Banjo, cricket, and ‘Social Shanghai’: Mina Shorrock, editor

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

On the evening of 14 March 1921, forty members of the Wells Branch of the Women’s Institute gathered to hear a talk on ‘Life in China’ delivered by ‘Mrs Shorrock’. The talk was followed by a ‘an enjoyable sing-song’; and Mrs Shorrock probably led the singing with a tune or two from her banjo. We know more about her role in the musical life of WI meetings in Somerset – ‘minstrel’ songs’ were her specialty, alongside Scottish ones – than we do about her thoughts on ‘Life in China’, but it would be good to know more about her and what she thought, for Mina Shorrock was one of the earliest woman editors of any newspaper or periodical published in China.

That periodical was Social Shanghai, which commenced monthly publication in February 1906, initially aimed squarely at a female, foreign, ‘society’ readership. It rapidly broadened out its appeal, and it remains distinctive as the first foreign-language magazine published in China that took advantage of the technological developments that allowed substantial use of reproduced photographs in its pages. In fact this was a very strong part of its appeal and rationale. You bought it because you expected to be in it, or to know those who were, or you had left for ‘home’ and wanted to keep up. In turn it tried to guarantee sales by stuffing its pages with photographs of those who might purchase it. Mina was an imaginative promoter of her journal: it would be nice to see a photograph of the costume she wore to ‘Mr Porter’s Fancy Dress Ball’ at the Country Club in March 1906, for she went dressed as ‘Social Shanghai’, while between 1908-1910 she parlayed the goodwill of the magazine’s name into a ‘Social Shanghai Tea Rooms’ on the city’s Kiangse Road. Surviving copies of the journal are now very rare. There is a good run in the Shanghai Library Rare Books collection at Xujiahui (the Zikawei Library), and an almost complete set in the G.E. Morrison Collection at the Toyo Bunko Library in Tokyo. Individual copies are held in some other libraries. The journal was discontinued after its November 1914 issue, by which time Mina Shorrock had landed back in the UK, where she lived until her death in 1938.

She died as Mina Shorrock, but was born Jemima Thomson Gow, the youngest daughter of a Glaswegian hotelier and wine merchant. Educated at Bellahouston Academy and at the Ladies’ College, she married Samuel Hope Sharrock, a Blackburn-born businessman, in Edinbugh in 1888. In 1897 the couple moved to Shanghai, where her husband established ‘Sam. H. Shorrock & Co.’, described as ‘Manufacturers’ Representatives and Machinery Importers’, with an office in Salford. Mina quickly established herself as a ‘a very gifted and clever amateur vocalist’. On her first outing she gave the audience a fine rendition of Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Willow Song’, and then, by way of encore — the first of many such – ‘The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’.

The musical contributions Mina Shorrock made are all we hear about her for some years. Sam Shorrock, an enthusiastic freemason, rapidly became a fixture in the elite world of foreign Shanghai, most notably after securing the agency for construction of the tram system in the international settlement, and was being tipped for a turn on the Municipal Council when he died suddenly of dysentery in September 1907. Settlement flags flew at half mast for this enthusiastic sportsman, who trained the local English team for the walking races that were all the rage, and who donated the ‘Shorrock Cup’ to the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. This shooting trophy was being competed for long after Mina Shorrock departed for home.

Social Shanghai cover 1914It was an unusual foreign woman who made a living before 1914 through an independent business venture in settlement Shanghai, or at least one that was not a boarding house, or – it has to be said — a brothel. (We know a fair bit about this latter world from the work of Eileen Scully). The only other resident woman journalist I am aware of in the latter part of the nineteenth century was Alicia Little (“Mrs Archibald J. Little”), nee Berwicke (1845-1926), novelist, photographer and frequent contributor to the North China Daily News. ‘Journalist’ is how Mina Shorrock described herself on various immigration forms as she travelled to North America and the UK in 1914. She also wrote, under the moniker ‘Belle Heather’, for the North China Daily News (a column on ‘The Feminine Note’ from 1904-1905), and for Sport and Gossip (which as far as I can see, survives nowhere).

