially by dissenters in South Shields and Westoe. Together with the Dissenters of Stockton, they instigated a Dissenters' marriages bill in March 1823. On the 9th February 1829 there was a petition on behalf of the Protestant Dissenters of South Shields to the House of Lords for civil registration of marriage (3).


This was a parish property tax that sustained the Church of England levied for the repair of the fabric of parish churches. It applied not just to owner-occupiers but also to those who rented properties regardless of religious persuasion (4). There was little opposition to these rates until 1811, when the dissenters, especially in the towns, began to refuse to pay for the upkeep of the churches, which they did not attend. (5)

To address the issue in South Shields a meeting was scheduled for the 8th July 1834 by James Mather and John Lackland to take place in the Market Place with WH Ord, MP for Carmarthen as the lead speaker. The previous day, to rally support, the broad aims were set out which were condemnation of the power of the church and that an alliance between the Church and State was Unchristian. This was widely approved by the crowd that gathered in the Market Place of religious dissenters who were also predominantly Whigs and Radicals.

Alarmed by this potential attack on the Church, on the day of the meeting, supporters of the Church congregated in more significant numbers lead by Richard Shortridge, Senior Magistrate together with three members of the clergy, Rev. James Carr, Rev. R. Gillian, Rev. R S. Bunbury and prominent members of St Hilda's Church including Christopher Bainbridge, Robert Anderson, J W Roxby, and William Wilson. The latter moved a resolution, which was accepted, that it was the duty of every Christian State to provide instruction for the people.

This was before the dissenting group could present their resolution, which was unexpectedly tabled by Russell Bowlby (his support was not in evidence prior to the meeting),

'the eloquent, immaculate, the magnificent Mr. Russell Bowlby. He, forsooth, is a friend to no religion, yet he wishes to purify the church.'

The actual content of his speech is not recorded although there is reference to his opinion that there should be civil marriage to avoid the hypocrisy of women having to declare their virginity when this was often not the case*. The paper suggests that the speeches of Ward, James Mather and John Lackland were inflammatory and that by the end of the meeting, Russell Bowlby was 'ashamed of his new associates' (6).

Following this event a meeting was held in the Town Hall chaired by Richard Shortridge when it was agreed, despite considerable opposition to send an address to the King and to petition both Houses of Parliament declaring continued support for the established church whilst showing tolerance and addressing the concerns of dissenters (7).

In 1854, John Lackland resisted paying the Church Rates, challenging the right of the Select Vestry at St Hilda's Church to impose them. Represented by Russell Bowlby, John Lackland's case supported by thirteen other was taken to the Quarter Sessions in Durham in April 1854 where it was proved that the rates were unfair, that they were not entirely for the repair of the church and that three of the magistrates who had found him guilty of default, were in fact members of the Select Vestry (8).

Later, in 1834 the Whigs influenced by campaigns throughout the country, did propose to abolish Church Rates in return for a charge of £250,000 on the land tax. The estimated value to the Church was of £560,000. The Church thought that the sum was too small whilst the dissenters thought that it was too large. The matter was left unsettled until the Prime Minister; William Gladstone in 1868 abolished them.


This Conservative weekly newspaper first published in 1832 was particularly hostile in its reporting of events associated with Russell Bowlby. This was not only that he was a Radical and an associate of the Earl of Durham but also because he did not endorse the doctrine of the Church of England. His enterprise, eloquence, demeanour, intellectualism and oratorical skills appear also to have been the cause of some of their resentment not only by this newspaper but also by his opponents, which I have considered in earlier sections.

It was the comments that Russell Bowlby made on the steps of the Town Hall in the Market Place in South Shields prior to the 1832 election, ''When we died, we died like a dog and there was an end of us; that the Scriptures were not inspired, and that the holy religion was all a humbug.'' that the newly founded newspaper used as a basis for their attack on Russell Bowlby's character and their claim that he was an atheist. A series of incidents and court cases followed as Russell Bowlby claimed that he was not an atheist and that he had the right to express his opinions.

