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Girls, interrupted: The story of sea captain's adopted daughters

In piecing together the story of two 'waifs' at the Happy Valley graveside of British sea captain and Yangtze River pioneer Samuel Cornell Plant, Polly Shih Brandmeyer and Stephen Davies have uncovered the roots of an unusual family tree

 

“The trail, quite literally, goes cold at that graveside in Happy Valley cemetery.”

That was the dramatic ending to a feature that ran in Post Magazine on October 2, 2011, about British sea captain Samuel Cornell Plant, the first man to pilot a merchant steamer through the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. In 1921, Plant died of pneumonia at sea en route to England, via Hong Kong, and was buried, along with his wife, who succumbed to the same disease a few days later, in Happy Valley. Graveside at their funeral were two adopted Chinese daughters. The author of the piece, Peter Simpson, had dug up what he believed were their names – Isobel and Clara – but few other facts about the girls beyond knowing they were sent back to Yichang, in Hubei province, under the guardianship of an Emelia Moore, and that all three moved to Chengdu, Sichuan province, ahead of the Japanese advance of 1937-38.

So what became of the two young girls who stood in the forefront at the funeral of Captain Cornell and Alice Plant, alongside the three male chief mourners from the Chinese Maritime Customs and Butterfield & Swire?

 

IN 2005, A FEW MILES FROM the Plant family home in Suffolk, eastern England, Hugh Coryn and his wife, Anne – whose grandfather was Captain Plant’s first cousin – set wheels in motion. They would bring two stories together and help unravel the mystery.

“Anne and I from the outset, after first learning of the girls, wanted to know what became of them,” Coryn remembers. “Clearly they were important to Alice and Cornell. I had read the consul’s letter, depicting them as waifs and purchased servants, which, at the time, I felt was disgraceful. The more we thought about it, the more we felt a wrong had been done. Then we realised that, just possibly, we might find them alive, although very old ladies.”

Unaware of the Coryns’ quest, in 2009, the three children and granddaughter (Polly Shih Brandmeyer – the co-author of this article) of the Isobel that Simpson had indentified as possibly being one of the Plants’ adoptees, arrived in Chengdu from different parts of the United States, to visit their 90-year-old Aunt Clara. Clara’s children and their families had settled nearby – and the first cousins were reunited for the first time since they had seen each other in Shanghai, in 1947.

It was a joyful time for storytelling and memories; and in the last few months of her life (she died later in 2009), Clara recalled her deep love for Isobel, summers in Lushan, Jiangxi province, and their double wedding.

“Miss Moore gave us everything we wanted,” she reminisced.

Her English, unused for nearly 60 years, was still impeccable. But during the visit, Clara made a surprising comment. Although she knew her natural mother had died from cholera in China, she said: “My mother died while returning to England.”

The family attributed the muddle to an onset of dementia.

Brandmeyer’s Uncle Jerry, newly inspired by this visit, began searching for information about Isobel and Clara’s beloved guardian, Mary Emelia Moore. He found a short biography of her posted online by New Zealand Presbyterian Church archivist Yvonne Wilkie, and so he plunged into the near century-old mystery.

Four years earlier, Hugh Coryn had enlisted Wilkie’s help in his determined search to find the lost Plant girls raised by Moore. He combed Dunedin, New Zealand, where Moore had moved to from China, for wills, letters, papers; anything that would indicate the identity of the girls. The obvious places to look – ship manifests, Butterfield & Swire files, Plant family letters and trust documents – had proven to be dead ends; and among Moore’s personal documents were found only the names “Isobel” and “Clara”.

When Wilkie told Isobel’s family of a probable Plant connection, they were “speechless, in a state of disbelief”. Neither Isobel’s nor Clara’s family had ever heard of Cornell Plant. Isobel’s children – Brandmeyer’s father and his siblings – were sceptical.

But the two family stories, researched across three continents, had converged and they would begin yielding answers. Both began in Britain.

 

THE RELATIVELY ORTHODOX tale opens in 1881, when an adventurous 15-year-old English boy, Samuel Cornell Plant – always known as Cornell – followed his father into Britain’s merchant navy. Once qualified as a second mate, in 1886, and like many of the more go-getting types of the Pax Britannica era, Plant looked to foreign climes. He took employment in the Middle East, with the Euphrates & Tigris Steam Navigation Company; and as Britain manoeuvred to keep Russia from the frontiers of India, he found himself a participant in the so-called Great Game. From 1891 to 1895 he explored the Karun River, mapping its feasibility as a military and commercial artery. That was the beginning of a lifetime’s fascination with river navigation.

Despite the dangers of his work (tribal conflicts were rife in the region) – and the fact that he contracted typhoid fever and was incapacitated for two months – in 1894, in Bushehr, Persia, the 27-year-old Plant married 23-yearold Alice Sophia Peters.

Meanwhile, through what may have been semi-governmental exploration work, he had become connected with British entrepreneur Archibald Little, and with Little’s push to extend Britain’s commercial penetration of China. So, in 1895, Captain Plant left the Persian Gulf, heading via England for new challenges in China.

