Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

Incidents and Coincidences


1889.  As soon as I was eight years of age I was accepted as a chorister in the choir of St. Mary's P. E. Church, Southampton, England. My Mother, who had a very good, well trained voice, had done much in the past year to make me eligible from a vocal standpoint but, apparently, there was yet much to be done with me in regard to choir behaviour for, on one of my first Sundays, a shocking thing occurred. The great Canon Durst was preaching to a very large congregation. In the choir stalls two small boys were continually whispering and giggling.  Presently one of the assistant curates, quietly and solemnly, stepped out from his seat and came over to tell both of us to leave the Chancel. I don’t know about the other boy, but I do know that I felt terribly conspicuous and lonely as I quietly crept out - the cynosure of a thousand eyes.   What, I thought, is going to happen to me when Father and Mother hear the awful news. After waiting around long enough so that none of the family would ask why I was back so early, I went into the house to face the music, sooner or later.

I was tremendously relieved when the afternoon passed safely, and day after day also passed and still no one said anything although, at the time, I thought it would soon be known all over the town.  A few days after the next Sunday I was in one of the Parks with several other boys, sliding on the ice ("Follow the Leader") when at the middle of the slide I noticed an attractive piece of paper a few feet away. Twice I continued sliding but, finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I stepped out of line and picked it up.  When a child is but eight years of age and one of 17 children, he is not likely to be familiar with the appearance of bank notes. I had no idea that this piece of paper was worth five pounds (the equivalent of more than $50 today, in purchasing value). It looked interesting and I straightaway went home to show it to Father. He said it was a five pound note and called me a very good boy for bringing it home at once. I immediately forgot all about it. However, the subject came very much alive a few days later. I had just come home from choir prac­tice when Father called upstairs to Mother "Do you want to take Jimmy up to the Police station or shall I”?  Right away I thought I was going to be punished for what had happened in church. Father liked his little joke and wouldn't tell me why I was going to the Police station. He didn't, of course, know what was in my mind and worrying me. Not until we arrived at the entrance to the Station did he point to a board on which were several notices, one of which read "LOST, a five-pound note in the Marlands Park etc..." Most important to me was the heading "ONE POUND REWARD".  As a consequence, I returned home from that journey feeling much less like a criminal than when I started, and better off by what was then, to me, the enormous sum of five shillings!

1886.  One day my sister was sitting on a seat just inside the loveliest of the Parks. The "current' baby was in the pram and I, 5 years old, and wearing a red Turkish fez, was playing alongside. The Park railings separated us from the busy High Street nearby. Presently, down a side road, came a herd of cows.  One of them left the rest and trotted over to the Pa:k entrance where we were.  My sister always contended that it was my red fez that had attracted it. As this, to me, enormous wild animal, charged through the gate only 25 feet or so from our seat, my sister rushed shrieking away with the baby in the pram leaving me entirely to my own resources.  Never having learned the technique of a Spanish bull fighter, my first thought was one of self-preservation.  A seat inside of that pram would have been ideal but that had now "gone with the wind". The alternative was to run like……… Close by the Park seat was a large, long oval of bushes and trees. I made for that and was half way around it when I sensed that that fool cow was almost on top of me. Desperately I turned and dashed in amongst the bushes. Fortunately the cow was now going too fast to also turn and, as the driver had rushed to the rescue, it ran, so to speak, right into his outstretched arms and stick. He soon had it out through the gate again and joining the rest of the herd. Meantime I was the hero of the numerous onlookers (behind the railings).

I think it was about the year 1890 when Father took some of us to see Buffalo Bill (Wm Cody) and his Cowboys and real Indians perform in the Victoria Hall arena.  Cody had recently come from the USA with this wonderful collection. We boys thought it marvellous when Buffalo Bill gave an exhibition of his skill with a rifle, shoot­ing small balls out of the air etc, etc, and the Cowboys picked up handkerchiefs from the ground when going at full gallop but when, in the final act, the stage coach dashed in, chased by shrieking Indians, with Cowboys attacking them, we simply went mad with excitement.  I don’t think I slept much that night.

Our house was on the centuries-old City wall.  Forty feet below was the Southampton water (now mostly filled in at that point for the Docks extension, ruining the view.) Formerly we had a glorious view across the water when we lived there.  Artists frequently came there to paint it. Centuries before, during the wars with the French, the English armies embarked on the water below, Knights, Bowmen, horses etc. for the battles of Crecy, Agincourt etc. It must have been a stirring sight for onlookers.

A short distance from our house was a flight of 40 wide stone steps by which one descended to the shore road.  In olden days the water came right up to the wall itself A nearby road lad up from the shore to the centre of the High Street.  Half way up there was the Fire Station and it was a most thrilling moment when a call was received.  The great Fire Bell clanged and, quickly, two huge, powerful horses were led out and put in the shafts.  Fireman rushed to jump on and in a very short time they were off.  The firemen were lined up on each side of the engine, holding on to a rail with one hand and with the other hand cupping their mouths they would lean outwards and yell " FIRE" continuously, at the top of their voices, while the horses went off at a furious gallop, much to the excitement of the crowd.

