H.G.W. Woodhead – Opinionated and Prolific

Paul French, the author of this guest blog, lived and worked in Shanghai for many years. French’s 2018 book ‘City of Devils’ was his much-anticipated second literary non-fiction book and was a Kirkus Book of the Year. Devils followed ‘Midnight in Peking’, which was a New York Times Best Seller. He recently published a collection of his writing, ‘Destination Shanghai’ – eighteen tales of old Shanghailanders, famous, infamous & previously forgotten. 

I have written about H.G.W. Woodhead a few times, most expansively in my history of foreign correspondents in China between the Opium Wars and 1949, Through the Looking Glass (Hong Kong University Press, 2009). But I’d never seen a photo of him – now I see that the Historical Photographs of China web site has at least two. So I thought it worthwhile offering up my short biography of Woodhead’s adventures in the Chinese treaty port media in the first half of the twentieth century…

George Woodhead with bicycle on Zekawei Road, Shanghai, September 1903. LD01-029.

George Woodhead with bicycle on Zekawei Road, Shanghai, September 1903. LD01-029.

Henry George Wandesforde (“H. G. W.”) Woodhead arrived in China in 1902. He obtained a position as the editor of the Peking Daily News (which included the old Chinese Public Opinion) whose header stated “Impartial But Patriotic” and always started with the latest imperial edicts. Woodhead was to rule the roost at the Peking and Tientsin Times as well as becoming the most well-known and influential foreigner in Tianjin for several decades.

Henry George Wandesworth Woodhead, journalist and author, c.1902-1907. LD01-032.

Henry George Wandesworth Woodhead, journalist and author, c.1902-1907. LD01-032.

The paper invariably reflected his strident opinions on China and the world and from the start promised to “… be essentially British”, a virtue Woodhead staunchly upheld. Much later, in 1936, Time magazine described him as “hard hitting” and “suave”, though J.B. Powell’s China Weekly Review opted for “die-hard”, which was not meant in an overly complimentary way. Woodhead was a long-time friend of former London Times war correspondent Henry Thurburn Montague Bell, who had covered the Boer War and then became a long-standing editor of the North China Herald and the North- China Daily News. He was also a prolific editorialist, was well known as a China Hand in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin and wrote the 1929 book Extraterritoriality In China: The Case Against Abolition, which was really just a collection of his articles expressing his trenchant views on the subject from the paper. This title also pretty much summed up Woodhead’s political attitude to both China and the Chinese which accounted for the uncomplimentary opinions of people like Powell who were anti-extraterritoriality. H. T. Montague Bell was also well connected in London due to his being the brother-in-law of the editor-in-chief of the Times.

In the 1920s Woodhead launched a campaign to try to stop Britain from spending its Boxer Indemnity monies (the reparations forcibly paid by the Chinese government to Britain and other foreign powers after the Siege of the Legations) on promoting education in China as he believed that the schools and colleges of the country were little more than breeding grounds for revolutionaries and anti-foreign, anti-extraterritoriality sentiment. When it was reported that a Chinese mob had stormed the British Concession in Hankou and that the British government had seemingly caved in and handed the territory back to China, Woodhead fumed that “The principle of extraterritoriality is at stake” and urged Britain to remember the Treaty of Tianjin that guaranteed the treaty ports system and to oppose the government. On another occasion, he declared that Britain should have conquered China rather than India in order to ensure the country was well run. He regularly fulminated against America for its “Open Door” trade policy towards China which, he believed, would undermine Britain’s “Most Favoured Nation” status — a status it has to be said which had been forced at gunpoint on the Chinese. Brian Power, a young boy in Tianjin at the time recalled in his memoir Ford of Heaven: “When Woodhead spoke Washington trembled … By the time Woodhead’s outbursts reached England, Whitehall, too, must have trembled”.

This was probably overestimating Woodhead’s influence somewhat but, on the other hand, he was equally tough in criticising many foreign businessmen, accusing them of becoming wealthy off the back of child labour and low wages. He also had a major influence on Tianjin’s civic life. He had urged the formation of the Watch Committee, an ad hoc group that sought to patrol and protect the foreign concessions, and he was a founding member of the Tientsin Club, which provided him with a lavish send-off dinner when he finally left the city.

George Woodhead (on the right), with other fire brigade volunteers, Mih Ho Loong Hook and Ladder Company Number 1, Shanghai, c.1902-1907. LD01-099.

George Woodhead (on the right), with other fire brigade volunteers, Mih Ho Loong Hook and Ladder Company Number 1, Shanghai, c.1902-1907. LD01-099.

Woodhead remained a vibrant and dedicated editorialist, moving on in the 1930s to be an editorial associate of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury and editor (from 1934) of the quarterly journal Oriental Affairs. Power recalled that foreigners in the city were “stunned” when Woodhead announced his departure to Shanghai. Tributes to the great editor, which resembled obituaries, poured into the paper. Power believed that, despite his “Bully Pulpit-style” of editorialising, Woodhead’s lasting impression on Tianjin was his defence of the rights of car drivers. He accused the Chinese of being “primitive” for opposing the rise of the car. It seems that an unresolved incident between Woodhead and a rickshaw puller after a collision was the cause of his repeated diatribes against Chinese car drivers.

Parked cars and rickshaws, Shanghai, c1930. BL04-83.

Parked cars and rickshaws, Shanghai, c1930. BL04-83.

Woodhead and the Times did provide work for some young reporters who would later become better known. In 1921 a young Owen Lattimore passed through. His parents were living in Tianjin but were about to move back to America. Lattimore met Woodhead who offered him a job at the paper which the young American accepted as he thought it would give him an opportunity to develop his literary interests. However, he was to be disappointed as he was given few opportunities to investigate and write stories of his own, spending most of his time proofreading. He lasted a year before returning to work for his old employers, the traders Arnhold and Company, on a larger salary and at their Tianjin branch before becoming one of America’s foremost China Hands and experts on Mongolia. After Lattimore, a young Israel “Eppie” Epstein, later to become a senior member of the Communist Party of China and remain in Beijing supporting Mao and the revolution, started his journalistic career on the paper in the 1930s when he was barely 15 years old. Epstein had been born in Poland but his family escaped from the Russian Revolution and fled to Tianjin where he attended American-run schools before becoming a cub reporter.

Woodhead appeared all-powerful in Tianjin between the world wars, though he did have some competition. The North China Commerce newspaper was established in 1920 as an English-run weekly but didn’t last long while the American-owned North China Star was also published in Tianjin. This was real competition – the American State Department estimated the paper’s daily circulation in 1921 as 2,500, more than double Woodhead’s Peking and Tientsin Times, but also noted that the Star was far less influential than Woodhead’s paper which to men like Woodhead was what really counted.

Posted in Guest blogs | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on H.G.W. Woodhead – Opinionated and Prolific

Restored – the grave of pioneering travel photographer John Thomson

Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, reports on the tribute to the photographer John Thomson FRGS, whose grave has now been restored.

John Thomson (1837-1921) is acclaimed in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History as ‘one of the best [foreign] photographers ever to set foot in China’. Over a ten-year period (1862 to 1872), Thomson photographed in China, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. Thomson had trained in Edinburgh as an optician, and then applied his knowledge of optics and cameras, with chemistry/photographic processes. Mashing science with art, Thomson’s skill set included a grasp of the aesthetics of visualisation, linguistic, and ‘people’ skills. He had an engaging personality, which fostered quick rapport and trust to be established. In many ways, Thomson is the photographer’s photographer. He also wrote in a droll and perceptive way. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s accolade is all the more of note, considering briefer visits to China by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa for example.

John Thomson, with two soldiers, in Xiamen (Amoy), 1871. Is this the earliest selfie in China? Thomson looks towards his camera, somewhat anxiously, during the exposure. It seems likely that Thomson would have intended to crop off the left-hand side of this image, when the negative was printed or published. A scan of a glass plate negative, numbered 735 by Thomson, held by the Wellcome Collection.

John Thomson, with two soldiers, in Xiamen (Amoy), 1871. Is this the earliest selfie in China? Thomson looks towards his camera, somewhat anxiously, during the exposure. It seems likely that Thomson would have intended to crop off the left-hand side of this image, when the negative was printed or published. A scan of a glass plate negative, numbered 735 by Thomson, held by the Wellcome Collection.

