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23 December 2021

Eric Moller: Jockey and Trainer to Sir Catchick Paul Chater

Most people in the shipping world, know the name “Moller”.  This is in no way a full account of the life of Eric Moller, that has been covered in publications and books already, but rather a snapshot of a time when his life crossed with Sir Catchick Paul Chater. Chater valued Eric for his talent and experience as a jockey and trainer and the all-important winning horses, and Sir Paul, being the man he was, retained Eric with ample generosity.

Image: Liz Chater's private archive

The hyperlinks in square brackets [  ] do not work, please scoll to the end for the appropriate reference number.

Eric was drawn to horse racing, both in Shanghai and Hong Kong, his father Nils Moller  was just as keen, so it was rather inevitable the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. As early as 1899, Eric is recorded as racing in Hong Kong. Watching from the Judge’s box, Paul Chater saw the potential talent this young man had, and very likely earmarked him as a possible jockey in his own stable. That year, Eric rode for a number of owners a total of 16 races during the meeting; he had 2 wins, 1 second place and 3 third places. His wins that year were on Mr. Arnold’s Straightaway´ in the “Lucky Cup”, and Mr. Orr’s ‘Rookwood’ in the “Flyaway Stakes”, it would be the beginning of a racing career that would eventually propel him to being a very successful jockey and later a celebrated owner in Shanghai.


But first, a complicated family setup meant there was a lot to learn about life for him and some bitter pills to swallow. Extreme circumstances, requires extreme measures, and they are not always the ones you wish to take. To find yourself in a position where you have to fight a parent in a court of law over a family inheritance that you are legitimately entitled to, is quite simply, shocking.  Following the death of their mother, that is the situation Eric Moller and his siblings found themselves in.


Eric Moller’s father was a sea captain named Nils Moller, who was born in Brunnby, Sweden in October 1825[1]. He had first married Jenni Charlotte Marie Holm in the early 1850s, most likely in Scandinavia, their first child, Pehr, named after his own father, was born in Burr Street, Aldgate, London in April 1856[2] and was baptised in St. Boltolph Without Aldgate,  on 1st June[3]. Nils and Jenny’s second child, Maria Teresia Moller was born 25th March 1859 in Sweden.[4] Jenni died just a few months later also in Sweden.  Nils wasted no time in remarrying, after all, he had two small children who required care and a mother figure.


Simple family tree showing Nils Moller's first marriage

That came in the shape of Alethea Appleby Stephenson.  Daughter of a vicar, she and Nils were married in Nottingham on 31st October 1860 at St. Mary’s church in the city by her brother, also a vicar, the Reverend W. Stephenson[5].   No sooner had they married, they then sailed for Shanghai, where, in 1861, Nils dipped his toe into general trading and auction room sales, before getting into the shipping business in 1866. Nils and Alethea went on to have at least five children: 


Charles Henry Christopher Moller  born 1862 in Shanghai[6]

Eric Arthur Moller born and died in 1864 in Shanghai[7]

Hilda Jane Appleby Moller born 1865 in Nottingham[8]

Anna Muriel Moller born 1867 in Nottingham[9]

Warden Appleby Moller born 1871 in Shanghai[10]


In addition to her own children, Alethea was also caring for her two step-children, Pehr and Maria Teresia Moller.



Simple family tree showing Nils Moller's 2nd marriage

On a voyage back to Shanghai from England in 1870, Alethea had engaged a lady companion for the trip; she was called Hannah Clappison. [11]  Once back in Shanghai, Nils appeared to take more of a shine to Hannah than he did his wife, and went on to conduct a relationship with her right under the nose of Alethea, fathering five children with Hannah, they were:


Hannah Marian Moller aka Minnie born in 1874 at sea on board the ‘Glaucus’[12]

Nils Eric Amelon Moller aka Eric Moller born in 1875 in Sculcoates, Yorkshire[13]

John Arthur Moller born in 1878 in Shanghai[14]

Daisy Moller born in 1879 in Shanghai[15]

Kate Winifred Moller born and died in Shanghai 1884/5[16]



Simple family tree showing Nils Moller's relationship
with Hannah Clappison.
Also third marriage to Harriet Fuller

