Bowring Papers

Scope and Content

Personal and political correspondence of Sir John Bowring and his family. There are letters from Sir John Bowring to his son Edgar Alfred Bowring at the Board of Trade, mainly concerning political and commercial affairs in the Far East at the time when Sir John was Consul at Canton, Plenipotentiary to China and, from 1854, Governor of Hong Kong and Chief Superintendent of Trade. These are an important source for studies of Anglo-Chinese relations and the opening of Japan. Earlier letters and papers date from Sir John's term as MP for Bolton and his activities in the Anti-Corn Law League. There also papers and diaries of Sir John's son Frederick Hermann Bowring, Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and of Bowring's other son, Lewin, some of which relate to India.

Administrative / Biographical History

The collection consists of the papers of the Bowring family, whose best-known member was Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), politician, administrator and traveller. The Bowrings originated from Devon, where they were engaged in the woollen trade. John Bowring began his career in a merchant's office, where he acquired a working knowledge of a number of European languages. In 1811 he became a clerk in the London house of Milford and Co. who sent him to the Iberian peninsula. He subsequently set up his own merchant's business and travelled widely on the Continent. In 1822 he was arrested by the French authorities in connection with their proposed invasion of Portugal, and was accused of aiding domestic opponents of the Bourbon regime. He later published an account of his imprisonment, Details of the Imprisonment and Liberation of an Englishman by the Bourbon Government of France (1828).

In the 1820s Bowring had become friendly with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and was appointed by the latter to edit the Westminster Review. Bowring wrote not only on political subjects, but also on European languages, Magyar poetry and other literary topics. He later edited a collection of the works of Bentham, which ran to eleven volumes, including a biography written by Bowring. Bowring strongly sympathised with Bentham's utilitarian political philosophy. In 1828 Bowring was made a commissioner for reforming public accounts; the appointment was then cancelled because of Bowring's radical political views. However he did travel to Europe in succeeding years to report on the public finance systems of other countries, and his findings led to reforms in the British system of public accounts.

After failing to be elected to parliament for Blackburn in 1832, Bowring threw his energies into studying economic conditions on the Continent. After briefly sitting as MP for Clyde burghs between 1835 and 1837, he turned his expertise to studying commercial conditions in the Near East. He also became active in the Anti-Corn Law League, and from 1841 was MP for Bolton. He frequently spoke on commercial and fiscal questions, factory laws and education.

In 1847, his parliamentary career came to an end, when he was threatened by the collapse of his businesses. He obtained the post of consul at Canton, through Lord Palmerston, at a time of considerable commercial tension between Britain and China. In 1854 Bowring was made plenipotentiary to China, and governor of Hong Kong, as well as chief superintendent of trade. At the same time he was knighted. Soon after these appointments, Bowring was involved in putting down the Taiping revolt. In 1855, he successfully concluded a treaty with Siam establishing diplomatic and commercial relations. In 1856 he was involved in the Arrow incident, when Chinese authorities violated a ship flying the British flag, which had political repercussions back in Britain. Partly in response to this the Chinese mandarins put a price on Bowring's head and he narrowly escaped assassination by poisoning in 1857. As a diplomat, Bowring strongly advocated that Britain develop a more commercially-oriented consular service.

In 1859, Bowring retired from all his posts. He continued to work on commercial missions in Europe and Asia, and became an active member of many learned bodies including the Social Science Association. Bowring also wrote a number of poems and hymns, and wrote an unfinished work on popular poetry in European and Oriental languages. He died in 1872 at Exeter. Bowring was twice married and had four sons. His eldest son, J.C. Bowring was a well-known coleopterist; Lewin Bowring served as private secretary during the Indian Mutiny, 1857; Edgar Bowring was a civil servant at the Board of Trade, MP for Exeter, 1868-1874, and a translator of literature, while Frederick Bowring was a Cambridge don and lawyer.

Source: Gerald Stone, 'Bowring, Sir John (1792-1872)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library at auction in 1958 from the former owner, Mrs N.A.H. Taylor (great grand-daughter of John Bowring).


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Sir John Bowring.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1952-1970 (English MSS 1228-1234). See also note in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 41 (1958-9), pp. 269-71.

Separated Material

Sir John Bowring's papers have been widely dispersed. Repositories holding collections of his papers include:

  • University of California Library, Los Angeles: Special Collections Department, (reference: NUC MS 71-842);
  • University of California Library, Berkeley, California, (reference: NUC MS 65-1777);
  • Harvard University: Houghton Library, Cambridge, Mass., (reference: bMS Eng 1247);
  • London University: University College Manuscripts Room, (reference: MS Ogden 62);
  • Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London, (reference: MS 6128);
  • University of Kentucky Library, Lexington, Kentucky; Duke University: William R Perkins Library, Durham, North Carolina (reference: Guide 1980, p. 56).


The Bowring collection has been used in the following articles: G.F. Bartle, 'Sir John Bowring and the Arrow war', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 43 (1960-1), pp. 293-316, and 'Sir John Bowring and the Chinese and Siamese commercial treaties', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 44 (1961-2), pp. 286-308; J.Y. Wong, 'Sir John Bowring and the Canton city question', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 56 (1973-4), pp. 219-45, and 'Sir John Bowring and the question of treaty revision in China', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 58 (1975-6), pp. 216-37. For further biographical information, see Sir John Bowring, Autobiographical recollections of Sir John Bowring (London: H.S. King & Co., 1877).

Family Names

Geographical Names