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A disturbing intimacy: The Private Papers of C. C. A. Kirke


Andrew Hillier discusses a diary, a photograph album and a memoir which, between them, provide a fascinating insight into consular life as well as showing how such materials can be used for exploring histories of intimacy and the emotions.

The figure in the centre of the photograph (fig. 1) does not look like a typical British Consular wife. Flanked by five armed marines, she smiles jauntily, with her head tilted to one side, and holds her parasol as though it is a fashion accessory. This is Mabel Kirke, wife of the Swatow (Shantou) Consul, Cecil Kirke, but, if it is all meant to look rather amusing, the situation was in fact very serious, as the caption indicates. For well over a year, anti-foreign activists and union strike-leaders had seized control of Swatow and brought its life to a standstill.[1]

Fig 1. MX [Mabel Kirke] with armed guard from HMS Hollyhock, 1926, during the strike at Swatow. Unknown photographer. Cecil Kirke Album. Copy courtesy of the Kirke Family.

Yet, there is still a light-hearted tone to the image, and Mabel seems to be projecting herself as fun-loving and care-free. But was that in fact the case? If we look at the diary which her husband maintained for most of his working life, a very different picture emerges – one of a couple who, for many years, had been trapped in a loveless marriage. Just twelve months later, Mabel would suffer a further bout of the dysentery which had dogged her for some years, and would die at sea a few days after she and the family had left Hong Kong for England. Only then does Kirke let go of his pent-up emotions, concluding his diary entry with the devastating comment that the last ten years had been ‘hell for both of us.’[2]

Whilst the detail of what went wrong and why may only be of interest on a private level, the story is important for what it tells us about consular wives, given the important role they played in treaty port life and the lack of attention that has been given to them in the literature.[3] The outline can be traced back to the time when, home from China and meeting Mabel whom he had known and loved from afar for many years, Kirke proposed.

I was longing to ask her to be mine but was so stupidly afraid that I do believe I should not have done it had I not seen plainly that she wanted me to.[4]

He was right and she accepted. He was twenty-nine, and she was thirty. Eight months later, on 29 November 1904, they were married in Alnwick, Northumberland and soon afterwards sailed for China.

Begun when he was fifteen, and running to some eight thousand pages, the diary is an extraordinary document, reflecting Kirke’s tortuous inner life and putting it under the microscope in a way which renders him both analyst and patient; all the more extraordinary, given that the concept of analysis was still in its infancy in the early 1900s.

Fig 2. The Diaries. Author’s photograph, 2021

Fig 3. The first page of the diary begun on 1 January 1890 when Kirke was fifteen. Author’s photograph, 2021

Having joined the consular service in 1898 as a Student Interpreter, Kirke had survived the Siege of the Legations – a time he later described as ‘one of the most interesting events of my life’ – and, although he always found Chinese difficult, he would have a successful career and, through his skilful handling of the Swatow crisis, be awarded a CBE. With the exception of the Siege, which he describes in the insouciant tone characteristic of almost all the accounts, his public life is only lightly sketched in and there is little or no discussion of consular matters in the diary. It is his private life which is important, and of course not just his but that of those closest to him – Mabel, who is subjected to a continuous and rigorous critique, of their four children and, perhaps most important of all, of his younger sister, Iva, with whom he maintained a regular correspondence throughout his time in China. With their mother dying weeks after her birth, it was this relationship, forged as it was during an otherwise lonely childhood, which would mean more to Kirke than any other. Supplemented by an album of photographs, we can piece together the intimacies of his consular life.[5]

And, although we cannot hear Mabel’s voice, Kirke is sufficiently honest and insightful for us to obtain a fair view of her character and of some of the problems she had to contend with as a consular wife. High-spirited but perhaps unsuited to the formalities of the diplomatic and consular world, her early married life was dogged by misfortune. Suffering terrible sea-sickness on the outward journey, she then had what he describes as ‘a partial miscarriage’, which was only detected four weeks after their arrival in Shanghai and necessitated an emergency operation to remove the remains of the foetus.  Struggling to recover, she had to adapt to the strict protocol and oppressive climate of Peking, where Kirke had been appointed the legation accountant. Socially insecure himself, he did nothing to make things easier for his wife, for whom the hierarchical structure proved extremely daunting, partly due to the personality of the incumbent Minister, Sir Ernest Satow, whom Kirke found ‘portentously cold and almost inhuman’.[6] Subsequent years were spent in various locations including what was a reasonably happy period at Chefoo just before the First World War (see fig.4).