By 1881 Alethea had returned to Nottingham, England with her children and set up home in Prospect Place. Not only was Alethea looking after her own children, she was looking after her step-daughter Maria Moller.[17]  Meanwhile, Nils was in Shanghai with Alethea's 'lady companion' Hannah, who had assumed the role of 'wife' to Nils. There was no divorce for Alethea who remained in England. She travelled on a couple of occasions to the USA to see her step-son Pehr and her daughter Hilda Standring and their families. On the whole, Alethea lived in various locations in the South East of England, dying in St. Marys and St. Josephs Nursing Home, Chiswick in March 1920.[18] She is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Barnes, Surrey. In the same cemetery are the remains of her children, Charles Henry Christopher Moller who died in 1928,  Anne Muriel who died in 1942, and Warden Appleby who died in 1950. In addition, there are also the remains of Charles Moller’s wife, Mary Helen nee Pierce who died in 1961 and two of their children, Harold Percy who died in 1952 and Nils Harry who died in 1962 respectively. [19]


Hannah Clappison died in Shanghai in May 1891, and of course Nils was still married to Alethea. Hannah made a will before her death, providing amply for her 4 surviving children, making Nils the executor to oversee the equal distribution of her estate to her children.


“All I own in this world, such as ships, houses and landed property, I give and bequeath to my good friend Nils Moller, in trust for my four children when they come of age, and may God bless and protect them all. Amen. Dated at Avenue Lodge this 5th Day of February 1891.” The will was written in the handwriting of Nils Moller.


She was possessed of three sailing barques (later Nils would claim these were “gifts” from him, who expected her to return them to him as bequests in her will),  the “Valkyrien”, “Contest” and “Lucia”, as well as three lots of land in Shanghai; B.C. Lot 1156 known as the “Washing Company’s” land; B.C. Lot 570 known as “The Gables” and finally the family home known as “Avenue Lodge”.  Nils successfully proved the will at the Supreme Court in Shanghai in July 1891, but he had failed to include as assets the barque “Valkyrien” as well as the three lots of valuable land. Nils had deliberately tried to devalue the estate of the woman he considered his “wife”.  He was able to deceive the children because they were all still under age. Meanwhile, Nils,  set out to “reclaim” ownership of Hannah’s property in a most despicable fashion. 


Nils was custodian of the property in Hannah’s will, which was to be held in trust until her children came of age. He deliberately chose to undertake a “transfer” of ownership of the vessel “Valkyrien to his son, Eric Moller in 1895, who was actually already the owner. Nils then got his son Eric to sign a document giving all the property to his father. Nils qualified the transfer of property from Eric to his father by saying: “the will was not worth the paper it was written on”; Eric and his siblings believed him. Why wouldn’t they? He was their father, the person you trust with your life.  Nils went on to sell the  “Valkyrien” in 1900 without Eric’s knowledge or permission, a vessel Nils had no right to sell. The transfer document Eric signed in favour of his father included  B.C. Lot 570 (The Gables) and B.C. Lot 1156 (Washing Company’s land); Nils had sold his son’s legitimate inheritance from under his nose.


With the children still under age, and therefore not in control of their own affairs, Nils did this feeling confident it was something he could get away with. Not only did Nils fail to pay his children their rightful money, he refused to do so when the sales of these items had come to light.  Besides the lack of honesty regarding the money from the sales, there was the personal betrayal and deceit Nils had undertaken towards his own children. One can only imagine how Eric must have felt. Nils’s own business affairs was not plain sailing, and on 1st January 1894, perhaps anticipating financial trouble ahead, and not wishing to divide any of the children’s inheritance he had full charge and control of, decided to amalgamate the whole lot by establishing the firm “Nils Moller and Sons” with himself as senior partner and Nils Eric and John Arthur Moller as (under age) junior partners. The firm was created purely with the property of Hannah Clappison, something the two brothers Eric and John Arthur were completely unaware of at the time.    In 1895, Nils, as senior partner, head of the firm of Nils Moller and Sons, and being the sole trustee of the estate sold the “Washing Company”, B.C. Lots 1156 and 1654 for Tls 24,000. Later in 1897, Nils sold “The Gables”, B.C. Lot 570 for Tls 16,000, the proceeds of each transaction being placed in the accounts of Nils Moller and Sons. It was during this time that Nils got Eric to sign over a “Division of Property” document. The contents were dictated by Nils to Eric, and said:


Shanghai 25th March 1897

My Dear Father,

This is to certify that all ships, houses and landed property now registered in my name in the British Consulate of Shanghai are your bona-fide property, and I hold same subject to your disposal and I am prepared to transfer same to any one you may appoint when called upon by you to do so.


