Bowring, Sir John


Sir John Bowring, first president of the DA

Sir John Bowring, first president of the Association

Sir John Bowring. First President of the Devonshire Association.

By Mrs. Hester Forbes Julian, F.G.S., F.R.A.I.

(Read at Totnes, 21st July, 1920.)


During the last decade of his strenuous life Sir John Bowring evinced much interest in the recently founded Devonshire Association. Commencing his connection with the Society as President, at the first meeting, held at Exeter in 1862, he contributed an able Inaugural Address and took an active share in the proceedings, as he did also when the Association assembled again in the Cathedral city ten years later. Although the latter meeting took place only a few months before his death and he was then an octogenarian, he still brought to all his work the enthusiasm of youth, his zeal for his three dominant interests — Philosophy, Social Science, and Philology — only deepening as his experience increased, being apparently quite unaffected by the chilling influences of old age. During his later years he formed a warm friendship with William Pengelly, and it has been thought that some record of his life from the daughter of his friend might be of interest to the members generally. Although the present writer has no recollection of the philosopher, she learnt much concerning him through her father and from Sir John’s second wife, Lady Bowring (who survived him thirty years), also from Mr. Lewin Bowring, a son of his first marriage, until recently a near neighbour and a valued representative resident of Torquay.

Born at Exeter in October, 1792, the life destined to experience such great vicissitudes and to be marked by long journeys and public services in distant lands, was peacefully closed in 1872, after eighty years, in the city of his birth. A description of St. Leonard’s, the suburb of Exeter where he first saw the light, can be given in his own words. He writes: “In the parish where I was born, and at the time when I was born in it, there was neither doctor nor lawyer, clergyman nor publican, tax-gatherer nor soldier. There was little disease to be cured by the physician, no squabbling to provide for the attorney, little vice to be reproved by the clergyman, no pothouse or tavern to encourage drunkenness, no riots to be suppressed, and there being no paupers, there were no poor-rates to be collected. I have seen great changes in that happy spot.”

The eldest son of Charles Bowring, an Exeter woollen merchant, and of his wife Sarah Lane (the daughter of a devout Cornish clergyman and sister of a favourite naval officer of Lord Collingwood), John Bowring was descended from a well-known Devonshire family, formerly of Bowringsleigh, near Kingsbridge. A Liberal in politics and an earnest Unitarian, he owed much to the precepts instilled in childhood into his mind by his parents and his paternal grandfather, a man of great independence of character and deeply religious sentiment. In early youth he also came under the teaching and moral influence of Dr. Lant Carpenter, for whom he retained throughout life the warmest admiration. Receiving his early education at Moretonhampstead, neither the school nor the schoolmaster appear to have afforded him any pleasant recollections; but, like most Devonians, Bowring had a strong love of Dartmoor, and he writes:

“Our rambles were delightful. We were accustomed to trace the hill streams to their very source, to scramble over the rocks, and to visit the waterfalls, of which one — Becky Fall — has much local celebrity. There were, besides, numerous cromlechs, and I recollect Cranbrook Castle, a circle of stones, forming a vast encampment on a very elevated spot, down whose steep banks the most beautiful woodland scenery descends to the Teign below. The rivers which take their rise in the forest of Dartmoor glide or hurry through the most lovely varieties of mountain and valley, their clear streams bright and musical, and bordered with flowers. … To trace them in their windings in the light-hearted days of healthful, joyous boyhood, that was indeed a bliss, and I felt — how often! — all that I afterwards read in the finest passages of the ‘Excursion’ or ‘Childe Harold’.”

The striking talent for languages which he possessed was evidenced even as a schoolboy, and rapidly developed during the immediately succeeding years. French he studied with a Catholic priest, one of the numerous refugees from the Revolution; Italian was learnt from a vendor of mathematical instruments; and Dutch, German, Spanish, and Portuguese were acquired through intimacy with mercantile friends. In addition to these six languages, which he spoke fluently, he had an accurate knowledge of the two important Scandinavian tongues, Danish and Swedish, and so thorough an acquaintance with Slavonic literature that he soon overcame all difficulties sufficiently to translate successfully the works of several Russian, Servian, Polish, and Bohemian writers. He was also an industrious student of Magyar, learnt Arabic during his Eastern journeys, and mastered that most difficult language Chinese in the years of his busy maturity. He is said to have had a thoroughly good knowledge of forty languages, and he himself stated that he knew two hundred slightly and could speak a hundred. This has been confirmed by statements from his son, heard by the present writer. Owing to these strenuous linguistic studies he sometimes found that he dreamt in languages other than English, and records, in later years, that his recollections of particular countries and special studies did not at all times take the form of English phraseology.