Gordon, WG photographIt might be tempting to ignore the journal, for as I have described it so far it sounds insular and, frankly, superfluous as a record of Shanghai’s history. But as a repository of photographs it provides a good additional visual record of the city, albeit with a strong focus on the activities of its foreign residents. We are unlikely to be enthused by the portraits of the ‘Young Generation’ — babies and youngsters — that were strategically inserted into its pages (and, one assumes, bought in multiples by happy parents), but one of its strands of interest was historical, and sometimes much older photographs were published, which were contributed by long-term residents and which I have not seen elsewhere. An example is this 1859 portrait, one of four of Chinese merchants apparently taken by silk trader W. G. Gordon (William Alexander Grant Gordon). Social Shanghai is worth taking seriously on this, and a number of other counts.

Mina Shorrock died in Horrington, just east of the Somerset cathedral town of Wells, where she had lived for at least 20 years, and where she was known for being ‘a great friend to children’. She was cremated in Bristol a few days later. Shorrock’s last recorded Chinese gesture was the making of a splash at the February 1925 ‘Hard Times’ fancy dress dance in Horrington, which she had organised, and at which she arrived in the ‘highly picturesque costume of a Buddhist priest from China’. A minor irony worth noting, is the prominence of fancy dress events in the social life of Shanghai’s foreign community, some of the best visual records of which we can find in the pages of Social Shanghai. Little else survives to tell us much about her: there was a profile in an encyclopaedic 1908 survey of the treaty ports, which also provides the only photograph of Mina that I have encountered (not, thankfully, in ‘Buddhist’ garb).

There may be a little more to glean about her in the pages of Social Shanghai, but otherwise, aside from the occasional appearance on Somerset’s Women’s Institute stage, all we know is that Mina Shorrock, ‘working hard alone and almost unaided’, chronicled ‘all the brighter phases of life’ in Edwardian Shanghai through the heavy art paper pages of her magazine. (In fact, she did step back from editing it for 18 months in 1909-11, when the role was filled by an Australian, L. H. Drakeford, but then resumed charge). This is a shame, for it would be interesting to learn more about this banjo-playing journalist, who also, incidentally, organised Shanghai’s first ever women’s cricket match (in 1910): ‘out-and-out duffers are not desirable’, she wrote, calling on the ladies of Shanghai to pitch in, ‘but one can never know what one can do till one tries’. This last thought seems to have been something of a guiding principle behind the activities of an engaging China coast entrepreneur.

Sources: North China Herald, 26 November 1897, 21 February 1898, 6 September 1907, 9 September 1910; Wells Journal, 18 March 1921, 20 Feb 1925, 24 June 1938; Arnold Wright, chief ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other treaty ports of China (1908). I am grateful to Charlotte Ward for prompting me to dig further into Mina Shorrock’s background, and for her thoughts on fancy dress balls.

Vanishing Policeman

I get contacted fairly regularly by relatives and descendants of members of the Shanghai Municipal Police (as well as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and China coast residents more widely). Sometimes they have found my book, Empire Made Me (and sometimes I have mentioned the men), or they have found the website or other references to the work. I learn a great deal from these contacts, and have often been able to share information accumulated from personnel and other police files in the archives in Shanghai, published staff lists, and newspapers. Some of the information shared with me has gone into my books.

Shanghai lives often have a trajectory of their own in family memories: every Shanghai Sergeant becomes chief of police; every Customs tidewaiter is harbour master; every man who died in service has been killed by armed robbers, instead of typhoid, for example. So often I am the scholarly spoilsport, digging out the death notice and UK National Archives probate file reference. Of course, sometimes they are right, but in general a combination of the very idea of Shanghai — exotic and violent in the Western (and other) imagination — and perhaps the tall tales told by grandfathers and great uncles when home on leave, means that most careers have very greatly improved with a retelling.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 09.41.52A recent exchange highlighted both what can now be found out with relative ease, and the limits to tracing people in the past. What could I tell my correspondent in Australia about her grandfather, Philip James Doylend, killed in service shortly before her grandmother moved with the children from Shanghai to Canada? I found I could tell her quite a lot, for over a decade I had been contacted by other descendants in north America (who were unknown to her), and looked into his career a little. Born in Suffolk in 1880, Doylend had joined the police in 1903, after eight years service in the Royal Navy, and was promoted to Sergeant in 1907. He married a Finnish woman, Johanna Maatanan, in Shanghai in 1908 — when this photograph, left, was taken — and resigned to join the armed forces in 1917. In a common pattern he went on long leave on 23 June 1917, ahead of his contract actually terminating on 2 March 1918. Rather than leave his family in Shanghai, Doylend attempted to return to the UK via Finland, where they would stay until the war was over, heading overland on the Trans-Siberian railway. They ran slap into the Russian revolution: Finland was in turmoil, and they had to return to Shanghai — a much harder journey back across Russia. They arrived in February 1918, exhausted and penniless.

