(The Coleridge Bulletin  No 1, Summer 1988, pp 16-25)


There is not a little confusion about the person of Coleridge's mother—this article attempts to clarify the issue. In the autobiographical letters written at the request of Tom Poole, Coleridge writes much and with warm feeling about his father, but says little about his mother. He does say that he was “my mother's darling”,  [1] that she was an “admirable Economist”, [2] and that when he had been out all night after his quarrel with his brother Francis and had all the neighbourhood looking for him, that she was “outrageous with joy” [3] when he was found, damp and cold by the River Otter.


In the first of these letters he writes:


My family on my Mother's side can be traced up, I know not, how far ‑ the Bowdens inherited a house‑stye & a pig‑stye in the Exmore Country, in the reign of Elizabeth, as I have been told & to my own knowledge, they have inherited nothing better since that time. [4]


As to this rather down‑putting statement, we may dispose of it at once and assert that there is scene truth in his account. There were many Bowdens or Bawdens in Devon and Somerset and in Crediton there is a locality known since the 16th century at least as Bowden Hill: in the Exeter archives is a deed recording the sale of an orchard “upon Bowden Hyll in Crediton” dated 1555. There are also some Bowden entries in the parish registers from their beginning to 1754, which would suggest that Anna Bowden - Coleridge's mother - may have had relations in Crediton and at South Molton a few miles away. The same can be said of his father, John Coleridge, to which Coleridge bears witness: “My Father's Sister kept an every‑thing Shop at Crediton” [5] Coleridge's account of his parentage continues beyond the frankly autobiographical letters. In September 1799, writing again to Tom Poole, he






I have dined with a Mr Northmore, a pupil of Wakefield's, who possesses a fine House half a mile from Exeter—in his Boyhood he was at my Father's School—& my Great Grandfather was his Great great Grandfather's Bastard. [6]


Gilbert Wakefield (1756 1801) was a famous scholar of Cambridge and a well-known dissenter, suffering imprisonment for his dissenting beliefs and publications. Like William Frend, whom Coleridge knew and admired at Cambridge, he was deprived of his Fellowship at Jesus College, because of his political and religious opinions. [7]


Coleridge's paternal grandfather, John Coleridge (1697 1739), married a Mary Wills at Crediton and became a woollen-draper at South Molton. In the Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited in two volumes by E.H. Coleridge in 1895, is appended a footnote – “probably a mistake for Crediton”. It is well nigh certain that it was not a mistake and that Coleridge is accurate in his statement. Only a little further on in the same letter he writes that his father left home to earn his fortune and that “a passing gentleman carried him to the neighbouring town” where he was set up as a schoolmaster, or more probably an usher, as he was only 16 years old at the time. Coleridge then goes on to say: “Here too he married his first wife” and the records for Crediton confirm this: “May 24th 1743, Rev. John Coleridge to Mary Lendon”. This would seem to confirm that the “neighbouring town” to which Coleridge's father was taken was Crediton and agrees with the statement that his grandfather did set up in business in the wool trade at South Molton. In the 18th century South Molton was a thriving centre for work and trade in wool: as the century progressed it encountered severe opposition and by the 19th century it was at its peak with factories established. Soon afterwards the industry declined and became almost non-existent. Does this chime with the statement that Coleridge's grandfather, as a woollen manufacturer, did become bankrupt and that this was




the reason why his son left home for Crediton to make his own way in the world? Certainly biographical accounts together with the economic history of South Molton at the appropriate time, would seem to confirm the above sequence of events. [8]


After his marriage in Crediton John Coleridge was matriculated at Sidney Sussex College , Cambridge , was admitted “sizar” in 1748, and was no more than six months at Cambridge before leaving to accept an appointment in 1749 as Master of Hugh Squier's Latin School at South Molton. The records at Ottery St. Mary suggest that he graduated B.A. but there is no other evidence to substantiate this. Hugh Squier's Latin School was founded and endowed by the man whose name the school bears, and was opened in 1686; later the Blue Coat School (1711) amalgamated with it. Squier insisted that in the school he founded the teachers should pay particular attention to “arithmetic and good writing”.


