JOSEPH SOWELL OF PENRYN
By Jim Lewis
This article was originally published in the August 2011 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
In researching some aspects of Cornwall’s past the names of some people keep cropping up. Sowell first hoves into view in the columns of the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 23 January 1802: ‘A few days ago, the cellars of Captain Joseph Sowell of Penryn suddenly fell in; when several bags of flour were precipitated over the quay into the mud. The damage is estimated at near £200’. By 1807 he was acting as administrator in the estate of the late Philip Webber, Rector of Mawnan.  In March 1808 the steward of the Lanhydrock estates was told that some gentlemen from London were looking to invest money in Cornish mines and that they ‘would be governed by the judgement of a friend of theirs at Penryn, whose name is Sowell’. Sowell persuaded them to reopen Wheal Sparnon, the site of which is to the east of what is now Clinton Road in Redruth. He then purchased ‘the great engine’ from Tincroft mine in Illogan for use on the new mine  and he was back in the newspapers in 1810 for introducing copper air pipes at Wheal Sparnon. In 1811 the Lanhydrock steward was writing ‘The United Mines in Gwennap is set on by a Captain Sowell of Penryn who induced the Company of London Gentlemen to believe that the Captain of a Coasting Coal Vessel was the most fit man in Cornwall to conduct that mine, for which they paid him about £50 per month. But they have lately discovered one of his tricks which is that he took the mine [from] the Lords for 1/24th dues, and charged his London Friends 1/12th. They also paid him £50 for every 1/64th [share] on coming in. He did something like it in Wheal Sparnon - in the latter they sunk above £20,000, and in United Mines the cost charged in the book is above £40,000, and there is a debt due to sundries of about £12,000 more not yet charged.’ He was taken to court, made to refund £3,000 and removed from the management of the mine in 1811.
Sowell was also a dabbler in the corrupt politics of pre-Reform Bill Cornwall. Before the general election of 1818 he assisted J T Austen of Fowey when he went to London to use his contacts there to bring down candidates who would promote Austen’s aims in the port. Sowell appears to have been out of his depth in the murky world of the capital’s power politics, and an anonymous and unattributable comment on his efforts can be found in the Treffry papers at the County Record Office: ‘Austen was in wrong hands - Mr Sowell of Penryn who though a good subordinant and intrigueant was wholly unequal from weight and experience to manage his negotiation’. He subsequently presented Austen with a bill for £1,051 for his services. He enthusiastically joined in the attempts to stop George Lucy of Charlecote, Warwickshire being elected as one of Fowey’s members of parliament. Most of Lucy’s campaigning was undertaken by a clergyman uncle of his and rumours of his uncle’s ‘unnatural propensities’ began to circulate in the town before the election. A pamphlet mentioning his ‘detestable offence’ was issued and Sowell confirmed the truth of this allegation having been shown the pamphlet in two separate shops. The uncle subsequently sued him for defamation of character and the court was unimpressed by Sowell’s excuse that he was merely commenting on an existing rumour. He was fined £400 with another £100 for costs which put him on the brink of financial ruin. To compound his problems he was also successfully sued in 1819 by Henry [‘Black’] Swann for the recovery of £200 lent to him in 1805. Swann was heavily involved in the borough politics of Penryn, the West Briton reporting before the general election of 1820 ‘Mr Swann has stated his intention of coming forward...Mr Anderdon, we suppose, will also stand forward, backed by the veteran Mr Sowell and his other friends’.  Sowell was threatened with prosecution for bribery in 1827 over the ‘notorious corruption’ practised at a previous election in Penryn.
After his contributions to the political life of Cornwall Sowell rather vanishes from view. In 1828 his advice to Austen on the future conduct of the water-powered Fowey Consols copper mine was vindicated when Austen’s London solicitor wrote to him ‘It seems old Sowell was right, you will recollect I told you he said you could not do without steam [engines] in a dry summer, and when the mines were worked at a greater depth’ The same year a sloop named the ‘Eliza Wolsley’was built for Sowell in Fowey, and one rather hopes that he was able to sail off into a virtuous old age. The writer would be grateful for any additional sightings of the versatile Joseph.
