Sir John Barrow


(1764 - 1848)

Sir John Barrow was a Naval administrator and traveller. He was born at Dragley Beck, Ulverston, Cumbria, on 19th June 1764 and was the only child of Roger, a journeyman tanner, and Mary Barrow. Excelling in Mathematics, he left Town Bank School, Ulverston at 13 and worked as a clerk in an iron foundry in Liverpool. At 16 he joined a whaling expedition to Greenland. A deep interest in astronomy lead him to develop a useful appreciation of navigation methods. He then taught mathematics at a school in Greenwich before accompanying Lord Macartney's expedition to China in 1792 as Secretary to Sir George Staunton. He became fluent in many languages and including mandarin Chinese.

In 1797, Sir John travelled in the little-known South African interior where he drew maps. He published an account of his travels, adding much to his fame as an author and geographer. Later diplomatic work followed in the Cape of Good Hope. He married and settled in South Africa in 1800. His writings also included biographies of Naval men and a standard work on The Mutiny on the Bounty. This book is now included in The World's Classics series. He lists 195 articles in the Quarterly Review and 12 in Encyclopedia Britannica.

As second secretary to the Admiralty (1804-45), he promoted British exploration, official and semi-official, most notably of West Africa and the North Polar Region with attempts to find a north west passage from east to west through the Canadian Arctic. These expeditions included those by Sir John Ross, Sir James Clark Ross and Sir John Franklin. The latter lost his life after sailing to the Arctic in 1845 with two well-equipped ships on a further expedition. This was to end in tragedy with no survivors.

Barrow Strait, Barrow Sound and Barrow Point in the Arctic and Cape Barrow in the Antarctic were named in his honour, as was Barrow Bay in Ontario Canada, and the Northern Duck - Barrow’s Goldeneye. He published further accounts of his travels, which were again well received.

This period in office, with Cumberland born Sir James Graham as First Sea Lord, coincided with the long Napoleonic Wars. The final defeat of Napoleon confirmed the supremacy of the British Navy. Sir John’s skills as an administrator and able organiser were credited with much of the British Navy’s supremacy.

Sir John was a founder member and key figure in the foundation of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830. The Society was to become the premier promoter of 19th century exploration.

He had a baronetcy conferred on him 1835 by Sir Robert Peel, before retiring in 1845. He wrote a history of Arctic voyages and his autobiography. He had four sons and one daughter who reached adult age.

His other literary works include the lives of John Macaulay, Lord Anson, Lord Howe and Peter the Great.

Sir John last saw his native town of Ulverston in 1796 at the age of 32, and when he wrote his autobiography at the age of 82, some 50 years later he said that nearly all the people he knew in Ulverston had died. He also said that the only doctor he had ever consulted was a Chinese physician 50 years earlier.

Sir John died in London on 23rd November 1848 aged 84 years and is buried 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.

A monument to Sir John Barrow was erected on Hoad Hill, above the market town of Ulverston, to honour their famous son. It takes the shape of a former Eddystone Lighthouse and was erected by public subscription in 1850. The website at describes the steps that are being taken to preserve this Grade 2 * listed building.