Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

Table of Contents:

  1. Autobiography of James Tilbury
  2. Page 2
  3. Incidents
  4. Coincidences
  5. Additional Information


1889.  As soon as I was eight years of age I was accepted as a chorister in the choir of St. Mary's P. E. Church, Southampton, England. My Mother, who had a very good, well trained voice, had done much in the past year to make me eligible from a vocal standpoint but, apparently, there was yet much to be done with me in regard to choir behaviour for, on one of my first Sundays, a shocking thing occurred. The great Canon Durst was preaching to a very large congregation. In the choir stalls two small boys were continually whispering and giggling.  Presently one of the assistant curates, quietly and solemnly, stepped out from his seat and came over to tell both of us to leave the Chancel. I don’t know about the other boy, but I do know that I felt terribly conspicuous and lonely as I quietly crept out - the cynosure of a thousand eyes.   What, I thought, is going to happen to me when Father and Mother hear the awful news. After waiting around long enough so that none of the family would ask why I was back so early, I went into the house to face the music, sooner or later.

I was tremendously relieved when the afternoon passed safely, and day after day also passed and still no one said anything although, at the time, I thought it would soon be known all over the town.  A few days after the next Sunday I was in one of the Parks with several other boys, sliding on the ice ("Follow the Leader") when at the middle of the slide I noticed an attractive piece of paper a few feet away. Twice I continued sliding but, finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I stepped out of line and picked it up.  When a child is but eight years of age and one of 17 children, he is not likely to be familiar with the appearance of bank notes. I had no idea that this piece of paper was worth five pounds (the equivalent of more than $50 today, in purchasing value). It looked interesting and I straightaway went home to show it to Father. He said it was a five pound note and called me a very good boy for bringing it home at once. I immediately forgot all about it. However, the subject came very much alive a few days later. I had just come home from choir prac­tice when Father called upstairs to Mother "Do you want to take Jimmy up to the Police station or shall I”?  Right away I thought I was going to be punished for what had happened in church. Father liked his little joke and wouldn't tell me why I was going to the Police station. He didn't, of course, know what was in my mind and worrying me. Not until we arrived at the entrance to the Station did he point to a board on which were several notices, one of which read "LOST, a five-pound note in the Marlands Park etc..." Most important to me was the heading "ONE POUND REWARD".  As a consequence, I returned home from that journey feeling much less like a criminal than when I started, and better off by what was then, to me, the enormous sum of five shillings!

1886.  One day my sister was sitting on a seat just inside the loveliest of the Parks. The "current' baby was in the pram and I, 5 years old, and wearing a red Turkish fez, was playing alongside. The Park railings separated us from the busy High Street nearby. Presently, down a side road, came a herd of cows.  One of them left the rest and trotted over to the Pa:k entrance where we were.  My sister always contended that it was my red fez that had attracted it. As this, to me, enormous wild animal, charged through the gate only 25 feet or so from our seat, my sister rushed shrieking away with the baby in the pram leaving me entirely to my own resources.  Never having learned the technique of a Spanish bull fighter, my first thought was one of self-preservation.  A seat inside of that pram would have been ideal but that had now "gone with the wind". The alternative was to run like……… Close by the Park seat was a large, long oval of bushes and trees. I made for that and was half way around it when I sensed that that fool cow was almost on top of me. Desperately I turned and dashed in amongst the bushes. Fortunately the cow was now going too fast to also turn and, as the driver had rushed to the rescue, it ran, so to speak, right into his outstretched arms and stick. He soon had it out through the gate again and joining the rest of the herd. Meantime I was the hero of the numerous onlookers (behind the railings).

I think it was about the year 1890 when Father took some of us to see Buffalo Bill (Wm Cody) and his Cowboys and real Indians perform in the Victoria Hall arena.  Cody had recently come from the USA with this wonderful collection. We boys thought it marvellous when Buffalo Bill gave an exhibition of his skill with a rifle, shoot­ing small balls out of the air etc, etc, and the Cowboys picked up handkerchiefs from the ground when going at full gallop but when, in the final act, the stage coach dashed in, chased by shrieking Indians, with Cowboys attacking them, we simply went mad with excitement.  I don’t think I slept much that night.

Our house was on the centuries-old City wall.  Forty feet below was the Southampton water (now mostly filled in at that point for the Docks extension, ruining the view.) Formerly we had a glorious view across the water when we lived there.  Artists frequently came there to paint it. Centuries before, during the wars with the French, the English armies embarked on the water below, Knights, Bowmen, horses etc. for the battles of Crecy, Agincourt etc. It must have been a stirring sight for onlookers.

A short distance from our house was a flight of 40 wide stone steps by which one descended to the shore road.  In olden days the water came right up to the wall itself A nearby road lad up from the shore to the centre of the High Street.  Half way up there was the Fire Station and it was a most thrilling moment when a call was received.  The great Fire Bell clanged and, quickly, two huge, powerful horses were led out and put in the shafts.  Fireman rushed to jump on and in a very short time they were off.  The firemen were lined up on each side of the engine, holding on to a rail with one hand and with the other hand cupping their mouths they would lean outwards and yell " FIRE" continuously, at the top of their voices, while the horses went off at a furious gallop, much to the excitement of the crowd.

1889.  (Eight years old)  In the High Street one day there was great excitement.  A horse, with carriage attached, was running away.  In those days most men, young and old carried a walking stick.  Seeing it coming in the distance, ten or a dozen men ran out from the pavements, formed a line across the road, and all held sticks and arms up, which was the usual practice. The horse was galloping furiously and it was therefore not surprising how quickly all of the men scattered when it became clear that the horse did not intend to pay the slightest attention to them. It galloped all the way down to and over the Quay into the water where it was drowned.
This year I appeared on the stage in public for the first time. It was at a Parish Church concert and I sang a duet with Mother.