The restoration and re-installation of John Thomson’s grave was completed by the stonemasons just in time for a commemorative event in Streatham Cemetery, south London, on Saturday 13 July. Betty Yao MBE led the John Thomson grave restoration committee*, as well as setting up the JustGiving crowd funding appeal and also liaising with the local council and stonemasons. The gathering was attended by 25 people – including three of Thomson’s descendants, some of the donors who had kindly contributed to the cost of the work, photo-historians, local historians, photographers, and representatives from the Wellcome Collection and Friends of Streatham Cemetery. Betty Yao introduced the speakers.

Betty Yao MBE beside John Thomson’s restored grave, Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London, 13 July 2019. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Betty Yao MBE beside John Thomson’s restored grave, Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London, 13 July 2019. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Terry Bennett gave an informative and moving appreciation, in which he described Thomson as a ‘prodigious talent’ and a ‘master of his art’, reaching this conclusion for four reasons: 1. Thomson was a prolific writer. 2. He was adept at marketing his work in numerous publications. 3. A significant number of his glass plate negatives have survived. 4. Photo-historians have now identified a sufficient body of work by other early photographers to enable comparisons to be made.

Terry Bennett describing how he found the site of John Thomson’s grave in Streatham Cemetery. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Terry Bennett describing how he found the site of John Thomson’s grave in Streatham Cemetery. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Terry told how he had tracked down Thomson’s lost grave, starting with his death certificate, which stated that he had died of a heart attack on a tram in Streatham Hill. Thomson’s Will and probate records gave his last address, which was in Streatham. The Streatham Historical Society kindly provided Terry with the addresses of four likely local cemeteries and one of them provided the burial block plot reference. Finding the exact spot was still not easy. Terry was helped by cemetery workers, who also provided a brush and a bucket of water to remove dirt which had accumulated over the fallen gravestone. Found at last – but the neglected state of the modest headstone suggested that the forgotten grave had not been visited for many years – “a sad sight”.

John Thomson’s headstone in August 2018, before restoration. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

John Thomson’s headstone in August 2018, before restoration. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Michael Pritchard, CEO of Royal Photographic Society, read a message from Rose Teanby. Rose had helpfully shared with Betty her experience of restoring the grave of Robert Howlett. This endeavour was also “fraught with complexity, delicate negotiations and wrapped up in few miles of red tape!” (Howlett being famous for his portrait of I.K. Brunel, posed with the massive launching chains of the ss Great Eastern). Another helpful exemplar was the restoration of Sir Robert Hart’s grave in 2013, led by historians Robert Bickers and Weipin Tsai. A little blue bird tells me that the grave of George Ernest “Morrison of Peking”, in Sidmouth, Devon, is in need of similar TLC, a project for someone …

The restored gravestone for John Thomson, his wife Isabel and their son Arthur. Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

The restored gravestone for John Thomson, his wife Isabel and their son Arthur. Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Caroline Thomas also spoke of her celebrated forebear. Betty Yao noted that, ‘It is fitting that we restore his grave as a renewed memorial to the man and his work’.

The restoration work by Vaughan Memorials was much admired: the rough face of the eroded headstone had been smoothed and the lettering recut and blacked in. Doris Florist made a beautiful bouquet and other flowers were added by attendees. It had taken over a year to, as Terry Bennett said, ‘effect some modest restoration and contribute a sense of respect and dignity to the final resting place of one of the greatest photographers in the nineteenth century’.

Attendees at the John Thomson commemorative event, at Streatham Cemetery, 13 July 2019. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Attendees at the John Thomson commemorative event, at Streatham Cemetery, 13 July 2019. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

The ‘stellar efforts’ of Betty Yao are appreciated by ‘fans’ of John Thomson worldwide. The grave restoration committee* was pleased to have achieved our goal in good time for Thomson’s centenary. In 2021, the 100th anniversary of Thomson’s death, it is hoped that Betty Yao’s exhibition of Thomson’s photographs of China and Thailand, will be on show again – perhaps in Edinburgh, the city of his birth?  The very large prints, made from the Wellcome Collection’s excellent scans of Thomson’s negatives, are a joy to behold.

Photograph by John Thomson, c.1870. Captioned: “View 50 miles above Foochow. Sunset on the Min”. John Fry Collection (Fr01-096).

Photograph by John Thomson, c.1870. Captioned: “View 50 miles above Foochow. Sunset on the Min”. John Fry Collection (Fr01-096).

* The John Thomson grave restoration committee: Betty Yao MBE, Terry Bennett, Michael Pritchard, Deborah Ireland, Geoff Harris, Jamie Carstairs.

Visualising China (31 May 2018): Restoring John Thomson’s grave

British Photographic History (13 July 2019): John Thomson’s grave restored

The Scotsman (20 July 2019): The grave of a pioneering Scottish photographer who took some of the earliest pictures of China on record has been rediscovered and restored in London

Brief biography on HPC of John Thomson and links to his images at the Wellcome Collection and to his book Illustrations of China.

Posted in Heritage, History of photography in China, Photographers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Restored – the grave of pioneering travel photographer John Thomson

Weihaiwei and the 1st Chinese Regiment – 1. Relieving Tianjin

As part of the Regimental Museums Project, Dr Andrew Hillier explores photographs reflecting the short but significant contribution of the 1st Chinese Regiment to Britain’s military presence in China.

Raised in 1898 to protect the Royal Navy’s newly-acquired deep-water base at Weihaiwei (Weihai) against foreign incursion, within two years, soldiers of the 1st Chinese Regiment were engaged against their own people in the Boxer Uprising (1900). Whilst Major Arthur Barnes (Wiltshire Regiment) would maintain that it ‘more than fulfilled the high hopes formed by its officers, and by those in high military authority’, it never saw active service again and was disbanded six years later on the grounds that it was an unnecessary extravagance.[1] Nonetheless, its history forms an important aspect of the British military presence in China, entailing, as it did, British officers and NCOs raising and commanding a regiment comprising exclusively Chinese rank and file.  Although there was a precedent in the formation of the Canton Coolie Corps during the Second Opium War and an excellent relationship would be forged between officers and men, there were inherent ambiguities in Chinese subjects serving in a British regiment. These are well-reflected in the rich collection of photographs and other material that can be found in a number of regimental museums and other public archives.

1.1st Battalion, Chinese Regiment – British and Chinese Non-Commissioned Officers of Number Eight Company in China 1898-1903, SBYRW: 40220. © The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum. In the centre is Major (as he later became) Arthur Barnes (Duke of Edinburgh's Wiltshire Regiment).

1. 1st Battalion, Chinese Regiment – British and Chinese Non-Commissioned Officers of Number Eight Company in China 1898-1903, SBYRW: 40220. © The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum. In the centre is Major (as he later became) Arthur Barnes (Duke of Edinburgh’s Wiltshire Regiment).

From the outset, the Chinese government objected to Chinese subjects being enlisted and, as a compromise, the British government initially agreed that they would only be deployed on defensive duties relating to the naval base.[2]   However, this seems to have been quickly forgotten, and when it came to the Boxer Uprising the following year, at least one third of the men deserted. According to British military intelligence, this was because they did not want to fight against their fellow-countrymen or there had been threats against them and their families by alleged Boxer sympathisers.[3]

2.‘Leaving Bombay’, NAM 1965-10-214-89, © National Army Museum. From an album of 203 photographs compiled by Colonel Anson Hugh McCleverty (as he became), 2nd Queen Victoria's Own Rajput Light Infantry. Assigned to the 1st Chinese Regiment, McCleverty, fourth from right, took a large number of photographs of Weihai and the surrounding area. Returning to his regiment, he was later appointed one of its official photographers.

2. ‘Leaving Bombay’, NAM 1965-10-214-89, © National Army Museum. From an album of 203 photographs compiled by Colonel Anson Hugh McCleverty (as he became), 2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Rajput Light Infantry. Assigned to the 1st Chinese Regiment, McCleverty, fourth from right, took a large number of photographs of Weihai and the surrounding area. Returning to his regiment, he was later appointed one of its official photographers.

