Cohen-Bray House    

Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland


The English Gardener of Oaktree Farm (Part I)

Posted by Cohen Bray House on October 11, 2016 at 11:45 PM

This post is the story of Thomas Cowell, a gardener who worked at Oaktree Farm in 1880. Based on the census records, it seems like Thomas may have been counted twice - once as part of the Bray’s household and once as the head of his own household nearby in Oakland.


Thomas was born in England sometime between 1841 and 1844. He immigrated to the US in 1877 (according to the 1900 census). It is difficult to know anything about him before that because there are literally thousands of Thomas Cowells born in England between 1841 and 1844.

Records for Thomas Cowell on

Thomas’s wife, Mary, was Irish, and fascinatingly they had three children - Elizabeth, Thomas, and William - born in Australia, and then their youngest, John, was born in California. Australia was an ~80 day journey from England in the 1850s and 60s. There are any number of reasons why Thomas and Mary could have ended up there. Based on the age of their children, they would have had to have arrived in Australia by 1869 at the very latest. In 1851, Australia had its own gold rush, which brought in a wave of immigrants from mostly the British Isles and China, however that would have been too early for Thomas to travel, seeing as he would have been no more than 10 years old.

It is also a mystery why they would have left Australia right when they did. The Australian economy was booming in the 1870s, so it is unclear why they would have chosen to take their 3 young children on such a huge journey.

But in any case, that is what it appears that they did. According to voting records for Thomas from 1894 and 1896, the family was living about a mile away from the Oaktree Farm estate in at 1656 13th Ave.

1656 13th Ave, Oakland Today, Source: Google Street View

Distance from Thomas and Mary's home to the Cohen Bray House

The whole family is absent from the 1890 census and, sadly, Mary had passed away by 1900, meaning that she was no more the 55 years old, and probably significantly younger. Of course, the life expectancy for a white female of her generation was 40 years old, so she actually live longer than most of her peers.

Average US Life Expectancy. Note the difference between white and non-white life expectancy in the early 1900s. Source: Info Please

Thomas continued living with his son John for many years afterwards. We last see him in the record in 1920 still living in Oakland with John and his family. Excitingly, there are lots of people to track down in this family, some of which were in Oakland and alive as recently as the 1980s. We will do that in Part II. Stay tuned!


Categories: Individual Histories, Irish Immigrants

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