The 212-year-old tale of Bowring Brothers

Posted on November 24, 2023 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


Bowring Brothers’ flagship department store location on Water Street in downtown St. John’s, N.L. (photo credit: Bowring Family Collection)


Many Newfoundlanders walk through Bowring Park but may not know the history behind its name. Dating back over two centuries, a British clockmaker started a small family business that grew into a multi-faceted organization with operations across the globe. Although the business is no more, fond memories—and the park constructed to celebrate its first 100 years in business—remain.

Start the clock

The story of Bowring Brothers began with Benjamin Bowring, a clockmaker, silversmith and jeweler from Exeter, England. In 1811, he moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland and set up a clockmaking business. Years later, his wife Charlotte and their first three sons also made the move across the pond and Charlottle opened a dry goods business next to Ben’s shop. Turns out, Charlotte’s store that offered Newfoundlanders a variety of general goods was a more successful business model. Bowring eventually gave up his clockmaking business and the couple focused on the general store.

With many fishermen frequenting the family’s shop and paying in fish (which was customary at the time), Ben began using contacts in England to ship cod overseas. This led to the Bowring’s involvement in the fishery and its shipping company. By 1823, Bowring had acquired a wharf and two ships.


A Bowring Brothers advertisement from The Newfoundland Journal of Commerce (photo credit: Bowring Park Foundation)

Growth & expansion

Ben and Charlotte eventually moved back to England, leaving management of the St. John’s operations to their sons while they opened an office in Liverpool to coordinate shipping overseas. This office became the parent company of the family business (called C.T. Bowring and Co.) and in 1839 St. John’s operations were named Bowring Brothers.

Over the next century, the business continued to grow. Bowring Brothers was a key player in the cod and seal fisheries, had a prominent department store in St. John’s, became an insurance agent and ran passenger and cargo services. The business also expanded across North America, South America, Asia and Australia.

Following the Second World War, Ben’s great-great grandson Derrick Bowring felt that the company should focus on its retail operations. So, in the late 1950s, Bowring Brothers began opening a chain of about 100 shops across Canada and the U.S.


A Bowring Brothers wage note once issued to employees. During the 1894 Bank Crash, other stores began accepting Bowring notes as currency due to the company’s reputation (photo credit: Bowring Family Collection)

The big sale

In the late 20th century, Bowring’s insurance business caught the attention of Marsh & McLennan, a large American insurance firm. In 1980, shareholders of C.T. Bowring and Co. agreed to sell the entire business to Marsh & McLennan who quickly sold off the Bowring Brothers retail division to Hallmark Cards.

In 1993, Bowring Brothers’ flagship department store on Water Street in downtown St. John’s closed and by 2019 all Bowring stores had followed suit.


Bowring Park — construction began in 1911 to celebrate 100 years of Bowring Brothers and the park officially opened in 1914 (photo credit: Bowring Park Foundation)

Memories remain

Although no longer in operation, Stéphanie Bowring says that many Newfoundlanders still remember Bowring Brothers’ flagship department store. Stéphanie’s grandfather, Derrick Bowring, was involved in expanding the retail stores after WWII and published his memoirs as a book Down to Bowrings.

“A lot of people have childhood memories of family trips to Bowring Brothers to shop around or visit its restaurant (Captain’s Cabin),” said Stéphanie. The building itself still stands on Water Street with two clothing stores occupying the ground floor.

Still bearing the family name, Bowring Park is now managed by the City of St. John’s. However, Stéphanie says the Bowring Park Foundation initiated by her grandfather still operates on a volunteer basis to discuss park maintenance and future projects.

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