John Bowring

Sir John Bowring

John Bowring in 1826
4th Governor of Hong Kong
In office
13 April 1854  9 September 1859
Preceded by Sir George Bonham
Succeeded by Hercules Robinson, 1st Baron Rosmead
Member of Parliament
In office
Preceded by John Dunlop
Succeeded by John Campbell Colquhoun
Constituency Kilmarnock Burghs
In office
1841  1849
Served alongside
Peter Ainsworth (1841–1847)
William Bolling (1847–1848)
Stephen Blair (1848–1849)
Preceded by Peter Ainsworth
William Bolling
Succeeded by Stephen Blair
Joshua Walmsley
Constituency Bolton
Personal details
Born (1792-10-17)17 October 1792
Exeter, England
Died 23 November 1872(1872-11-23) (aged 80)
Claremont, England
Political party Radical
Spouse(s) Maria Lewin (m. 1816 – d. 1858)
Deborah Castle (m. 1860, survived)
Children John Charles Bowring,
Lewin Bentham Bowring,
Edgar Alfred Bowring
Profession Member of Parliament (UK)
Religion Unitarian
Marble bust of Sir John Bowring (1792–1872) by Edward Bowring Stephens (1815-1882) of Exeter. Collection of Devon and Exeter Institution, Exeter, of which he was president 1860-1

Sir John Bowring, KCB (Chinese translated name: 寶寧,寶靈 or 包令) (17 October 1792 – 23 November 1872) was an English political economist, traveller, writer, literary translator, polyglot, and the 4th Governor of Hong Kong.

Early life

Bowring was born in Exeter of Charles Bowring (1769–1856), a wool merchant from an old Unitarian family, and Sarah Jane Anne (d. 1828), the daughter of Thomas Lane, vicar of St Ives, Cornwall.[1] His last formal education was a Unitarian school in Moretonhampstead and he started work in his father's business at age 13.[1] Bowring at one stage wished to become a minister.[2] In early life he came under the influence of Jeremy Bentham, and later became his friend. He did not, however, share Bentham's contempt for belles lettres. He was a diligent student of literature and foreign languages, especially those of Eastern Europe.

Bowring ranked with Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti and Hans Conon von der Gabelentz among the world's greatest hyperpolyglots – his talent enabling him at last to say that he knew 200 languages, and could speak 100.[3] His chief literary work was the translation of the folk-songs of most European nations, although he also wrote original poems and hymns, as well as works on political and economic subjects.[3] The first fruits of his study of foreign literature appeared in Specimens of the Russian Poets (1821–1823). These were followed by Batavian Anthology (1824), Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain (1824), Specimens of the Polish Poets, and Serbian Popular Poetry, both in 1827,[4] and Poetry of the Magyars (1830).

Political economist career

During this period he began to contribute to the newly founded Westminster Review, of which he was appointed editor in 1825. By his contributions to the Review he obtained considerable reputation as political economist and parliamentary reformer. He advocated in its pages the cause of free trade long before it was popularized by Richard Cobden and John Bright.

He pleaded earnestly on behalf of parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, and popular education. In 1828 he visited the Netherlands, and in February 1829 the University of Groningen conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws. In the following year he was in Denmark, preparing for the publication of a collection of Scandinavian poetry.[4] Till 1832 he was Foreign Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. Bentham tried to have Bowring appointed professor of English or History at University College London during the institution's nascent years; but neither of them had much influence with the new university.

Bowring was appointed Jeremy Bentham's literary executor, and was charged with the task of preparing a collected edition of his works. This appeared in eleven volumes in 1843.[4]

British MP

In 1835, Bowring entered parliament as member for Kilmarnock Burghs; and in the following year he was appointed head of a government commission to be sent to France to inquire into the actual state of commerce between the two countries. He was engaged in similar investigations in Switzerland, Italy, Syria and some of the states in Imperial Germany.

