William Jackson Barry was born in 1819 in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, England. His parents' names are unknown. He arrived in Sydney, Australia, in 1828, possibly as a juvenile convict, and embarked on a lifetime of adventuring and speculation. Turning with enthusiasm to any likely enterprise, he moved constantly from place to place, following opportunity, making and losing several large fortunes. He crossed Australia as a drover, coach driver, cattle trader, butcher and possibly bushranger, and sailed on whaling and trading ships throughout Australasia and Indochina. In Calcutta, in 1840, he joined the navy, serving on gunboats in Burma, Malaya and China. The easy profits of the goldrushes took him to Sacramento, California, in 1849, back to Ballarat in 1856 or 1857, and to Otago, New Zealand, in 1862.
Barry established himself with great success as a butcher in Cromwell, and served as the town's first mayor from 1866 to 1868. He diversified into auctioneering, farming, quartz-mining, surveying the goldfields as a commission agent, and managing a Queenstown hotel. His increasing personal notoriety led Barry into the business of writing and lecturing; his colourful life provided material for three books and for a seemingly inexhaustible series of lectures and public performances given throughout New Zealand, Australia and England. Up and down; or fifty years' colonial experiences was published in London in 1879, and was twice revised and expanded, first in 1897 for Past & present and men of the times and, with short pen-portraits of notable colonial figures, to produce Glimpses of the Australian colonies and New Zealand in 1903.
In spite of Barry's notoriety, his fortunes declined steadily as a result of various unsuccessful political, prospecting and mining ventures. In 1894 he was petitioning the government for a pension – he eventually received £50 – and by 1905 was living in a charitable institution in Wellington. He died in Sunnyside Mental Asylum, Christchurch, on 23 April 1907. Barry had first married Hannah French, the daughter of a whaling friend, in western Australia. Hannah died within a few years, while giving birth to their only child, a daughter, who was given into foster care. Barry's second marriage had been to Adelia Buckley, in Shasta, California, in 1852 or 1853. They had six children before her death in Queenstown on 3 December 1873.
Barry's narratives – colourful, colloquial, informal, fast-paced, wide-ranging – have their origins in the entertainment halls of the goldfields and farming towns of Otago and Australia. The flamboyance of this environment comes through, although both Thomas Bracken and 'a gentleman named Douglas' are credited with editing the texts. One contemporary review of Up and down found the printed version disappointing in comparison to Barry's live readings, 'the peculiar manner of [his] delivery…his own expressive style, and…eccentricities of syntax'. He fostered an increasingly florid public persona with great enthusiasm, assuming the title of 'Captain' Barry to impress audiences, and enlivening his stage appearances with singers, Maori chiefs and a whale skeleton, later sold to the Dunedin Museum. His fame provoked a public challenge from a Samuel 'Munchausen' Jones, of Auckland, who proposed a wager of £100 'to test which of us has the best title to be considered Champion Spinner of Yarns in New Zealand' and swore to 'beat him in flights of fancy and pyrotechnics of imagination'.
Barry's books bear out this magniloquent reputation. They are each packed with adventures and thrills; scrapes and disasters – two terrible shipwrecks; attacks by Aborigines; a hold-up by the bushranger Jackey Jackey; the storming of Canton in the first Chinese war; whaling and horse-trading adventures; a bank swindle which ruined him in California; fights and vengeance-taking; desperate money-making schemes on the Otago goldfields; stormy scenes and fisticuffs as mayor of Cromwell; scandal at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Queenstown. The narratives focus purposefully on the action, keeping up the hectic pace of events. Background material – comment, description, explanation – is rare in the drive to the next wild adventure. Barry's wives and family are seldom mentioned.
Considerable attention is paid to the opportunities the colony offers the entrepreneur; landscapes are seen as future farms, mining and trading possibilities are extolled. Barry tried hard to secure himself an official post as an emigration agent, and, despite the government's refusal of accreditation, toured England, lecturing enthusiastically on New Zealand's advantages. There is also an increasingly plaintive edge as the narratives progress and Barry's health and fortunes wane; he plays for sympathy, detailing failed projects and poverty with a tone of helpless injustice: 'I had fallen in with one of my periodical streaks of ill-luck…further disaster awaited me'.
Barry pursued sponsorships energetically – 'I always carried my book with me, and looked after subscribers, of whom I daily got a goodly number' – but the books' original mercenary purposes survive only in their ingratiating dedications to George Grey and Robert Stout, and in their determination to entertain. Lively, funny and dramatic, the writing succeeds in recreating a world of swashbuckling adventure and in making the author-hero into a legend larger than life. Barry's reminiscences play shamelessly on their own sensationalism and offer an authoritative insight into the entrepreneurial underclasses of the goldfields.