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From his humble beginnings in Ulverston, Sir John Barrow, naval administrator and traveller, went on to become the Second Secretary to the Admiralty charged with the running the British Navy. Here is the story of Ulverston’s most famous son.
From Dragley Beck to China
The son of a local tanner, Sir John Barrow was born in the hamlet of Dragley Beck, in the parish of Ulverston on 19th June 1764. An only child, he attended Town Bank School in Ulverston where he excelled in mathematics. Both remarkably clever and productive, he left school at the age of 13 and founded a Sunday school for the poor children of the town.
The following year he started his career as a superintending clerk at an iron foundry in Liverpool where as an extra job he became tutor to a midshipman in the Royal Navy, initiating a keen and enduring interest in navigation.
At 16 he joined a whaling expedition to Greenland from which he returned to Ulverston with skills that would serve him well in his future career. He was home only briefly before leaving to spend his early twenties teaching maths at a private school in Greenwich. There he met Sir George Staunton, whose son he taught. In 1792, aged 28, he accompanied him on the first British emissary to China under the command of Lord Macartney.
Linguist, author and geographer
Sir John became fluent in many languages including Chinese and following his return from China in 1794, he continued to take interest in Chinese affairs and on critical occasions was often consulted by the British Government.
In 1797 he accompanied Lord Macartney on a diplomatic mission to South Africa to help settle the government of the newly acquired colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Afterwards he travelled extensively through the interior of this little known continent. Having documented all parts of the colony on his return he published an account of his travels, raising his profile as an author and geographer.
He married and settled in South Africa from 1800 until 1804 when he returned to London and was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty, a position he held for the next forty years.
Wartime strategist and peacetime pioneer
His period in office coincided with the long Napoleonic Wars and his skills as an administrator and organiser were credited with much of the British Royal Navy’s supremacy. Famously the last person to shake Nelson’s hand as he embarked for Trafalgar, he is reputed to have been the initial proposer of St Helena as the new place of exile for Napoleon following the Battle of Waterloo.
Following the Napoleonic Wars Sir John needed to find a peacetime purpose for the large number of ships and officers, which were left redundant. To this end he became one of the greatest promoters of British exploration.
Most notably were his expeditions to West Africa and the North Polar Region with attempts to find a Northwest Passage from east to west through the Canadian Arctic. He was a founder member and key figure in the foundation of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830, which was to become the premier promoter of 19th century exploration.
Barrow Strait, Barrow Sound and Barrow Point in the Arctic and Cape Barrow in the Antarctic were named in his honour.
Completing a distinguished career
He became the first civil servant to stay in position through a change in government, remaining second secretary to the admiralty through a total of 11 changes. This established the principle that senior civil servants stay in office on change of government and serve in a non-partisan manner. It was during his occupancy of the post that it was renamed Permanent Secretary.
In 1835 he had a baronetcy conferred on him by Sir Robert Peel.
He retired from public life in 1845 and devoted himself to writing a history of the modern Arctic voyages of discovery alongside his autobiography. His lifetime writings include biographies of naval men and a standard work on Mutiny on the Bounty, which is now included in The World’s Classics series. He lists 95 articles in the Quarterly Review and 12 in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Sir John Barrow died in London on 23rd November 1848, aged 84 years and his grave can be found in the burial ground of St Martin’s in the Fields, Camden Town. His parents are buried in St Mary’s Parish Churchyard in Ulverston. He had four sons
and one daughter.
Geography and History