I am,

My Dear Father

Your Affectionate Son

Nils Eric Moller


To Mr. Nils Moller


In the Empire of China

Witness to signature

John Baesler

Ship Broker


As na├»ve Eric Moller, captivated by his love of horses, forged ahead with his racing career, he was completely oblivious to the underhand dealings his father was conducting and how his mother’s legacy was being manoeuvred, not to benefit Eric and his siblings, but to reinforce the pockets of his father. Eric continued to ride horses, both in Hong Kong and Shanghai and it was becoming clear he had a good eye in spotting winners and riding them over the line to win.


In 1900 Nils Moller gave a Deed of Gift to his sons Eric and John Arthur Moller giving them equal shares in the vessels “Lucia”, “Osaka”, and the “Contest”, along with office furniture and the goodwill of the shipping business.  Out of the income from these ships a monthly allowance was to be paid of $60 to each sister, Minnie and Daisy. Nils also went on to stipulate that his two sons were to abstain from “all gambling in shares and stocks, and also from all horse training and riding for the public, and they are to give their undivided attention to the shipping and commission business of Nils Moller and Sons”.  Nils expected his sons to demonstrate dedication, commitment and honesty in return for the company; however, these were not qualities he wanted to reciprocate to them.


The siblings (Plaintiffs) were represented in court by Mr. Stokes who requested that the proceedings of the case should be held without the presence of reporters. Mr. Stokes said: “What I have to say involves a great deal of personal history. It affects not only the living, but the dead, and I most urgently beg for that concession, if not out of regard for the living then for the sake of the memory of the dead”.  They did not get their way and Counsel for the defendant (their father) said: “As they have chosen to make these statements public, they must stand by any unpleasantness that may arise from that publicity.” Family shame and embarrassment would unfold.


The Court heard that the siblings became suspicious of Nils’s actions around 1901 when “a dispute arose over five tug-boat shares which were given by Nils to his two daughters Minnie and Daisy, and were kept in the safe of Nils Moller and Co. He got the girls on one occasion to sign a transfer, as it would, he said, be more convenient for collecting dividends if they were in his name. Everything went on smoothly and the dividends were paid, until the girls happened to hear that these shares had been sold and from that there was a split in the family. Nils first denied that he had sold the shares, but afterwards admitted it, and from that time there was unfortunately a want of that confidence which should obtain between parent and children, and the boys thought they would like to make some enquiries and find out what was the value of their mother’s will. They went to the British Consulate General and found to their surprise that this was a bona-fide will.  Nils had put all the property into the name of the firm Nils Moller and Sons, and when the Gables was sold the proceeds were put on a fixed deposit in the Bank in the name of Nils Moller and Sons and the same was done in the case of the Washing Company and the Valkyrien.


Nils continued to syphon assets that belonged to his children into the company Nils Moller and Sons.  In court he was supported in his petition by his wife Alethea Appleby Moller and their four children as well as the two children Nils had with his first wife Jenny, Pehr and Maria Theresia Moller. By siding with their father it was clear the legitimate children were rounding on the illegitimate children, all implying to the court that the claim of Eric and his siblings would have an adverse affect on their own inheritance.


It was judged that a Deed of Gift dated 6th December 1900 from Nils Moller to his sons Eric and John Arthur Moller “giving” them 3 sailing vessels along with $5,000 was deemed invalid; how could he give to his sons property that didn’t belong to him in the first place; Nils had been generous to a fault with someone else’s property, and his scheme had backfired. Another Deed of Gift between Eric Moller and his father Nils of 1897 where Eric gave “all ships, houses and lands……”  was also deemed invalid because Eric had been misled in a coercive fashion regarding all the property.  All-in-all, Nils had been caught with his fingers in the till; swiping not just money and assets, but personal integrity, honesty and trust from his children.


Almost a year after the start of this case, the final payment outcome was judged to be as follows.  Nils had to pay to his son Eric and his siblings Tls 25,649.24, they were also to retain 3 sailing vessels and the goodwill of the company Nils Moller and Sons.  In addition, Nils was ordered to pay Tls 1,608.75 to his daughters Minnie and Daisy Moller, interest was to accrue at a rate of 7% from the date of judgement, 20th January 1903, until payment of the principal sum was made.


