Richard Barnwell was born in Canterbury on 13th October 1849 to wholesale provision merchant Richard Barnwell and Sarah Anne Barnwell. He underwent his early commercial training with the Union Bank of London Ltd and joined John Elder & Co., Fairfield Works, Govan in 1880 which by that time was under the control of Sir William Pearce (1833-1888).
He became a partner in 1885 and was appointed managing director when it became Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd in 1886. In addition to his position at Fairfields he was chairman of the Herne Bay Pier Co., managing partner of the Northern Pacific Steam Ship Co., director of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co., director of the Liverpool and North Wales Steam Ship Co., director of the Scottish Oriental Steam Ship Co., and a member of the local board of the Royal Insurance Co.
Richard married Ann Sowter and had two sons, Richard Harold Barnwell (born 1878) and Frank Sowter Barnwell (born November 23, 1880) whilst living in Lewisham , Kent. They moved to Elcho House, Balfron in 1882 and added Archibald Statham, (b. 29 Mar 1882, d. 1970, Christchurch, Hants), twin sisters Elizabeth and Amy (b. 1886) and the youngest Dora (b. 1891) to the family.
Richard Barnwell died on the 7th March 1898 at his home Elcho House, Balfron; he was aged 48.