Political Biographies of the Mayors of Portsmouth (1836-1900)

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1892-1893.
PROFESSION:- Decorator
WARD:- St Mary
FIRST ELECTED ALDERMAN:- February 9th 1892.
OTHER CIVIC POSITIONS HELD:- Magistrate November 10th 1893.
RESIDENCE:- Chamonix, 19 St Helen's Parade.
DECEASED:- October 19th 1911 aged 65.
BURIED:- Highland Road Cemetery.
Though not regarded as being adept in debate Gates comments that Barnes, both as councillor and mayor, manifested a remarkable ability in his grasp of public questions which was of immense value. Born in Portsmouth on the 25th April 1846 Robert Barnes was the son of local businessman Joseph Barnes - who retired in 1866. Robert attended Esplanade House Academy where he was known for his interests in athletics and football.
There was still no abundance of men ready to come forward for the post of chief magistrate. Previous incumbents had declined to stand - quite possibly the strain on both their constitutions and purses was too onerous. However, at the age of 47, Robert Barnes eventually agreed to accept the nomination. Though he had been councillor for ten years he was not well known to the public. The Portsmouth Times thus felt obliged to quote:- 'Some men are born great. Some achieve greatness. Others have greatness thrust upon them.' (1) The vote was a formality but remarkably within minutes of being elected mayor he was also elected alderman. The circumstances were that in the Aldermanic elections, which immediately followed the mayoral election, Alderman Moody had intimated he would not seek re-election to the Bench. Given it was thought fitting a mayor should also be an alderman the vacancy was thus filled by Barnes.
This was an anxious mayoralty for anyone. The shadow of the collapse of the Portsea Building Society still hung like a pall over the town. The mayor set up a fund to give some of the worst hit relief from the penury which was no fault of their own. The Society had assets which could be realised. The remaining problem was equitable distribution between shareholders and depositors. The solution would call for ad hoc legislation in Parliament.
As new legislation would require expert drafting by barristers further money would needed. Consequently the mayor set up a Guarantee Fund and a public letter from him was published in the Portsmouth Times (2) to explain why extra moneys might be required and to explain the reason for any delay. Barnes advised that the liquidators first had to ensure all claims were in, validated and assessed. He then clarified why the promotion of a Bill could incur legal expenses. A total of 1,700 was contributed. In the event the petitioners were successful - and the money was not needed. On the 29th July it was reported that the Portsea Building Society Bill had received the Royal Assent. Equitable distribution between shareholders and depositors could now commence. Lord Macnaughton was appointed Arbitrator and Mayor Barnes who had taken an active part in the proceedings was appointed Honorary Assessor under the powers of the Special Act of Parliament. So pleased were the people of Portsmouth at the way in which Macnaughton handled affairs he was appointed an honorary Freeman on the 29th October 1895.
A tragic event occurred on the 22nd June with the sinking of HMS Victoria off the Tripoli coast with the loss of over 300 lives. Victoria, flagship of Admiral Tryon, was built in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1887 and many of her complement came from the area. Mayor Barnes promptly started a relief fund and the energy he displayed in so doing led to his appointment as a member of the Royal Patriotic Fund which administered such distributions under the aegis of the Lord Mayor of London. There is a memorial in Victoria Park to those who perished.
But there were some salubrious events. Barnes' tenure closed with a magnificent Mayor & Mayoress's Ball instead of the more formal Mayor's Banquet. It was held in the superbly decorated Town hall and 700 attended. A supper was served and dancing continued until 3.00 a.m. (3)
In business Barnes was a director of Brickwoods. In his social life he was a keen Freemason being a member of the Royal Arch Chapter and the Royal Sussex Lodge 342. He was also much travelled showing an early preference for foreign holidays visiting the United States, Canada and China. In private life he was twice married with two sons and daughter. His death, at his home, from Bronchitis, was quite sudden. He is interred in the family vault with his first wife Eliza - who pre-deceased him on the 31st August 1898.
Norman Gordon
Obituaries Portsmouth Times October 21st 1911. Hants Post 20th October 1911.
1. Portsmouth Times November 12th 1892.
2. Portsmouth Times 21st January 1893.
3. Portsmouth Times 4th November 1893
Further Information
See the Barnes Family Genealogical site for more family information.