Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

1907.  Rodger and I had lived in the Boarding House just over a year when a lady, whose husband had recently died, was advised not to continue living alone in her large house on the outside of the Settlement. She spoke to the head of our Company about it and he asked Rodger and I if we would care to go out there as paying guests. She had very nice grounds, a large tennis court, an ample staff of servants and the house was well furnished and equipped.  It was about 2 miles from the office and 4 miles from the City boundary.  We jumped at the offer and began living there at once.  One night I was on duty at the office until about eleven in the evening, signing bills of lading etc. for our River steamer sailing at midnight.  It was raining when I left and the rickshaw coolie put up the hood and buttoned over the water proof cover completely boxing me in. After we had passed the City boundary but were still some distance from the old lady's house, the coolie, for some unexplainable reason, suddonly swerved from the road as we were going past a lot of disreputable Chinese houses and shops and started pulling the rick­shaw up a very dark side lane.  It was still raining slightly.  I felt sure it was just a mistake but I was not going to take any chances at that time of night, so I quickly pulled aside the rainproof sheet and threw my weight upon the shafts at the same time calling upon the coolie to stop.  He did, with a lot of jabber which I couldn’t possibly understand.  As he was turn­ing the rickshaw around, two Chinese came running from a shack about 50 feet further up the lane and went in the opposite direction.  At that I got right out of the rickshaw and walked by the side of my coolie, with hand on gun, until he got back to the road and, in fact, until I reached the house, since the approach was by a very long carriage drive lined by bushes and shrubbery and easy for such men to hide in if they got there first.  We stayed on the estate for 6 months or so and enjoyed our spare time there immensely.


After dinner each night, the Chinese servants all retired to a building some distance from the house set apart for them, and the old lady invariably went to her bedroom on the second floor.  Rodger and I usually went for a walk.  One night we were late in getting out as Rodger wanted to write a letter.  When he had finished and had gone outside and I was just about to close the door, I heard a terrifying scream.  Rodger heard it too.  We dashed back and up the stairs and, as we reached the top, wie saw the old lady in her nightdress rushing from her bedroom, which was in flames, shrieking hyster­ically.  Rodger grabbed her and took her into another room doing his utmost to calm her, while I was doing all I could to smother the flames.  I had the fire completely out in a short while but it was hours before our hostess had calmed down.  She had had an awful fright.  How she got out without at least having her nightdress burned off her I don’t know, but she did.  As customary in those days and places, the room was lit by gas and apparently the protect­ing glass shade which had been broken a few days before had not been renewed.  A sudden breeze coming through the window as she was lying reading in bed had, I supposed, blown the bed's mosquito curtain up against the naked flame.  It looked very serious when I got there.  During the whole time, not a single one of the Chinese servants put in an appearance, so one can easily guess what would have happened if we had started for our walk a few minutes sooner.  Next morning, we learned that the place was fully insured by our own Company and although we had undoubtedly saved the house from being burnt to the ground we heard nothing at all about it from the Management.  Eventually we learned that, because of an unintentional oversight by a secretary, the offi­cials concerned had never learned of our action.

Early in the morning of the first day after leaving Shanghai on our houseboat trip to Mohkansan, we came to a thickly congested part of the river where perhaps a half-million Chinese were living.  This was the towing launch terminal and from that point we were on our own, and our Chinese crew would operate our houseboat.  Before leaving we saw a temple on a hill a short distance away which we both thought would provide much that would be worth photographing.  We went ashore with our cameras and started up the narrow, crowded street.  As usual, a crowd of natives followed us.  Some of them kept shouting some­thing so frequently that I asked my companion, who knew a little Chinese, what it meant.  He replied, "Oh, don’t pay any attention, just keep smiling".  "What they are shouting is "Kill the Foreigner", "Kill the Foreigner". It was just over 6 years since the murderous "Boxer" rising, and the bad feeling was still intense.  We got so many black looks from the priests in the Temple courtyard that we did not dare to use our magnesium light to take photos, which was a pity as there was a small walled-in enclosure, dark, and with an iron-barred window opening on to the courtyard in which the Chinese idea of Hell, I suppose, was depicted.  As far as I could see through the gloom, it contained a fiery lake with drowning Chinese with arms extended, appealing for help, and devils on all sides stabbing at them with spears.  Too bad we couldn’t  photograph that at least but my companion emphatically disagreed and, furthermore, insisted on going back at once to our boat as he did not like the look of the crowd out­side. We got back safely and soon got under way, much to the relief of our crew.

