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  • Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons by Gareth Winrow

    One of the main, general observations of my book is that history is constantly being rewritten. This is certainly the case regarding the Robinson family. Further research, contacts with members of the extended family, and exchanges with individuals who knew of particular members of the family, has enabled me to tap into new sources of information.

    A key character in my book is Hannah Robinson, one of the first female converts to Islam in late Victorian England. In late 1891 she was married to a supposed Afghan warlord in the mosque at Liverpool, before the couple went off in the hope of beginning a new life in Constantinople. Presumably, the founder of the mosque, the lawyer William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam, officiated at the wedding ceremony.

    (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    I have lately discovered that Hannah made use of her ties with Quilliam, who was a close confidante of Sultan Abdulhamid II, to secure financial support from the Ottoman court when her marriage was in tatters and Hannah sought a divorce. Her pleading letter penned to the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Cevat Pasha, in June 1892, can be found in the Ottoman archives. In this letter, Hannah mentioned how she was on good terms with Quilliam, who was by this time establishing a close relationship with the sultan. Connections between the Robinson family and Quilliam, not picked up by other commentators, is one recurring theme in the book which I do believe needs to be explored further. Amazingly, according to the Ottoman archives, Quilliam was the father of Hannah’s children! This is clearly wrong. But how, and perhaps why, the archives came to this conclusion and pedalled this story does need to be examined.

    Hannah would continue to benefit from the generosity of the Ottoman court after her divorce and then marriage to the military officer, Ahmed Bahri. I knew that the couple were given rent-free accommodation on Akaratler, a well-heeled neighbourhood very close to the Dolmabahce palace. What I did not know, until recently, was that the Ottoman authorities at one time attempted to claim rent payment of 90,750 kuruş from the Bahris. This was a substantial sum. Hannah immediately notified officials that the accommodation at 107 Akaratler had been provided to her and her family free of charge. The authorities swiftly backed down. The chastened Ottoman Minister of Finance, himself, addressed a letter of apology to Hannah on 12 February 1907. This incident provided a further illustration of the extraordinary strength of character of Hannah, the one-time domestic housemaid from London’s impoverished East End.

    Another leading personality in my book is Ahmet “Robenson”, one of Hannah’s sons. Much is already known about Ahmet Robenson. Indeed, in today’s Turkey he is almost a living legend because of his sporting prowess and his achievements with the Galatasaray Sports Club. However, I do believe that there is still a lot more to learn about this celebrated sportsman, who introduced basketball and founded the Scouting movement in the late Ottoman Empire.

    Ahmet Robenson and members of family at the Lyndhurst estate, Tarrytown, New York. (Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons, Amberley Publishing)

    After emigrating to the US in the late 1920s, Ahmet Robenson spent his last years working at the famous Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown in New York state. I have written a small piece for one of the local newspapers which covers the Tarrytown district, pointing out how nobody in the area knew that the elderly groundskeeper who had worked at the Lyndhurst estate in the 1950s and 1960s had been such a well-known sporting celebrity.

    Little is still known about the life of Ahmet Robenson, and of his wife Nina, after they had emigrated to the US. I am fascinated to learn what really happened to Ahmet and his wife. Were the couple forced to abandon Turkey in the face of criticism from hard-line Turkish nationalists who were opposed to Ahmet’s work with the Americans on social and educational projects? Or were there other factors at play? And, how were they able to adjust to living a life of relative obscurity in New York after having been so well-known in Turkey – in the 1920s Ahmet had also played an instrumental role in the construction of the Taksim sports stadium, and had briefly served as President of the Galatasaray Sports Club.

    I am hoping to re-trace the lives of Ahmet and Nina in the US. A visit to the Lyndhurst mansion is a must. My study of Ahmet Robenson remains a work in progress.

    Who knows what other stories about the Robinsons may come to light in the months ahead? Perhaps, I may also uncover new information about Ahmet Robenson’s father, Spencer – the tenant farmer from Lincolnshire who began a second life as a tea planter in Darjeeling. And, may be, further details about Gertrude Eisenmann, the intrepid motoring amazon of late Wilhelmine Germany, who was an illegitimate daughter of Hannah, may come to my attention.

    Will there be a sequel to Whispers Across Continents?! It is too early to say. What I am sure of, though, is that my work with the extraordinary Robinson family is still far from complete.

