top of page
  • Andrew Hillier

Recent Family Finds

Tucked away in attics, trunks and shoe-boxes are heirlooms, letters and photographs that nobody has noticed or looked at for years and that, if not valuable, may be full of family history. Our distant cousin, James Mkenzie-Hall, was sorting through some of his parents’ possessions – they died in 2018, both well into their nineties - and he came across some fascinating items. James descends from Martha Saul (née Medhurst), Eliza Hillier’s younger sister and the recipient of some fifty letters from Eliza, which I have just finished editing (to be published by the Hong Kong City University Press in the autumn).

As I relate in Mediating Empire (pp. 138-9), Martha’s son, George, (James’ great grand-father) made a successful career in the Philippines, having had the good fortune to marry a rich Philippina widow.

Above: George Medhurst Saul with his wife Damiana and two of their sons.

Below: Walter Emil Saul

His five sons were educated in England, and the youngest, Walter Emil, was the father of James’s mother, June, who was born in Iloilo, and two of the finds must have come through him. The first

comprised these Chinese writing materials which the missionary, Walter Henry Medhurst, (Eliza’s and Martha’s father) had used throughout his life in the East (1817-1856). Whilst they are standard materials that any Chinese intellectual would have possessed, they are nonetheless a wonderful memento of Medhurst’s work. Looking at the picture below, it is tempting to think that his scribe, Choo-Tih-Lang may be using one of these pens.

From Medhurst, China: Its State and Prospects

During the many years which Medhurst spent translating the Bible, he will have first used these pens to transcribe it into Chinese, before sending the manuscript to be set up in Chinese type that he had played a part in designing, and then printed by the London Missionary Society Press in Shanghai.

One of Walter Medhurst’s seals

First published in 1854, the Delegates’ Version, as it was known, became the standard translation for the rest of the century.

James’ next find comprised Martha’s writing box and blotters, which she used for her English correspondence.

Whilst we do not have any of Martha’s letters, they are of course frequently referred to in Eliza’s to her. Living in Shanghai, England and Batavia (Jakarta), Martha bore her husband, Powell, four children before he died just one month after the youngest was born, leaving her, aged just twenty-four years old, to make her melancholy way back to England.

Martha Saul, probably taken when she was in her forties

There she lived for the next thirty-four years until her death in 1890. We can imagine her using these materials to write to Eliza and other family members from these out-posts of empire and also, having returned to England, to her son, George, when he left for the East in 1873.

James made one final find when he saw a letter from Tristram Hillier advertised for sale. Having contacted Ann-Clare (Tristram’s daughter), he bought it as an important part of the family story. Written just after the publication of Tristram’s autobiography, Leda and the Goose, it is dated 17 October 1954 and is addressed to a Father Powell. ‘Receiv[ing] your letter seemed like a voice from another world’, wrote Tristram, ‘it must be forty years since we met’. Exactly who Father Powell was remains unclear but, since Tristram will then have been aged eight or nine, he may have been a local priest. It is a time which he describes in his autobiography with both humour and sadness.

Bill Booker, to whom he refers, had married his eldest sister, Winfred in 1918 and they had gone to live in Peru where he became one of the outstanding railway engineers. Sadly, Winifred died of TB in 1929 and Booker had re-married. Delighted that James had bought it, Anna-Clare told him how ‘that type-face brought back many memories, as later I typed reams of stuff for him on his little typewriter, probably the same one, with carbon copies!’

Such items can conjure up many memories of family and its life in the wider British World, so keep searching for them!

4 June 2020

47 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page