1889.  (Eight years old)  In the High Street one day there was great excitement.  A horse, with carriage attached, was running away.  In those days most men, young and old carried a walking stick.  Seeing it coming in the distance, ten or a dozen men ran out from the pavements, formed a line across the road, and all held sticks and arms up, which was the usual practice. The horse was galloping furiously and it was therefore not surprising how quickly all of the men scattered when it became clear that the horse did not intend to pay the slightest attention to them. It galloped all the way down to and over the Quay into the water where it was drowned.
This year I appeared on the stage in public for the first time. It was at a Parish Church concert and I sang a duet with Mother.

1892.  One school holiday I was roaming the Downs near the local regiment’s shooting range when I picked up a rifle cartridge which later appeared to be a live one.  During the afternoon service in the Cathedral, I pulled it out of my cassock pocket and showed it to the boy next to me.  He suggested we try to explode it after service, so, when everything was quiet in the Close and no one in sight, we took turns throwing it at the large cobblestones with which the gutters were lined. After several throws it suddenly went off with a terrific noise and if we had both been blown to atoms we couldn’t have disappeared more quickly.  The culprits were never discovered.  To all of us, the town (High Street etc) was "Out of bounds: Once, one of the under-masters got permission to take several of us there to see the Fair which was being held just off the High St.  We had a great time at first but, apparently, the master was not very much on the alert for when I was on one of the "Roundabout" ("Merry-go-round") horses, a soldier, who was riding the inside horse suddenly lurched over because of having had too much to drink, and knocked me right off into the road where I landed flat on my face and was picked up unconscious. That ended the party. I did not regain my senses until I awoke about 24 hours later. Only my lips were badly damaged and I was back in the choir in about a week.

I was in trouble again on another occasion.  One of my chums and I were in a field when he wanted to show me how to throw a stone from a cleft stick. The idea seemed a very dangerous one to me and I did my utmost to dissuade him but was quite unsuccessful so got out of his way as far as possible.  However, even though he had his back to me and I was many feet away, the stone made a beeline for me and struck me full in the face breaking one of my front teeth - a serious matter for a chorister.

1906.   I have always felt deeply indebted to our bookkeeper in the office of Hubert Davies & Spain. He was a good friend of mine and it was due to his thoughtfulness that I got to China. One day in Brighton, on his Vacation, he was waiting in the lobby of a hotel for a friend and casually picked up a copy of the "Daily Telegraph" lying on the seat. In the advertisements he noticed that two young men were wanted by a well known London Company to go to the Far East. Knowing, privately, my eagerness to see more of the World, he at once sent me the details.  I applied immediately. Two days later there was a tap at my office door and there stood an uniformed messenger who asked if I would please accompany him to the offices of John Swire & Sons in Billiter Square.  Excitedly I soon joined him.   On the way he referred to the advertisement which, he said had brought the usual sackful of replies.  That remark rather took the starch out of me but I did not lose all hope.  A few days after the inter­view, to my great surprise and delight, a letter told me I had been accepted subject to a complete and satisfactory physical examination by the famous Dr Manson of Harley St.  I went to him in due course, and he gave the Company an excellent report - the other successful applicant as well.  We were each then given a 3 year contract to sign, which we did, and arranged to be ready to sail as soon as we received notice.  The manager of Hubert Davies & Spain, with which Company my association had been most pleasant, was not very happy when I saw him concerning my resignation but he was nice enough to wish no good luck and even went so far as to ask me if I would try to get someone to fill my place. That same night I took a train to Southampton and, next day, talked to one of my old Union Line colleagues. He enthusiastically accepted my suggestion that he re­turn with me that day for an interview with the London Manager.  We left Southampton by the Saturday afternoon train and, as the staff and manager would all have left, I took him straight to the office. Until late that evening and for the best part of Sunday we spent our time going over the details of my duties so, when the time came on Monday for him to be interviewed, he was ready with all of the answers. He so impressed the Manager that he engaged him right away and, as in my case, at a big increase over his Union Line pay.  When I saw him again three years later, he wan married, had a nice home and automobile and was getting along splendidly. During those three years I did better than expected, from a financial point of view and, although I hadn’t got a wife, I had lived very comfortably and had had everything I wanted within reason, I had yet been able to save half of my entire pay and so could face the cost of getting married with equanimity. That saving might not have been so easy but for the fact that I resolutely refrained from drinking intoxicants, and was a non-smoker. I continued to be an abstainer all of my life and as for smoking I have never even had a cigarette in my mouth, lit or otherwise.

