When the largest and most luxurious vessel in the world, the Olympic, visited Liverpool on 31 May 1911, one young woman was so taken with the ship that she decided her future was no longer with a Liverpool confectioner where she was working, but with the White Star Line on this sumptuous vessel. Not only did she live her dream, but she was also later transferred to the sister ship, the even larger Titanic, due to sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912. This was Ruth Harwood Bowker, and this is her forgotten story.
In 1881, the Bowker family were living in the High Street in Ware, Hertfordshire, a few miles north of London. The father, Edward Harwood Bowker, a medical practitioner, was born in Chesterfield, and had met his wife Annie Sowersby in Doncaster, where they married in 1876. She was born in Pickering, the daughter of a Yorkshire corn miller. Soon after, they moved to Ware, where Dr. Bowker took up a new practice. Three children arrived in quick succession, Geoffrey in 1880, Janet in 1881, and Cuthbert in 1882, all with the middle name Harwood.
Within a few years, an opportunity came for Dr Bowker to move his young family back up north, nearer to his roots and those of his wife, and by 1891 they had relocated to Leeds. A new practice had been found in the suburb of Wortley at 18 Wallace Street. Yet at the time of the census in April 1891, Young Janet, now aged 10, was not at home. In fact, she was staying with her Aunt Mary (Pallister, née Sowersby), her mother’s older sister, in Doncaster, where the family had a farm. The Pallisters had come to visit Ware in April 1881 and were recorded in the Bowker home ten years earlier. Whether Janet had moved there permanently or it was just a short visit is unknown, but she was the only member of the Bowker family staying there.
But there was still no sign of Ruth. Later records show that she was undoubtedly a member of this family, but so far there was nothing on the census, no birth recorded on the public register and no church record of a baptism.
By the turn of the century however, the family had completely broken up. The children, now in their late teens and early twenties, had all left home to make their way in the world independently.
The eldest, Geoffrey, had begun work as a bank clerk in Sheffield, and was lodging with a young colleague, at the home of a local shopkeeper in the suburb of Ecclesall. Cuthbert had qualified as an electrician, or electrical engineer, an occupation which would bring some security in an expanding market. He had taken lodgings on his own in a terraced house in Stoke. Janet meanwhile, had travelled much further, taking the daring step to leave the family home in the north, and to relocate herself in Margate on the north east coast of Kent, where she found a position as a bookkeeper in the Royal York Hotel, an impressive Victorian establishment in a prominent spot on the promenade. (Today the hotel still dominates the sea front, although it is now converted into private residential flats).
Yet still no sign of Ruth. But this must be the right family. Ruth was known to be born in Ware and had the middle name Harwood. More devastating for the family was the separation of Dr. Bowker and his wife Annie. In 1901 Edward Bowker, now 50, had moved out of the family home and was living as a lodger back in his home town of Chesterfield. He was staying at 18 Knifesmith Gate, in the centre of town, in the home of Mary Roper, a 64 year old widow and temperance housekeeper, and her daughter, 22 year old Jenny. However, there was no record of the whereabouts of his wife Annie, nor the family home. The Wallace Street house in Wortley was no longer occupied and was the only house in that street not even recorded on the 1901 census, although a gap seems to have been left by the enumerator as though he was going to return to it later. Was the house uninhabited? Or had Annie gone away? She does not seem to be with any of her family either. And what of Ruth?
Uncover the mystery of who Ruth Harwood Bowker was and her story aboard the Titanic. Ruth's story is featured in Tales from the 'Pool A Collection of Liverpool Stories by Mike Royden. Available to purchase here.