    Gareth Winrow's book Whispers Across Continents: In Search of the Robinsons is available for purchase now.

  • Queen Victoria and The Romanovs by Coryne Hall

    Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust

    Much to my surprise, no previous author has ever looked in depth at Queen Victoria’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and its ruling family. Armed with permission from the Royal Archives at Windsor to quote from the Queen’s Journals, I decided to put this to rights.

    Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg (Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia) as a young woman. Stories about her treatment in Russia greatly influenced her niece Queen Victoria. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The reasons for her dislike and distrust were both political and personal. The political centred on the historic British distrust of Russian aims since the expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. The personal reasons centred on the bad treatment of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by her Romanov husband Grand Duke Constantine, Catherine the Great’s grandson.

    As I worked through the Queen’s Journals, I found that there were a lot more communications between Victoria and the Romanovs than I had thought. So many of them visited the Queen at Windsor, Osborne or Balmoral.

    The first to arrive was the future Tsar Alexander II in 1839. Alexander and Victoria were almost the same age. Victoria described him as tall with a fine figure, a pleasing open countenance without being handsome, fine blue eyes, a short nose, and a pretty mouth with a sweet smile.’ His impression of her was less complimentary: ‘[She] is very small, her figure is bad, her face plain, but she’s very agreeable to talk to.’ Nevertheless, when he whirled her giddily around the ballroom she was soon completely bowled over. The feeling (at the time) was mutual. Years later Victoria’s granddaughter described Alexander as ‘Grandmama’s first beau.’

    Tsarevich Alexander (later Alexander II) who completely bowled over the young Queen Victoria when he visited England in 1839. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    Nicholas I came to Buckingham Palace and Windsor in 1844. He refused a comfortable bed in favour of his own camp bed from St Petersburg and asked for straw to stuff the mattress. He was an autocrat to his fingertips but Victoria found that ‘his sternness is less remarkable, when one gets to know him better.’  Ten years later the Crimean War broke out and they were enemies.

    On his death in 1855 Victoria’s former ‘beau’ Alexander II came to the throne. Nevertheless, at least once during his reign Britain and Russia were brought to the brink of war.

    What Victoria did not foresee was the Romanovs marrying into her own family. Her son Alfred married Alexander II’s daughter Marie in 1874 after long and tortuous negotiations, when both the Tsar and the Queen proved reluctant to give way on any issue. When Marie arrived in England after the wedding she insisted on being treated as a Russian Grand Duchess. Not only was she autocratic but her jewels dazzled the court and made the Queen and her daughters rather jealous. Marie was soon complaining about the Queen and life in England in letters home.

    Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. To the annoyance of the tsar, Victoria married her Coburg cousin in 1840. (Private collection, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs, Amberley Publishing)

    The only Tsar who did not visit during his reign was Alexander III. His wife, Marie Feodorovna, was a sister to Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales. Tsarevich Alexander and his wife came on a visit to her sister in 1873, when the Queen also invited them to Windsor and Osborne but, when he became Tsar after Alexander II’s assassination by terrorists in 1881, he and Victoria did not get on at all. ‘A sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentleman’ was her comment about Alexander III.  In return, he described her as a ‘pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.’

    The differences in language and culture, as well as the unstable political situation in Russia, explained the Queen’s horror when two of her favourite Hesse granddaughters, Ella and Alix, married into the Russian Imperial family – Ella to Alexander III’s brother Grand Duke Sergei, and Alix to Tsar Nicholas II. The Queen did her best to discourage both young women from going to what she called ‘horrid Russia’ but to no avail.

    Victoria gave an especially warm welcome to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna when they stayed at Balmoral in 1896, but although the Queen liked Nicholas as a person, she didn’t like or trust his country. Her Empire always came before family connections.

    ‘Russia,’ the Queen Victoria once wrote, ‘is not to be trusted.’ It is fortunate that she didn’t live long enough to know that she would be proved right. Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their children and Ella were all killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    Coryne Hall's book Queen Victoria and The Romanovs is available for purchase now.

