John and Joséphine Bowes founded The Bowes Museum. John, the son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, was born at No 13 South Street, Chelsea, London. His mother was a commoner, Mary Millner, who caught the Earl's eye when she worked on his Teesdale estate and ended up living with the Earl to all intents as his wife for many years. The Earl married her just 16 hours before his death in an unsuccessful attempt to secure his son’s succession. Two very long court cases ensued, finally settling the Durham estates on John, but not recognising him as the legitimate heir to the Strathmore title.
John was educated at Eton and became a very successful businessman who invested heavily in the coal reserves on his land and bred four Derby winners. From 1847 he spent his time between France and England.
Joséphine Bowes was born in 1825. She was a French actress in the Théâtre des Variétés, Paris, owned by John Bowes between 1848 and 1852. She shared John’s love of the arts and they married in 1852.