It is often recorded that Eric and John Arthur Moller  “took over” or inherited the shipping business, from their father. But we can clearly see that wasn’t the case;  it was rightly awarded to them by a Court of Law following a continued and prolonged period of deception of Nils towards his children where he tried and failed to manipulate the assets of his late mistress to his own benefit. Nils miscalculated; a judge saw through his deception. [20]



To add insult to injury for Eric and his siblings, there was the fact that only 5 months after the death of their mother Hannah, Nils had remarried to Harriet Fuller of Shanghai.[21] 


Marriage record of Nils Moller and Harriet Fuller

Harriet was the daughter of an architect and active Missionary, William Robert Fuller, so I guess Nils conveniently forgot to mention he already had a wife back in England who was very much alive. Dishonesty raised its ugly head again, Nils had committed bigamy.


Probate notice for Alethea Appleby Moller

Nils’s legitimate wife, Alethea died in 1920.


After the court case, Nils returned to Sweden, where he passed away in May 1903. There was the briefest of notices in the Shanghai/ Hong Kong papers.


Free of the controlling constraints of his father, Eric threw himself back into horseracing with gusto.  He rode for a number of owners, including Sir Paul Chater on various occasions.  He, along with McBain, F.R. Vida, and A.R. Burkill were the "go-to" jockeys Sir Paul relied on. Sir Paul made every effort to bring them down from Shanghai to Hong Kong as much as he could, to ride for him at Happy Valley. I have no doubt he made it financially attractive for them to make that journey. Eric Moller's business was run from McBain Building on the Bund in Shanghai, all the jockeys had full-time business operations and they used horse racing as their "pastime". Squeezing racing in between work!


One of many acts of kindness performed by Eric Moller during his life was in 1918, when his manager of Messrs. Moller & Co., (Hongkong) married in Shanghai to Miss Clarice Leslie of Sydney. After a quiet ceremony at the Cathedral, Eric entertained the wedding party to lunch at his original family home “Fairyland” in Route Ghisi. This house had been purchased by his father-in-law, John Blechynden, around 1907 and put in his wife’s name.[22] to ensure the family had a safe and secure home. It was a well thought through move, because in 1924 Eric found himself being declared bankrupt, his creditors accepted the deal presented to them of 5/- in the Pound. They were all swallowing substantial losses, and it couldn’t have been an easy time for Eric and his family.


In December 1926 Eric sold the Moller family home, “Fairyland” at Route Ghisi to the Sino-Japanese Society for $2,000,000. It is today known as Yueyan Road and I believe is now the home of the present Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and Chinese Academy of Sciences.  


18th December 1926 notice Moller’s “Fairyland” is sold.


This period coincided with Eric riding successfully for Sir Paul Chater, both in Shanghai and in Hong Kong. It is almost like he turned to what he knew to be constant and reliable to regain some stability in his life.


The main building was erected in 1931 with compensation from the Boxer Rebellion.[23] The taller building is definitely of 1930s architecture,


Image: Via Shanghai Now. shows the two clear styles of architecture.

You can see the difference in architecture quite well from this image,
courtesy of ShanghaiArchitectureWandering


But the smaller single storey entrance is more in keeping with the style of architecture from around the turn of the century, I would say the gate posts are also original and I speculate that they, along with the single storey entrance way were originally part of the Moller “Fairyland” home.


Image: Wikipedia

Looking at the single storey entrance, and compared to other buildings in Shanghai at the turn of the century, such as the French Consulate, there are striking similarities, but I emphasise it is only to the entrance way, not the taller building behind. I would therefore suggest that it is very likely that part of “Fairyland” was incorporated into the new building, and this may be the only part of the original “Fairyland” existing.  There are a couple of good close up images on Flickr where the two different styles of architecture can be seen.


Further evidence this is the same building Eric sold to the Society can be found in the report which states: “……Mr. Yada and Mr. Ouchi, Japanese, will act as trustees of the Society’s fund, which, derived from the Japanese portion of the Boxer Indemnity Fund……..”  the wall plaque confirms erection of the building.


Image: Via Shanghai Now.


This is the first time that Moller’s first home and the Science building have been proved to be connected to each other.


Buoyant again with money in his pocket, Eric was quick to instigate a rebuild of a home that could accommodate his large family. He started in 1927 and it was completed in 1936, today, what is known as “Moller Villa” in Shanghai is the result of that vision.


Image courtesy of

Although Eric’s business life was in a difficult place, having recently been made bankrupt, he nevertheless took up Chater’s very tempting offer to ride Saucy Dahlia in May 1925 in the Shanghai Races, winning the Derby there.  In 1926 Sir Paul Chater won the Hong Kong Derby with ‘Glorious Dahlia’ ridden by Teddie McBain.


This unique, rare and never before seen image shows Eric helping to lead in that winner with Sir Paul and Lady Chater (out of shot).