3.Soldiers of the 1st Chinese Regiment parade in field dress, NAM 1965-10-214-89, 1900, © National Army Museum. From an album of 203 photographs compiled by Colonel A. H. McCleverty, this one possibly taken by him. Many of the recruits were farmers who were trained from scratch.

3. Soldiers of the 1st Chinese Regiment parade in field dress, NAM 1965-10-214-89, 1900, © National Army Museum. From an album of 203 photographs compiled by Colonel A. H. McCleverty, this one possibly taken by him. Many of the recruits were farmers who were trained from scratch.

It is unclear how officers were selected for assignment to the Regiment save that the War Office stipulated they should all be of high calibre. Drawn from some ten regiments in the early stages, the Duke of Wellington’s Own West Riding Regiment was particularly well- represented, providing three officers – Major C.D. Bruce, Captain W.M. Watson and Lieutenant Bray, all of whom subsequently rose to the rank of Brigadier-General- and one NCO, Sergeant Brook.

In July 1900, twenty-two British officers and 363 Chinese other ranks took part in the relief of Tianjin under the overall command of General Dorward (Royal Engineers).[4]  After eighteen days of intense fighting, it was the only British Army regiment to be engaged in the final assault, in which both officers and men distinguished themselves.

4. Members of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Royal Rifle Corps, thought to be Colour Sergeant English, Sergeant Payne, Sergeant Jacques and one other; downloaded from http://rgjmuseum.co.uk/photo-archive-item/rifle-brigade-china/ (170A12W/P/2324); see also the Hampshire Council Archives http://www3.hants.gov.uk/archives/visiting-hals.htm 170A12W/P/2321-2331. According to the Rifle Brigade Chronicle, when Payne and Jacques, and Riflemen, Hayward and Robertson, left in the summer of 1901, they were given ‘splendid reports’ and, it continued, ‘Colour Sergeant English is still out there upholding the credit of the regiment as an instructor of Chinamen. He is certain to do it well.’

4. Members of the 3rd Battalion, 60th Royal Rifle Corps, thought to be Colour Sergeant English, Sergeant Payne, Sergeant Jacques and one other; downloaded from http://rgjmuseum.co.uk/photo-archive-item/rifle-brigade-china/ (170A12W/P/2324); see also the Hampshire Council Archives http://www3.hants.gov.uk/archives/visiting-hals.htm 170A12W/P/2321-2331. According to the Rifle Brigade Chronicle, when Payne and Jacques, and Riflemen, Hayward and Robertson, left in the summer of 1901, they were given ‘splendid reports’ and, it continued, ‘Colour Sergeant English is still out there upholding the credit of the regiment as an instructor of Chinamen. He is certain to do it well.’

Of the thirteen Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded in the whole campaign, the Regiment received three of them – Colour Sergeant Purdon, Quartermaster Sergeant E. Brook, and Sergeant Gi-Dien-Kwee,  for ‘his command of a half-company without any European’ during the advance, and who may have been the first Chinese national to be so decorated and would certainly not be the last.[5] Attended by his interpreter, ‘the faithful Liu’, and his bugler, Li Ping- chen, Barnes was full of praise for the men’s ‘cold-blooded courage and stamina’, which included ‘escorting heavy guns over broken and swampy country’.

5. Captain Ollivant, Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). Photographer, Herzog & Higgins, Mhow, India, c. 1899.

5. Captain Ollivant, Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). Photographer, Herzog & Higgins, Mhow, India, c. 1899.

However, it was Captain Ollivant who, in Barnes’ words, performed ‘one of the bravest acts amongst many’. Instructed to take extra munitions to the U.S infantry, ‘the Fates were against him and he had only gone a few steps when he was shot through the head … We laid him quietly to rest the next day, in the little cemetery near the Recreation Ground’. ‘His loss’, continued Barnes, ‘was very keenly felt by us all, for his genial good heart and his cheery, never-failing sweetness of disposition had endeared him to us all.’[6]

6. The cap badge worn by Captain (later, Brigadier-General) W. Milward Watson (Duke of Wellington’s Own West Riding Regiment) 1900-1903 NAM. 1964-12-44-1. © NAM

6. The cap badge worn by Captain (later, Brigadier-General) W. Milward Watson (Duke of Wellington’s Own West Riding Regiment) 1900-1903 NAM. 1964-12-44-1. © NAM

Thus was the Regiment’s esprit de corps forged and, in recognition of its valour, it was authorised to wear a representation of Tianjin’s city gate as its cap badge.  Keen to repeat the performance, it prepared for the march and relief of Peking. In this, however, it would be disappointed, as we shall see in the next post.

[1] Arthur Alison Stuart Barnes, On active service with the Chinese Regiment : a record of the operations of the first Chinese Regiment in North China from March to October 1900 (London: Grant Richards, 1902), p.1. For the British occupation of Weihai, generally, see Pamela Attwell, British Mandarins and Chinese Reformers, 1898-1930 (East Asian Historical Monographs) (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[2] TNA CAB 8/2 no. 173M, Memorandum by Colonial Defence Committee, ‘Colonial Garrisons Utilisation of Native Troops’, April 1899.
[3]  Despatch from Major-General Dorward, to Secretary of State, Colonial Office, 12 December 1901, TNA CO 521/2.
[4] An anonymous account of the campaign was later published in the regimental journal, The Iron Duke: see “Onlooker”, ‘With the 1st Chinese Regiment, 1898-1902’, volumes 26 (1933), pp. 218-221 and 27 (1934), pp.65-69. Providing detail about individual contributions, it was almost certainly written by Brigadier – General Bray’s widow, based on what she had been told by him.  I am grateful to Scott Flaving, Hon. Secretary to the DWR Museum Trustees at the Regimental Archives at the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding), Halifax, for drawing my attention to these articles and other relevant material.
[5] The DCM was awarded only to other ranks.
[6] Barnes, On Active Service, p.81.
Posted in Collections, Guest blogs, Regimental Collections | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Weihaiwei and the 1st Chinese Regiment – 1. Relieving Tianjin

Guest blog: Melanie King on Harold Ivan Harding

Our latest guest appearance is from author and historian Melanie King. While researching her latest book, The Lady is a Spy: The Tangled Lives of Stan Harding and Marguerite Harrison she found H.I. Harding, the brother of one of her subjects in a handful of photographs on Historical Photographs of China. Here she introduces one of them, and tells us a little more about a consul with a singular reputation.

The year is 1922, and the British Vice-Consul to Kashgar, in Central Asia, sits proudly on a grey pony, wearing a turban and distinctive Uyghur clothing. It’s not exactly the attire in which one would expect to find a middle-aged diplomat, a longtime veteran of the Chinese Consular Service. But then Harold Ivan Harding was never one to follow convention.

Harold Harding, on the right, in Kashgar (Kashi), c.1922. Richard Family Collection, EH-s62.

Harold Harding, on the right, with Indian Political Service agent C.P. Skrine, in Kashgar (Kashi), c.1922. Richard Family Collection, EH-s62.

Born in 1883 in Toronto, Harold and his sister Constance were brought up strict Plymouth Brethren, a religion both siblings were adamantly to reject. Harold’s father, Edwin, had emigrated to Canada in 1874 and, despite being the son of a humble London tailor, married well. His wife, Grace Elizabeth Lesslie, was from a prominent family of Scots who had left Dundee in the 1820s and opened several dry-goods stores in Canada. By the time Constance was born in 1884, one year after Harold, Edwin had emphatically declared his profession on her birth certificate as ‘Gentleman’.

Edwin Harding had been converted to his religion by the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, and the Lesslie family were also keen followers. Edwin was not an affectionate man, forever obsessed with the lurking prospect of eternal damnation. His strict views profoundly affected the Harding siblings. Only a year apart, they were very close as children, so when Constance announced at the age of 13 that she no longer believed in God, her punishment was to be separated from her beloved brother and locked in her room for a week. By this time, Harold no longer believed in God either, but he wisely kept his counsel. Meanwhile, he worked out an escape by studying to pass the British Foreign Office exams.

