About me

Writer and historian, author of China Bound: John Swire & Sons and its World, 1816-1980 (Bloomsbury), Out of China: How the Chinese ended the era of foreign domination (Penguin & Harvard University Press), Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (Penguin) and The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing empire, 1832-1914 (Penguin). Robert Bickers was born in Wiltshire, and lived on Royal Air Force bases across England, in Germany and in Hong Kong. He studied in London, and held fellowships in Oxford and Cambridge before taking up a post at the University of Bristol in 1997, where he is now a Professor of History.

You can contact Robert through his University of Bristol email.

27 thoughts on “About me

  1. My mother – who was born in Shanghai in 1925 and lived there until 1937 – has passed to me three photograph albums and a large number of loose photographs taken in China from about 1900 until the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. They include, amongst family photos, a good selection of scenes of Shanghai and Peitaiho, as well as pictures taken during Japanese air attacks, showing bomb damage and civilian casualties. I also have a copy on CD of two further albums of photographs taken by my mother’s elder sister’s husband (who worked for BAT in Shanghai) which also contain scenes of the city during Japanese aggression. If you are interested in adding any of this material to your collection, please let me know.

    I would add that my mother has written a very interesting account of her childhood in Shanghai and has expressed an interest in finding a publisher. Even if it is not published, I believe it is an important historical record of this aspect of British expatriate life between the two world wars.

  2. Hi,

    I am wondering if you could help point me in the right direction. I am desperately trying to find family history about my great grandmother. I have her marriage certificate which states she was born in 1873 in Shanghai, her father was Andrew nelson, a mariner who was deceased at the time of her marriage in 1894. She appears on the 1891 census in Wales, UK aged 17. Family stories suggest she lived in Shanghai for sometime and we suspect she came to Wales around 1890 and then remained here. I am stuck. I have no ideas where to go now. It is quite complicated as in 1891 she is staying with a Mary Thomas in Anglesey but is down as a niece. If she is a niece then this would make her and my great grandfather first cousins. I have tracked all of Mary Thomas’ (nee Rogers) sisters barr one a Laura Jones Rogers born 1843ish. I know Laura/Lowri married a mariner and had 2 daughters but this is it. I think the niece status us a red herring though as the other 4 girls on the 1891 census, also having lived in Shanghai were actual nieces. They are Lillie Willams born in 1876 in Glasgow, and Mary Williams born in 1878, in Shanghai, Mabel Pearson born in 1880 in Shanghai and Ada Pearson born in 1882ish in Middlesex. However none of these girls appear in the UK census records until 1891 either and I know their mother Annie Pearson (nee Rogers, first marriage to William Williams, 2nd marriage to Mr Pearson), lived in Shanghai until 1901. It is possible they did all travel together.

    I have been told about the North China Herald but can’t work out how to access it without a massive cost. I live in a small town in North Yorkshire, UK who do not have access to it. I am not even sure if it would help, would it list her birth or her parents death, would it list ships leaving from Shanghai for the UK around 1890?

    Many thanks


  3. I am studying the story of the Friends Ambulance Unit ‘China Convoy’ based on Friends archives in London and Philadelphia. I now have a collection of many hundreds of photos of those times in China, found mainly by tracing old FAU families and several survivors. It has been a very exciting quest and I have a book ready for publication. As it is not a commercial prospect, I need funds or sponsorship. This is never easy but I need some insights and contacts. Can anyone help?

  4. It is easy to assume that such men came from social elites, and were unreflective imperialists, but the picture is much “more varied, and these servants of the Chinese state were in many cases more loyal to their salt then might be imagined.”

    Such assumptions, and such suprise, is very common in today’s popular history books which shows a liberal right-on politically correct slant, which I thought would have been frowned upon, but perhaps it is to each generation to interpret the actions of the past.
    “Social elites” have been reformers, have abolished slavery etc etc, so…as above….why assume the worst of people?

    Apart from your write up of your student’s book, the subject does look interesting and I wish her well.

  5. Hi, I am hoping this is still an active site. I have recently come across my great grandfathers memoirs. He had hand typed a 400 page book on his 23 year service in the Chinese maritime customs service and his 4 years as a POW. It is am absolutely amazing read and would love his story to be either published or at least past on. I am really not sure how to go about this.

  6. Cathy, It is a hard road transcribing and editing old memoirs but it can be done. Self-publishing is possible but it does not come cheap. For an example can I suggest you obtain a copy of ‘Letters from Hankow’, a collection edited by a relative, Tony Beckinsale. Google will find it for you and much can be learned from it. Your project sounds fascinating and very worthwhile.

  7. I stumbled across this blog whilst looking for information about the Maritime Customs in Shanghai in the 1920s when my father and two of his brother’s were there. His name (later changed to Furneaux by deed poll) was Ronald Hicks. I was amazed that two people who have left messages have the same surname. I would love to trace him and find out more of his ten years there. I am compiling a short family history for my grandchildren who will want to know what their great grandfather was doing there. Can anyone help?
    Jacqui Furneaux . Bristol UK.