Image: Liz Chater’s private archive

Eric and his family were always part of Shanghai life. Some articles and books state he arrived there in 1919 with nothing to his name. This is not true; he had arrived in Shanghai as a baby, spent his early years there, was educated there, took his first tentative steps into business there. He made a business trip to England in 1919 and he returned to Shanghai in 1920 after a 6-month visit, He had gone to review his business interests there. Finding they were in a sorry state, he came back to Shanghai, where he had always lived and worked and brought his family up.


There’s an awful lot more about this man, and the Moller family available to read, if you are interested, I do recommend you research more online.  My particular story on this blog is simply a small snapshot of how his life touched that of Sir Catchick Paul Chater through their shared passion for horseracing, and is in no way a full and complete record. I have deliberately not included his business life, I wanted to highlight the sporting connection to Sir Paul Chater, rather than Moller’s business dealings.


A recently published book that includes a number of references to Eric in Shanghai is worth a look:  “Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai” by James Carter. A number of pages are available for review on google.


Eric, was a very well liked and respected businessman throughout his life, but it was tragically cut short when the aeroplane he was travelling in, crashed at Singapore Airport in 1954, his daughter Nancy, witnessed the disaster from the terminal.  Further distress was caused when it was discovered that Eric’s body had been mistaken for a Hindu banker, who also died in the plane crash.  The banker, who had mistakenly been identified as Eric Moller, had been buried as a Christian in the mass grave prepared for the victims of the crash, whilst Eric’s body had been taken to the Hindu crematorium in Singapore, his ashes, mistaken as the Hindu banker, were then flown to India to be sprinkled in the Ganges. The error came to light when a dental plate was found at the Hindu crematorium, it was identified as Eric’s. His daughter Nancy asked the Courts for the body to be exhumed from the mass grave in Singapore for re-identification. Only then did the painful truth come to light.


His wife carried his legacy, his children carried his genes and those of his father Nils and mother Hannah.


Image: Liz Chater’s private archive

And what of Nils Moller’s final bride, Harriet Fuller, who found herself in the embarrassing position of marrying a bigamist?   Although there is no official record available at the moment suggesting she found Nils out, by 1893 Harriet had reverted to her maiden name of Fuller when witnessing the marriage of friends Ebenezer Murray and Emma Ann Fairy in Chefoo. Another witness was Harriet’s sister Edith E. Fuller, so the very longest the “marriage” survived was two years.


In fact, Harriet is recorded as marrying again, using her full maiden name, in September 1897. Taking vows for the second time in her life, she betrothed to Harry Houston, an American from San Francisco, who, as it turned out, was a deserter from the US Navy, although I doubt Harriet knew that at the time. 

Harry Houston


The marriage was at the American Consul General’s office in Shanghai, he was 21, she was around 37 but this too, was to quickly turn sour for her.  In November 1898, a year after they married Harry took £1000 from Harriet saying he would go to the USA to set up some business agencies, but he failed to return to Shanghai as promised. In February 1899 Harriet happened to see in the  San Francisco Chronicle an application by Harry to have the marriage annulled on the grounds he had been “under age” and personally threatened with violence if he didn’t marry Harriet.  Her response was swift and forthright, and denied she had coerced him in anyway, and implied that in fact he had married her for her money and done a runner.  Her fight to clear her name and regain her reputation continued, and in June 1899 she also discovered that Harry had remarried to Isabelle Jellison on 29th January 1899; he had done to her exactly what Nils had done, committed bigamy.  Isabelle Jellison’s parents were non too pleased, to say the least, and the whole sorry saga must have been a very bitter blow for poor Harriet.


In the early 1920’s Harriet left Shanghai for good and went to live with her sister Edith and her family in Canada. Harriet passed away in British Columbia on 5th January 1936, her funeral took place the next day and she was buried in the Royal Oak Burial Park, Victoria.


I do wonder if Eric Moller and his family offered any sympathy, support and comfort to Harriet during her traumatic time with Nils and later, her misguided marriage to Harry.  Eric was a kind and generous man by nature, and I would like to think he extended a hand of friendship to the beleaguered Harriet.   Eric did seem to take everything life threw at him with an unusual amount of stoicism and grace, and I tend to think he was the kind of gentleman Sir Paul Chater enjoyed the company of enormously. Their shared passion of horseracing would have given them hours of gentlemanly conversation over the years, and I’m sure each learnt a little more from the other.

