The Life and Adventures of Sir John Barrow, of Ulverston and the Admiralty, 1764-1848

Here is a potted biography, by me:


a life in brief, with many omissions

Born in 1764, Sir John was the poor son of a lowly Ulverston tanner who through hard work and an amazing chain of coincidences learned Chinese and was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Emperor of China, explored South Africa alone on horseback and made the first maps thereof, all before turning 35.

Promoted to high office in the Admiralty, where he became the first ever permanent Civil Servant , he sent forth (from his comfortable office) innumerable often ill-fated expeditions in search of the North-West Passage, the Mouth of the Niger, and bits of Australia and Antarctica. He oversaw (rather reluctantly) the changeover from wooden to iron ships and many other major technological innovations.

In his spare time he wrote large chunks of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and many books including the definitive work on the Mutiny on the Bounty. He was closely associated with Joseph Banks in his youth , a prominent member of the Royal Society and later a founder of the Royal Geographical Society. Lots of places in the Arctic Circle and elsewhere are called after him, including half the schools in south Cumbria.

On his death the Ulverstonians immediately erected, by public subscription and with tremendous pomp, the extraordinary memorial Monument (an inaccurate copy of the Eddystone Lighthouse) on Hoad Hill. It's been a much-loved landmark ever since, and 160 years later is being restored by popular demand.

   Here is the young John Barrow, in a miniature by an unknown artist. I would hazard a guess he is about 20, newly landed in London after his adventures sailing to Greenland, and about to start work as a schoolmaster in Greenwich.This scribbled sketch
is John in his thirties, in South Africa,.

Now he's about 45, the Second Secretary to the Admiralty (a more important and powerful job than the First, by the way) and an influential writer for the Quarterly Review and Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Now he's in his eighties, looking as dapper and healthy as ever, freshly retired from the Admiralty and pitching in to write a whole pile of books , including his Autobiography. You'll find more about all these on the "His Work" page.