  8. Just stumbled on your blog by accident- have to come across the Archibald family in China? They ran an English language newspaper for many years, and I would love to find out more about their history.

  9. Good afternoon
    Found your blog whilst trying to find out more about a monument in my local cemetary. The deceased, was Thomas Cunningham who died in 1910 aged 70. He was, according to the memorial, for 30 years a lighthouse keeper in Shanghai, China. The memorial is in the form of a (I suspect romanticised) lighthouse.

  10. On Feb 23rd 1859 at St Michael’s Church, Kingstown by the Rev. J. Jermain : Andrew Connolly, Esquire (late of Shanghai, China), merchant; was married to Mary Alicia Whyte only surviving daughter of the late Robert Whyte, Esq. of Robertstown, county of Kildare. From page 2 of the Irish Examiner issue of March 2nd 1859.

  11. I have inherited a large ornate silver trophy with the following inscription ‘ Presented by Edward Morriss to the Shanghai Volunteers. Won by Trooper F.Evans.SR.’ There is no date but the soldier on the top is wearing a uniform and holding a rifle that is late19th /early 20th Century. Has anyone come across either of these 2 names or can you tell me how to access service records for the SVC as I’ve drawn a blank so far. I would love to know more about the history of the people behind this object and why my grandparents had it. Any help would be much appreciated.

  12. Following on from Wendy Preston’s silver shooting marksmanship(?) trophy inheritance, but on a lesser scale, — I should like to record here details of my ‘Cornish pewter’ or Britannia metal (looks like pewter, but antimony replaced the lead to reduce toxicity) ‘pint’ beer mug with the traditional glass bottom, made by James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, England in 1876 marked “K” 484.
    The handle has ‘squared’ top & bottom corners, an oval finger-opening, and flat surfaces on the outer 5 sides, and one side of the pot is engraved with the crew of a coxed rowing 8 :—
    “1876 Shanghai Autumn Regatta”
    Club 8-oared Race
    won by the Blue Boat
    bow A J Pollock
    2 J C Hughes
    3 C H King
    4 T Smith
    5 H J Such
    6 W S Sach
    7 R P Hunter
    Stroke A C Westall
    Cox A Hickling
    Bought in 1978 in Padstow, Somerset, England.
    Info from web: http://www.talesofoldchina.com/shanghai/cultures/t-sport.htm
    The Shanghai Regatta Club was formed in 1848.
    The international rowing race was at first held in the international enclave city on the Soochow Creek / Suzhou – Wusong to Huangpu River, Shanghai, Jiangsu, China and later moved inland to avoid congestion & river-traffic, to at “Henli”, — no doubt so named after the Henley-on-Thames rowing venue? In 1866 it was won by an American 8, and in 1867 by the British boat.
    I just thought if any descendants would like that tankard, contact me in New Zealand at MURRAY@GINNANE.CO.NZ The names may be useful? They were probably born in the British Empire around 1850. They may have been associated with the start of the HSBC Banking ‘tong’ ? { = HongKong & Shanghai Banking Corporation }. Thanks, Robert Bickers.

  13. I have enjoyed your posted writing and read the ‘the Empire’ some time ago. I wondered whether you or your followers could throw any light a couple of Shanghai characters that have entered my own area of research. The key interest is the Buchan family consisting of Evelyn (later Lechodesky, Burkhardt, Oleaga) and her daughter from the first marriage, Victoria, Reginald Stuart Erskine Buchan, William Muir Augustus Buchan, Doreen Buchan and their mother Harriet Hilton Maley. My specific research is their business interests after the arrival of the brothers in 1926 and most particularly the various ventures in Manila in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
    I am across most of the sources used by authors such as Wasserstein, Dreyfus, Dong et al including the relevant SMP Special Branch files, newspaper and state archives and so on. The gaps I have specifically relate to their activities in import and export including silk and machinery and commodities from the USSR. Any help or pointers greatly appreciated.

  14. Hello Robert, I just wanted to express thanks over the photos of the girls at the school in Chefoo China, 1893 and 1896… I say 1893 instead of 1891 because I feel I disagree with the correction of the date, to that of 1891, simply based on the timing of JTH’s visits. I’ve been doing research into two of the girls that appear in those photos and their birth dates are 1881 and 1882. They appear in the photo on the second to last and last rows, appearing definitely teen or pre-teen age rather than 9 or 10 years old. Perhaps it could be 1894 if indeed 1893 is incorrect…. the two girls names are Elsie and Hilda Randle. They appear in another photo dated 1896 and they look age appropriate in that photo, you may be able to find and match them in the two photos, by their resemblances. I really don’t think there could have been as much as 5 years between the two photos. Two or three perhaps, but not five.

  15. Elsie Andrews Randle – born February 4th, 1881
    Page 70 of The Chinese Recorder 1881, announced the birth of Elsie. It says “On the Wu-sung River, Friday February 4th, the wife of Horace A. Randle, of the China Inland Mission, of a daughter – Elsie Andrews”. Also 1881 page 97 of China’s millions mentions her birth but in less detail.

