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Saturday 27 October 2012


When my ancestral cousin the British MP Russell Gurney died in 1878, he rather surprisingly received a transatlantic obituary from the New York Times. Russell, a first cousin of my great great grandmother Emma, had a successful career in England both as a lawyer and as a Member of Parliament for Southampton. But what interest did New York have in a southern English Conservative?

The Right Honorable Russell Gurney was the Recorder for London, an MP from 1865 till his death, and from 1866 a member of the Privy Council following his service as a commissioner on the enquiry into the Jamaica rebellion of 1865. The rebellion, which broke out at Morant Bay in Jamaica, was a protest at the slowness of change following the abolition of slavery in 1834, something many of Russell’s ancestors including his great aunt Martha had fought for.

The Right Hon. Russell Gurney QC, MP (1804-1878)
pictured in Vanity Fair in 1871

Within parliament he was given responsibility for the details of a number of significant new Acts including the Married Women’s Property Act (1870) and the Medical Act (1876), the latter making it possible for women to practise as doctors. I write this with some pride as my own niece is about to enroll in Medical School.

These achievements alone would be enough admire Russell for. But in 1871 he was dispatched to America to oversee the legal details of the Treaty of Washington then being negotiated between Britain and the U.S. The Treaty was the result of talks to resolve a couple of delicate issues which had been overshadowing U.S./British relations since the Civil War; and it seems that by his skills of tact and diplomacy Gurney ensured the smooth application of the Treaty’s terms. Widely respected as a politician in Britain, he was also appreciated in America for expressing “high admiration for the United States and his pleasure that an amicable settlement of the differences with England had been arrived at.” (So said the New York Times.)

The Treaty of Washington addressed two mains areas of conflict between the two governments: the northwestern border between the U.S. and Canada, which had been under dispute since the glorious Pig and Potato War of 1859; and the damage caused by British-built warships sold to the Confederate side during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

CSS Alabama (right) sinks USS Hatteras, 11th January 1863
The Alabama was built by John Laird of Birkenhead and crewed by British mercenaries

In the latter matter, Britain was found to have breached its neutrality by supplying ships (particularly the CSS Alabama), which were subsequently used to attack the American merchant and naval fleets. Under the new treaty, Britain apologised for the damage caused (without admitting liability) and paid America the sum of $15.5 million – considerably less than the U.S.’s original demand of either $2 billion or the transfer of all Canadian territories to U.S. control.

As for the Pig War, the precise path of the U.S.-Canadian border through the cluster of small islands between Vancouver Island and Washington State had been the subject first of confusion (because of poor early map-making) and then disagreement. Things came to a head after both Britain’s Hudson Bay Company and a handful of American pioneers occupied the largest little island, strategically important San Juan.

There, in 1859, an American farmer, Lyman Cutlar, shot a pig belonging to an Irish Canadian farmer, Charles Griffin, for eating American potatoes. When Griffin complained, Cutlar told him to control his animals, and Griffin retorted that it was up to Cutlar to keep his potatoes out of Griffin’s pig. When British troops threatened to arrest Cutlar, American troops were called in to back up the settlers. No shots were fired (except at the pig) and an eventually friendly truce existed for twelve years between the northern (British) and southern (American) halves of the island. Finally, as a result of the Treaty of Washington, an independent tribunal headed by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany awarded San Juan to the U.S.

San Juan Island’s British and American Camps are still celebrated 140 years after the outbreak of war between the two countries

(The emerging Dominion of Canada, it should be noted, were not at all happy with the settlement, which included not only the loss of territory but the permission of U.S. fishing boats to hunt in Canadian coastal waters. Only the sweetener of a cash payment for the fishing rights, and a guaranteed loan of £4 million to Canada for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, enabled the Treaty’s ratification in the Canadian Parliament.)

To this day the British flag still flies over the site of the British camp on San Juan, raised and lowered daily by U.S. Park Rangers. It is a symbol of the so-called special relationship between the two countries, which has flourished unbroken (more or less) since Russell Gurney helped to resolve these outstanding issues back in 1871.

Saturday 20 October 2012


My great uncle Tudor looks strained and miserable in his official army portrait. He enlisted in 1915, but army life cannot possibly have suited him; before he signed up he was a gentle playful soul, a poet, a loving brother to his sister my grandmother May Castle … and a friend and partner in crime of the greatest practical joker of the twentieth century.

Tudor Ralph Castle (1882-1916)
described by Virginia Woolf as “tinged with romanticism”

Five years earlier he was part of a notorious hoax perpetrated against the Royal Navy, which made the so-called senior service of the British military machine look very foolish indeed. The hoax was devised by Horace de Vere Cole, a friend from Tudor’s Cambridge University days and, like Tudor, part of the wider circle centred on the Bloomsbury Group of radical artists and writers.

Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936)
who described Tudor as “so noble as to be unique and therefore not easy for outsiders to see”

Tudor and Horace were already seasoned pranksters. During the 1906 British General Election they and a third joker, Dummer Howard (Tudor’s future brother-in-law), had staged a spoof hustings, masquerading as politicians. Horace led off proceedings with an interminable and meaningless political speech from the podium. As anticipated, the audience grew restless and began to heckle the speaker – and that was the trio’s cue for fun. We are used these days to seeing unpopular politicians pelted with rotten eggs; but on this occasion Tudor and Dummer turned the tables and suddenly began hurling eggs into the crowd. Brilliantly subversive of convention!

H.M.S. Dreadnought (launched in 1905)

In 1910 Horace’s plan was audacious – to disguise himself and his friends as a group of visiting dignitaries from Abyssinia and con their way into a state inspection of the navy’s flagship, HMS Dreadnought. It was classic Cole – puncturing the pomposity of authority, in this case by taking advantage of imperial Britain’s eagerness to show off its might to “lesser” countries. The stunt was to take place during the election campaign of early 1910, an election triggered in part by the rejection of a budget which proposed building four more Dreadnought-type ships at a cost of £1.5 million each.

The Abyssinian royal party and their British guide and interpreter
L-R: Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, Horace Cole

To cut a long story short, the prank was a huge success. Cole’s friends, dressed up by a London theatrical costumier, travelled down to Weymouth by train, learning a little Abyssinian on the way from a phrase book for missionaries to the country. They were met with great ceremony which included – the band being unable to find the sheet music for the Abyssinian national anthem – the playing of the anthem of Zanzibar. They were shown around the ship by Admiral May, and returned by a different rail route to London, undetected even by Cole’s cousin who was a member of the ship’s crew.

The key to the whole operation was their sudden arrival, announced by a telegram which left the navy no time for questions about its authenticity. It was Tudor who sent that telegram, without which there would simply have been no prank. When Cole, an incurable self-publicist, leaked the story to the press, it entertained the public and embarrassed the navy, forcing them to review their security procedures. They decided not to prosecute the perpetrators for fear of further public ridicule.

HMS Dreadnought's log has been doctored, but Tudor Castle’s telegram to the Royal Navy, 7th February 1910, survives

Uncle Tudor’s unseen role in it remained unknown until, naively, he wrote to the Great Western Railway a month later, requesting a refund on return train tickets which the “Abyssinians” had bought but not used. Police matched his handwriting to that of the original telegram order. But he too escaped legal action. Perhaps his death at the Somme is the reason that this wonderful illustration of his playfulness has not been passed down in our family. The tale was never told, and I only found out about it last month thanks to a message from a reader of this blog. (Thanks, Ralph!)

The Dreadnought Hoax, Adrian Stephen’s published account of the stunt, and The Sultan of Zanzibar, Martyn Downer’s biography of Cole, both give far greater detail of the hoax itself than I can include here. I recommend them both.

Saturday 13 October 2012


“Polymath” is the word regularly applied to my 3x great uncle John. He turned his agile mind to everything from translation to devising Britain’s decimal currency. He was an active industrialist and politician; and in the latter capacity he was both a trouble-maker and a trouble-shooter for the British government.

There’s not much more trouble you can make than dragging your country into a war. That’s what Uncle John did in 1856 while governor of the British colony of Hong Kong – the Second Opium War, all his doing, raged on until 1860. It was sparked by his rather high-handed, imperious stand-off with his opposite number the Chinese Imperial Commissioner in Canton. That typically British imperial over-confidence may have been encouraged in him by his success as a negotiating trouble-shooter the year before.

Sir John Bowring 1792-1872
trouble-shooter and trouble-maker
sculpted in 1857 by François-Félix Roubaud

In 1855 Sir John was dispatched to Siam (modern-day Thailand) to negotiate a trade treaty with the country’s King Mongkut. It was a fairly one-sided negotiation, if the truth be told. Britain had recently demonstrated its military might in the region with victory in the First Opium War. Its response to a failed negotiation with Siam five years earlier was the threat of gunboat diplomacy – the same threat with which Sir John triggered the Second Opium War in 1856, and the same threat which now helped to conclude what's now known as the Bowring Treaty.

The treaty opened Bangkok up to international trade, and other diplomats more or less duplicated the Bowring agreement in negotiating for their own countries. In return, Siam’s independence was guaranteed by the most important world powers of the time. So in effect my great great great uncle’s work kick-started the modern economic development of Thailand and trade in general across Southeast Asia (the Second Opium War notwithstanding!).

