The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 9, 2008

John Anthony, Esquire

In March 1805, a Bill was passed into law by the British parliament. As bills went, this was somewhat unusual. Its subject was one John Anthony, a man of about thirty-nine years of age. He was employed by the East India Company, and was in charge of the welfare of the lascars of that great mercantile enterprise. Everyone who knew him lauded his good character. The fact that he was wealthy helped his case. He was also known to be a Christian of great piety, and the Parliamentarians no doubt took his faith as an additional virtue. His original request to the Government, in the absence of a bureaucracy in charge of immigration and citizenship, was to be allowed to become a British national. What was unprecedented, of course, was that he was not a white man. In fact, he was Chinese, and that Act of Parliament was to naturalise him as a subject of the King.

Mr. John Anthony, a native of China, and interpreter to the East India company, had the oaths of abjuration and fidelity duly administered to him, previous to the second reading of the bill for his naturalization, then upon the table. Which proceeding having taken place, the bill was referred to a private committee. — Adjourned. 1

Not a lot is known about him. Although there had been Chinese visitors to the Sceptred Isle since the late 17th century, few had settled into genteel society. Most were either sailors or page-boys to wealthy aristocrats. The first Chinese visitor recorded in Britain was Shen Fu Tsong, who became a friend of King James II. With the establishment of the trading companies began the great influx of lascars into England. These were impecunious men, who congregated in the East End of London and the areas of the Docklands, seedy and crime-ridden areas. Unused to the climate and the general unfriendliness of the English, they were often victim to disease, malnutrition and crime. Unsurprisingly, they banded together for security.

The lascars had been at first been housed in Shoreditch. The Company tried to negotiate deals for private dwellings among the residents in the locality, paying up to a shilling and eight-pence a day (regardless of the expense, their concern for the lascars had been prompted only by the thought of the 'comfort of the natives...') 2, but the distance from the docks meant that the lascars were often wont to make their own arrangements for accommodation. Moreover, the locals did not appreciate their presence; indeed magistrates complained to the Company's directors of the 'nuisance' that the large numbers of lascars in their midst created.

The East India Company soon realised that their sailors would be happier with arrangements closer to the Docklands, and this is where John Anthony came into the picture. It appears that he had been an administrator in China 3, and was imported to London to aid the Company. He took up a contract (1799-1804) with the Company to feed, clothe and manage their men. His fortune stemmed from this contract (his brother-in-law, Abraham Gole, who succeeded him, for example, was paid £117,958 over a period of decade 4), but evidently he was also a man well-regarded by the lascars themselves.

Amazingly, the superb archives of the Criminal Court at the Old Bailey has a reference to John Anthony. One of the lascars in his care, a Chinese man named Awing, was the victim of a burglary at his premises at Number 4, Angel Gardens, Ratcliff Highway. Two Londoners, Rayner and Moren, were apprehended and arraigned, and John Anthony appeared on behalf of Awing, where he made the following statement to the magistrate 5:

I am employed by the India Company to take care of the lascars who come over here; I rent this house and employ Awing to take care of the house and of the men; he came to me about eleven o'clock on the 10th of April, and gave me the information; I have since seen a coat belonging to my brother-in-law.

(Rayner, aged 27, was sentenced to death, while Moren was acquitted of the crime.)

John Anthony was no doubt joyous at the grant of his citizenship, more so as he was no doubt aware that he was setting a precedent. Sadly for him, however, he did not survive very long to enjoy it. In August 1805, he died. Most of what is now known of the man appeared in an obituary published the same month:

Aged about 39, at his country-house at Hallowall-down, Essex, Jn. Anthony, esq. for whom a Bill of Naturalization passed into a law in March last. His body was removed to his residence in Shadwell, to be attended to that church by all the Chinese in town. He was the first instance of a Chinese having been naturalized in this country, where he had accumulated a great fortune, and bore a most excellent character, having for several years past been entrusted, by the Directors of the East India Company, with the care of the Chinese and Lascars [1] employed in navigating their shipping to and from China. About six years ago he abjured Paganism, and embraced Christianity. Before his death he gave directions where he would be buried, which was in Shadwell church, where he was baptised. He was carried to the grave in a hearse draw by six horses, preceded by four natives of China dressed in white, being the mourning of their country, with four lighted wax-tapers in their hands. Two mourning-coaches followed, with the friends of the deceased, and above 2000 of the neighbouring poor and other persons. 6

The will of Mr John Anthony, of Layton, Essex 7 makes for some eye-strain (written as it is in archaic long-hand) and interesting reading. He wants to be buried in St Paul's Church, Shadwell, and requests that all consequences arising from his will be discharged by his dear wife, Esther Anthony. He makes a reference to the East India Company that I am barely able to decipher: it appears to be that he'd like the Company to allow his wife to continue his business with them on his behalf. He leaves the house in Angel Gardens, Shadwell, to his wife, along with all the household goods and china therein, for her absolute use and benefit; he also leaves to her the house in Hallowall Down, Layton, Essex, where he passed away, and various other freeholds that I can barely make out. He requests his wife, and the two Abraham Goles, Senior and Junior, to be his executors, and bequeaths various things to them as well. Further, he wants to ensure that the property that accrues to his wife be shielded from the debts of any future husband she might have. I am unable to determine if he had any children: he refers to any children that may survive his wife to be able (I think) to enjoy the property as Tenants in Common, and wants profits from his estate to be used for their education and benefit. He bequeaths his housekeeper an annuity of about £26, and requires that some stock be purchased with funds from his estate to provide the cashflows till the woman's death. He leaves his steward, Wing, a native of China, the sum of £100 to be paid as soon as possible. He leaves a further sum of a hundred pounds to his executors to defray the costs of executing his will. The will was signed and witnessed on 5 July 1805. Less than a month later, he was dead.


1. William Cobbett, Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates vol. 3. R. Bagshaw, 1812. (page 630).

2. Razina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700-1947. Pluto Press, 1986.

3. G. Benton, E.T. Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present: Economy, Transnationalism, Identity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

4. M.H. Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600-1857, page 151. Orient Blackswan, 2006.

5. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Ref: f18000917-1, 17 September 1800.

6. Gentleman's Magazine, August 1805, page 779.

7. Will of John Anthony, Gentleman of Layton, Essex. National Archives.

8. BBC Radio 4, Chinese in Britain, 2007.


Guru said...

I feel jealous how you explore - to think I did history and you did Maths! I hope there was o shady business - him dying so soon after writing his will!

Maddy said...

somehwere along the way the lascars came under a lot of ill treatment. i remember that krishna menon used to take up their cases

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