The sight of Gibraltar stirred my historical recollections but the first stop was not made until we reached Yalta in the Mediterranean.  'Then, ashore sight­seeing, I went into the church of St. John in which there was a vault with shelves upon which there were rows of skulls of the English Knights of St. John who, in the middle ages, fought the Turks continuously.  Next, I got a great thrill out of passing through the Suez Canal which had been opened to traffic only 37 years before.  Penang and Singapore in the Malay Peninsula constituted my first introduction to tropical scenery and as I walked or drove around with other passengers taking in all of the marvellous and strange sights in amazingly beautiful surroundings, I felt that now at last I was really living. Then came the really exciting part of the voyage.

Our steamer "Nile" was a ship of 8000 gross tons register.  One of my last trips across the Atlantic was on the Cunard "Queen Elizabeth" one way and their "Queen Mary" the other.  Ships approximately 10 times ao large!  On leaving Singapore for the three day voyage to Hong-Kong, we had very rough weather and after a day or so of that we ran into the full strength of a typical Typhoon. Passengers wore barred from going out on the deck.  Everything was battened down. In spite of the terrifying height of the waves our ship got over them magnificently.  Captain and officers were all Naval Reserve men and extremely well trained.  When the worst was over and we reached and entered the Hong-Kong harbour we saw a chocking sight. Many large and small ships were on the rocks in all directions, and many masts were sticking up out of the water here and there.  It was September, 1906, when terrible damage was done at Hong-Kong by this same typhoon we had encountered, and three thousand lives were lost here. We were told that the man responsible for hoisting the typhoon warn­ing signal had been taken ill and when the signal was finally hoisted it was valueless.  The sky was completely blackened out, the rain was tremendous, and the frightful wind swept everything before it.  Near the Peninsular & Oriental Line wharf on the Kowloon side of the harbour where we were supposed to tie up, there was a mountain of matchwood -- the remains of schooners, junks, sampans and other boats being hurled on to the wharf and piled one on top of the other.

A sampan is a small boat partly covered with a hood of bamboo matting under which an many as 3 generations of a family sometimes live.  Caught as they were those poor native Chinese did not stand a chance of escape.  Neither would we had we already been at our wharf.  There was no wireless in those days.  Our pier no longer existed; only the piles were noticeable just below the surface and on either side was a sunken River Steamer.  Nearby was a French gunboat up on the rocks with a huge hole in its side. There was tragedy everywhere.

The sea was now quiet and we sailed cautiously across the harbour and managed to tie up in a vacant space at our wharf but without being too close to the sunken River steamer. It was afternoon and most of us were ready for a nap.  Rodger and I were asleep when awakened by hearing the relayed order "All hands on deck" and a great clatter.  The typhoon signal indicated that the typhoon was returning.  It was already blowing furiously and we thought the men trying to release the ropes holding the Ship to the wharf would lose their lives.  However, they didn’t.  To add to the difficulty the engine room hadn’t got enough steam up yet and we were in danger of having holes stove into the bottom of the ship if we were blown on to the nearby underwater piles of the other smashed pier.  After a long and worrying interval we began to move and we crept slowly along with the intention of getting out of the harbour as a ship has a much better chance if she has plenty of sea room.  Presently we all but crashed, it seemed to me, into a larger four-master which had somehow or other managed to survive.  I could almost touch her side as we gradually passed by.  A few minutes later the signal “No danger” went up as the typhoon had veered off in another direction.  Next day the bodies were finally collected and piled like cordwood on low trucks and then taken to a place called "Happy Valley"!!  Here they were burned.  

Some months after reaching Shanghai, an armed band of about 10 Chinese was being sought by the Settlement police for numerous murders and burglaries recently committed.  One day we learned that. the night before, a white British policeman on Inspection duty had been killed when on a road just outside the Settlement.  The band had been robbing the home of a wealthy Chinaman and had probably been warned by a "look-out" of the approach of the policeman. They all rushed out, lined up across the road and fired a volley from the guns they had.  This occurred during the summer, when it was so hot at night we kept our windows wide open.  I was still living at the Boarding house that I first went to.  About a week after the murder, when it was still fresh in our minds, I was awakened in the Middle of the night by a loud yell.  My chum in the adjoining room called out and asked me if I had heard it.  I answered “yes” and suggested we make a search of the premises.  As a precaution I took my pistol along.  We went downstairs first where we found nothing open or dis­turbed.  Many other guests had been awakened by the yell as, when we ascended to the upper floors, lights were showing under most of the doors, which would seem to indicate that most of the others had heard the unusual noise.  We continued our search until we came to the top floor where there was only one small room which was occupied by a Butterfield and Swire colleague.  We knocked and walked in.  There was the young man sitting on a chair nursing a badly bruised toe.  He explained that he had got out of bed, half asleep, and had crashed his bare foot into the castor on the leg of his bureau and it had caused him to let out the yell which had scared the whole house.

[1] Source David Tilbury, Oregon


  • April Boothe 2 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 2 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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