Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barrow, John (1764-1848)

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BARROW, Sir JOHN (1764–1848), secretary of the admiralty, was born at Dragley Beck, a village in the parish of Ulverston, in a small cottage, still standing, which had been in his mother's family nearly two hundred years. It faces seawards, is of one story, and may be identified by the motto, ‘Parum sufficit,’ over the door. Almost as the visitor leaves this humble dwelling, he sees before him, to the north-east of Ulverston, on a bold gorse-and-bracken-covered bluff, 417 feet above the sea, called Hoad, a round tower 100 feet high, conspicuous from the Leven estuary, and commanding a view of the chief heights of the lake district and Yorkshire. The cottage testifies to Sir John Barrow's lowly origin, the monument to the honour in which he was held by his countrymen when he died. Educated at the Town Bank Grammar School at Ulverston, the master of which was ‘an old gouty gentleman named Ferdinand Hodgson, usually called Fardy by the boys,’ who had the good sense to discern his pupil's merits, he was taught mathematics by ‘a sort of perambulating preceptor, who used to pay an annual visit of about three months.’ A son of the Robert Walker whom Wordsworth immortalised succeeded to the mastership, and helped young Barrow to his first step in life by recommending him to assist in the survey of Conishead Priory. The knowlege thus gained he utilised some years later in his first contribution to the press, in which he explained the practical use of a case of mathematical instruments. Five or six of the upper boys of the school subscribed to purchase a celestial globe and a map of the heavens, and he never let a starlight night pass without observing the constellations. In return for instruction given in mathematics he was taught navigation by a midshipman. He fell in with an account of Benjamin Franklin's electrical kite, and, by means of a schoolboy's kite, obtained abundance of sparks, and gave a shock to an old woman who came to see what he was about. She spread a report that he was no better than he should be, for he was bringing fire down from heaven. The alarm ran through the village, and at his mother's request he laid aside the kite. By an old farmer named Gibson—a ‘wise man’ and ‘self-taught mathematician and almanack maker’—he was helped in his mathematical difficulties, of which he tells a curious story. For two days and nights he had been puzzling over a problem in Simson's ‘Conic Sections.’ Another night he fell asleep with his brain still at work on the problem. In his dreams he went on with it, so that next morning he easily sketched with pencil and slate the correct solution. His parents wished him to enter the church; but when he was fourteen he accepted an offer of a three years' engagement as timekeeper in a Liverpool ironfoundry, and in the last year of his engagement was offered a partnership by his employer, who, however, immediately afterwards died. While in Liverpool he saw Mrs. Siddons act in a farce, and displayed his instinctive love of adventure by begging for a place in a balloon, which Leonardi, the proprietor, said was the first to ascend in England with a human freight. Captain Potts, his late employer's friend, now offered to take him a voyage in a Greenland whaler, where he took part in the chase, and brought home a couple of jawbones, which were set up as gateposts close to his parents' cottage. In this voyage he learned what it was to be beset by ice, and while improving his mind by writing in a journal observations of the thermometer, the barometer, and the compass, exercised his body by learning to ‘hand, reef, and steer;’ so that Captain Potts told him that another voyage would make him as good a seaman as any on the ship. He returned home in time to attend his old master's funeral, and see Robert Walker, then eighty years old, stand with streaming eyes by his son's grave. His friend Gibson urged him to complete the knowledge he had gained of nautical science; ‘for,’ he said, ‘without a profession you cannot tell to what good use knowledge of any kind may be applied.’ A Colonel Dodgson offered him the superintendence of his estate in the West Indies; but on finding this to mean an overseership of negroes he declined it. Gibson's son introduced him to a Dr. James, master of a school at Greenwich, with whom he engaged himself as a mathematical assistant for three years. These years proved very happy and useful ones, and in his leisure hours he taught mathematics to the wife of Sir George Beaumont and the son of Sir George Staunton, to whom he ‘was indebted for all the good fortune’ of his life. Sir George recommended him to Lord Macartney, who was going on an embassy to China, and he was made comptroller of the household in his suite. His observations of the country and language are recorded in his ‘Autobiography’ (1847), his ‘Travels in China’ (1804), his ‘Life of Lord Macartney’ (1807), and in numerous articles in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and his advice was asked by government on two subsequent occasions with regard to our dealings with the Chinese empire. His first care on coming home was to visit his parents. A fortnight later saw him in London, where he lived with Sir George Staunton, assisting him in his literary work till he accompanied Lord Macartney as his private secretary to the Cape of Good Hope. While in London he had been teaching himself botany in Kew Gardens, so that he looked forward to the study of South African natural history with a not uneducated appreciation of its novelties. Lord Macartney at once sent him on a double mission, viz. to reconcile the Kaffirs and Boers, and to obtain more accurate topographical knowledge of the colony, there being then no map which embraced one-tenth of it. In pursuit of these objects he traversed every part of the colony, and visited the several countries of the Kaffirs, the Hottentots, and the Bosjesmen, performing ‘a journey exceeding one thousand miles on horseback, on foot, and very rarely in a covered wagon, and full half the distance as a pedestrian, and never except for a few nights sleeping under a roof.’ On his return he received proof of Lord Macartney's approbation by being appointed auditor-general of public accounts. While drawing up an account of his travels he received news of his father's death. Upon Lord Macartney's return to England disturbances again broke out between the Boers and natives, and Barrow was employed by General Dundas on a mission of reconciliation. At its close he married Miss Anna Maria Trüter, and in the year 1800 bought a house looking on Table Mountain, where he intended to settle ‘as a country gentleman of South Africa.’ Three years later all these plans were upset. In 1802 the treaty of Amiens was signed. The Cape was evacuated, and a year later Barrow was once more in England. Here his friend General Dundas strongly recommended him to his uncle, at whose house he met Pitt. He describes Pitt and Dundas as being ‘as playful as two schoolboys.’ On Pitt returning to office in 1804, Dundas, now Lord Melville, was made first lord of the admiralty, and he appointed Barrow second secretary, a post which he occupied with but small intermission for the next forty years. The history of his life during that period ‘would be, in fact, nothing less than that of the civil administration of our navy.’ He owed his appointment mainly to the ability he had shown at the Cape and in his history of the colony, with its unrivalled map. On appointing him, Lord Melville inquired if he was a Scotchman, and to the answer, ‘No, my lord, I am only a borderer, I am North Lancashire,’ rejoined that both he and Pitt had been so taunted with giving away all the good things to Scotchmen that he was glad to have chosen an Englishman for once. One piece of patronage which, in his new position, fell to the lot of Barrow himself must have given him special pleasure. He found out the son of his old benefactor, Gibson, and made his son his private secretary. Of the stirring events of the following year his ‘Autobiography’ contains interesting reminiscences. ‘Never,’ he writes, ‘can I forget the shock I received on opening the board-room door the morning after the arrival of the dispatches, when Marsden called out, “Glorious news! The most glorious victory our brave navy ever achieved—but Nelson is dead.”’ In 1806, on a change of first lords, Barrow lost his appointment, but was awarded a pension of 1,000l. a year, and was reappointed to the post in 1807. From 8 April 1807 to 28 Jan. 1845 he was second secretary, serving, he says, in all ‘for forty years, under twelve or thirteen several naval administrations, whig and tory, including that of the lord high admiral, his royal highness the Duke of Clarence; having reason to believe that I have given satisfaction to all and every one of these naval administrations.’ In 1817 Barrow published an account of the movement of icebergs into the Atlantic, and proposed to Lord Melville a plan of two voyages for the discovery of the North-west Passage—a proposal notable in the history of Arctic exploration, and the origin of some of the noblest exploits of seamanship in our century. In 1821 the honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred on him by the university of Edinburgh. In 1827 the Duke of Clarence was lord high admiral, and holding a grand review at Spithead, when ‘a telegraph message from London was handed to Admiral Stopford, which, in the absence of his key, he was not prepared to make out. The duke impatiently called out, “Where is Barrow?” He was at his elbow, and the admiral handed him the message, with “What is it? quick, quick!” “Sir,” was the reply, “it is brief, but painfully distressing—Mr. Canning is dead.”’ After the duke became king he made Barrow a baronet in the year 1835. When Sir James Graham was at the admiralty, and the consolidation of the civil departments of the navy was accomplished, Mr. Barrow was his right-hand man, and drew up a plan for the better management of the dockyards, which was adopted. In 1848 he resigned his office, receiving, on this occasion, the strongest expressions of regard from, among others, Sir Robert Peel. He was asked by Sidney Herbert to sit for his portrait, to be hung up in the room of the secretary to the admiralty. But what delighted him most of all was the present of a service of plate by officers engaged in Arctic discovery. More than any other man not actually employed in its operations, he had contributed to the splendid results obtained in the nineteenth century. Point Barrow, Cape Barrow, and Barrow Straits, in the polar seas, attest the estimation in which his friendship was held by the explorers of his time; and in the interior of the Ulverston monument their names are appropriately engraven with his own. On retiring Sir John asked for favours for only two men. One was Richardson, Franklin's brave comrade, who was knighted. The other was Fitzjames, who was made a captain, and whose name is also inseparable from Franklin's.