  • Grub Street: The Origins of the British Press by Ruth Herman

    Why write about old news? Grub Street and the Origins of the British Press

    I’ve always been interested in the news. From my first days in Public Relations to freelancing for the drinks trade press the ways in which events are reported have fascinated me. Later on when I embarked upon an academic career I found myself researching the arcane world of the early newspapers. I found it fascinating and much more serious. Punishment for the wrong copy didn’t simply mean getting your work spiked. It was more likely to be your ear or your cheek that bore the permanent marks of your transgression.

    Hogarth’s Distrest Poet is a depiction of a Grub Street hack’s poverty-stricken living conditions while writing anything that will earn him some money. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grub Street: The Origins of the British Press, Amberley Publishing)

    So I’ve just written a book which sets out to give an introduction to the wild, bizarre and dangerous world of early newspapers and other ephemera in Britain. The days are long gone when the print was laboriously set by some apprentice. Speed of publication was measured in days rather than seconds and tweeting was something that only birds did. So you may be wondering why anyone would  study a sheet of newsprint which was destined at best to be tomorrow’s pie-wrapping? Does anybody care that 300 years ago owners lost their dogs and their wives and they put a poultice made from pigeon faeces on their thinning hair. (Yes they did – it’s in the book).

    From what I have just written you can see that, apart from the bird poo, people all those years ago were occupied with many of the same issues. Although printing technology was in its infancy the similarities between yesterday’s Grub Street hack and today’s journalist are clear. Online or in the stocks there is a continuum of news which applies when one set of people reports on what another set of people are doing. Journalists can go from providing readers with the most damaging and salacious stories to pursuing those who are harmful to the public. Celebrity love lives or fraudulent tycoons will excite readers and often it seems that the reporters make no distinction. Because reporting on either could risk prosecution and worse I started to think about the brave souls who set themselves the task of telling the “truth” about the hierarchy. I became fascinated by the way that 21st century reporters will pursue a president in much the same way as their 17th century counterparts attacked a king.

    The Daily Courant. This publication paved the way in the newspaper industry.(Grub Street: The Origins of the British Press, Amberley Publishing)

    This last thought brings up a word which has so much weight in both today’s reporting and the writings of every age that it almost blows a hole in the page. It’s the little but oh so powerful word “Truth”. Truth is such a slippery idea and as everyone knows it is sometimes difficult to pin it down. It is particularly tricky to tie in with its stable mate, fact, a concept which is also notoriously fluid and disturbingly often has little to do with “truth”. We are all aware that the powerful often lie or at least suppress the “Truth” because they can. Who is going to challenge them? This is where the very brave writers and journalists literally risk life and limb to hunt down the falsifiers and the producers of that very old concept “fake news”.

    The purpose of the book was not necessarily to illustrate the negative and dark side of the ephemeral world of the newspaper. I also wanted to show how these fascinating collections of words illustrate how people lived and thought. Would you now believe that a cow could escape from London’s Lincoln Inn Fields to run amok in High Holborn and end up falling off the top floor of an inn? It happened. Or that people thought that a string of metal beads could cure toothache? They did. The pages of these eclectic early news-sheets are a window on sophisticated, witty, clever folk whose knowledge of the world may have been more limited than ours but their zest for life was just as great. They also wanted to know what the Queen was wearing and how our soldiers were doing overseas. They went to the theatre and they went shopping for clothes. Women ran away from their husbands and others had babies. They lost dogs and pet birds. They bought houses and sold all sorts of goods. They even gambled on lotteries and lost money on the new stock market. So they weren’t so different to us. It is by reading these newspapers that you can see that despite not having Facebook or any other social media life carried on. So the book is full of stories and anecdotes which may amuse, delight or puzzle the reader. While I was reading these old new-sheets I certainly felt quite at home with the writers, although they were often guilty of using ten words where five would have done.

    To finish this blog I would like to share with you that it was a treat to research the book and I hope that you enjoy it as much I enjoyed writing it.

    Ruth Herman's book Grub Street: The Origins of the British Press is available for purchase now.

  • London - 'The Flower of All Cities' by Robert Wynn Jones

    The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire

    A large part of London, and almost all of the old walled City that lay at its heart, was burned down over the space of a few short days during the Great Fire of 2–6 September 1666. This book attempts as it were to unearth from the ashes something of the history of the already age-old and burnished City that had gone before. It tells tales of settlement, struggle, conquest, oppression, rebellion, war, plague and purifying fire. The City founded by the Romans in the middle of the first century AD, on the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, and named by them Londinium. The City abandoned by the Romans at the beginning of what some still think of as the ‘Dark Ages’ of the seaborne Saxons and Vikings, and known by the former in turn as Lundenwic and Lundenburg. And the City of the – later – Middle Ages or Medieval period, of the Normans and Plantagenets; and the post-Medieval or early Modern, of the Tudors and Stuarts; one of the first true world-cities, called by some Londinopolis.

