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1. Provenance and significance of the collection

The papers in this collection document the varied interests of several generations of the Barlow family of Thornby, Northants, between c.1850 and 1990, with some material going back to the 18th century. The papers catalogued here comprise 142 standard archive boxes, 25 box files, a run of large leather bound volumes, several photograph albums and map scrolls; altogether about 60 metres of shelving. The papers were deposited by Henry S. Barlow in February 1989, with a further deposit in August 1993. In 1998 the deposit was converted into an outright gift to the Library. In November 1999 further papers were received from Barlow business premises in Manchester. These were personal, estate and business papers of John Denman Barlow, the greater part of which was transferred to the Cheshire Record Office, to Manchester Archives and Local Studies at the Central Library, Manchester, and to Bury Archive Service. A fourth deposit, containing mainly minute books of the older rubber companies (1904-87) and personal diaries (1962-98) of Henry S. Barlow, arrived in February 2001 from the offices of Majedie Investments plc in London. Due to their late arrival, these papers were not included in the first edition of the catalogue, produced in 2001. They were subsequently incorporated in March 2004. A smaller deposit of the family’s papers at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, which relates mainly to their business interests in India, Malaysia and the Far East, has also been catalogued. (See under ‘Related papers’).

The collection is of considerable interest to a wide range of research: to social historians, as charting the rise of a yeoman and merchant family over several generations; to political historians, as covering the careers of two M.P.s, one a Liberal (1892-1918), the other first a Liberal (1945-49), then a Conservative (1951-66), and the social and political concerns of Anna, Lady Barlow (1873-1965), who was active as a Liberal and in the Quaker peace movements throughout the first half of the twentieth century; and above all, the collection will be interesting to economic historians as it charts the rise of a local merchant family business into an oversees trade organisation of international standing at the height of the British Empire, its fate during two World Wars and its transformation from a colonial to a post-colonial enterprise. The papers afford detailed evidence of the fluctuations in British overseas trade, especially the rise and fall of the cotton industry, the tea trade, the growth of the Malaysian rubber and palm oil industry, and the emergence of an independent Malaysian economy during the second half of the twentieth century.

2. The Barlow family

Thomas Barlow (=TB, 1825-1897) was the youngest of seven children of John Barlow, a Quaker of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. In 1848 he founded the firm Barlow & Co. in Manchester, manufacturing and trading in textiles in the UK. From the mid-1850s the firm started importing cotton from America and began exporting textiles to India and the Far East. In 1864 he founded Thomas Barlow & Bro. and during the 1870s and 1880s established his own trade agencies in Calcutta, Shanghai and Singapore to export goods from the UK, to import tea and coffee, and to acquire his own plantations in these regions. TB married in 1855 Mary Ann Emmott, the daughter of another Quaker entrepreneur at Disley near Stockport, and settled at Torkington Lodge in Hazel Grove, near Sandbach.

During the last two decades of the 19th century Thomas’s eldest son John Emmott Barlow (=JEB, 1857-1932) began to steer the family firm away from textiles to develop its interests in agency work, in the export of iron and steel, and in tea and coffee, which led to the acquisition of a bonded tea warehouse in London. In 1891 the Barlows took over the ailing textile importers Scott & Co. in Singapore and began to extend their business to coffee estates. When the crop failed in the late 1890s, business was diverted to planting rubber trees. In 1906 a number of estates combined to form the Highlands and Lowlands Para Rubber Co., with Sir Frank Swettenham as chairman and the firm Barlow & Co. as its agents in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, while the partnership of Thomas Barlow & Bro. acted as Secretaries in England. JEB also had strong political interests. He was, like his brother Frank, a member of Cheshire County Council, and was later elected an alderman. In 1892 he became Liberal M.P. for Frome, Somerset, and retained the seat, with one brief interruption, until 1918. In 1907 he was made a Baronet. His wife, the Hon. Anna Maria Barlow (=AMB, née Denman, 1873-1965) shared his political interests and campaigned with him and for him. They took a keen interest in labour affairs, the cause of the temperance movement and in Free Trade, and were close friends of Henry Campbell-Bannerman. AMB also campaigned for the women’s suffrage movement and in 1922 stood herself (unsuccessfully) for Parliament. As Quakers they were opposed to conscription in the First World War and sent their two sons to a Quaker college in the United States. AMB especially was tireless in her efforts to promote international understanding and reconciliation during and after the First World War; to this end she maintained an extensive correspondence with influential figures throughout Europe. Also noteworthy among AMB’s papers is her correspondence with her brothers Sir Richard Denman, M.P. and friend of Lord Beveridge, and Thomas, Lord Denman, Governor General of Australia at the time when the foundation stone for Canberra was laid.