1892.  One school holiday I was roaming the Downs near the local regiment’s shooting range when I picked up a rifle cartridge which later appeared to be a live one.  During the afternoon service in the Cathedral, I pulled it out of my cassock pocket and showed it to the boy next to me.  He suggested we try to explode it after service, so, when everything was quiet in the Close and no one in sight, we took turns throwing it at the large cobblestones with which the gutters were lined. After several throws it suddenly went off with a terrific noise and if we had both been blown to atoms we couldn’t have disappeared more quickly.  The culprits were never discovered.  To all of us, the town (High Street etc) was "Out of bounds: Once, one of the under-masters got permission to take several of us there to see the Fair which was being held just off the High St.  We had a great time at first but, apparently, the master was not very much on the alert for when I was on one of the "Roundabout" ("Merry-go-round") horses, a soldier, who was riding the inside horse suddenly lurched over because of having had too much to drink, and knocked me right off into the road where I landed flat on my face and was picked up unconscious. That ended the party. I did not regain my senses until I awoke about 24 hours later. Only my lips were badly damaged and I was back in the choir in about a week.

I was in trouble again on another occasion.  One of my chums and I were in a field when he wanted to show me how to throw a stone from a cleft stick. The idea seemed a very dangerous one to me and I did my utmost to dissuade him but was quite unsuccessful so got out of his way as far as possible.  However, even though he had his back to me and I was many feet away, the stone made a beeline for me and struck me full in the face breaking one of my front teeth - a serious matter for a chorister.

1906.   I have always felt deeply indebted to our bookkeeper in the office of Hubert Davies & Spain. He was a good friend of mine and it was due to his thoughtfulness that I got to China. One day in Brighton, on his Vacation, he was waiting in the lobby of a hotel for a friend and casually picked up a copy of the "Daily Telegraph" lying on the seat. In the advertisements he noticed that two young men were wanted by a well known London Company to go to the Far East. Knowing, privately, my eagerness to see more of the World, he at once sent me the details.  I applied immediately. Two days later there was a tap at my office door and there stood an uniformed messenger who asked if I would please accompany him to the offices of John Swire & Sons in Billiter Square.  Excitedly I soon joined him.   On the way he referred to the advertisement which, he said had brought the usual sackful of replies.  That remark rather took the starch out of me but I did not lose all hope.  A few days after the inter­view, to my great surprise and delight, a letter told me I had been accepted subject to a complete and satisfactory physical examination by the famous Dr Manson of Harley St.  I went to him in due course, and he gave the Company an excellent report - the other successful applicant as well.  We were each then given a 3 year contract to sign, which we did, and arranged to be ready to sail as soon as we received notice.  The manager of Hubert Davies & Spain, with which Company my association had been most pleasant, was not very happy when I saw him concerning my resignation but he was nice enough to wish no good luck and even went so far as to ask me if I would try to get someone to fill my place. That same night I took a train to Southampton and, next day, talked to one of my old Union Line colleagues. He enthusiastically accepted my suggestion that he re­turn with me that day for an interview with the London Manager.  We left Southampton by the Saturday afternoon train and, as the staff and manager would all have left, I took him straight to the office. Until late that evening and for the best part of Sunday we spent our time going over the details of my duties so, when the time came on Monday for him to be interviewed, he was ready with all of the answers. He so impressed the Manager that he engaged him right away and, as in my case, at a big increase over his Union Line pay.  When I saw him again three years later, he wan married, had a nice home and automobile and was getting along splendidly. During those three years I did better than expected, from a financial point of view and, although I hadn’t got a wife, I had lived very comfortably and had had everything I wanted within reason, I had yet been able to save half of my entire pay and so could face the cost of getting married with equanimity. That saving might not have been so easy but for the fact that I resolutely refrained from drinking intoxicants, and was a non-smoker. I continued to be an abstainer all of my life and as for smoking I have never even had a cigarette in my mouth, lit or otherwise.

The sight of Gibraltar stirred my historical recollections but the first stop was not made until we reached Yalta in the Mediterranean.  'Then, ashore sight­seeing, I went into the church of St. John in which there was a vault with shelves upon which there were rows of skulls of the English Knights of St. John who, in the middle ages, fought the Turks continuously.  Next, I got a great thrill out of passing through the Suez Canal which had been opened to traffic only 37 years before.  Penang and Singapore in the Malay Peninsula constituted my first introduction to tropical scenery and as I walked or drove around with other passengers taking in all of the marvellous and strange sights in amazingly beautiful surroundings, I felt that now at last I was really living. Then came the really exciting part of the voyage.

Our steamer "Nile" was a ship of 8000 gross tons register.  One of my last trips across the Atlantic was on the Cunard "Queen Elizabeth" one way and their "Queen Mary" the other.  Ships approximately 10 times ao large!  On leaving Singapore for the three day voyage to Hong-Kong, we had very rough weather and after a day or so of that we ran into the full strength of a typical Typhoon. Passengers wore barred from going out on the deck.  Everything was battened down. In spite of the terrifying height of the waves our ship got over them magnificently.  Captain and officers were all Naval Reserve men and extremely well trained.  When the worst was over and we reached and entered the Hong-Kong harbour we saw a chocking sight. Many large and small ships were on the rocks in all directions, and many masts were sticking up out of the water here and there.  It was September, 1906, when terrible damage was done at Hong-Kong by this same typhoon we had encountered, and three thousand lives were lost here. We were told that the man responsible for hoisting the typhoon warn­ing signal had been taken ill and when the signal was finally hoisted it was valueless.  The sky was completely blackened out, the rain was tremendous, and the frightful wind swept everything before it.  Near the Peninsular & Oriental Line wharf on the Kowloon side of the harbour where we were supposed to tie up, there was a mountain of matchwood -- the remains of schooners, junks, sampans and other boats being hurled on to the wharf and piled one on top of the other.

A sampan is a small boat partly covered with a hood of bamboo matting under which an many as 3 generations of a family sometimes live.  Caught as they were those poor native Chinese did not stand a chance of escape.  Neither would we had we already been at our wharf.  There was no wireless in those days.  Our pier no longer existed; only the piles were noticeable just below the surface and on either side was a sunken River Steamer.  Nearby was a French gunboat up on the rocks with a huge hole in its side. There was tragedy everywhere.

