Robert Hart TimeMapper
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Sir Robert Hart 1835 - 1911
This is a substantial collection of personal and official papers, comprising a range of interesting and insightful material relating to Hart’s official duties and experiences in Peking during his long career in charge of the Chinese Customs Service. Significant in this regard is the long series of 77 personal journals which Hart kept during this time. Running from 1854 when he first entered the Chinese administration, the diaries record many personal anecdotes and reminiscences about his life and work in China. The collection also contains a significant series of correspondence amounting to some 7000 letters dating from 1899 to 1911. Although the majority relate to personal matters, corresponding with family members, other relatives and friends, many have a bearing on customs affairs. Other items of interest include a set of notes and papers detailing Hart’s experiences and analysis of the Boxer disturbances in Peking, 1900; numerous photographs and glass-slides. This collection provides an important insight into the life and career of Sir Robert Hart.
Sir Robert Hart MS 15/6/1/B33 c. 1910
Special CollectionsBelfast, UK54.5953949,-5.9285062
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Sir Robert Hart, an Irishman and Queen’s graduate, was a key figure in 19th century China. In China he was heavily involved in economics, politics, diplomacy, light-houses, railways, and the postal service. He wielded significant influence and made a substantial contribution to China’s early modernisation and its foreign relations with the West. Hart was unique because the position he held for over 40 years, that of Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, facilitated regular access to officials in the Grand Council and Zongli Yaman, thus influencing internal reform and external relationships. He was employed by the Chinese authorities and not the Western powers during a pivotal period in China’s history. Hart’s successful career in China is often attributed to his sympathetic understanding of Chinese tradition and its influence on society and culture. Sometimes this understanding is attributed to his long term intimate relationship with Ayaou, a Chinese girl, during his early years in China, 1857-1865. Hart’s life is marked by strong personal commitment to achievement – whether at school, university or as IG. He is of immense interest to scholars of Western history and also those of Chinese history due to the international nature of the Customs Service in his time. Hart’s letters to his London agent, Campbell along with various collections of correspondence in institutions and private hands around the world provide valuable insight to Hart and his role in Chinese and Western history in the second half of the 19th century. The bulk of Hart’s surviving personal papers however are held in the Special Collections at Queen’s University Belfast. These materials were donated to the University in the 1970s following the death of the last Sir Robert Hart. These include hundreds of letters, articles, approximately 1000 photographs, ephemera and 77 volumes of his personal diaries. Hart started to keep a diary on the first day of his arrival in China in 1854, they run continuously until the day he retired in April 1908 – over 50 years of detailed comment on every aspect of his life – personal and professional.
Special CollectionsNorthern Ireland54.6641641,-7.9259605
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Sir Robert Hart was born 20th February 1835 at 42 Woodhouse Street, Portadown. His parents were Henry Hart (1806-1875) and Ann Edgar. He was the eldest of a family of twelve children. The Harts were a middle-class Ulster family with a background in distilling, shop-keeping and farming. The family moved from Portadown to Lisburn where they settled at Ravarnette House for a number of years.
Special Collections
42 Woodhouse Street, Portadown
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Early School Somerset
Robert Hart was 10 years old when he left home for the first time. He travelled to England to the Wesleyan School at Taunton, Somerset. At the end of the school year Robert was sent home from Taunton unaccompanied.
Special Collections
Wesleyan School, Taunton, Somerset, UK
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Early School Dublin18461850
His father was furious and decided to send his son to Wesley Connexional School, Dublin, not quite so far away from home.
Special Collections
Wesley Connexional School, Dublin
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Life at Queen's18501853
Hart was 15 years old (1850) when he came to the newly founded Queen’s College, Belfast. He distinguished himself by starting each academic year with a scholarship and finishing each year with a prize. Robert Hart graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s College, Belfast in 1853 when he was 18 years old. He was the only candidate awarded a graduate scholarship in Modern languages, value £40 for the academic year 1853-54.
In 1854 the British Foreign Secretary, Earl of Clarendon, put in place a scheme for the development of the consular service in China and Japan. The Foreign Office sent a circular to the Queen’s Colleges in Ireland (Galway, Belfast and Cork), requesting recommendations. Robert Hart was one of 36 men from Queen’s College, Belfast to put their names forward for consideration. College Council nominated Hart. On April 13th he was appointed to the post of Supernumeracy Interpreter in China. With £100 for his passage Robert Hart set sail for China. He was 19 years old.
Robert Hart c.1854
Special Collections
Queen's University Belfast
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
British Consulate, Ningpo
Hart sailed from Southampton to Alexandria and travelled via the Nile, Cairo and Suez to Hong Kong, an altogether different world and a long way from Ireland.
