All aboard for the war: the Suwa Maru sails from Shanghai, 1914

The photograph below was taken at just after 8.30 on the morning of 16 October 1914, and shows just a part of the estimated 7,000 strong crowd that thronged the Bund at Shanghai, and all possible river-side vantage points to wave off 110 British men who were heading out to board the Japanese mail steamer, the SS Suwa Maru. The men were on the first leg of their journey to Britain, and to the various front lines of what we now know as the First World War. This is the story I tell in Getting Stuck in for Shanghai.

waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Some 35 of the men were colleagues of the policeman you can see in the foreground. Others worked for various British trading companies and banks, local department stores, the Shanghai Municipal Council’s Public Works Department, and the Chinese Maritime Customs. Some had been born in China; some had only just arrived to take up posts in Shanghai. One was a policeman from British East Africa, and I have not yet worked out what he was doing in China.

This was possibly just about the largest crowd that had yet ever assembled on the Bund, and it was certainly the noisiest. They hurrahed and sang, competing with the horns and whistles of ships in the harbour, until long after the tender carrying the Shanghai British Contingent had sailed out of sight. A couple of months earlier similar scenes were reported at Shanghai’s North Station, when hundreds of German residents assembled to cheer off 40 military reservists returning to the colours, and entraining for Qingdao, the Germany colony in Shandong. At least two of those had been killed in action before the Suwa Maru reached London in December 1914, others were taken prisoner as Japanese forces captured the city, and were to be placed in POW camps in Japan.

One of the Britons who sailed was 22-year old Albert Rothery, son of a farmer in Patterdale, in the English Lake District. Rothery, apprenticed from school as a plumber, had come to China in 1907 to work for the Shanghai Waterworks Company, a British firm. Earlier this year I helped the Patterdale and Glenridding War Memorial Project find out a little more about Albert, who was listed on the local ‘Roll of Honour’ as a casualty. In fact, as you can see from their webpage about him, Rothery had survived the war, earning a Military Medal and a Military Cross on way, emerging as a Lieutenant in the Tank Corps in 1918. He had first joined the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, along with about 40 of the Suwa Maru volunteers. Lt. Rothery returned to China and the Waterworks, eventually retiring in 1934, and returning to live near his home, settling 30 miles away in Carlisle.

Part of what drives my research is an interest in the British local history of the relationship with China. Far from being the exotic preserve of an ‘imperial’ British elite, you can find links to China like Rothery’s in the local histories of a great many British localities through the people who went out to work there. The China British certainly included the elite businessmen who went to work for Jardine Matheson & Co — the ‘Princely Hong’ that was at the centre of James Clavell’s 1966 blockbuster Tai-Pan (as the ‘Noble House’, ‘Struan’s)– or the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. But they included too, in far greater numbers, these drapers and policeman, tobacco and oil salesmen, tidewaiters and public health employees who sailed on the SS Suwa Maru in October 1914, and the staff of the Shanghai Waterworks, men like Albert Rothery, the plumber from the Lake District.

Shanghai Amateur Circus

Human pyramid, SACHere are Shanghailanders at play, in the third of the Shanghai Race Club Amateur Circus events, in 1901, a year after the Boxer War, while foreign troops still occupied parts of north China, and were stationed at Shanghai. The first two circuses were held in August 1894 and 1895, a hot and steamy time of year for the foreign community to be masquerading as Sophie Skylark, Tottie Chuckerout and Professor Nankin Roady (to select a few from the programmes). The leading light was British merchant Frank Maitland (‘Frankini’), sportsman, sometime Master of the Shanghai Paper Hunt Club, Race Club Steward, founder of the Shanghai Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals, proprietor of the newspaper Sport and Gossip, and then of the Shanghai Times.

It was, as far as I can see, an entirely masculine enterprise, originating in a ‘circusette’ put on one sultry Wednesday evening in June 1893 in the Race Club Grand Stand. A lavishly illustrated souvenir of the 1901 performances surfaces at auctions, and sells quite handsomely. Amongst its photographs is this pearl: Tottie Longsocks — who ‘wins all hearts’.

tottie longsocks

The Shanghai Volunteer Corps

SVCLOGO2One hundred and seventy years ago this week, the North China Herald reported on a series of consular and public meetings which had led to the creation of what was originally called the British local Volunteer Corps, and in time became officially know as the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Formed after the seizure of the walled city of Shanghai by a rebel ‘Small Sword Society’, it saw action the following year in the 2 April ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’. This was a successful, if incompetent affair which drove away Qing government forces who were besieging the rebels, but who were camped too close to the foreign settlements, thereby drawing fire onto foreign property. Most of the handful of SVC dead were probably killed by ‘friendly fire’.

Quiescent thereafter until 1870, a revived SVC came under the control of the Shanghai Municipal Council, and in time became a vital component in foreign military defence schemes, and in internal security. A servig British officer was seconded to lead the Corps. Different foreign communities served in national or other companies (American, German, Jewish, the Customs, Philippine etc); the Shanghai Light House deemed itself the socially most prestigious; the Shanghai Scottish probably had most fun in the Mess; and the Chinese Company was formally the most efficient: they shot well and true.

t-flagIn 1927 a paid Russian detachment was created from refugee White Russian soldiers, becoming in 1932 the Russian Regiment. In 1941 this was transferred to the Shanghai Municipal Police as the Russian Auxiliary Detachment. The Corps was abolished in early 1942 after the takeover of the international settlement by Japanese troops. In 1954 a gala dinner at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club commemorated the centenary of the ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’ with fillet steak, wine and song.

At times a very significant proporton of young foreign businessmen served in the volunteers. It can not have helped the way many of them understood the nature of the foreign presence in China, let alone the way they were perceived by the Shanghainese who regularly saw parades of armed foreign traders marching down the Nanjing road.

Tex O’Reilly, Shanghai Policeman

O'ReillyTwo correspondents recently drew my attention to a obscure Shanghai police memoir I had not heard of: Roving and Fighting: Adventures under Four Flags (1918). In this and his later Born to Raise Hell Tex’ O’Reilly, also known as ‘Major’ Edward S. O’Reilly (1880-1946), recounts a mercenary life in Asia and central America at the turn of the nineteenth and twnetieth centuries. In between his military escapades (one of those ‘four flags’ — China’s — employed him for but a few weeks at most) he was a language teacher in Japan, and a policeman in the International settlement at Shanghai.
I have no record of his police service, which in his telling lasted ten months in 1901, but short-serving men leave fewer records, and often do not appear in annually published staff lists. The yarn deals with much of the predictable stuff of salacious exposes and popular fictions of the coast, but also has a ring of truth to some of it. O’Reilly was later a journalist, so knew how to mix the two. Although he delivers as his own experience an account of dealing with the settlement’s Wheelbarrow riots — which actually took place in 1897 — he later names a man who left the police with him to serve as a bodyguard for a local Chinese official, and a man of the same surname did actually leave the Shanghai Municipal Police in 1902. A ‘T.E. Reilly’ sailed out of Shanghai for Nagasaki, as Tex says he did, on 26 February 1902. O’Reilly made his name later in the Mexican revolution and as a journalist, but there seems to be no reason to doubt he was for some short time a Shanghai policeman, despite his reputation as a spinner of tall, tall tales.