 © Liz Chater 2021

[1] Swedish Selected Baptisms 1611-1909

[2] Birth certificate

[3] England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975

[4] Sweden Indexed Death Records 1840-1947

[5] Leeds Intelligencer 3rd November 1860


[7] London and China Telegraph 28 November 1864

[8] California, U.S., Death Index, 1940-1997

[9] London and China Express June 1867

[10] 1939 Register

[11] N.C. & S.C. & C. Gazette 19 March 1902

[12] UK, Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths at Sea, 1844-1890

[13] N.C. & S.C. & C. Gazette 19 March 1902 also East Riding Archives & Local Studies Service

[14] U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007

[15] Free Access: Europe, Registration of Foreigners and German Persecutees, 1939-194

[16] My Heritage

[17]1881 Census

[18] England and Wales Probate Calendar

[19] Surrey Burial Records, St. Mary’s Church, Barnes

[20] North China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette March 1902

[21] UK, Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths From British Consulates, 1810-1968


[22] Public examination into his bankruptcy

03 December 2021

Robert Crisp Hurley: Jack of All Trades, Master of One. Or Was He?


Image: Liz Chater's archive

Robert Crisp Hurley was born in Islington in November 1848 to Abraham Hurley and his wife Betsy nee Wilson, On the birth certificate Abraham was noted as a farmer.[1] By 1851[2] Abraham was a wine merchant traveller based in London.

Please note: in this blog, the hyperlink numbers in square brackets [ ] do not work, please scroll to the bottom for the references.

Robert Crisp Hurley's birth certificate

However, young Robert had been deposited to live with his farming grandparents, Abraham and Mary nee Holmes, in Chigwell. Following the death of his father in July 1859,[3] the family attempted to get Robert into  the ‘Commercial Travellers’ Schools for Orphan and Necessitous Children’ in Pinner in Dec 1859.[4] The first attempt was a failure but the second attempt in June 1860 was successful.[5]  This was fortunate for him, as his grandfather died the following year in 1861[6], so there wasn't any father figures in the family. From there Robert appears to have got involved in Millinery, something his mother Betsey was noted for in the 1861 census. In 1871 he was a hat salesman in Essex but likely to have travelled widely, including to the centre of the hat manufacturing enterprise in Lancashire.


By 1874 Robert had become a trusted member of Messrs. Taylor & Co., of Denton, a well-known and successful hat manufacturing company. In January 1874 he was tasked with organizing a workers get-together for staff. Noted as “their official representative” he oversaw the entire celebration, ensuring there was enough food, speeches and dancing to take everyone through to 3 in the morning![7] In November of that year, Robert was given the responsibility of organizing the entire work force party to celebrate the recent wedding of one of the partners, John Taylor.  Presiding over the whole event, he picked the menu of “roast beef of old England and plum pudding” for everyone’s enjoyment.  It seemed his early uncertain start to life was very much behind him; he was clearly a respected member of the business and earmarked to go places.  With £100 in his pocket as a start up fund, young and ambitious Robert took everything he had learnt at Taylor’s and went into partnership with  Joseph Isherwood as hat manufacturers in their own right in Denton, Lancashire. They required premises, and applied for permission to erect a shed in December 1875.[8] In October 1876 the Hurley & Isherwood partnership appeared to be doing well, and was noted as contributing towards the Bulgarian Relief Fund run by the Denton and Haughton Committee. Robert and Joseph’s staff also made separate contributions,[9] an indication business was on the up. They specialised in felt hat manufacturing but I do wonder if they didn’t realise how saturated that marketplace was. In the Denton area alone, there were over 70 separate felt hat manufacturing businesses, with about the same number again of general hat manufacturers.[10] Hats were clearly flooding the area and to be a good manufacturer, you had to be smart and competitive, which, as it turned out, they weren’t. Bankruptcy hit the business in November 1878, and their creditors meeting held at the Queen’s Hotel Denton revealed they were in debt to the tune of £3,666 (approximately £360,000 in today’s value), but with assets of only £2,522 (about £250,000 today).  I wonder if he did a “runner”, because towards the end of that year, Robert must have started looking at options to sail to Hong Kong to start again.

Heading out to the Far East was the Gleniffer, it departed Gravesend Docks on the 18th January 1879[11] and Robert picked it up in Liverpool on the 19th.[12]  The Gleniffer is recorded in Malta on the 30th January[13]  and it reached the Suez Canal on the 5th February[14]. She then continued to proceed to Singapore, where it arrived on 3rd  March.[15]  Robert landed in Hong Kong on the 14th March ready for a new life with a clean slate. Meanwhile Joseph Isherwood continued alone in the hat making business, only to fall into receivership in the 1880s.

