The story of SIR ROBERT HART
by Stanley Bell

Northern Ireland

Lisburn Historical Press

 All rights reserved
Published by
Lisburn Historical Press
Stanley Bell 1985
2, Legacurry Road,
Lisburn BT 27 5 LZ.
Northern Ireland.
ISBN 0. 948391. 00. 6

Typesetting by
The Educational Press of
N. Ireland
Printed by
The Universities Press,
Alanbrooke Road,
Northern Ireland.


"Sir Robert Hart clearly was a remarkable man and if you read what he wrote about China, he was a prophet. He did foresee that China would take a big step onto the world's stage and be an enormous influence and I think he recognised the great qualities of the Chinese people. I am delighted that Ravarnette Primary School has done the research into him. 1 think it is a very interesting project and I think it deserves, and I am sure it will get a wide audience."

Right Hon. Douglas Hurd M. P., Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

"His opportunities were undoubtedly great, but the man rose to them"
- The Times

"Robert Hart still stands the most interesting personality that ever figured in China, whose fame has spread to the four corners of the globe, and whose romantic and illustrious career in the Far East is without parallel."
- North Daily News, Shanghai.


This book is dedicated, "To the Glory of God and Sacred to the Memory," of Sir Robert Hart.

Those are also the words to be found on the memorial stone on his family grave at the Old Blaris Cemetery just over a mile from Ravarnette Primary School, near Lisburn.

His testimony to the saving grace of Jesus Christ is to be found throughout his life and recorded liberally in his personal diary.

"But with the Royal Poet I bless God for all his goodness to me. I can with confidence look up and say ,"Abba, Father" - I know the Lord to be my God, my Father reconciled to me by Christ : I KNOW CHRIST TO BE MY SAVIOUR and I can without hesitation rely on his merits for Salvation; I can give myself up to the Holy Spirit's guidance and direction for guided by Him I shall not miss my providential way. May I make the most of my time. May I be blessed myself and be a blessing to others. May I be sanctified and fitted for Heaven. And when Oh Lord it shall seem right to Thee to remove me to the other world, 0 grant that I may be found ready, watching and prepared for my master's coming."

For nearly fifty years he demonstrated that in the middle of the most subtle temptations of an Eastern Court, a Christian Ulsterman can uphold Christian principles and maintain a reputation for honesty and organise a department whose name became the guarantee for every foreign loan to China.

"It is my desire to live to God."
- Robert Hart.


"Hart of Lisburn"

"The Service which I direct is called the Customs Service, but its scope is wide and its aim is to do good work for China in every possible direction."
- Sir Robert Hart

"I shall never leave China contentedly unless I see mines at work, railways in operation and telegraphs spreading."
- Robert Hart, 1873

During his life he had sacrificed the enjoyment of his domestic circle for his China. For nearly a quarter of a century husband and wife had not met. His younger daughter, "Nollie" had been carried away a babe in arms and returned a full-grown woman of some 26 years of age. An eye witness records in his newspaper,

"As I strolled past the official residence of the Inspector-General that night and harkened to the native band thundering a cake walk in welcome of his wife, I wondered what honour China could devise, adequate to reward the man who had suffered so much in her service."

No European knew so much of China and the hidden things of its mysterious inner life than the Inspector-General.










Love at first sight


Hart of Lisburn


At leisure in Ravarnette
7 Acknowledgements


Back to Peking
10 Foreword


Their three children
11 Introduction


The Paris Exhibition
17 Ancestors


First Brass Band in China


His Parents


Merry Christmas


The Hart Family Business


Their younger daughter comes to China
24 Prophecy


The Hart Coat of Arms


Over to England


The Boxers


 Queen's College


Farewell to China


Robert Hart and the Methodist Church


His Generosity


Robert Hart and Sport


Home for the Last Time


Robert Hart's Contemporaries at Queen's College


Triumphal Return to Lisburn


Good-Bye Ulster


Sir Robert Hart Guest at Lisburn Methodist Church


The Journey to China


His Personal Tastes & Miscellany
38 Ningpo


His Death
41 The City of Canton


Other Ulsterman in the Chinese Service
43 Peking


The Hart Family of Ravarnette House


Robert Hart appointed Inspector-General


His Children Grow Up
47 The Chinese National Post Office Founded


His Distinctions




The Chinese Customs Service Chronology


1866, Time for a home visit




The trip home from Hong Kong to Lisburn, in 1866    


I wish to thank all the many people who have helped the pupils of Ravarnette Primary School and myself in researching the subject material for this book.