The sea was now quiet and we sailed cautiously across the harbour and managed to tie up in a vacant space at our wharf but without being too close to the sunken River steamer. It was afternoon and most of us were ready for a nap.  Rodger and I were asleep when awakened by hearing the relayed order "All hands on deck" and a great clatter.  The typhoon signal indicated that the typhoon was returning.  It was already blowing furiously and we thought the men trying to release the ropes holding the Ship to the wharf would lose their lives.  However, they didn’t.  To add to the difficulty the engine room hadn’t got enough steam up yet and we were in danger of having holes stove into the bottom of the ship if we were blown on to the nearby underwater piles of the other smashed pier.  After a long and worrying interval we began to move and we crept slowly along with the intention of getting out of the harbour as a ship has a much better chance if she has plenty of sea room.  Presently we all but crashed, it seemed to me, into a larger four-master which had somehow or other managed to survive.  I could almost touch her side as we gradually passed by.  A few minutes later the signal “No danger” went up as the typhoon had veered off in another direction.  Next day the bodies were finally collected and piled like cordwood on low trucks and then taken to a place called "Happy Valley"!!  Here they were burned.  

Some months after reaching Shanghai, an armed band of about 10 Chinese was being sought by the Settlement police for numerous murders and burglaries recently committed.  One day we learned that. the night before, a white British policeman on Inspection duty had been killed when on a road just outside the Settlement.  The band had been robbing the home of a wealthy Chinaman and had probably been warned by a "look-out" of the approach of the policeman. They all rushed out, lined up across the road and fired a volley from the guns they had.  This occurred during the summer, when it was so hot at night we kept our windows wide open.  I was still living at the Boarding house that I first went to.  About a week after the murder, when it was still fresh in our minds, I was awakened in the Middle of the night by a loud yell.  My chum in the adjoining room called out and asked me if I had heard it.  I answered “yes” and suggested we make a search of the premises.  As a precaution I took my pistol along.  We went downstairs first where we found nothing open or dis­turbed.  Many other guests had been awakened by the yell as, when we ascended to the upper floors, lights were showing under most of the doors, which would seem to indicate that most of the others had heard the unusual noise.  We continued our search until we came to the top floor where there was only one small room which was occupied by a Butterfield and Swire colleague.  We knocked and walked in.  There was the young man sitting on a chair nursing a badly bruised toe.  He explained that he had got out of bed, half asleep, and had crashed his bare foot into the castor on the leg of his bureau and it had caused him to let out the yell which had scared the whole house.


1907.  Rodger and I had lived in the Boarding House just over a year when a lady, whose husband had recently died, was advised not to continue living alone in her large house on the outside of the Settlement. She spoke to the head of our Company about it and he asked Rodger and I if we would care to go out there as paying guests. She had very nice grounds, a large tennis court, an ample staff of servants and the house was well furnished and equipped.  It was about 2 miles from the office and 4 miles from the City boundary.  We jumped at the offer and began living there at once.  One night I was on duty at the office until about eleven in the evening, signing bills of lading etc. for our River steamer sailing at midnight.  It was raining when I left and the rickshaw coolie put up the hood and buttoned over the water proof cover completely boxing me in. After we had passed the City boundary but were still some distance from the old lady's house, the coolie, for some unexplainable reason, suddonly swerved from the road as we were going past a lot of disreputable Chinese houses and shops and started pulling the rick­shaw up a very dark side lane.  It was still raining slightly.  I felt sure it was just a mistake but I was not going to take any chances at that time of night, so I quickly pulled aside the rainproof sheet and threw my weight upon the shafts at the same time calling upon the coolie to stop.  He did, with a lot of jabber which I couldn’t possibly understand.  As he was turn­ing the rickshaw around, two Chinese came running from a shack about 50 feet further up the lane and went in the opposite direction.  At that I got right out of the rickshaw and walked by the side of my coolie, with hand on gun, until he got back to the road and, in fact, until I reached the house, since the approach was by a very long carriage drive lined by bushes and shrubbery and easy for such men to hide in if they got there first.  We stayed on the estate for 6 months or so and enjoyed our spare time there immensely.

After dinner each night, the Chinese servants all retired to a building some distance from the house set apart for them, and the old lady invariably went to her bedroom on the second floor.  Rodger and I usually went for a walk.  One night we were late in getting out as Rodger wanted to write a letter.  When he had finished and had gone outside and I was just about to close the door, I heard a terrifying scream.  Rodger heard it too.  We dashed back and up the stairs and, as we reached the top, wie saw the old lady in her nightdress rushing from her bedroom, which was in flames, shrieking hyster­ically.  Rodger grabbed her and took her into another room doing his utmost to calm her, while I was doing all I could to smother the flames.  I had the fire completely out in a short while but it was hours before our hostess had calmed down.  She had had an awful fright.  How she got out without at least having her nightdress burned off her I don’t know, but she did.  As customary in those days and places, the room was lit by gas and apparently the protect­ing glass shade which had been broken a few days before had not been renewed.  A sudden breeze coming through the window as she was lying reading in bed had, I supposed, blown the bed's mosquito curtain up against the naked flame.  It looked very serious when I got there.  During the whole time, not a single one of the Chinese servants put in an appearance, so one can easily guess what would have happened if we had started for our walk a few minutes sooner.  Next morning, we learned that the place was fully insured by our own Company and although we had undoubtedly saved the house from being burnt to the ground we heard nothing at all about it from the Management.  Eventually we learned that, because of an unintentional oversight by a secretary, the offi­cials concerned had never learned of our action.

Early in the morning of the first day after leaving Shanghai on our houseboat trip to Mohkansan, we came to a thickly congested part of the river where perhaps a half-million Chinese were living.  This was the towing launch terminal and from that point we were on our own, and our Chinese crew would operate our houseboat.  Before leaving we saw a temple on a hill a short distance away which we both thought would provide much that would be worth photographing.  We went ashore with our cameras and started up the narrow, crowded street.  As usual, a crowd of natives followed us.  Some of them kept shouting some­thing so frequently that I asked my companion, who knew a little Chinese, what it meant.  He replied, "Oh, don’t pay any attention, just keep smiling".  "What they are shouting is "Kill the Foreigner", "Kill the Foreigner". It was just over 6 years since the murderous "Boxer" rising, and the bad feeling was still intense.  We got so many black looks from the priests in the Temple courtyard that we did not dare to use our magnesium light to take photos, which was a pity as there was a small walled-in enclosure, dark, and with an iron-barred window opening on to the courtyard in which the Chinese idea of Hell, I suppose, was depicted.  As far as I could see through the gloom, it contained a fiery lake with drowning Chinese with arms extended, appealing for help, and devils on all sides stabbing at them with spears.  Too bad we couldn’t  photograph that at least but my companion emphatically disagreed and, furthermore, insisted on going back at once to our boat as he did not like the look of the crowd out­side. We got back safely and soon got under way, much to the relief of our crew.

