Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

A Brief Chronological Record of the Life of James Tilbury of Southampton England.

1881. Born October 13th at 10 Forest View Southampton, England, the tenth of seventeen children and christened “James".

1886. Attended Mrs Cooper’s private school on Havelock Terrace (The Marlands)

1889. At 8 years of age was accepted as chorister at St Mary's

1890. At 9 years of age appointed chorister at Winchester Cathedral, succeeding my older brother Fred who, after seven years in the Cathedral choir, had just left with Archdeacon Gibson for the P.E.Mission station at Umtata, Pondoland, South Africa.

1896. Voice broke after I too had sung for seven years in the Cathedral choir. I returned home (now 6 Forest View). About a year later my younger brother Charles joined the Cathedral choir and sang.there for the next five years! There was thus a Tilbury in Winchester Cathedral choir, except for a few months interval between each one, from 1882 to 1902 - twenty years! Three other brothers, Ted, Gus and Ernest were choristers in the Winchester College Chapel choir from 1892 to 1904 - a total of twelve years.

1898. January: Shorthand-typist in office of the Supt of the Southampton Docks. December: Secured a better paying job in the Freight Dept of the Union S.S.Line (later Union-Castle Line) service to S. Africa. Next year I applied for the position which had just become vacant in the Company's East London, S. Africa office, but an older clerk was selected.

1899. Joined, with younger brother Ted, the 2nd Hants Regiment of Volunteers. At the age of 18 I re-joined the choir of St. Mary's church as bass. Also joined the Southampton Amateur Dramatic Society and played "Antonio" in the Gilbert &- Sullivan opera "The Gondoliers”. Between 1898 and 1901 I visited France twice and the Channel Island of Guernsey once.

1901. Played the part of "Pish-Tush" in the same Society's production of the G & S opera “Mikado”. Left St. Mary's to be solo bass at St. PauI’s, Southampton.

1902. Put on a musical entertainment at the Philharmonic Hall, Southampton, in which six other members of the family also participated. The programme ended with the performance of the popular farce "Box & Cox", in which my brother Ted took the part of "Box", I the part of "Cox" and an older sister, Lucy, the part of "Mrs Bouncer. It was all very successful.

1904. Competed for vacancy for Shipping clerk (Traffic Manager) in the London buying office of Hubert Davies & Spain, Electrical Engineers of Johannesburg, South Africa. Was appointed at a salary substantially exceeding that of my Southampton pay and had an unasked-for increase within a month. I took over in August. A few vieek's later I was accepted as bass in the paid choir of St. John’s, Wilton Rd., London S.W.1. I found satisfactory rooms in a pleasant boarding house in Umfreville Rd, Harringay. . The landlady's beautiful daughter played the piano excellently which was helpful. Sang at 2 or 3. concerts. When I had the time and opportunity I visited most places of interest.

1906. My intense desire to see as much as possible of the World led me, after just over two years most pleasant association with Hubert Davies & Spain to reply to an “ad” which called for two young men (with certain qualifications) to go to China for John Swire & Sons of Billiter Sq., London, to fill vacancies in the staff of their Far Eastern representatives, Butterfield & Swire. The Company owned 72 Coast and River steamers, a sugar refinery and a Dockyard at Hongkong, where they built some of their own ships. I was again lucky to be picked from more than 100 applicants and gleefully signed a contract for 3 year's service at a substantial improvement in salary and splendid prospects if I stayed with the company. With the other very congenial young man I left Tilbury Docks, London on August 18th. aboard the Peninsular and Orient Line ship “Nile” of 8000 ton gross register, for the six week voyage via Malta, Suez Canal, Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong to Shanghai, where we arrived on September 29th after a most enlightening and exciting trip.

Accommodation in a good boarding house in the heart of the City was found by the Company for me and my Scotch colleague, Rodger and I settled down to work in a happy frame of mind. The City of Shanghai contained at that time about 10,000 Europeans, chiefly British. The British were in control; they operated a police force composed of English policemen, mounted Indian Sikhs, and specially trained Chinese. Soon after my arrival the Dean of the very fine Cathedral called to see me. Someone must have told him I had been singing a lot on the voyage out as his object was to ask me to join his choir. I assented at once and gladly. Later I found it helped me to form a quartette and I entered into other musical activities.

