Belfast Telegraph

The Ulsterman who read his own obituary in The Times

He was the Co Down boy who went on to command 6,000 Chinese civil servants. Robin Masefield recalls the forgotten world of Sir Robert Hart

Sir Robert Hart has been described both as "a small, insignificant Irishman" and "the most interesting personality that ever figured in China".

In the month of the centenary of his death in 1911, I know which I prefer.

The bald facts are that Robert Hart was born in 1835, the son of a Culcavy, Co Down, distillery manager. Graduating from Queen's College (now University), he joined the Chinese consular service in 1854, became Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service in 1863 and retired in that post 45 years later.

The international Customs Service came about in 1854, initially at Shanghai. Import and export customs dues were collected by the new service and passed to the Chinese government, assuring the Peking authorities of steady revenue. The arrangement was soon extended to 10 further 'treaty' ports, including Canton, and by the end of Hart's career it covered 50 ports in China.

Hart transferred to the new service in 1859, becoming acting inspector general two years later. He succeeded formally when the splendidly named Horatio Nelson Lay was sacked by the Chinese government for going beyond his remit.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was establishing a truly international public service that adhered to the principles of integrity and loyalty that Hart instilled. By 1911, it had 1,300 foreign staff and 6,000 Chinese. There really was no parallel body of international public servants until well into the 20th century.

The service mapped all China's coast, erected lighthouses, published trade statistics, arranged overseas Chinese exhibitions, built up a diplomatic corps for the Chinese government's use abroad, set up a country-wide postal service and secured loans for the government.

It was Hart and his London agent who effectively secured China's recognition of the Portuguese occupation of Macau. He even strove to set up a worldwide meteorological service.

He proceeded ever with caution, allied to respect for Chinese ways, effectively straddling two cultures. He cited himself variously as Irish, an Ulsterman, British and even English.

A devout Methodist, he was proud to accept a decoration from the Pope. Hart had a rare combination of abilities - an understanding of long-term strategy and mastery of the detail, with the doggedness to pursue both. He enjoyed finding solutions to intransigent problems, though he could undoubtedly intimidate his staff, whose promotion he personally managed.

He wrote all his own letters and regulations, standing at his writing desk. He was an original workaholic, suffering insomnia and writing seven days a week.

Hart accepted the post of British ambassador at Peking in 1885, but changed his mind when his Chinese masters encouraged second thoughts.

He had personal courage; he insisted on staying in Peking during the siege of the legations by the Boxer rebels in 1900, while playing an important background role as an intermediary.

He was reported dead with an obituary in The Times - only corrected by a nonchalant telegram to his London tailors for new winter suits.

As a leader, he had resilience in spades. His management style was in many ways contemporary, for example focussing on effective communications.

He did, however, prefer letters to the new-fangled telegrams requiring immediate answer.

Above all, Hart - rightly - understood the potential strength of China. Hart had two families, each of three children - the first by his Chinese mistress, who died in childbirth, the second by an Ulster girl, Hester Bredon, to whom he became engaged just five days after they met.

When she came out with him to Peking, he despatched his first children to England. He spent much of his married life apart from Hessie and their son and two daughters.

Hart taught himself the cello and the violin, buying a Stradivarius off an itinerant sailor. He established a brass band.

He confessed to being lonely. But, as so many Victorians did, he put his love of duty before his love for his family.

He received many awards, including (belatedly in his view) a Baronetcy from the British Government. He was doubly honoured by the Chinese - in regard to his three forebears (styled 'iron-hatted dukes') and himself as the 'Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent'.

Hart had strong links with Queen's in Belfast. On retirement, he was appointed as Queen's Pro-Chancellor. He left to Queen's many mementoes and manuscripts. Perhaps the most fascinating are the 77 volumes of his diaries, only the first eight years of which have so far been transcribed and published.

Hart played a large role in establishing links with the Far East, also more widely in areas such as law and finance. With China's strength today, his legacy is especially valuable.

The full story has yet to be told to ensure this small Irishman has the true recognition he deserves in the pantheon of Ulster's servants.


From Belfast Telegraph