The Mystery of James Gowen of Flegg

Daniel Casey from America has been searching for details of his great grandfather for more than 15 years. His elusive ancestor is James Gowen likely to be from Caister-on-Sea but with connections to Martham and Clippesby.

Daniel has carried out exhaustive research over the years some of which has proved to be frustratingly contradictory, but the known facts are that his great grandfather was born on 4th August 1844 at Caister (although spelt Castor at times, subsequent research has ruled out Castor St Edmund by Norwich and the Castors in Cambridge and Lincolnshire).

In 1871 James was listed in the census as an being an ostler (someone who looks after horses) lodging at the King’s Head, Acle with Alfred & Caroline Knights. Alfred was from Great Yarmouth and Caroline was born at Martham in 1837 and was from the well known Jeary butchers’ family. Other than this there is no trace of James in the 1851 or 1861 English census records.

At sometime after 1872 or possibly as late as 1885 he emigrated to Philadelphia, USA where a succession of USA census returns from 1900 to 1930 show that he married a widow called Margaret Nicholson who had two children from a previous marriage. James & Margaret had three sons at Philadelphia; James (1888); William(1890) and Albert (1892) before moving to Chicago where they had a son called Thomas (1895) and a daughter called Jessie (1896). To make things more complicated they changed their name to McGowen when they moved to Chicago and used that from then on. James died on 8th January 1932 at Chicago and his death certificate certifies many of the above facts.

What Daniel would like to know is more about his Isle of Flegg ancestors. Modern times provide for modern methods and having identified several potential leads. Daniel used DNA tracing which has eliminated all the James Gowan’s and Gown’s from the Flegg area born around 1844.  DNA hits have identified links between the family and sisters Mary & Elizabeth Bensley of Ludham, but these are at 5th to 8th cousin level which means they go back five to eight generations. Intriguingly Mary Ann Bensley married a Thomas Gowen in 1810 but until recently DNA evidence showed no connection with Gowen’s or Gown’s in their family tree. Recently some DNA evidence shows a link with William Harbord (1841-1906) who married Amelia Gowen (1841-1894) who was born at Hemsby. Amelia was the daughter of James Gowen (1810-1891) and sister to James Stephen Gowen, a blacksmith, born at Hemsby (1847- 1928).  This James Gowen is found in the 1851, 1861,1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 census returns so is not the James Gowen that Daniel is looking for. It is odd that he is not in the 1871 census so Daniel thought he may have been the James Gowen at Acle in 1871. However, many are of the opinion that someone born Hemsby would not list themselves as being from Caister. So the search continues.

Is there any long lost Gowen’s in your family tree?  Have older members of your family ever talked about a long-lost relative heading to America to make their fortune?  If you can throw any light on this mystery, please contact Daniel Casey direct at or via me at

Thank you

Peter Dawson