Isaac Crewdson (Beaconite) writer Samuel Jackman Prescod - Barbadian Journalist William Morgan from Birmingham William Forster - Quaker leader George Stacey - Quaker leader William Forster - Anti-Slavery ambassador John Burnet -Abolitionist Speaker William Knibb -Missionary to Jamaica Joseph Ketley from Guyana George Thompson - UK & US abolitionist J. Harfield Tredgold - British South African (secretary) Josiah Forster - Quaker leader Samuel Gurney - the Banker's Banker Sir John Eardley-Wilmot Dr Stephen Lushington - MP and Judge Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton James Gillespie Birney - American John Beaumont George Bradburn - Massachusetts politician George William Alexander - Banker and Treasurer Benjamin Godwin - Baptist activist Vice Admiral Moorson William Taylor William Taylor John Morrison GK Prince Josiah Conder Joseph Soul James Dean (abolitionist) John Keep - Ohio fund raiser Joseph Eaton Joseph Sturge - Organiser from Birmingham James Whitehorne George Bennett Richard Allen Stafford Allen William Leatham, banker William Beaumont Sir Edward Baines - Journalist Samuel Lucas Samuel Fox, Nottingham grocer Louis Celeste Lecesne Jonathan Backhouse Samuel Bowly William Dawes - Ohio fund raiser Robert Kaye Greville - Botanist Joseph Pease, railway pioneer M.M. Isambert (sic) Mary Clarkson -Thomas Clarkson's daughter in law William Tatum Saxe Bannister - Pamphleteer Richard Davis Webb - Irish Nathaniel Colver - American not known John Cropper - Most generous Liverpudlian Thomas Scales William James William Wilson Thomas Swan Edward Steane from Camberwell William Brock Edward Baldwin Jonathon Miller Capt. Charles Stuart from Jamaica Sir John Jeremie - Judge Charles Stovel - Baptist Richard Peek, ex-Sheriff of London John Sturge Elon Galusha Cyrus Pitt Grosvenor Rev. Isaac Bass Henry Sterry Peter Clare -; sec. of Literary & Phil. Soc. Manchester J.H. Johnson Thomas Price Joseph Reynolds Samuel Wheeler William Boultbee Daniel O'Connell - "The Liberator" William Fairbank John Woodmark William Smeal from Glasgow James Carlile - Irish Minister and educationalist Rev. Dr. Thomas Binney John Howard Hinton - Baptist minister John Angell James - clergyman Joseph Cooper Dr. Richard Robert Madden - Irish Thomas Bulley Isaac Hodgson Edward Smith Sir John Bowring - diplomat and linguist John Ellis C. Edwards Lester - American writer Tapper Cadbury - Businessman not known Thomas Pinches David Turnbull - Cuban link Edward Adey Richard Barrett John Steer Henry Tuckett James Mott - American on honeymoon Robert Forster (brother of William and Josiah) Richard Rathbone John Birt Wendell Phillips - American M. L'Instant from Haiti Henry Stanton - American Prof William Adam Mrs Elizabeth Tredgold - British South African T.M. McDonnell Mrs John Beaumont Anne Knight - Feminist Elizabeth Pease - Suffragist Jacob Post - Religious writer Anne Isabella, Lady Byron - mathematician and estranged wife Amelia Opie - Novelist and poet Mrs Rawson - Sheffield campaigner Thomas Clarkson's grandson Thomas Clarkson Thomas Morgan Thomas Clarkson - main speaker George Head Head - Banker from Carlisle William Allen John Scoble Henry Beckford - emancipated slave and abolitionist Use your cursor to explore (or Click "i" to enlarge)
Bowring appears in this painting of the 1840 World's Anti-Slavery Convention.[1] Move your cursor to identify him on the second row to the right or click the icon to enlarge
  1. ^ Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840, National Portrait Gallery, London

The results of these missions appeared in a series of reports laid before the House of Commons. After a retirement of four years he sat in parliament from 1841 until 1849 as member for Bolton. During this busy period he found leisure for literature, and published in 1843 a translation of the Manuscript of the Queen's Court, a collection of Czech medieval poetry,[4] later considered as falses by Czech poet Václav Hanka. In 1846 he became President of the Mazzinian People's International League.

Without inherited wealth, or salary as MP for Bolton,[5] Bowring sought to sustain his political career by investing heavily in the south Wales iron industry during the mid-1840s. He led a small group of wealthy London merchants and bankers as Chairman of the Llynvi Iron Company and established a large integrated ironworks at Maesteg in Glamorgan during 1845–6. He installed his brother, Charles, as Resident Director and lost no time in naming the district around his ironworks, Bowrington. Although he lost his capital in the trade depression of the late 1840s, John Bowring had gained a reputation in the Maesteg district as an enlightened employer. A contemporary commented that 'he gave the poor their rights and carried away their blessing'. The failure of his venture in south Wales led directly to Bowring’s acceptance of Palmerston's offer of the consulship at Canton.

In 1845 he became Chairman of the London and Blackwall Railway, the world's first steam-powered urban passenger railway and the precursor of the whole London Rail system.[6]


In 1849, Bowring was appointed British consul at Canton (today's Guangzhou), and superintendent of trade in China, a post which he held for four years.