Fig 4: Original caption: ‘Chefoo, 1913’. Unknown photographer. Cecil Kirke Album. Copy courtesy of the Kirke Family.

But those early difficulties seem to have taken their toll, causing Mabel to lose confidence and a barrier to come between them, in a way which Kirke analyses in disturbing detail. However, whilst he describes the froideur of the last ten years, he does not suggest it was explicit or that it led to arguments, tears and recrimination.  So, it is just possible that Mabel was unaware of his inner torment and was, as she appears in the first image, fun-loving and carefree. But the probabilities are that the cold formality of the photograph taken four years earlier provides a more accurate picture. (fig 5).

Fig 5: RHS Kirke, Mabel & child, Chefoo
Unknown photographer. Cecil Kirke Album. Copy courtesy of the Kirke Family.

Returning to China a year after Mabel’s death, Kirke was promoted to the post of Consul-General in Yunnan-Fu. There he met and married Sybil Esme Sandys, a missionary twenty-five years his junior. She had devoted herself to rescuing Chinese girls and women from the practice of ‘slavery’ which still existed in the region. She had successfully enlisted Kirke’s help in obtaining a safe home for them and it may have been this that convinced her to accept his proposal. Once again, according to his diary, he was very much in love and with Sybil’s dedication to the missionary cause and his support for that cause, the first three years were happy, including as it did the birth of their first son, Malcolm.

Fig 6: ‘Yunnan-fu 19.v.30’. Cecil, Sybil and Malcolm Unknown Photographer. Kirke family Collection

However, in 1932, Kirke decided to retire and, having returned to England, this early promise would not be fulfilled. He always worried about money and, with only a relatively small pension to live on, these worries increased when five years later, to their mutual surprise, so they would say, Sybil became pregnant and their second son, Anthony, was born.  Although she remained very active and continued to devote herself to worthy causes, nothing quite engaged her as much as her missionary work in China, as she made clear in a memoir written towards the end of her life.[7]  And, in that memoir she also talks about her marriage. Soon after arriving in England, she met Cecil’s sister, Iva, and immediately realised that she and Kirke were ‘twin souls’, that nothing could come between them and that their relationship, albeit conducted by correspondence, was a key reason why his marriage to Mabel had failed. Although she raised this with Cecil, he could not accept that there was a problem. It soon became clear that the same would apply to their marriage and that it would never take precedence over his relationship with Iva. From then on, although they stayed together, they drifted apart emotionally. Kirke died in 1959 and, retiring to her beloved Lake District, Sybil survived him for a further thirty years.

Family life played an important part in the British consular world, particularly in the more remote treaty ports, where the consul’s wife had an important role to fulfil.[8] If at times, Kirke’s morbid introspection becomes oppressive for the reader, it is important for an understanding of the impact it had on his two wives, Mabel and Sybil. Although this essay can only skim the surface, the diaries, taken with the photograph album and Sybil’s memoir, present, I believe, a unique record not only of these intimate lives but also of the impact that those lives may have had in that world.

My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier, edited by Andrew Hillier, was published in August by the City University of Hong Kong Press. Andrew is currently carrying out research for a book on China Consular wives.

[1] Sybil Kirke, undated memoir (25 pages); Kirke Family Collection.

[2] Cf. Andrew Hillier, An English Family in China: 1817-1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020), xxvii-xxviii; xxix-xxxii.

[3]  The album has been digitised and will in due course appear as the Kirke Collection on Historical Photographs of China.

[4] Kirke, diary entry, 4 March 1906, vol. 7, p.311.

[5] P. D. Coates, The China Consuls: British Consular Officers, 1843-1943 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 464-467.

