John Barrow Junior, the quiet hero of the search for Franklin

The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin, by Stephen Pearce, oil on canvas,
1851, 46 1/4 in. x 72 1/8 in. (1175 mm x 1833 mm). Bequeathed by one of the sitters, John Barrow, 1899, Primary Collection, NPG 120
(John Barrow Junior is standing fifth from left, between James Clark Ross and Edward Sabine.)

He was “the father confessor for so many officers in Arctic service”, the person they poured their hearts out to in confidential letters before, during and after their expeditions in search of the Franklin Expedition.

He was the man who protected their interests and checked in on their families while the searchers were risking their lives in the Arctic, acts of kindness that were never forgotten.

Writing in The Geographical Journal in May 1940, Brian Roberts said this man had “probably contributed to the results [of the search missions] more than any other man not actually employed on the expeditions”.


John Barrow Junior was born in 1808, the second son of Sir John Barrow, and he followed his father into the Admiralty in 1825 as Keeper of the Records. 

He is surprisingly easy to overlook. Roberts notes that Junior “has frequently been confused with his father by subsequent writers and even by some of his contemporaries”.

However, John Junior was at the centre of all of the official efforts to search for the Franklin Expedition from 1848 onwards, and most of the unofficial ones after he retired from the Admiralty in 1855.

When he died aged 90 on December 9, 1898, The Geographical Journal noted that Junior had outlived most of his friends. But, it continued, “there are still some left who remember the quiet enthusiasm of the ripe geographer, and cherish in their hearts the memory of the never-varying kindness of their old and tried friend, John Barrow.”

When I started to research John Junior, one of the first things I did was try to establish where he was buried. This was easy: he was in Kensal Green Cemetery. I got his burial record and that’s where things got tricky. When I compared his details with those of his mother Anna Maria, Dowager Lady Barrow, they were clearly buried in the same plot.

The heavily-subsided Barrow family tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery. The Dowager Lady Barrow is remembered on one side. Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, is memorialised on the other, although he himself is buried in St Martin’s Churchyard in Camden. Image: Logan Zachary


But there was no reference to Junior on the Barrow tomb – I’d gone over every inch of it more than once, while we were working to locate his father, Sir John Barrow. We’d have seen it, no?

So we went back to Kensal Green – that ridiculous, perfect place, all 72 sprawling acres seemingly designed to make Tim Burton feel that he’s wasted his entire life – and I looked again. Still nothing.

I was staring at the base of the Barrow tomb when a gentle breeze ruffled the grass at its base, and I thought I saw something just above the level of the ground. I knelt down and pulled some grass away. There was definitely something there. I started to pull clods of earth away from the stone edge.

More and more mud came away and suddenly there he was – just the tops of the letters on the second line, but enough to be sure:

Also to the memory of

John, son of Sir John Barrow 1st Bart

The inscription revealed, after hours of gentle excavation by hand. Image: Logan Zachary

Hello, Junior. He had been dragged down out of sight by more than a century of subsidence. And now I had a chance to bring him back. (A Bart is a Baronet, by the way. I had to look that one up.)

So, why did John Barrow Junior matter so much in the 19th Century, and why should people care about him in 2020?


He was the only civilian member of the so-called Arctic Council that directed the search for Sir John Franklin and his missing ships. The iconic painting of these men, by Stephen Pearce, was commissioned by John Junior, as were the portraits of Francis Leopold McClintock, Robert McClure, Sherard Osborn, William Penny, Robert McCormick and so many other Franklin searchers.

John Barrow by Stephen Pearce, oil on millboard, circa 1850. 14 7/8 in. x 12 1/2 in. (378 mm x 318 mm). Bequeathed by Jane, Lady Franklin, 1892, Primary Collection, NPG 905

He worked closely with Lady Jane Franklin on a number of projects and was a pallbearer at her funeral in 1875. The Pearce portrait of Junior was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery in Lady Franklin’s name in 1892, following the death of Sophia Cracroft.

And he was the person who preserved so much of the archive materials that have been available to generations of Franklin researchers ever since.