Harold’s first posting to China was in 1902. Harold learned Mandarin fluently, but he deliberately chose to converse in the crudest version—one of his many contrarian acts. He gained a reputation for being ‘rude, hot-headed, undisciplined and insubordinate’, and one colleague described him as an ‘eccentric crank’. These eccentricities ranged from his embrace of Buddhism and vegetarianism, to more whimsical pursuits, such as forcing his  dinner guests to race cockroaches across the dining table. These fun-filled evenings always ended abruptly when, at 10 pm, an alarm sounded and Harold trekked off to bed, leaving his guests to their own devices. Yet another of Harold’s quirks was to remove his trousers in hot weather and receive callers to his office without what he regarded as the dreary protocol of putting them back on. Any guests in 1922 were therefore no doubt relieved to find the Vice-Consul fully dressed—albeit in his Uyghur tunic and turban.

Posted in Collections, Guest blogs | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Guest blog: Melanie King on Harold Ivan Harding

The Banker’s Bullet-Ridden Buick

Andrew Hillier explores the story behind a pair of striking photographs in our collection, and in his family’s history.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-242.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-242.

The images of Guy Hillier’s bullet-ridden car would have been surprising to those who knew him only as the blind and austere agent of the Hongkong Bank’s Beijing office. He was not the sort of person to be caught up in a shoot-out.  In fact (spoiler alert), he was not in the car when it was shot at by Peking guards during the twelve-day Manchu restoration in July 1917. It was the Bank’s accountant, R. C. Allen, who, along with the chauffeur and a mafoo (a groom), narrowly escaped death. But Hillier was involved shortly afterwards and also came under fire.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-243.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-243.

The weather was stiflingly hot – Guy Hillier’s secretary and amanuensis, Eleanor (Ella) Richard, recalled that the temperature was over 100°F – and he was spending the week-end of 30 June at Balizhuang, a Buddhist monastery in the western hills, some four miles outside Beijing, where he had a modest set of rooms. Hearing that the former emperor, the eleven year-old Aisin-Gioro Puyi, had been brought out of retirement and placed on the throne, he hurried back to Beijing on 2 July and cabled A. G. Stephen, the Shanghai manager:

Restoration of Emperor proclaimed yesterday.  President [Li Yuanhong] so far refuses to resign and remains in his residence with 2000 men under republican flag …Peking remains quiet with troops of the new regime posted throughout the city. No opposition or disturbance expected in Peking at present, but provincial and Southern opposition probable.[i]

In fact, the calm was short-lived and, amidst much confusion, sporadic fighting began breaking out in the city between Zhang Xun (Chang Hsun), the principal militarist, who had instigated the coup, and troops loyal to the former premier, Duan Qirui (Tuan Chijui). As the events unfolded, Hillier kept Stephen up-dated with a stream of somewhat breathless telegrams. By 11 July, Puyi was still on the throne and, as the city seemed quieter and Hillier was having difficulty sleeping in the heat, he and his mafoo rode back to Balizhuang, having told Allen to meet them at the western gate at 7 a.m. the next morning.

However, waking at about 4 a.m., he heard the sound of gunfire coming from the city and he and his mafoo immediately set off back to Beijing.  Having also heard the gunfire, and realising it would be too dangerous for Hillier to return by pony, Allen decided to drive out to fetch him. According to Maurice Collis’ account, as he made his way through the city, the car was shot at ‘without warning or [anyone] calling on the car to stop’.  But, Ella recalled Allen telling her a very different story immediately afterwards:

Allen had been going at a fine pace through one of the broad streets near the Palace when an officer commanding some Chinese troops shouted an order to them holding up his hand. The chauffeur wished to stop but A. who could not understand Chinese, called to him to rush through. The chauffeur jammed his foot on the accelerator, and they tore past the officer. He was so enraged that he gave an order to fire. The car was riddled with bullets. The mafoo sitting by the chauffeur was hit in his arm and a bullet passed through the peak of the driver’s cap … They swept safely into the great broad street on the West where, to their astonishment, they found G. and his mafoo riding their ponies.

The car’s petrol tank had been holed and all six men had to make for the safety of the Anglican Mission on foot.  Hillier ‘had had to run like a lamplighter through some of the hottest firing’, as he told Ella. It was, he said, ‘an extraordinary experience for a blind man. He could hear the shots and the rattle of machine guns and the ping of bullets but he could also sense that the streets were empty and a strange silence reigned but for the terrific noise’. Even for someone who so relished brinkmanship, the incident shows how foolhardy Hillier could be but also his extraordinary reserves of courage.

Senior bank staff, including Guy Hillier and R.C. Allen, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, c.1923. Standing, from left to right: R.C. Allen (Accountant), Eleanor Hillier, unidentified man (but not Hubbard), D. A. Johnston, name unconfirmed (possibly J.L.T. Patch). Sitting: Guy Hillier. Guy and Ella were married in Hong Kong on 20 December 1919. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH-s63.

Senior bank staff, including Guy Hillier and R.C. Allen, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, c.1923. Standing, from left to right: R.C. Allen (Accountant), Eleanor Hillier, unidentified man (but not Hubbard), D. A. Johnston, name unconfirmed (possibly J.L.T. Patch). Sitting: Guy Hillier. Guy and Ella were married in Hong Kong on 20 December 1919. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH-s63.

In the event, with the help of a modest payment to Zhang’s troops, the coup ended late that evening and the emperor’s twelve-day reign was over and Duan resumed the office of premier.  The following day, according to Ella, one of his representatives called and apologised for what had occurred. ‘They refunded the loss of Allen’s burberry and one or two things stolen from the car and paid compensation to the mafoo for his wound and spoiled clothing’. Most important of all, they presented Hillier with a new car.[ii]

[i] Based on Hillier’s telegrams, the story is told by Maurice Collis in Wayfoong: The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (London: Faber, 1965), pp. 145-50, but, in 1934, when Puyi was made a puppet emperor in Manchuria, Eleanor (Ella) Isabella Hillier (née Richard) wrote her own account, ‘Pu Yi’s Twelve Day Reign or the Battle of Peking’ (Private Collection).

[ii] I am grateful to Jennifer Peles for allowing me access to Ella Hillier’s papers and to quote from them.

Posted in Collections | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on The Banker’s Bullet-Ridden Buick

Reversing Robert Capa’s gaze: Wuhan, 1938

Ooo, look: our eagle-eyed Project Manager Jamie Carstairs spotted this wonderful photograph taken in 1938 by Robert Capa in Hankou (Wuhan) and recently published in MAGNUM China (Colin Pantall and Zheng Ziyu, eds, Thames & Hudson, 2018):

Robert Capa, CHINA. Hankou. July-September, 1938. Men, seen through a window, walking through street after the air battle between Japanese and Chinese fighter planes. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

Robert Capa, CHINA. Hankou. July-September, 1938. Men, seen through a window, walking through street after the air battle between Japanese and Chinese fighter planes. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

This is one of a number of striking photographs Capa took during his two stays in the then temporary capital of Nationalist China during the Japanese invasion. But why are we excited? Because of this photograph, which we scooped up from ebay last year. Robert Capa: we now know where you were.

Banner outside the headquarters of "L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS", 69 Jianghan Lu, Wuhan, 1938 (Bi-s162)

Banner outside the headquarters of “L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS”, 69 Jianghan Lu, Wuhan, 1938 (Bi-s162)

Whoever the photographer was, we can tell from this that Capa’s photograph was taken from within the headquarters of L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS (‘France: Belgium: Switzerland Returned Students Association’). This was on Wuhan’s Jianghan Road, at no. 69 in fact (江漢路六十九號). This was a prominent long thoroughfare stretching from the Yangzi riverside, and remains today a major pedestrianised shopping street in the city centre.

Wuhan fell to the Japanese in October 1938. The Nationalist capital was re-established at Chongqing, yet further along the Yangzi river. Capa had long since left. The Association will have relocated too. The fate of the men he caught on film as they walked along the street on this sunny day in 1938 was probably bound up with the terrible course of the capture of the city and its brittle history during the occupation.

Posted in History of photography in China, Photographers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Reversing Robert Capa’s gaze: Wuhan, 1938

In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (2)

Dr Andrew Hillier completes his introduction to The Regimental Museums Project by discussing some of the more nuanced aspects of military photography and the importance of regimental archives.