    Replica of the Elizabethen Globe playhouse, Bankside, Southwark. The original was built nearby in 1599. (The Flower of All Cities, Amberley Publishing)

    This unique history of old London town encompasses the lives of kings and queens, gentlefolk, commoners and knights, monks and merchant-adventurers and strutting players; of the anointed and ill-fated, the remembered and the forgotten. It is a City tale of “great matter” and “great reckoning”; of bustling waterfronts and imposing walls, of praying spires and vying masts, of consuming chimneys and seducing streets, of plunging shadow and abiding light. That which the poet William Dunbar in 1501 described as “sovereign of Cities” and “the flower of Cities all”.

    The City of London as presently defined incorporates some areas that lie a little outside the original walls (including Southwark, south of the river). Pre-Great Fire Greater London, that is to say the more-or-less continuously built-up area, extended even farther out, especially along the Thames: on the north side of the river, as far west as the West End and Westminster, as far north as Spitalfields and Shoreditch and as far east as Stepney, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall; and on the south side, as far west as Lambeth and Vauxhall, as far south as Borough and Newington, and as far east as Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, but not as far as Deptford, Greenwich, and Woolwich, which remained isolated settlements. The Great Fire was substantially confined to the old walled city.

    Through the story of early London we can trace a busy, beautiful, dangerous city lost forever, but brought back to life here through skilful analysis of the archaeological, pictorial and written records.

     

    Robert Wynn Jones's new book The Flower of All Cities: The History of London from Earliest Times to the Great Fire is available for purchase now.

  • A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

    From Alfhild the Shield Maiden to Afweyne the Big Mouth

    Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. (A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

    Why write twelve books about pirates and privateers? It simply stems from writing about famous Welshmen. I knew about the privateer Admiral Sir Henry Morgan, but by chance discovered Black Bart Roberts, hardly known in Britain, but by far the most successful ‘pirate of the Caribbean’, taking more than 400 ships, and known across the Americas. From the career of the teetotal Roberts, who dressed from head to foot in scarlet (the origin of le joli rouge, the Jolly Roger), I learned of the greatest pirate trial of all time…

    Men flocked to join him from surrendered ships – I did not know that forcible impressment and cruelty was endemic upon merchant ships as well as the Royal Navy – to escape their miserable lives. The average lifespan of a sailor in the slave trade was 18 months. Life as a pirate, in an elected democracy with agreed rules aboard ship, better food and freedom, was far more attractive. In Black Bart’s words, ‘a short life and a merry one shall be my motto.’ Pringle calls Roberts ‘possibly the most daring pirate who ever lived’, and upon the death of ‘the Black Pyrate’, there was the greatest pirate trial of all time, with 273 men captured, including 72 black pirates who had the same conditions, share of booty and freedom as their white counterparts.

    Bart’s is a magnificent story, well documented like those of Morgan, who successfully led six expeditions against ‘impregnable’ targets belonging to Spain and altered the course of the history of North America. Every maritime country has its story of privateers like Morgan, who were, of course, pirates to England’s major enemy.

    Blackbeard. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

    A review of the book reads: ‘It's no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration - even envy. Part of the appeal is the democratic nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the fourteenth century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic - his crew were called the “Likedeelers”, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, “'the Brethren of the coast” - and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.’

    It was enjoyable writing the book, to research other pirates over the centuries. Some were brave gentlemen who led by example, like Henry Morgan; others experienced sailors who were voted into office like Roberts; some too kindly for their crews, like Edward England; and many simply unhinged and cruel, like l’Ollonais and Montbars the Destroyer. One of the early pirates, Eustace the Monk, may have been the model for Robin Hood, and the privateer Didrik Pining may have been the first to discover America. Some were female, such as Alfhild, ‘the bloody Lioness’ Jeanne de Clisson, Sayyida and Madame Ching. The latter, incidentally, had her pirate husband murdered and married his lover, their adopted bisexual son.

