Both it (Hong Kong) and the native inhabitants have undergone marvellous changes within the last twenty-five years. A splendid town has been built out of its barren rocks; and the hill-sides are covered with trees, which not only enhance the picturesqueness of the place, but are of great value in purifying the air, and improving the health of the population. In morality, too, it has undergone a change; though perhaps not quite so marked, as the organization of the police has become more perfect, while the good feeling and interest of the wealthy and respectable class of native residents have been enlisted in the suppression of crime.
John Thomson, Illustrations of China and its People, (1873-4)
Hong Kong Harbour 1860s, Marciano Antonio Baptista (1826–96)
There is much more of a mystery surrounding the life of the multi-named Sarah Westle Maria Skelton than that of any of her four siblings. The second child of my great-great grandfather, the Yorkshire-born master tailor James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), and his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, Sarah jnr. was born in June 1826 in Printers’ Place*, in the parish of Horsleydown, in riverside Bermondsey, two years after her older sister, Margaret Sarah. The couple’s first daughter was presumably named after James’ own mother, Margaret Bowes, who had brought up her two young children after the death of her second husband (also named James Skelton) in 1799 at the terribly young age of 22. However, it does seem rather unusual to have the name Sarah popping up again so soon in the family after it had already been given as a middle name. Yet, what is perhaps more interesting is that Sarah is the only one of the five children to have two middle names, one of which is obviously a surname.
* Printers’ Place was just a temporary address for the family as the following year they were living in Broad Street, before moving round the corner into Horsleydown Lane, where they were to remain until 1844. English Heritage describes Printers Place thus: In 1819 Printers’ Place was made up of 12 houses. These were mainly of one type, a three-storey, brick-built dwelling of six rooms with a kitchen ‘in the garden’, except for a larger house at the east end containing a broker’s shop on the ground floor and four rooms on the first floor. More humble accommodation existed in the form of two brick tenements at the rear of the row, each with three rooms.
The name Westle, may have come from the Vaughan side of the family, of whom I know little about, although research in that direction has proved inconclusive. However, it has obviously been important to the family as Sarah’s brother, James William, named his palatial Croydon residence ‘Westle House’, unless this was purely in homage to his sister. I have written about this once wonderful house before (see The Story So Far), which was one of a handful of villas erected along Morland Road when the area was first being developed. The building and subsequent decline of this property (the last original one still standing in the street) appears to be a very apt analogy for the spectacular economic rise and fall that many Victorian families – and the country as a whole – experienced throughout the 19th century.
Westle House in the 21st Century
With the middle names of Westle Maria, I expected Sarah jnr. to be relatively easy to trace, but apart from the delightful discovery of the connection to the Croydon house, this soon appeared not be the case. She is there in 1841 in Horsleydown Lane along with the rest of the family and their sole domestic help on the first proper census. But by the next census of 1851, when the newly widowed James was living in the upmarket parish of Brixton with his two youngest unmarried daughters, Ann and Helen Ann (just to confuse things again), she is nowhere to be found.
The most obvious Victorian answer to this was that she’d died young, or had married. But while I soon discovered the death and burial records of her older sister, Margaret Sarah (from TB), shortly after their mother’s demise (an emotional blow that sent James into the arms of the teenage Mary Ann Hawkins, from whom I am descended), Sarah turns up alive and unmarried as a witness on her sister Ann’s marriage to William Haydon in 1851. Ann’s Australian gold rush adventure with William and their children has been described in detail over the last three posts, so regular readers will know what happened to Sarah’s adventurous younger sister throughout the 1850s. But did Ann perhaps unwittingly spur her older single sister on to exotic travels of her own, or was it in fact the reverse?
Two years after I began searching for Sarah, I found a very unusual marriage notice describing her betrothal at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Hong Kong to the Honourable Henry John Ball, the Acting Chief Justice (of Hong Kong) in 1866. This piece of information was another one of the highlights of my genealogical research. Could it really be that out of the four living children of James Skelton, three of them had gone to set up home in distinctly different far-flung colonies? Only Helen Ann (whose story will be told next month) stayed in England, eventually settling down in Ipswich and leading a suburban middle-class life with her second husband, a pharmacist. Knowing the risks of illness and disease, both at sea and in foreign climes, these offspring of James must have been gutsy risk-takers, whose own father’s migration from the Yorkshire Dales to the capital earlier in the century, pales in comparison.