Aside from Felix Beato’s photographs of the Second Opium War, referred to in the first blog, and similarly brutal images surrounding the Boxer Uprising, photographs could often bring out the more complex aspects of Britain’s presence in China, for example, the fact that the 1st Chinese Regiment comprised, as rank and file, mainly Chinese subjects, who were required to fight against their fellow countrymen, under the command of British officers. [1]

New recruits to the 1st Chinese Regiment learn drill, 1900. Courtesy of the National Army Museum, NAM. 1983-05-42-4. From an album of 52 photographs taken and compiled by Captain C.D. Bruce (West Riding Regiment), acting Major (1st Battalion Chinese Regiment). © National Army Museum.

New recruits to the 1st Chinese Regiment learn drill, 1900. Courtesy of the National Army Museum, NAM. 1983-05-42-4. From an album of 52 photographs taken and compiled by Captain C.D. Bruce (West Riding Regiment), acting Major (1st Battalion Chinese Regiment). © National Army Museum.

Photographs also show how, outside the combat zone, the military could also be engaged on a range of civilian tasks, albeit these would generally have an underlying strategic purpose. The Royal Engineers, for example, in the aftermath of the Uprising, took part in an extensive programme, rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed during the conflict, including bridges, railways and railway stations and, for a time, running the railway between Peking and Shan-hai-kwan (Shanhaiguan).) Whilst this was to ensure troops could be speedily deployed, it was also to protect the interests of British bondholders in the Tianjin-Mukden railway.

This improvised locomotive was the product of the Royal Engineers No 4. Company of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, under Captain H.R. Stockley. The engine, named ‘Grasshopper’, had been cobbled together under the supervision of Sergeant A. Tinkham, who was engaged in the reconstruction of Boxer-destroyed railway tracks in and around Fengtai, Peking (Beijing) in 1900. HPC ref NA06-16: a photograph from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in The National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

This improvised locomotive was the product of the Royal Engineers No 4. Company of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, under Captain H.R. Stockley. The engine, named ‘Grasshopper’, had been cobbled together under the supervision of Sergeant A. Tinkham, who was engaged in the reconstruction of Boxer-destroyed railway tracks in and around Fengtai, Peking (Beijing) in 1900. HPC ref NA06-16: a photograph from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in The National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

Later, as Britain sought to reduce its imperial role and civil war in China intensified in the 1920s, , so government policy wavered between maintaining neutrality and using military force if that was seen as necessary to protect British interests.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps at a street barricade. HPC ref AL-s12. Comprising a multi-national militia (including Chinese volunteers) under the control of British soldiers, the SVC, which was mobilised, for this emergency, in September 1924, represents the ambiguities of British military service on China’s sovereign territory.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps at a street barricade. HPC ref AL-s12. Comprising a multi-national militia under the control of British soldiers, the SVC, which was mobilised, for this emergency, in September 1924, included a Chinese company.

Scots Guards & Shanghai Scottish Pipers, HPC ref AL-s04. The Scots Guards arrived in Shanghai on 2 July 1928 and were based there until 20 January 1929 as part of the British Shanghai Defence Force which was established in January 1927 following an attack on the British concession in Hankow (Hankou) and the surrender of the concession.[2] Note the Chinese on-lookers for whom this was not only a routine ceremonial but, in the highly-charged circumstances of the time, a powerful demonstration of British military capacity.

Scots Guards & Shanghai Scottish Pipers, HPC ref AL-s04. The Scots Guards arrived in Shanghai on 2 July 1928 and were based there until 20 January 1929 as part of the British Shanghai Defence Force which was despatched in late 1926 when the National Revolutionary Army of the Guomindang occupied central China during the Nationalist revolution.[2] Note the Chinese on-lookers for whom this was not only a routine ceremonial but, in the highly-charged circumstances of the time, a powerful demonstration of British military capacity.

If these images depict the military presence on a public level, many collections also bring out a more personal aspect of regimental life – both the soldier’s daily routines and also his interaction with the local people and his surroundings.

Acrobatic display by Somerset Light Infantry soldiers, c. 1913. HPC ref JC-s056. The sort of photograph that soldiers will have sent in letters home.

Acrobatic display by Somerset Light Infantry soldiers, c. 1913. HPC ref JC-s056. The sort of photograph that soldiers will have sent in letters home.

Whilst the camera’s ‘imperial gaze’ was not always welcome for those being photographed, many images reflect a lively curiosity and show how photographs could articulate a new form of cultural understanding.  Enclosed in letters home, they would also be a way of maintaining contact with family and friends as well as importing the experiences into the regimental record.

Photographs thus form a particularly important part of regimental archives, reflecting, as they do, not only the history of the regiment but also the careers of individual soldiers serving far from home. Similar material can also be found in public collections such as the British Library, the National Archives, the National Army Museum and the Royal Geographical Society. However, whilst those archives are secure, the future of regimental archives is more uncertain, not least because many regiments have been disbanded or merged and are having difficulty finding an identity in post-imperial and post-Cold War Britain. Whilst some collections are housed in buildings which form part of the regimental history, others are struggling to find a home or have already become incorporated in the local county archives and thus, although in safe hands, have lost that important local connection.

The former barracks of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Managed by English Heritage, the buildings house an excellent military museum and the regiment’s archives, which include an important collection of photographs recording its assignment in China (mainly, Shamian, Canton (Guangzhou)) in the late 1920s. Photograph by Andrew Hillier, 2018.

The former barracks of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Managed by English Heritage, the buildings house an excellent military museum and the regiment’s archives, which include an important collection of photographs recording its assignment in China (mainly, Shamian, Canton (Guangzhou)) in the late 1920s. Photograph by Andrew Hillier, 2018.

As with other artefacts, such as plunder and loot, issues arise as to how these photographs should be displayed, given the problematic nature of Britain’s imperial history. That debate can only take place if there is proper access to the material and understanding of the surrounding events and this is where the regimental museums have a vital role to play, precisely because of the close connection between the regiment and the events in question.

The aim of the Regimental Museums Project, therefore, is to use these collections to examine the British military presence in China and how the serving soldier interacted with the Chinese people and his surroundings. Since the military would often explore locations seldom visited by westerners, for example, for intelligence and route-mapping purposes, whilst soldiers would embark on ambitious expeditions during their leave, there can be found within museum collections a wider set of images of the country. Wherever possible, the focus will be on individuals who, whether as part of their official duties, or simply from personal interest, recorded that presence, frequently adding comments and annotations. Chance has largely dictated how these photographs, whether neatly pasted into albums or hurriedly stuffed into envelopes, have found their way into museums, and often their origins are unknown or cannot be disclosed for reasons of confidentiality. The project will, therefore, be in the nature of work in progress and will not follow any particular thematic or chronological path. Hopefully, it will raise the profile of these collections and stimulate discussion in the context of Sino–British relations and history more generally. It may also encourage readers to rummage through trunks in attics in search of mementoes of their military forbears in China.

[1] The 1st Chinese Regiment will be the subject of the next blog.

[2] Robert Bickers, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (London: Allen Lane, 2017), p. 64.

Posted in About us, Digitisation, Guest blogs, History of photography in China, Regimental Collections | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (2)

In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (1)

In the first of two blogs, Dr Andrew Hillier introduces a new Historical Photographs of China initiative – the Regimental Museums Project – which he is coordinating, and which will draw on photographs in regimental and national collections, to explore both Britain’s military presence in China and their wider social and cultural significance.

Many would agree with Margery Masterson that ‘the army … remains largely absent from social and cultural histories of Victorian Britain and her empire.’ [1]  Whatever the reasons, including, perhaps, a latent distaste for military imperialism, it means that a rich vein of material in regimental and national archives is at risk of being over-looked by historians.  Moreover, as museums holding these archives face significant challenges, a number are finding it increasingly difficult to make the collections accessible, both to professional historians and the general public. There is a wealth of photographs illustrating the British military presence in China but, whilst some of these can be found on Historical Photographs of China, this represents only a tiny fraction of what is potentially available.

