Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

1911.  On the third of January of this year, the police telephoned to the Home Secretary, who was then Mr. Winston Churchill, that an armed gang of desperados had tried to rob a Bank on Sidney St., by tunneling from an adjoining house.  They had accidentally been discovered and were now entrenched in the house which was then surrounded by many policemen at whom the men were firing from the windows.  Mr. Churchill immediately authorised reinforcement by Scots Guardsmen.  Shooting ­then became very brisk from both sides.  I was at my office (John Swire & Sons) in Billiter Square when my colleague at the next desk, who had been out for lunch, came rushing in to tell me of this Sidney Street siege.  He and I immediately slipped out and ran the mile or so to get there.  The street was barricaded off but we managed to squeeze in near the police and immediately noticed, just over the street from us, Mr. Churchill himself apparently giving advice to police and military officials alongside him.  The soldiers were lying flat on the roadway and firing at the house which was now on fire.  Presently the pistol shots ceased and later two charred bodies were found in the ruins.  We heard that others had escaped.  In 1954 I was reading the "Illustrated London News" special Tribute edition to celebrate Mr. Churchill's 80th year.  In it, on page seven, I saw an excellent photograph of the Sidney Street battle scene, which included Mr. Churchill, and I realized that my chum and I must have been standing right alongside the photographer when he took the picture.
In my travels I have seen some some heartrending sights.  When in Hankow I wanted to see the Chinese prison (Yamen) which was in the heart of the Chinese City.  I got an interpreter from the Club, a very intelligent Chinaman, and we went there one afternoon in rickshaws.  At the far corner of a narrow, walled- in lane which we were going through I saw a straw shelter, almost like a large dog kennel and as we approached a native crawled out to beg from us.  He was almost as black an a negro and very dirty.  One arm looked as though it had been eaten away up to the elbow.  It was a horrible sight and whatever I could give him could only ease his feelings momentarily.

In a village on the Nile in Egypt in 1925 I saw children in their mother's arms with flies caked over their eyes as though they were cattle.

When out for a walk one day, in Tientsin, North China, I saw several tiny children, stark naked, playing alongside a stagnant pond which contained heavy, green, slimy water.  Their home was, apparently, a miserable dirty hovel also close to the pond.  I wonder how many, if any, survived.  Another time, I saw a middle aged Chinaman lying dead close to the highway.  There was a constant stream of passers-by but no one during the ten minutes I was in the vicinity paid any attention to him.

To see a criminal standing on two bricks in a bamboo cage with his chin, presumably, supporting his body by being outside and resting on the top of the cage, while his head was exposed to the scorching sun, was an occasional sight which made one pity the man no matter what his crime had been.

In Hankow, when I went with an interpreter to take a look at the Yamon (prison) inside the Chinese City, I told my guide to buy a large bag of cakes and bring them along.  On reaching the Yamen, the armed soldier at the gate of the large courtyard wanted to stop us from going in but, with a little bluff, I managed to get us both past him and, seeing the prisoners cages on the far side, I went on with the cakes while my interpreter was still arguing with the gate man.  As I got closer to the cages - for they were cages, not cells, two more soldiers hurried up and began jabbering at me.  When I indicated that I was about to give my cakes to the prisoners they at once took the bag out of my hand.  Just then my guide came up and explained to me that to come inside at all without a special permit was quite wrong, and the matter of giving cakes to the prisoners was a shocking breach of the law of the Yamen.  After they had agreed to give the prisoners the cakes later on (which we knew they would never do) and after some diplomatic chatter, they finally allowed me to walk along by the stone sewer which separated the cages, of which there were, as far as I can remember, about 5 on each side.  As soon as they saw me the poor wretches put their arms out through the bars begging for something which I was, of course, helpless to give them.  They were all practically bare with hair down to the shoulders - a massive black mat - and obviously half starved.  The guide then told me they had reported my presence to the Governor of the Yamen and I was to go with one of the soldiers to his office at once.  So, in quite a leisurely manner, I went along.  This Governor was quite a sight.  He must have been about 6 feet 6 inches and big in proportion.  He was by no means handsome and a distinct cast in his right eye did not improve his appearance.  I walked boldly up to him, opened my wallet, took out one of my cards on which was my Company’s name as well as mine, gave it to him and offered him my hand as though he was an old friend. ( the Butterfield & Swire name was known and much respected by the Chinese everywhere, this name being TAIK00 or No.1 Company).  I think that took the wind out of his sails but in any case he invited me to sit down and sent at once for tea.  In exchange for my card he gave me a ribbon-like red paper full of Chinese characters which I know nothing what­ever about and, with the aid of my interpreter, we chatted for several minutes.  Of course he didn’t know how or where I personally lived in Shanghai so I was quite safe in asking him, if ever he came to Shanghai, to be my honoured guest. That seemed to please him very much.  Had he known more, I might have myself been honoured with one of the cages I had just seen!!  I never heard any more of him.