Distant Twin Domes (left) of the Old Cathedral in Hong Kong, 1865
However, this appearance of Sarah’s in Hong Kong at the mature age of forty in 1866 does rather beg the question: where was she and what was she doing in the twenty years previous to that? Like her brother, the mahogany merchant, James William (see A Tale of Exploitation), she is missing from both the 1851 and 1861 census, making me wonder if she had also been living overseas during these periods. And when I dug a little deeper into the life of her judge husband, I realised that there was a good chance that she, too, had set sail for foreign climes long before she ended up in the burgeoning British colony of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Waterfront, 1860s, John Thomson
Henry John Ball is ‘famous’ enough to have his own (rather basic) Wikipedia entry here, probably written by a relative. As mentioned, he was the son of a barrister who then became a barrister himself, after studying for both a BA at the University of London and then at Oxford. After graduating from Oxford in 1845 he became a ‘special pleader’, before being called to the bar in 1853, where he was affiliated to the Inner Temple. It would then appear that he was appointed attorney-general of British Honduras in 1855, remaining in that post until 1862, for a yearly stipend of £500 (while no doubt carrying on private legal work). And I think it is fair to say that it was most likely while in British Honduras that he made the acquaintance of James William Skelton, a successful mahogany dealer, and only brother of Sarah Westle Maria Skelton.
Did James William introduce Henry and Sarah to each other when he returned to London in the 1860s, or did Sarah in fact work for James William in British Honduras and meet her future husband that way? Her absence from the census of 1851 and 1861 makes me wonder if she did not decide to join her brother out in the Caribbean to help with his growing export business. As a single woman who was not quite wealthy enough to be a lady of leisure, and who had been brought up to find an occupation for herself, she perhaps wanted to take on a task which would allow her to escape the family situation in London. Not only were her two little sisters finding husbands for themselves, but her father had taken up with an impoverished single mother, younger even than herself, and had begun to create a second family with his new mistress. Thus, suddenly finding herself unable to fulfil the role of dutiful unmarried daughter to her widowed father, she may have wanted some kind of escape from the type of mundane roles which were open to middle class women in mid-Victorian England.
I hope one day to be able to discover what Sarah actually did in the two decades between her mother’s death in 1846, and her marriage to Henry John Ball in Hong Kong in 1866. Somehow I think she would not have drifted into the life of a provincial governess or shopkeeper, and I wonder if James William was not also keeping an eye on his spinster sister. As I have mentioned in earlier chapters, it would seem that once my great-great grandfather set up home with his young mistress, the older children of the first marriage rallied around each other, no doubt horrified at their father’s lifestyle choice. James William even went as far as to try to protect his father’s reputation, describing him on official documents as Esquire and Gentleman, and stating he was of Brixton (then an upmarket suburb) as opposed to the less salubrious area of Kennington/Walworth (where he had moved with Mary Ann Hawkins and their growing brood).
Whenever and wherever Henry John Ball actually did meet Sarah Westle Maria Skelton, on the 5th of August 1862, The London Gazette announced that: The Queen has been pleased to appoint Henry John Ball, esq. to be Judge of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction for the colony of Hong Kong. As Ball’s Wikipedia entry points out, he was to remain in the colony until 1873, reprising a number of legislative and executive roles over the period, many of them filling in for those who were absent or on sick leave, including Acting Chief Justice. While I initially thought this rather strange, it turns out that a good many of these officials were often not able to perform their duties due to illness brought on by the demands of the climate, in addition to the need to return home on a regular basis to fulfil personal and professional goals.
Establishing the jurisdiction for such a far-flung colony was certainly a very challenging task, particularly in light of the fact that not only had the Chinese inhabitants a very different ‘legal’ system (following Confucianism), but the colonial government had to deal with unfamiliar local crimes, such as piracy and kidnapping. And as more immigrants arrived in Hong Kong from other parts of China, the territory was put under further strain.