Supported by the Army Museums Ogilby Trust (AMOT) and a generous grant from the Swire Foundation, Historical Photographs of China (HPC) is launching a project that will seek to make that material better-known and more accessible to a wider public and bring out the social and cultural implications of that presence both in and outside the combat zone. By creating links with such collections, digitising and up-loading images on the HPC web-site, where feasible, and hosting introductory blogs, the project is designed to stimulate interest in, and debate about, Britain’s presence in China and this aspect of its past more generally, as well as providing sometimes rare and distinctive views of China and Sino-foreign encounters. In this blog, I will set the scene with the introduction of military photography to China and its early uses.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was the first military campaign in China to be successfully captured in photographs. Felix Beato, who had already built his reputation in the Crimea, arrived in Hong Kong as the war was entering its final phase and went on to produce outstanding images of its brutality and waste. [2]  Published as engravings in newspapers and journals, copies of these photographs could also be purchased in China and later in London, and some examples, now extremely valuable, can still be found in the archives of regiments that took part in the conflict.

Chinese Artillery on Peking City Walls, October 1860. Photograph by Felice Beato. The 67th (South Hants) Regiment of Foot played a major part in the final stages of the attack on Peking. This photograph is in the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum’s archives and must have been purchased in the 1860s by someone in the regiment.

Chinese Artillery on Peking City Walls, October 1860. Photograph by Felice Beato. The 67th (South Hants) Regiment of Foot played a major part in the final stages of the attack on Peking. This photograph is in the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum’s archives and must have been purchased in the 1860s by someone in the regiment [3]

At the same time as professional photographers were coming to the fore, the army was recognising the potential of photography for its own purposes. The lead was taken by the Royal Engineers and, by the 1850s, Charles Thurston Thompson, the official photographer of the South Kensington Museum, was giving them instructions in the complexities of the wet-plate collodion process. [4] As a result, even before Beato arrived, Lieutenant-Colonel Papillon and two fellow sappers were photographing the British occupation in and around Canton (Guangzhou) in a semi-official capacity. [5] By the 1870s, another sapper, Captain de Wiveslie Abney (1843-1921), had become a leading authority in the field. In addition to lecturing at the School of Military Engineering (SME), he produced a best-selling manual which stressed the importance of approaching the subject with both ‘an artistic and scientific mind’. [6]

Officers also started taking and acquiring pictures for their personal use and having their likenesses recorded in cartes de visite: these would be enclosed in letters home or pasted into albums, which can still be found in regimental archives.[7] Some of these were taken in commercial photography studios that were starting to be established in China. John Thomson (1837-1921), who spent four years in Hong Kong, with extended visits to Peking (Beijing), Fujian, along the Yangzi, and Guangdong from 1868 until 1872, was perhaps the most celebrated of these early photographers. Coinciding with the work of Dr John Dudgeon (1837-1901), who published the first treatise on photography to be written in Chinese, by the late 1870s, photography had become a thriving commercial enterprise for western and Chinese studios in treaty port China and Hong Kong.[8]  Ten years later, with the introduction of the dry-plate gelatin process and the Kodak ‘point and shoot’ camera, ‘instant photography’ had also become a popular past-time for amateurs.[9]

It is not surprising, therefore, that Britain’s military presence in China from 1856 until its final withdrawal in the 1940s, was extensively photographed by members of the armed forces, newspaper correspondents and civilians. [10]  Undoubtedly, at times it could be used as a powerful mechanism of imperialism, the triumphalist and brutal imagery of the Boxer Uprising and War being a prime example.[11]

A ruined corner of the British Legation, Peking (Beijing), c.1901, with LEST WE FORGET inscribed on the wall. Photograph by the Photo Section of the British Corps of Royal Engineers, from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in the National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

A damaged corner of the British Legation, Peking (Beijing), c.1901, with LEST WE FORGET inscribed on the wall. Photograph by the Photo Section of the British Corps of Royal Engineers, from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in the National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

However, as we will see in the next blog, many of these regimental collections also reflect a more nuanced aspect to the military presence, showing how photography could stimulate interest in China and its culture and facilitate interaction with the Chinese people outside the combat zone. [12]

NOTES

[1] Margery Masterson, ‘Besmirching Britannia’s Good Name: Army Scandals in Mid-Victorian Britain’:  Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Bristol, 2012, p.22 and the works there cited.

[2]  A selection of Beatos’ images can be found on the HPC platform; see also Jeffrey Cody and Frances W. Terpak (eds), Brush & Shutter: early photography in China (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute), 2011.

[3] See my earlier blog on this.

[4] James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997), p.73.

[5] For the Second Opium War, including the Royal Engineers photographers, see Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Quaritch, 2009), pp.81-122. For Papillon, see John Falconer, ‘John Ashton Papillon: An amateur photographer in China, 1858-1860’, Photographic Collector, 3, no. 3, 1982, p.353. The on-line catalogue of the Royal Engineers Museum Library and Archive (REMLA) has a thumbnail image and detailed notes in relation to each photograph: to see these follow this link; REMLA 6.1: ‘Photographs taken in China during the years, 1858, 59 & 60 by Lieut. J.A. Papillon Album’.

[6] Capt. William de Wiveslie Abney, RE, Instruction in Photography: For Use at the SME Chatham ​(Chatham, 1871); a later version ran into eleven editions.

[7] On regimental cartes de visite see my earlier blog.

[8] See Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Quaritch, 2009); Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010); for Thomson, see pp. 214-256 and for Dudgeon, pp.37-55; Bennett, History of Photography in China: Chinese Photographers, 1844-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2013). See also Betty Yao (ed), China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1869-1872 (London: River Books, 2015).

[9] See my blog ‘The Kodak comes to Peking‘, and Falconer, Western Eyes: Photographs of China in Western Collections, 1860-1930, (Beijing 2008).

[10] For details of the regiments that were stationed in China and Hong Kong during this period, see A.J. Harfield, British and Indian Armies on the China Coast 1840 – 1985 (London: A & J Partnership, 1990), pp. 485-492.

[11] Cf. James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 260-281.

[12] See Robert Bickers, ‘The Lives and Deaths of Photographs in China’ in Christian Henriot and Weh–hsiu Yeh (eds), Visualising China, 1845 -1965: Moving and Still Images in Historical Narratives (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp.3-38.

Posted in About us, Collections, Heritage, History of photography in China, Regimental Collections | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (1)

‘A Darkly Mysterious Instrument’: Through China with John Thomson

Dr Andrew Hillier discusses the China photographs of John Thomson (1837-1921) in the light of a recent exhibition of his work at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

One of two hundred images published in John Thomson’s Illustrations of China and its People, the ‘Cantonese official’, seen in figure 1, fixes the viewer with a look as intense as it must have been when he faced Thomson’s camera in 1869.[i] Magnified to many times its original size, it provided a particularly striking image in the recent exhibition of Thomson’s photographs of Siam, Angkor (Cambodia), Hong Kong and China, held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS. Accompanied by two talks and a study-day, the exhibition provided an opportunity for a major re-assessment of Thomson’s work in East and Southeast Asia and its legacy.[ii]  Excellently displayed, with stunning images of landscape and people, it confirmed that Thomson was, as Jamie Carstairs said in his earlier blog, ‘probably the greatest of the nineteenth century photographers of China’.[iii] However, as the picture of this Cantonese official shows, the exhibition also raised questions about the role of a Western photographer in China during the treaty port era and how such work should be displayed today.

Fig. 1. Listed simply as ‘a Cantonese Gentleman’, the photograph was described by Thomson as ‘a salaried official who in process of time became … a mandarin of the sixth grade’, Illustrations of China, I, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 650. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 1. Listed simply as ‘a Cantonese Gentleman’, the photograph was described by Thomson as ‘a salaried official who in process of time became … a mandarin of the sixth grade’, Illustrations of China, I, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 650. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Unlike Thomson’s formal portraits of officials such as Prince Gong (Figure 2) and members of the Zongli Yamen, this more low-grade official is un-named. This is because, as with many of Thomson’s photographs, the purpose was not to portray an individual but to exemplify a particular Chinese ‘type’. Moreover, the image does not conform to the conventions of Chinese portraiture: the full face is not shown, part of it being in shade and, only the top half of the body can be seen.[iv] This suggests that, although the official must have agreed to being photographed, it may not have been done at his request and the resulting image may well not have met with his approval.

