January 2020 long read
The Story of the Bowyers, Baronets of Denham Court and of the Court itself
Part 1: The Bowyers enter Parliament. Sir William’s grandson inherits, survives the civil wars and becomes the first Baronet of Denham Court, Denham Court Mansion is built and the Bowyer Charity School is established.
William Bowyer first acquired estates in the Denham area in 1590, six years before he acquired Denham Court. His father was a successful London merchant, but William chose instead the life of a landowner. With connections to Sir Robert Cecil, chief minister to both Elizabeth and the Stuart King James I, William prospered. In 1602 he was appointed to a position in the new King’s Exchequer and in 1603 he entered Parliament as the member for Appleby, though as was common in his times, it is unlikely that he spent much if any time in this far distant Westmorland constituency.
As Denham each year celebrates Bonfire Night on 5th November it is worth remembering that one of its most celebrated past residents may have been present in that Parliament of 1605 that Guy Fawkes attempted, but failed, to blow up.
William was clearly an active participant in the business of the House of Commons and in 1609 he was knighted as a reward for his contribution. The then Sir William Bowyer died, owing no debts, on 3rd August 1616. He is buried in St Mary’s church. His memorial plaque can be seen there. By his will he left bequests to the poor of Denham - and also interestingly to the prisoners of Newgate and Aylesbury gaols. He had earned the description by a famed chronicler of his time ‘Bowyer the rational”. His concern for the poor was one shared by a descendant whose legacy is still visible in the village in the form of a plaque on Bowyer House.
The first Sir William’s grandson, also William just four years old at his grandfather’s death, inherited the Denham estates.
Young William was no less a figure in history than his grandfather. He graduated as a lawyer from Jesus College, Cambridge, an institution very familiar to the author of this history, also a Jesuan lawyer. William qualified as a barrister in 1630.
In 1646 this William became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, an office held for one year. By this time the role of High Sheriff, originally the King’s representative and tax officer in the county, was largely ceremonial but still influential. In William Bowyer’s case it must have been a mark of respect. This was the time of the English Civil wars, the armed struggles between the supporters of King Charles I (Royalists) and the supporters of Parliament (Parliamentarians or Roundheads). 1646 saw the end of the first of the three wars with the Parliamentarians as the clear victors.
William Bowyer had been a known Royalist before the Civil Wars, but the county of Buckinghamshire largely supported Parliament. Holding office as the Royalist High Sheriff of a Parliamentarian County during the period of fragile peace between the first and second war, for Sir William must surely have been quite a challenge.
From 1649 to 1660 England was governed as a republic under military rule, but by 1658 deep divisions were re-appearing with an obvious shift of opinion in the country back towards the stability of a monarchical constitution. In 1659 Sir William Bowyer was chosen as Buckinghamshire’s Member of Parliament. Finally in 1660 after many battles of words, but happily not of arms, a newly constituted Parliament restored the monarchy and King Charles II took his throne.
There is a legend that at some time during the Civil Wars, the Bowyers provided lodging and concealment to the young Prince Charles. It appears to be based on a story that four paintings set into the panelling at Denham Court were commissioned, many years after the event, by Sir William to celebrate the family’s generosity and their protection of the then young prince. Certainly the incident is not recorded in Charles’ own account of his flight from England in 1651. However the Denham Court portrait claimed to be of Charles disguised as a menial servant does show a boy younger than the 21 years which Charles had attained in 1651. So it could be that the legend dates to 1646 when the tide of the war was beginning to turn against his father and the young Charles was evacuated to France. Modern visitors to the Buckinghamshire Golf Club which has its headquarters at Denham Court would certainly wish the story true.
Upon his restoration in 1660 King Charles II moved quickly to reward his supporters. William Bowyer was knighted and on 25th June 1660 was made Sir William Bowyer, 1st Baronet of Denham Court.
Part 2: Denham Court Mansion is built and the Bowyer Charity School is established.
Sir William Bowyer, First Baronet of Denham Court died on 2nd October 1679. He is buried in St. Mary’s Church.
