Charles Christopher Bowen is said to have been born at Milford, County Mayo, Ireland, on 29 August 1830. He was the elder son of Charles Bowen and his wife, Georgiana Lambert. The Bowens were an Anglo-Irish gentry family of Welsh origin. Bowen was educated first by a private tutor in France; he then attended Rugby School, where he excelled in athletics, and finally Cambridge. Rather than finish his degree, in 1850 he 'lightheartedly' accompanied his family to Canterbury on the Charlotte Jane. His parents, who were friends of J. R. Godley, hoped to improve their reduced fortunes by emigration.
At first Bowen enjoyed a pleasant bachelor existence of balls, regattas and cricket matches. He acted as secretary to Godley until the latter's return to England in December 1852. His subsequent letters to Godley and to the agent of the Canterbury province in England, H. S. Selfe, are invaluable sources for early Canterbury history.
Bowen became a justice of the peace in 1852 and when the Canterbury provincial government was formed in 1853 he was appointed inspector of police and chief clerk to the resident magistrate and provincial treasurer, Charles Simeon. As a bureaucrat Bowen proved indispensable, but he was a fierce critic of the incompetence and 'cant' of others. 'I have not too good a character for throwing a decent veil over my opinions of men', he wrote. In March 1855 he was appointed provincial treasurer, clerk to the court and a member of J. E. FitzGerald's provincial executive. In 1856 he was also appointed commissioner and treasurer of the Canterbury Waste Land Board. The central government in April 1858 made him one of its commissioners of native reserves, and then receiver of land revenue. His appointment as provincial treasurer was unpopular with a group of members of the provincial council, led by Joseph Brittan, who wanted the introduction of responsible government, and disliked Bowen, partly because in his spare time he was editor and then joint owner of the Lyttelton Times. In newspaper editorials Bowen had strongly opposed the idea of a responsible government in the province.
Bowen was a romantic at heart, with an almost mystical view of the colony and its place in the Empire. His views were expressed in poems which appeared in the Lyttelton Times and in a small volume published in 1861. One of his poems about New Zealand, 'The battle of the free', was, he said, 'written under the full conviction that in England's colonies…she will eventually find her real strength.' Romanticism was also at the root of Bowen's wish (discouraged by his father) to join the British forces fighting in the Crimea. His yearning for adventure was satisfied by two years of wandering the globe, between December 1859 and March 1862, in the company of Clements Robert Markham. He married Markham's sister, Georgina Elizabeth Markham, in London on 16 July 1861; there were to be seven children of the marriage.
On returning to New Zealand Bowen resumed his duties in the provincial treasury, but declined to serve on the provincial executive. He did not like W. S. Moorhouse's administration, and was even less impressed with Samuel Bealey, the next superintendent. He wanted to resign his provincial offices but did not, for financial reasons. Increasingly he devoted himself to his family and to social commitments: he belonged to many organisations including the Christchurch Club, the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, the Canterbury Rowing Club and the Canterbury Jockey Club.
To his delight, in 1864 he was appointed resident magistrate of Christchurch by the central government. The position paid well and allowed him to be his own master and the judge of others. Bowen's legal experience was limited, and he was regarded by some as soft-hearted with criminals. But he was well respected, and enjoyed the prestige of his position. Independence from provincial politics suited him: he disliked the system, and declined to stand as superintendent in 1868. 'A fear of ultra-Provincialism has become a kind of monomania with me', he once told Godley.
Nevertheless Bowen wanted to be involved in politics. When in 1874 the cabinet of the central government felt the need of a Canterbury member, and invited Bowen to take a seat in the Legislative Council, he leapt at the opportunity. He took office as minister of justice and commissioner of stamp duties on 16 December 1874. Criticisms were voiced that he was a civil servant promoted to political office, so he decided to stand for the seat of Kaiapoi in the House of Representatives. In January 1875 he won the poll against a local man, Joseph Sutton Beswick, and held the seat until his resignation in 1881. He served in the ministries dominated by Julius Vogel and H. A. Atkinson from 1874 to 1877, and lost office when Sir George Grey came to power in October 1877. Bowen had allied himself with Julius Vogel, whom he probably found distasteful, but whose views on national development he shared.
Bowen's political style was restrained. His powers of oratory were appreciated, but he admitted to William Rolleston, 'although a member of the Govt I am not a general'. The responsibilities of the minister of justice were not heavy. Bowen kept a watchful eye on the magistrates and the gaols, and he introduced the 'mark' system for good behaviour for prisoners, but he was not a reformer by character. He did, however, initiate changes in commercial law. New Zealand had in 1874 cautiously followed the British example and introduced some restrictions on imprisonment for debt. Bowen consulted the chambers of commerce about ways to give more generous treatment to honest debtors under the bankruptcy law, and consequently the Debtors and Creditors Bill passed into law in 1876.
