Thomas Adkins, Personal Letters

A lie to Victorian stereotypes

The Adkins letter collection.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR3554

In the initial article, I gave an overview of Adkins’s career as an interpreter and diplomat with the Chinese Consular Service. However, against the dramatic political backdrop of events at the time, there are intensely personal letters which give lie to the stereotypical image of the Victorians’ coldness and emotional sterility.

Heart-rending expressions

Those composed at the time of the death of his sister Hannah in early 1856 are heart-rending expressions of his enormous grief, entirely uninhibited in their articulation of an almost unbearable loss. To his father he wrote, ‘I wished and hoped and prayed, that many happy hours of her society were left for me’, before lamenting his decision to take his job – ‘Instead of being near to comfort her, the dear companion of my childhood, am [sic] thousands of miles away. I feel how wrongly I have acted but alas now it is too late to think of making any reparations’.

As ever in Adkins’ letters high drama is juxtaposed with the intensely personal. Between November 1860 and February 1861 Adkins was the only Englishman in the whole of Peking, charged with readying the British Embassy for the arrival of Lord Elgin’s brother Sir Frederick Bruce, the magnificently titled Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Emperor of China. Unsurprisingly, still aged only twenty four, he found himself feeling terribly isolated. On Christmas Eve 1860 Adkins wrote from Peking to his mother: ‘I feel very lonely this evening and would give anything I possess to have a mortal who could speak my native tongue within hail. This is certainly far from a merry Christmas as far as I am concerned’.

A young man

Amidst the high drama Adkins witnessed, it is easy to forget that he was a young man in his early 20s, thousands of miles from home. In his letters he reveals his often desperate homesickness. For example, in a letter from March 1862, he remarks that he feels as lonely as Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. In October 1861 he writes poignantly that ‘I often lie awake at night building castles in the air. Nor can sleep obliterate the wish that is uppermost in my heart. Alas, how often has the break of day dispelled a dream of perfect happiness. I don’t know how it is, but every day my homesickness grows stronger. It will soon be a serious malady’.

Other letters radiate warmth and humour, Adkins writes affectionately of an old Chinese man who takes offence when he does not join him in a pipe, and of his cook’s attempt to make a plum pudding for Christmas. Further letters discuss, for example, work and leisure in Hong Kong, and contribute to a remarkably vivid picture of 1850s China, along with an insight into the man himself.

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