He was succeeded by his eldest son, another William, who inherited the title of Baronet. This is the Bowyer whose legacy remains today still very evident in the village. He was the Bowyer who ordered the building of the Denham Court Mansion of which we see something today. It has been much altered and refurbished in more modern times and now of course serves as the clubhouse of the Buckinghamshire Golf Club. Only the west wing can be identified as Bowyer’s original structure, but there are said to be features dating back to the 14th century and the whole is still fairly described as a “late 17th century mansion house”.
The mansion was the home of the Bowyers for several generations, but it is not for the mansion that the 2nd Baronet made his most significant contribution to the history of the village. Born in 1639 he lived to the age of 82. This was quite an achievement.Child mortality at the time was high so lowering the average life expectancy overall, but even if a child lived to the age of 10, he or she could not, on average, expect to survive beyond his or her mid 50s.
As his great grandfather had done, the 2nd Baronet made provision for the poor of Denham shortly prior to his death and in long lasting form. A plaque still to be found on the village building (now a private house) which bears his name describes -
“In the year of Our Lord 1721, This Charity School was Erected by Subscription of ye Inhabitants of this Parish and Other well disposed Persons and is perpetually Endowed by Sir William Bowyer Bart, of Denham Court with Thirty Pounds Pr. Annum. Go and Do Likewise."
It was an extraordinary provision. Exact figures are not known and even the estimates are disputed but it is generally believed that in 1750 only 60% of males in England were literate and probably only 40% of females. The opportunity available to the children of Denham for regular school attendance was remarkable.
The school continued to provide education until 1877 by which time most children of primary age had access to education. In 1870 school attendance became compulsory in England and Wales for children from age 5 to 13. School places were made available to all as required by law.
We can see from the 1851 census that the then schoolmaster, perhaps the last, was Samuel Mason formerly of Walsall, Staffordshire. His wife, Elizabeth was the schoolmistress, an enlightened partnership given that almost 70 years later, it was necessary for Parliament to legislate to outlaw the practice of denying married women to professions including teaching.
Part 3: The Bowyers leave Denham Court. It becomes a children’s home. Modern Times
Little is known of the 3rd and 4th baronets of Denham Court. The 5th Baronet was Sir George Bowyer who inherited Denham Court from his brother the 4th Baronet who died in 1797. Though born in Denham, Sir George evidently did not retain Denham Court as his home. His career was that of a naval officer rising ultimately to the rank of Admiral and for six years a Member of Parliament. He died in 1800 leaving Denham Court to his son, also George. The Bowyer ownership and occupancy of Denham Court ended in 1813 when the younger Sir George sold out to Thomas Hamlet, a London goldsmith and jeweller.
One record has Hamlet suffering bankruptcy in 1840, but other records have him still owning property in Denham in 1843. It is however apparent that the estate of Bowyers was broken up around this time and that the mansion and its remaining estate was acquired by Nathaniel Grace Lambert, a colliery owner and, from 1868 to 1880, the Liberal Party M.P. for Buckinghamshire.
In 1885 Denham Court was acquired by the distinguished soldier and veterinarian, Harold Swithinbank. It remained in his family until around the time of World War II, it became an approved school, then a remand home, then a children’s home, and now up to date a golf club, conference centre and wedding venue.
But that’s another story.
This brief history of Denham Court and the Bowyer family has been compiled from several sources including:
Census reports available through www.ancestry.co.uk
Buckinghamshire Golf Club website at www.buckinghamshiregc.com
Buckinghamshire Historic Towns Assessment Report (Copyright: Buckinghamshire County Council 2010) available at https://old.buckscc.gov.uk/media/1567033/Denham-Final-Report.pdf
South Bucks District Council, Denham Conservation Area Character Appraisal (Copyright: South Bucks District Council) available at www.southbucks.gov.uk/media/10624/Denham-Character-Appraisal/pdf/Denham_Character_Appraisal.pdf?m=636347559140670000
The History of Parliament available online at www.histparl.ac.uk
and the following websites
www.geni.com; www.thepeerage.com; www.myheritage.com; www.peoplepill.com; www.pinterest.com; www.historyofparliamentonline.org
and also crediting
Portrait of Sir William Bowyer 2nd Baronet of Denham Court by Sir Peter Lely c.1672
Gardeners at work in the gardens of Denham Court, Buckinghamshire. Engraving by W. Hollar, 17th century, after F. Cleyn. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY