One of the splendid treasures in the Town Council’s possession is the two-handled vessel known as the Bowyer Vase. It is a large cup of silver-gilt with a cover, 75 cm high, on a square base, made in London in 1795 by Robert Salmon. The cup is highly decorated, with leaf designs on the lower part and on the cover, scroll patterns around the rim, handles in the shape of two male figures, and a figure of Neptune sitting on two dolphins on top. There are two shields on the body of the cup, one with the Bowyer arms, the other with the dedication, surrounded by nautical motifs such as flags, sails and anchors. The dedication reads:
Lloyd’s Coffee House
A Tribute of Respect from his Country to Admiral Sir George Bowyer, Bart., for his gallant Conduct in His Majesty’s Ship the Barfleur, on the ever memorable 1st of June 1794, when the French Fleet was defeated by the British Fleet under the Command of Admiral Earl Howe.
John Julius Angerstein
Perhaps you have seen the Bowyer Vase on display at the museum. Perhaps you have asked yourself: who was Admiral Bowyer and what does he have to do with Abingdon? Why would a coffee house give out such splendid awards? And what exactly happened on that memorable 1st of June?
George Bowyer was born around 1740, the son of Sir William Bowyer of Denham Court in Buckinghamshire. The connection with Abingdon came through his mother, who was a member of the Stonhouse family of Radley. When her brother Sir James Stonhouse died, George Bowyer took up residence at Radley Hall and remained there for the rest of his life – unless he was at sea, of course.
Bowyer entered the Navy as a young man and enjoyed a steady career, achieving the rank of Rear-Admiral under the command of Lord Howe in the Channel Fleet in 1793. His flagship was first Prince, with Cuthbert Collingwood as captain, and then Barfleur, also with Collingwood as captain. It was with Barfleur that he took part in the battle on 1st June 1794.
During spring and summer of that year, the British fleet was patrolling the Atlantic, trying to intercept French ships bringing grain from America. There had already been some skirmishes towards the end of May, before on 1st June the two fleets faced each other 400 nautical miles off the French island of Ushant. The British line of battle consisted of 34 ships under the command of Admiral Earl Howe. The French had 26 ships under Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse. Howe’s battle plan was to approach the French fleet, break through all along the line and engage the enemy in ship-to-ship combat. The plan only succeeded partially, and only a few of the British ships broke through the French line. However, the battle did soon become a contest between individual ships, some of which fought with each other for hours. Eventually five French ships were captured, another sunk, and the rest of the French fleet fled. The British had won the day.
News of the victory prompted great celebrations in England, and afterwards the day was always remembered as The Glorious First of June. Another item on display in the museum is a Portsea Farthing, a commemorative token issued in 1794. It features the bust of Lord Howe, his flagship Queen Charlotte and the inscription “Glorious First of June 1794”, which shows that the expression was adopted almost immediately after the battle.
Despite his gallant conduct, Admiral Bowyer had been unlucky. He had been severely wounded in the battle and lost a leg. It was a few months before he had recovered sufficiently to return home, but when he did, the people of Abingdon joined in the celebration. They came out to escort him on the last part of his journey, from Newbury to Radley. He also received great rewards from the king and the government: a pension of £1,000 a year (or even guineas, according to some sources), a gold medal, and a baronetcy.
And of course he received this handsome cup, which has become known as the Bowyer Vase. As the inscription shows, the cup was given to Bowyer by Lloyds Coffee House.
The name Lloyds might be familiar to you as that of the shipping register and maritime insurance company. However, it started out as a real coffee house, opened by Edward Lloyd in London in 1688. In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses were places where city merchants met to exchange news and information, and conduct business. Particular houses soon became associated with specialised interests, and Lloyds became the meeting place for people concerned with shipping. In 1760 the Society for the Registry of Shipping was founded by the then owner of Lloyds Coffee House. Not much later, though, a group of customers, who thought that there was too much gambling and speculation going on, broke away and set up a hopefully more respectable coffee house in new premises, called New Lloyds Coffee House. This didn’t last long, and in 1774 the merchants and insurance underwriters and brokers moved away from coffee houses altogether and set themselves up in the Royal Exchange. Nevertheless they were still referred to as “Lloyds Coffee House”, and that is the name which appears on the Bowyer Vase, which was made in about 1795.
Being concerned with shipping, the group had a keen interest in matters of the Navy, and it was not unusual for Lloyds to show their appreciation for the nation’s naval heroes with such precious items.
Sir George Bowyer retired from active service after the Battle of Ushant but continued to be promoted, from Rear-Admiral to Vice-Admiral, and eventually to Admiral. He remained resident at Radley Hall with his second wife Henrietta, whom he had married in 1782, and their five children. He died at Radley Hall in 1800. His house is part of Radley College today, where they raise a flag on every 1st June in his honour.
The Bowyer Vase remained in the family until the Admiral’s grandson, also called George, presented it to the Corporation of Abingdon in 1870. It has been in the Town’s possession ever since and can be admired at the museum.