Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barrington, Daines

BARRINGTON, DAINES (1727–1800), lawyer, antiquary,and naturalist, fourth son of John Shute, first Viscount Barrington [q. v.], was born in 1727. He is said to have studied at Oxford, though it does not appear that he took any degree. Choosing the profession of the law, he was called to the bar as a member of the Inner Temple. The Barringtons had influential friends in the Pelham government, and it was no doubt through these friends that advancement come to him while he was still young. He was only twenty-four years of age when he was made marshal of the High Court of Admiralty, a post which he resigned when, two years later, he became secretary for the affairs of Greenwich Hospital; while in the law he gradually attained to a considerable position. In 1757 he was appointed Justice of the counties of Merioneth, Carnarvon, and Anglesey; in 1764 he succeeded Sir Michael Foster as recorder of Bristol; he was made a king's counsel, and afterwards a bencher of his inn; and between 1778 and 1785 he was second justice of Chester. While holding this last office he sat with Lord Kenyon, then chief justice of Chester, to hear the application for the adjournment of the dean of St. Asaph's trial (21 State Trials, 847). Barrington's friends said it was only want of ambition that prevented him from rising to a higher judicial position. Bentham, who in other respects admired him greatly, was of a different opinion; 'He was a very indifferent judge; a quiet, good sort of a man; not proud but liberal; and vastly superior to Blackstone in his disposition to improvement: more impartial in his judgment of men and things—less sycophancy, and a higher intellect. He was an English polyglot lawyer. … He never got higher than to be a Welch judge. He was not intentionally a bad judge, though he was often a bad one' (Bowring's 'Memoirs,' in Bentham's Works, x. 121; see also i. 239 n.). In 1785 he resigned all his offices except that of commissary-general of the stores Gibraltar which he held till his death, and which gave him a salary of over 500l. a year. He was now possessed of very considerable wealth, having retired from the bench with a pension, and was able to abandon law and to devote himself to a somewhat erratic study of antiquities and natural history.

His writings had already given him a varied fame. His 'Observations on the Statutes,' his first work and the only work of any permanent value which he ever wrote, appeared in 1766. An incident concerning it is recorded which is not a little to his credit. In 1768 he found that he had many additions to make, when fully a hundred copies of the second edition remained unsold; but he determined to print the new edition at once, and refused to allow any of the old copies to be sold. There is no very definite purpose in the 'Observations.' 'The book is everything,' said Bentham, 'apropos of everything. I wrote volumes upon his volume.' Beginning with Magna Charta, he passes in review many of the chief statutes down to the time of James I, illustrating them with notes, legal, antiquarian, historical, and etymological. It was not the purely legal aspect of the subject which attracted him. His general reading placed him at a point of view which gives the book a peculiar significance. He saw how great a light our early statutes could throw upon our history, and how little their value had been appreciated by historians. He saw likewise that an intelligible history of English law could not be written without a knowledge of other systems to which English law is related. And unfitted though he himself was to work out these ideas, he added a link, as Burke did, to the chain which connects Montesquieu, whose writings he knew and admired, with the historical school of our own day. Another of his suggestions is being gradually realised. While not believing codification to be practicable, he proposed that the danger of the revival of obsolete statutes should be obviated by formally repealing them, and that different acts of parliament relating to one subject should be reduced into one consistent statute. As to the book itself, its ingenuity and curious learning still save it from being forgotten.

In his next work of any importance he was less fortunate. Elstob had intended to publish King Alfred's version of ‘Orosius,’ and had made a transcript, but for some reason—want of encouragement by subscription is Barrington's surmise—the design was never carried out. The transcript ultimately came into Barrington's hands, and in 1773 he printed the text, together with a translation of his own, ‘chiefly,’ he says in his preface, ‘for my own amusement and that of a few antiquarian friends.’ The work had interested him greatly, as appears from his correspondence with Gough (Nichols's Illustrations, v. 582 et seq.), but he came to it with inadequate knowledge. Neither on the text nor on his translation can reliance be placed (see Alfred's Orosius, by Bosworth, pref. 1). It was in a note to this translation that he confessed his ignorance of the story of Astyages and Harpagus, a confession of which he was often reminded.

His versatile mind was meanwhile engrossed with Arctic exploration. After studying the records of former expeditions, and collecting evidence from the masters of whalers, he submitted his views to the Royal Society, and succeeded in inducing the society to lay the matter before Lord Sandwich, then first lord of the admiralty. The result was that the government despatched two ships, the Racehorse and the Carcass, under the command of Captain Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, and Captain Lutwidge. Though the expedition failed, Barrington was not discouraged. He collected fresh evidence, and published his papers (which do not appear in the Royal Society's ‘Transactions’) in 1775 and 1776 (translated in Engel's ‘Neuer Versuch über die Lage der nördlichen Gegenden von Asia und Amerika,’ &c.). In 1818 the matter again provoked great interest, and they were reprinted by Colonel Mark Beaufoy [q.v.] .

