Alpheus John Barrington was born probably in 1831 or 1832 in Newfoundland, although he sometimes claimed to have been born in Ireland. His parents' names are unknown. He was also known as Albert, and while he was in New Zealand as Alphonse. He gave different variations of his name, age and marital status throughout his life. He married Elizabeth Craven in Melbourne, Australia, on 16 November 1857; their son, William James Barrington, died in 1860. The marriage did not last. Barrington is said to have worked at the St Arnaud silver mines in Victoria before joining the rush to the Otago goldfields. In 1862 he sailed for Port Chalmers as Albert John Barrington, stating that he was an unmarried man of 25 (about five years younger than he actually was).
By January 1863 he was one of a party working a claim at Arthur's Point on the Shotover River. The claim was severely damaged in the winter floods of 1863, so, disheartened and 'without a shilling compensation', Barrington and his mates left Queenstown about 1 November, 'with the intention to follow up the river Dart, and try to cross the dividing range towards the West Coast, for the purpose of prospecting the country due north from the Wakatip.'
So began a series of prospecting trips up the Dart and Routeburn rivers and over the main divide into the Pyke River, which culminated in Barrington's major journey of exploration. This began on 1 March 1864 when he left the head of Lake Wakatipu with James Farrell, reputedly a Welshman, and Antoine Simonin, a Frenchman. They took with them 60 lb of oatmeal, 4 lb of flour, 8 lb of salt, 2 lb of pepper, 4 lb of tobacco, 25 lb of shot, 4½ lb of powder, 2 double barrel guns, a couple of half axes, 2 blankets apiece, spare clothes, a tent, and cooking and prospecting gear. Their swags weighed more than 70 lb each.
Having recrossed the main divide, the three started into unknown country up the Pyke River from their camp at the northern end of Lake Alabaster on 15 March, prospecting as they went. The saddle at the head of the Pyke, which Barrington called Wild Dog River, was reached on 30 March. They crossed into the Jerry River, and a week later made their way east up the Gorge River in heavy rain through country of increasing roughness. On 16 April the three prospectors passed over a high saddle and made a precipitous descent into the Cascade River, where they soon found evidence of gold in payable quantities. The next few days were occupied in intensive prospecting.
Short of food and physically exhausted, the prospectors decided to return to Queenstown, not by the route they had come, but more directly, from the head of the Cascade River. It was then that their real trials began, as unwittingly they adopted a route which amounted to a traverse of the western flanks of the Olivine ice plateau. Abandoning all mining gear, the three men set off on 29 April, battling their way over into the head of the Red Pyke River and then over Stag Pass into the head of the Barrier River. In the course of this ordeal Barrington became separated from his companions for 10 days and was forced to abandon most of his swag, including his precious samples of gold. His diary entry for 6 May conveys his despair: 'This is the first day I have been heartily sick of the country. Nothing to eat; cannot light a fire; all my clothes and blankets wet. I am indeed miserable.'
The three companions were reunited in the Barrier River on 14 May, but were then faced with the very steep, ice-bound Intervention Saddle, which they crossed with the utmost difficulty before descending into the heavily gorged Forgotten River, which ran down to the Pyke. Starving, weak and with painful, frostbitten feet, they regained their old camp at Lake Alabaster on 25 May. After a few days' enforced rest because of bad weather they recrossed the main divide in snow and torrential rain via Alabaster Pass, Hidden Falls Stream and the Routeburn River to reach on 12 June the Dart River, where they encountered a pigeon shooting party.
'Three skeletons just alive', the prospectors were admitted to hospital in Queenstown, where a public subscription raised £60 towards their expenses. Barrington's diary of the expedition was published in the Lake Wakatip Mail and on 20 July at a public meeting he declared his intention of exploiting the gold prospects on the Cascade River by chartering a boat to Jackson Bay. In the spring of 1864 Barrington led a party of diggers on the cutter Nugget to Jackson Bay. Although the rivers which flowed into the bay were extensively prospected no gold was discovered, probably because Barrington was mistaken in his belief that the Cascade River flowed into Jackson Bay; in fact it debouched further south. Bitterly disappointed, the party returned to Greymouth in December 1864.
Barrington returned to Australia and in 1873 fathered an illegitimate son whose name was later changed to Alpheus John Barrington. The boy drowned in 1880. In 1875 Barrington married Isabella Smith and worked in the hotel industry in Horsham. Isabella filed for divorce in 1893. By 1884 Barrington was settled in Nhill with Alice Hardingham, with whom he had four children, and was running a retail business which burnt down in 1884. He died on 15 December 1893, leaving Alice with two surviving young children and insolvent. She remarried in 1896 and died in 1941.
Barrington's reputation rests firmly on a single epic expedition. It was a journey of true exploration, undertaken into completely unknown country and without the assistance of Māori guides, unlike most European expeditions in New Zealand. The roughness of the country covered and the severity of the privations endured were noteworthy. Barrington's diary of the journey is also remarkable. As a gold prospector's record of discovery it is unique, and its descriptive power is unmatched by any other account of New Zealand exploration.