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.
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.
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 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”.
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 …
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’.
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.
* 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
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. 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.
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. 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.
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). 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.
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. 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’.
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.’
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. 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).  TNA CAB 8/2 no. 173M, Memorandum by Colonial Defence Committee, ‘Colonial Garrisons Utilisation of Native Troops’, April 1899.  Despatch from Major-General Dorward, to Secretary of State, Colonial Office, 12 December 1901, TNA CO 521/2.  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.  The DCM was awarded only to other ranks.  Barnes, On Active Service, p.81.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.