In 175I John Coleridge's wife died whilst he was still Master of the School at South Molton, where the records read: “June 15th, 1751, Mrs. Coleridge, wife to Rev, John Coleridge”. Two years later, still in South Molton, he married again, this time to Anne Bowden and it is at this point that I part company from accepted opinion which says that she was the daughter of Roger Bowden and Mary Zeatherd. My enquiries lead me to believe quite firmly that the young woman John Coleridge married was Anne Bowden of South Molton, daughter of John Bowden. The marriage tack place at St. Mary Arches in Exeter, and is recorded there: “Dec. 18th. 1753. Rev. Mr. John Coleridge of South Molton & Anne Bowden”. [1973 in the original article. Date substituted from Jim Mays ‘Was Coleridge’s Father as simple as a Child’, Coleridge Bulletin NS 21(NS) Summer 2003, 1-19, 5]. Even more explicit is the license for the marriage: “John Coleridge of South Molton, clerk, and Ann Bowden of the same, spinster”.


In September 1749 John Coleridge had been ordained deacon and in December 1750 was ordained priest with a lectureship at Molland along with his Mastership of the School at South Molton. It was not until 1760 that he




and his family moved to Ottery St. Mary where he was appointed Master of the King's School and became Vicar of the Parish. Here he died in October 1781, and the occasion is told in another of Coleridge's letters to Tom Poole.[9] The parish records read “Oct. 10th, 1781, Rev. John Coleridge, late Vicar of this parish, aged 62” - this would suggest a birth date of 1719, Which agrees with all that has gone before. It is further recorded, and quoted in Lord Coleridge's Story of a Devonshire House, that he was buried in the “Chancel, in front of the altar, a little to the left, facing east, with Parson Gatchell”. In 1849 in process of work being done at the time, the grave stone was removed to the entrance to the Lady Chapel. His wife Ann survived him some 28 years and died on the 4th November 1809: she was buried, as the records show, “Nov. 8th 1809, Ann, widow of Rev. John Coleridge, aged 83”.


Ernest Hartley Coleridge, son of Derwent Coleridge and grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, left some fragments designed to become a biography of his grandfather. These fragments were published for the first time in the Centenary volume Coleridge: Studies by Several Hands (1934) and serve as an introduction to the volume. He tells of the marriage of his great grandfather to Ann Bowden and added “of her parents we know nothing”. Lord Coleridge in 1906 produced his family history Story of a Devonshire House in which he states that Ann Bowden was the daughter of Roger Bowden and Mary Zeatherd and says that she was born in 1727. We know, by the records at Ottery St. Mary, that Ann died at the age of 83, and infer accordingly that the year of her birth must have been 1726. On consulting the records of South Molton we find that there was an Ann Bowden, baptised on the 8th May 1726 and we can suggest strongly that the child Ann, born 1726 in South Molton and the aged mother of Coleridge who died in 1809 at Ottery St. Mary, are one and the same person. Her father was John Bowden who had twelve children born to him between 1718 and 1741. All were baptised at South




Molton, and as a family, prospered. About the year of Ann's birth - 1726 - a John Bowden was Mayor of South Molton. Of the children, John settled in London, as did a sister who married a London man. Another was a well-to-do farmer: a William became Squire and was either a brother or a cousin of Ann. It is also not unlikely that the Betsy Bowden to whom Coleridge refers as living with a “Miss Cabriere, an old Maid of great sensibilities & a taste for literature”, if not one of the two Elizabeths born to John Bowden, was named for one of them. He writes further, recalling his days at Christ's Hospital, of staying with “my Mother's Brother Mr. Bowden, a Tobacconist & (at the same [time] clerk to an Underwriter. My Uncle lived at the corner of the Stock Exchange ... He received me with great affection ... )” The letter states that “He was a widower, & had one daughter ... Betsy Bowden.” [10]

