1881 Census Map

A Possible Locational Name

We might reasonably expect the English Bowes surname to arise as a locational name associated with Bowes village or parish found in Country Durham, once considered part of northern Yorkshire. It's quite possible that some families took the name Bowes because they lived in this area. The Bowes of Streatlam Castle and Bowes-Lyon fame, ancestral to the Queen Mother, are reputed to have done so early on. [1] We see this reflected in their earliest recorded ancestors going by de Boughesde meaning from and boughes being a spelling that was sometimes used for the parish in early times. [2]

But the place a surname is seen at its highest frequency from early censuses, ideally when supported by other evidence, usually indicates the geographic origin of the name. Mapping the Bowes distribution using 1881 census data, a stronger possibility for the surname's origin than Bowes village or parish emerges. Those census data show the Bowes name clearly reaching its highest frequency—by a long shot—south of Bowes parish and village, in the Poor Law Union of Helmsley. This holds true whether mapping by actual numbers or frequency. 

England Bowes Surname Distribution 1881 by Poor Law Union (Helmsley PLU)
English Bowes Surname, 1881 by Poor Law Union, using Archer's Surname Atlas

A Possible Topographic Name of Viking Origin

It's possible — though far from proven — that Bowes village and parish, as well as most Bowes surnamed people who are apparently from the Helmsley area, take their names from river bends that were prominent topographical features at their settlements. The Norse word for bow (bend) is bogi. (You can hear how bogi is pronounced today at Google Translate, where the "g" is sounded.) These river bends and the word bogi bear associations — sometimes clearer than others — with the name Bowes. While further research is called for, for now I'll note these observations:

  • At Bowes village in Bowes parish the River Greta etches a number of small to very large bows into the landscape. The first written form that survives for the name of Bowes Parish is bogis. Eventually, while other spellings are noted in the early records, the name settled down to Bowes.
  • At the town of Helmsley the River Rye also forms a significant bow marked by a slight reversal of direction before continuing forward again. The town of Helmsley was settled as early as 3000 BC and small farming communities continued there into the Roman occupation. [3] Old street names reveal the early establishment of Norse speaking Vikings. [4]  Early Viking settlers may have taken their name from this geographic feature, then (hypothetically) called bogi, and later standardized to Bowes just like Bowes village and parish.
  • A third place name that appears to directly associate a river bend or bow with Bowes, but bypassing bogi as far as we know, is Bowesia, found in Norfolk in 1086. It's noted in 1775 (when it was called Bawsey) to have taken its name "from its fete [site] on a winding stream or water." [5]

River bends would provide more water frontage for a settlement than where a river doesn't bend or bends less. This might be seen as the most desirable place to settle along a river. Were Norse settlers responsible for naming one of their early families after the river bend in Helmsley? And were Norse settlers also behind naming the area of Bowes bogis, prior to it becoming Bowes? All we can do is speculate and continue research. If this is true Bowes would be a topographic surname, one of the earliest types.

Interestingly, a separate researcher of the English Bowe has been arriving at the same kind of topographic explanation to explain the origin of English Bowe.

A Possible Norman Bowes Family

Surtee's, an historian and antiquarian who relied on original sources, offers:

There were various sprinklings of the ancient name of Bowes, hesitating between gentry and yeomanry, that occur in wills and registers throughout Allertonshire [Northallerton PLU] and Richmondshire [NE of Northallerton PLU]. The families established at Ellerbeck [Northallerton PLU] and at Angram Grange [Easingwold PLU, SW of Helmsley PLU], held considerable landed property for several descents. [6]

Since no Bowes or variants are recorded as land owners in the Doomsday Book from 1085-6, these Bowes must have acquired their holdings later. Records show they are ancestors to the above-mentioned aristocratic Bowes of Streatlam Castle and Bowes-Lyon fame who took their name from Bowes village and parish. That line of Bowes may well be Norman while others have an earlier Viking origins.

[1] missing cite

[2] 'Parishes: Bowes', A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 1, pp. 42-29 (1914). (URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=64715; accessed 11 July 2010)

[3] "Helmsley," Wikipedia (URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmsley; accessed 12 Jul 2013)

[4] Ibid.

[5] missing cite

[6] Surtees, Robert. The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Compiled from Original Records Preserved in Public Repositories and Private Collections (1816-1840). 4 volumes. (London: J.B. Nichols).