In 1888 two young brothers came to Olney from Colchester. They were John William and Edwin, the sons of William Sowman and Susannah (née Rudkin). Their father, a Solicitors’ Managing Clerk in Colchester, together with his sons, had purchased No. 32 Market Place (previously No. 33) from the owner, Mr Thomas Cooper and they planned to develop the existing ironmongery business into a much larger concern. Records indicate that there had been an ironmongery shop there since at least 1757 when Mr Joseph Palmer owned the business. By the 1880’s it was being run by Mr Thomas Cooper. Oliver Ratcliff makes some rather caustic remarks in his 1907 book about the sad state of the building and the poor quality of service offered by Mr Cooper prior to the purchase by the Sowman brothers.
(See extract in Oliver Ratcliff’s 1907 book.)
NB: The buildings on the southern side of the Market Place have been renumbered since 1888. The numbers used in this article refer to those used today.


No. 32 Market Place – c. Spring 1889

The announcement to the people of Olney of the transfer of the business from Mrs Cooper to Messrs J W & E Sowman was made in December 1888 (see the transfer notice below). The Sowmans began trading in January 1889 at No. 32 Market Place. The above photograph was possibly taken during the first year of trading. (The business was not incorporated until May 1912.)


Notice of transfer of the ironmongery business to J W & E Sowman from Mrs Cooper


Sowmans at No. 32, possibly shortly after acquiring No. 33 (on the right) – c. 1900

Expanding their business, Sowmans bought No. 33 in or around 1900. They demolished the building and built an extensive three storey property on the site. The new shop opened for trade on 27th June, 1904.


Rebuilt No. 33 with its new elevation and frontage

The inside of the shop is described in some detail by Oliver Ratcliff in his 1907 book.
(See extract in Oliver Ratcliff’s 1907 book.)

. According to Ratcliff the shop offered a wide variety of goods for sale. On the ground floor there were all types of ironmongery, hardware, fancy goods, cutlery, copper and brass goods, sporting guns, gramophones, tea and coffee services. The first floor displayed cooking ranges and gas stoves, mantelpieces and tiled grates, baths, furniture and bedsteads, whilst the second floor appears to have been used primarily for storage. The shop also stocked accessories for Bucks lace making; in 1924 Reginald Whinnett was using part of the premises as a Lace Dealer.Sowmans later acquired No: 34 Market which had changed hands many times in the nineteenth century. The purchase date is unknown. The east side of the frontage was extensively remodelled to provide an entrance to their extensive motor and general engineering workshops. The west side became their radio shop.

Alfred William Rudkin Sowman, better known as Willie, was the second son of William and Susannah Sowman of Colchester. In 1904 he moved with his family to Olney from Clandon in Surrey where he had been estate manager for the West Clandon Estate. He became a Director and the Secretary of the Sowman business.


The shop window of the new Sowman building at No. 33 – c.1910

The photograph above shows the new shop front at No. 33 fitted with large plate glass windows, surely unusual at that time for a small rural town. Incidentally, the children in the foreground are known to be Sowman children; Ronald and John on the right and possibly Arthur and Philip on the left, with Edwin or possibly Alfred Sowman in the doorway – see the Sowman Family Tree. (No. 33 is now occupied by ‘Costa Coffee’.) From about 1907 Mr William E Moss, a tailor, occupied No. 32 for some years, but as Sowman’s businesses expanded, they took back their original shop.


Sowmans cycle showroom, No. 27 High Street South, in its early days

In addition to the properties along the south side of the Market Place, Sowman brothers acquired No. 27 High Street South converting it to a showroom, mainly for bicycles. (It is now Aubergines, a smart cooking utensils shop).


Sowmans shop at No. 2 Dartmouth Rd (2007)

They also added No. 2 Dartmouth Road to their property portfolio, where they sold household goods on a cash-only basis, at the north end of the town. Today, the shop exterior remains almost unchanged from when it was owned by Sowmans (see photograph on the right).

This set of properties formed the basis for the continuous development of Sowman’s business until the start of the Second World War. Indeed, with a few additions, including a shop in Newport Pagnell, the business prospered under the Sowman name for more than another twenty years.

The breadth of Sowmans business interests almost 20 years after the business was founded is amply described and complimented in Oliver Ratcliff ‘s book ‘Olney, Bucks – My look round Olney’ by published in 1907. (See extract in Oliver Ratcliff’s 1907 book)

Another very complimentary article written some 15 years later is re-printed from ‘Agricultural Engineering’ dated September 1922. (See Agricultural Engineering article.)

Since this article has been compiled, Alan Richardson has kindly provided the following additional Sowman photographs for publication in this ODHS feature. They are of considerable relevence and complement this page covering the establishment of the Sowman business.


JW & E Sowman employees outside No. 32 probably taken in the early 1900’s



Promoting ‘Shell Motor Spirit’ perhaps, outside No. 33 c. 1910
(see the row of petrol cans on the floor outside!)



Window of No. 33 dressed for a Test Match c. 1910
(See the row of cricket bats in the larger window)



No. 27 High Street South in early Sowman days
(photograph taken from Weston Road)

Maybe this is the original ‘Alleluia Lampost’, an early focus of Olney’s New Year celebrations. (The pubs emptied out at midnight for the customers to sing ‘Auld lang syne’ and dance around it – too dangerous today due to the traffic!)

Visit the next page – Sowman Sponsors/Parents

Copyright © 2007 Olney & District Historical Society

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