In the 18th century, Devon was home to many Dissenters, several of whom eventually made their way to London. It is unlikely that John Bowden of South Molton was of their number because he held a civic position as Mayor, and dissenters were precluded from civic office. However, the kind of dissent which flourished in Devon at the time was not of the extreme variety of Joseph Priestley who was to become Coleridge’s hero. Rather they were Arian by persuasion and the tendency was not towards Socinianism or Unitarianism."[11] Briefly, Arianis is a heresy very popular even in orthodox circles and going back to the 4th century. The Arians held that there was one God and that from that one God the divine Son drew all his inspiration and attributes. It followed that, properly speaking, worship should be paid to the Father alone. On the other hand Unitarianism believed in the “mere humanity of Christ” which was something less than the honour given to Christ by Arians.

In Crediton assemblies of dissenters with no meeting houses met in their own homes or in barns. Sir John Davie who had been in America, on returning to Crediton, entered upon the Creedy estate and being on his own land was




able to obtain a license for dissenting observances in 1718. When a meeting house was built, timber from the estate was used. So numerous and active were dissenters in Crediton and Exeter and Devon generally, that the Bowdens of Crediton could not fail to have been aware of their activities. Under the rule of George II, who would have no persecutions for religious opinions, dissent of the Arian persuasion was not too seriously regarded, except among the dissenters themselves. Many had little difficulty, as indeed is the case today, in remaining within the Established Church. However, later in the century the political attitude of Dissent became increasingly urgent, especially against the rule of George III and his chief minister William Pitt the younger. The proud dissenting motto of those days persists today and is frequently toasted “Civil and Religious liberty, all over the world”.

Dissenters bitterly resented, and were supported in this by others who were not dissenters, the frequent suspension of Habeas Corpus, whereby persons could be arrested and imprisoned without warrant or trial: the Two Bills, which forbade public meetings of more than fifty people and prosecuted with the utmost rigour any expression of sentiment hostile to Government and King.

It is not unreasonable to assume some kind of family link between the Bowdens of South Molton, Crediton and Bowden Hill in the latter town. A Bowden studied at the Taunton Dissenting Academy and in 1750 a Rev. John Bowden died having been a much respected minister at Frome in Somerset. In 1731 there was built on Bowden Hill in Crediton the first Dissenting Chapel in Devon: inevitably it became known as the Bowden Hill Chapel, and was only demolished in 1970. Jerom Murch in his History [12] says that the chapel “is situated on an elevated ground called Bowden Hill, a name by which it is called; this hill is between the east and west towns of Crediton”. Photographs show it to have been a handsome cob building, with a fine pulpit on the long wall facing the door. It would particularly attract the




intelligent, thoughtful country middle-class, and it does appear that it was from just such a strata in society that Ann Bowden came. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, in the fragments for a biography of Coleridge already quoted, says of Ann that “she may have been an orphan, and lived with her uncle Hugh Bowden at Molland where he kept a boarding school”. It will be remembered in support of this suggestion, that when John Coleridge was Master of the School at South Molton he also held a post which required him to lecture at Molland regularly. Was it on one of these visits to lecture that John and Ann met? And what sort of school did Hugh Bowden keep? It was a common practice for dissenters to make a living and support their cause by keeping a school: many dissenting ministers ejected from their pulpits in 1662 did so. In Devon and nearby Somerset there were several schools of this character. Alexander Gordon truly notes that ministers of the older Dissent, not merely in some cases but as a general rule, were the educators in their several neighbourhoods. [13] There were several schools or Academies in the area surrounding South Molton, as for example, at Exeter, Tiverton, Bridgwater, Colyton, Taunton and further afield, but worth noting, John Prior Estlin, Minister of Lewins Mead Chapel, Bristol, kept a school and one of his pupils was Robert Southey who spoke highly of his teacher's ability.

