Friends of Sir Robert Hart

Mary Tiffen

 

 

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Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Customs, 1863–1908 had a hectic career in the declining years of the Qing dynasty. It ruined his family life, but his friendships with women, illustrated here by three generations of Carrall women, partially relieved his loneliness. His and their letters and diaries bring nineteenth-century expatriate China vividly to life. The book is illustrated by over seventy photographs dating from the 1850s. It also illustrates the nature of the Victorian family, in both its legal and illicit forms.
Emma Carrall, a young widow with two small children, arrived in Whampoa, the port of Canton, in 1853 with her second husband, Buckton, a ship’s chandler. Narrowly missed by a cannon ball, she met the man who was to become her third husband, Theo Sampson. Then a humble constable, Sampson rose to become head of a college for Chinese students of Western languages and culture in Canton and a noted botanist. After marrying him in 1858 Emma met Robert Hart, who was later to appoint her son Jim Carrall to the Imperial Maritime Customs which Hart headed from 1864–1908. Hart was a remarkable man of multiple achievements, but the book concentrates on his relationship with women and family, including his bachelor relationship with a young Chinese girl before he married Hester Bredon in 1866.

Emma’s daughter, another Emma, visited Hart in Peking in 1875, unwittingly playing a role in the disintegration of his marriage. Jim Carrall made a bad impression on Hart as his private secretary in 1883 but his wife Frances became a friend. Jim restored his reputation in Foochow when the local Chinese authorities required his help in the aftermath of the devastating French attack on the Chinese navy in 1884. Jim’s fourth daughter, Kathleen, born in Hart’s house in 1883, visited him in Peking with her sister in 1900, just before the Boxers, a peasant movement born of discontent with poverty and the role of foreigners, laid siege to the foreign embassies. Jim was then Commissioner in Chefoo (Yantai), where his daughters attended its excellent schools. Jim defused a riot in Chefoo in 1900 which could have led to similar devastation as riots, allied invasions and looting had already caused in Peking and Tientsin. In 1902 Jim’s death forced the family to return to Britain. His daughters had to adjust to comparative poverty, in a world where it was still difficult for women to earn a decent living. The Carrall women continued their friendship and correspondence with Hart till he also returned in 1908, honoured for his achievements, but disappointed in his legal children, and still plagued by those issuing from his earlier relationship.

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