    Hilda Randle born Nov 11 1882
    Church of England Births and Baptisms Record from ancestry.com, Reference Number GB127.L186 1/2/9

    Hilda and Elsie appearing here in 1986:

    And seems to me like Hilda is the fifth from the right on the back row and Elsie is second from the right on the second to last row:

    Is it just me or they don’t look young enough in that photo for it to be 1891?

  16. I’ve just finished the Scramble for China and I wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. Your book is an incredible achievement. It’s so rich and humane and written in such a warm, engaging, even-handed manner. Bravo!

  17. Could you contact me about the image for Pat Givens? I saw the image on your blog “What shall we call Chiang Kai-shek?” I have the rights to republish trail-blazing woman journalist Irene Corbally Kuhn and her book Assigned to Adventure (1938), received from her granddaughter, Heather Corbally Bryant, a writing instructor at Wellesley College near Boston. Adventure is about Irene’s time in Shanghai with the China Press in the 1920s. I would like to use the Givens photo in a section from Heather’s memoir about her grandmother for which I also have rights.

  18. I came on your article ‘Shanghai Policemen and their Novels’ while researching my copy of Drums of Asia by Charles Trevor, and I thought you might be interested because the book has a dedication with an elegant but illegible signature to which the writer has added ‘alias “Charles Trevor”. I had made no progress at all in deciphering the signature until I read your article, but I can now see that it could well be Broadbridge. The B’s are elaborate and idiosyncratic, the rest of the first syllable is illegible but ‘ridge’ is entirely plausible. The first name remains illegible but to my mind this dedicated copy is a clear indication of the author’s identity. However, I’ve been unable to find any further references to a ghost writer or perhaps a thriller writer of that name who flourished in the Thirties. I feel that given the issues the novel gave rise to at the time, and the wrong attribution by the War Museum, this copy could have some value as confirmation of the book’s authorship.

  19. Hello Robert, I am still researching my mother and have noticed a footnote in your book ‘New Frontiers” p.105 note 11. re. a taped interview with Leon Lerman. I would really like to get a copy of the tape, or a transcript, as I believe Leon may be my grandfather.
    Are You able to point me in the right direction?
    Richard Payne.

  20. I would like to thank you for the assistance you gave me in locating my family through the Shanghai Municipal police force to1941. A surprise that my grandfather and uncle were both members of the force as well. I have now been able to locate my grandfathers wife and as a result of searching linked up with her family in Essex. Your snapshot of newspaper articles from the China newspaper has filled in many gaps of my fathers life which was cut short in 1957 .
    Thanks Colleen Madycki (nee Swayn)

  21. Hello Professor Bickers:
    I recently purchased a copy of your book: Getting Stuck in for Shanghai. My uncle William Alexander “Dolly” Dalgarno was a volunteer as mentioned in your book. He did survive the war and returned to England but never married.
    My father Cecil Dalgarno Bickerton was born in Shanghai and became a member of the Shanghai Volunteer Corp. He also found employment with Butterfield and Swire as a clerk/accountant. He emigrated to Canada in 1926.
    My grandfather Thomas Lacey Bickerton built the Bickerton Hotel (1900) at 102 Bubbling Well Road. He helped with the organizing of the Chinese Labour Corp (1915/1917) in Shanghai.
    He and his wife nee( Wilhemina Paisley) sold the hotel in 1925 and moved to Tsingtao. They operated the Laiyang Road Acadia beachfront Lodge hosting opera singers, dancers and other internationals. They were interned by the Japanese at the Weihsien Camp from 1943-1945. They sailed to England on the ship Dorsetshire but Wilhemina did not survive the voyage being buried at the Port Said Cemetery in Egypt.
    My other grandfather Captain Frank Baylis lived in Hong Kong and was the captain of the ship Thermopylae for a short time around (1900). They moved to Shanghai around 1910 and departed for Victoria BC, 1925.
    My relatives never spoke of the war but I now realize that it would have been a horrible experience.
    If anyone knows of my ancestors I would be interested in learning more.
    Thank you. Art Bickerton

  22. My son Matthew Bell who is a Professor at Kings College gave me two of your books for Christmas. I found my father’s name Ernest Arthur Eva mentioned in Getting Stuck in for Shanghai. He was one of the men who had just arrived in Shanghai to join the S.M.P. and
    returned immediately after the war. On leave in his home city of Plymouth he met my Mother who lived in Ramsbury. They eventually married and had three children, all born In Shanghai, the oldest a boy died of dysentery followed by measles in 1932. I was also sick with dysentery and my father decided to take early retirement and we left Shanghai in 1937. We pursued a circuitous route home and I have a copy of the newspaper published on the Queen Mary when we left New York, it announced that the Japanese had just entered Shanghai. My Father was very athletic and evidently built badminton courts at every station which he was in charge. I have many trophies that he won and silverware that he received as gifts when he left. I also have many photographs. I don’t know if any of this is of any interest to you. I live in Hertfordshire.

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