Bowman, Alexander (1855–1924), trade unionist, was born 16 March 1855 at Dromara, Co. Down, eldest child among three sons and two daughters of William McKeown, farmer and weaver, and his wife Elizabeth (née Rodgers). McKeown was a catholic; Rodgers, a presbyterian, had been previously married to John A. Bowman, also of Dromara and also a presbyterian, who died c.1851, leaving his widow with three young children. Immediately after William McKeown's death (January 1865), his widow and family moved to Belfast, where all eight children were raised with the surname ‘Bowman’ and the name ‘McKeown’ was lost. The mixed religious background may well explain the changed names and may have contributed also to Bowman's political formation.
A flaxdresser by trade, he began work as a machine-boy in a Belfast linen mill at 10 years of age. A strong trade unionist, he was the founding secretary of the Belfast Trades Council (1881), and attended (1882, 1883) the British TUC as its delegate and also as a delegate for the flaxdressers' trade union. His speeches there suggest a sympathy for a forceful strategy on the part of labour, along with a demand for legislative action by the government on working conditions. Encouraged by the growth of labour radicalism in Belfast, he agreed to stand as independent labour candidate for Belfast North against William Ewart in the 1885 general election, the first since the franchise and constituency reforms of 1884–5 had enfranchised most adult males and divided the Belfast borough into four constituencies. Next to the parliamentary union, the labour question dominated the election. Belfast conservative politics were already in turmoil due to the activities of Orange Order workingmen's candidates, such as William Johnston (qv) and Robert Seeds. North Belfast, overwhelmingly protestant and working-class, had a conservative candidate in William Ewart, linen manufacturer and merchant, but no liberal to oppose him. It was in this context that Bowman, himself a liberal, was presented with a petition signed by between 400 and 500 electors of North Belfast to run as a workingmen's candidate. His candidacy was endorsed by Parnell (qv) in the absence of liberal and nationalist candidates. Bowman, who insisted he was running as a non-party trade unionist, refused on principle to canvass, and his election addresses advocated free primary and technical education, reduced hours of work, more factory inspectors, mandatory employers' liability, and the extension of the suffrage to women householders. He supported the parliamentary union, so long as it did no injustice to Ireland; he also spoke in favour of forming a labour party to promote the cause of the working class in parliament. Despite a wrecking campaign by Ewart supporters, which included smashing up Bowman's home, he took about one-fourth of the vote, polling 1,330 to Ewart's 3,915. Contrary to John W. Boyle's assertion (Irish labor movement) that this represented the catholic–nationalist vote in the constituency, Bowman in fact polled nearly twice as many votes as the nationalist James Dempsey in the July 1886 election. In 1886 the introduction of the first home rule bill split the Belfast liberals, the majority of whom turned liberal unionist. Bowman, a member of the executive committee of the Belfast Liberal Association, supported Gladstone. When Bowman objected that a delegation of Belfast workingmen in London lobbying against Gladstone's measure were not representing any trade union, nor the Belfast Trades Council, he was forced to resign as secretary of the council, which thus found itself in alliance with the political foes of British trade unionists.
Bowman served as secretary of the Protestant Home Rule Association for the next eighteen months before moving (November 1888) with his family to Glasgow, where he worked as an agent for a vending-machine company. He remained politically active, taking part in the single-tax movement and becoming president of the Henry George Institute and the Scottish Land Restoration Federation; he had been secretary of the Irish Land Restoration Society since 1885. In 1892 Bowman moved to London, where he was an active member of the Brixton branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the British Marxist party. He had moved leftward on the political spectrum, speaking on lecture tours for the SDF and standing for the party in local elections in Walthamstow (1894) and for Essex county council (1895). The family returned to Belfast (1895) after the defeat of the second home rule bill, the return of a conservative government, and the seeming end of the issue of home rule for Ireland. Bowman resumed his work as a flaxdresser and his activity in Belfast trade unionism, acting as secretary for the Belfast branch of the Municipal Employees Trade Union. He was also involved in municipal politics, being elected (1897) to the city corporation as a trades council candidate for Duncairn, a post he retained until 1900. In 1901 he was elected president of the Irish TUC. In September 1901 he withdrew from political and labour activity after being appointed superintendent of the Falls Road corporation baths, where he remained till his retirement (1922). He died 3 November 1924.
Bowman was an elder of the Donegall Rd presbyterian church and a member of the Good Templar movement, and was latterly connected with the Cooke Centenary group. According to the Northern Whig he became a unionist in later life. He married (August 1880) Rose (1852–1947). They had six children: William (1881–1958), Robert (1883–1970), Minnie (1885–1968), Hugh (1887–1965), Thomas (1892–1964), and Charles (1895–1923). Bowman was the first independent labour candidate to contest a parliamentary seat in Ireland, and also the first working-class Irishman to stand for parliament. The Belfast Trades Council, of which he was a founder member, continued to be a source of sporadic labour political activism in the city. His candidacy for North Belfast was the first of many attempts to build a base for working-class politics in industrial Belfast, independent of nationalism and unionism.