Thomas Adolphus Bowden, known either as Tom or Adolphus, was born at Aldermanbury, London, England, on 26 July 1824, the son of Rebecca Treacher and her husband, John Saunders Bowden, a solicitor. After attending a preparatory school and a school at West Hackney he had six years at Totteridge school. He spent three years in his father's law office, then in 1842 entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, graduating in 1846.
Bowden was ordained deacon in 1847 and priest on 29 October 1848 at the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace. The influence of Puseyism led him to doubt whether his beliefs could be reconciled with those of the Anglican church, and he practised as a clergyman only intermittently. On 26 February 1848 he married his cousin, Caroline Hanrott Emma Treacher, in the parish church, Wellington, Somerset. His activities for the next six years are unclear.
In 1855 Thomas and Caroline Bowden and their four children – five more were born later – emigrated on the John Phillips to Nelson, New Zealand. They settled in Upper Moutere on a 75-acre section, 50 acres being in the river valley and 25 acres in bush. They built a cottage and started farming on what proved to be unsuitable land; the few neighbours gave valuable help with building, hunting pigs, hospitality and working the land.
About 1856 Bowden agreed to act as curate for the planned parish of Waimea South, but in 1857 or 1858, when another clergyman became available, he resigned and rented a nearby farm. Under the tutelage of the owner he became more proficient in ploughing, driving bullocks and the care of sheep. By 1860 Bowden had left the farm to become secretary to Bishop Edmund Hobhouse of Nelson. He also taught at the Bishop's School for about four years before moving to Taylor Valley, Marlborough, where he ran a school for the local boys.
In 1865 the Wellington provincial government appointed Bowden as their first inspector of schools. This entailed holding meetings throughout the province, introducing textbooks, examining teachers, giving certificates and establishing a standardised system of classes in the schools. Lack of popular support for education meant that funding was inadequate, and Bowden's work became a struggle. In order to overcome a shortage of suitable textbooks, Bowden published An introduction to the geography of New Zealand (1868) and a Manual of New Zealand geography (1869), the latter a comprehensive work compiled with the assistance of James Hector. He also published wall maps of New Zealand, Australasia and Oceania. He then arranged for the publication of 24 reading books, Philips' Colonial Series of Elementary School Books, prepared mainly by himself. These books and maps won a certificate of merit and bronze medal at an exhibition in Christchurch in 1874. With the help of Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Bowden prepared other reading books focusing on New Zealand history, but these were never published.
By 1868 funds were so low that the provincial government could no longer afford an inspector of schools; Bowden resigned and returned to teaching. He was appointed principal of the newly established Wellington Grammar School (later Wellington College). He also served as inspector of the Karori Lunatic Asylum, becoming a justice of the peace for the purpose.
In 1873 Bowden left Wellington College to set up the New Zealand Educational Depository, publishing and distributing educational materials. He opened a private commercial school, the English High School; edited a monthly periodical, the New Zealand Educational Gazette; held evening classes for adults; set up a small printing office; and prepared Bowden's Explicit Series of school books for publication. He studied Māori and offered tuition in the language.
Bowden's businesses seemed to be prospering when he and his wife left for a visit to England on the Hurunui in March 1878, but they arrived home in January 1879 to face debts and failure. Convinced that his theological views were no longer greatly at variance with those of the church, he left Wellington to accept a post as vicar at Greymouth for a year. He then relieved at All Saints' Church, Nelson, and at Wakefield, as well as working as a classical tutor with Bishopdale College theological students.
A legacy from a Wakefield resident permitted him to retire to a farm at Wakefield about 1882. Here he took an interest in fruit farming, helped with church services and published the NZ Literary Record, a journal which aimed at advancing education in New Zealand. Another publication, mainly for his grandchildren, was Words of the wise, which included a translation of the Last days of Socrates. Thomas Bowden died at Wakefield, on 24 June 1906, survived by four sons and three daughters, and his wife, who died on 25 July 1914.