Thomas Foster Barham, MB. [Obituary]

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1869, Vol. III, pp. 37-41.

Prepared by Michael Steer

Thomas Foster Barham was the eldest son of musician and writer Thomas Foster Barham. He was born at Hendon, Middlesex, and sent to Queens' College, Cambridge, qualifying as M.B. in 1820. After taking this degree he returned to Penzance, where he was physician to the dispensary, and in general practice for several years. About 1830 he moved to Exeter and became physician to the Exeter dispensary and institution for the blind. From early life he had been attached to the doctrines of unitarianism, and during the first part of his residence at Exeter actively supported the unitarian congregation that met at George's Chapel, Exeter. He then expressed an aversion to all dogmatic theology, as well as to the adoption of any sectarian name, and embodied his views in a pamphlet entitled Christian Union in Churches without Dogmatism. He moved to Newton Abbot, where he conducted religious services for himself, adhering in the main to the religious tenets of his old sect. Being possessed of considerable means, he abandoned the practice of medicine on his removal from Exeter, and gave himself up to good works and the pleasures of literature. He died at Highweek, 3 March 1869, and was buried in Highweek churchyard on 8 March. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

T. F. BARHAM, M.B., Cantab.,



Thomas Foster Barham was born at Henley-on-Thames on September the 10th, in the year 1794. He received his early education chiefly at private schools, and in due course proceeded to the University of Cambridge, and became a member of Queen's College. He took the degree of B.A. in 1816, being contemporary, or nearly so, with some whose names have existed as household words in that university, as Professors Whewell, Jeremie, Blunt, and King. Choosing medicine for his profession, he pursued his studies in London, in the hospitals of Guy's and St Thomas's, and the schools connected with them. He took the degree of MLB. at Cambridge, and afterwards became a licentiate of the London College of Physicians. He settled in practice at Penzance, where he lived a good many years, and then removed to Exeter. At both these places he devoted much time and skilful care to the sick poor, but did not use very strenuous efforts to acquire a lucrative practice, which was not necessary to his maintenance, as he had sufficient means. He had married early in life, and his family, which proved a large one, was well provided for. More than twenty years before he died he returned to Highweek, in the neighbourhood of Newton Abbot, and lived entirely in the country; but his advice was still eagerly sought by the poor, and as heartily and cheerfully given to them.

During this latter period he devoted much time and money to the religious instruction of the people near him, and his voice of comfort was heard and listened to with devout attention by an interesting flock which he had gathered around him. Dr. Barham was a man unostentatiously, unmistakably, and courageously devout. No one was less disposed, for his very nature was gentlemanly and courteous, to introduce his opinions on religious matters so as to give offence to those from whom he differed. In the exercise of a free judgment, he gave as generous a construction to the opinions of others as he hoped and deserved to obtain for his own. In the various controversies in which he took a part, his views were always lucidly put forward and temperately argued ; yet while it may be and is a part of all true devotion to commune with self in secret, and in public with those that have our special sympathy, there are times when valour and even heroism is wanted to confront those whose doctrines we deem detrimental or dangerous. A disinterested sincerity - sometimes associated with self-sacrifice - but transparent as the mountain stream, and ever pressing forward towards the wiser and the better, marked the whole of his career. After leaving the University of Cambridge he relinquished the Trinitarian opinions in which he had been educated as a member of the Church of England, and became a Unitarian. Whether this change of sentiments was wise or not is a question apart, but his reasons for making it were plainly and boldly set forth in a small work entitled "Unitarian Doctrine” in which he endeavours to prove that one God, the Father, is the only proper object of worship. This little work was so well approved as a brief epitome of the Unitarian argument that it passed through several editions, the last in 1867.

He likewise published a small book called a "Help to Scriptural Worship," containing a revised form of the services of the Church of England, with a selection of psalms and hymns, and improved renderings of texts of the New Testament. (1821.)

Another of his works was a Unitarian liturgy, under the title of "Forms of Prayer for Public Worship." This he composed in conjunction with Mr. Acton, the minister of George's Chapel, Exeter. It was publicly adopted by that chapel, as well as by many others whose congregations approved of it.

He likewise published a "Monthly Course of Forms of Prayer for Domestic Worship." (1846.) These are all his own compositions, except certain occasional extracts from the prayers of Jeremy Taylor, Johnson, Jenks, &c, and they are distinguished for earnestness, simplicity, good sense, and practical usefulness.