1908.  During the few weeks I spent on a law case for the Company, in Hankow, and where, incidentally, there was only one hotel, and that one kept by an ex-convict, so I was told, a rather exciting event took place.  It was wintertime and the Chinese New Year.  A group of armed Chinese soldiers who had been celebrating, had gone into the Chinese Theatre, which was in the British part of the International Settlement, and had refused to pay.  During the argument they wrecked the scenery and much of the furnishings.  Two Indians Sikh policemen of the British police force (men who have absolutely no fear) dashed in when summoned, and each grabbed two apparent ringleaders and rushed them down the street and into the British police station on the Bund (waterfront) followed by a threatening crowd.  Many in the mob tried to rush the station, but thought better of it when they were met by the Chief of Police, and his Irish assistant, each with two revolvers and, except for broken windows and many split bamboos, nothing too serious happened just then.  The soldiers, but not the bulk of the yelling mob, withdrew into the Chinese walled City of over a million inhabitants, saying they would collect their friends and rescue the prisoners and burn down the police station, that night.  We English men were having lunch at the Club-a walk of about five minutes-when we were told what was going on.  We were also told that our help might be needed later.  One or two of us sauntered down the Bund to get more information, and found the Chief and his Irish assistant, somewhat agitated (not frightened, for they were most courageous men) and I noticed on the office desk revolvers and plenty of ammunition.  As we came out, we noticed the mob around the building seemed restless and, looking for the reason, we saw in the distance, a British naval officer and about 20 marines with fixed bayonets coming down the Bund at the double.  They had just landed from a British gunboat.  It certainly was a thrilling sight.  In a very short time they arrived at the Station house, halted, posted sentries around the building and the officer and the rest of the men went inside.  In a few minutes, guns were stacked and the men were sitting comfortably at tables playing cards.  What else might have happened when the soldiers and the dregs of the city returned, is hard to say, but suffice it to say that they didn't return because it came on to snow quite heavenly and the police chief told me.  “They won't fight in weather like this”.  That evening, the British Consul in Hankow reported what had happened to the Viceroy on the other side of the Yangtsze Kiang River, to whom the prisoners were sent under escort.  By noon next day, their heads had been chopped off.  The mob didn't wait to say goodbye.

1909.  When I went up to Liverpool to meet the steamer upon which my fiancee was arriving from Canada, I reached the dock after all of the passengers had disembarked and gone.  In my hansom cab I immediately drove to the leading hotel and, luckily, I saw her name on the register.  It was then about 7 p.m. and on my way up the stairs to her room, I met her coming down with a handsome young man who had been a passenger on the same ship, and who had invited her to go with him to the theatre.  I am afraid I rather upset that arrangement.

We were married in Southampton on the second of October 1909.  Because of unforeseen circumstances, we had to cut our honeymoon in the Isle of Wight very short, but determined to take another as soon as the opportunity occurred.  That was not until we had moved to London in 1910.  We decided to take a week at the seaside resort of Bognor, as our second honeymoon.  My wife, who makes friends easily with everyone, is very bighearted and the most unselfish person I have ever known, so it was not surprising what happened on the way.  We were cycling and stopped overnight en route at the home of a couple of close friends we had known in Shanghai and who had recently returned to England.  There were several other guests at dinner, my wife was at one end of the table with our hostess and I at the other end next to her husband.  During the meal  Mrs C. told my wife that she and her husband had been invited to a very special weekend party in London, at the home of her Mother, Lady ……. and, although they would love to go, they would be obliged to decline because they could not take with them their 10 year old daughter.  With no hesitation my wife said "Oh, let her come along with us, I'm sure Jimmy wouldn't mind".  What extraordinary mistakes some women do make in reading character.)  Unfortunately, the child was quite a good cyclist so there was no difficulty there.  Of course, Mrs. C. gladly accepted the offer even though she knew I had not been consulted.  I could do nothing but grin and bear it.  We continued our journey next day and when we arrived at the Bognor Hotel where I had made advance reservation I told the desk clerk we would need another room, adjoining if possible. He reminded me that it was the height of the season and said they had no place whatever where they could put her.  I went to several other hotels to try to get a double and single but it was hopeless.  The town was full up, in fact I was lucky to be able to get a single room for myself which meant that for the whole week of our second honeymoon my wife shared what was to have been our room, with Mrs C’s child and it was ten minutes walk from the hotel I was in!!

1894-5.  The choristers' School House in the Cathedral Close at Winchester was said to be 800 years old. I had read many stories of escapes in medieval times from such old houses by means of secret passages or stairways when soldiers arrived to arrest someone and I determined to take the first opportunity to do some exploring. On a day when one of the under-masters was going to take us for one of the frequent walks over the Downs, when school was closed for the Summer holidays, I made an excuse to remain behind.  As soon as all was quiet I stole up to the top of the house which, in present day parlance is called the attic, and started looking around.  In one of the several rooms I found that what looked like one of the regular wooden wall panels could be opened.  It was the lowest one and I had to get on my knees to enter. Inside was a closet about 5 feet by 5 feet and in the far corner there was an opening about 2 ft by 2 ft and very dark inside.  I had forgotten to bring some matches but with the outside panel open I had sufficient light to go inside and grope around.  I soon felt, rather than saw, what seemed to be a stairway which, of course, led downwards.  This was just the sort of thing my, romantic mind had hoped for.  Very carefully, quietly and excitedly I crawled backwards down the stairs until, after what seemed like hours, reached safe landing at the bottom.  I was in the coal cellar in the basement!  Luckily I found the door open whence I was able to reach the playground.  Inside the coal hole there was a small window with thick iron bars set in the stonework so I con­cluded its original purpose was not for storing coal. As I had had quite a bit of trouble getting from the stair-bottom into the coal hole, and had pushed over and disturbed several things, I began at once to get busy tidying up so that the opening was closed and coal etc. pushed back as much like it probably looked before. Then I spent the next half hour tidying and cleaning myself.  I had one particular chum I could tell anything to without it going further.  When he got back from the walk he and I went into secret conference.  We decided that there must be a secret passage from the coal hole to the outside. However, although we searched around on various later occasions, we never found a single clue.  For some time we had become inquisitive concerning the "well" in the Headmaster's garden.  It was never used.  No one had ever seen it opened. It was covered at all times with a very thick large, stone slab much too heavy to be lifted by hand.  We determined to look into it.  It was not easy to again get an excuse for avoiding one of the walks, especially for two of us, and we waited a long time before we were successful.  Then, when no one was about, we took the long iron bar we had found and hidden for "the day" and together by a great effort we shifted the stone until enough "well" space was exposed to admit a small boy. This time I had made sure to bring matches and some paper, and that helped us to make quite sure there was no water to bother us. Also it was only about 6 ft deep. I dropped in on firm ground and began to look about me while my chum kept watch above. There was no opening leading back to the School House, but there was one on the opposite side, with just about as much room as there was at the stairway entrance.  Cautiously, though with some fear of rats in my mind, I moved into it by crouch­ing very low, and I was able to go possibly 15 ft before the tunnel got smaller.  I crawled on far enough, however, to satisfy myself that the passage was com­pletely blocked up and then turned back.  It was almost as difficult getting out of the well as it was to replace the well cover and make everything appear undisturbed, but we did it. We agreed not, on any account, to tell anyone.