The inter-war years saw a further decline of the British textile business and increasing problems for tea plantations, due to the rise of Indian nationalism and civil war in China. Of JEB’s two sons Sir John Denman Barlow (=JDB, 1898-1986) inherited his father’s political ambition. He was M.P. (Liberal) for Eddisbury 1945-49 and then Conservative M.P. for Middleton and Prestwich 1951-66. JDB married Lady Diana Kemp and settled at Bradwall Hall, Sandbach.

JEB’s second son, Thomas Bradwall Barlow (=TBB, 1900-1988), whose papers are the most extensive in the collection, spent his entire working life in the family firm. At the beginning of his career he spent six months in Kuala Lumpur before joining the London office, and developed a lasting interest in the rubber industry. This, and the depression of the 1930s, led to the closure of the Barlow agencies in Calcutta and Shanghai, leaving their interests concentrated on the Malay peninsula and in rubber, though fluctuations in the market led to experiments and diversification into other crops, such as copra and palm oil. The Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War closed down the estates and scattered staff, many of whom perished during internment. Post-war reconstruction was made difficult by the communist insurgency of 1948 and the ensuing state of emergency. Nevertheless, rubber production resumed profitably, and the companies were able to invest in improved living quarters and facilities for staff and labourers. During the 1950s the Barlows also diversified their business by ventures in Africa, investing in a tea company in Nyasaland and in a saw mill and rubber trading in Nigeria.

British Malaya became independent in 1957, and in 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was formed. In the meantime many small rubber plantations, which had suffered in the Emergency period, were amalgamated with larger ones. TBB, now chairman of Highlands and Lowlands, led the way by strengthening the company through mergers and expansion; by 1961 it had become one of the largest plantation companies in the world, with 24 estates and 60,000 acres of rubber and oil palm plantations. Having pioneered the production of oil palms, it also became a pioneer in scientific research and in the training of its local workforce. At the same time, Barlow & Co. had developed into the fifth biggest agency house in Malaysia; in 1965 it became one of the three largest by merging with one of its rivals, Bousteads. In 1970 the Malaysian government established its ‘Outline Perspective Plan’, leading to the ‘New Economic Plan’ setting out its aim of increasing national participation in all companies and fields of economic activity. The Barlow companies co-operated with this policy, so that by 1973 40% of Highlands and Lowlands managers were of Malaysian origin, and in 1974 its taxation and exchange control residence was transferred to Malaysia. Half its board of directors resigned and made way for Malaysian appointments. Two years later it was re-registered as a Malaysian company. By about 1981 the process of ‘Malaysianisation’ was completed, leaving Barlow Holdings and Majedie Investments as purely investment companies.

TBB married in 1943 Elizabeth Margaret Sackville-West (=EMB, d. 1988). They settled in Thornby, Northamptonshire, and had a son and a daughter. Their son, Henry Sackville Barlow (=HSB, b. 1944) went to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and, after an accountancy training in England, joined the family firm in Kuala Lumpur. Together with his father he was instrumental in seeing through the transformation of the Barlow business into a Malaysian-owned concern and in exploring new business opportunities in the Far East. There is also a small collection of papers of his daughter, Anna Elizabeth Barlow (=AB, b. 1949).

JEB’s fourth child, Anna Elizabeth Barlow (=AEB, 1905-76), married Humphrey Davie (-Thornhill, d. c.1993) in 1930. The collection includes a small quantity of her family correspondence.

