THE death of an extraordinary benefactor whose legacy still lights up a County Durham town was being reported exactly 150 years ago.

The shock news of the demise of Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier, the Countess of Montalbo, in Paris, on February 9, 1874, at the age of 48 seems to have taken a while to filter back from Paris to Barnard Castle. The Teesdale Mercury carried a prominent paragraph about it on February 11, and between 12 and 1pm on February 18, all the shops in Barnard Castle were shut as the funeral was held at the Eglise de la Sainte Trinité.

The Northern Echo: Josephine Bowes, the Countess of Montalbo

The following day, the first intelligence about the death was to be found in the pages of The Northern Echo – and it was the news everybody was most concerned about.

The Northern Echo: From The Northern Echo of February 19, 1874From The Northern Echo of February 19, 1874

“A windfall for Barnard Castle”, said the headline on February 19. “Since of the death of Mrs Bowes, wife of Mr John Bowes, of Streatlam Castle, which occurred a few days ago at the family residence at Paris, it has been stated on authority that the magnificent building now in course of erection at Barnard Castle, together with the park and a large and valuable collection of paintings, statuary and other works of art and curiosity, which have been judiciously selected by Mrs Bowes and her husband during the course of a long series of years, will ultimately be given to the inhabitants of the town.”


The Northern Echo: John Bowes, founder of the Bowes Museum and owner of the Streatlam Stud. His horses won the Derby on four occasions - Cotherstone was his second winner

John Bowes, from the biggest County Durham coalowning family, had been MP for south Durham from 1832 to 1847 when his artistic interests in Paris, and his trouble with gambling, caused him to spend much time in the French capital. He fell in love with an actress, Joséphine, who appeared at his theatre and, despite the 14 year age gap, they married in 1852.

They were a devoted couple – devoted to each other, and also to the arts.

Joséphine had a vision of her husband’s leadminers, coalminers and farmers encountering fine art in a museum in Teesdale and, from 1862 until her death, they collected 15,000 items which they packaged up in Paris and sent to Streatlam Castle in preparation.

The Northern Echo: The trowel Josephine used to tap the foundation stone in place - among her other health issues, she was suffering a badly sprained ankle that day

On November 27, 1869, Joséphine had laid the foundation stone of what would be an elaborate French chateau on the eastern edge of Barney, although she had been too weak to do more than tap it lightly into place.

The Northern Echo: Bowes Museum copyrightThe Bowes Museum under construction

By January 23, 1874, construction had reached the point where a “roof raising” ceremony was held, the 70 workers cheering as builder Joseph Kyle unfurled French and English flags from the woodwork that was now in place on the top of the building.

But Joséphine was already ailing in Paris. Unable to leave her home due to her lung problems, she continued right up until her death packaging items to be shipped to Streatlam.


The Echo concluded its report by saying: “Some years will yet elapse before the museum is thrown open to the public.”

It was right. It took John about a year to get over the death of Joséphine and refocus on their museum project. He then ran into financial problems and died himself in 1885, and so it wasn’t until 1892 that the Bowes Museum – “one of the grandest buildings in the world”, said the Echo on opening day without any exaggeration – threw its doors open to the public.