Sir Robert Hart has been described as the ‘the father of China’s modernisation’.
Before the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s there were streets, such as ‘Hart Boulevard’ in both Shanghai and Beijing named after him. In 1910 a life size bronze statue of Hart was erected close to the mouth of Yangtze River to commemorate the life and achievement of a great Ulsterman. The statue stood for 27 years until it was destroyed by Japanese invaders in 1937.
The statue had the following inscription:
“Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, Founder of the Chinese Lighthouse service, Organiser and Administrator of the National Post Office, Trusted Counsellor of the Chinese People, Modest, Patient, Sagacious and Resolute, he overcame formidable obstacles, and Accomplished a work of Great Beneficence for China and the World”.
Born In Portadown with Scottish roots.
Robert Hart was born at 42 Woodhouse Street, Portadown, on 20th February 1835. Henry Hart, Robert’s father, was originally a spirit grocer but he changed to the linen trade when he converted to Methodism.
His mother’s maiden name was Edgar. His ancestry was Scottish on both sides of the family, his father was of a Plantation family and his mother was descended from Scots who had settled in Ulster several centuries prior to the Plantation.
His mother was a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce (Robert I) who was king of Scotland from 1306 until his death in 1329.
Origins in Kilmoriarty and links with Orangeism
The Hart family estate was located in the town land of Kilmoriarty. It was a direct relative of Robert Hart who had taken out the original warrant of LOL 31 on 6th August 1796. His name was Abraham Hart.
In 1922, Kilmoriarty LOL 31 unfurled a new Banner at the Saunderson Statue in Portadown. The Banner was unfurled by Sister Louisa Shillington, a leading and founding member of Portadown Women’s District LOL No.3.
During the ceremony, Worshipful District Master W H Wright, of Portadown District LOL No.1 stated in his speech:
“Kilmoriarty LOL has the honour of holding the oldest warrant in the District. A previous warrant of the lodge was taken out by one of the family of which the late Sir Robert Hart was a distinguished member”.
Education and Working Life
Robert Hart was educated at Methodist foundations at Taunton and Dublin and the newly established Queen’s College, Belfast, from which he graduated in 1853. In 1854 Hart arrived in Hong Kong as a member of the British Consular Service in China. This marked the beginning of his life’s residence in China, which apart from two short periods of leave, would last 54 years. His first appointment was as a supernumerary interpreter to the British vice-consulate in Ningpo, a major port and industrial hub in east China. It was Hart’s skill and efficiency that earned him the admiration of his superiors and resulted in his nomination as secretary to the allied commissioners governing the Canton (now Guangzhou, located northwest of Hong Kong) in March 1858.
Inspector of Customs
In 1859, Hart resigned to take up the post of local inspector of Customs. In 1861 he was promoted to acting Inspector-General, and appointed Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs (CMC) in 1863. He held this position until his retirement in 1908.
“When he became Inspector-General In 1863 the CMC was operating in 7 open ports; by 1907 it was operating in 76 native customs stations under his administration. He also presided over the servicing of 182 lights, various navigational aids, and 2,800 post offices. His staff consisted of 11,970 people, of whom 1, 345 were foreigners. Hart was responsible for generating one third of China’s revenue”.
Marriage and Music
In 1866, Robert Hart married Hester Jane Bredon, eldest daughter of Dr Edward Bredon of Portadown. They had three children. Hart found relaxation in music. He was an amateur Violinist, cellist and composer. He formed a customs’ band, the ‘mother of bands’, in north China.
Robert Hart retired in April 1908. He had a number of Chinese honorary titles. He was also honoured by a number of countries including Italy, Portugal, Norway and Holland.
He became Pro-Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast. He always maintained a strong interest in his old College.
In 1971 Hart’s family presented the University with a set of table silverware, the ‘Empress of China’s Silver’. The silver had been presented to Hart to mark 43 years of service as Inspector-General of Maritime Customs in China.
Sir Robert Hart died in September 1911.
Remembered in Portadown
A Blue Plaque was located outside the home where he was born in Woodhouse Street for many years, before the building was demolished. The Blue plaque was then relocated to the school named after him, Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School, in Charles Street, Portadown.