His largest and most important work is entitled, "Philadelphia; or, the Claims of Humanity. A Plea for Social and Religious Reform." (1858.)  In this book he represents his views of a Christian system of ecclesiastical and political economy, and the bearing of the principles of the gospel on the chief national and social questions of our times. This work is eminently original in its conceptions, and it contains many reformatory suggestions of high importance, though some others may be deemed visionary and impractical. He anticipated the great Church reforms which are even now pending, and the great agrarian remodifications which may follow. He pleads for peace, temperance, frugality, and utilitarianism, as opposed to luxury and extravagance. He confirms his opinions by extracts from such writers as Fenelon, Penn, Paley, Smith, and especially of authors who have compared the economies of other nations with our own. He is opposed to the laws of primogeniture; and he recommends the subdivision of large farms into small ones, and a general allotment system. Thus he would turn multitudes of persons, now existing as superfluous idlers or mischievous criminals, into agricultural or horticultural labourers, and utilize them as far as possible by the improvement of lands already partially cultivated, or at present altogether uncultivated. In short, in this respect he prefers the French agricultural system to that which prevails in Britain.

In connection with his writings it may be mentioned that he was always a diligent and accurate meteorological observer. Before he left Exeter he published a sheet of his results there for ten years, which comprises a wonderful amount of valuable information in a small space, including several points peculiarly his own, and not the less important from their being unusual in such records. A short paper of a later date, founded on his observations at Highweek, and entitled "On the Amount and Distribution of Sunshine," was read by him at the meeting of the Devonshire Association at Torquay in 1864, and published in the first volume of the Transactions of the Association. He also read an excellent paper, at the meeting held at Tavistock in 1866, on the "Principles of Rythm as applied to English verse”. This, too, was printed in the Transactions.

In relation to the classics, he was almost enthusiastic in his love for the language and literature of Greece, with which he was particularly familiar. He published a "Greek Grammar," in which he greatly simplified the declensions of the nouns and the tenses of the verbs, and got rid of all superfluous technicalities. He also published a little work entitled "Greek Roots in English Rhyme," in which he strives to render the Greek primitives familiar even to children, by amusing couplets easily remembered. He wished to naturalize Greek among us, and to make it at least as easy as Latin or French.

His English translation of "Hephæstion on Greek Metres" was highly creditable to his classical scholarship : probably no man of our times was capable of doing more justice to that very difficult author, or better expounding the laws of Greek quantities and accents. As indicative of his critical proficiency in Greek, may be also mentioned his essay on the "Ictis of Diodorus Seculus," written at Penzance, and published in the Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. It is an excellent specimen of terse and cogent reasoning, directed by sound scholarship; and the identity of the "Ictis" and St. Michael's Mount is so well established by him, that the late Sir George Cornewall Lewis - the most eminent authority on the intercourse of the ancients with these parts - was induced by Dr. Barham's reasoning to retract the judgment he had pronounced on the opposite side.

Another incident which ought to be recorded is, perhaps, unique as an evidence of an Englishman's application of classical attainments to the service of the literature of modern Greece. He spent some months at Athens about ten years before his death, and finding that some of the sounds of our English consonants were most awkwardly represented in modern Greek by the union of two letters, he wrote a paper on the subject in ancient Greek, containing suggestions for remedying the inconvenience; and this was read and cordially received within the precincts of the Athenian temple, where the learned men of the day now assemble.

Leaving the mention of his literary productions, and adverting to more personal characteristics, it may be said of him, that though careless about dress - still more careless about its adornings - he was a perfect picture of the well-bred and cultivated man. His manner, no doubt, was the produce of early habits and long association with what is called "good society," to which he was ever welcomed, and to which he brought no small contribution of valuable experience, extensive reading, and appreciative criticism. His very name created for him a social status; for it has been borne by many remarkable persons who have figured in public and parliamentary history. The family profess to trace their history back for nearly forty generations to Rollo the first Duke of Normandy. Their first name was Foster - still preserved as an adjunct - that of Barham having been added on the accession of some West Indian estates.

The house he built - in which he passed his later days, and in which he died - was a fit domicile for a philosopher who recognized no standard but that of his own honest thoughts. Yet he never had a guest - and he had many - who did not recognize in his domicile a kind though simple hospitality, and beneath the rough externals the real jewel.

His opinions have been thought to tend towards socialism, and, in so far as socialism is benevolent in its purpose and beneficent in its action, he might properly be deemed a socialist. But to no human being was violence more abhorrent For his Philadelphian notions he sought and found arguments and authority in those ancient records to whose study he was so much devoted ; and it must be owned that all generous and imaginative minds have some Eutopia in the long vista of ages, and are dreaming of a futurity in which present grievances will be redressed, and human felicity be maximized. Is it a matter of wonder that in his own person and surroundings the doctor should have desired to present a picture of what to him was a happier state of things?

As a magistrate he was assiduous, just in his decisions, and a diligent guardian under the poor law; in his family, beloved and honoured. He died suddenly, on March 3rd, at the very moment when he was engaged in thinking, writing, and about to preach, on "death." The sermon has been since published under the title, " The Prospect of Eternity." But death to him was no perplexing, no alarming, event; and he was serenely conveyed over that mortal bridge which brings us to eternity.

It remains to mention that his connection with this Association commenced with its formation, and terminated only with his decease.