3. The collection

The collection arrived in a largely unsorted state. It was first divided into sub-archives, i.e. archives of the main representatives of the family (TB, JEB, AMB, JDB, TBB, HSB, AEB, EMB, and AB). Within each sub-archive, the papers were then sorted according to document type as shown below:

Personal papers:
Correspondence, diaries, journals and notebooks, childhood memoirs, papers relating to school education, hunting and horse riding, dogs, personal expenses, local issues, memberships of associations and societies, travel documents, collections of press cuttings and miscellaneous printed items.

Domestic and estate papers:
Domestic expenses, account books, wage books, inventories; papers relating to estate management, farming and livestock at Torkington, Bryn-eirias, Bradwall and Thornby; papers relating to local and regional issues.

Legal papers and related documents:
Deeds, wills, papers relating to the administration of wills, family trusts and settlements, birth/marriage/death certificates, case papers, solicitors’ bills etc.

Personal and family finance:
Papers relating to personal taxation, life assurance, investments, bank accounts etc.

Political papers:
Correspondence, press cuttings, scripts/notes of speeches, pamphlets, bills, election circulars and memoranda. There is a significant collection of political pamphlets from the inter-war period in AMB’s archive.

Business papers:
Correspondence, notebooks, memoranda, directors’/partners’ files, board meeting agenda and minutes, company reports and accounts, statements of shares and investments, trade accounts, papers relating to employees and to business visits in Canada, Africa, India, Ceylon, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

Family history:
Pedigrees, genealogical notes, letters and papers of ancestors.

Photographic and other pictorial material:
Albums and loose photographic prints and/or negatives of members of the family from c.1850. There is a considerable amount of photographic material showing sites in China, Singapore, India, Ceylon, Malaysia, Canada and the USA from c. 1890. The Malaysian plantation photographs, c.1909-1955, are of particular interest (see pp. 64-5).

Since the collection is largely concerned with a family business, a clear-cut distinction between document types has in some cases been difficult or impossible. The distinction between business finance and personal/family finance is often an artificial one. Likewise, papers relating to family settlements and trusts could be placed either among personal/family finance or among legal documents and related papers; the latter was preferred, as such papers are usually connected to wills and their administration. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the above divisions will help users to navigate this very extensive collection.

4. Conservation and access

Most of the papers are in good condition. In a few cases, where indicated, papers are currently awaiting conservation and therefore not available to readers. Subject to the terms of donation, access to papers after 1969 requires the permission of Mr Henry S. Barlow (P.O. Box 10139, Postcode 50704, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or E-mail at

5. Related papers in other collections

Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge:

Barlow family business papers comprising: correspondence and papers of JEB, JDB, TBB and HSB, relating to business interests in India, Malaysia and the Far East 1895-1982. The Centre's webpage includes a link to the text of a 2021 interview with Dato’ Henry Barlow, the donor of the collection.

J.W. Allgrove (1900-1984), rubber planter, visiting agent and planting adviser to the Barlow estate companies: Allgrove personal and business correspondence, diaries and papers 1920-8.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, Chester:

Papers of JDB relating to farming and estate management, mainly at Bradwall Estate, Cheshire (correspondence, invoices, farm books, valuations and accounts), 1939-84.

Manchester Archives and Local Studies, Central Library, Manchester:

Papers mainly relating to Barlow business properties in Manchester (deeds, leases, rental agreements, accounts, maintenance, architectural drawings etc.), 1940-84.

Northamptonshire Record Office, Northampton:

Further papers relating to Thornby.

Bury Archive Service, Bury:

Correspondence of JDB as M.P. (Conservative) for Middleton, Prestwich and Whitefield (parliamentary correspondence, letters from constituents, copies of letters sent, cases dealt with), 1957-68.

Arkib Negara Malaysia:

A significant collection of files and minute books relating to the early years of Highlands & Lowlands Para Rubber Co. Ltd and of companies which became its subsidiaries.

Stockport Central Library (Stockport Archives)

Sales catalogue 1921 of Torkington Lodge estate. D. 1916.

Gotthelf Wiedermann 2001
Jonathan Spain 2004