After adopting a mercantile career, he travelled for his firm in Spain and Portugal during 1813 and the two following years, and whilst in the Peninsula witnessed some of the stern realities of war.

In 1816 his marriage with Maria Lewin took place, the union, which subsisted for upwards of forty years, proving exceptionally happy. During another long, absence on the Continent in 1819 and 1820 he visited France, Belgium; and Holland, and in Paris gained the friendship of Cuvier, Humboldt, and many eminent scientists, politicians, and literary men, being charmed with the cultured atmosphere of the cosmopolitan capital. From this time onward it became the height of his ambition to do something which might connect his name with the literature of the age. In addition to his mercantile pursuits he soon made various excursions into literature, which, although eminently successful, were doubtless detrimental to the prosecution of his business career. Journeying to Russia, Finland, and Sweden, where he was the guest of the poet Franzen, Bishop of Orebo, he published, immediately after his return to England, a small work entitled Specimens of the Russian Poets, which met with immediate success.

His next expedition was to Spain, where he was detained in quarantine for some time, owing to a severe epidemic of fever prevailing throughout the southern provinces. In 1822, on revisiting Paris, he was still more unfortunate, as his friendship with the Duke of Orleans (afterwards Louis Philippe), with Lafayette, and various well-known politicians hostile to the elder branch of the Bourbons caused him to be suspected by the French Government and summarily imprisoned at Boulogne for some weeks, although he was ultimately released on the urgent demand of Mr. Canning.

Writing of his Russian tour, he says: “At St. Petersburg I acquired a knowledge of the Russian language sufficient to enable me to give the first specimens ever presented in English to the public. The first volume was successful. The second I wrote in 1822 while in Boulogne prison, and forwarded a copy to the Emperor Alexander who sent me a large amethyst ring surrounded with diamonds.”

The young author now threw himself actively into literary pursuits, and the friendship formed with Jeremy Bentham about this time exercised a powerful influence on his career. In 1824 the Westminster Review was started, as an organ for disseminating the views of the Philosophical Radicals. John Bowring, who was joint editor, wrote various interesting papers on literary subjects and also contributed many political articles. To him faith in progress and freedom was almost a religion and hardly left room for his commercial activities, though stimulating his untiring devotion to various social movements. Of Jeremy Bentham his young disciple always wrote and spoke in the most enthusiastic terms. Bowring’s own contributions to the Review were marked by profound learning, singular penetration, and philosophic acumen, and gained for him a great reputation as a political economist and parliamentary reformer. He was a staunch supporter of Popular Education, Catholic Emancipation, and Free Trade, and pleaded earnestly in the pages of the journal on behalf of these causes, to which he had long devoted especial attention. Gifted with acute sensibility and a fearlessly logical mind, his apprehension seemed to be as keen as his memory was tenacious, and his power of expression clear and luminous.

Having undertaken government employment, he was despatched to Holland in 1828 to examine the Financial Department in that country, on which subject he furnished an able report, the first of a long series on the public accounts of various European States. These papers show great power in dealing with fiscal matters and arranging the facts clearly, and in consequence he received from the University of Groningen in 1829 the diploma of LL.D. In the following year he visited Denmark, occupying himself with the study and translation of Scandinavian poetry. The French Revolution of July, 1830, aroused his warmest interest, and he journeyed to Paris during the summer to offer to the French nation the congratulations of the people of London. He was warmly received by the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, with whom his intimacy was of long standing. He also sympathized deeply with the declaration of independence by Belgium, although these sentiments gave some offence to his numerous Dutch acquaintances. He had brought out in 1823 the small volume of poems entitled Matins and Vespers, which has been widely read; and, in addition to his published works, he wrote many pieces of fugitive sacred poetry. Probably his best known hymn, one which breathes especial spirituality and devotion, is that beginning:

“In the Cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.”

