Moses Bowness (1833-1894)

Moses Bowness

Written by Jean Warburton

Occupation: Photographer
Location: Coniston

Life and family

Moses Bowness was born in Coniston in 1833 and baptised there on 28th July 1833. His father was John Bowness (1808-1883), a copper miner of nearby Hawes Bank, and his mother Jane nee Mossop (1804-1885). He had an elder sister Mary (1831-1907) and five younger siblings Jane (1836-1892), Agnes (1838-1900) John (1840-1929), William (1842-1852) and Isabella (1844-1852). By 1851, he was living at Tock House Farm, Claife, Hawkshead with the Dugdale family and working as a farm labourer.

On 16th January 1858, in Windermere, Moses Bowness married Isabella Slater (1816-1889), his senior by some sixteen years and the widow of Abraham Slater (1811-1851), a builder of Ambleside who had been buried on 7th October 1851. Isabella had been born Isabella Burrow and had three children by Abraham: Agnes (1843-1921); William (1839-1912) and Isaac (1846-1911). Moses and Isabella had a daughter, Mary Anne, born in 1859. Isabella died on 26th July 1889. Mary Anne married Thomas Dawson Hayton (1850-1919), a stone agent, in the fourth quarter of 1883, moved to London and had one child James (1885-1958). She died on 1st October 1922 at Longcroft, Bardsea, Ulverston. 

At some point before 1879, Moses Bowness met Helena Hudleston who became his mistress. Helena was born in Madras, India, in 1851, the daughter of Josiah Andrew Hudleston (1799-1865) and Anna Maria Antionette Isabel de Jourins Langley (1820-1886). Her father, descended from Andrew Hudleston (1607-1706) of Hutton John, Cumberland, was Chief Collector of Madras between 1842 and 1855 and a guitarist and composer. There are Hudleston family stories that she used to take trips to India for months at a time and place her children in boarding schools and that she was frivolous with money having spent her way through three fortunes. Moses Bowness married Helena in the last quarter of 1890 in Kendal. They had five children before they were married: Leonora Josephine (1879-1950); Honoria Angelina Geraldine Churchill (b.1882); John Arnold Frederick Josiah (b. 1884) Frederick (1885-1943); and Guy Gatey Vernon Dieu Donne Ravensworth (1887-1964). A sixth child, Moses, was still born in 1890 and Iris was born in 1892, dying in 1909.

Moses Bowness was involved in a serious accident at Sawrey on 21st April 1894 when a dog cart he was driving overturned after the horse bolted and he was flung against a wall. He died two days later at Belmount, the house he rented at Hawkshead. An inquest was held there on 25th April and found a verdict of accidental death. He left £615 1s 7d of which Helena was the sole beneficiary. She arranged for the auction of his assets and left Ambleside. In 1901, she was living in New Brighton, Cheshire with four of their children. She then married Robert Murton on 11th January 1908 and in 1911 was living on her own in Army quarters at Maida Barracks in Aldershot. She died later that year.


It is not clear when or how Moses Bowness made the progression from farm labourer to photographer. However, he was sufficiently established as a photographer in Ambleside by 1857 to be allowed to photograph the Prince of Wales, who was on a private visit to the Lake District, in Grasmere on 15th May of that year. Thereafter, Moses Bowness endorsed his photographs ‘Photographer to HRH The Prince of Wales’. His view of his profession varied over the years from ‘Photographer’ to ‘Artist’ and ‘Photographic colourist’. The business grew steadily. In 1861, he was not employing any staff and Isabella was still active as a confectioner. By 1871, he was employing four men and two boys and was still employing four men in 1881. The employees included his step-son, William, as a photographer whilst other employees hand coloured photographs. Both Herbert Bell (1856-1946) and Charles Walmsley (1862-1941) were apprenticed to him.

Moses Bowness developed his photographic business to the extent that it was arguably the largest in Westmorland. He began a building programme in the early 1860s which was to provide him with extensive premises on Lake Road in Ambleside. By the time he died in 1894, the photographic studio included waiting, dressing, operating and developing rooms with all the conveniences for carrying on such a large business. Whilst he did exhibit landscape photographs in London at the Royal Photographic Society in 1877, he had little interest in that more artistic side of photography and preferred to concentrate on more lucrative portrait photography. He photographed many people in his daylight studio including Harriet Martineau (1802-1876; ODNB) and William Edward Forster (1818-1886; ODNB), whose portraits are in the National Portrait Gallery, and the Arnold Family and the younger Wordsworths. A large collection of Moses Bowness’ plates which were discovered in 2008 in the basement of Kendal library consisted of carte de visite photographs. These images can now be seen on the Cumbria Image Bank.

It would appear that by 1891, Moses Bowness did not give the same priority to his photographic business as previously as on the Census of that year he described himself as ‘Photographer and farmer’. He was similarly described on the Probate record. It is perhaps no coincidence that his apprentice, Charles Walmsley, had set up his own business in 1894.

Other businesses

Moses Bowness had a number of business interest in addition to photography. He not only built his photographic studio in Lake Road, Ambleside but also a hotel and shops. It would appear that he may have carried on some of the shop businesses himself. In 1865, a list of members of a Grand Jury includes ‘Moses Bowness, Ambleside Grocer’ an interest he may well have inherited from his father who ended his days as a grocer in Coniston. His other main business was farming.

