A Conversation with Andrew Hillier

Only connect… famous words by E.M.Forster, who was baptised at Holy Trinity, Clapham and who explored, in fiction, the relationship between British imperialism and India. Clapham has its share of real imperial connections, some reaching further eastwards, to south-east Asia and China in particular. Andrew Hillier’s Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817 – 1927 (Renaissance Books, 2020) examines Britain’s presence in China through the lens of one family, his own.

Julie Anderson (JA) ; Mediating Empire uses papers and photographs from your own family archive, going back to the early nineteenth century. What prompted you to write about your own family and its history?

Andrew Hillier (AH); My grandfather, Harold Hillier, was a keen genealogist and put together the outlines of the family story but, apart from summarising their careers and a few obituaries, it did little to explain what we were doing in ‘the Far East’ during that time. I knew, for example, that his father, Harry, had been ‘in the Customs’ but this meant nothing to me, nor to other members of the family, who, perhaps, conjured up an image of someone sitting in a kiosk waving cars onto a ferry. In fact, China’s Imperial Customs Service, in which Harry served for forty years, latterly as a Commissioner, formed the backbone of the country’s economy for over sixty years and a key, if controversial, element of Britain’s informal empire.

In the back of my mind, I thought that I should try to find out more about our past, but it wasn’t high on the agenda, at a time when I was struggling to get going as a barrister and my wife, Geraldine,  & I were living with a couple of small children in a flat in Abbeville Road. What really sparked my interest was when, in 1976, Jim Hoare & Susan Pares moved into the flat below us and soon became close friends. They both worked in the Far East section of the research department of the Foreign Office, and Jim began telling me how valuable this family archive was and that I should do something with it. A few years later, they were posted to the embassy in South Korea and, one day, Jim phoned me to say he was standing in front of the foundation stone of the embassy, laid by the wife of the British Consul, ‘Mrs Walter C. Hillier, on  19 July 1890’. He went on to use some of our photographs in his book, Embassies in The East (Curzon, 1999).

With his encouragement and the insistence of my wife, who didn’t want me hanging around doing nothing when I retired, I started a Ph.D. at Bristol University, studying under Robert Bickers, the doyen in this field, and completed my dissertation in 2016. I have now developed this into what I hope is an engaging account of how this family both shaped and was shaped by empire.

JA; There is increasing scholastic interest in the politics and influence of domestic life, with the advent of inter-disciplinary academic fields like women’s studies, which consider how society and power impact upon women. Your book examines how one family, including its women, acts as an outward-facing cultural and social mechanism in support of British imperial power. How important are women in Mediating Empire?

AH; Very important. I have been able to bring their lives out of the shadows, by using four generations’ worth of family papers, including some sixty letters from my great, great grand-mother, Eliza Hillier. These describe her life in Hong Kong, with her husband, who was the colony’s Chief Magistrate from 1846 to 1856, and who died when she was twenty-eight, leaving her with four children under the age of eight and one more on the way – an extraordinary life, but one which typifies what so many women in empire had to go through and the important but unsung contribution they made in normalising Britain’s overseas presence.

JA; One of your current projects is to portray the day-to day life of the military in China, how officers and other ranks interacted with their surroundings and local Chinese people, using regimental photographs, letters and journals. Will this form the basis of another book?

AH; No. Britain had an almost continuous military presence in China from the start of the Second Opium War (1856) until the late 1930s and Historical Photographs of China, is the ideal format for displaying and discussing these regimental photographs – see http://visualisingchina.net/blog/2017/03/20/andrew-hillier-on-images-of-war-and-regimental-memory/ . The collections provide a fascinating insight into daily life outside the combat zone and into how these experiences helped shape Sino- British cultural relations. Many of them are little-known and are in danger of disappearing for lack of funds and one purpose of the project is to demonstrate their importance as a source for both British and Chinese historians.

JA; Given Forster’s exhortation, will you be making yet more connections, bringing together more historical sources to inform your next book?

I hope so. What fascinates me is exploring the lives of ‘ordinary’ westerners in the Far East through diaries, letters and photographs. Having completed editing Eliza’s letters, I am now researching the wives of China consuls amongst others. There must be plenty of readers whose forbears were in China and who still have their own mementos of that time and I would love to hear from them and try to piece together their stories.

Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817 – 1927 is available on-line, in local bookshops and at Orca Book Services ( direct.orders@marston.co.uk ). RRP £75, currently on offer at £45. More information can be found on Andrew’s web-site at  https://www.andrewhillier.org/

This interview was commissioned by the Clapham Society, for the June ‘Literary’ edition of its Newsletter.

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