In 1854 very little was known of China, knowledge of China was limited to trade through the 5 Treaty Ports and information supplied by Christian missionaries. British consular staff in Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports were responsible for promoting Britain’s trading interests in China. Pirates and disease, ever present threats, wreaked havoc on activities and staff. Despite these problems trade continued to grow, as did the need for interpreters.
Hart spent his first 3 months in Hong Kong as a Student Interpreter and was then appointed to the British Consulate at Ningpo, where he remained until March 1858.
Yochow Custom House, Opening Day, 30th April 1901 (MS 15/6/5/9)
Special Collections
British Consulate, Ningpo
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
British Consulate, Canton
From Ningpo he moved on to Canton, initially as Secretary to the Allied Commission (responsible for governing the city) and then in October as interpreter at the British Consulate there.
Stuhlmann and Lisa at Nanking, 1907 (MS 15/6/10/1)
Special Collections
British Consulate, Canton
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Joining the CIIMC01/05/18591863
In May 1859 Robert Hart resigned from the British Consular Service. The Canton Viceroy, Laou Tsung Kwang asked him to join the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs (CIMC). He was appointed Deputy-Commissioner at Canton. The Chinese Imperial Maritime Service was 4 years old. In 1861, H. N. Lay, the Inspector General of the CIMC, returned to England on leave for 2 years. Robert Hart and George Henry Fitz-Roy were appointed as Officiating Inspector-Generals during this time. This gave Hart an opportunity to expand his experience and show his ability.
Customs House (MS 15/6/5/11)
Special Collections
CIMC, Canton, China
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Commissioner at Shanghai
When Lay returned in May 1863 Hart was made Commissioner at Shanghai, with responsibility for the Yangtsze ports. This post was created for Hart by Prince Kung. As a result of a badly managed transaction (the Sherard Osborne affair), H. N. Lay, the Inspector-General, was dismissed by the Chinese authorities. Robert Hart was appointed Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs in November 1863. He was 28 years old. Hart’s career as Inspector-General (I. G.) of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs was his life. He was responsible to the Chinese government (his employer) for the operating of the Customs Service. His post was a delicate balance of organisational skill and diplomacy. Hart wielded enormous power, often negotiating with American and European authorities, all with major interests in China. He received many honours in the course of his career some of which include the Ancestral Rank of the First Class of the First Order for Three Generations, with Letters Patent, China; Baronet, Great Britain; Commander of the Order of Pius IX, Holy See. By the end of the 19th century the Customs Service was responsible for the Chinese Imperial Postal Service, port development, inland and coastal waterways, as well as collecting revenue.
Commissioner’s House, Swatow (MS 15/6/5/13)
Special CollectionsShanghai, China31.2243025,120.9148976
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
In 1866, after twelve years in China, Hart returned home to Ireland on leave. Whilst on leave he met and married Hester (Hessie) Jane Bredon, also from Portadown. She was nineteen years old and must have had a keen interest in adventure and travel.
Hart Family c. 1888 (MS 15/6/1/D2)
Special CollectionsPortadown, UK54.4231042,-6.4457506
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Honeymoon In Killarney
After a brief honeymoon in Killarney the couple sailed for China
Hart Family, ca. 1878 (MS 15/6/1/C1)
Special CollectionsKillarney, Ireland52.0605651,-9.5251525
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Family Life18761878
Hessie remained in China until March 1876, when she returned to Europe with their two children – a daughter, Evelyn Amy (Evey) and a son, Edgar Bruce. Hart was reunited with his family in Paris in 1878 when he travelled there for the international exhibition as President of the Chinese Commission.
Easter Sunday 1906 (MS 15/6/8/46iii)
Special CollectionsPeking, China39.9390715,116.1165808
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
The Family in China18791882
The family returned to China in Spring 1879, leaving Evey at school in Dublin. Hart’s second daughter, Mabel Milburne (Nollie) was born in November, 1879. Hart settled back into family life in Peking, moving into a new residence, ordering fittings from Campbell, his agent in London, and working hard for China’s interests at the CIMC.
Hankow, 5 November 1901 (MS 15/6/10/3)
Special CollectionsParis, France48.8589506,2.2773452
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
The Hart Family Returns to Europe
However, in 1882 Hessie and the children returned to Europe – this time for good. Robert Hart was not to see his wife again until she came to visit with Nollie in 1906, when they spent 3 months in Peking. In a letter to Campbell Hart wrote, “It is, of course, pleasant to have wife and daughter here, but, after two dozen years of solitariness, I don’t run as easily in ‘double harness’ as I would have done had I been at it all the time!” He was committed to his work at CIMC and hoped that Lady Hart and Nollie wouldn’t remain in China until it was time for him to retire, “for I want to be alone to attend to the hundred and one things ‘winding up’ will involve.”
