The son of Sir Joseph Cowen, a prominent citizen and Member of Parliament (MP) for Newcastle upon Tyne from 1865 to 1873, was born at Stella Hall, Blaydon (demolished 1955). Cowen junior was educated privately in Ryton and at Edinburgh University, where he interested himself in European revolutionary movements.
Cowen then joined his father in his Blaydon brick business, smuggling documents abroad in the consignments of bricks. Cowen numbered among his friends Mazzini, Louis Blanc and Ledru-Rollin, as well as Herzen and Bakunin. Garibaldi, Felice Orsini and Lajos Kossuth came to visit him in Blaydon. His purse assisted them and his pen advocated their cause.
In 1874, he was elected Member of Parliament, succeeding his father, who had held the Newcastle seat as a Liberal since 1865. Joseph Cowen was at that time a strong Radical on domestic questions. He was also a sympathizer with Irish Nationalism, and one who in speech, dress and manner identified himself with the North East mining class.
Short in stature and uncouth in appearance, his individuality first shocked and then by its earnestness impressed the House of Commons; and his sturdy independence of party ties, combined with a gift of rough but genuine eloquence (of which his speech on the Royal Title Bill of 1876 was an example), rapidly made him one of the best-known public men in the country.
He was, moreover, an Imperialist and a Colonial Federationist at a time when Liberalism was tied and bound to the Manchester traditions; and, to the consternation of the official wire-pullers, he vigorously supported Disraeli's foreign policy, and in 1881 opposed the Gladstonian settlement with the Boers.
His independence (which his detractors attributed in some degree to his alleged susceptibility to Tory compliments) brought him into collision both with the Liberal caucus and with the party organization in Newcastle itself, but Cowen's personal popularity and his remarkable powers as an orator triumphed in his own birthplace, and he was again elected in 1885 in spite of Liberal opposition.
Shortly afterwards, however, the 'Blaydon Brick' retired both from parliament and from public life, professing his disgust at the party intrigues of politics, and devoted himself to conducting his newspaper, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, and to his private business. In this capacity he exercised a wide influence on local opinion, and the revolt of the Newcastle electorate in later years against "doctrinaire Radicalism" was largely due to his constant preaching of a broader outlook on national affairs. He served as President of the first day of the 1873 Co-operative Congress.
Behind the scenes he continued to play a powerful part in forming North-country opinion until his death. A fine bronze statue of Cowen stands in Westgate Road in Newcastle. His letters were published by his daughter in 1909.
- Joan Allen (2007), Joseph Cowen and Popular Radicalism on Tyneside 1829–1900
- E I Waitt (1972), "John Morley, Joseph Cowen and Robert Spence Watson. Liberal divisions in Newcastle Politics, 1873-1895". Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD at the University of Manchester, October 1972. Copies in Manchester University, Newcastle Central and Gateshead libraries.
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Joseph Cowen
- Joseph Cowen's pamphlet collection at JSTOR
- Catalogue entry to the Joseph Cowen papers at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Sir Joseph Cowen
Thomas Emerson Headlam
|Member of Parliament for Newcastle-upon-Tyne
1874 – 1886
With: Thomas Emerson Headlam 1874
Charles Frederic Hamond 1874–1880
Ashton Wentworth Dilke 1880–1883
John Morley 1883–1886
- Congress Presidents 1869-2002, February 2002, retrieved 2008-05-10
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs [self-published source][better source needed]