Both before the Cantonese appointment, and after his return, Bowring distinguished himself as an advocate of decimal currency. On 27 April 1847 he addressed the House of Commons on the merits of decimalisation.[7] He agreed to a compromise that directly led to the issue of the florin (one-tenth of a pound sterling), introduced as a first step in 1848 and more generally in 1849.[8] He published a work entitled The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts in 1854.[4]

Governor of Hong Kong

On 13 April 1854, Bowring was sent to Hong Kong as governor.

During his governorship, a dispute broke out with the Chinese and the irritation caused by his "spirited" or high-handed policy led to the Second Opium War (1856–1860).[4] At the same time, he allowed the Chinese citizens in Hong Kong to serve as jurors in trials and become lawyers. Bowring is also credited with establishing Hong Kong's first commercial public water supply system. He developed the eastern Wan Chai at a river mouth near Happy Valley and Victoria Harbour by elongating the river as a canal, and the area was named Bowring City (Bowrington). By instituting the Hong Kong buildings ordinance, Bowring ensured the safer design of all future construction projects in the colony.

In 1855 he visited Siam and negotiated with King Mongkut a treaty of commerce, now commonly referred as the Bowring Treaty. Bowring retired in March 1859 and received a pension for his duties.

Late career

John Bowring in 1857, by François-Félix Roubaud

His last employment by the British government was as a commissioner to Italy in 1861, to report on British commercial relations with the new kingdom. Bowring subsequently accepted the appointment of minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary from the Hawaiian government to the courts of Europe, and in this capacity negotiated treaties with Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.[4]

Personal life

Bowring married twice. By his first wife, Maria (1793/4–1858), whom he married in 1818 after moving to London, he had five sons and four daughters (Maria, John, Frederick, Lewin, Edgar, Charles, Edith, Emily, and Gertrude). She died of arsenic poisoning in 1858.[1] His eldest son, John Charles Bowring, presented Bowring's collection of coleoptera to the British Museum after his death. His fourth son, Edgar Alfred Bowring, was a Member of Parliament for Exeter from 1868 to 1874. E.A. Bowring is also known as an able translator in the literary circles of the time. Lewin Bentham Bowring was a member of the Bengal Civil Service, private secretary in India to Lord Canning and Lord Elgin,[9] and commissioner of Mysore.

His daughter, Emily, became a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Emily Aloysia Bowring. She was the first headmistress of the Italian Convent School (now known as the Sacred Heart Canossian College) in Hong Kong, serving from 1860 to 1870.

Bowring married his second wife, Deborah Castle (1816-1903), in 1860: they had no children. Deborah Bowring was a prominent Unitarian Christian and supporter of the women's suffrage movement.[10] He is also remembered as a writer of hymns including "God is love : his mercy brightens", "In the Cross of Christ I glory", and "Watchman, tell us of the night".[11]

He is the great-great grandfather of actress Susannah York.


John Bowring died on 23 November 1872, aged 80.


Places named after him

Bowrington Canal in 1920

In the mid-19th century a district of the Llynfi Valley, Glamorgan, south Wales was known as Bowrington as it was built-up when John Bowring was chairman of the local iron company. Bowring's ironworks community later became part of the Maesteg Urban District. The name was revived in the 1980s when a shopping development in Maesteg was called the Bowrington Arcade.

As the 4th Governor, several places in Hong Kong came to be named after him:

Literary works published

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Stone, Gerald (2009) [2004]. "Bowring, Sir John (1792–1872)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3087. (subscription required)
  2. Bowring
  3. 1 2  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). "Bowring, Sir John". A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bowring, Sir John". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  5. MPs in the UK Parliament received no salary until early in the following century.
  6. page 107
  7. "ENGLISH NEWS, Parliamentary Intelligence". The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 - 1848). Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia. 3 September 1847. p. 3. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  8. "The Florin". Royal Mint Museum. Royal Mint, Llantrisant, Wales. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  9. "Sir John Bowring". The Times. 25 Nov 1872. p. 12.
  10. Reynolds, K.D. (2004). "Bowring [née Castle], Deborah, Lady Bowring (1816–1902)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56282. (subscription required)
  11. "John Bowring". Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  12. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory

Further reading

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Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Dunlop
Member of Parliament for Kilmarnock Burghs
Succeeded by
John Campbell Colquhoun
Preceded by
Peter Ainsworth and
William Bolling
Member of Parliament for Bolton
With: Peter Ainsworth, to 1847
William Bolling, 1847–1848
Stephen Blair, from 1848
Succeeded by
Stephen Blair and
Sir Joshua Walmsley
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir George Bonham
Governor of Hong Kong
Succeeded by
William Caine (Administrator)
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