1. On the 26th July 1833, there was the first case of libel against the Newcastle Journal. Mr Dundas, the counsel for John Hernaman, the owner of the paper said that his client regretted that the articles

'had given the least pain to a gentleman of honour, such as he believed Mr Bowlby to be; and as the particular words used reflected upon the religious character of Mr Bowlby, he admitted that that gentleman was not an atheist, but that he believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, in whom he trusted, and on whom he rested his hopes of salvation' (9)

2. The reporting of Andrew White's 1837 election campaign in Sunderland was particularly disconcerting. Class-driven as the Newcastle Journal appears to have been, the journalists considered that he was not a credible candidate; a business man from comparatively humble origins with sudden 'flights of greatness'. The fact that the Earl of Durham supported him and that Russell Bowlby was his election agent caused further animosity and bigotry

'At the Hustings in Sunderland he is supported by a reputed infidel (Russell Bowlby) on one side and a Jew (10-David Jonassohn) of enviable fame the other! To crown the whole, Mr. Andrew White, M.P. drove the amiable hamburgher (David Jonassohn) in his Carriage to the nomination at Durham Thursday week, appeared amongst the gentry the County with this virtuous and notable character his Companion! Oh Andrew—this is a sad falling down for aspiring M.P. and an, expectant Knight! (11)

3. It was this reference to him as an 'infidel' which Russell Bowlby considered to be defamatory and untrue that prompted him to petition for legal redress. On the 3rd November 1837, Sir John Campbell obtained a rule, against the publisher of the Newcastle Journal, arguing that Mr. Bowlby had been stigmatized in that paper as an

'Atheist and Infidel, a Radical agitator, and a man living without God'.

Mr. Bowlby swore that he had never doubted the existence of a Supreme Being; and the affidavits of several other persons, who had known Mr. Bowlby for many years, were read, to the effect that Mr. Bowlby had always expressed a firm belief in the existence of God. Mr. Bowlby's real offence seems to have been, his activity as a Reformer' (12).

4. John Hernaman contested the Rule. In an oath of on the 28th December 1837, he said he defended the ‘Christian religion against the scoffs of unbelievers' that he was not 'actuated by any malicious feeling' against Russell Bowlby, but that as a ‘repeated infidel, and a man without a God', truly described him' (13). This lead to the case being brought to the Court of the Queen's Board.

5. The Queen Versus Hernaman: 30th January 1838.
Lord Denman was the leading Judge. Sir John Campbell again represented Russell Bowlby; the defense team led by Mr Cresswell Cresswell M.P. with Thomas Salmon their solicitor. Mr Cresswell Cresswell showed cause against the rule from the content of counter-affidavits by witnesses including Mr Richardson, Mr Stoddart and Mr White (14), re-stating, the comments made on the steps of the Town Hall in 1832, on Christian marriage in 1834* as well as in other philosophical discussions providing evidence to dispute that Russell Bowlby believed in God. In his affidavit Bowlby swore that he never entertained any doubt respecting the existence a God, or of revealed religion. In his ruling, Lord Denman condemned the introduction of religious opinions into political controversy, but he did not consider that special interference from the courts was warranted; he discharged the rule but without costs which is what the newspaper had expected (15).

6. Following this judgment, Russell Bowlby pursued his case of libel against the Newcastle Journal because of their description of him as "a wretch without a God." Serjeant Starkie, his counsel, in the indictment said all that was requested was an expression of regret that the particular words were used. Financial recompense was not sought. Russell Bowlby in his defense," made an oath re-stating that he was not an Atheist, but believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, in whom ho trusted, and to whom he looked up with reverence." The defendant's counsel, again Mr Cresswell made a very humble apology and retraction, which was accepted, by Russell Bowlby and his counsel moved that he should be acquitted.

It was the summing up by Baron Alderson, the Judge that was a further cause of consternation not only for Russell Bowlby but also the liberal press. He said that when Mr. Bowlby retired from that court, he would consider whether the course he had pursued was such as ought to satisfy the mind of a Christian (16).

