Sir Robert Hart, 1st
Baronet GCMG (20 February 1835 – 20 September
1911), was a
British diplomat and official in the Imperial Chinese
government, who served as the second Inspector-General of China's
Imperial Maritime Custom Service (IMCS) from 1863 to 1911.
According to Jung Chang, "Under Hart, Chinese Customs was transformed
from an antiquated set-up, anarchical and prone to corruption, into a
well-regulated modern organisation, which contributed enormously to
1 Early life and education
2 Consular Service in China
3 Chinese customs
5 Family life
7 Awards and recognition
7.1 Honours list
8 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Early life and education
Hart was born in a little house in Dungannon Street, Portadown, County
Armagh, Ulster, Ireland. He was the eldest of 12 children of Henry
Hart (1806–1875), who worked in the distilleries, and a daughter of
John Edgar of Ballybreagh. Hart's father was a "man of forceful and
picturesque character, of a somewhat unique strain, and a Wesleyan to
the core." At the age of 12, Hart's family moved to Milltown (near
Maghery), on the banks of the Lough Neagh, staying there for a year
before moving on to Hillsborough, where he first attended school. He
was sent for a year to a Wesleyan school in Taunton, England, where he
learnt his first Latin. His father's anger at being allowed to return
to his home unaccompanied at the end of the school year led him to be
sent to the Wesleyan Connexion School in Dublin (now Wesley College
Hart studied hard at school, earning him the nicknames "Stewpot" and
"Consequential Butt". By the age of 15, he was ready to leave school,
and his parents decided to send him to the newly founded Queen's
College, Belfast. He easily passed the entrance exams and earned
himself a scholarship (he earned another scholarship in second year,
and another in third). He found little time for sports, but was
heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays and had his first
poem published in a Belfast newspaper. During his time at university,
he became a favourite student of James McCosh, and they continued to
correspond through the rest of their lives. In 1853, he took his
degree examinations, and gained his B.A. at the age of 18. He also won
medals in Literature as well as in Logic and Metaphysics, and left
with the distinction of being a Senior Scholar. He decided to study
for a master's degree but in spring 1854 was instead nominated by
Queen's College for the Consular Service in China.
Consular Service in China
Hart went down to the Foreign Office in London, where he met with the
Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Edmund
Hammond, and left for China in May 1854. Hart took a ship from
Southampton to Alexandria, then travelled to Suez, then on to Galle
and Bombay, before arriving in Hong Kong. He spent three months as a
student interpreter at the Superintendency of Trade, before the return
of John Bowring, the Governor of Hong Kong. On Bowring's return, Hart
was assigned to the British Consulate in Ningpo. In 1855, following a
dispute with his Portuguese colleague, the British Consul was
suspended, with Hart taking over his duties for a few months. Hart's
calmness and good judgement in the face of conflict between the
Chinese and Portuguese earned him favourable recommendations. Hart
returned to his duties following the appointment of a new Consul, and
was still resident in
Ningpo during the
Ningpo massacre on 26 June
In March 1858, Hart was transferred to Canton to serve as the
Secretary of the Allied Commission that governed the city. In this
role, he served under Harry Smith Parkes, and found the work
"exceedingly interesting": Parkes often took Hart on his trips around
or outside Canton. In October 1858, Hart was made an interpreter at
the British Consulate in Canton under Rutherford Alcock. In 1859, the
Chinese viceroy Lao Tsung Kuang, a special friend of Hart's, invited
him to set up a customs house in Canton similar to the one in Shanghai
under Horatio Nelson Lay. In response, Hart said that he knew nothing
of customs, but wrote to Lay to explore the possibility. Lay then
offered him the role of Deputy Commissioner of Customs, which he
accepted, and Hart asked the British government if they would allow
him to resign from the consular service. They permitted this, but made
clear that he would not be allowed to return whenever he pleased: he
submitted his resignation in May 1859, and joined the customs
Upon entering the customs service, Hart began drawing up a series of
regulations for the operation of the customs house in Canton. For two
years, from 1859 to 1861, Hart worked hard in Canton, but never fell
ill in the hot and damp climate. In 1861, facing the threat of the
Taiping Rebellion marching on Shanghai,
Horatio Nelson Lay
Horatio Nelson Lay sought
leave to return to Britain to nurse his injuries sustained during an
anti-British riot in 1859. Lay claimed that so serious were his
injuries that he was forced to return to England for two years to
recover. In his place, two officiating Inspectors-General were
appointed: George Henry Fitzroy, a former private secretary to Lord
Elgin, and Hart. Whilst Fitzroy was content to stay in Shanghai, Hart
went around China establishing new customs offices. With the recent
ratification of the Treaty of Tientsin, a number of new ports were
opened to foreign trade, and so new customs structures had to be put
in place. In 1861, Hart recommended to the
Zongli Yamen the
purchase of the Osborn or "Vampire" Fleet. When the proposal was
adopted, Lay, on leave in Britain, set out arranging the purchase of
the ships and hiring of personnel.