One year after the above incidents I was eligible for the Senior boys' bible class held in the private home, in the Close, of the widow of one of the Canons of the Cathedral. About six of us attended every Sunday evening and it was a very cosy, pleasant affair.  We had about half an hour's instruction followed by the reading of a chapter or two from an interesting historical book.  The lady was a very well read person and certainly knew how to choose a book for boys.  It was always one full of adventure, exciting experiences etc.  She had a very big library of books and I was once given permission to see what was there.  I had no particular object in view—and was looking at the title of book after book when I noticed several dealt with the history of the Cathedral.  Knowing what a bookworm she was I asked if she had any book which contained any ex­citing stories relating to the houses in the Close.  I don’t exactly remember what her answer was but I know that it encouraged me to suggest there might have been certain buttons in the olden days which, if pushed, would open a secret door in the wainscoting of a room.  She answered that that was not at all a rare thing in those troublesome days.  As by that time the other boys had left, I ventured to ask more and finally learned that she had, many years ago, actually heard that there was said to have been an underground escape tunnel from our School House over to the Archdeacon's House about.260 feet away. That was just what I wanted to know and I couldn’t get back to the School quickly enough to find my chum and tell him the wonderful news.

1911.  On the third of January of this year, the police telephoned to the Home Secretary, who was then Mr. Winston Churchill, that an armed gang of desperados had tried to rob a Bank on Sidney St., by tunneling from an adjoining house.  They had accidentally been discovered and were now entrenched in the house which was then surrounded by many policemen at whom the men were firing from the windows.  Mr. Churchill immediately authorised reinforcement by Scots Guardsmen.  Shooting ­then became very brisk from both sides.  I was at my office (John Swire & Sons) in Billiter Square when my colleague at the next desk, who had been out for lunch, came rushing in to tell me of this Sidney Street siege.  He and I immediately slipped out and ran the mile or so to get there.  The street was barricaded off but we managed to squeeze in near the police and immediately noticed, just over the street from us, Mr. Churchill himself apparently giving advice to police and military officials alongside him.  The soldiers were lying flat on the roadway and firing at the house which was now on fire.  Presently the pistol shots ceased and later two charred bodies were found in the ruins.  We heard that others had escaped.  In 1954 I was reading the "Illustrated London News" special Tribute edition to celebrate Mr. Churchill's 80th year.  In it, on page seven, I saw an excellent photograph of the Sidney Street battle scene, which included Mr. Churchill, and I realized that my chum and I must have been standing right alongside the photographer when he took the picture.
In my travels I have seen some some heartrending sights.  When in Hankow I wanted to see the Chinese prison (Yamen) which was in the heart of the Chinese City.  I got an interpreter from the Club, a very intelligent Chinaman, and we went there one afternoon in rickshaws.  At the far corner of a narrow, walled- in lane which we were going through I saw a straw shelter, almost like a large dog kennel and as we approached a native crawled out to beg from us.  He was almost as black an a negro and very dirty.  One arm looked as though it had been eaten away up to the elbow.  It was a horrible sight and whatever I could give him could only ease his feelings momentarily.

In a village on the Nile in Egypt in 1925 I saw children in their mother's arms with flies caked over their eyes as though they were cattle.

When out for a walk one day, in Tientsin, North China, I saw several tiny children, stark naked, playing alongside a stagnant pond which contained heavy, green, slimy water.  Their home was, apparently, a miserable dirty hovel also close to the pond.  I wonder how many, if any, survived.  Another time, I saw a middle aged Chinaman lying dead close to the highway.  There was a constant stream of passers-by but no one during the ten minutes I was in the vicinity paid any attention to him.

To see a criminal standing on two bricks in a bamboo cage with his chin, presumably, supporting his body by being outside and resting on the top of the cage, while his head was exposed to the scorching sun, was an occasional sight which made one pity the man no matter what his crime had been.