Hong Kong Street (note sedan chairs) 1860s, by John Thomson
We cannot ascertain for sure if it was illness or personal reasons that led the Balls to undertake the voyage back to England in the summer of 1873 on the SS Pekin, but given that Sarah was obviously sick before she set sail from the colony, I suspect it was the former. Entries from the archives of the Hongkong Government Gazette (online search facilities here) show that Henry John Ball was absent (on leave) from government meetings from June 1873. This would tally with the fact that he had remained in England after the dreadful event on the 22nd of August 1873, when his wife of eight years became fatally ill at sea, suffering from what was described in the ship’s records as Tubercular Diarrhea. Sadly, she was not the only one to succumb to illness on board as two others were reported to have lost their lives during the voyage (a not uncommon occurrence at that time). But for Henry John Ball it was possibly too much to bear: almost exactly a year later, on the 20th of August 1874, Sarah’s newly widowed husband himself died in London at his residency in Half Moon Street, Picadilly at the age of 54 from Cirrhosis of the Liver and Exhaustion.
Henry John Ball never returned to Hong Kong after losing Sarah. And one month after his own death, in September 1874, in a terrible twist of fate, the Ball’s large Hong Kong house, named Ball’s Court, which was situated in the wealthy enclave of the Western Mid-Levels above Victoria Harbour, was severely damaged by a devastating local typhoon in which over 2,000 lives were lost.
Ball’s Court after the Typhoon of 1874
Henry John Ball’s last will and testament, made out on 7th August 1874, just a few days before he died, included an estate of only five thousands pounds, an amount which seems surprisingly low (unless undeclared monies were tied up overseas). Of personal interest to me was the mention that Sarah’s jewellery and trinkets should be given to her niece, Helen Tyler (the daughter of her younger surviving sister, Helen Ann), in addition to the fact that Henry John Ball’s large Chinese cabinet should be given to his friend, James William Skelton. As Sarah’s brother is described as a ‘friend’, rather than a relative, then I believe this points to the fact that it was James who brought Sarah and Henry together (perhaps inadvertently), thus granting them a few years of (unplanned?) happiness together later in life. Interestingly, Henry John Ball’s will also mentions that his white tropical garb should be sent to a friend in British Honduras, a detail which made me feel quite unexpectedly melancholy.
This wonderful Image of William Mercer (far left) in Hong Kong in the 1860s, taken by Scottish photographer John Thomson, illustrates the type of white clothing that the Victorian colonialists wore. Mercer was the colonial secretary of Hong Kong from 1854 to 1868 (he had been in the government for ten years previous to that), a position Henry John Ball took over in 1867 during Mercer’s absence. This photograph (along with others above) comes from a recently discovered album of Thomson’s Hong Kong images which belonged to the Mercer family, and which sold at auction for just under £50,000. Although the album only contains 27 photographs, I do wonder if there might actually be one in which an image of Mr and Mrs Henry Ball in their heyday can be seen.
As regular readers will know, in early 2016 I took a trip to Australia, in part to research the life of Sarah’s sister, Ann Haydon, and her family on the Central Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. Flying via Hong Kong, I touched down for several hours in the ‘new’ international airport of Chep Lap Kok, which afforded me glimpses of the surrounding water and spectacular mountain landscape. Of course, it was then I realised with a certain degree of frustration that I should have tried to incorporate a stopover in Hong Kong in order to undertake some extra research. And as I sat in the departure lounge, waiting for my connecting flight to Melbourne, wondering where my head had been when I’d planned my trip, memories of my first and only visit to Hong Kong almost twenty-five years previously came flooding back.
It was in the summer of 1992 at the end of a long sojourn overseas, and after two and a half years away from home, I was preparing both mentally and physically to head back to my family. My sight-seeing was thus rather half-hearted as I spent most of the week looking for a cheap flight to London, and stocking up on gifts for friends and family (as well as searching for the ubiquitous duty-free camera). However, while I remember taking the ferry to Macau one day, and also travelling out to laid-back Lamma Island to visit a friend, I certainly missed out on many of the ‘must see’ parts of Hong Kong during my short stay there.
View from the Star Ferry terminal, Kowloon, Hong Kong 1992
So , Dear Readers, there is really only one thing left to do – and that is to plan my return trip, while being suitably prepared to carry out the genealogical research that will help illuminate the lost lives of Sarah Westle Maria and her honourable judge.
The Incidental Genealogist, August 2018