Sir John Barrow's ‘Autobiography’ contains an interesting historical sketch of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and in a supplementary chapter, published after his death, he gives an account of the several presidents of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he may fairly claim to have been the founder, though the idea of such a society was not of his conception. He proposed the formation of it at the Raleigh Club in 1830, and took the chair at all its first meetings. During his long life, half of which was spent in active physical exercise, half in sedentary occupations, Sir John only once (when half poisoned in China) consulted a doctor before he was eighty. His singularly fortunate life was ended by as fortunate a death. After being engaged in literary labour on the previous day, he died suddenly and without suffering on 23 Nov. 1848, in the eighty-fifth year of his age, and was buried in Pratt Street, Camden Town. A marble obelisk marks the spot.

Few men have displayed such combined activity of mind and body as Sir John Barrow. The subsidiary enterprises on which he expended his inexhaustible energy might have been the main occupations of another man's life. When he was at the Cape he suggested and procured a plan for supplying Cape Town with water from Table Mountain. Previously there had been a daily concourse of many hundred slaves, rioting and fighting for the only water procurable. When quite a boy he drew up a plan for a Sunday school at Ulverston, and, as there was neither newspaper nor printing press in the town, wrote it out and stuck it up on the market-cross the night before market-day. He wrote 195 articles in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ on almost every subject except politics, the most generally interesting being on Arctic and Chinese subjects; about twelve in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica;’ one in the ‘Edinburgh Review;’ a ‘Life of Lord Macartney’ (1807); ‘Travels in South Africa,’ 2 vols. (1801–4); ‘Travels in China’ (1804); ‘A Voyage to Cochin China’ (1806); a ‘Life of Lord Howe’ (1838), of which Southey said he had never read any book of the kind so judiciously composed; in the ‘Family Library’ ‘An Account of the Mutiny of the Bounty’ (1831) and ‘A Life of Peter the Great;’ ‘A Chronological History of Arctic Voyages’ (1818) and ‘Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic Regions’ (1846). Of these writings he modestly says, ‘Sunt bona, sunt quædam mediocria, sunt mala plura.’ In addition to them and to his ‘Autobiography’ he prepared for the press innumerable manuscripts of travellers in all parts of the globe.

[Autobiography; Staunton's Memoir of Sir John Barrow, edited by John Barrow (1852); Private letter from Colonel John Barrow, Sir John Barrow's son; information collected at Ulverston.]

A. H. B-y

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.17
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
305 i 17 f.e. Barrow, Sir John: for near Ulverston read in the parish of Ulverston
9 f.e. for thyme read gorse and bracken
8 f.e. omit the Hill of