I used to roll my eyes at his scrawled interventions on the ADM papers in The National Archives. But now I find them extremely charming. He was a professional record-keeper and an archivist, and understood that these papers would continue to be important long after his own death.

It wasn’t enough for him just to preserve materials about his beloved friends. He wanted future generations to know that James Fitzjames was brave and amiable, and that Sherard Osborn was patient and kind. In his private papers, he explains any in-jokes in the margins, and he puts information into context for future readers.

“One of the bravest – the best – and most amiable of Officers in the British Navy” – an annotation from John Barrow Junior, about James Fitzjames, on one of the Beechey Papers. Copyright: The National Archives / Image: Logan Zachary

If anything, I now wish John Barrow Junior had written all over many more of the documents held at Kew and the British Library.


The strong emotion he felt for the Arctic searchers was backed up by tireless practical support from within the Admiralty and in a personal capacity. In some cases, this support continued for decades.

His devotion was recognised and reciprocated. The family of poor Joseph-René Bellot – killed on duty with the Belcher Expedition in 1853 – stayed in touch with John Junior until the 1870s. The voluminous life-long correspondence from Sherard Osborn could probably provide enough material for a book or two. And the notoriously awkward and taciturn William Penny – by his own admission “a rough, unculturated but kind-hearted sailor” – wrote reams of letters to him until at least the late 1860s.

The list of John Barrow Junior’s close friends reads like a Who’s Who of Arctic exploration: he frequently corresponded with not only Penny and Osborn, but also John Rae, Leopold McClintock, Horatio Austin, Robert McClure, George Henry Richards, Erasmus Ommanney, Charles Codrington Forsyth, John Bertie Cator, William Parker Snow and many others.


It’s fascinating to compare these private papers with the official Admiralty records. An individual would write a stiff and officious letter to John Barrow Junior in his day job, and then immediately write another to Off-Duty Junior: essentially imparting the same information, but unfiltered.

These letters are light-hearted and gossipy, but they can also be peppered with dark invective and the occasional character assassination.

It’s clear that they trusted him. And it’s clear that he was a very loyal friend.

William Battersby, in his biography of James Fitzjames, Junior’s dearest friend, wrote that:

“Fitzjames’ last public act, almost certainly posthumous, was to contribute £5 0s 0d in 1851 to the construction of the memorial to Sir John Barrow erected above his home town of Ulverston. The real donor must have been John Barrow Junior. Such was his respect for James Fitzjames that he clearly felt his friend might yet emerge from the ice even after six years.”


It took another trip to Kensal Green and many more hours of gentle excavation by hand to remove enough earth for the entirety of John Barrow Junior’s inscription to become visible. I soon discovered that this wasn’t on the bottom of the tomb: it was on a shallow plinth resting on a much wider stone base protecting the Barrow family vault.

I planned to return the following weekend with a spray bottle of filtered water to remove enough mud for a clear rub down with tinfoil. But the pandemic was declared and then life changed, for everyone.

But the man who tried so hard to find the Franklin Expedition had himself been found. John Barrow Junior will still be there, waiting for me, when I get back to Kensal Green.


Battersby, William – James Fitzjames: Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

Roberts, Brian – Notes on the Barrow Collection of Arctic Equipment. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 95, No. 5 (May 1940), pp. 368-380

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track

Spence, Daniel Owen – A History of the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism

The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin 1792–1875

Obituary: John Barrow Junior – The Geographical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan 1899), pp. 76-77

The Barrow Bequest at The British Library

ADM7/187-194 at The National Archives

William Penny correspondence at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

2 thoughts on “John Barrow Junior, the quiet hero of the search for Franklin

  1. Hi Alison,
    I am a direct descendant of John’s.
    Thank you very much for this nice post on your blog and, most of all, for the work you have done to clean up his tomb.

  2. Dear Rupert, thank you so much, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! There will be more in the future. He was a fascinating man and I’m on something of a mission to tell people about him.

    I haven’t been able to visit Kensal Green for many months, but I’ll be sure to tidy up the Barrow tomb when I’m next there to pay my respects.

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