My point to this article is not to rehash an already well researched career in Hong Kong, (read Jonathan Wattis’s piece in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 55 2015)  but to fill in some of the gaps that were unknown at the time.  Robert wasn’t the most successful man in the various things he turned his hand to. Jonathan Wattis sums up Robert’s very mediocre first 20 years in Hong Kong: “they do not paint a picture of someone who had made a success of things, or of someone with a clear sense of where his talents lay….”


I do not believe Robert Crisp Hurley took all the photographs in the published books that are attributed to him. In fact, I think he went as far as deliberately misleading people to this effect.  It doesn’t make sense that a some-time accountant; a some-time laundry manager; a some-time hotel manager; a some-time grill room manager, would suddenly have all the necessary skills and experience as well as the very expensive equipment to be able to produce such images.  I have recently read an interesting conversation thread on, where contributor StephenD states: “…..there is no hard evidence that Hurley was actually a photographer and at least some of the images in the 1902-1908 album (it seems to have had a number of issues) were by identifiable other photographers. Finding evidence that Hurley actually took photographs, rather than published books with photographs from unknown sources (for example a book of images of recently occupied Qingdao in 1899, which Hurley almost certainly did not take himself) would be a huge plus……..”

I absolutely agree with StephenD. I think Robert Hurley probably watched and learnt a lot about photography because he was in the right place at the right time, and married to the right woman.  Yes, I can reveal Robert Hurley had a wife, something that has, until now, been overlooked. Robert married Matilda Eliza Griffith in 1881 in Hong Kong.[16] She was the sister to D.K. Griffith[17] the well known Hong Kong photographer; you can probably see where this is going!  When David Knox Griffith died in 1897 his sister Matilda and Robert Hurley were the only family he had in Hong Kong. I speculate that Robert took over David’s entire stock-in-trade, library, as well as his equipment, and it was just in time for Hurley to print the Jubilee celebration booklet using the late David Griffith’s images under his own name.  Like everyone else, he was under pressure to make a living and provide for his family in any way he could; after all, he had three daughters, all of whom he and Matilda had adopted; Margaret, Mary[18], and Evelyn[19].  It is unclear if the three girls were genetic sisters or separate children brought together to form Robert and Matilda’s family, nevertheless, Robert had responsibilities and after the death of his brother-in-law, found a good way of making money and staying in the public eye.

 Margaret Hurley married William Palmer Baker in 1903, they went on to have three children: Charlotte born in 1908; Wilhelmina born in 1912 and Margaret Ryrie born in 1914.  William’s wife Margaret died sometime around 1920 and he then went on to marry Margaret’s sister Evelyn Hurley in January 1921.[20] William Palmer Baker died in 1936[21] in Shanghai and Evelyn died in 1957[22] in Australia. The other adopted daughter of Robert and Matilda Hurley was Mary and she had married in 1920[23] to Joseph Anthonio Young, an accountant with Hong Kong firm, Percy Smith & Seth Fleming.  David Griffith’s sister, Matilda Eliza Hurley died in Hong Kong in April 1922 aged 94; she was 17 years older than Robert, which is likely to account for why they didn’t have any natural children of their own. Robert had died in Hong Kong in November 1927.[24] The chief mourners were his daughter Mary and her husband Joseph Young. It was stated in his obituary he had two sisters, but in fact there were at least 7 siblings; 4 brothers, 3 sisters. Two had predeceased him, the others were still living at the time of his death. None of the siblings had any known connection to Hong Kong or Robert.


What of David Knox Griffith and his sister Matilda?  Matilda and two of her older sisters, Helen and Maria were all born in County Cavan, Ireland, between 1828 and 1831. It would seem their parents, William Griffith and Margaret nee Knox had then relocated to Dublin where brothers Thomas Robert Griffith was born in 1838 and then David Knox Griffith was born in 1840. Birth records note William as a merchant/shopkeeper or commercial traveller. Perhaps there was more to him than just a shopkeeper because the marriage notice for Matilda to Robert Hurley states that her father (William) was “of Dublin, and St. Thomas, West Indies” and that Matilda was also “the granddaughter of Thomas Knox of Stone Hall Co. Mayo, and late Coroner for the county.” What a gift this notice was to me, so much information in such a small space!  In 1859 aged just 19, David Knox Griffith was living in St. Lawrence in Norfolk.[25] By 1861 he was lodging at 67 Albany Street, St. Pancras, London, his occupation was artist. Between 1868 and 1870 he remained in Norfolk as an artist and photographer[26] and by 1874[27] he had transited to Shanghai working for W. Saunders as a photographic assistant.