1895.  In Winchester Cathedral there was a stairway which led all the way up to the inside of the roof and there there was a two-plank walk above the whole length of the inside roof (or ceiling) of the Nave.  The Nave, by the way is, or was, the longest In the World.  To protect those having to use the walk there was a long railing running the whole distance on each side.  The railing was supported by upright posts about every ten feet, as far as I remember. As the wide open space between the top of the railing and the planks was fully four feet it was rather dangerous.  One day I saw one of the vergers about to go up and I risked a caning by following him to see what there was up those stairs. I was so quiet he did not know I was following.  At the top was the entrance to the pathway and the verger went right ahead, presumably to attend to something at the other end, for there was nothing he could do in the middle.  I quietly followed for a little way just to see  - what there was to see.  I hadn't done very many steps when, In putting out my hand to grasp the rail further along, I missed it, but quickly made a second effort and grabbed it just in time. That scared me terribly because if I had fallen I should have gone right through this inside ceiling, or roof and fallen the tremendous distance to tho stone floor of the Nave.  I was told that exactly that had happened long ago to a lady, though what she was doing up there I cannot imagine.  I got back down the stairs as fast as I could and, with my usual good luck, I was not missed, and had not been seen.

This year I was confirmed in Winchester Cathedral by the Rev. Bishop Randall Davidson who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

How little boys ever grow to be adults I don’t know, if my life and experience is anything to go by.  Southgate St. is a busy street in Winchester.  I had just recently learned to ride a bicycle and was cycling along It when I had to pull out to pass a cart at the kerb.  As I did so, a trap (a light two-wheeled carriage) overtook me and, as it passed, my handlebar caught in its wheel.  I was immediately thrown to the ground and my bicycle badly dam­aged.  As a gentleman picked me up, he remarked that it was entirely the fault of the driver of the trap who was driving much too fast and didn’t even stop to find out what had happened.  He said it was a miracle I wasn’t killed.

When visiting a clergyman friend In Manchester, England, during my school holidays, I went for a long walk with a Manchester Cathedral chorister to whom I had just been introduced.  My Rector friend lived in a house on a steep hill.  The tram lines ran past the house.  On our return, with two miles to go, we decided to take a tram.  As we neared the hill my new friend asked me if I knew  how to jump off a tramcar while it was still going (a common practice in those days of horse-drawn tramcars) Actually I had never done so, but I hated to admit it and so, very foolishly I said I could do it.  He said, ”All right, when I say jump, jump”.  On the step I stood facing the pavement instead of the direction in which the car was travelling, and when he said "jump", I jumped straight out.   When I got up I don’t think anyone knew which was my head and which the bump.  However, I got into the house safely and, as I couldn’t possibly hide the injury, the worried Rector sent for a doctor who patched me up and said there was nothing seriously wrong.