7. Russell Bowlby presumably wrote to Baron Alderson outlining his grievances. There is no evidence of such a letter, however, there is of the response made by the Judge. The gist of the letter is that he did not recall making the comments but that he 'disclaimed all right to insult, or even to blame you' for your 'conscientious opinions'. He concluded by saying that his beliefs were unsound and that as he was said to be,' a man of sense and good feeling' he would eventually believe in in the truths of revealed religion' that the Saviour died to redeem us all from sin and death' (17).


Russell Bowlby's anti-Christian opinions were not unusual; he was well read (see Parts 1 & 2) with knowledge of eighteenth century philosophers, he would have been open to the views of writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who refuted God's existence writing in a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism "the mind cannot believe in the existence of a God." Although he was still open to the possibility that someone could provide definite proof of God's existence, his concluding comment was that 'Thro' deficiency of proof, AN ATHEIST' (18). Russell Bowlby rejected any suggestion that he was an atheist espousing a belief in a ‘Supreme Being' aligning him to deist philosophy. Robespierre and Rousseau whose influence was such that during the French Revolution the Cult of the Supreme Being was the state religion of France and during the American War of Independence.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809), a deist was perhaps a greater influence. Religion, he said had become corrupted by priests with a strong class interest who manipulated it for personal gain, discouraging people to question and learn, shrouding it in mystery and insisting that the acceptance of their interpretation of the scriptures was the only means of securing salvation (19).


In his criticism and rejection of Christianity, his personal experience of the control of the Church in Durham City was perhaps also a significant influence. He was born in Shincliffe, County Durham in 1792 where his father John Bowlby was the vicar. When John Bowlby was appointed the following year as the Registrar to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, the family moved to Durham City. Russell Bowlby attended Durham School and was articled to John Ward in Durham City. Throughout these formative years, Russell Bowlby, together with his siblings lived in the South Bailley in the shadow of Durham Cathedral. Many of his beliefs, including that of social justice emanate from his early life and his ability to question the authoritarianism of the established church.

This was at a time when the hierarchy of the see of Durham was especially autocratic. Vast swathes of land in the Palatinate (Chester, Darlington, Easington and Stockton) including the mineral extraction belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral. Until 1835/6, the Prince Bishops held vice-regal powers in the North of England, whilst they and the senior clergy prospered; many clergy in the parishes often lived in abject poverty. The rights of a Prince Bishop included the maintenance of a small private army, garrisoned in Durham Castle. The Rt. Rev. Shute Barrington (1734-1826), the penultimate Prince Bishop engaged his troops to break-up a miner's strike in Chester-le-Street on New Year's Day in 1812 (20).

What impact this incident had on Russell Bowlby's later life can only be conjecture. He moved from Durham to South Shields later that year. It was the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819 that had such a significant impact on the political beliefs of his friend and mentor, John George Lambton when he moved to the left of the Liberal Party endorsing a more Radical agenda. This, however, triggered a formidable campaign to unseat him as the MP for North West Durham, which he had represented since 1815. It was, orchestrated by the Dean of Durham, Henry Phillpotts, the very man John Bowlby, reported to. The Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, suggested that he should sign a declaration stating that he was a moderate, which he refused to do (21). The massacre was a defining moment in British politics when cavalry with sabres drawn, charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 protestors demanding parliamentary reform, killing 15 and with up to 700 sustaining injuries (22).



With their father John Bowlby a priest and several close relatives also in the priesthood, it would have been accepted practice that one of his four sons who survived into adulthood, Russell, Peter, Henry and John would have trained for the priesthood. Rather, other than Henry they trained as lawyers. Henry Bowlby (1805-1876) was a surgeon who practiced in South Shields and for over ten years lived in King Street.


He was a significant ecclesiastic in the later Bowlby family. Born in Bishopwearmouth, he married Catherine Salmon (1828-1875), daughter of Thomas Salmon, at St Hilda's Church on the 29th September 1852. Later elevated to the position of Bishop Suffragan of Coventry Cathedral, he was the son of Major Peter Bowlby (1792-1877) who had attended his cousin and associate Russell Bowlby on the occasion of the infamous dual in Herrington in 1832 against Edmund Bradyll.