[6] The fifteen volumes of the diary remain in the possession of the Kirke family. I am extremely grateful to Anthony and Judith Kirke, and to their son, Jeremy, for affording me access to the diaries and for all the help they have given me in my ongoing research into this story.

[7] Cf. Coates, China Consuls, pp. vii and 99-100.

[8] Cecil Kirke, diary entry, 19 March 1904, vol. 6, p.912.

Jamie Carstairs on Remembering John Thomson in Edinburgh


Last week a plaque was unveiled on John Thomson’s childhood home in Edinburgh, Scotland, in his centenary year. How did it get there?

John Thomson, 1866. ‘Mr Thomson, the visitor from overseas, with his piercing eyes, whiskers like a dragon’s, and a great forehead, Uses a lens to capture a man’s life…’ Part of a poem by Bao Yun (1806-91), translated by Yupin Chung and quoted in ‘Scottish Photography – The First Thirty Years’ by Sara Stevenson and A.D. Morrison-Law (2015), p230.

In 2018, the John Thomson Commemoration Group* formed to restore John Thomson’s grave in south London. During this process, we realized that there were no commemorative plaques for John Thomson (1837-1921) in either Edinburgh (where he was born and lived until the age of 24) or London (where he lived and worked after returning from Asia).

Assembled guests at the plaque event at 6 Brighton Street, Edinburgh EH1 1HD, on 29 September 2021. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

The Historic Environment Scotland plaque commemorating John Thomson, outside his childhood home, 6 Brighton Street, Edinburgh. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) run a bronze commemorative plaque scheme to celebrate the link between a significant person and a building. Researching mostly from my home in faraway Bristol, I found out from a parish record on the ScotlandsPeople web site, that John Thomson was born in 1837 at number 3, Portland Place, Edinburgh. Google maps located a Portland Terrace in Leith, Edinburgh, but no Portland Place.

Roberta McGrath, a friend in Edinburgh, visited the resident of 3 Portland Terrace, Leith. But … Thomson was born in St Cuthbert’s parish, which is not in Leith. A neighbour of the resident of 3 Portland Terrace told us about the renaming of the roads: there had been two Portland Places, one in Leith (later named Portland Terrace) and one in Tollcross, Edinburgh Old Town. When the city of Edinburgh expanded into Leith in the 1920s, the Portland Place in Tollcross was renamed Lauriston Place. This information fried the wrong Portland Place red herring. In any case, from Streetview it became apparent that Thomson’s birthplace had long ago been demolished to make way for what is now the University of Edinburgh’s Lauriston Campus.

In 1841, Thomson’s parents and siblings moved from Tollcross, to a larger apartment at 6 Brighton Street. The family is recorded as living at this address in the 1851 and 1861 censuses. This was John Thomson’s home for two decades during his formative years. The Georgian B-listed tenement building in this short street still stands, so 6 Brighton Street could appropriately be named as the site for a plaque. However, the HES application process includes the stipulation that the applicant should seek permission for the siting of a plaque from the building’s owner before submitting a nomination. Letters were duly written to unknown occupants living in various flats at 6 Brighton Street. Roberta kindly visited the building in person, speaking with a resident. Gradually, I was in touch with some of those who lived there or who owned the apartments.

Next up: filling in the HES nomination form, in which I stated, in less than a thousand words, as required, why John Thomson deserved a plaque, detailing also his life and achievements, and why the address was relevant to the nominee. Useful information was provided by Richard Ovenden, author of John Thomson (1837-1921) Photographer, Debbie Ireland, and Terry Bennett. Messages of support were swiftly gathered up from the commemoration group, Roberta McGrath and Roddy Simpson (Scottish Society for the History of Photography) and endorsed by Professor Nick Pearce. The application was proofed by the Historical Photographs of China project assistant, Shannon Smith, and submitting to HES just before the scheme closed for the year’s new applications on 30 August 2019.

The nomination was successful, and was indeed deemed ‘exemplary’ by the independent panel. The commemoration group then decided on the wording for the plaque, for the foundry to cast. We prepared a press release to coincide with the public announcement in March 2020 by HES of seventeen new plaques. Further progress was delayed as the pandemic set in.

