Bowring, Sir John

Sir John BowringSir John Bowring (October 17, 1792-November 23, 1872), a man of amazing energy and a polymath, was a linguist, political economist, reformer, hymnist, writer and editor, Member of Parliament, and controversial Governor of Hong Kong. He was among the most famous Unitarians of his time.

Born into a Unitarian family at Exeter and educated in a Unitarian school, Bowring at one stage wished to become a minister. He was however destined by his family for a commercial career. He left school in 1805 to work with his father, a cloth merchant. In 1810 he began work in a London office where he was encouraged to develop his natural linguistic talents. His company sent him to represent them in Spain, 1813-16. On his return he set up his own business and married Mary Lewin, from a Unitarian family in Hackney. He was an active member of the Unitarian church at Hackney, led by Robert Aspland. Later he joined the circle around William J. Fox, who ministered in Finsbury. Bowring early travelled extensively on business; then, as his commercial activities failed, he concentrated on writing.

Bowring later boasted that he could speak one hundred languages and knew two hundred. At the time of his death a more detached estimate placed him at the head of the world’s linguists, with a speaking knowledge of eight languages, reading and writing knowledge of seven, and working understanding of a further twenty-five dialects. The poet Thomas Hood wrote of him:


Try him in these, and fifty more,
His skill will not diminish,
Although you should begin in Dutch,
And end, like me, in Finnish.

Bowring translated a vast amount of poetry, and the folklore of almost every European country. Among many other works he published Specimens of Russian Poets, 1820; Ancient Poetry and the Romance of Spain, 1824; Sketch of the Language and Literature of Holland, 1829; Poetry of the Magyars, 1830; and Cheskian [Czech] Anthology, 1832. In 1829 he was awarded an LL.D. by the University of Groningen.

In 1821 Bowring met the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and became his chief disciple. In 1824 when Bentham set up the radical journal Westminster Review, Bowring was political affairs editor. He later edited the first collection of Bentham’s works and wrote his biography. Bentham died in Bowring’s arms.

Bowring’s influence was wide. Although Lord Byron and he never met, through correspondence he influenced Byron to go fight for the liberation of Greece. When Byron died his body was consigned to Bowring in a cask of rum.

In 1828 Bowring was appointed a commissioner for the reform of public accounts. In the 1830s he bolstered his increasing influence by undertaking commercial missions to Europe and Asia on behalf of the British government. After the failure of his businesses his many influential contacts enabled him to enter politics. He became Member of Parliament for Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1835. It is probable that in this Calvinistic setting, Bowring’s Unitarianism contributed to his 1837 electoral defeat. He was MP for Bolton, 1841-49, a time when he records that Unitarians were the largest body of dissenters from the Church of England in the House of Commons. A forceful proponent of liberalism and free trade, he was seen as an extreme radical. He was chiefly responsible for introducing the first British decimal coin, the florin (1/10 of a pound sterling). His belief in full decimalisation of the currency was not fully realised until 1971.

Bowring’s personal finances grew worse. The failure of an investment virtually ruined him in 1848. Because of his impending bankruptcy and his controversial views, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, wished to get Bowring as far away from Britain as possible. Accordingly Palmerston appointed him Consul in Canton, 1849-53. Bowring was knighted in 1854. From that time until 1859, the most controversial period in his life, he was Governor of Hong Kong.

As Governor Bowring aggressively asserted British interests and trampled Asian sensibilities. In 1855 before visiting Siam he wrote to the King,  “I have a large fleet at my disposal but I would rather visit you as a friend than as bearer of a menacing message.”  The treaty he imposed opened up the country to outside ‘free’ trade. His military diplomacy was later adopted by other European countries in the East. In 1856 his over-reaction to a minor incident—bombarding Canton because a Chinese trading ship, the Arrow, flying the British flag without authorization, was fired on by Chinese authorities—nearly led to the fall of Lord Palmerston’s government and was one of the causes of war with China. He made a trip to the Philippines in 1858. His travel books, in particular The Kingdom and People of Siam, 1857, remain significant works.

Bowring’s first wife died in 1858 from the long-term effect of arsenic-laden bread meant for him. The following year, on his return to Britain, he married a much younger woman, Deborah Castle, an active Unitarian from Bristol. She spurred him to renewed engagement in Unitarian work and social reform issues. She was herself a strong speaker and one of the earliest women members of the Council of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association (BFUA).

