He was born the son of Roger Barrow in the village of Dragley Beck, in the parish of Ulverston, then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria. He started in life as superintending clerk of an iron foundry at Liverpool and afterwards, in his twenties, taught mathematics at a private school in Greenwich.
Through the interest of Sir George Leonard Staunton, to whose son he taught mathematics, he was attached on the first British embassy to China from 1792-94 as comptroller of the household to Lord Macartney. He soon acquired a good knowledge of the Chinese language, on which he subsequently contributed interesting articles to the Quarterly Review; and the account of the embassy published by Sir George Staunton records many of Barrow’s valuable contributions to literature and science connected with China.
Although Barrow ceased to be officially connected with Chinese affairs after the return of the embassy in 1794, he always took much interest in them, and on critical occasions was frequently consulted by the British government.
In 1797 he accompanied Lord Macartney, as private secretary, in his important and delicate mission to settle the government of the newly acquired colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Barrow was entrusted with the task of reconciling the Boer settlers and the native Black population and of reporting on the country in the interior. On his return from his journey, in the course of which he visited all parts of the colony, he was appointed auditor-general of public accounts. He now decided to settle in South Africa, married Anna Maria Truter, and in 1800 bought a house in Cape Town. But the surrender of the colony at the Peace of Amiens (1802) upset this plan. He returned to England in 1804, was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty by Viscount Melville, a post which he held for forty years, (apart from a short period in 1806-07 when there was a Whig government in power).
In particular, when Lord Grey took office as Prime Minister in 1830 Barrow was especially requested to remain in his post, starting the principle that senior civil servants stay in office on change of government and serve in a non-partisan manner. Indeed, it is during his occupancy of the post that it was renamed Permanent Secretary.
He enjoyed the esteem and confidence of all the eleven chief lords who successively presided at the Admiralty board during that period, and more especially of King William IV while lord high admiral, who honoured him with tokens of his personal regard.
During his travels through South Africa, Barrow compiled copious notes and sketches of the countryside he was traversing. The outcome of his journeys was a map which, despite its numerous errors, was the first published modern map of the southern parts of the Cape Colony. William John Burchell (1781–1863) was particularly scathing “As to the miserable thing called a map, which has been prefixed to Mr. Barrow’s quarto, I perfectly agree with Professor Lichtenstein, that it is so defective that it can seldom be found of any use.”
In his position at the Admiralty, Barrow was a great promoter of Arctic voyages of discovery, including those of John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross, and John Franklin. The Barrow Strait in the Canadian Arctic as well as Point Barrow and the city of Barrow in Alaska are named after him. He is reputed to have been the initial proposer of St Helena as the new place of exile forNapoleon Bonaparte following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Barrow was a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1821 received the degree of LL.D from the University of Edinburgh. A baronetcy was conferred on him by Sir Robert Peel in 1835. He was also a member of the Raleigh Club, a forerunner of the Royal Geographical Society.
Barrow was married to Anna Maria Truter (1777–1875) on 26 August 1799, a botanical artist from the Cape. He died suddenly on 23 November 1848, leaving four sons and two daughters, one of whom, Johanna, had married Robert Batty.
The Sir John Barrow monument on Hoad Hill overlooking his home town of Ulverston was built in his honour (though it is more commonly called Hoad Monument)
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