1907. About February of this year the Dean invited me to dinner at the Deanery. He told me that one of his “scouts" had said that a Winifred Warn, with her brother and his wife, had disembarked at Shanghai from the Canadian Pacific steamer “Monteagle” from. Vancouver. She was said to be very popular on the ship because of a beautiful voice and an equally beautiful disposition. The Dean said she had accepted his invitation to dinner and would I please sit next to her. He added, “I have GOT to get her to join the choir, Tilbury”. That was, to me an epoch-making event. In five minutes we discovered that we had both been born in Southampton, but had never heard of each other before. I soon persuaded Miss Warn to join the choir when I met her the next day. She showed me a cabinet-size photograph of herself taken at five years of age taken by the photographers Debenham and Smith. Mr Smith lived in the same house in which I was born. The D & S studio was almost next door to Miss Warn’s home. I showed her a cabinet-size photograph of myself at 12 years of age as a Cathedral chorister in cassock, surplice and mortarboard, also taken by Debenham and Smith and, obviously, in the same year, as I was seven years older.

It seemed to border on the fantastic when we also discovered in the Cathedral choir a soprano named Miss Sharpe. She turned out to be the daughter of my old choirmaster at St. Mary’s P. E. church, Southampton. Furthermore, some years earlier she had been Miss Warn’s dancing class teacher. Well, after all that, you have probably guessed the sequel. I was soon in 'love with Miss Warn but I then had a big problem facing me. In my employment contract I had agreed not to get married for three years. A circular letter had just been passed round all offices making this five years instead of three and requiring signatures of assent. I, of course, had signed it. That occurred before I had met Miss Warn. According to ny original agreement, if I remained with the Company for five years, I would be entitled to a first class passage home to England and back, with one year on half pay. Furthermore, it was customary upon ones return to China, to be given charge of one of the many Company’s outport offices, With a fine house and a very satisfactory salary. Most of the Company’s men brought an English wife back with them after their year’s leave. My problem was, if Miss W. accepted me, would she be willing to wait until 1911 for me? At least two Shanghai businessmen wanted her to marry them and, what with the others in Vancouver who had written (one had cabled) for her consent. I had something to ponder over!

In the Summer of this year a Shanghai friend hired a houseboat and invited me to join him on a trip to a missionary’s home at Kohkansan, about 100 miles up-country. I gladly accepted and we started off one night towed by a Chinese steam launch, with four other Chinese houseboats between us and the towing launch. Next morning we stopped at a riverside village which was also a market place, with business in full swing. I will mention elsewhere under ”Incidents” the details of our landing to take photographs and being followed by a crowd which, according to my companion who knew a good deal of the language, was shouting “Kill the Foreigner”. This was an aftermath of the Boxer Rising when the Empress had urged that very thing. After leaving this very picturesque village our Chinese crew of four operated the houseboat as the launch went no further. It was propelled by a huge oar over the stern, pushed from side to side by a powerful coolie. We moved along the canal and river thereafter at what seemed like one mile an hour. That morning we had a delightful swim and afterwards took more photographs. Incidentally, I learned, when we returned to Shanghai two weeks later, that at about the same time a year earlier a similar houseboat had been “wiped out” by river pirates. We eventually reached our landing place next morning and transferred to chairs carried on long bamboo poles by two very strong coolies – two to each chair – one at each end. With only two or three stops for a rest these men carried us for ten miles through a valley and then up a mountain to our destination.

1908. In January of this year I was sent on one of my Company’s river steamers to Hankow (600 miles up the Yangtsze Kiang River) to defend a case at the British Consulate. During my few weeks there there was an exciting incident due to rioting and drunken soldiers celebrating Chinese New Year. It was settled next morning by the Chinese Viceroy on the other side of the river relieving three of the ringleaders of their hands. I returned to Shanghai in February having successfully accomplished my mission. I had also solved my personal problem for within a month or so Miss Warn and I were engaged, much to my relief, as the number of my competitors was growing. In August I spent my holiday in Japan, every day of which thrilled me greatly.