Bowden Hill Chapel had many fine pastors, including the saintly John Johns (1821-1836) who, called to Liverpool, was alone with a Catholic priest in tending those dying of the plague, when no one else would dare. He died of the plague. It is of interest that William Hazlitt's minister father had connections with Bowden Hill and returned there on retirement and died in 1820 and was buried at Creditor. John Edwards, who had succeeded Joseph Priestley as Minister at Birmingham, and did so much to help Coleridge in The Watchman venture in 1796, became minister at Bowden Hill and on a holiday died at Ware in Dorset. Thomas Madge was at Crediton before becoming Minister of the very important pulpit in Essex Street Chapel, London.




Ann Bowden, if my hypothesis be correct, and I see little to invalidate it, had much to contribute to the intellectual as well as the physical upbringing of her son. The warm, head-in-the-clouds figure of John Coleridge is well known; but few pause to think of the “admirable economist” his wife, except in a derogatory style which clearly emanated from Coleridge himself. Thomas De Quincey wrote that Coleridge was “the son of a learned clergyman … It is painful to mention that he was almost an object of persecution to his mother; why, I could never learn”. [14] This is at worst rubbish, at best a misinterpretation of what Coleridge himself had told him. James Gillman, who became in 1816 a very adequate substitute “father figure” for the inadequate drug addict Coleridge had become, records in the biography he started, that “Mrs. Coleridge was a very good woman - over careful - very ambitious for her sons - but wanting perhaps that flow of heart which her husband possessed so largely”.[15] Coleridge himself underwrites what Gillman recounted when he wrote that his father “had so little of parental ambition in him, that he had destined his children to be Blacksmiths &c, & had accomplished his intention but for my Mother's pride and spirit of aggrandizing her f amily”. [16] It was clearly a marriage of two persons of widely different temperament: the man John Coleridge, forgetful, dreaming, imaginative, romantic and Ann Bowden the very model of a dissenter, rational, enthusiastic about education and determined that her children should have the best possible - the “admirable Economist”.

It is, therefore, suggested that Ann Bowden was of South Molton and the daughter of John Bowden, possibly the Mayor of the town. Certainly she was influenced by Dissenting opinions and life styles “plain living and high thinking”. Her care and discipline for her children was essentially a dissenting characteristic. There can be no doubt at all that John Coleridge fostered in his youngest son a love of the romantic, even speculative, metaphysics later to be encouraged at Christ's Hospital School - “I was from




the first habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief.” [17] Even so, without the rational, thoughtful and determined discipline of Ann Coleridge, he would not have become the genius who influenced so greatly the thinkers of his time. His words in Table Talk 1834, the year of his death, came as a fruitful amalgamation of the two principles:


I am by the law of my nature a reasoner… I can take no interest whatever in hearing or saying anything merely as a fact – merely as having happened. It must refer to something within me… I require in everything… a reason, why the thing is at all, and why it is there or then rather than elsewhere or at another time. [18]


[1] Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ed., Earl Leslie Briggs (Oxford, 1966), I 347.

[2] Letters, I 310.

[3] Letters, I 354.

[4] Letters, I 302.

[5] Letters, I 347.

[6] Letters, I 528

[7] Gilbert Wakefield (1756-1801) was a tutor at the Warrington Dissenting Academy, 1779-1783 and at the Hackney Dissenting Academy 1786 until he retired. Northmore (1766-1851) probably attended the Hackney Academy although attendance at Warrington cannot be ruled out.

[8] See Official Guide to South Molton. It is worthy of note that the town had a series of quite serious fires over this period. Was this possibly a contributory factor to the bankruptcy of John Coleridge Snr?

[9] Letters, I 355.

[10] Letters, I 388.

[11] Alexander Gordon, ‘The Story of Salter’s Hall’, Essays Historical and Biographical (Lindsey Press, 1922), p.127 et seq.

[12] History of the Presbyterian and General Baptist Churches in the West of England, 1835; also T.W. Venn, History of Crediton, p.359 et seq.

[13] H. McClachlan, The Unitarian Movement (London, 1936) p. 98.

[14] Thomas De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (Penguin Edition, 1970), p. 57.

[15] James Gillman, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London, 1838), pp. 6ff.

[16] Letters, I 354.

[17] Letters, I 354.

[18] Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York, 1905) pp. 308-9.