Monday, June 14, 2010

Sidebar: Considering the Life of Sir Robert Hart and Family

Right now, let's take a breather in the midst of our look at the life of Vera Louise Beauclerk, wife of George Mills. Considering her family of origin's past may help us interpret how she may have reacted to some of the events she'll be facing in her married life with George, as we'll learn next time. Today, though, we'll look at the marriages of both her grandfather and her mother.

As was mentioned yesterday, Vera was the granddaughter of Sir Robert Hart of Ireland [pictured left, in 1866], the Inspector-General of Foreign Customs in Peking, who was born on 20 February 1835. Oddly, quite the opposite of how most of my Mills-related research has gone, gaining information about the life of Robert "Robin" Hart has revealed a proliferation of anecdotes and quirks, instead of the relative dearth of personal details that typically remain after the death of someone who lived so long ago. For example, even his favorite poets, songs, books, and even his tailor are still known!

Hart, already ensconced for 12 years as a key figure in the Chinese legation by the mid-1860s, returned to the United Kingdom in 1866, leaving Hong Kong on Tuesday, 27 March, at 8 am on the steamship Camboge. The passage took 42 days, and he finally arrived at Dover on 5 May 1866, in Dublin the next day, then traveled on to his family's home in Lisburn.

Here is the scene on 25 May in nearby Portadown, Ireland, as Hart was introduced to his future bride, Hester Jane Bredon, as told in the book
Hart of Lisburn by Stanley Bell [I have made some corrections of obvious typographical errors]:

In the course of the afternoon [Mrs. Bredon's] beautiful and attractive young daughter Hester Jane (Hessie) was introduced to him. Hester entertained him by playing on her piano. It is said that she was as skilled a pianist as she was attractive. Robert either had or suddenly acquired a great interest in music and her mother invited him back some time before he left again for China. He liked her music, but most of all he had in the course of a few hours met his ideal girl. Writing in his diary later, he describes her as being intelligent, wide-awake, lively, and able to hold her own against most people.

Robert was not one for wasting time, and so the very next day, Tuesday the 5th June, he had tea again with the Bredons. As he made his way up the long lane to Ballintaggart House, he must have said a few prayers for God's help and guidance. Afterwards whilst Hessie was playing the piano in the drawing room he asked, "Could you find it in your heart to come to China with me?" Those were the exact words Robert wrote in his diary that night. She stopped playing immediately and, although she was only eighteen years old, she agreed right away. How could she refuse? When he was only 10 days old his aunt predicted that she would marry him. Seriously, it was quite a decision to take, involving not only leaving her mother, marrying a man of 31 (and her only 18) whom she had only met for a few hours the previous day, but leaving her home and going to a strange country which she had only heard about 24 hours ago. What a decision!

Pressure to return to China caused their original wedding date to be brought forward: Robert Hart and Hester Jane Bredon were married on the 22nd August 1866 at the Parish Church of St. Thomas, near O'Connell Street in Dublin. Their honeymoon was spent amongst the romantic lakes of Killarney and having rides up and down the lanes of the byways and highways of County Kerry by jaunting car. It was a great time they had, isolated from all the problems of China, and one which they were to remember for the rest of their lives.

After returning to Peking, the Harts had their first child on New Year's Eve, 1868. The event was marked by the following mesaage, sent via a special telegram from the Chinese Post Office, regarding the birth of Vera Beauclerk's future mother, Evelyn Amy Hart: "TO HENRY HART LISBURN IRELAND , GIRL BORN DEC. 31 ST. MOTHER STRONG, CHILD HEALTHY, ALL WELL, HAPPY NEW YEAR."

The story continues:

It was not until the 9th April that arrangements were made by Hessie to have Godmothers for the baby. Mrs. Lowder and Mrs. Burdon (wife of the minister who baptised the baby) were duly appointed. Then the I.G. [Hart] drew up a short list of four names for the baby. His wife was to choose one of the names for the baby. The names on the short list were Evelyn Amy, Evelyn Rose, Florence Isobel, and Gertrude Elaine. On Sunday, 11th April, the baby was christened in church by the Rev. John S. Burdon. The name given to the little lady was Evelyn Amy. She was known to the family as "Evey." Writing to his London agent, Campbell on 27th May 1869, "Mrs. Hart and the baby are quite well; the little one thrives well, and is great company for the mother." And again on the 1st September 1871, "Evey has had whooping-cough, but is now all right again. She's a demure little body, and her Chinese—why it's wonderful! I have worked hard for years, and yet nature, without any effort, has filled her little head with words, and given her little tongue a pliancy, that are miles and miles beyond my aim. But, poor child, her English is of the narrowest dimensions."

Edgar Bruce Hart was born in China on 8 July 1874 [Sir Robert's puzzling comment on the birth of his second child and first son: "Thank God it is all over. I'd as soon have had a girl."]. Lastly, Hart's third child, Mabel Milburne Hart [called "Nollie"] was born in November 1879.

Sir Robert actually had spent much of 1878 abroad in Paris, Ireland, and Germany, and had wintered in Brighton into February of 1879. He departed England in March, traveling with his pregnant wife and his two children, arriving in Shanghai on 5 May 1879. He would not leave China again for some 30 years.

