Barlow, Sir (James) Alan (Noel), second baronet 1881-1968, public servant, was born in London 25 December 1881, the eldest of the three sons and two daughters of (Sir) Thomas Barlow [qv.], physician extraordinary to Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, and president of the Royal College of Physicians, who was created a baronet in 1901 and died in his hundredth year in 1945, and his wife, Ada Helen, daughter of Patrick Dalmahoy, writer to the signet, of Edinburgh. One of Alan's brothers was (Sir) Thomas Barlow, industrialist and public servant, whose notice appears below.
He was educated at Marlborough and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, of which he was a scholar and later an honorary fellow, and took a first in literae humaniores (1904). In 1906 he was appointed to a clerkship in the House of Commons but in 1907 Sir Robert Morant [qv.], who among his many outstanding qualities had a remarkable flair for choosing young men of promise, selected him to be a junior examiner in the Board of Education. Appointed private secretary to the parliamentary secretary to the Board in 1914 Barlow was in 1915 transferred to the Ministry of Munitions where in 1916 he became private secretary to the minister, Edwin Samuel Montagu [qv.]. During his time in that department he had been deputy controller of the Labour Supply Department and had acquired valuable experience in the handling of labour problems and disputes. So it was not surprising that after the end of the war of 1914-18 he was transferred to the new Ministry of Labour as principal assistant secretary in charge of the Training Department. In that post it became clear that the blood of his forebears, who had been Manchester cotton spinners, made a fortune during the industrial revolution, and set up as landed gentry in Buckinghamshire, ran in his veins. In successfully pioneering the establishment of training centres all over the country he showed initiative, the capacity for getting to the core of a problem, the ability of quickly deciding what wanted doing, and the executive drive to get it done.
In 1933 he was selected to be principal private secretary to the prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald, a surprising choice for Barlow was then fifty-one years of age, relatively old for such a post. It was not a happy time for Barlow whose temperament was not suited to that of the prime minister, but it only lasted until 1934 when he was appointed an under-secretary at the Treasury, where he remained until his retirement in 1948. In 1938 he became joint second secretary.
Barlow was much more than a distinguished civil servant: he was a man of wide-ranging culture with interests in a variety of fields and hosts of friends in different spheres, artistic, scientific, and academic. This knowledge was invaluable to the Treasury which provided funds for these activities and to all these interests which knew that there was somebody at the top where the money came from who knew about them and cared for them. His range of information and contacts was such that if any of his colleagues wanted advice which he himself could not give he almost always knew the source to go to, and if he did not, he would find out. And because of his specialized knowledge he was naturally consulted about the constitution of commissions and committees: the first thing to be done was to ask Alan for names.
He was chairman of the Barlow committee which was set up after the war to consider the policy which should govern the use and development of Britain's scientific manpower resources over the forthcoming decade, and recommended that the scientific output of the universities should be doubled. He was a member of the Iron and Steel Board in 1946-8 and for several years he served on the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. From 1948 to 1955 he was a trustee of the National Gallery, serving as chairman in 1949-51. He was on the court of the university of London from 1949 to 1956. For many years he was president of the Oriental Ceramic Society: he had started collecting oriental porcelain when he was eighteen. Ceramics were his special interest: his collection of Islamic pottery and Chinese porcelain was of national importance: in his later years he made many generous gifts to the Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam, Victoria and Albert and British Museums and to the university of Sussex. He was also interested in both old books and modern printing. In Buckinghamshire he found scope for his interest in archaeology and was from 1945 to 1962 president of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society during which period he succeeded, after years of negotiation, in securing the leasing of the society's museum to the County Council, leaving the society, whose resources were inadequate to maintain the museum in the post-war world, to develop its other activities. He was practically interested in these—he made a generous contribution towards financing the Ivinghoe dig. As if these activities were not enough he served as chairman of the executive committee of the Athenaeum, chairman of the Savile Club, was a justice of the peace for Buckinghamshire, successfully farmed several hundred acres near Wendover, and found time to be a keen gardener.
With his heavy and lined face he could, peering through his glasses, appear a forbidding person, especially to the young man meeting him for the first time. But that impression was misleading. In normal dealings he was conciliatory and good tempered and those who worked with him in any capacity paid tribute to his tact and wisdom and the firmness with which he was prepared to express his views in the face of opposition; these qualities, as well as his very able and direct mind, ensured for him the confidence of successive chancellors of the Exchequer.
He married in 1911 Emma Nora, daughter of (Sir) Horace Darwin [qv.], herself the editor of the Beagle diary and the autobiography of Charles Darwin, her grandfather. Barlow would have been the first to acknowledge that it was his wife who fostered that understanding of and sympathy with scientists which, conjoined with his strong interests in artistic matters, made him such a widely cultured man. They had four sons, three of whom became doctors, and two daughters. He died 28 February 1968 at home in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son, Thomas Erasmus (born 1914).
The Times, 29 February 1968
Contributor: Austin Strutt