The Shanghai press next takes up part of the story. Far from finding stories of violent death at the hands of Chinese criminals, we find appearances in court in 1922 and 1923 of a couple whose marriage is breaking down. Doylend worked now in a Shanghai department store, and then in a hotel bar. His wife ran a boarding house. She sued him for maintenance and even at one point for the family furniture: when they were still living in the same house. The British judge made unenforcible orders that Doylend make a monthly payment, and attempted to cajole him to do the right thing: ‘I should have thought a great lazy man like you could do something’ to support them, he told Doylend, ‘you ought to feel ashamed of yourself’. The furniture issue gave the proceedings a novelty value, and papers in Hong Kong took up the story as well. In 1925 his wife and the children moved to Canada.

So far, so unexceptional. Except that after the last court appearance in December 1923 Doylend himself disappears entirely from view. He does not resurface in the newspaper, or in any of the databases I can access. New digital family history tools have generally changed the game, especially in the case of a group of men like this, serving overseas. The family history sites have ship passenger lists, for example, and you can trace men and women backwards and forwards, and it helps immensely also if they ever travelled across the United States or Canada. But Doylend’s name — and it is not a common surname surname — does not appear. The story in the north American side of the family was that a former colleague still serving in the Shanghai police delivered news to his family in England, early during the Second World War, that Doylend had recently died in Shanghai. But in fact this man, Alexander Aitkenhead, had also left the police, back in 1912.

The newly available digitalised newspapers and passenger lists mean that a researcher can often now track those who deliberately disappeared. You can trace people and their movements, life events, court appearances etc, through newspapers on sites such as Australia’s Trove, New Zealand’s Papers Past, the Singapore National Library Board’s NewspapersSG, and Hong Kong’s Old HK Newspapers (but not easily in the last, for it is a very poor platform). These are all free to access (you can also find some other resources I have created here). The English-language press in Shanghai can also be searched, but mostly only by those with access to scholarly resources (although an incomplete version of the North China Herald can be found in the international newspapers resources on findmypast). You can find an obituary — as I have — in a small town Canadian newspaper of a Glaswegian which bears no relation to the known facts of his life, but which is eloquent testimony to the power of his own reinvention far from home.

That sort of thing hardly surprises: as they career through life people often lie, dissemble, hide, or flee. Birth dates are often tweaked — for men are too old or too young otherwise for military or other service: Doylend added at least a year to his age on joining the navy, which has his birth in 1879. Men and women change names, invent backgrounds and careers. The Shanghai Municipal Police’s Special Branch files, helpfully scooped up the CIA in 1949, document various tricksters moving their way around East Asia, securing credit or an entree to society with this tall tale or that one. Of course, a patient sleuth could do this before, and such wonderful books as Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, about Sir Edmund Backhouse, a liar, fraud, forger and fantasist, living on remittance in Peking for decades a very long way from his family, have emerged from such searches. It does seem, however, to be much easier now than ever before to track people down, even those who hid their tracks. In Doylend’s case perhaps it was as simple as assuming another name, for I can find no trace at all of him, having ransacked all the newspapers, family history websites, city directories, etc. that I know of. Perhaps we should respect his choices, and leave him in whatever obscurity he found. Perhaps I simply have not looked in the right place, and of course the paper archive still dwarfs the digitised one. He might simply be just out of sight and reach.

So while the family tales were incomplete, and had grown fanciful in the telling, a mystery remains: Philip James Doylend, where are you?