Bowen's greatest interest was education. Canterbury had one of the best provincial educational systems: Bowen had served on its education board from 1871 and in 1873–74 was its chairman. From 1872 to 1874 he was president of the Canterbury Collegiate Union which laid the basis for Canterbury College, and he was a member of the college's first board of governors in 1873. He had long been involved in debates about education. Newspaper articles attributed to him suggest that from an early date he was unhappy with the inefficient aspects of the denominational system of education, and was prepared to restrict religious instruction in schools. In a speech at a public meeting in 1872 Bowen defended the provincial council's abandonment of the denominational system, emphasising that education's function was to enable the state to control its citizens. He stated his position bluntly: 'May I be allowed to suggest that the church will always have more work than it can do without endeavouring to do the work of the State'.
In 1875 Bowen was disturbed by news that his province had cut its education budget, and he feared that cabinet would be reluctant to devote central government funds to the need. Publicly he accepted Atkinson's suggestion that after abolition the provincial education structures should be maintained. But in private he worked to hasten the emergence of a national system. In 1876 he introduced a temporary act to provide for a continuation of the existing boards only until December 1877 and he invited Rolleston to become the first under secretary for education.
It is probable that the Education Bill Bowen introduced to the House of Representatives on 24 July 1877 was his own work. He took the unusual step of defending it in a long speech at its first reading, and he guided it carefully through subsequent readings. The bill provided for a system of compulsory, free state education, administered by a department of education, education boards and school committees. A clause which made provision for teachers to lead daily prayer and Bible reading was struck out at the committee stage. Bowen's attitude to this has been debated. He was an Irish Episcopalian rather than an Irish Protestant, and although as minister of justice he once censured a magistrate and court officials for attending a Hibernian dinner where the Pope's health was drunk before that of the Queen, he was suspicious of ultra-Protestantism, and took a liberal approach to doctrine. He had close connections with the Anglican diocese of Christchurch, but on the board of education he criticised partisan religious instruction. He defended the use of the Bible in schools, arguing that, 'For myself I cannot understand such teaching without the use of the oldest history in the world'; on the other hand he told the education board that the Bible should be taught as a historical rather than a theological book.
Bowen's bill was therefore consistent with his previous views in allowing school religious instruction of a limited kind, and his later laments that the exclusion of Bible reading had made state education too secular were no doubt sincere. When Bowen lost office in 1877, he persuaded the new minister of justice, John Sheehan, to superintend the bill through the Legislative Council and back to the House of Representatives. The Education Act was passed later that year.
Bowen retained his interest in education to the end of his life. From 1881 to 1882 and from 1888 to 1915 he was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand, and after 1903 was its vice chancellor. In 1886 he served as chairman of the reconstituted North Canterbury Education Board.
After his retirement from politics in 1881 Bowen visited England and then returned to Christchurch to become managing director of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company, manager of the New Zealand Trust and Loan Company, and a director of the New Zealand Shipping Company Limited. He also served as a lieutenant in the Canterbury Volunteers. But his contribution to national politics was not yet over. In January 1891 Atkinson appointed Bowen and five others to life seats in the Legislative Council, to restrict the Liberal party which was about to take power. In his second parliamentary career Bowen served as a member of the 1901 royal commission which recommended against New Zealand's joining the new Federation of Australia, and in 1905, in his mid 70s, he was appointed speaker of the Council. He received the customary knighthood in 1910, and the further honour of KCMG in 1914.
Bowen was the local host and supporter of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole. His daughter, Gertrude Bowen, had married the cousin of the explorer, Robert J. Scott, who was a professor of engineering at Canterbury College. Moreover, his brother-in-law, Clements Robert Markham, was from 1893 president of the Royal Geographical Society, and an ardent supporter of British participation in the race for the South Pole. Consequently the 1901–4 and 1910–12 expeditions used Lyttelton as a base. The members of both parties were guests at the Bowen home, Middleton Grange, in Riccarton, en route for McMurdo Sound.
Bowen died at his residence on 12 December 1917. A conservative, he always loathed democracy, and relished nothing so much as recognition as a gentleman. Yet his promotion of national education owed much to his conservatism. He was not a key political figure, but he played a significant part in the making of nineteenth century New Zealand society.