JOHN BOWRING (1792 - 1872)

John Bowring was born in Exeter of Charles Bowring (1769–1856), a wool merchant from an old Unitarian family, and Sarah Jane Anne (d. 1828), the daughter of Thomas Lane, vicar of St. Ives, Cornwall. His last formal education was a Unitarian school in Moretonhampstead and he started work in his father's business at age 16. By that time he could speak five languages which he used to represent his father in foreign markets. Before his death in 1872, he could speak 80 languages and knew some 200.

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 popular. He pleaded earnestly on behalf of parliamentary reform and popular education. The University of Groningen in the Netherlands 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.

In 1835, Bowring entered parliament 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 states in Imperial Germany. Bowring attended the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention. During this busy period of his life, he found leisure for literature, translating many manuscripts and collections from medieval poetry.

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 was knighted by the Queen, becoming Sir John Bowring. He led a small group of wealthy London merchants and bankers in establishing a large integrated ironworks company. The district around his ironworks became know as Bowrington. Although he lost his capital in the trade depression of the late 1840s, John Bowring had gained a reputation 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 the consulship at Canton in 1849 and acted as 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.

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 colony.

In 1855 he visited Siam, and negotiated a treaty of commerce, now commonly referred as the Bowring Treaty. Bowring retired in March 1859 and received a pension for his duties.

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 from the Hawaiian government to the courts of Europe, and in this capacity negotiated treaties with Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

Bowring married Maria in 1818. They had five sons and four daughters. She died of arsenic poisoning in 1858. He married his second wife, Deborah Castle in 1860 but they had no children.

Most of his many writings have been forgotten except for a few poems. One story tells of Bowring, while in Hong Kong in 1825, he saw a magnificent cathedral, destroyed by the ravages of the Opium War. Only the front remained. Atop it was a great metal cross, blackened by time and silhouetted against the sky. Taking the words from Galatians 6:14, he wrote, “In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering over the wrecks of time; All the light of sacred story, Gathers round its head sublime.”

Forgotten too, this hymn might have been since the music associated with it was not good, if it were not for people skipping the assembly on a particular Sunday morning at the Central Baptist Church in Norwich, Connecticut. Dr. Hiscox had planned a series of sermons on the seven last words of Christ on the Cross. According to the Norwich Bulletin: “One Sunday during the series it was a very rainy day. Mr. Conkey was sorely disappointed that the members of the choir did not appear, as only one soprano came. Mr. Conkey was so discouraged and disheartened that after the prelude he closed the organ and locked it and went to his home on Washington Street. The pastor and choir gallery were at opposite ends of the church, and he could leave without attracting the attention of the congregation. That afternoon, as he sat down at the piano for practice, his mind was distracted with the thoughts of the sermons Dr. Hiscox had prepared and the words of the hymn, ‘In the Cross of Christ I Glory.’ He [Conkey] then and there composed the music that is now so universally familiar in churches of every denomination, know as RATHBUN. He admitted afterward the inspiration was a vivid contradiction of his feelings at the morning service.” But why did he name his turn RATHBUN? The one choir member who showed up on that rainy Sunday in 1849, that one faithful soprano, was named Mrs. Beriah S. Rathbun.” Thus new life was breathed into an old hymn.

Other hymns by Bowring are:
God is Love
God is Love, His Mercy Brightens
Father and Friend, Thy Light
In the Cross of Christ I Glory
Watchman, Tell us of the Night

There are no other musical compositions by Ithamar Conkey (1815 - 1867)

A Hymn is Born / Bonner / 1959 / Broadman Press
A Treasury of Hymn Stories Wells / 1945 / Baker Books
Then Sings My Soul # 1 Morgan / 2003 / Thomas Nelson Publishers