In Hankow, when I went with an interpreter to take a look at the Yamon (prison) inside the Chinese City, I told my guide to buy a large bag of cakes and bring them along.  On reaching the Yamen, the armed soldier at the gate of the large courtyard wanted to stop us from going in but, with a little bluff, I managed to get us both past him and, seeing the prisoners cages on the far side, I went on with the cakes while my interpreter was still arguing with the gate man.  As I got closer to the cages - for they were cages, not cells, two more soldiers hurried up and began jabbering at me.  When I indicated that I was about to give my cakes to the prisoners they at once took the bag out of my hand.  Just then my guide came up and explained to me that to come inside at all without a special permit was quite wrong, and the matter of giving cakes to the prisoners was a shocking breach of the law of the Yamen.  After they had agreed to give the prisoners the cakes later on (which we knew they would never do) and after some diplomatic chatter, they finally allowed me to walk along by the stone sewer which separated the cages, of which there were, as far as I can remember, about 5 on each side.  As soon as they saw me the poor wretches put their arms out through the bars begging for something which I was, of course, helpless to give them.  They were all practically bare with hair down to the shoulders - a massive black mat - and obviously half starved.  The guide then told me they had reported my presence to the Governor of the Yamen and I was to go with one of the soldiers to his office at once.  So, in quite a leisurely manner, I went along.  This Governor was quite a sight.  He must have been about 6 feet 6 inches and big in proportion.  He was by no means handsome and a distinct cast in his right eye did not improve his appearance.  I walked boldly up to him, opened my wallet, took out one of my cards on which was my Company’s name as well as mine, gave it to him and offered him my hand as though he was an old friend. ( the Butterfield & Swire name was known and much respected by the Chinese everywhere, this name being TAIK00 or No.1 Company).  I think that took the wind out of his sails but in any case he invited me to sit down and sent at once for tea.  In exchange for my card he gave me a ribbon-like red paper full of Chinese characters which I know nothing what­ever about and, with the aid of my interpreter, we chatted for several minutes.  Of course he didn’t know how or where I personally lived in Shanghai so I was quite safe in asking him, if ever he came to Shanghai, to be my honoured guest. That seemed to please him very much.  Had he known more, I might have myself been honoured with one of the cages I had just seen!!  I never heard any more of him.

1895.  In Winchester Cathedral there was a stairway which led all the way up to the inside of the roof and there there was a two-plank walk above the whole length of the inside roof (or ceiling) of the Nave.  The Nave, by the way is, or was, the longest In the World.  To protect those having to use the walk there was a long railing running the whole distance on each side.  The railing was supported by upright posts about every ten feet, as far as I remember. As the wide open space between the top of the railing and the planks was fully four feet it was rather dangerous.  One day I saw one of the vergers about to go up and I risked a caning by following him to see what there was up those stairs. I was so quiet he did not know I was following.  At the top was the entrance to the pathway and the verger went right ahead, presumably to attend to something at the other end, for there was nothing he could do in the middle.  I quietly followed for a little way just to see  - what there was to see.  I hadn't done very many steps when, In putting out my hand to grasp the rail further along, I missed it, but quickly made a second effort and grabbed it just in time. That scared me terribly because if I had fallen I should have gone right through this inside ceiling, or roof and fallen the tremendous distance to tho stone floor of the Nave.  I was told that exactly that had happened long ago to a lady, though what she was doing up there I cannot imagine.  I got back down the stairs as fast as I could and, with my usual good luck, I was not missed, and had not been seen.

This year I was confirmed in Winchester Cathedral by the Rev. Bishop Randall Davidson who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

How little boys ever grow to be adults I don’t know, if my life and experience is anything to go by.  Southgate St. is a busy street in Winchester.  I had just recently learned to ride a bicycle and was cycling along It when I had to pull out to pass a cart at the kerb.  As I did so, a trap (a light two-wheeled carriage) overtook me and, as it passed, my handlebar caught in its wheel.  I was immediately thrown to the ground and my bicycle badly dam­aged.  As a gentleman picked me up, he remarked that it was entirely the fault of the driver of the trap who was driving much too fast and didn’t even stop to find out what had happened.  He said it was a miracle I wasn’t killed.

When visiting a clergyman friend In Manchester, England, during my school holidays, I went for a long walk with a Manchester Cathedral chorister to whom I had just been introduced.  My Rector friend lived in a house on a steep hill.  The tram lines ran past the house.  On our return, with two miles to go, we decided to take a tram.  As we neared the hill my new friend asked me if I knew  how to jump off a tramcar while it was still going (a common practice in those days of horse-drawn tramcars) Actually I had never done so, but I hated to admit it and so, very foolishly I said I could do it.  He said, ”All right, when I say jump, jump”.  On the step I stood facing the pavement instead of the direction in which the car was travelling, and when he said "jump", I jumped straight out.   When I got up I don’t think anyone knew which was my head and which the bump.  However, I got into the house safely and, as I couldn’t possibly hide the injury, the worried Rector sent for a doctor who patched me up and said there was nothing seriously wrong.

I was eighteen at the time of the Boer War, and a member of  the 2nd Hants Volunteers.  With several young men from the office, but without telling my parents, l signed up at the Drill Hall for service in Africa.  A week or so later we all received a notice to be prepared for early embarkation.  I then realized I would have to tell my Father and Mother all about it and I did so.  I was immediately in trouble.  An older brother, who had gone to South Africa years ago as a missionary, was already in some heavy fighting out there, having joined Bethune’s Horse when the war started.  My Mother insisted that one was enough and, argue as I would, I could get nowhere and stopped talk­ing about it hoping that the opposition would soon die down.  On the day we assembled in the Drill Hall for final orders the Adjutant sent for me and told me that the army was not allowed to take any man under 21 (which I had of course known long ago, and given my age as that) and that he had received a letter from my Father saying he would send in my birth certificate should the matter go any further.  That ended It of course, in spite of further argument.  Perhaps it was just as well, for the train which was taking my Company and others up to the front, went over a precipice, which killed or injured many of them and, of the rest, a large proportion died of enteric fever.

1892.  Eleven years old.  A sister took me with her on a short trip to France, my first steamer trip.  I found it all intensely interesting.  Just after our return another sister took me with her to see some friends in the country.  Seeing an old farmer in the fields there, I hastened up to him to tell him all about the voyage to Franco, and finished up by asking him if he had ever been to sea. He replied  "No, No,  you don’t get me on any of them there ships. There aint no back door to run out of".

1900. 19 yrs old.  As a 2nd Hants Regiment Volunteer I was in camp at Salisbury in May when the news came that Mafeking had been relieved:  At once Salis­bury plain was in an uproar.  Shouting and cheering and singing patriotic songs, we all started marching around aimlessly and giving full vent to our feelings.  It was a great moment.  The officers helped to create the pandemo­nium as willingly as the men.

