Reverend John Barlow (1798-1869)

Ri Secretary 1843-1860

  • Reverend John Barlow

    Reverend John Barlow

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Reverend John Barlow

    Detail from a painting by Henry William Pickersgill
    1857, Oil on canvas, 90.5 x 70.6 cm

    Credit: Royal Institution

About

Ri positions

  • Ri Secretary 1843-1860

As Secretary of the Royal Institution from 1843 to 1860 Reverend John Barlow made many far reaching administrative changes in the running of the Institution as well as lecturing here on the practical applications of science.

Biography

Barlow was well connected to the church, navy and Indian service. One of his uncles was sometime Governor of Madras while another was an admiral, one of whose daughters married into the Nelson family. Barlow’s father was Vicar of Halberton in Devon and he attended Blundell’s school in Tiverton, before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1820.

He was ordained in 1823 and was Curate of Uckfield in Sussex until 1830. There he married Cecilia Anne Law, the daughter of a wealthy nabob. In 1830 he moved to London, the same year that he was appointed Rector of Little Bowden in Northamptonshire, a position he held until 1843 and from which he appears to have been largely absent, his younger brother acting as curate. From 1854 until death he was Chaplain in Ordinary at Kensington Palace.

Almost uniquely as an Anglican clergyman, Barlow enjoyed a close friendship with Michael Faraday, taking over many of Faraday’s administrative functions, including arranging Discourses, following the latter’s breakdown in health in the early 1840s. As Secretary it fell to Barlow to discover the long term fraud that had been perpetrated by the Assistant Secretary Joseph Fincher. For a period in the late 1840s he took over Fincher’s duties and put in place new procedures for preventing future fraud. It was this experience that probably led to his remarking to John Tyndall that “he sometimes thinks he would give 1000 pounds never to have been connected with the place”.

Socially very well connected, Barlow, at his nearby house, 5 Berkeley Street, would host dinner before a Discourse and was instrumental in persuading many of the elite of mid Victorian London society, from Prince Albert downwards, to join the Royal Institution. Although women had been members since its foundation, by the 1850s they were few in number and Barlow, by securing the membership of figures such as the Duchess of Northumberland and Angela Burdett-Coutts (the second richest woman in England), was able to attract more women members. Increasing ill health in the late 1850s led him to attempt to retire, but Faraday persuaded him to remain until late 1860 when his health forced his resignation.

Papers at the Ri

The John Barlow papers include: scrapbooks containing letters, newspaper cuttings, biographical notes, autographs, reports and photographs. 

A more detailed fonds level description can be found on the AIM25 website.