Tiffin at the Statistical Department, Shanghai, April 29 1900. (MS 15/6/9/11)
Special CollectionsPeking, China39.9390715,116.1165808
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Hart was a busy man, he worked hard, read a lot and corresponded widely. He wrote to his wife regularly, to Campbell (his colleague and friend in London) every Sunday and to many relatives and friends. His letters to Campbell are those of an intimate and trusting friend: “P.S. Is Lady Hart at Cadogan Place or in lodgings? O’Conor said she had let her house: was it so – is it so?” Campbell dealt with all aspects of Hart’s life – the business of CIMC, his finances as well as personal family matters. Robert Hart did permit himself one indulgence – his private band. He ordered the instruments and music from London. The band was a welcome addition to Peking society and in great demand. Hart derived much pleasure from the band and its activities – he remarked in a letter to Campbell, “My Peking Band (all Pekingese 16 to 19 years old, and fourteen of them) is doing very well, and it is about the only thing I am interested in apart from work.” Hart enjoyed company and entertained regularly – garden parties, soirées, and dinner parties. On Wednesday afternoons in particular Hart was “At home” to receive his friends. Writer and traveller, Gertrude Bell, a dinner guest, wrote to her father, 3 May 1903, “There was an enormous party, 16, Sir Robert’s invariable number. Everything is done according to an established order which has lasted 50 years.”
‘Chinese Customs’. Original drawing by IMP for cartoon published in Vanity Fair, 27 December 1894. (MS 15/6/1/B8)
Special CollectionsPeking, China39.9390715,116.1165808
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Rebellion in Peking01/06/190014/08/1900
The diplomatic legation in Peking was placed under siege in June 1900. A revolutionary group known as Boxers murdered many foreign missionaries and Chinese, railway lines were ripped up and eventually the legation was isolated from the outside world when all telegraph communication ceased. On June 20th Baron Klemens von Ketteler was murdered by the Boxers on his way to negotiate with them. After this incident a full onslaught was mounted on the legation residences.
Sir Robert Hart’s Brass Band, 23 October 1907 (MS 15/6/9/9)
Special CollectionsPeking, China39.9390715,116.1165808
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Hart Declared Dead17/07/190014/08/1900
Sir Robert Hart’s home and its contents were destroyed. The only items to be saved were his diaries. His death was announced in the Times on July 17th, 1900. Confirmation that Hart was still alive and well eventually reached the outside world on August 5th when he sent a message to his tailor, via Campbell, requesting suits, morning and evening dress, boots and slippers as he had lost everything. The siege of the legations ended on August 14th with the arrival of the international army. The Empress and her imperial court fled. A series of protracted negotiations resulted in the Boxer Protocol, a settlement reached between China and the foreign legations involved in the siege. Robert Hart was involved in secret negotiations during the siege and also in the formulation of the Boxer Protocol. China lost no territory, but was no longer financially independent, huge loans were arranged – Chinese Indemnities. In the months following the lifting of the siege Hart wrote a series of articles for publication in western journals giving his thoughts and recommendations concerning the Boxer rebellion.
Sir Robert Hart’s home in Peking after the Boxer Rebellion, 1900. The only things to survive were his diaries (MS 15/6/6/1)
Special CollectionsPeking, China39.9390715,116.1165808
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Leaving Service13/04/1908
Campbell, Hart’s close friend and colleague in CIMC’s London office, died on December 3rd 1907. Hart applied for leave of absence a month later. Sir Robert Hart left his desk at the Inspectorate on April 13th, 1908. He returned to England and settled near Great Marlow.
Sir Robert Hart, Shanghai, 1 May 1908. Guard of honour for Sir Robert on his quitting China (MS 15/6/6/2)
Special CollectionsGreat Marlow, UK51.5861649,-0.8750601
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
Pro-Chancellor of Queen's
Sir Robert Hart was Pro-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast from 1908- 1911. When University Senate met for the first time on 4th December 1908 it was under the Chairmanship of Sir Robert Hart.
MS 15/6/1/B13a c. 1900
Special Collections
Queen's University Belfast
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
He died on 20th September, 1911. He is buried at Bisham on the Thames.
Hart kept a diary throughout his life in China. His diary entries reflect his most personal musings on all aspects of his life – personal, religious, work and leisure. All tangled together, highs and lows, weaving a picture of an extraordinary life. Hart’s intellectual ability and capacity for hard work, balanced by a strong moral code and sense of purpose are evident in all of his dealings, personal and professional in China.
1912 Photograph of a rough model of proposed statue of Sir Robert Hart. Sent with covering letter to Sir Edgar Bruce by R. Ch. Guernier of Paris (MS 15/6/1/B35)
Special Collections
Bisham on the Thames, UK
Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast
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