About June, this year, a race was organised by the office staff.  I was to leave the centre of the town of Southampton at 6 o'clock in the morning, ac­companied by two of the staff on bicycles to watch my performance on a walk to Winchester - 12 miles away.  An hour later, two of the others were to leave on their ponies for the same destination and, at 7.30am the office champion cyclist was to start.  Although I had had no training whatsoever, and no spe­cial outfit, or even shoes for the occasion, he had the hardest task as the road was very hilly much of the way and with plenty oe stones - not at all like we have today.  I finished in exactly 2. hours, but he got there first having passed me about 500 feet from the post.  All of us then went to the hotel where we had a much needed wash and brush up and soon were sitting down to bacon and eggs etc.  When we had nearly ended our meal the ponies clattered into the Courtyard!
A few weeks later a handicap race was arranged and almost half of the staff planned to take part, including one vigorous old Department Head of about 60.  The race was to be to R0msey, 6 miles distant, and back, another 12 miles.  I was the last one to leave, my greatest competitor having only a 20 ft start on me.  Not until we turned at Romsey was I able to catch up to him and then very gradually forge ahead.  Half way to Southampton I suddenly ceased to hear him pounding away behind me. Looking back I saw he had fallen exhausted and one of our traps containing two men to watch fair heel and toe being nearby they picked him up and revived him, I learned, in a Public House close by.  Again I finished in just 2 hours, but the old gentleman who had been given an hour's start got in ahead of me.  It was all great fun.

Not long after the foot race to Romsey and back, a colleague at the next desk to mine said he had never been to Winchester and would like to see the place.  He was about my age, older if anything, and was fond of walking so I invited him to be my guest for the visit.  We left Southampton at 2pm one Saturday afternoon, walked there in about two and a half hours, continued through and around the town, looking over the College and Cathedral and, after a substantial meal at a favourite restaurant, stood up and walked the twelve miles back.  A comfortable armchair certainly looked good to me when I got there.

1905-9.  25 to 28 yrs old.  During the tragic famine in China at this time, the Foreigners arranged for a Concert at the Shanghai Town Hall.  My Tenor friend and I were asked to sing a duet.  A small room adjoining the stage had a long table loaded with all hinds of refreshments, especially liquor.  Unfortunately, when it was our turn to go on the stage to sing "Watchman, what of the night", the pianist had imbibed far too much, as the first line of the introduction made very clear.  I whispered to the nervous tenor to go ahead regardless.  We both did, and succeeded in finishing the duet without any errors on our part, but the same could not by any moans be said of the pianist.  What the audience (which contained Chinese also) thought of the performance I never did know as we both got out of that place within minutes. Unfortunately, those without musical knowledge or training, might just as well have supposed that we were to blame - perhaps more than the pianist.

1905.   In London, this year, I had another trying experience of a similar nature only this time it was not the fault of the pianist.  Because his bass partner was taken ill at the last moment, the "Tenors Robusto" of the choir of St. John's Church where we both sang regularly, asked me to substitute.  I forget the name of the duet but it was a very beautiful one and required to be sung in parts quite softly and with much feeling.  As in Shanghai, refreshments were supplied and the tenor drank more beer than was good for him or for the duet.  Right from the start he bellowed like a bull and almost overwhelmed me.  As I was leaving the Hall later on, one of the audience asked me if my companion was the baritone and I the tenor.  I was annoyed enough to immediately reply that I was the baritone and his was the "beery” tone.

1906.  Soon after I arrived in Shanghai I was invited to a dinner at the British Consulate.  I sat next to a lady who had lived there several years.  When the Chinese waiter asked me what I would have to drink I said ginger ale or any other similar drink.  The lady turned to me and suggested whisky, which I declined saying I Lad always been a total abstainer. Sho replied I wouldnt least long in the 'Far East on that kind of drink. Some weeks later I heard of a young man of about my age who was born and brought up in Shanghai and had never indulged in intoxicants.  Later on, I had the opportunity to meet him, and at once I'd told him what had been said at the Consulate dinner.  He told me he had never touched a drop of liquor in his life, having promised his parents never to do so, and he considered he was one of the healthiest men in the Colony.  That was just what I thought he would say, and I decided to act accordingly.  In order to avoid embarrassment, I did a very unusual thing, namely, refrained from joining the British Club.  Both things subjected me to some banter and criticism, but I stuck to my guns and, except for malarial fever, which nearly everybody had at some time, or other, and which I threw as soon as I got back to England, I was in fine condition during every day of my three years out there, which was far more than 90% of those similarly engaged could say.  I was never in a hospital and, as a matter of fact, have never been in one in my life.  It is perhaps extraordinary, considering how and where I have travelled, that I have not picked up many a deadly germ.

1908.  In August I spent my holiday in Japan, stopping at a Japanese hotel. All meals were taken in the central building and here and there through­out the extensive and beautiful grounds were dotted little houses built of the usual flimsy wood and paper material. It was all very charming except at night when rats had a lively time galloping along the moulding around the room, near the ceiling. After evening dinner on the second day I told the manager I wished to have a bath and he pointed out a large bath house at the foot of a slope a few yards away from my little house, and said he would send a girl down to me with towels, soap etc. When she arrived an hour later I had put on my kimono and she again pointed out the bath house to me. I went down right away and opened the door to go in. A few feet away from me in a kind of tank about 15 ft long, 10 ft wide and I think about 2 ft deep was the comfort­ably warm water almost level with the floor and in it, attended by an old man of, I should think 60 or so, was a Japanese woman in a oomplete state of nudity. I quickly shut the door and stayed outside what I thought was a reason­able time but when I again ventured inside she was only just sauntering in to her curtained oubiole. The old man seemed rather disturbed because I had no use for his services. Later I understood that the Japanese thought nothing of exposing the naked body and that they did not at all consider it immodest, in fact it was customary for whole families to bathe at the same time in the same water.

1910.   In 1910, when my wife and I moved to London a few months after we wore married, and while ve were deciding whore to live, the Honourable Richard Strutt, brother of Lord Rayleigh, invited us to stay at his palatial home on the Thames Embankment for a few days. Supplying and training the choir of St.John's P.E.Churoh, Wilton rd, S.W., was one of his hobbies and, before I had gone to China in 1906, I had sung bass there.  His boys were said to be as good as those of St. Paul's.  He was an excellent musician and always had an extremely good organist.  Because at that time I lived on the North side of London and so had quite a long way to come to the Sunday services he used to take me to his home every Sunday for lunch, after morning service and the company at those meals was always most interesting.  After lunch, when there was company, we usually went into a large hall-like room in which was an organ and a piano.  Alongside the fire, and just over the right of the mantelpiece was a picture on a hinge, of a monk's head and shoulders, copied from a sign over a Contin­ental convent door.  The monk had his mouth covered by two fingers to indicate that once inside the doors no one was allowed to speak.  It came forcibly to my notice when, one day, two ladies were sitting on the lounge, others in chairs here and there.  Mr Strutt was playing beautifully on his organ while they ‑ the two ladies – persisted in talking.  Presently Mr Strutt stopped playing and quietly walked over to the picture and swung it around so that it faced us all.  I believe moot of us thought they deserved the humiliation they had brought upon themselves by their rudeness.