The Servian Anthology, published in 1827, and also his translation from Polish Poets, issued shortly afterwards, both show growing power and beauty; but a volume entitled the Poetry of the Magyars proved less popular. His rapidly increasing reputation as a writer had already brought him to the notice of many distinguished men of letters, and he gives the following description of a visit to Abbotsford made in the spring of 1830:

“I could not resist the fascination of Sir Walter’s repeated invitations, and nothing could exceed the kindness with which he has welcomed me. I found him writing for the ‘Waverley Novels’, but he locked up his manuscript, and has devoted to me every moment of his time. He has led me over his grounds, talking of all possible things — his discourse rich, racy, and delightful. … He told me many interesting things respecting his novels, and the personages in them,, his interviews with the late Queen, the Princess Charlotte, Burns, Byron, and others. More eloquent men I have known, I think, but I never knew anyone so attractive.”

Other literary associates and acquaintances included the poets Tom Hood and Tom Moore, the historian George Grote, and the essayists Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, James Mill, and his son John Stuart Mill. Whilst revisiting France in 1832, Bowring was the guest of Lafayette, and writes to a correspondent from Lagrange: “I came here for a day or two, and send you a word from a spot so illustrious and attractive. The good old man, benign and gentle as a beautiful sunset, who could believe him to be the hero of two worlds — the bosom friend of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson — the pole-star of three revolutions.”

The traveller also enjoyed the friendship of Lamartine and visited him at his beautiful estate, St. Pol. The illustrious French author, like Scott, had experienced great adversities, and he also had been led to incredible mental labours in endeavouring to meet them. Bowring had the highest admiration for his genius, and considered him to be amongst the most illustrious of Frenchmen, both in the field of letters and of politics. The society of Talleyrand was always greatly appreciated, and acquaintance with Louis Napoleon (afterwards Napoleon III) was made in the early days when he was living at Arenenberg with his mother, Hortense, the fascinating ex-Queen of Holland. The English author thought highly of the ability of Napoleon III, and some years later writes:

“It is impossible to deny that he succeeded in winning the suffrages of the great majority of the French people, and that he elevated his country to take the highest rank among the continental nations of Europe.”

Unsuccessful as a candidate for Parliament at the election at Blackburn after the Reform Bill, Bowring turned at this juncture all the more resolutely to his literary labours, and also resumed his journeys in France and Belgium. He was already well acquainted with Leopold I, whom he saw frequently whilst in Brussels. Writing many years later, in 1868, he says:

“I enjoyed more or less of intercourse with King Leopold during the fifty years of his public life, and, not long before his death, had a most interesting conversation with him on his personal history during that half century, in whose remarkable events he had taken so active and so useful a part. I had an occasion then particularly, as I had often had an opportunity before, of studying the grounds of that quiet and benign influence which he had so habitually exercised in the interests of peace.”

In 1835 Bowring was elected member for Kilmarnock, but was unseated two years later at the General Election after the death of King William IV. He gives some curious accounts of his electioneering experiences, and writes:

“On two or three occasions, my supposed heterodoxy was thrown into the scale against me, and was sometimes urged in a somewhat amusing form. … In one of the Clyde burghs, a letter was shown to me in which were these words: ‘We will have a religious man to represent us, even if we go to hell to find him’. Everything seems allowed in the heated passions of an electoral struggle. I have seen myself placarded in Scotland as an atheist, an unbeliever, an unfaithful husband, and a disreputable head of a family. No small difficulties these for an Englishman seeking a seat for Caledonian burghs. …”