The good relations Hart established with the imperial authorities in
Peking while deputising for Lay, and conflict between Lay and Prince
Gong and the
Zongli Yamen over the Osborn Fleet, led them to dismiss
the difficult and haughty Lay upon his return from leave. Hart was
appointed in his place in November 1863, with British approval. As
Inspector-General of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service (IMCS),
Hart's main responsibilities included collecting custom duties for the
Chinese government, as well as expanding the new system to more sea
and river ports and some inland frontiers, standardising its
operations, and insisting on high standards of efficiency and
honesty. The top echelon of the service was recruited from all the
nations trading with China. Hart's advice led to the improvement of
China's port and navigation facilities.
Hart as caricatured in Vanity Fair, December 1894
From the start, Hart was anxious to use such influence as he possessed
in favour of other modernising steps. In October 1865 Hart submitted
Prince Gong a memorandum which caused some offence at the time. In
it he advised that "[o]f all the countries in the world, none is
weaker than China" and outlined his proposals. A modern postal
service and the supervision of internal taxes on trade were eventually
added to the Service's responsibilities. Hart worked to persuade China
to establish its own embassies in foreign countries. Earlier, in 1862,
he had with the Manchu noble
Prince Gong established the Tongwen Guan
(School of Combined Learning) in Peking, with a branch in Canton, to
enable educated Chinese to learn foreign languages, culture and
science, for China's future diplomatic and other needs. (An early
appointment to the school was the completely unsuitable 'Baron von
Gumpach' (an assumed name) whose discharge led him to sue Hart in the
British Supreme Court for China and Japan
British Supreme Court for China and Japan for defamation. In 1873, the
case ultimately went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
Hart v Gumpach which upheld Hart's right to make the decision.) In
Tongwen Guan was absorbed into the Imperial University, now
Hart was known for his diplomatic skills, and befriended many Chinese
and Western officials. This aided him in directing customs operations
without interruption even during periods of turmoil. His American
Commissioner, Edward Drew, credited him with preventing a war with
Britain in 1876 (via the Chefoo Convention), and he and his London
representative, James Campbell, helped bring about peace after a
French attack on the Chinese navy in
Fuzhou in 1884. In 1885, Hart had
also been asked to become Minister Plenipotentiary at Peking, upon the
retirement of Sir Thomas Wade. He declined the honor after four months
of hesitation, on the grounds that his work in the Customs Service was
of certain benefit to both China and Britain, but that the outcome of
a change of post was unclear.
During Hart's tenure in the Maritime Customs,
Prince Gong was head of
the Zongli Yamen, the newly established Chinese equivalent of the
British Foreign Office, and the two men held each other in high
regard. Hart was so well known in the
Zongli Yamen that he was
affectionately nicknamed "our Hart" (wǒmen de Hèdé,
我們的赫德). He also often worked closely with the powerful
Li Hongzhang and their final work together involved
negotiating a settlement China could tolerate at the end of the Boxer
Rebellion, when the
Eight-Nation Alliance of Western forces took
control of Peking to lift the Siege of the International Legations,
after the Dowager Empress and her nephew the
Guangxu Emperor had fled
Hart held his post till his retirement in 1910, although he left China
on leave in April 1908, and was succeeded temporarily by his
brother-in-law, Sir Robert Bredon, and then formally by Sir Francis
Aglen. Hart died on 20 September 1911 after a cardiac decline
following a bout of pneumonia. He was buried on 25 September 1911 at
Bisham, Berkshire, England.
Hart's devotion to his work played havoc with his emotional life. As a
young man, in spite of his Methodist conscience, he had bouts of
promiscuity. In 1857 he took a Chinese concubine, Ayaou, with whom he
had three children and for whom he developed genuine affection and
respect. After becoming Inspector General at the end of 1863 one of
his resolutions was to set a good example to his staff. For him this
included parting with Ayaou (who seems to have been still in the
south) and finding a respectable British wife. In December 1864 he
visited Hong Kong and Canton, and it seems that while there, he made
generous arrangements for Ayaou and made plans for the removal of the
children to Britain. This was delayed as it seems in saying farewell
he had also made her pregnant with their third child. Also one of the
key persons whose help he needed was away. As he recorded in his diary
for 15 January 1865 "I had to leave undone the private business I was
most anxious to have got arranged". In May 1866 he arrived in Britain
for his first leave. It seems likely the three children, (Anna,
Herbert and Arthur Hart), travelled on the same boat with his Chinese
steward, and his lawyer immediately found them a foster home.
