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Thomas Barnes ( 1785-1841)

This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1885

Thomas Barnes, editor of the ‘Times,’ was born about 1785, and received his early education at Christ's Hospital. He was there the schoolfellow of Leigh Hunt, who describes him as remarkable for his good looks, his attainments in Latin and English, and his love of bathing and boating. He proceeded to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and took his degree in 1808. Coming up to London, he became for a time a member of the literary circle to which Hunt, Lamb, and Hazlitt belonged, and connected himself with journalism. A series of sketches of leading members of parliament by him, which originally appeared in the ‘Examiner’ under the signature of ‘Criticus,’ was published under the same name in 1815. They are somewhat meagre in matter and juvenile in style, but full of pointed and incisive sentences; their habitual unfairness to the supporters of the administration is hardly a matter of surprise. Barnes was at the time an advanced liberal, but by 1817 had sufficiently moderated his views to assume a position independent of party by accepting the editorship of the ‘Times’ upon the retirement of Dr. Stoddart. He speedily proved himself the most able conductor the paper had up to that time had, and placed it beyond the reach of competition not more by the ability of his own articles than by the unity of tone and sentiment which he knew how to impart to the publication as a whole. This did not exclude rapid changes of political views.

In 1831 the ‘Times’ was foremost among the advocates of reform. ‘Barnes,’ wrote Mr. Greville, after a conversation with him, ‘is evidently a desperate radical.’ Four years later its services to Sir Robert Peel's administration were acknowledged by that statesman in a memorable letter printed in Carlyle's ‘Life of John Sterling.’ An accurate perception of the tendencies of public opinion was no doubt the principal motive of this volte-face, which has nevertheless been said to have been promoted by a personal pique between Barnes and Brougham, who had himself contributed to the ‘Times’ during the reform agitation. Barnes certainly disliked the chancellor, whose biography he wrote on occasion of his reported death in 1839, and whose translation of ‘Demosthenes on the Crown’ he suffered Dean Blakesley to criticise with merciless sarcasm.

Barnes died on 7 May 1841 after a surgical operation. Barnes's personality seems almost merged in that of the powerful journal with which he identified himself. His private character was amiable and social, notwithstanding the caustic tone of his conversation. His coadjutor, Edward Sterling, told Moore that ‘he never heard Barnes speak of any one otherwise than depreciatingly, but the next moment after abusing a man he would go any length to serve him.’ His talents were of the highest order. The ‘Greville Memoirs’ afford ample proof that his position on the ‘Times’ was not that of a mere instrument, but that its political course was mainly directed by him, and that no condescension was thought too great to secure his support. ‘Why,’ said Lord Lyndhurst to Greville, ‘Barnes is the most powerful man in the country.’ ‘He might,’ says Leigh Hunt, ‘have made himself a name in wit and literature, had he cared much for anything beyond his glass of wine and his Fielding.’ But the exigencies of newspaper literature afford a more satisfactory explanation.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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