Jim Lewis is not a family historian but sent us the above article after finding our website by chance while researching his main interest which is copper mining in Cornwall in the nineteenth century. He had found references to Joseph Sowell while doing the research for his book A Richly Yielding Piece of Ground about the Fowey Consuls copper mine and again when looking into the United Mines scandal.
Joseph Sowell was baptised in Falmouth on 15 Nov 1766, the last of the four children of William Sowell and Mary Talbot baptised there. He married Jane Bamfield at St Gluvias on 12 Oct 1789 and Joseph and Jane's ten children were born in Penryn between 1790 and 1806. Although his occupation at the time of his marriage was given as 'mariner', he later became a maltster with premises on the quayside in Penryn – in 1799 he undertook to build 'a substantial and convenient quay' on a plot of land adjacent to the town quay (and to his existing business premises there) and in return was granted a 99 year lease on the plot. Judging by his ability to make his rather murky forays into the worlds of mining and politics, Joseph's malting business must have been successful, though 1818 proved a troublesome year for him – not only did he have to deal with the scandal arising from his actions during the general election but there was also a major fire at his malt house in New Street, Penryn.
As Jim Lewis points out, Joseph's name comes up quite a lot in the Cornish archives for the period, and it would seem he could be an awkward character to deal with as indicated by the following quotes about him: '[Joseph Sowell] was examined by several members at great length, and on account of his apparent reluctance to answer questions, it was necessary to repeat the same questions several times' ; 'I am afraid I shall find Joseph Sowell a very troublesome and unpleasant man to do business with' .
Six of Joseph and Jane's children survived to adulthood: Elizabeth Bamfield (b 1792), who married surgeon Abraham Roger Illingworth, Richard Bamfield (b 1794), who became a draper and married Loveday Toy, Ann Bamfield (b 1798) and Jane Talbot (b 1802), neither of whom appears to have married, James (b. 1804), who probably married Mary Mills though we have no further record of him, and Benjamin Lawrence (b. 1806), who became a clerk at the Bank of England and married Annette Cramer. Richard Bamfield's only child, Charles Richard (b. 1828), obtained an MA at Exeter College Oxford. He was ordained in 1854 and for many years was the vicar of Gorran, CON. To quote Jim Lewis, this was a family that went 'from reprobate to great respectability in three generations.
 Royal Cornwall Gazette (RCG) 28.1.1807
 Jenkin Letterbooks at the Courtney Library of the RIC. HJ/1/9 Letter 7.3.1808 W Jenkin to C B Agar.
 ibid. Letters14.3.1808 & 1.7.1808 Jenkin to Agar.
 RCG 4.5.1810.
 HJ/1/11 Letter W Jenkin to W Phillips & RCG 31.8.1811 quoted in A K Hamilton Jenkin, News from Cornwall, London, 1951 pp159,160. West Briton(WB) 13 March 1818.
 Cornwall Record Office (CRO) TF845 p. 54 marked ‘paper enclosed’, note circa December 1817.
 John Keast, The King of Mid-Cornwall, Redruth, 1982 p.28.
 WB 7 August 1818; CRO TF 845 Letter 13.11.1818 J T Austen to A Thomson.
 WB 26.3.1819.
 WB 11.2.1820.
 CRO TF920 Letter 6.5.1828 F Silver to J T Austen.
 Upcoming article by Helen Doe ‘Positions, Patronage and Preference: Political Influence in Fowey, Cornwall before 1832’ p.14.
 RCG 22 May 1819, report on Parliamentary Committee on the Penryn Election Bill
 Jenkin Letterbook 23 Sep 1820 at RIC, Truro: Richard Jenkin was a copper agent and steward for the Lanhydrock Estate.