L-R: Anna Leonowens (1831-1915) painted c1900 by Robert Harris);
King Mongkut of Siam (1804-1868) photographed c1865 by John Thompson)

One of the unexpected benefits of the new British freedoms within Siam was the employment of an English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, in the education of King Mongkut’s wives and children. She taught at the royal court in Bangkok from 1862 to 1868, and her experiences there were fictionalised by author Margaret Landon in her 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam. The novel was filmed with Irene Dunn as Anna and Rex Harrison as the king in 1946, and the film’s success prompted the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a stage musical with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the lead roles.

Anna played by Irene Dunne, Gertrude Lawrence and Deborah Kerr

Their musical The King and I opened in 1951 and a film version was released five years later with Brynner again as Mongkut and Deborah Kerr taking on Anna in place of the late Gertrude Lawrence. Two other screen interpretations of the story, both called Anna and the King, have been made: a 1972 TV series with Brynner playing opposite Samantha Eggar, and a 1999 non-musical film adaptation of the Landon novel, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. A cartoon version of the musical appeared in 1999 with Miranda Richardson voicing Anna and Martin Vidnovic the king. (Christiane Noll sang Anna's songs.)

Anna played by Samantha Eggar, Miranda Rchardson and Jodie Foster

Just think, if it hadn’t been for Sir John Bowring’s diplomatic skills and Britain’s naval rule of the south-east Asian waves, we might never have had a Second Opium War. But nor might we have had such show-stopping songs as Hello Young Lovers and Getting To Know You. History is full of what-ifs.

I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)

Saturday 6 October 2012


I wrote earlier about my 3x great uncle Thomas’s contribution to the career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, of whom he was a lifelong friend and colleague. Thomas Guppy was closely associated with Brunel’s work on the Great Western Railway and the Great Western Steamship Company, which he backed not only financially but also professionally. For Thomas too was an innovative civil engineer.

He was driven from an early age towards the profession, not least by inventor parents Samuel and Sarah Guppy. They of course encouraged him, but others did not. At the age of eighteen and anxious to learn from the best, he presented himself for apprencticeship to none other than Henry Maudslay, the founding father of machine tooling, one of the great and relatively unsung heroes of the industrial revolution.

Henry Maudslay’s orginal screw-cutting lathe of 1797,
 now in London’s Science Museum

Without getting too technical, Maudslay’s work in improving machine tools such as lathes, presses and screw cutters quite simply made accurate mass production possible. Mass production reduced cost, and standardised components. For the first time components could be made in different factories to the same specifications, and assembled elsewhere. Before Maudslay, for example, any bolt had to be made along with its nut, because there was no guarantee that any other nut would fit it: if either item failed, you had to replace both. Without interchangeability and mass production, there would have been no industrial revolution.

Maudslay himself had been apprenticed at age eighteen to Joseph Bramah, the inventor of the hydraulic press. But in 1815 when Guppy came to him he seems to have forgotten the value of his own early training. Britain was no longer at war with France or anyone else, and large government engineering contracts had dried up. Maudslay, pessimistic for the future of his trade, showed Thomas his empty factory floor, the tools and machines idle and rusting. “All my earnings,” he complained, have been spent … in the extension of my works, and now I am about to be ruined. Go, and be any trade rather than that of an engineer.”

Plaque on Thomas Richard Guppy’s home on Berkeley Square, Bristol
(photo by Leo Reynolds)

Uncle Thomas travelled instead, first to America (where he unsuccessfully proposed a system for lighting New York City by gas); then to Europe (where he studied architecture and technical drawing at Leipzig, Dresden, Munich and Paris). Back in Britain in 1826 he and his brother took over the Friars Sugar Refinery in Bristol. But when Isambard Kingdom Brunel came to the city in 1830 to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Thomas‘s enthusiasm for his original calling returned. He ran away with the engineering circus, forming the Great Western Railway with Isambard and working alongside him for the next 29 years.

Despite Maudslay’s pessimistic outlook in 1815, that year had seen the first fruits of his move into the production of marine steam engines, when a 17 h.p. model built by his firm Maudslay & Field was installed in a Thames steamer called the Richmond. A Maudslay & Field engine powered H.M.S. Lightning, the first steamship commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1823. And in 1837, six years after his death, it was to Maudslay, Sons and Field that Guppy and Brunel turned when they wanted the best engines available for their world-shrinking transatlantic project, the S.S. Great Western. No hard feelings from Thomas Guppy then, for that earlier discouragement!

Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), pessimistic pioneer of the machine age
(lithograph by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte after Henri Grevedon)
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