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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