By 1898, Plant had begun the work that brought him fame and esteem: the opening of the Upper Yangtze River, from Yichang to Chongqing, through the infamous gorges and their terrifying rapids. And in 1899, he and Little designed and had built in Scotland the paddle steamer that opened the upper river, the SS Pioneer.

Fifteen years later, Plant’s work for the Chinese-owned Szechuan Steam Navigation Co and the ships he designed for it, had revolutionised river transport. He had also become the authority on this wild stretch of the Yangtze. It was time to exchange travel and piloting for a more settled career. So, thanks to his unrivalled knowledge, in 1915 he became the Chinese Maritime Customs Service’s first river inspector.

His work earned such praise and gratitude in China that, exceptionally for a foreigner, he was allowed to build his own house, at Xintan, in Hubei province. “Belleview” overlooked a tricky stretch of the Yangtze, now inundated by the Three Gorges reservoir, that he had helped to tame.

Unable to have children of their own, in around 1919 the Plants took in two Chinese girls. But China in the 1920s was troubled and Yichang, where warlords frequently clashed, was among the most disturbed of towns. In late 1920, a mutiny by local warlord soldiers was followed by wholesale looting. Allied with bitterly cold weather and an earthquake, these events brought the Plants to a decision.

In January 1921, Plant wrote to his mother of their decision to leave: “We were all in fear of our lives.” The household of four was packed up and, thanks to Plant’s connections with Butterfield & Swire, scarce tickets were obtained for the Blue Funnel ship Teiresias, due to sail from Shanghai for Britain the following month. With their two girls, the Plants visited J.L. Smith, the British consul in Yichang, to obtain travel documents.

Years of hard work navigating and charting the waters of the upper Yangtze and working as a ship surveyor had taken their toll on Plant’s health, however. And when he discharged his last duty, going out in cold, rainy conditions to survey a ship, he taxed his system too far. Not long after the Teiresias left Shanghai on February 23, Plant came down with a fever. This worsened to pneumonia and at 8am on February 26 he died.

Alice had tended her sick husband assiduously. In poor health and under severe stress, later on the day of her husband’s death she, too, fell ill. Her condition worsened as the Teiresias neared Hong Kong.

After the ship had berthed, and against her wishes, Alice was moved ashore to the Civil Hospital. Within hours, she was dead.

By March 1, 1921 the two girls, just recently adopted by the Plants but never mentioned by name in the correspondence from the couple, were alone.

Butterfield & Swire, the local agents for Blue Funnel, took financial responsibility until their immediate future was sorted out, placing them under the temporary care of Ada Pitts, at the Church Missionary Society.

Meanwhile, Bishop William Banister (who had conducted the Plants’ memorial service), Butterfield & Swire and Smith developed a plan. The girls would return to Yichang under the guardianship of Moore, a 52-yearold New Zealand missionary, head of the Church of Scotland’s women’s mission and an 1893 graduate of Otago University. Moore was a staunch advocate of education for Chinese girls. With that settled, Butterfield & Swire made sure the two were safely delivered to their new haven.

 

THE SECOND, MORE unorthodox story involves a Chinese student, “Charles” Chien Weishan. He was the son of a prosperous silk merchant, Chien Chen, and one of the young men sent overseas to study as Western penetration forced modernisation on China. Chien arrived in London some time before 1908 to learn about electrical engineering. He found digs with the Warburton family at 57 Highbury Park, Islington … and fell in love with his landlord’s daughter, Adela Robina. They were married at the local registry office on March 8, 1911 and their first child, Elspeth (Elsie) Robina, was born six months later.

In 1913, Chien returned to China. He was followed by Adela and Elspeth in July 1914, travelling on the P&O Company’s 5,914-tonne Nubia. The Chiens settled in Chengdu and had three more daughters, Hilda, Isobel and Clara – all named after Warburton family members.

The Chiens’ life in China is full of unknowns. It seems probable that Charles had already contracted a Chinese marriage before he left for England; but what is known of the family household in Chengdu – including that they lived in an elegant house – suggests that whatever difficulties they may have endured, for five years Charles followed his heart.

Shortly after Clara’s birth, in around 1919, however, tragedy struck when Adela died from cholera. For reasons unknown, the four Eurasian sisters were separated. The two older sisters, Elsie and Hilda, were sent to a Franciscan boarding school in Shanghai, to be raised speaking French by Mother Superior Chantal, a native of Belgium.

What happened to Isobel and Clara was very different. They were raised by Moore, in Yichang, 1,125 kilometres west of Shanghai. So, were the Plants’ adopted daughters Moore’s Isobel and Clara?

The answer seemed straightforward but there was a complicating factor.