1908.  During the few weeks I spent on a law case for the Company, in Hankow, and where, incidentally, there was only one hotel, and that one kept by an ex-convict, so I was told, a rather exciting event took place.  It was wintertime and the Chinese New Year.  A group of armed Chinese soldiers who had been celebrating, had gone into the Chinese Theatre, which was in the British part of the International Settlement, and had refused to pay.  During the argument they wrecked the scenery and much of the furnishings.  Two Indians Sikh policemen of the British police force (men who have absolutely no fear) dashed in when summoned, and each grabbed two apparent ringleaders and rushed them down the street and into the British police station on the Bund (waterfront) followed by a threatening crowd.  Many in the mob tried to rush the station, but thought better of it when they were met by the Chief of Police, and his Irish assistant, each with two revolvers and, except for broken windows and many split bamboos, nothing too serious happened just then.  The soldiers, but not the bulk of the yelling mob, withdrew into the Chinese walled City of over a million inhabitants, saying they would collect their friends and rescue the prisoners and burn down the police station, that night.  We English men were having lunch at the Club-a walk of about five minutes-when we were told what was going on.  We were also told that our help might be needed later.  One or two of us sauntered down the Bund to get more information, and found the Chief and his Irish assistant, somewhat agitated (not frightened, for they were most courageous men) and I noticed on the office desk revolvers and plenty of ammunition.  As we came out, we noticed the mob around the building seemed restless and, looking for the reason, we saw in the distance, a British naval officer and about 20 marines with fixed bayonets coming down the Bund at the double.  They had just landed from a British gunboat.  It certainly was a thrilling sight.  In a very short time they arrived at the Station house, halted, posted sentries around the building and the officer and the rest of the men went inside.  In a few minutes, guns were stacked and the men were sitting comfortably at tables playing cards.  What else might have happened when the soldiers and the dregs of the city returned, is hard to say, but suffice it to say that they didn't return because it came on to snow quite heavenly and the police chief told me.  “They won't fight in weather like this”.  That evening, the British Consul in Hankow reported what had happened to the Viceroy on the other side of the Yangtsze Kiang River, to whom the prisoners were sent under escort.  By noon next day, their heads had been chopped off.  The mob didn't wait to say goodbye.

1909.  When I went up to Liverpool to meet the steamer upon which my fiancee was arriving from Canada, I reached the dock after all of the passengers had disembarked and gone.  In my hansom cab I immediately drove to the leading hotel and, luckily, I saw her name on the register.  It was then about 7 p.m. and on my way up the stairs to her room, I met her coming down with a handsome young man who had been a passenger on the same ship, and who had invited her to go with him to the theatre.  I am afraid I rather upset that arrangement.

We were married in Southampton on the second of October 1909.  Because of unforeseen circumstances, we had to cut our honeymoon in the Isle of Wight very short, but determined to take another as soon as the opportunity occurred.  That was not until we had moved to London in 1910.  We decided to take a week at the seaside resort of Bognor, as our second honeymoon.  My wife, who makes friends easily with everyone, is very bighearted and the most unselfish person I have ever known, so it was not surprising what happened on the way.  We were cycling and stopped overnight en route at the home of a couple of close friends we had known in Shanghai and who had recently returned to England.  There were several other guests at dinner, my wife was at one end of the table with our hostess and I at the other end next to her husband.  During the meal  Mrs C. told my wife that she and her husband had been invited to a very special weekend party in London, at the home of her Mother, Lady ……. and, although they would love to go, they would be obliged to decline because they could not take with them their 10 year old daughter.  With no hesitation my wife said "Oh, let her come along with us, I'm sure Jimmy wouldn't mind".  What extraordinary mistakes some women do make in reading character.)  Unfortunately, the child was quite a good cyclist so there was no difficulty there.  Of course, Mrs. C. gladly accepted the offer even though she knew I had not been consulted.  I could do nothing but grin and bear it.  We continued our journey next day and when we arrived at the Bognor Hotel where I had made advance reservation I told the desk clerk we would need another room, adjoining if possible. He reminded me that it was the height of the season and said they had no place whatever where they could put her.  I went to several other hotels to try to get a double and single but it was hopeless.  The town was full up, in fact I was lucky to be able to get a single room for myself which meant that for the whole week of our second honeymoon my wife shared what was to have been our room, with Mrs C’s child and it was ten minutes walk from the hotel I was in!!