The Schools Research Department of the South Eastern Education & Library Board are to be very much thanked for their efforts in sending us books and other materials on China, as are also the Humanities Department of the Central Library in Belfast for their research done on his visits to Northern Ireland.

Special thanks are due to the help and assistance of Mr.G. Wheeler, Queen's University librarian, who, in addition to finding research material including volumes of Sir Robert Hart's personal diaries and arranging several photographic sessions for our amateur documentary film on the life of Sir Robert Hart also arranged a very welcome and interesting library visit for the pupils of our school.

Mrs. Kelly of the Wesley Historical Society is also to be thanked for her interest and assistance in showing our pupils Methodist records. Mrs. Isobel Law, local historian and member of Priesthill Methodist Church and also the Rev. John Hart is also to be thanked for valuable assistance.

We are indebted Mr. B. Mackey, Curator of Lisburn Museum & the Folk Museum, Cultra for help with photographs of Old Lisburn.

Grateful acknowledgments are due to William Mullan & Son (Publishers) Ltd. of Donegall Place, Belfast for their permission to quote from, "Hart And The Chinese Customs," also to the School of Oriental Studies for quotations from various letters to and from Sir Robert Hart in their special'collection and also to the late Juliet Bredon for some personal eye witness accounts in her Memoirs of Sir Robert Hart's life in China.

Thanks are also due to Mr.Norman Crothers of Larne, an accomplished historian, who made several trips to England on our behalf, to obtain valuable information and photographs. Miss. Alison Henry of the Northern Ireland Chinese Circle who helped to translate Chinese and Mr. David Barker who personally conveyed letters from our pupils to the People's Republic of China are also to be thanked not forgetting the many Chinese young people who replied with interesting information such as Hua Chun Ge and Liu Mai from Sian, Shaanxi.

The help and assistance of Lady Hilda Etain Hagart-Alexander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Brodie and Patrick Brodie decendants of the Hart family has been of great value in bringing the story up to date.

Thanks are also due to the help given by various officials of the Public Records Office both in Belfast and London.
I appreciate very much the work of three local artists. Thanks are due to Mrs. Cinnamond for designing the front cover and reproducing various Hart family portraits. Also to Mrs. May Ringland, our school secretary and Mrs. Laura Hall for various drawings throughout the book.

I would also wish to record the encouragement of the Lisburn Borough Council and the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust amongst many others, in part of the wider and on going project of discovering, recording local history and sharing this common heritage with others.

We are also grateful for the many additional sponsors including The Allied Irish Bank, Green's Food Fare, Brian Morton & Co., Wesley College, Dublin, and Queen's University Belfast.

Ravarnette Primary School Team won First Prize in the 1985 local history competition with the school's entry on "Sir Robert Hart. Also in the photograph is May Blair, one of the judges and author of "Once Upon The Lagan."


"History," says Thomas Carlysle, "is a mighty drama enacted upon the theatre of time, with suns for lamps and eternity as a background." Within this drama each individual is at one and the same time an actor and a member of the audience contributing to the unfolding process of life.

During this century world-wide-attention has been directed to national and international upheavals as if these events were the whole of living.

Ravarnette Primary School under the leadership of its Principal, Stanley Bell has sought to change this emphasis by recording the history of their area. This book has diligently sought out the life and times of Sir Robert Hart, Ravarnette's most famous son.

Hart was a product of the High Victorian period. He was one who created confidence and built in place of the old. But what is most remarkable is that he was greatly respected in China, a land that did not take readily to foreigners.

I commend it to all who take an interest in Ulster and its forgotten sons and daughters who contributed so much to life here and abroad.

Trevor Neill
Chairman of Lisburn Historical Society


Who is the man who became the Founder of the Chinese Lighthouse Service, the Organiser of the Chinese Post Office, the InspectorGeneral of the Customs and Maritime Services, the founder of the first Brass Band in China, the Pro-Chancellor of Queen's University and who once lived in the small village of Ravarnette just a couple of miles outside the town of Lisburn?

In three words : SIR ROBERT HART.

"Sir Robert Hart was not only one of the most striking personalities of the Far East, but must be accorded an honourable place among the greatest Britishers. For a quarter of a century he never left China, and it was there that his life's work was accomplished, but it is safe to say his fame and character of his achievements are known all over the world."

- The Morning Post

The Hart family lived in Ravarnette House which is nearly opposite Ravarnette Primary School for 18 years from 1854 to 1873. Prior to that they lived a couple of miles up the road at Culcavey near Hillsborough.

But is he well known here in his home town and his home country?

