He was born in China, to English parents. He was educated at Cheltenham College, and studied classics at New College, Oxford after war service. He was elected a fellow of Wadham College in 1922, becoming subsequently Dean and then Warden (head) of the college.
As an undergraduate in Oxford in the 1920s Bowra was fashionably homosexual and was known to cruise for sex. He used the term "the Homintern" and privately referred to his leading position in it, also calling it "the Immoral Front" or "the 69th International".
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