During his rest from parliamentary routine he prepared an elaborate edition, in several volumes, of the works of Jeremy Bentham, and was appointed head of a Government Commission to enquire into the state of commerce between England and France, afterwards engaging in similar investigations in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Courteously received by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whom he accompanied in a visit to the Southern Provinces, he saw much of the country and the people, enjoyed the society of the philologist Cardinal Mezzofanti, and was presented to Pope Gregory XVI, who conversed with him on Dante’s works and Italian literature generally. On another visit to Rome, many years later, he had a private audience with Pope Pius IX, who asked for a variety of information, he himself introducing several topics. For Cavour the traveller had the highest estimation as a statesman; but Garibaldi had even a stronger hold upon his affections. He thought it was as much to the enthusiastic ardour of the latter as to the cool statesmanship of the former that Italy owed her redemption. Writing concerning his impressions of Mezzofanti, the traveller says:

“What struck me was the accuracy of his ear and the correctness of his pronunciation. … The most profound philologist whom I have known was Rask of Copenhagen. The philologist who made himself acquainted with the greatest number of dialects was the elder Adelung.”

Other journeys were made through Syria and Egypt. From the first Bowring had taken a keen and watchful interest in the Eastern question, whilst his adventures furnished materials for many valuable Articles on his return to this country. Whilst in Egypt he saw much of the celebrated Viceroy Mehemet Ali, and was impressed by his astuteness and sagacity. Feeling that a serious error had been committed by the English Government when they supported the views of the Ottoman Porte, the traveller regretted that, instead of coercing the Viceroy, his desire for independence had not been upheld. Mehemet Ali’s idea was to establish a great Arabic-speaking empire under Egyptian rule and to seek the friendship of Great Britain. It is probable that this would have proved a civilizing influence at Cairo more potent than could be expected from Constantinople, the very centre of intrigue; whilst a strong Arabian kingdom might possibly have prevented some of the subsequent misery and misrule.

Of Syria, Bowring gives the following account: “Galilee and Samaria were to me the most interesting parts of the Holy Land. … Nazareth and Nablous — the Shechem of the Old Testament, the Sychar of the New — stand forth in all their ancient simplicity and truth, reproducing the Bible of yesterday in the pictures of to-day. … How beautiful is the Sea of Galilee! How beautiful the wild flowers on its borders! Beautiful the barren mountains on the east, more beautiful still the green valleys on the west! … Passing to Nablous, we saw the well at the entrance of the city, where the grand words were uttered to the woman, ‘God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth’. A woman was there who offered us water to drink. It was indeed a realization of past history.”

After returning to England the traveller re-entered Parliament as member for Bolton in 1841 and represented the borough for the following eight years, bringing to his work in the House of Commons a mind singularly free from narrow prejudices and conventional standards. Concerning his Parliamentary experiences, he writes:

“Of the questions which constitute what are called party politics I say nothing … but I had the satisfaction of laying the foundation of the decimal system in our coinage, and of obtaining the issue of the florin, the tenth part of a pound sterling. … My attempts to obtain modifications of the quarantine laws were not without success. I obtained on three occasions Resolutions of the House recommending a less stringent administration. … Another of my Parliamentary objects was to secure the payment into the Exchequer of the gross amount of public revenues from the department of receipt, and to check the departments of expenditure from raising money by the transfer of stores or other means unauthorized by the House of Commons. Seven millions sterling annually escaped the notice of the supposed ‘guardians of the public purse’. I carried by a small majority a vote in the House condemnatory of the existing system. I was opposed by the Whigs, but the battle was really won. To Mr. Disraeli, while Chancellor of the Exchequer, belongs the honour of abolishing the old and introducing the new arrangements.”

In 1849, through the friendship of Lord Palmerston, Bowring was selected to be Consul at Canton. This was at a most critical period in our relations with China, owing to the obduracy of the Mandarins and their dislike to foreigners.