The 1881 and 1882 Hong Kong Jury Lists show Griffith with A. Fong, Queens Road, while R.C. Hurley is noted as an Assistant with Sayle & Co.

In 1883 Griffith was commissioned by Capt. Kettlewell to sail on board his yacht Marchesa with a view to take photographs of the  next phase of a planned expedition.

This yacht was to be home for the next year, and a two volume account of this trip was written by F.H.H. Guillemard, confirming Griffith as the photographer. 


Straits Times Weekly January 1884

Some images from this trip were put for sale in Singapore at the Armenian company of Moses & Co.  An advertisement in the Straits Times dated 19th January 1884, states Griffith took several interesting photographs of “New Guinea, the Moluccas, and elsewhere”.

You can read the account of the trip to acquire flora and fauna samples here:

‘The Cruise of the Marchesa to Kamschatka & New Guinea with notices of Formosa, Liu-Kiu, and various islands of the Malay Archipelago’ By F.H.H. Guillemard. With maps and numerous woodcuts drawn by J. Keaulemans, C. Whymper and others and engraved by Edward Whymper. 

Vol. 1



In 1884 ,1885 & 1887 Mrs. R.C. Hurley is noted in Ice House Street, whilst R.C. Hurley is the manager of the Hongkong Steam Laundry in 1887.  Meanwhile, in 1887 Griffith was advertising his work in Hong Kong as “the newest and best published photographs with the greatest degree of permanency”.[28]

In 1896 R.C. Hurley is the manager of Thomas’s Grill Room,

I believe that David being a talented and experienced artist and photographer, just happened to be  a convenient new direction and subject for Robert to exploit for his own agenda.

Image: Liz Chater's archive. A typical image
David Griffith would have taken

Seeing an opportunity, he tapped into the extensive stock and supply of maps and images that David had created, Robert took the opportunity to use whatever he could, and does not appear to have made any effort to credit David Griffith at any point. More recently some of David’s work came up for sale that can clearly be attributed to Griffith’s, in 2020 there were four albums sold at auction held at the Yingyi Auction House  in Beijing, Li Yi general manager said: “these are valuable records for studying Chinese history. We can also see clear clues of the photographer's career development through these four books of pictures……”.  


In Hong Kong, David’s passing in 1897 seems to have been low key; there is only a wall plaque in the Ossuary, there is no conventional plot. Matilda also has a wall plaque in the Ossuary as well, this struck me as quite odd considering their Irish background.



 Images: findagrave. Memorials in Hong Kong of David Knox Griffith and his sister Matilda Hurley


Simple family tree of Robert Crisp Hurley

[1] England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 Vol 3, P.295 District: Islington. Certificate obtained

[2] 1851 Census

[3] National Burial Index, Buckhurst Hill Records

[4] The Morning Herald 30th December 1859

[5] The Morning Herald 29th June 1860

[6] National Burial Index, Buckhurst Hill Records

[7] The Denton, Haughton and District Weekly News 9th January 1874

[8] Hyde & Glossop Weekly News 8th January 1876

[9] Hyde & Glossop Weekly News 14th October 1876

[10] The Commercial Directory of Liverpool and Shipping Guide 1877

[11] Shipping Intelligence 22nd January 1879

[12] Shipping and Mercantile Gazette 23rd January 1879

[13] Liverpool Journal of Commerce 1st February 1879

[14] Shipping and Mercantile Gazette 6th February 1879

[15] Shipping and Merchant Gazette 4th March 1879

[16] Overland China Express 31st October 1881

[17] Family records obtained via Irish Genealogy dataset

[18] Their marriage announcements in 1903 and 1920 both state they were adopted daughters of R.C. Hurley

[19] A Canadian passenger list of 1st July 1914 states she was en route to visit her sister in Shanghai.

[20] Overland China Mail 20th January 1921

[21] England and Wales Probate Calendar 15th June 1937

[22] England and Wales Probate Calendar 1st July 1959

[23] South China Morning Post

[24] Hong Kong Daily Press 16th November 1927

[25] UK Poll Books and Electoral Register

[26] UK City and County Directories

[27] China Directory 1874

[28] Hong Kong Daily Press 6th June 1887