Barrington's other works consist of numerous papers read before the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, of the latter of which he was made vice-president. Like the ‘Observations on the Statutes,’ they are apropos of everything. Besides a number of sketches in the byways of natural history, there are papers on such different subjects as the landing of Cæsar and the passage of the Thames (in which he maintains that the Tamesis is the Medway); the deluge (his opinion that the deluge was not universal being vigorously attacked in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ xlvii. 407, xlviii. 363); Dolly Pentreath, the old woman with whom the Cornish language expired (his investigations thereon exciting the ridicule of Horace Walpole and Peter Pindar); patriarchal customs and manners; and the antiquity of card playing (‘Barrington … is singularly unfortunate in his speculations about cards,’ says Chatto in his ‘History of Playing Cards’). These essays give us an insight into a mind of restless activity, which turned wide though not accurate learning to most ingenious uses. He was by no means free from the antiquarian's credulity. Referring to Bruce's ‘Abyssinian Tour,’ George Steevens writes to Bishop Percy: ‘It will be dedicated to the Honourable Daines Barrington, with singular propriety, as he is the only one who possesses credulity enough for the author's purposes’ (Nichols's Illustrations, vii. 4). And in ‘Peter's Prophecy,’ a dialogue between Peter Pindar and Sir Joseph Banks upon the approaching election of a president of the Royal Society, he is treated thus (Peter Pindar's Works, ii. 74; see also iii. 186):

Sir Joseph. Pray then, what think ye of our famous Daines?
Peter. Think, of a man denied by Nature brains!
Whose trash so oft the Royal leaves disgraces;
Who knows not jordens brown from Roman vases!
About old pots his head for ever puzzling,
And boring earth, like pigs for truffles muzzling.
Who likewise from old urns to crotchets leaps,
Delights in music, and at concerts sleeps.

(See also Mathias's Pursuits of Literature, 16th edition, p. 82 and note.) Barrington himself did not over-estimate his work. ‘I have, perhaps, published too many things,’ was his own reflection. To many who are not acquainted with his writings he is known, at least by name, as one of the correspondents of Gilbert White. And he is more worthy to be remembered than his contemporaries imagined if the report be true that through his encouragement White was induced to write the ‘Natural History of Selborne.’ Bentham, too, placed him in good company in saying that ‘Montesquieu, Barrington, Beccaria, and Helvetius, but most of all Helvetius, set me on the principle of utility’ (Works, x. 54). Barrington was the friend of Bishop Percy, of Johnson (see Malone's edition of Boswell, vii. 164), of Boswell, and of many other men of letters of his time. His name appears in the list of members of the Essex Head Club. In his later years he lived in his chambers in King's Bench Walk, spending much of his time in the Temple gardens. Lamb, who refers to him in the ‘Old Benchers’ as ‘another oddity,’ has a curious incident to tell of Gilbert White's friend: ‘When the account of his year's treasurership came to be audited, the following singular charge was unanimously disallowed by the bench: “Item, disbursed Mr. Allen, the gardener, twenty shillings for stuff to poison the sparrows, by my orders.”’ Barrington died on 14 March 1800, and was buried in the Temple church. An engraving from his portrait by Slater (1770) will be found prefixed to the fifth edition of his ‘Observations on the Statutes,’ and also in Nichols's ‘Illustrations,’ v. 582. The Barringtonia, a tropical tree, was named in his honour by Forster.

The following is a list of his works:

  1. ‘Observations on the More Ancient Statutes from Magna Charta to the Twenty-first of James I, cap. xxvii. With an Appendix, being a Proposal for New Modelling the Statutes,’ 1766. Subsequent editions in 1767, 1769, 1775, and 1796.
  2. The ‘Naturalist's Calendar,’ 1767. Reprinted in 1818 (Agassiz's Bibliog. Zool. et Géol. and Watt's Bibliog. Brit.)
  3. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Version, from the Historian Orosius. By Ælfred the Great. Together with an English Translation from the Anglo-Saxon,’ 1773. With a map, tracing the voyage of Ohthere and Wulfstan, and geographical notes by Forster, which Bosworth considers of great value.
  4. ‘Miscellanies,’ 1781. Containing ‘Tracts on the Possibility of reaching the North Pole’ (which first appeared in 1775 and 1776); essays in natural history; an account of musical prodigies; ‘Ohthere's Voyage, and the Geography of the Ninth Century illustrated’ (from his ‘Orosius’); and other papers, mostly reprints.
  5. A list of his papers to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries will be found in the respective indexes to the ‘Transactions’ of the societies; also in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ lxx. (part 1) 291, and in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes,’ iii. 4–7.

Some of his papers have been reprinted in other works, e.g. the ‘Language of Birds’ in Pennant's ‘British Zoology,’ vol. iii., and a treatise on ‘Archery’ in ‘European Magazine,’ viii. 177, 257.

[Gent. Mag. lxx. 291; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 553, iii. 3, viii. 424; Nichols's Illustrations, v. 582, vii. 4; Archæologia; Phil. Trans. of Royal Society; Penny Cyclop.; Lodge's Peerage of Ireland; Nat. Hist. of Selborne; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. ix. 304, 331; Barrett's Bristol; Ormerod's Cheshire.]

G. P. M.