Fighting between the Chinese and British in the First Opium War concluded in late August 1842 at the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty required the Chinese to pay the British over twenty million dollars in war reparations, to open five Chinese ports to British trade, and to cede Honk Kong. All of the treaty’s concessions were on the part of the Chinese. Just three months earlier, the British had launched their final campaign along the Yangtze River. There, Chinese forces fell to superior training and technology including a fleet comprised of eleven men-of-war (frigates and sloops), ten paddle steamers, and an accompanying train of surveying, transport, and other vessels, which made its massive and awkward way up the river toward the Grand Canal near Nanking in the summer of 1842.
A very small part of this enormous expedition was Midshipman Henry Lyon of the H.M.S. Blonde. Thomas Henry Lyon (1825-1914) lived a long and prosperous life. He was the second son of an important local family in Lancashire, England. Henry, as he referred to himself in his journals (his father and elder brother were also both named Thomas), left Eton to join the Royal Navy in 1839. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1846. Lyon served on a number of vessels including the H.M.S. Blonde; H.M.S. Columbine; and H.M.S. Ganges. He left the Navy in 1853 and settled at his family’s estate, Appleton Hall, which he inherited in 1859. Lyon married twice, first to Vanda Wilson-Patten who died in childbirth a year later, and then to Edith Branker with whom he had a daughter, Dorothy, in 1876. Lyon died at home of influenza on November 13, 1914 at the age of 89.
In May of 1842, however, seventeen year-old Henry Lyon was far from his parents, seven siblings, and the relative luxuries of his home. As many soldiers and sailors of that era did, he obtained a diary and began to write. On the first page of his diary, he inscribed “Journal kept by Henry Thomas Lyon during the campaign in the Yangtse kiang in the summer of 1842.” From mid-May at the battle at Chapu until mid-November anchored on Macao roads, Lyon made at least a brief entry in his journal nearly every day.
As an aide-de-camp for Thomas Bourchier – the Captain of the Blonde – Lyon was officially reported as present at the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. His journal entry for that day simply notes “Monday [August] 29. The treaty was signed by the three Chinese Commissioners. The Chinese flag was saluted by 21 guns.” Brief entries like these, though, are interspersed with more detailed accounts. Lyon related what he witnessed of battles and negotiations, but more often described the progress of the vessels on the river, including mention of provisioning, looting, and his impressions of the places in which he found himself.
Following is an example of one of Lyon’s more detailed entries. It tells of the battle at Chinkiang, in which he was slightly wounded.
Thursday 21st at ½ past 3 AM I was sent in charge of the cutter with the boom boats under command of Mr. Crouch 4th Lieut. to assist in disembarking the troops. We landed the artillery from the Rustomjee Cowasjee on some rafts which extended one or two hundred yards from the shore. After we had landed them we were ordered to take some artillery men and gun loaders up the canal and land them at the furthest end of the city walls. The barge was the leadmost boat then the cutter and next (about ¼of a mile astern, the launch pinnace and some merchant ships’ boats. When we had pulled a mile and a half up the canal we got to a fine bridge where we were saluted with a heavy fire of gingalls matchlocks rocket arrows stink pots and every warlike weapon you can think of from the walls of the city which we had just reached. The barge and cutter were the leadmost boats and the only boats across.
We sheltered ourselves under the bridge as well as we could and returned the fire as well as could be expected. By this time we saw the artillery land from the boats astern but they were driven back which disappointed us greatly. We had now fifteen men wounded out of the two boats. We tried to land but the walls were too high to be done anything to by 9 men and myself. Mr. Crouch was wounded in three places and had nothing else to do for it but cut and run by way of the suburbs which he did with 6 or 7 of the boat’s crew and two artillery officers who were in the boat with him. I was now left with 9 men, and what on earth could I do with so few against so many; we were exposed to a cross fire by then extending to the right and left. Well the artillery deserted the flat boat and she was left to her fate.
The men now persuaded me to do as Mr. Crouch did, that was to land on the suburb side of the canal. Well we got the oars [?] and shoved the boat on shore, and out we got up to our middles in water. It was now a case of devil take the hindmost and we split through the streets like mad. All our ammunition was wet, so if we had been attacked we should not have been able to have made a very [?] resistance. Luckily we went the right way and got on board the Vixen where they gave me a boat to use and report the proceedings to the captain of the Cornwallis. Mr. Crouch was on board there and was very ill. We got all our men 16 wounded 3 not expected to live. The troops had a hard job to take the city (Kin Shan, Chin Kiang) and 200 men killed and wounded. Our boats were got on board all right, the same as we left them. Ours was certainly a defeat but I think I may say not a dishonorable one.
Thomas Henry Lyon’s Yangtze campaign diary of 1842, along with a second diary telling of his experience aboard the Columbine in the South China Sea and environs from 1846-1849, and an artistically penned ledger titled “An Inventory of Plate, 1884”, comprise the Thomas Henry Lyon papers. Please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
- Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library
Note: Modern pinyin forms of place names are: Chapu = Zhapu; Chinkiang = Jinjiang; Hong Kong = Xianggang; Macao = Aomen; Nanking = Nanjing; and Yangtse = Yangtze/Yangzi.
- Clowes, William Laird and Markham, Clements R. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present. London: Chatham Publishing, 1996-1997.
- Furneaux, Clare. The Lyon Family of Appleton Hall and Stretton Parish Church. Appleton: Alfresco Books, 1996.
- Henry Thomas Lyon Papers, MS.1986.118, John J. Burns Library, Boston College