1909. The British community not only had a fine club and a race course but had built an excellent theatre for which there was much talent available among the residents. The most enthusiastic of all perhaps, was a Shanghai lawyer who was now in England on vacation. I was told he was spending most of his time there traveling round the country with a D’Oyly Carte’s Company which “worked” the provincial towns, whilst the principal Company played in London. Possibly he was temporarily taken along as a member of the chorus, through influence. They were playing “Yeomen of the Guard” and, while he was with them, he made endless notes so that when he came back to Shanghai he would be well prepared to produce, and himself to take part in, the same opera at our new theatre. By the beginning of February rehearsals commenced. He was going to play the part of Wilfred the gaoler, Miss Warn was given the part of Phoebe, and I, Sergeant Meryll. The other parts were satisfactorily filled. Subsequently, the opera was played fir a whole week, with matinees, to a full house every time and was a great success. Three weeks before the opening night, when I was entirely confident of my words and music, my Company had occasion to transfer me to their Tientsin office. I appreciated the promotion but otherwise it was a cruel blow. My fiancée and I had only been engaged a few months but I was needed in Tientsin as soon as they could get me there. Fortunately, my understudy was well prepared and played the part of the Sergeant quite well. In April, after the opera was over, Miss Warn wrote to me to say that she and her brother and his wife would be returning to Vancouver in May. At once I wrote to my Company asking them to waive the contract clause requiring me to be with them for five years before getting married, although I could now see that they were justified in making such a rule. They were very kind in their complimentary expressions regarding my future prospects but made it clear that they could not withdraw the rule. I knew that since coming to China circumstances had arisen which might compel them to return about this time but, as I had heard nothing further about it from Miss Warn or her brother for a very long time, I had hoped they were going to stay permanently. They went back in May and soon afterwards I heard that many old friendships were being renewed. That did not surprise me as Miss W. knew all about my contract requiring me to wait until September 1911 before getting married and I felt I couldn’t reasonably expect her to wait as long for me, although she was not the sort of girl to treat an engagement lightly. In any case I was determined not to take any chances so, at once, sent in my resignation, effective in September 1909, and settled down to make the best of a very lonely four months before I could rejoin my fiancée in England. In August I made a trip to Pekin (Peiping) 40 miles away and was shown over the British Legation which had successfully withstood a siege during the tragic Boxer Rising a few years earlier and of which it still showed the effects. I also went on top of the great wall. Finally, on September 13th I left Tientsin by the Chinese railway, traveling through Manchuria. On the way I got a glimpse of the Great Chinese Wall winding its way over hills and through valleys as far as the eye could see. At Harbin I transferred to the Russian Trans- Siberian Railway and left the same day for Moscow via Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and the Ural Mountains. The Czar was still ruling at this time. After a stopover in Moscow, where I found the Kremlin and the Church of St. Bazil quite fascinating, I continued this ten day journey via Warsaw, Poland, Berlin, Germany (where the train passengers had their attention drawn to what was the first Zeppelin flying overhead) and the Hook of Holland, thence steamer to Harwich, England, train to London and finally to Southampton. I had, long ago, told Miss Warn of my plans and she had left Vancouver to cross Canada by train and then by Canadian Pacific Line steamer to Liverpool. I arrived from China September 24th and Miss Warn a few days later at Liverpool where I met her and escorted her to Southampton. On October 2nd we were married at St. Barnabas P. E. Church, Southampton (later destroyed by German bombs), and spent a short honeymoon on the Isle of Wight, then settled down in Winchester where I planned to start a travel business.

1910. Before my plans had materialized I received, and accepted, an offer of a position in the London Road Office of the Company from which I had just resigned. The offer surprised and interested me so we moved at once to London where I also rejoined the choir of my old P. E. church of St. John, Wilton Rd. S.W. During this year I found time to sing at a few concerts. In December I also joined a Gilbert & Sullivan Amateur Dramatic Society who were planning to start rehearsals for “Iolanthe” in January 1911.

1911. In John Swire and Son’s Statistical Dept. I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I didn’t like such uninteresting work. I couldn’t put my heart in it. Too bad, because I had very much appreciated their kind invitation to rejoin the Company. On top of that disappointment, the weather in 1910 was extremely bad and quite disgusted both my wife and I, so, one day, I asked her how she would feel about packing up and going out to Vancouver where, she said, there was lots of sunshine. She approved of the idea at once, although she knew I had no job in sight and that in a few months there would be another member of the family to provide for. I put in my resignation next day and about the middle of February we sailed on the Anchor Line steamer “Hesperion” for Canada and sent our piano etc. by way of Cape Horn. We disembarked at Halifax, where we stayed for a few days with friends, after which we continued our journey by Canadian Pacific Rly. to Vancouver. In March, shortly after our arrival, I was lucky again in securing a clerical job in the office of the British Columbia Timber Inspector’s office. We had already moved into 526, 16th Ave. W. and settled down to enjoy life in this beautiful City, with its excellent climate. In April I took charge of the choir of the nearby P. E. Church of St. George. In June our first child was born at the Vancouver General Hospital. We gave her the name of Dorothy Margaret. Soon we had lots of friends and were very happy.

[1] Source David Tilbury, Oregon


  • April Boothe 4 years ago

    Thank you so much for posting this autobiography of my great grandfather, James Tilbury (1881-1972)! My dad told me many of these amazing stories about his grandfather over the years. It was such a blessing to find them here, print them out & share them with my dad who is now 76. I have one picture of myself as an infant with my great grandfather. My dad (James Tilbury Nutter of Connecticut/Texas)has even more info on the family, but alas, he is not a big fan of modern technology.

    • linden 4 years ago

      My pleasure April, glad it's been useful. Perhaps you could digitise all your father's gems of information? Cheers, Linden

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