Finally, we take a look at one last excerpt from Bell's 1985 book on Hart:

As the children grew bigger and needed schooling, it was decided for their benefit that Hessie would go back to Europe with them. For nearly 17 years Robert was separated from his wife for this purpose and their only means of communication was by letters, which were written regularly each week, usually on Sunday.

His failing health, and the death on 3 December 1907 of James D. Campbell, his London agent and long-time confidant, convinced him to finally retire. Hart finally placed his position in Peking into the hands of Francis Aglen on 20 April 1908.

In April 1908, Sir Robert left China, technically on leave; he would not officially retire until 1910. The aging Hart sailed alone aboard the the R. P. D. Yorck of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line, leaving Yokahama and stopping at ports in Yokohama, Singapore, Kobe, Shanghai, Colombo, Hong Kong, Penang, Port Said, Genoa, Naples, Gibraltar, and Algier, before steaming into Southampton, England, on 11 June 1908.

Presumably, Hart knew he would be seeing England and leaving China for the last time.

Now Vera Louise Beauclerk's mother, Evelyn "Evey" Hart, had been raised and educated in Europe in the 1880s, seemingly under the watchful eye of an older cousin, Juliet Bredon. Having been schooled in both Bournemouth and Dublin, she lived half a world away from her father as he worked in Peking. Such an arrangement was not bound to encourage a great deal of familial closeness, especially since Evelyn's mother, Hessie, is obviously neither with her nor with Sir Robert.

Sir Robert, as noted, arrived in England in the summer of 1908. That elder daughter, "Evey" Hart, now Mrs. Evelyn Beauclerk, age 38, had sailed into Southampton a year before. She arrived on the Atrato of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, docking on 13 August 1907 following an itinerary that included Colon, Savanilla, Jamaica, Cartagena, Demerara, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, and Grenada. She had obviously been traveling from South America.

Back on 5 September 1892, Evelyn had married William Nelthorpe Beauclerk, a relative of the Duke of St. Albans. Sir Robert was apparently not thrilled by the twenty-year difference in their ages, the groom having been married before and born on 7 April 1849. He, however, didn't approve of any of his children's marriages and once wrote to Campbell in London: "I expected great things from my children and spared no money to procure them educational advantage; it has all been wasted..."

Beauclerk had served as the secretary to the British legation at Peking from 1890 to 1896, where he presumably met and courted Evelyn in 1892, after she'd returned from her education in Europe. Vera was born of that union in 1893, and her sister, Hilda, in 1895.

According to the 1906 edition of
Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes, Beauclerk then became consul-general in Hungary from 1896 through 1898. In 1898, he was named resident Minister and consul-general in Lima in the Republic of Peru, while serving as Minister to Ecuador in Quito as well. In 1903, he added Bolivia to his responsibilities.

I can think of no other reason for Evelyn to have been traveling alone from the West Indies to Southampton in 1907 than that she'd recently visited her husband in South America for the last time—Beauclerk died in Lima, Peru, on 5 March 1908 at 58—and then traveled on to England to see relatives. Did she know of her father's impending retirement, or did her presence in England play some role in Sir Robert's decision to retire in that year? Is it even possible that her girls, Vera and Hilda, were there in school, much as she herself had been years before?

Either way, it served to create a reunion in England among some of the family, although it may or may not have included Vera or her sister, Hilda. Sir Robert died of pneumonia at 10 pm on the 20th September 1911 in his home in Great Marlow in "Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire." He was buried nearby in the graveyard of the church of Bisham opposite the River Thames.

Hester Hart later passed away in Bournemouth, Hampshire in 1928. Bournemouth had been one site of Evelyn Amy's early education, before her school closed and "Evey" was moved to Bray, near Dublin. Amazingly, Hester disappears into the proverbial woodwork of Sir Robert Hart's life, and little is really ever known about her. Even Wikipedia's entry on Sir Robert fails to mention her name.

I've been unable to find much about Hester Hart, who apparently did not go about much even during the times she was actually in China, and became known as Hart's "
absentee wife." Her absence likely prompted Hart's romantic involvement with a Chinese concubine, Ayaou. Hester, however, appears on no incoming U.K. manifests that I can find, and was somehow presumably already in England when Sir Robert arrived there in 1908.

Vera Louise Beauclerk was born and probably raised in China. Was she educated abroad, perhaps in England or Europe, as was her mother, Evelyn? Right now, there's nothing solid that would lead us to believe that: We only know for sure that Vera could read and write.

One thing we do know, however, is that among Vera's grandparents [Robert and Hessie Hart] and her parents [William and Evey Beauclerk], an absentee marriage was by far the rule, rather than the exception. In her family of origin, wives and husbands were certainly rarely close geographically, no matter how "close" they may once have been otherwise.

Would this proclivity within her family for husbands and wives to live separately because of a husband's occupational commitments carry into Vera's own marriage with George Mills?

That's something we'll consider next time as we return to taking a closer look at the life of Vera Louise Beauclerk as Mrs. George Mills!


  1. I can tell you a bit more about Sir Robert Hart, Evelyn's father, and his family. I am preparing a book for the Hong Kong University Press on him and his relationship with my own ancestors. If you would like news of its progress, let me know at mary.tiffen@gmail,com

  2. A great read. Now was Sir Robert in any way related to Ernest Hart and were the pair related to the Hart-Dykes of Lullingon Castle?