"He is an integral part of China, and every book that is written of the Empire includes frequent allusions to him, while all of them put together give a less than adequate idea of his greatness, his abilities, his ways and his resources. He is certainly the most powerful man in China and yet he is quite unknown at home.
- Vanity Fair

The People's Republic of China recently in their publication, "Pictorial China No. 42", indirectly paid tribute to Sir Robert Hart by reprinting the "Longetivity" set of the first Chinese commemorative postage stamps issued in 1894 as well as the very first set of Chinese postage stamps, "Great Dragon of the Customs", designed by Sir Robert Hart, printed and issued by the Imperial Customs House in 1878. The set of nine Longetivity stamps has become a rare treasure and were issued to mark the 60th birthday of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi of China. Not to be outdone, the Nationalist Chinese Authorities of Taiwan, formerly Formosa and now known as the Republic of China issued a special commemorative postage stamp for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Robert Hart on the 20th February 1985. Chinese stamps have become favourites with stamp collectors all over the world.

To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1985 the pupils of Ravarnette Primary School did a project starting in 1984 on Sir Robert Hart and the Hart family.

No foreign person ever exercised so much personal influence in China as Sir Robert Hart. Yet, few local people initially seemed to have heard of, remembered or knew very much about Sir Robert Hart. Eventually when it was realised it was the 150th anniversary of his birth and how important a role he played in China and how he had been reared within the Borough of Lisburn since he was two years of age fresh interest and curiosity was arisen.

An amateur documentary film was made as the pupils visited the, "Hart Trail", a series of places connected to the Hart Family. The introduction of which was given by the Right Honourable Douglas Hurd M.P., Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who has served in the Diplomatic Service in Peking in the mid-1950's and has written his own book, "The Arrow War", an in depth study of an interesting part of Chinese history.

Many letters were written by the pupils to find out information. These included letters written to China. Letters were also written to various newspapers requesting help with information from their readers. In this respect we are greatly indebted to the many newspapers who greatly assisted including the Belfast Newsletter, the Belfast Telegraph, the Dromore Leader, the Ulster Star, the Irish Press and the Irish Times. Meetings were held in the school to collate the information in the evenings and visits were made to the Public Records Office, Queen's University, and other Libraries and Museums.

As a result of widespread interest and much information collected it was decided to make an Exhibition and also publish a book about Sir Robert Hart.

This book is not intended to be a serious study of the Chinese Customs and Maritime Service nor a complete biography of Sir Robert Hart. It is more of a patchwork kaleidescope on the many differing and changing scenes and fortunes of the greatest westerner ever in China. It is primarily from the viewpoint of his association with the village of Ravarnette and the town of Lisburn that we look at his life.

The Hart family played a major role in founding the village of Ravarnette. They founded the linen business in the village which attracted the first housing developments around the factory.

Ravarnette House was from where he went to be educated, from where he set off to travel to China, from where he set out to ask a certain young lady to be his wife and it was home to him when he first came back from China. That house still stands, albeit extended, in all its glory with the date of building 1789 just visible on the wall.

Unfortunately, the house of his birth in Portadown was demolished in 1968 and it does not seem that he had any memories of that house as he only lived there for a few months after his birth.

The aim of this book is to tell a momentous and historic story. One which we are proud of and glad to be associated with. It is above all the story of a humble man with Christian principles who played a major role in taking the great nation of China from the Middle Ages to the threshold of becoming a modern vibrant and dynamic nation.

Three characteristics which won Sir Robert Hart success were:

  1. An honesty beyond suspicion

  2. A genius for organisation, and

  3. A never failing industry

When he retired from the Customs Service which he had built, it employed 17,700 Chinese and 1,468 foreigners from 24 nations.

His critics have described him as the Ulsterman from Lisburn who ruled China like a despot in the Orient.

Certainly it is no exaggeration that, "At one time three Irishmen governed three of the greatest nations in the world: France, Austria and China. Marechal MacMahon, was President of the French Republic, Baron Taafe (One of the Taafe's of Ballymote, Sligo) was Prime Minister of Austria and Sir Robert Hart was the most powerful man in China"
- Christian Advocate 11/12/08.

Of his own job in China Sir Robert Hart said, "The Service which I direct is called the Customs Service, but its scope is wide and its aim is to do good work for China in every direction."

Nevertheless, many years after his death, Sir Robert Hart still stands "The mot interesting personality that ever figured in China, whose fame has spread to the four quarters of the globe, and whose romantic and illustrious career in the Far East is without parallel."
- North Daily News, Shanghai.

The book is dedicated to the memory of a truly great man of his day. Many of his prophecies about China have come true and I have no doubt some day in the not too distant future the great Chinese nation on the mainland under its new leaders will come to a greater appreciation of his years of loyal and unstinting service to that country.