As I prepared to focus on the writing of Empire Made Me in the late 1990s I developed a database listing the names of just over 2,000 men. In 1999 I posted a version of it online, and broadcast the fact to a few family history websites. I have added to it over the years, and it now has details of some 2,745 men. I thought that perhaps a few people might get in touch, and might have additional documents or information about the lives of the men that would help me better understand their lives, and so the context for Maurice Tinkler’s story. In return I would be able to tell them the basic outlines of their careers, and perhaps, where I had looked at personnel files, more information that might be useful.
In fact relatives or descendents of a strikingly large proportion of the men have got in touch over the years. They have emailed or written from across the world, sending me details, documents and photographs. I have done my best to answer them all as fully as possible. This last Christmas season brought emails concerning another five men. My correspondents were in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and the UK, and they asked about men who joined in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, who served for three years, and for almost twenty, who moved on elsewhere after their service, or who stayed in China: a good cross-section. Generally I have had additional information to pass on, although sometimes nothing more than that bare outline, date of joining, leaving, promotion to Sergeant etc.
The information people have provided has immeasurably enriched my work, providing new data for the database, but more importantly a rich trove of stories, documents and especially photographs, many of which have found their way into the ‘Historical Photographs of China‘ collections. More than anything, it was the old Shanghai photographs which arrived as attachments which laid the groundwork for that project. Medal and gun collectors have also written, and policemen, as well as afficionados of unarmed combat, and knife-fighting. (Part of the SMP’s complex legacy was the work undertaken there by W. E. Fairbairn, and then taken into his service with clandestine warfare units during World War Two).
More than data, perhaps, the flow of correspondence reminded me that I was dealing with a living story, with men and women still very much alive within family memories, and sometimes still very much alive, and with with their own strong views on the Shanghai saga. It was and remains a helpful corrective, keeping this historian alert to the fact that his work concerns people, and not simply characters from the dead archive. So keep those emails coming.