The private hotel Moses Bowness built in the early 1860s was Vale View (now the Churchill Hotel). It was across the road from his studio and run initially by Isabella. The hotel was a reasonable size consisting, according to the Auction Notice after his death, of twenty bed and dressing rooms, five sitting rooms with conveniences, splendid kitchen accommodation and a servants’ hall. At some point, the running of the hotel appears to have been taken over by his step-daughter, Agnes Slater. She carried on the business after his death and then went to live with her step-sister, Mary Anne, in Bardsea, dying there on 11th March 1921.

Moses Bowness began his working life as a farm labourer so it is perhaps not surprising that another of his ventures was farming. He was the tenant of a 500 acre farm at Low Wray from at least 1877. In that year, he won the prize for the best managed farm of over 80 acres at the Hawkshead Agricultural Show. He clearly took farming very seriously. When he won the same prize again in 1881, the judges commented that he had devoted himself with unflinching energy and perseverance to both the theoretical and practical management of his pasture land. They considered that he had succeeded in bringing his farm to the highest state of cultivation and noted the good state of fencing and farm buildings. Moses Bowness was the Secretary of the Hawkshead Agricultural Society and had become a member of the Shorthorn Society in 1876.

Promotion of Ambleside and tourism

Moses Bowness became involved with a number of projects to develop Ambleside and, in particular, its tourist trade. This was far from altruistic – more tourists meant more people wanting photographic portraits in his studio and rooms in his hotel. He was aware of the need to improve the infrastructure of the village and was the main promoter of the Ambleside District Gas and Water Company and a director until his death. He was also a promoter of the unsuccessful Ambleside Railway Bill in 1887 which proposed an extension of the line from Windermere to Ambleside. The Bill came before the Examiner of Private Bills in March 1887 and Moses Bowness gave evidence as to the benefits of the reduced cost of carriage of lime and coal for the Gas Company. He also gave evidence as to the benefits to farmers and tourism commenting that the railway would open out the most beautiful scenery in England.

More specifically directed to tourism, Moses Bowness in 1877 played a prominent role in the campaign to ensure public access to Stock Ghyll Waterfalls and helped to raise funds. He was a member of the small party led by Colonel Rhodes (1823-1905) of Rothay Holme, Ambleside which forced access to the Waterfalls in September 1878 by cutting a chain and padlock on the gate to the path. At the time of his death, he was a leading spirit in the Shady Walks scheme to provide a walk from Waterhead to the centre of Ambleside. He also entered into an alliance with Poet Close (John Close of Kirkby Stephen; 1816-1891; ODNB) who had a stall selling books, pamphlets and poems at Bowness landing stage. Moses Bowness produced publicity photographs of Poet Close and sold his books and Close wrote about and advertised Moses Bowness’ studio in his publications. Close produced an annual Christmas book which had a reasonably wide circulation. Moses Bowness himself wrote poetry to promote the beauties of the district and benefits of Ambleside.


Moses Bowness can be seen as a classic example of the Victorian ethic of self-help. Starting from a very low base as the son of a copper miner with a first job as a farm labourer, he rose to having the largest photographic business in Westmorland and a portfolio of other businesses including a farm and a hotel. He worked hard and with great energy to promote not only his own businesses but the broader success of tourism in Ambleside as well. His obituary in the Westmorland Gazette of 28th April 1894 noted that, despite his energetic activities, he was noted for his equanimity of character, never having been known to utter a harsh word, and for his kindliness of heart. All was perhaps not quite as it seemed, however, as he left only £615 when he died which was less than Isabella had left when she died five years earlier and considerably less than the £3,721 his step-daughter Agnes, who ran the hotel before and after his death, left in 1921.

A different side of Moses Bowness’ character appears when his relationship with Helena Hudleston is considered. Not only did he have five illegitimate children by her but at times he passed himself off as her husband. In 1884 and 1887, two of their children, John and Guy, were christened in Liverpool Parish Church with Moses Bowness calling himself Moses Bowness Hudleston and describing himself as a ‘Gentleman’ living in Kirkby. 

It is almost as if there were two Moses Bowness; the rising energetic business man and the man who lived in a fantasy world with Helena.

Primary sources

  • England and Wales Census 1841-1911
  • England and Wales Select Births and Christenings 1538-1973
  • England and Wales Select Deaths and Burials 1538-1991
  • England Select Marriages 1538-1973
  • Civil Registration Marriage Index 1837-1915
  • Civil Registration Death Index 1837-1915
  • Liverpool Church of England Baptisms 1813-1919
  • National Probate Calendar. Index of Wills and Administrations
  • Lakes Chronicle and Reporter 30th July 1880, 27th April 1894, 15th February 1895
  • Westmorland Gazette 23rd May 1857, 1st September 1877, 28th September 1878, 28th April 1894
  • Lakes Herald 17th May 1912
  • Kendal Mercury 7th January 1865
  • Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer 18th August 1881, 1st September 1881
  • Lancaster Gazette 18th November 1875, 29th January 1887
  • Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 17th March 1887
  • Manchester Evening News 16th March 1887

Secondary sources

  • Susan Premru, ‘Moses Bowness, Ambleside Photographer and the Promotion of Tourism in the Nineteenth Century’ (2009) Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society 3rd Series Vol 9 225-231
  • Stephen F Kelly, Lakeland Photographers (1991) 132, 156
  • Dictionary of National Biography, John Close