Arguably the most prominent Unitarian layman of his time, Bowring was assiduous in attending Unitarian meetings, in taking the chair, in opening bazaars and buildings, and in giving speeches and toasts on Unitarian occasions. He was President of the BFUA, 1860-61, and was subsequently ever-present at its meetings. Only months before his death he attended the Social Science Congress and spoke several times each day, and addressed an audience of 3,000 at a temperance rally. Among Unitarians in the 1860s he was highly respected, his earlier controversial episodes being forgotten.

From the 1820s onwards Bowring wrote hymns in large numbers, many of which were published. His most well known, “In the Cross of Christ I glory” is in most Christian hymnbooks in the English-speaking world, though not in modern Unitarian collections.

Sir John Bowring died at his home, Claremont, Exeter, only a short distance from the house where he was born. None of his children followed his Unitarian faith.

In his lifetime and afterwards Bowring was both admired and disliked. Some of his methods and treatment of people were dubious and his financial affairs were consistently in a disastrous state until late in life. In 1862 Harriet Martineau described him privately as “a supreme charlatan and worse—a cheat, a liar, and, at least once, a swindler.” Others saw him as ostentatious, self seeking, and obsequious. Nobody denied his talent, however, and many testified to his personal integrity in matters of conscience.

He excelled in giving the traditional toast “to civil and religious liberty the world over.”  Words from his last toast, given at an 1872 Unitarian gathering in London, best sum up his message, even if in practice he had not always personally followed it:


We are bound to be in the vanguard in the great struggles for civil and religious liberty . . . It is the duty of Unitarians to be at the head of the army, that they should lead the forlorn with hope, through the breeches of the citadel, and there erect the flag on which we will subscribe, “Liberty for all, equality for all, the right and duty of private judgment.”

There are a few Bowring letters at Harris Manchester College, Oxford and Dr Williams’s Library, London with material on his early life and Unitarian associations. The Bowring family correspondence is in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. There are few Unitarian references. Bowring’s correspondence with Lord Clarendon is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Bentham Papers are in the British Library in London and at University College, London. Many private papers were destroyed but a selection remain. There are many reports of Bowring’s speeches in the Inquirer and a few of his own articles.

Bowring’s published works are to be found in most of the major libraries in Britain that cover the 19th century. The following list is just a sampling of his works: Observations on the Restrictive and Prohibitory Commercial System from MSS of Jeremy Bentham (1821), Matins and Vespers with Hymns and Occasional Devotional Pieces (first edition 1823, third edition enlarged 1841, and fourth edition enlarged 1851), Hymns (1825), Servian Popular Poetry (1827), Observations on the Oriental Plague and on Quarantines as a Means of Arresting its Progress (1838), The Influence of Knowledge on Domestic and Social Happiness (1842), The Political and Commercial Importance of Peace (1846), The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts (1854), The Philippine Islands (1859), Translation from Alexander Petöfi, the Magyar Poet (1866), and a translation of The Flowery Scroll, a Chinese Novel (1868). There is no published index to his vast output of articles.

Bowring’s Autobiographical Recollections, edited by his son Lewin, published in 1877 make no reference to his extensive Unitarian activities. Deborah Castle wrote a memoir of her late husband in A Memorial Volume of Sacred Poetry (1873). Studies of Bowring include R. K. Webb, ‘John Bowring and Unitarianism,’ Utilitas (May 1992); Joyce Youings, editor, Sir John Bowring, Aspects of His Life and Career (1993); and George Bartle, An Old Radical and His Brood, A Portrait of Sir John Bowring and His Family (1994). The modern edition of Bowring’s The Kingdom and People of Siam, (1969, reprinted 1977) has an introduction by David K. Wyatt. There are short biographical entries in the Dictionary of National Biography and the Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals, 1770-1830 (1979). (The latter contains factual errors.) There are obituaries and appreciations of Bowring in the Inquirer (November and December 1872). See also John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (1897).

May 2015 addition: Also useful is a new and comprehensive biography by the Asian-based journalist, Philip Bowring; Free Trade’s Missionary: Sir John Bowring in Europe and Asia (2014). It includes an extensive bibliography. The author is a distant relative of Sir John.

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted September 13, 2002