He was now felt free to find a respectable wife, and his aunt had
already prepared the way with the daughter of her doctor. He arrived
home on 25 May, and on 31 May he and his aunt called on the 18
year-old Hester Bredon and her newly widowed mother. A rapid courtship
followed. On their third meeting, on 5 June, he proposed and was
accepted. They married in Dublin on 22 August and in September left
for Peking. With Hester he had three legal children, Evelyn,
Robert and Mabel, but did not see much of them. They both made a
genuine effort to make the marriage work and to find common interests,
but Peking life had its difficulties. Hester returned to Britain in
1876 with their first two children. A brief reunion started on his
second leave in 1878, during which he had a break down. Hester
probably found out about the illegitimate children, whose education
was causing expense, during this leave. She accompanied him back to
Peking, where the third child, Mabel, was born, but from 1882 she and
the children lived permanently in London. The relationship was
maintained by letter. Hart wrote regularly to his wife and legal
children. The two oldest visited him in Peking briefly in the 1890s.
not very satisfactorily. He was disappointed in the adult lives of his
three legitimate children, but acknowledged in a letter to Campbell
that he had been a neglectful father, not being present to set an
example, but China was his priority.
It is not known when Ayaou died. His diary records letters from her in
1870 and in May 1872 "Will this never end?". While making no
direct contact with them, Hart took an interest in the progress of his
illegitimate children, through his lawyer and soon also via Campbell,
his friend and colleague in charge of the London office, In his
last decade, he was obliged to acknowledge them by legal
After 1882 he lived a celibate life, but had deep friendships with
many girls and women, amongst whom were three generations of the
Carrall family. Many of his male staff felt he was a supportive
friend as well as a demanding superior. He got to know all his
promising young men while they were students learning Chinese under
his eyes in Peking, for he insisted that the ability to speak and
write Mandarin Chinese was essential for promotion to Commissioner in
charge of a Chinese port.
Sir Robert was survived by his wife and three children and was
succeeded in the Baronetcy by his son Sir Edgar Hart, 2nd
Kilmoriarty (1893 - 1963). Sir Edgar was succeeded in the Baronetcy by
his son Sir Robin Hart, 3rd
Baronet of Kilmoriarty who died in 1970
when the title fell into abeyance.
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Sir Robert Hart, 1st Baronet
The papers and correspondence of Sir Robert Hart (MS 15) are held in
Special Collections & Archives of Queen's University, Belfast
 and at (PP MS 67) in the Archives and
Special Collections of the
School of Oriental and African Studies, London 
Awards and recognition
Sir Robert Hart Memorial School in Portadown, Northern Ireland.
Sir Robert Hart, Bt., was one of the most highly decorated individuals
of history receiving four hereditary titles, fifteen orders of
knighthood (of the first class) and many other honorary academic and
His skills as Inspector-General were recognized by both Chinese and
Western authorities, and he was awarded several honorific Chinese
titles, including the Red Button, or button of the highest rank; a
Peacock's Feather; the Order of the Double Dragon; the Ancestral Rank
of the First Class of the First Order for Three Generations; and the
title of Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent in December 1901. He
was also appointed a CMG, KCMG, and GCMG, and received a British
baronetcy. In 1900, he was awarded the Prussian Order of the Crown
(First Class), and received this in person the following year from the
German Minister in China. In 1906, he was awarded a Grand Cross of
Order of the Dannebrog
Order of the Dannebrog by the King of Denmark.
His name is still remembered through a street, Hart Avenue, in Tsim
Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. There was also formerly a "Rue Hart" in the
Beijing Legation Quarter (now Taijichang First Street) and a Hart
Road in Shanghai (now Changde Road).
In 1935, the 'Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School' in Portadown,
Northern Ireland, was established in his name.
1870: Chevalier of the
Order of Vasa
Order of Vasa (Sweden).
1873: Grand Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph (Austria-Hungary;
1875: Honorary Master of Arts, Queen's University, Belfast.
1881: Red Button of the First Class (China).
1882: Honorary Doctor of Laws, Queen's University, Belfast.
1885: Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour (France; Commander: 1878)
1885: First Class, Second Grade of the Order of the Double Dragon
1885: The Peacock's Feather (China)
1885: Knight Commander of the
Order of Pius IX
Order of Pius IX (Holy See).
1886: Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Michigan.
1888: Grand Cross of the Order of Christ (Portugal).
1889: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George
(Great Britain; KCMG: 1882; CMG: 1879)
1889: Ancestral rank of the First Class of the First order for three
Baronet of Kilmoriarty in the County of Armagh.
1894: Commander Grand Cross of the
Order of the Polar Star
Order of the Polar Star (Sweden).