Fig. 2. Listed as ‘Prince Kung, China’, this is a formal portrait of Prince Gong, sixth son of Prince Daoguang, Illustrations of China, I, plate 1. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 692. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 2. Listed as ‘Prince Kung, China’, this is a formal portrait of Prince Gong, sixth son of Prince Daoguang, Illustrations of China, I, plate 1. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 692. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

This is not something that would have worried Thomson. It is clear from his commentary to Illustrations of China that, however, sympathetic he was towards Chinese people, he could often be superior and high-handed, amused by, but brushing aside, their fear that he was ‘a dangerous geomancer and that [his] camera was … a darkly mysterious instrument which … gave [him] power to … pierce the very soul of the natives’. As a result, Thomson often encountered, but was seemingly unperturbed by what he saw as, ‘the hatred of foreigners’, especially in and about large cities, such as Canton (Guangzhou) where this mandarin held office. On one memorable occasion, when photographing a bridge in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, he came under a hail of stones, one cracking the wet plate in the camera and causing him to beat a hasty retreat but not before he had taken the shot.[v]

Fig. 3. Chao-chow-fu Bridge, Kwangtung. Groups of people gathered on the bridge and began throwing stones. A vertical crack can be seen on the glass plate. The photograph appears in Illustrations of China, II, plate 8. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 290. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 3. Chao-chow-fu Bridge, Kwangtung. Groups of people gathered on the bridge and began throwing stones. A vertical crack can be seen on the glass plate. The photograph appears in Illustrations of China, II, plate 8. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 290. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

On the other hand, Thomson was obviously an excellent communicator and established a good rapport with many of his subjects, whether they were Chinese officials posing in their formal robes or street vendors plying their trade. Critical of Qing officials, as a social commentator, he developed a great sympathy for these ordinary people, particularly the boat-women of Hong Kong and Canton, who certainly seem to have been willing to pose.

Listed as ‘boat girls’ in Illustrations of China, I, plate 7, this photograph was taken in Kwantung in 1869 and was one of a number of boat women around Canton and Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 684. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Listed as ‘boat girls’ in Illustrations of China, I, plate 7, this photograph was taken in Kwantung in 1869 and was one of a number of boat women around Canton and Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 684. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

It was an interest and sympathy that would later inform Thomson’s study of London street life.[vi] However, as with so many of these types of Victorian image, there is a disturbing tension between the depiction of such subjects, whether on the streets of Peking (Beijing) or London – coster-mongers, gamblers, beggars, and street vendors – and the aesthetic pleasure derived from viewing them in lavishly-produced volumes. [vii]

Fig. 5. One of a group of four ‘medical men’, the photograph shows a Pekingese chiropodist tending one patient, whilst another waits his turn. It appears in Illustrations of China, IV, plate 11. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 727. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY

Fig. 5. One of a group of four ‘medical men’, the photograph shows a chiropodist in Beijing tending one patient, whilst another waits his turn. It appears in Illustrations of China, IV, plate 11. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 727. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY

Fig. 6. Listed as ‘one of the city guard, Peking’, the photograph shows a night-watchman with his wooden board, used to sound that all was well: ‘wrapped in his sheep-skin coat and in an under-clothing of rags, he lay through cold nights on the stone steps of the outer gateway and only roused himself to answer the call of his fellow-watchmen near at hand’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 688a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 6. Listed as ‘one of the city guard, Peking’, the photograph shows a night-watchman with his wooden board, used to sound that all was well: ‘wrapped in his sheep-skin coat and in an under-clothing of rags, he lay through cold nights on the stone steps of the outer gateway and only roused himself to answer the call of his fellow-watchmen near at hand’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 688a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

If these images raise difficult questions today, as Thomson’s biographer, Richard Ovenden, reminded the audience in his entertaining lecture, to understand his work, we must start with his upbringing and early training in Edinburgh, a city where diligence and intellectual fervour were highly-valued.[viii] He probably first learned about photography during his apprenticeship to an optician and scientific instrument- maker, James Mackay Bryson, and then, impatient to start earning his living, set off for Singapore, where he arrived in May 1862 to join his brother, who had established a watchmaker’s business. Realising that photography was the way forward, Thomson spent the next eight years working in Southeast Asia and the China coast, returning to Britain from time to time.

Between 1870 and 1872, Thomson travelled extensively in China, before finally leaving Asia in the summer of 1872. Throughout this time, he used the wet-plate collodion process, a cumbersome exercise entailing dangerous chemicals and a substantial amount of bulky equipment, but which allowed for shorter exposure times and, in skilful hands, could produce high resolution images that recorded the finest detail. Although he is to- day chiefly known for the illustrated books that resulted from his travels, during these years, he was principally working as a commercial photographer, supplying the western community in Hong Kong and the treaty ports, with portraits and cartes de visite.[ix]

For Thomson, it was not just the photographs but also the accompanying text that was important. He wanted to inform and instruct and ‘share the pleasant experience of coming face to face with the scenes and people of far-off lands’. This included images of the continuing conflict between China and Britain, embodied in the ruins of the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) destroyed by the British in 1860 (Figure 7), and the Chapel of the Sisters of Mary in Tientsin (Tianjin) where ten French nuns had been murdered in 1870 (Figure 8).

Fig. 7. The Bronze Temple, Yuen-min-Yuen at Wan-shou shan. One of the few buildings remaining in the ruins of the Summer Palace destroyed by the British in 1860. ‘Left ruinous and desolate designedly as one means of keeping the hostility of the nation active, and as an ever-ready witness to the barbarities to which foreigners will resort; many educated Chinese have that feeling and look upon our conduct as an event of heartless vandalism’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 19. Photograph by John Thomson. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 7. The Bronze Temple, Yuen-min-Yuen at Wan-shou shan. One of the few buildings remaining in the ruins of the Summer Palace destroyed by the British in 1860. ‘Left ruinous and desolate designedly as one means of keeping the hostility of the nation active, and as an ever-ready witness to the barbarities to which foreigners will resort; many educated Chinese have that feeling and look upon our conduct as an event of heartless vandalism’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 19. Photograph by John Thomson. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 8. Chapel of the Sisters of Mary, which was destroyed, following the murder of ten French nuns in 1870, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 3. The photograph was probably taken not long afterwards in early 1871. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 528a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 8. Chapel of the Sisters of Mary, which was destroyed, following the murder of ten French nuns in 1870, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 3. The photograph was probably taken not long afterwards in early 1871. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 528a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

If Thomson never sought to question the validity of Britain’s presence, his attitude towards China was ambivalent. Whilst critical of what he saw as the corruption and obfuscation of Qing officials, he nevertheless could see the country’s potential. Beside the image of three officials entitled, ‘The Government of China’, he told the reader, ‘Western nations have woken the old dragon from her sleep of ages, and now she stands at bay armed with iron claws and fangs of foreign steel.’

It is difficult to gauge how much influence his work had on the understanding of China in Britain at the time. Although well-received, the four volumes of Illustrations of China were prohibitively expensive and accessible to only a few. Being commercially-minded, he kept pace with the changes that were taking place in the mass-production of books and magazines, including the more sophisticated forms of wood engraving of photographic images (Figure 9). He wrote and published extensively, particularly in the Graphic and the Illustrated London News, and produced cheaper versions of his work, the most popular being With a Camera in China.[x]

Fig. 9. Travelling chiropodists: a wood engraving based on the image at fig. 5. Drawn by E. Ronjat and engraved by T.H. Hildibrand, it formed one of the illustrations in a cheaper more accessible version of <em>Illustrations of China</em>, viz: John Thomson, The Land and People of China: a Short Account of the Geography, Religion, Social Life, Arts Industries and Government of China and its People (London: SPCK, 1876). Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 9. Travelling chiropodists: a wood engraving based on the image at fig. 5. Drawn by E. Ronjat and engraved by T.H. Hildibrand, it formed one of the illustrations in a cheaper more accessible version of Illustrations of China, viz: John Thomson, The Land and People of China: a Short Account of the Geography, Religion, Social Life, Arts Industries and Government of China and its People (London: SPCK, 1876). Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

In normal circumstances, this might have had some influence but, by the late 1890s, relations with China were at a low ebb. As western nations and Japan competed for large swathes of its territory, the Boxer Movement was gathering pace, culminating in the Siege of the Legations in 1900. Thomson’s photographs would soon be overtaken by a new wave of images, depicting the devastation following the Siege and the public execution of Boxers and their alleged associates, and that also raise questions about display and interpretation today.[xi]

The after-life of the photographic image was a recurring theme during an intense and varied study-day – the initial developing and cropping (at which Thomson was particularly adept), its use in books and magazines, and as a political and social instrument, and its display and interpretation over the course of time. This recent exhibition displayed Thomson’s images in a way that neither he nor his subjects could have envisaged. With such high-quality negatives, the magnification undoubtedly enhanced their impact and the resulting detail of the formal portraits and landscapes was quite breath-taking.[xii]

But in the case of the more intrusive images of Chinese ‘types’, the process is possibly more questionable. If, as Nick Pearce has said, ‘these photographs of the natives may make us feel uncomfortable’, arguably this discomfort can only be increased by such magnification. Coupled with Thomson’s moving text, images such as that of the night-watchman become all the more distressing.[xiii]  Moreover, taken, as they were, against a frequently hostile background and recorded in lavishly-produced books, they are emblematic of Britain’s imperial presence in an era that is still officially described as ‘the century of national humiliation’. Does this way of showing them not implicitly legitimise that presence?

