I am the lucky possessor of ‘interesting relatives with singular names doing remarkable things at auspicious times and in exotic places’. I have known from childhood that my mother, née Gwen Carrall, was born in China at Chefoo, Shantung (now Yantai, in Shandong), in 1893, and that her father had served under the Ulster man, Sir Robert Hart, as Commissioner of Customs there. After my father was posted to Hong Kong in 1938, I had visited Chefoo with my mother in the summer of 1939. We had gone to nearby Weihaiwei (now Weihai) for a break from the damp mists of Hong Kong. She found there were still steamers to Chefoo, and decided to take me to her childhood home.
Some memories of that visit as an eight-year-old have stayed with me. One is of struggling ever upwards through a large garden to a house then occupied by the Japanese commandant. (The Japanese had occupied Chefoo during their war against China, which began in 1936.) He made us welcome and showed us round. The second is of going in a rickshaw, passing Japanese sentries on the outskirts of the town, to a cemetery on Temple Hill beyond. My mother and I were accompanied by her old amah, who had continued to tend the grave of my grandfather. On the way back I apparently fell asleep, and my mother told me the amah had explained to the sentries that I was overcome by the solemnity of a visit to my ancestor! These memories were all I had to guide me when I made a diversion to Yantai, during a holiday in China in 2002, one hundred years after my grandfather’s death. The manager of the local branch of the China International Travel Service took me to the Building Archive office, to locate the site of the cemetery on Temple Hill, and showed me round the former Settlement Hill, where my grandparents had lived. Some of the older houses remain — one being an interesting museum — in what is now a public park. The house of the Commissioner of Customs is gone, and by its old top gate there now stands a memorial to the Chinese who died during the Japanese occupation.
British women and children were evacuated from Hong Kong to Australia in 1940. My father, fortunately for him, was posted to India a fortnight before war was declared on the Japanese, after their attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. We rejoined him there, and we only returned to England in December 1945, without him. I did not immediately know that my parents’ marriage was effectively at an end. It is only in writing this book that I realised that I shared with my mother and aunts their experience of returning to a little known homeland and an amorphous class status. Like them, I was a middle-class child coming to terms with comparative poverty, and the need to help my mother to earn a living, after a childhood in which my parents had operated at the higher levels of colonial society.
‘…we had 37 shot in our residence, one of which, a six pounder, passed within but two inches of the head of my wife, & as near to my youngest child.’ So wrote Charles Buckton, the second of Emma Spry Edwards’ three husbands. How did a young woman from Devon find herself on 29 December 1854 in a houseboat on the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang), in the middle of a battle between the gunboats of the Chinese Emperor and the ships of rebels? How did she subsequently become a lifelong friend of Robert Hart, who became head of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs? And why were her children called Carrall, when she had married a Wilcocks? The answers lie in the social status of her first husband. It is a complicated story but needs to be told to show why the Carralls were in China and the perils of illegitimacy.
Letter from Hart to Aunt Kath, written on 26 January 1902
I am hoping to — or rather I was — hoping to have my first garden party on Wednesday, the last of April: but I do not feel inclined for it now. That day will be May Eve and is associated with one of my dearest friends, Mrs. Brazier, who has just passed away, and I don’t look forward to it now in the same way as before. The news of her death came to me on the 14th and I c’d not believe it at first, but a reply telegram confirmed it on the 18th. She died on the 12th — a quiet, conscious, painless death — and was buried on the 15th. The child, a girl, was alive and well, and she had just got my November letter assenting to be Godfather, & it pleased her before she died.
I still see her graceful figure moving about & I can hear her talking, & I cannot still realize that she has left us & will be no more seen on earth. I am a bit case-hardened: I have known so many people that have died, & have had to part with so many friends that the fountain of tears is dry and death has also become a commonplace in a long life and does not hurt now as it once did. But I feel dear Mrs. Brazier’s death sadly: we were excellent friends and I had the greatest respect & liking for her. Your papa’s sister, Emily [sic] Carrall, was also a great friend of mine long ago and spent a month with me in 1875: she was a lovely girl then. I had some photographs of her, from seven years of age up to twenty-four: but those terrible Boxers deprived me of all my treasures…
The Illegitimate Children in the 1890s
During the 1880s Hart’s dealings with his wards were conducted mainly through his lawyer, Hutchins, but on 10 August 1890 he told Campbell that he had not had news of Herbert and the others for a long time, and he repeated his query on 19 October.