Mr Strutt was a wonderful man and all of us respected and liked him immensely.  On the service papers, always to be found in the church seats on Sundays, was a line which he had had inserted, and which read “The Congregation is invited to join SILENTLY in the singing of the hymns".  We were well paid for our singing in the choir and he wasn’t going to have the music spoiled by un­tutored singing elsewhere. (The capitals for"silently" are mine.)

When staying at Mr Strutt's home I noticed a tiny brass nameplate on the door of our bathroom and on it "MOAB", which my wife and I thought very funny.
The sentence in the bible is "Moab is my washpot, over Edom will I cast out my shoe". I asked Mr Strutt if he had labelled the roof "EDOM", or didn’t he have cats in the neighbourhood.

1912.  When living at the "Earlscourt" Guest House I went around the House and grounds every night to see if everything was right, doors looked eto,etc. I always carried a gun in my pocket "just in case". One night I noticed the basement door was open and, going inside, I found a rather tough looking fellow of about 35 standing inside. I was glad I had my gun when I sharply told him to get out. Whether he suspected the gun or not I don’t know, but he didn’t waste any time in departing.
Not very long afterwards there was a loud knock on our bedroom door and I was asked by our nurse to come at once as there was a burglar in the maids' room.  Again I was glad to have my gun handy and as fast as possible I pulled on my trousers and rushed upstairs.  I got there just as he had gone through the window.  Ho had been frightened off before he had had time to do anything.

1920.   In 1920 I was once again awakened by the word "burglar".  We were living in a very large house in Brookline, Boston.  We slept on the first floor above the ground floor.  My wife and I in one bedroom, the three girls in a large communicating bedroom.  Along the passage, past the head of the wide, old­ fashioned stairway, was the bathroom.  On the wall immediately outside of the rooms, was the gas light which we always kept on all night.  At about two in the morning my wife returning from the bathroom, rushed into the bedroom, immediately locked the door and told me there was a burglar coming up the stairs.  I hopped out of bed at once and once more was mighty glad to be able to slip a gun into my pocket.  After locking the bedroom door behind me and not hearing a sound or seeing anything suspicious I went cautiously downstairs where I soon found that no window or door was open and, after searching the basement furnace room, I came up convinced that if anyone was in the house he must have entered by an upstairs window and be still up there.  I was glad my wife and the girls were protected by the looked bedroom door.  As I was passing the bathroom I heard a distinct rustling noise coming from the far bedroom but there was no one there when I reached it.  I was going towards the closet to searoh that when I heard the same noise again. The window had been left open and the noise was the result of the wind blowing the window shade up and down.  Going back to report to my wife, I saw something which explained everything.  At each turn of the wide stairway there was a handsome oaken post upon which rested a large wooden ball.  As one was about to turn to walk up the last flight of five stairs to reach our floor, the shadow of ones head would show on the wall when the gas was alight.  When no person was there it was the shadow of the round ball on the wall which gave the appearance of someone's head and un­doubtedly that is what my wife had seen.

1923.  age, nearly 43.  At this time, I was choirmaster at Trinity Memorial P. E. Church in Ambler, Pa.  In the summer, the rector told me he intended to visit Moscow, Russia, on his vacation.  And he told me confidentially that he felt sure he could not possibly get back by the first Sunday in September, when he was due.  He said that if he was going to be late. he would telegraph the vestry, and, if I was willing, would say that I would take care of the entire service.  I have to read the prayers and both lessons, but what about the usual sermon.  He said, “If you think you can do that, I wish you would”.  I felt that was a real challenge, and at once agreed to do everything necessary, including the sermon.  I spent hours after the telegram arrived, figuring out what I should say in my sermon.  But finally I had it all written about and delivered it from the Lectern, not the pulpit, which I understood is not permissible what the layman.  Apparently, everything went off well and I was told, although I didn't get it direct, that the gentlemen of the vestry were quite satisfied, and certainly the Retor was when he heard about it upon his return a few days later.

1924. Age 43.  Some time before arriving at Cairo in February King Tutankhamen’s  tomb had been discovered.  I was out with the others at the Tombs of the Kings, who which was a 7 mile donkey ride from the opposite side of the river from the hotel at which we stayed.  We went alongside Tut’s Tomb but no one was allowed inside.  In the Cairo Museum. however, we saw the most marvellous things.  For instance, King Tut's sarcophagus and 600 pounds of solid gold!  Also, his chariot and many other things I haven't space to mention.  It was vastly interesting.  

1928 – 45.  It might be of interest to mention, in connection with my 17 years of service as choirmaster etc. at St  Mark's, P. E. Church, Frankford, Philadelphia, that I was never late or absent from a service, and only absent twice for the first 10 minutes or so from a choir practice and in both cases it was due to car trouble.  My last organist was never late or absent from service or practice during the entire 10 years she was with me there.1


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  1. Autobiography of James Tilbury
  2. Page 2
  3. Incidents
  4. Coincidences
  5. Additional Information

[1] Source David Tilbury, Oregon

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Reminiscences of a Quirister


  • April Boothe 4 years ago

    Thank you so much for posting this autobiography of my great grandfather, James Tilbury (1881-1972)! My dad told me many of these amazing stories about his grandfather over the years. It was such a blessing to find them here, print them out & share them with my dad who is now 76. I have one picture of myself as an infant with my great grandfather. My dad (James Tilbury Nutter of Connecticut/Texas)has even more info on the family, but alas, he is not a big fan of modern technology.

    • linden 4 years ago

      My pleasure April, glad it's been useful. Perhaps you could digitise all your father's gems of information? Cheers, Linden

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