1897: Knight Grand Cross of the
Order of Orange Nassau
Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands).
1900: First Class of the Order of the Crown (Prussia).
1901: Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent (China)
1906: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (Italy; Grand
1906: First Class of the
Order of the Rising Sun
Order of the Rising Sun (Japan).
1906: Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold (Belgium; Grand Officer:
1893; Commander: 1869)
1907: First Class of the
Order of St Anna
Order of St Anna (Russia).
1907: Grand Cross of the
Order of the Dragon of Annam
Order of the Dragon of Annam (France).
1907: Grand Cross of the
Order of St. Olav
Order of St. Olav (Norway).
Ernest Mason Satow, who met Hart many times while he was British
Minister in China, 1900-1906. (See Satow's diary).
Maria Jane Dyer, to whom he proposed marriage in Ningbo 1858. She
later married James Hudson Taylor
^ Chang, p. 78
^ Bredon, pp. 9–14
^ Bredon, pp. 14–24
^ a b Drew, Edward B. (July 1913). "Sir Robert Hart and His Life Work
in China". Journal of Race Development. 4 (1): 1–33.
^ Bredon, pp. 24–5
^ Bredon, pp. 31–42
^ Bredon, pp. 42–52
^ Bredon, pp. 55–60
^ E.B. Drew,1913
^ Jung Chang, 'Empress Dowager Cixi', Vintage Books, London 2013 pg.
^ Fairbank et al, comment pp. 14-15 and several of his contemporary
letters to Campbell
^ Fairbank et al, 1975, letters to Campbell, many letters between 519
and 559. Letter 550 includes his letter of explanation to Lord
^ King, Frank H. H.. "Hart, Sir Robert, first baronet (1835–1911)".
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 ed.). Oxford University
Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33739. Accessed 22 August 2010.
^ Tiffen, Mary. "Friends of Sir Robert Hart" 2012.
^ Smith R.J. et al, 1978
^ a b Tiffen 2012
^ Smith et al 1991
^ Fairbank et.al
^ Li and Wildy,2003
^ 70th birthday tribute,
Queen's University Belfast
Queen's University Belfast Hart archive,
^ "Latest intelligence -China". The Times (36637). London. 13 December
1901. p. 3.
^ "Court Circular". The Times (36400). London. 12 March 1901.
^ "Hart Memorial Primary School". Retrieved 29 September 2014.
Bell, S. Hart of Lisburn. Lisburn Historical Press, 1985.
Bredon, J. Sir Robert Hart: The Romance of a Great Career. Hutchinson
and Co., 1910.
Bruner, K. F., Fairbank, J. K., and Smith, R. J. Entering China's
Service: Robert Hart's Journals, 1854-1863. Council on East Asian
Studies, Harvard University, 1986.
Chang, J. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern
China. Vintage Books, 2014.
Drew, E. B. 'Sir Robert Hart and his Life Work in China', Journal of
Race Development, 4. 1, 1913.
Fairbank J. K., Bruner, K. F., Matheson, E. M., ed. The I.G. in
Peking : Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs,
1868-1907. Belknap Press of *
Harvard University Press, 1975.
Broomhall A. J., Hudson Taylor & China's Open Century Volume
Three: If I Had a Thousand Lives; Hodder and Stoughton and Overseas
Missionary Fellowship, 1982.
Li, L. and Wildy, D. 'A New Discovery and its Significance: The
Statutory Declarations made by Sir Robert Hart concerning his Secret
Domestic Life in 19th century China', Journal of the Hong Kong Branch
of the Royal Asiatic Society, 13. 2003.
Preston, D. The Boxer Rebellion: China's War on Foreigners. 1900.
Paperback edition, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2002.
Smith, R. J., Fairbank, J. K., & Bruner, K. F. Robert Hart and
China's Early Modernization: His Journals, 1863-66. Council on East
Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1991.
Spence, Jonathan D. To Change China: Western Advisers in China,
1620-1960. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin Books, 1980.
Tiffen, Mary, Friends of Sir Robert Hart: Three Generations of Carrall
women in China. Tiffania Books, 2012.
Wright, S.F. Hart and the Chinese Customs, William Mullen and Son for
Queen's University, Belfast, 1952.
Bickers, Robert A. (2011). The scramble for China: foreign devils in
the Qing empire, 1800-1914. London: Allen Lane.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sir Robert Hart, 1st Baronet.
The Irish Contribution to Joseon Korea - OhmyNews International at
Sir Robert Hart Collection at Queen's University, Belfast
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Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School
Sir Robert Hart at Bumali Broject
Horatio Nelson Lay
Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Sir Francis Aglen
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Baronet(of Kilmoriarty in the County of Armagh)
Edgar Bruce Hart
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