Meanwhile, the date of the centenary of Thomson’s death (30 September 1921) was fast approaching.  We planned for a plaque ‘unveiling’ event to take place on 29 September, which was the same day as the opening of the exhibition China Through the Lens of John Thomson, at the Heriot-Watt University (the exhibition is part of Thomson’s alma mater’s bicentenary celebrations). Thanks to the efforts of the HES plaques and Estates teams, the plaque was installed in time.

With invitations to the event sent out, I wrote a speech for the ‘unveiling’, an event organised by Betty and attended by more than thirty people, including relatives of John Thomson’s wife Isabella Newlands Thomson. Deborah Ireland regaling the gathering with ten things we probably didn’t know about John Thomson, including that he had significantly boosted the Royal Geographical Society’s photograph collection by encouraging explorers to bring back their own or locally purchased photographs, as well as training explorers in photography.

Neil Gregory, HES Deputy Head of Engagement, said that HES were delighted to be able to have the John Thomson plaque installed in time for the centenary. He said that he would like the unveiling to not be a final outcome, but rather more of a beginning: he and his team are currently exploring how an engagement programme for HES’s Commemorative Plaques could be developed which would enable both tourists and online audiences alike to learn more about Thomson’s fascinating life, his remarkable contribution to the development of photography and our knowledge of 19th century China.

Betty Yao MBE speaking at the Opening of the exhibition ‘China Through the Lens of John Thomson’ at the Heriot-Watt University. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

In the evening, the exhibition China Through the Lens of John Thomson was opened by Alex Hamilton, chair of the Scottish Society for the History of Photography (SSHoP). There were speeches by Ma Qiang, the Chinese Consul in Edinburgh, by Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt University and by Betty Yao, thanks to whose tireless work millions of people have a had a chance to see the marvellous large prints made from Thomson’s glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Collection. Mindful of covid, Betty gave guided tours of the exhibition in small groups.

Betty Yao MBE giving a guided tour of the exhibition to Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt University and Ma Qiang, the Chinese Consul in Edinburgh. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

The events of the day were attended by photo-historians, curators and representatives from the Scottish Society for the History of Photography, HES and the Royal Photographic Society. The opportunity to have face-to-face discussions, so long denied, will doubtless lead to other initiatives. As for more plaque nominations – to HES, English Heritage, other civic organisations – this can only be encouraged. Historic Environment Scotland aim to re-open a call for nominations in Spring 2022.

I recommend a visit to China Through the Lens of John Thomson, on at the James Watt Centre, Riccarton campus, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS (bus #25 from the Scott Monument) until 24 March 2022.

Coinciding with the John Thomson centenary events, MuseumsEtc has published a two-volume set, comprising Street Life in London by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, and an accompanying volume with context and commentary by Emily Kathryn Morgan.

Looking at a peep show in the street, Beijing, c.1870. Photograph by John Thomson. The exhibition prints were made from glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

‘The peep-show … is fitted with a series of lenses in front, through which the eye of the spectator beholds the wonders of the world. … The showman … gives a perfect specimen of the winter dress of a Pekinese labourer. … The smallest figure is that of a young Tartar or Manchu girl… The third figure is that of a poor Manchu bannerman in his regulation sheepskin coat.’ Image as originally published, and text, from ‘Illustrations of China and Its People’ by John Thomson (1873/4), vol IV.

*John Thomson Commemoration Group led by Betty Yao MBE: Terry Bennett (photo-historian), Jamie Carstairs (Special Collections, University of Bristol), Geoff Harris (Editor, ‘Amateur Photographer’), Deborah Ireland (photo-historian), Michael Pritchard (Director, Education & Public Affairs, RPS).

Blog by Graham Hogg (National Library of Scotland): John Thomson: photographer, writer and traveller

BBC: The pioneering Scots photographer who captured China

The Scotsman: Edinburgh photographer who brought Far East to the world remembered on centenary

Historical Photographs of China: John Thomson – useful links.