    Some readers may know that the character and tale of the renegade Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was inspired by the film Aguire – Wrath of God. Both stories were inspired by Lope de Aguirre (8 November 1510 – 27 October 1561), also known as the ‘Limping Conquistador’, ‘Keeper of the Dead’, ‘El Loco’ (The Madman), who styled himself ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, Prince of Peru, and King of Tierra Firme’. And of course, he’s in the book!

    Terry Breverton's new book A Gross of Pirates is available for purchase now.

  • North Korea in 100 Facts by Ruth Ann Monti

    What’s next for Kim Jong-un?

    As I write this on New Year’s Night 2019, firecrackers are exploding uncomfortably close to my home near Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix isn’t all that far from Los Angeles, which I understand is now within reach of North Korea’s intercontinental missiles.

    It’s a little comforting that it’s less certain if such a missile weighed down by an actual warhead can actually reach LA, much less Phoenix.

    Earlier yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared in his New Year’s speech that international sanctions must be lifted before he gives up his arsenal. For now, North Korea can still scare the crap out of Angelinos by attaching a bunch of Roman candles to a missile.

    What happened to the Trump-Kim love fest?

     Last year, Kim and US President Donald Trump met in an historic, if vague, summit to pledge mutual cooperation in averting nuclear war. I say vague because while both sides stated what they want, neither indicated what he would actually do to achieve “denuclearization.”

    Kim flattered the old man with courtesies like being the first to arrive at the summit and stressing his love and concern for his countrymen—even as he imprisons about one percent of them, including descendants of political prisoners, as I discuss in Fact # 66 in my book North Korea in 100 Facts. Trump openly admired the adulation Kim enjoys from his people, failing to recognize—or simply ignoring—the consequences North Koreans face if they refuse to venerate the Supreme Leader.

    Kim did take encouraging steps after the summit. He returned the remains of several US soldiers killed in the Korean War. He dismantled at least part of the country’s nuclear testing facility, as I point out in Fact #100. But since I wrote that last fact, there have been reports that the decommissioned site was merely too old to be of much use to test newer warfare technologies.

    More concerning are satellite images that show an awful lot of construction in another remote region in North Korea that could well be a new testing site. We just don’t know, and the summit certainly did not list specific steps for North Korea to follow. But it has been well over a year since North Korea tested any nuclear device or delivery warhead.

    Kim’s 2019 New Years address left out the silly propaganda about hitting the US with a “nuclear sword of justice” or turning Seoul into “a sea of fire” as The New York Times reported on 1 January 2019. And since meeting Kim, Trump has ceased calling him names like “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to deliver “fire and fury” to North Korea.

    As I completed the book five months ago, I realized the reasonably short timeframe between submitting my manuscript and its publication would be eons in the world in which President Trump presides. The major foreign policy advisors at his side during the summit are gone, replaced by a former Fox news presenter and Iraq war hawks.

    Between his short attention span and the distracting investigations into his 2016 campaign, Trump simply stopped minding the situation. His new advisors have different ideas, and new points of view that he may or may not understand or follow, regardless of what he tweets out. Some things just can’t be broken down into a baseball cap slogan.

    In the meantime, he hasn’t noticed that Kim is showing signs that he wants to break up with him.

    Will Kim and Trump get back together?

    There’s no question that there will be another Trump-Kim summit in 2019. Trump needs another one to take public attention off of the myriad investigations, which I summarized during their relative infancy in my 2018 book Donald Trump in 100 Facts.

    What Trump will say/demand is difficult to predict. John Bolton, the current National Security Advisor and Iraq war draftsman has historically attacked Presidents, including those under whom he served, for compromising on demands for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear stockpile. Political negotiation and compromise aren’t in his vocabulary. If he has Trump’s ear the day of the next summit, the stalemate will simply continue.

    Bolton calls for the so-called “Libya model,” in which the leader turned over his nuclear arsenal. Not surprisingly, the rest of the world remembers of the US attack on Qaddafi’s residences and the dictator’s subsequent assassination by political enemies. No doubt Kim recalls this, too.

    Bolton claims Kim hasn’t lived up to the Singapore deal. But how does one live up to a deliberately opaque deal? Kim can, rightly, point to closing his existing test site and returning soldiers’ remains. In the meantime, sanctions remain on North Korea, which infuriates him. It doesn’t take much cleverness for Kim to position himself as the party that did something, anything, since the summit.