Early in the fifties he was appointed Plenipotentiary, and not long afterwards, on his return home for a holiday, visited the island of Java. Whilst in England he was knighted by the Queen, and subsequently held the appointment of Governor, Commander-in-Chief, and Vice-Admiral of Hong-Kong, in addition to being appointed chief Superintendent of Trade in China. The Tai-Ping insurrection having assumed formidable proportions, Sir John enquired carefully into the whole matter, which was causing great diplomatic anxiety; but it was not until many years afterwards that the Tai-Ping power was completely crushed through the exertions of the famous Colonel (afterwards General) Charles Gordon. In 1855 the Governor concluded a treaty with the Kingdom of Siam, and was accredited to the Courts of Cochin-China, the Corea, and Japan. His Eastern travels also included tours in India and Ceylon. It was during his administration that the insult to the British flag, through the outrage on the lorcha Arrow by the Canton authorities, involved him in hostilities with the Chinese Government. This incident finally resulted in the second Chinese War, Sir John having demanded an apology from Commissioner Yeh, of Canton. Although it was felt that the honour of Great Britain was safe in the Governor’s hands, the subject naturally led to considerable discussion in Parliament, and his conduct was severely criticized and characterized as “high-handed” by some of his opponents and even by a few of his own party. On the outbreak of hostilities a price was placed on Sir John’s head by the Mandarins, and an attempt was also made to murder the European residents of Hong-Kong by putting arsenic in their bread. The Governor and all his family suffered from the effects of the poison, but he was of too brave a temperament to be intimidated by such measures.

After a severe attack of fever in 1858 he visited the Philippine Islands, of which he published an interesting account in the following year. Returning to China in January, 1859, he felt constrained in the early summer, on account of overwork and ill-health, to resign his office, and on the voyage to Europe was shipwrecked in the Red Sea, but finally reached England in safety. Writing afterwards of his many journeys, he says:

“In my travels, I have never been very ambitious of the society of my countrymen, but have always sought that of the natives, and there are few men, I believe, who can bear a stronger or a wider testimony to the general kindness and hospitality of the human family, when the means of intercourse exist. My experiences of foreign lands are everywhere connected with the most pleasing and the most grateful remembrances.”

In 1860 his second marriage took place, with Deborah Castle, of Bristol, and it largely was owing to the devotion and solicitude of Lady Bowring, who was ever at his side, that he was able for so long to lead an active life and overcome successfully the infirmities of old age. He now turned his attention earnestly to social matters, and his knowledge being encyclopaedic, reformers all over the world turned to him for data. His house at Exeter became the centre of many interests; he was appointed a magistrate and Deputy-Lieutenant for the county, and for a dozen years touched local life at several points, willingly bringing his experience to bear on various difficult problems. A warm advocate of Female Suffrage, and indeed of Universal Suffrage, of Working Men’s Clubs, and all that he thought affected the welfare either of men or women; his love for children was another marked characteristic, and shows how little his sympathies were affected by the passage of time. His ideals found expression in services to humanity of the most practical kind, and many people who were not in sympathy with his political and religious opinions felt admiration for his devotion to work and single-minded efforts to improve the condition of others.

It was in the spring of 1860 that he first met William Pengelly. The acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy and the intimacy into friendship. The two men had much in common, both being endowed with great breadth of view on the subjects of the day, so that recurring intercourse proved a source of sincere pleasure to the veteran philosopher and also to his younger geological friend. Although making his head-quarters in Devonshire, visits to the metropolis always afforded much pleasure. He and William Pengelly attended the Royal Society and other scientific meetings there together, lighter recreation being found in various social gatherings, the geologist’s geniality and love of fun and of puns proving attractive; and in their correspondence during the summer of 1862 mention is made of some of these reunions. A few weeks later the first meeting of the Devonshire Association was held at Exeter and, under Sir John’s inspiring chairmanship, proved a great success, both from the scientific and the social standpoint. A brief description of the gathering can be given in a note from the geologist: “Exeter, August, 1862. … Many of the papers were short, and elicited good discussions. We sat until about half-past four. The audience was small, as there were the more popular attractions of a Bazaar and Flower Show. At 5.30 we dined together, and had an ample supply of food and fun. … After dinner there were some decent speeches, and at half-past eight we went in a goodly party to Lady Bowring’s tea-table, where Sir John christened me Mr. Pungelly. Friday was so wet that we had to give up the excursions. …”

Sir John not only filled the office of President with distinction, but took a prominent and useful part in the Annual Meetings on several occasions, contributing various papers on Devonian folklore and other topics, and adding zest to the discussions by his ability and eloquence. The subject of Devonshire Dialects naturally interested him, and in a note to William Pengelly in December, 1866, he refers to a paper on this subject:

“Claremont, Exeter. — I have written to Mr. Harpley … about my copies of the Paper on Devonshire Dialects. As soon as I get them, I shall have very great pleasure in sending one to Mr. Earle, gratified that he deems it worthy of his notice. I am sorry that I cannot be in Torquay on the 1st, when your working people have asked me to preside, but it is our Quarter Sessions, and I had another engagement. (This may have a new rendering of the old teaching ‘To wish more virtue is to gain’. I say, to wish more freedom is to gain. The wish is father to the thought, and to the certainty of success.) … P.S. Is it not amusing to see the bishops so complaisantly and so effectually knocking one another down? Oh, you geologists! great are your responsibilities, you turbulent troublers of ecclesiastical serenities!”

During the previous year, 1865, William Pengelly had commenced his well-known explorations at Kent’s Cavern; the question of the antiquity of man was now specially engaging the thoughts of theologians as well as of scientists, and to this Sir John alludes in the postscript of the previous note. His letters, whether written in a playful vein or on deep philosophical subjects, were always attractive, and his conversation also, from its piquancy and nimble play of insight and fun, invariably afforded pleasure. Visits at Torquay, where he had stayed for some time and had still many friends, were always a source of satisfaction to him, and Mrs. Pengelly, in writing to a relative, gives the following sketch of her impressions of the philosopher:

“Lamorna, Torquay. … We spent an interesting evening with Sir John Bowring at Mr. Beasley’s. Sir John looks much older than I expected — a keen, thin, and intellectual, worn face, with great animation. He is a capital talker and full of information. We talked of my old friends, the Ashworths; he says they were for some time at his house at Shanghai, but are now in London. … Sir John Kennaway was there also, and we were invited to meet them both the next evening at Mr. Vivian’s. …” Many years afterwards, in 1894, Lady Bowring, in a letter to Mrs. Pengelly, writes: “I think much of the years gone by, when my own beloved husband and Mr. Pengelly ever appeared to be so much pleased with each other’s companionship. …”

In the summer of 1867 he attended the Devonshire Association which met at Barnstaple, under the Presidency of William Pengelly. At none of the previous gatherings had so large a number of members attended, and Sir John was amongst those who by their exertions contributed to the success of the meeting. He was present also at the British Association which assembled at Dundee during the autumn of the same year, reading a Paper on the subject of Remunerative Prison Labour. This was a problem which he had studied long and earnestly, and he had recently been elected Chairman of a Committee of Magistrates appointed to investigate the matter. Whilst at Dundee he was a diligent member of the Economic Section, but also attended the Geological Section in order to hear the Kent’s Hole Report, having from the first taken a keen interest in the cavern explorations. One of the most useful functions of such meetings is that students in different branches of science can discuss together subjects of general interest. An accurate and careful worker in his own line, Bowring, from his learning and wide outlook, was not only in sympathy with various researches, but was also able to converse on something like equal terms with the masters in many of them. A couple of years later, in August, 1869, the members of the British Association paid one of their few visits to the West of England. Sir John threw himself heartily into the task of making their stay at Exeter agreeable to the men of science, and, after a hospitable welcome, the week of the meeting passed rapidly amidst the pressure of continuous work and congenial society.

Notwithstanding his unremitting attention to literary, economic, and kindred subjects, he found time for numerous family and social engagements, from which he derived considerable happiness and relaxation. His son, Edgar Bowring, whose pursuits and studies were much in accord with his own, was Member of Parliament for Exeter from 1868 to 1874, and they were thus able to be frequently together. Intercourse also was much enjoyed with Dr. Temple, that broad-minded prelate whose appointment as Bishop of the Diocese in 1869 caused such commotion in certain clerical circles, owing to his authorship of one of the celebrated Essays and Reviews. In preparing for the second Exeter Meeting of the Devonshire Association, under the Presidency of the Bishop, William Pengelly received valuable assistance from Sir John. He and his son Edgar consented to become Vice-Presidents, and it will be seen from the following letters to the geologist that he also interested himself in securing other suitable men to fill that office:

“Claremont, Exeter. … I have seen Mr. H. S. Ellis, and he is well pleased with the suggestion that he should be a Vice-President. I dare say Lord Devon, Sir Stafford Northcote, Sir John Kennaway, my son Edgar, and the Mayor to be, may also be had among the number. … My son Lewin has taken a house at Torquay … he was the First Commissioner of Bangalore and Coorg, Lord Canning’s Secretary, and will, I am sure, be pleased to make your acquaintance.” Writing again in February, 1871, he says: “… I have just left the Bishop. He will suggest two or three of the scientific clergy for Vice-Presidents. I suspect they are rarae aves in our woods. He wishes to have a set of our Transactions. …”

Although in the evening of life when the Association assembled at Exeter in July, 1872, Sir John continued working with the utmost diligence at his favourite subjects, and his letters show that he retained much of his customary brightness. He contributed three valuable papers at the meeting, one entitled Ancient Exeter and its Trade, another Fables and Fabulists in connection with John Gay, and the third on Sir Thomas Bodley. He also took part in the discussions, being still singularly open to further accessions of knowledge and fresh generalizations from the increasing store of facts. In the following month he, with his friends William Pengelly and the Rev. W. Harpley, journeyed to Brighton with the object of attending the British Association, and whilst there, in response to a request from the President of the Geographical Section, he delivered an excellent speech welcoming the Japanese Embassy. Later in the autumn he was present at the Social Science Congress at Plymouth, taking a leading part in the Conference and addressing a gathering of three thousand persons on Temperance, a subject which always appealed strongly to his sympathies as a means of raising the moral standard of the people and conducing to their welfare.

His affectionate thought and interest for those about him never failed. In October he celebrated his eightieth birthday in the midst of a happy family circle, and was planning a journey to London in November, but owing to indisposition abandoned the idea. The sands of life were now running low, but he was mercifully spared prolonged suffering. His mental faculties remained unclouded, his warm sympathies undimmed to the end, and on November 23rd, 1872, he quietly breathed his last.

He was a man of much courtesy and charm, with an attractive and striking personality. Although beginning his business life as a clerk in a mercantile house, he had the dignity of one who treats on an equality with princes, combined with a geniality that set strangers at their ease, and an evident desire to render service to all those requiring aid, irrespective of class or creed. Many marks of distinction were bestowed upon him, for, in addition to the honour of knighthood conferred by Queen Victoria, he received several foreign Orders, being knighted more than a dozen times by other sovereigns. He was a Knight Commander of the Belgian Order of Leopold I, a Companion of the Order of Christ of Portugal, and he also had the Grand Cordon of the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic. By King Victor Emmanuel he was created a Commander of the Noble Order of St. Maurice; and from the Emperor of Austria he received the Knight Commandership with the Cross of the Imperial and Royal Order of Francis Joseph. In addition to these and other European distinctions, he received various Orders from Eastern rulers, and about thirty Diplomas, Degrees, and Certificates from Universities and literary and scientific societies in all parts of the world.

His later years were happily spent amongst the Devonian scenes with which as a boy he had been familiar, so that he frequently revisited the haunts of his earlier days and the places where his love of nature and of humanity had been first aroused. For more than half a century he had been one of the most noted linguists of the world, and had also exercised a profound influence on the progress of Social Science, being equally eminent for the extent of his labours and the breadth of his philosophical views, thus rendering important service to his generation and shedding lustre on the county of his birth.


Papers published in DA’s Transactions

Year     Vol. Pages
1863 Sir John Bowring General Discourse Inaugurating the Devonshire Association (Presidential Address) 1 pt 1 9-21
1866 Sir John Bowring Language with Special Reference to the Devonian dialects 1 pt 5 13-38
1867 Sir John Bowring Devonian Folk-Lore Illustrated 2 pt 1 70-85
1868 Sir John Bowring Moral and Pecuniary Results of Prison Labour 2 pt 2 531-549
1869 Sir John Bowring Statistics Social and Scientific 3 81-105
1870 Sir John Bowring The Life and Writings of Josephus Iscanus, the Swan of Isca [twelfth century] 4 pt 1 244-256
1872 Sir John Bowring Ancient Exeter and its Trade 5 90-106
1872 Sir John Bowring Sir Thomas Bodley 5 330-343