I was eighteen at the time of the Boer War, and a member of  the 2nd Hants Volunteers.  With several young men from the office, but without telling my parents, l signed up at the Drill Hall for service in Africa.  A week or so later we all received a notice to be prepared for early embarkation.  I then realized I would have to tell my Father and Mother all about it and I did so.  I was immediately in trouble.  An older brother, who had gone to South Africa years ago as a missionary, was already in some heavy fighting out there, having joined Bethune’s Horse when the war started.  My Mother insisted that one was enough and, argue as I would, I could get nowhere and stopped talk­ing about it hoping that the opposition would soon die down.  On the day we assembled in the Drill Hall for final orders the Adjutant sent for me and told me that the army was not allowed to take any man under 21 (which I had of course known long ago, and given my age as that) and that he had received a letter from my Father saying he would send in my birth certificate should the matter go any further.  That ended It of course, in spite of further argument.  Perhaps it was just as well, for the train which was taking my Company and others up to the front, went over a precipice, which killed or injured many of them and, of the rest, a large proportion died of enteric fever.

1892.  Eleven years old.  A sister took me with her on a short trip to France, my first steamer trip.  I found it all intensely interesting.  Just after our return another sister took me with her to see some friends in the country.  Seeing an old farmer in the fields there, I hastened up to him to tell him all about the voyage to Franco, and finished up by asking him if he had ever been to sea. He replied  "No, No,  you don’t get me on any of them there ships. There aint no back door to run out of".

1900. 19 yrs old.  As a 2nd Hants Regiment Volunteer I was in camp at Salisbury in May when the news came that Mafeking had been relieved:  At once Salis­bury plain was in an uproar.  Shouting and cheering and singing patriotic songs, we all started marching around aimlessly and giving full vent to our feelings.  It was a great moment.  The officers helped to create the pandemo­nium as willingly as the men.

About June, this year, a race was organised by the office staff.  I was to leave the centre of the town of Southampton at 6 o'clock in the morning, ac­companied by two of the staff on bicycles to watch my performance on a walk to Winchester - 12 miles away.  An hour later, two of the others were to leave on their ponies for the same destination and, at 7.30am the office champion cyclist was to start.  Although I had had no training whatsoever, and no spe­cial outfit, or even shoes for the occasion, he had the hardest task as the road was very hilly much of the way and with plenty oe stones - not at all like we have today.  I finished in exactly 2. hours, but he got there first having passed me about 500 feet from the post.  All of us then went to the hotel where we had a much needed wash and brush up and soon were sitting down to bacon and eggs etc.  When we had nearly ended our meal the ponies clattered into the Courtyard!
A few weeks later a handicap race was arranged and almost half of the staff planned to take part, including one vigorous old Department Head of about 60.  The race was to be to R0msey, 6 miles distant, and back, another 12 miles.  I was the last one to leave, my greatest competitor having only a 20 ft start on me.  Not until we turned at Romsey was I able to catch up to him and then very gradually forge ahead.  Half way to Southampton I suddenly ceased to hear him pounding away behind me. Looking back I saw he had fallen exhausted and one of our traps containing two men to watch fair heel and toe being nearby they picked him up and revived him, I learned, in a Public House close by.  Again I finished in just 2 hours, but the old gentleman who had been given an hour's start got in ahead of me.  It was all great fun.

Not long after the foot race to Romsey and back, a colleague at the next desk to mine said he had never been to Winchester and would like to see the place.  He was about my age, older if anything, and was fond of walking so I invited him to be my guest for the visit.  We left Southampton at 2pm one Saturday afternoon, walked there in about two and a half hours, continued through and around the town, looking over the College and Cathedral and, after a substantial meal at a favourite restaurant, stood up and walked the twelve miles back.  A comfortable armchair certainly looked good to me when I got there.