    When Kim and Trump do meet again, Kim will probably be better prepared. He doesn’t seem to have problems paying attention to details, he’s consistent, and he’s steadfastly kept the same four basic demands:

    1. End the US-South Korean military exercises (something Trump has said he wants to do anyway)
    2. Get the US dismantle its long-range missile capabilities
    3. End sanctions against North Korea
    4. Finalize the treaty to end the Korean War

    North Korea will not begin denuclearization until these demands are met.

    The US won’t agree to the third point until North Korea dismantles its entire nuclear stockpile.

    Kim says he’s ready to meet Trump anywhere, anytime. Trump tweeted out the same, adding he “looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!” He should be careful. Kim has the advantage of being backed by a subservient, near-powerless populace (many are starving as I discuss in Fact # 41), while Trump’s democracy is reasserting itself. Kim is determined; Trump is distracted. At this moment, it seems Kim has the upper hand.

    Ruth Ann Monti's new book North Korea in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

    The Chinese Magicians, Drury Lane, 1854. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the earliest Chinese to travel to Britain were Chinese Jugglers. Although described as jugglers, their acts also included acrobatics and magic. The first recorded troupe arrived in 1816 and were well received; ‘The Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, are most respectfully informed that The Chinese Jugglers continue to exhibit their wonderful performances every day, and to attract numerous spectators; many of whom do not tire of repeatedly witnessing the astonishing feats of these foreigners.’

    In 1818, the troupe had an unusual booking in London when they performed in the nude at a Royal Academy lecture on the naked figure. ‘Some have been so illiberal as to censure such exhibitions at the Royal Academy, but this extraordinary display of the muscles in forms and uses never before beheld, was a circumstance of the utmost service to Artists; it was a display that might never again appear in Europe; the actions of an African, at the Academy, had surprised them, those of the Indian Jugglers had astonished them, but the present ones surpassed all belief or power of description. The Chinese Jugglers then, performed their positions, and the distortions of their extremities surpassed everything that could have been conceived of them. The room was immensely crowded; the applause at the conclusion was general.’

    In 1853, another troupe included Tuck Guy whose knife-throwing trick was a standout of the show; ‘Placing his daughter, a prepossessing girl of about thirteen years of age, at one end of the stage, and causing her to stand with her back against some soft wood, her hands expanded and her fingers separated, he retires to distance. A parcel of very large knives are produced, he picks them up one after another, and, apparently without taking aim, or occupying any time in preparation, slings them recklessly at the child. With wonder amounting to amazement the spectator perceives that every knife has been aimed in the most accurate manner, and that they have been planted one between each of the girl’s fingers, one on each side of her cheek, and others close around her neck, but that not one has grazed her skin, though all have entered deeply into the wall behind her. This unique and unrivalled specimen of sharp practice—if it may be so termed—was well deserving of the applause which was elicited.’

    James Legge and the three students who attended Duchess of Gordon’s school in Huntly in 1846, engraving by J. Cochran after painting by Henry Room. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Victorians also delighted in exhibitions of human ‘freaks’ and in 1864 James ‘Marquis’ Chisholm, a Scottish musician, was touring in China and noticed Chang Yu Sing. Chang was not a man easy to miss as he was at least 7 foot 8 inches in height and Chisholm saw a money-making opportunity.  He convinced Chang to travel with him to Britain, along with a dwarf, Chung-Mow. Chang the Giant and Chung-Mow were exhibited to great success at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly accompanied by Chisholm playing his specially composed The Great Chang Polka. Chang swiftly gained star status. He was invited to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House and at the request of the royal children, wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall at a height of ten feet from the ground. He later toured to America and Australia, as well as within Britain, and he settled in Bournemouth, where he and his wife, Kitty, ran a tearoom and an 'Oriental Bazaar' selling Chinese curios.

    The Chinese in Britain offers a fascinating portrayal of these and the many other Chinese travellers to Britain since the first in 1687, including seamen, students, cooks, brides, diplomats, servants, sportsmen, bureaucrats and writers. As China becomes a pre-eminent world power again in the twenty-first century, this book uncovers our long relationship with the country and its people.

    Barclay Price's new book The Chinese in Britain is available for purchase now.

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