1894-5.  The choristers' School House in the Cathedral Close at Winchester was said to be 800 years old. I had read many stories of escapes in medieval times from such old houses by means of secret passages or stairways when soldiers arrived to arrest someone and I determined to take the first opportunity to do some exploring. On a day when one of the under-masters was going to take us for one of the frequent walks over the Downs, when school was closed for the Summer holidays, I made an excuse to remain behind.  As soon as all was quiet I stole up to the top of the house which, in present day parlance is called the attic, and started looking around.  In one of the several rooms I found that what looked like one of the regular wooden wall panels could be opened.  It was the lowest one and I had to get on my knees to enter. Inside was a closet about 5 feet by 5 feet and in the far corner there was an opening about 2 ft by 2 ft and very dark inside.  I had forgotten to bring some matches but with the outside panel open I had sufficient light to go inside and grope around.  I soon felt, rather than saw, what seemed to be a stairway which, of course, led downwards.  This was just the sort of thing my, romantic mind had hoped for.  Very carefully, quietly and excitedly I crawled backwards down the stairs until, after what seemed like hours, reached safe landing at the bottom.  I was in the coal cellar in the basement!  Luckily I found the door open whence I was able to reach the playground.  Inside the coal hole there was a small window with thick iron bars set in the stonework so I con­cluded its original purpose was not for storing coal. As I had had quite a bit of trouble getting from the stair-bottom into the coal hole, and had pushed over and disturbed several things, I began at once to get busy tidying up so that the opening was closed and coal etc. pushed back as much like it probably looked before. Then I spent the next half hour tidying and cleaning myself.  I had one particular chum I could tell anything to without it going further.  When he got back from the walk he and I went into secret conference.  We decided that there must be a secret passage from the coal hole to the outside. However, although we searched around on various later occasions, we never found a single clue.  For some time we had become inquisitive concerning the "well" in the Headmaster's garden.  It was never used.  No one had ever seen it opened. It was covered at all times with a very thick large, stone slab much too heavy to be lifted by hand.  We determined to look into it.  It was not easy to again get an excuse for avoiding one of the walks, especially for two of us, and we waited a long time before we were successful.  Then, when no one was about, we took the long iron bar we had found and hidden for "the day" and together by a great effort we shifted the stone until enough "well" space was exposed to admit a small boy. This time I had made sure to bring matches and some paper, and that helped us to make quite sure there was no water to bother us. Also it was only about 6 ft deep. I dropped in on firm ground and began to look about me while my chum kept watch above. There was no opening leading back to the School House, but there was one on the opposite side, with just about as much room as there was at the stairway entrance.  Cautiously, though with some fear of rats in my mind, I moved into it by crouch­ing very low, and I was able to go possibly 15 ft before the tunnel got smaller.  I crawled on far enough, however, to satisfy myself that the passage was com­pletely blocked up and then turned back.  It was almost as difficult getting out of the well as it was to replace the well cover and make everything appear undisturbed, but we did it. We agreed not, on any account, to tell anyone.

One year after the above incidents I was eligible for the Senior boys' bible class held in the private home, in the Close, of the widow of one of the Canons of the Cathedral. About six of us attended every Sunday evening and it was a very cosy, pleasant affair.  We had about half an hour's instruction followed by the reading of a chapter or two from an interesting historical book.  The lady was a very well read person and certainly knew how to choose a book for boys.  It was always one full of adventure, exciting experiences etc.  She had a very big library of books and I was once given permission to see what was there.  I had no particular object in view—and was looking at the title of book after book when I noticed several dealt with the history of the Cathedral.  Knowing what a bookworm she was I asked if she had any book which contained any ex­citing stories relating to the houses in the Close.  I don’t exactly remember what her answer was but I know that it encouraged me to suggest there might have been certain buttons in the olden days which, if pushed, would open a secret door in the wainscoting of a room.  She answered that that was not at all a rare thing in those troublesome days.  As by that time the other boys had left, I ventured to ask more and finally learned that she had, many years ago, actually heard that there was said to have been an underground escape tunnel from our School House over to the Archdeacon's House about.260 feet away. That was just what I wanted to know and I couldn’t get back to the School quickly enough to find my chum and tell him the wonderful news.

[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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