That there is no easy answer to these questions is clear from the image of the Cantonese official (Figure 1). On one view, the enlargement has increased the sense of objectification.  But on another, it has helped to transcend his anonymity and enhance his individuality. We know little about him but, for many viewers, his face and the intensity of that look will have remained with them long after they had left the gallery. This may be the measure of Thomson’s skill, not only as a photographer but also as a communicator.

[i] J. Thompson, FRGS, Illustrations of China and its people: a series of two hundred photographs with letterpress description of the places and people represented (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1873-1874). For Thomson, generally, see Richard Ovenden, John Thomson (1837-1921): Photographer (Edinburgh: The Stationery Office Ltd, 1997) and Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010), pp. 214-256. For Thomson’s China photographs, see China: Through the Lens of John Thomson, 1868-1872  (Bangkok: River Books, 2010), the second edition of the catalogue originally prepared for the exhibition of the forerunner of this exhibition at the Beijing World Art Museum in 2009.

[ii] ‘China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson’, Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 13 April – 23 June 2018 ; ‘John Thomson: Reframing Materials, Images, and Archives, 7 June 2018’. The original negatives are held at the Library of the Wellcome Collection and are accessible on-line. This exhibition will next be shown at Bournemouth starting on 3 November.

[iii] Jamie Carstairs, ‘Restoring John Thomson’s Grave’, Visualising China, 31 May 2018,  http://hpchina.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/05/31/restoring-john-thomsons-grave/

[iv] Cf. Tong Bingxue, ‘John Thomson: a Humanist View of the World in China’ in China: Through the Lens of John Thomson, 1868-1872 (Bangkok: River Books, 2010), p.10 and the commentary to the plate on p.119.

[v] For the quotation, see Introduction to Illustrations of China  and, generally, James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997), pp. 61-68 and 161-167.

[vi] Adolphe Smith and John Thomson, Street Life in London: With Permanent Photographic Illustrations (London: Sampson, Low, Martson, Searle and Rivington, 1877-78).

[vii] Cf. Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 72-109 and Ryan, Picturing Empire, pp. 173-180.

[viii] Richard Ovenden, ‘John Thomson: Master Photographer’, SOAS 14 June 2018.

[ix] Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 1-5 and 167-175. Only a handful of the cartes de visite can be traced to-day as Angela Cheung explained in her study-day paper, ‘What is a photograph? Reflections on Thomson’s Carte de Visite production in China’.

[x] Through China with a Camera (London: Harper, 1899), Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 175- 183.

[xi] James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 195-240.

[xii] For a detailed discussion of Thomson’s formal portraits and landscapes, see Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 109-166.

[xiii] Nick Pearce, ‘John Thomson’s China: 1868-1872’, in China, p.8.

Posted in Exhibition, Guest blogs, History of photography in China, Photographers | Tagged , , | Comments Off on ‘A Darkly Mysterious Instrument’: Through China with John Thomson

Restoring John Thomson’s grave

Jamie Carstairs, Historical Photographs of China Project manager, has joined the committee seeking to restore photographer John Thomson’s grave. Here he explains why.

An ad hoc group has come together to try to raise the funds needed to restore the grave of John Thomson (1837-1921), whose final resting place is in a south London cemetery.  The badly eroded headstone marking his grave has fallen over and is lying flat on the ground. The inscription is barely legible. Surely we can do better than this to preserve the memory of a man whose photographs of China, amongst other places, so shape the way we picture the nineteenth century.

The fallen over grave stone of John Thomson, who is buried alongside his wife and his son Arthur, in Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Terry Bennett.

The fallen over grave stone of John Thomson, who is buried alongside his wife and his son Arthur, in Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Terry Bennett.

The pioneering Scottish photographer geographer and traveller, John Thomson, is rightly acclaimed as probably the greatest of the nineteenth century photographers of China.  His ten years’ work as a photographer in Asia led to the publication of Illustrations of China and Its People in 1873/4.  In four volumes, 200 fine documentary and portrait photographs are enhanced with Thomson’s astute and informative text.

Gochi, a young Baksa woman, Taiwan, 1871. A photograph by John Thomson, which was published in his Illustrations of China and Its People, Vol. II, Plate IV 'Types of Pepohoan' (1873/4).  Maxwell Family Collection (Mx01-076), courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

Gochi, a young Baksa woman, Taiwan, 1871. A photograph by John Thomson, which was published in his Illustrations of China and Its People, Vol. II, Plate IV ‘Types of Pepohoan’ (1873/4).  Maxwell Family Collection (Mx01-076), courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

A scan of Thomson’s stereoscopic negative numbered 770. 'Gochi, a Baksa girl 1871'. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A scan of Thomson’s stereoscopic negative numbered 770. ‘Gochi, a Baksa girl 1871’. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A portrait of Gochi. Thomson’s negative numbered 782. 'Pepohoan girl, Baksa, Formosa, 20 years old.' Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A portrait of Gochi. Thomson’s negative numbered 782. ‘Pepohoan girl, Baksa, Formosa, 20 years old.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

In 1878, further social documentary photographic work resulted in Street Life in London. Adolphe Smith provided much of the text, which is presented in a similar style as in Illustrations of China and Its People. Street Life in London brought to bear ‘the precision of photography in illustration of our subject’ – London’s poor – memorably personified as ‘Caney’ the Clown, the ‘Crawlers’ and the Flying Dustmen.

Thomson also photographed in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Cyprus. He was a member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) from 1879 and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  Thomson taught photography to Isabella Bird, who also photographed in China in the mid-1890s.

John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual legacy of later nineteenth century Asia – and of London. It seems only right that we should restore his grave in London as a fitting memorial to the man himself.

If you would like to donate to renovate Thomson’s grave, you can make a contribution via JustGiving, at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/johnthomsongravestone

Many thanks from the restoration committee: Terry Bennett, Michael Pritchard, Jamie Carstairs, Betty Yao.

Buddhist monks playing chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Guangzhou. Edward Bowra Collection (Bo01-099), courtesy of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

Buddhist monks playing chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Guangzhou. Edward Bowra Collection (Bo01-099), courtesy of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

The exhibition of superb large prints from Thomson’s glass negatives: China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, is on at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Admission free. Exhibition ends on 23rd June 2018!

Yang-May Ooi interviewing Betty Yao at the exhibition 'China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson', at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Yang-May Ooi interviewing Betty Yao at the exhibition ‘China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson’, at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Recommended books:

China and Its Peoples in early Photographs – An Unabridged Reprint of the Classic 1873/4 Work by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1982).

Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1994) – an unabridged republication of Street Life in London.

Links:

Illustrations of China, vol I

https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/john_thomson_china_03/ct_gal_01_thumb.html

Illustrations of China, vol II

https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/john_thomson_china_03/ct_gal_02_thumb.html

Illustrations of China, vol III

https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/john_thomson_china_03/ct_gal_03_thumb.html

Illustrations of China, vol IV

https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/john_thomson_china_03/ct_gal_04_thumb.html

Wellcome Collection – John Thomson

Posted in Collections, Exhibition, Heritage, Photographers | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Restoring John Thomson’s grave