Robert Barr was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on September 16, 1850, the eldest of eight children of Robert Barr, a carpenter, and his wife, Jane Barr. The family moved to Wallacetown, Ontario, in 1854, and thereafter to Windsor. After teaching provisionally at rural posts in Kent County, Barr entered the Toronto Normal School in 1873 (a period satirized in his novel The Measure of the Rule, 1907), earning a third-class teaching certificate. He taught in Wallacetown and Walkerville and became principal of the Windsor Central School.
By this time, Barr was an intermittent contributor of comic pieces to the Bothwell Advance and the Toronto satirical magazine Grip. The Detroit Free Press accepted his mock-heroic account of an 1875 voyage around Lake Erie’s south shore; in 1876, he joined the paper’s staff, working first as a reporter, later as a columnist, and finally as its exchange editor.
In 1881, Barr established the British edition of the newspaper in London; he contributed interviews, obituaries, character sketches, anecdotes, facetious travel notes, and columns. By the 1890’s, journalism had become a lucrative career for him. In 1892, he and humorist Jerome K. Jerome founded The Idler, a glossy, lavishly illustrated monthly magazine that enjoyed immediate success and that featured an impressive list of contributors. Barr coedited The Idler through 1895 and again from 1902 until it ceased publication in 1911. His first collection of stories appeared in 1883, his first novel in 1894. Fluent in profanity, he was a sociable raconteur, a constant smoker, and a vigorous clubman.
Barr built his own home, Hillhead, in Woldingham, Surrey, where he was an invaluable and solicitous friend to his neighbor Stephen Crane, and also associated with other literary figures of the day. His hobbies included cycling, golf, photography, and travel—to Algeria, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, Italy, the United States, and Canada. In 1900, he was awarded an honorary master of arts by the University of Michigan. Barr died at Woldingham on October 21, 1912, survived by a son, a daughter, and a grandchild.