Friday, 25 September 2015

Looking for John Cowen of Woolwich amongst the labourers at Crossness and the voting records of Mid Kent

John Cowen with hat in hand, 1864
This is John Cowen.

He was born in 1824 and sometime in the midsummer of 1864 he posed for this picture at the Crossness Pumping Station.

Now the photograph is remarkable because someone has gone to the bother of recording the names of the men who stare back at us.

And that is unusual because while photographs of mid Victorian workmen are quite common it is rare to have their names listed and with a name it should be possible to track an individual and in time reveal something of his life.

I know from the caption that these were a “group of workmen [of the] Local Board taken at Crossness during progress of the main drainage works, about midsummer 1864” which places the picture just a little under a year before the project was finished

Work on the Crossness Pumping Station had begun in 1859 under the supervision of Sir Joseph Baselgette and was completed in 1865.

I doubt we will ever know exactly why our picture was taken or what bit of work had been finished but I have made a start on exploring the lives of those thirty one men standing in front of us.

I could have chosen any one of them and there was no particular reason for settling on John Cowen other than he was easier than most to indentify on the photograph.

That said what has so far come to light is slim pickings.

In the April of 1864 he had been admitted to the Greenwich Workhouse and was treated in the hospital.  He gave his age as 40 and described himself as a labourer all of which is a little difficult to square with the fact a John Cowen of 1 Belmont-place, Nightingale Vale, Woolwich, voted in the 1865 General Election.

This I know because that John Cowen was recorded in the Poll Book for the Western Division of Kent as voting for the Viscount Holmesdale and William Hart Dyke the two Conservative candidates both of whom were elected.

And that is as far as it goes.

The census records have yet to reveal anything about his life before or after 1864 and as yet I can’t find any reference to his birth, death or a marriage.

All of which means I shall just have to try harder.

Picture; group of workmen [of the] Local Board taken at Crossness during progress of the main drainage works, about midsummer 1864”, courtesy of Chris Mansfield, first posted by Tricia Lesley

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