Some of the Bowlby family burials provide an insight into their non-religious views.

1. John Bowlby Jnr. Articled as a solicitor to his brother Russell, he then worked in his practice, dying in 1823, at the age of twenty-five at his home in Chapter Row. He was interred in St Hilda's Churchyard, although the grave has long gone, there is a record of the inscription on his memorial stone, which is without any Christian sentiment. 'In Memory of John Bowlby of South Shields, Solicitor who died 17th February 1823 aged 25 Years' (24).

2. Peter Bowlby He was Solicitor and Coroner to the Easington Ward and died in 1825, leaving explicit instructions in his will: -

'This is the last will and testament of me Peter Bowlby of Old Elvet near the city of Durham Gentleman. In order to promote the interests of science I direct that as soon after my death as Conveniently may be, my body be delivered to Mr Clifton or Mr William Green for the purpose of being dissected. I desire that my remains may afterwards be interred beside the body of my deceased wife; and that my funeral shall be as private as my wife's was' (25).

According to researchers at Durham University, at that time, this was a very unusual practice (26). He was interred in a separate grave in St Oswald's Churchyard in Durham City, with the memorial stone bearing the simple inscription again without any Christian sentiment.

'Peter Bowlby of Durham: Solicitor who died 15th October 1825 aged 31 Years'

As executors, Russell Bowlby and his sister Julia Bowlby, the decision regarding the burial of their brother would have rested with them.

3. Russell Bowlby was interred at St Peter's Churchyard, Harton Village on the 25th January 1865, in the grave, a chest tomb, of his wife, Elizabeth who had died in 1857. There is a simple inscription without any religious terminology. Since 1971, I have visited the grave of my late parents, John and Vera Thompson, which is only a few steps away from the Bowlby tomb. Since I started my research on Russell Bowlby in 2013, a stone cross, dislocated from a nearby grave has been randomly placed on the tomb. Thoughts of divine intervention have crossed my mind.



Evidently, Russell Bowlby's did not impose his anti-Christian philosophy on his wife Elizabeth (nee Gibbon) Bowlby or his children, which may well have been the case if he had been a patriarch. Elizabeth was a member of the church at Whitburn, which preceded the building of All Saints Church at Cleadon and was a 'Friend for the Relief of the Irish Clergy' together with Lady (Hedworth) Williamson contributing a guinea in 1836 (28).

Anne Elizabeth Bowlby (1816-1901), his eldest child and the only one to survive into the 20th century, was a member of a local Anglican church in Surbiton in the 1890's. She died there and is interred in Kingston Cemetery, which is also the burial place of my in-laws William and Mary Thomas. I tried to locate her grave last year without success as it is sited in a weed-infested area of the cemetery.

Final home of Russell Bowlby's daughters in Surbiton


He was the most generous of the Victorian philanthropists in South Shields, an enduring friend and political ally of Russell Bowlby. They did not share the same religious views and had a difference of opinion over Church Rates; Shortridge was a committed Anglican, the benefactor in the borough of schools and churches, including the building of All Saints, Cleadon. He lived at Cleadon Meadows with his sister Caroline Shortridge. After the death of Russell Bowlby in 1865, Richard Shortridge's connection to the Bowlby continued for almost twenty years. Included in his return for the 1881 census, was Anne Bowlby as a visitor at the house, the site of her former home, which she had left over forty years before. Richard Shortridge's will of 1884 includes the following: -

'£2,000 to Ann Bowlby. of Cleadon, daughter of the late Russell Bowlby. £2,000 to Eliza Russell Fullerton of Surbiton-on-Thames,' her sister and '£1,000 to Mary Bowlby' their cousin (30).


Once Russell Bowlby received a public apology from the Newcastle Journal and established that he was not an atheist, there was no further cause for action on his behalf. South Shields was an established ecumenical community by the 1830s but there was not scope to openly question the Christian religion.

William Van Mildert (1765-1836), the founder of Durham University (borough of South Shields was a major contributor) was the final Prince Bishop. In 1835, the see at Durham, had revenue of £17,000-£20,000, which was reduced to £7,000. In 1836, the Cathedral hierarchy was substantially reduced and 'the augmentation of poor livings [parish priests]' was to be made from Church revenues (31).

Thomas Salmon, as solicitor for the Newcastle Journal in January 1838, had secured the affidavits in his attempt to again smear the character of Russell Bowlby. In 1837 the civil registration of Marriages became law. Yet the fact that in 1834 Russell Bowlby disputed that marriages could only be conducted in church was raised as an issue against him in the court case.

Despite the Bowlby/Salmon marriage in 1852, Thomas Salmon, appears to have continued with his animosity towards Russell Bowlby In his lecture in 1856 and in 1866 he makes a scathing reference Bowlby, perpetuating the deliberate misinterpretation of the facts, that only two votes were polled for him in the 1832 election and ignoring the contributions he made to the development of the borough (32).


  1. Trade Directory 1829: South Shields Libraries
  2. Section 57:The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, Margaret Escott ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
  3. et al
  4. The Whigs and Protestant Dissent R. Brent, Google Books
  5. The Age of Reform, p. 511, source 25: Sir Llewellyn Woodward, Google Books
  6. Newcastle Journal - 12 July 1834, British Newspaper Archive
  7. Newcastle Courant 12 July 1834, British Newspaper Archive
  8. The Borough of South Shields p.252, George B Hodgson published Andrew Reid, Newcastle 1903
  9. Durham Chronicle - 10 August 1838 p.2, British Newspaper Archive
  10. David Jonassohn- wealthy and influential Jew in Sunderland at that time, he owned a coalmine in Usworth. His obelisk shaped tombstone rests in the dilapidated cemetery at Ayres Quay, J. Seligman by email 16th March 2017
  11. Newcastle Journal - 12 August 1837, British Newspaper Archive
  12. The Spectator - 4 November 1837, p.2, Spectator Archive
  13. Durham Chronicle - Friday 10 August 1838 p.2, British Newspaper Archive
  14. Possible Identities of Messrs.' Richardson, Stoddart & White; William Richardson, Andrew Stoddart & William White-all members of Exchange Subscription Room, Town Hall South Shields 1800 -1855
  15. Newcastle Journal - 12 February 1838, British Newspaper Archive; York Herald -3 Feb. 1838, British Newspaper Archive: The Spectator, 3 February 1838, p.6, Spectator Archive
  16. The Spectator - 4 August 1838, p.16, Spectator Archive
  17. The Spectator - 25 August 1838, p.4, Spectator Archive
  18. The Necessity of Atheism - Percy Bysshe Shelley -
  19. The Age of Reason, Part 2, p. 129
  20. Shute Barrington
  21. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ref.7; Author, Margaret Escott ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009, Cambridge University Press
  22. Peterloo Massacre-
  23. Proposed design for a Peterloo statue, BBC Manchester, 2008
  24. Grave 37: The Parish Register Series South Shields St. Hilda TWAS Ref. T95/371 NDFHS 2008
  25. Durham and Northumberland Probate Records, 1527-1857, Ref: DPRI/1/1825/B19/1] (1)
  26. Death, Dying and Disposal-North East Inheritance Database, Durham University
  27. Grave of Elizabeth and Russell Bowlby in St Peter's Churchyard
  28. Newcastle Journal, Saturday 02 January 1836, British Newspaper Archive
  29. St Phillip's Road, Surbiton; death place of the Bowlby sisters
  30. Shields Daily Gazette, p.3, Tuesday 10 February 1885, South Tyneside Libraries Newspaper archive
  31. The Age of Reform, p. 509, Sir Llewellyn Woodward
  32. South Shields. It's Past, Present and Future, being a Decennial Supplement to the Town Clerk's Published Lecture of 1856, published H Hewison, 1866