John Bowring

John Bowring

name=Sir John Bowring

caption=John Bowring in 1826
office=Governor of Hong Kong
term_start=13 April 1854
term_end=9 September 1859
predecessor=Sir George Bonham
successor=Hercules Robinson, 1st Baron Rosmead
birth_date=birth date|1792|10|17
birth_place=Exeter, England
death_date=death date and age|1872|11|23|1792|10|17
death_place=Claremont, England
profession=Member of Parliament (UK)
spouse=Maria Lewin (m. 1816 - d. 1858)
Deborah Castle (m. 1860, survived)
children=John Charles Bowring,
Lewin Bentham Bowring,
Edgar Alfred Bowring


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, miscellaneous writer and polyglot, and the 4th Governor of Hong Kong.

Early life

Bowring was born in Exeter of an old Puritan family. 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. 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, 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.

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.

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 German states.

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 old Czech lyrics. In 1846 he became President of the Mazzinian People's International League.

Without inherited wealth, or income as MP for Bolton, 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 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.

After his return, Bowring distinguished himself as an advocate of decimal currency, and published a work entitled "The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts" (1854). The introduction of the florin as a preparatory step was chiefly due to his efforts.

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). At the same time, he allowed the Chinese citizens in Hong Kong to serve as jurors in trials and become lawyers. Finally, Bowring is credited with establishing Hong Kong's first commercial public water supply system and establishing the Hong Kong buildings ordinance, ensuring the safer design of all future construction projects in the territory.

He had developed the eastern Wan Chai at a river mouth near Happy Valley and Victoria Harbour. He elongated the river as canal and the area was named Bowring City (Bowrington).

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.

Places named after him

In the mid-nineteenth 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. Bowring Praya West and Bowring Praya Central were two roads built on reclaimed land during his tenure, but were respectively renamed Des Voeux Road West and Des Voeux Road Central in 1890 after the Praya Reclamation Scheme. The road has since been merged into Des Voeux Road.

Bowrington, or Bowring City, was an area Bowring had built around the estuary of the Wong Nai Chung river, and is the site of the Bowrington Market. He built an extension named the Bowrington Canal, over which the Bowrington Road (now called Canal Road) and the Bowrington Bridge passed.

Late career

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.

Personal life

Bowring had three sons. His eldest son, J.C. Bowring, presented Bowring's collection of coleoptera to the British Museum after Bowring's death. His youngest 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.

His daughter 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.


John Bowring died near Exeter on 23 November 1872, aged 80.


* KCB, 1854
* Member, Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society
* Knighted by several foreign governments

Literary works published

* "Specimens of the Russian Poets" (1821–1823)
* "Peter Schlemihl, a German Story" (Translation, 1824)
* "Batavian Anthology" (1824)
* "Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain" (1824)
* "Hymns" (Privately published, 1825) This includes the hymn, "In the cross of Christ I glory," still used in many churches.
* "Specimens of the Polish Poets" (1827)
* "Serbian Popular Poetry" (1827)
* "Poetry of the Magyars" (1830)
* "Cheskian Anthology" (1832)
* "Bentham's Deontology" (Editor, 1834). [ Volume I] , [ Volume II]
* "Minor Morals" (1834)
* "Manuscript of the Queen's Court" (1843)
* "The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts" (1854)
* "The Kingdom and People of Siam" (1857)
* Translations from Hungarian poet Alexander Petofi (1866)
* Various other pamphlets



External links

* [ Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring (1877)] at Google Book Search
* [ Biography] Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
* [ 8 portraits of John Bowring] National Portrait Gallery

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