Sir John Bowring was born in Larkbeare House, in Exeter. He came from a large family of textile merchants long established in Devon. Bowring had an extraordinary gift with language. During his life he knew 200 languages, and could speak 100 – he was a hyperpolyglot!
In 1825 he became editor of the ‘Westminster Review’. Ten years later he became an MP. He soon gained a reputation as a diplomat heading government missions to Europe to investigate commerce.
In 1849 he was appointed British consul at Canton (Guangzhou), and superintendent of trade in China. Then in 1854 he was sent to Hong Kong as governor, and seems to have been partly responsible for the hostilities that led to the Second Opium War (1856-60). It was during these periods in the Far East that he collected the objects he later donated to RAMM. Later deployments by the British Government saw him involved in diplomatic missions all over Europe.
He is remembered for inventing the Florin, based on 2 shillings (10 pence), and was a keen supporter of a decimal coin system, a full 100 years before decimalisation. Bowring was a founder of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Arts and was its first President in 1862.
Bowring had three sons, and a daughter who became a Roman Catholic nun. Bowring’s eldest son J.C. Bowring presented his beetle collections to RAMM in 1872.
Sir John Bowring died near Exeter on 23 November 1872, aged 80.