In a public description of the Plant girls by Smith in a newspaper just 15 days after the Plants’ deaths and in a private letter to Captain Plant’s brother, Charles, he describes them as “waifs bought by Mrs Plant a number of years ago and brought up by her as servants in her own home”. Smith had changed the public status of the girls from Butterfield & Swire’s designation as “adopted daughters”. His account also implied they were far older than the Chien sisters’ four (Isobel) and two (Clara) years. Consistently calling them “two Chinese girls”, Smith denied them any legal identity. They were not Plants. They were not Chiens. They did not have the given names Isobel and Clara. Even more curiously, nor did they have those names in any known correspondence, including that of Moore – at least not until a letter she wrote in 1939, the year both girls were married.

Young girls in 1920s China had scant legal protection. Isobel and Clara had been left penniless. Children’s clothing found in the Plants’ luggage had been packed off and sent to England as part of the estate to which the girls were not entitled. As the daughters from a marriage between a Chinese man and an English woman they were not entitled to British citizenship. Under Chinese law, especially as “bought female servants”, they had no standing at all. The future of the girls could have been parlous.

Curiously, as readily as Smith had concealed the girls’ identity, he had been just as quick – as architect and president of the Plant Memorial Fund – to devise a plan for their future. He raised money for a monument – which still exists – to commemorate Plant at Xintan and made sure the balance went towards educating and looking after the girls at the reputable Iona Girls School, on Scottish Mission grounds, in Yichang.

The sisters lived as wards of the Church for two years until, in 1923, a cheque for $4,413.34 (roughly equivalent to HK$1.6 million today) was deposited from the Plant Memorial Fund with the Church of Scotland Mission for the education and welfare of the “two Chinese girls”, who were to be awarded an income for life, or “liferent”, from the funds. Moore was named trustee.

Clara and Isobel were lovingly raised by Moore and called her “mother”. In turn, they were the only girls she referred to as “daughters”. With her they summered in the mountain resort of Kuling, in Lushan, and Moore’s photo albums were filled with pictures of the girls. But she never told them of their Plant background and legacy, only their surname Chien and given Chinese names – Shuyu (“virtuous jade”), for Isobel; and Shuhua (“virtuous flower”), for Clara – and that they had had an English mother who had died of cholera. They also seem to have been better provided for than the Plant Memorial Fund could have allowed. When they moved on to secondary school, they were enrolled in the prestigious – and expensive – Ginling College in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, moving with it to Chengdu when the Japanese stormed the city in 1937. By keeping the girls in the dark about their early years, was Moore guarding the secret of their true identities?

At any rate, their futures were assured. In 1939, at a joint ceremony, Clara was married to Dr Albert Yuan Minxin, a graduate of Nanjing University Medical School, and Isobel to John Shih Taotsi, the younger brother of one of her Iona schoolteachers and also a graduate of Nanjing University.

During this period – although the records are incomplete – it would seem the four sisters were aware of each other’s existence. All four spent 1946 together in Shanghai with their young families, though from what was later recalled this did nothing to clarify what must have been extremely puzzling and unexplained gaps in their shared and unshared histories.

After the 1946-47 reunion, the Chinese civil war separated the girls permanently. Clara and her doctor husband returned to Chengdu, where they initially lived in the old Chien family home. They traded in their Western clothes for communist-issue blue jackets and raised a family of four daughters in the newly formed People’s Republic of China.

Isobel’s husband, who worked for the National Resources Commission in Chongqing during the second world war, was sent to the US to collaborate with the Americans at their naval yards. Upon joining a newly formed United Nations, he was able to take his young family to America before the Silk Curtain dropped, in 1949, cutting Clara and Isobel off from each other forever. Isobel succumbed to breast cancer in 1960.

Meanwhile, Hilda and her husband had moved, via Hong Kong, to Singapore. And Elsie and her family stayed in Shanghai, becoming citizens of the Peoples’ Republic, like Clara and her husband.

 

SO THE WHEEL HAS COME full circle. The story of the “lost” girls standing by that sad grave in Hong Kong in 1921 has been pieced together, albeit with many holes. It appears to have been a deliberate – if hard to unravel or fathom – strategy to sever them from their roots and make them “waifs”. And much else remains a mystery.

Was Charles Chien’s separation from them, and the splitting of his daughters by Adela following her death, a geographical and cultural necessity in 1920s and 30s China? Did he return to another family and a wholly Chinese life? Perhaps there was danger from association with him – an unsubstantiated family story concerns an attempted poisoning of Chien, for his pro-Western views, while he was travelling on business as China’s “ambassador” to Mexico some time in the 20s or 30s. Did he anonymously underwrite his children’s upbringing?

And who, indeed, was Charles Chien, exactly? The available evidence about him suggests social standing, political connections and wealth, but little else.

Another unknown is what connects Charles and Adela Chien with Moore and the Plants. Was it the river trade? Was Charles Chien’s family involved in the Szechuan Steam Navigation Co?

Or might it have been Christianity? Charles Chien was probably a convert – hence his lodging with the church-going Warburtons in London.

Clearly there is much to this tale yet to be discovered – if the answers are still out there.

 

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