1905-9.  25 to 28 yrs old.  During the tragic famine in China at this time, the Foreigners arranged for a Concert at the Shanghai Town Hall.  My Tenor friend and I were asked to sing a duet.  A small room adjoining the stage had a long table loaded with all hinds of refreshments, especially liquor.  Unfortunately, when it was our turn to go on the stage to sing "Watchman, what of the night", the pianist had imbibed far too much, as the first line of the introduction made very clear.  I whispered to the nervous tenor to go ahead regardless.  We both did, and succeeded in finishing the duet without any errors on our part, but the same could not by any moans be said of the pianist.  What the audience (which contained Chinese also) thought of the performance I never did know as we both got out of that place within minutes. Unfortunately, those without musical knowledge or training, might just as well have supposed that we were to blame - perhaps more than the pianist.

1905.   In London, this year, I had another trying experience of a similar nature only this time it was not the fault of the pianist.  Because his bass partner was taken ill at the last moment, the "Tenors Robusto" of the choir of St. John's Church where we both sang regularly, asked me to substitute.  I forget the name of the duet but it was a very beautiful one and required to be sung in parts quite softly and with much feeling.  As in Shanghai, refreshments were supplied and the tenor drank more beer than was good for him or for the duet.  Right from the start he bellowed like a bull and almost overwhelmed me.  As I was leaving the Hall later on, one of the audience asked me if my companion was the baritone and I the tenor.  I was annoyed enough to immediately reply that I was the baritone and his was the "beery” tone.

1906.  Soon after I arrived in Shanghai I was invited to a dinner at the British Consulate.  I sat next to a lady who had lived there several years.  When the Chinese waiter asked me what I would have to drink I said ginger ale or any other similar drink.  The lady turned to me and suggested whisky, which I declined saying I Lad always been a total abstainer. Sho replied I wouldnt least long in the 'Far East on that kind of drink. Some weeks later I heard of a young man of about my age who was born and brought up in Shanghai and had never indulged in intoxicants.  Later on, I had the opportunity to meet him, and at once I'd told him what had been said at the Consulate dinner.  He told me he had never touched a drop of liquor in his life, having promised his parents never to do so, and he considered he was one of the healthiest men in the Colony.  That was just what I thought he would say, and I decided to act accordingly.  In order to avoid embarrassment, I did a very unusual thing, namely, refrained from joining the British Club.  Both things subjected me to some banter and criticism, but I stuck to my guns and, except for malarial fever, which nearly everybody had at some time, or other, and which I threw as soon as I got back to England, I was in fine condition during every day of my three years out there, which was far more than 90% of those similarly engaged could say.  I was never in a hospital and, as a matter of fact, have never been in one in my life.  It is perhaps extraordinary, considering how and where I have travelled, that I have not picked up many a deadly germ.

1908.  In August I spent my holiday in Japan, stopping at a Japanese hotel. All meals were taken in the central building and here and there through­out the extensive and beautiful grounds were dotted little houses built of the usual flimsy wood and paper material. It was all very charming except at night when rats had a lively time galloping along the moulding around the room, near the ceiling. After evening dinner on the second day I told the manager I wished to have a bath and he pointed out a large bath house at the foot of a slope a few yards away from my little house, and said he would send a girl down to me with towels, soap etc. When she arrived an hour later I had put on my kimono and she again pointed out the bath house to me. I went down right away and opened the door to go in. A few feet away from me in a kind of tank about 15 ft long, 10 ft wide and I think about 2 ft deep was the comfort­ably warm water almost level with the floor and in it, attended by an old man of, I should think 60 or so, was a Japanese woman in a oomplete state of nudity. I quickly shut the door and stayed outside what I thought was a reason­able time but when I again ventured inside she was only just sauntering in to her curtained oubiole. The old man seemed rather disturbed because I had no use for his services. Later I understood that the Japanese thought nothing of exposing the naked body and that they did not at all consider it immodest, in fact it was customary for whole families to bathe at the same time in the same water.

[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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