The British Clerk Who Tried to Spark a Chinese Revolution

It was 1891, and foreign communities across China were reeling from a spate of attacks against them. Fifty years earlier, the British had barged into the country with gunboats and very little diplomacy, forcing opium, Christianity, and one-sided trade agreements on the insular, self-assured Chinese. Humiliated and destabilized, the Qing court lost popular support and was soon struggling to keep the country from being torn apart by civil war. Meanwhile, the British – joined by the French, Germans, Russians, and Americans – carved out self-contained concession areas within Chinese cities known as “Treaty Ports,” where they built European-style homes, civic buildings, parks, and clubs.

Beyond the Treaty Ports’ fortified walls, resentment at these overbearing foreigners bubbled away, and from the 1870s periodically erupted in violence. Opinion was divided as to whether these were spur-of-the-moment attacks, or the beginnings of a widespread anti-foreign uprising organized by shadowy secret societies. And then events came to a head at Shanghai, that bustling port near the mouth of the Yangtze. Customs staff boarding a ship from Hong Kong found a suspicious cache of guns hidden in the hold, and took the man accompanying them into custody. He confessed to being a secret society member who had bought the arms for a rebel group in the interior: clearly, an uprising had indeed been imminent.

And yet this would-be revolutionary wasn’t even Chinese but an Englishman from Kent. His name was Charles Welsh Mason, he was a respected junior clerk in the Imperial Maritime Customs Service.

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Mason’s China career should have been a continuation of his family’s colonial traditions, which had roots with service in India and Malaysia. He was born at Castlethorpe in Buckinghamshire, where his restless father was curate, on September 19, 1866. His parents soon separated, and Mason grew up with his mother in Kent. She had little money of her own, and after the death of his father in 1875 Mason was elected to the Clergy Orphan School (now St. Edmunds) in Canterbury. Here he endured bullying, meager diets, and masters “who ought to have been dragged through a horsepond,” and left with a love of literature and a vocabulary of profanities. Neither proved enough to qualify for the Indian Civil Service – Mason failed after getting sidetracked by a girlfriend on his way to sit the exams – but he finally secured a nomination for the Imperial Maritime Customs Service in China.

The IMCS had been set up by the British in 1854 to help China’s administration collect taxes on goods being shipped around the country. Almost a third of imperial revenue came from these taxes, collected not just at major ports such as Shanghai, but also at customs posts dotted throughout the interior, most of whose senior management were foreign. This time Mason sailed through the exams, and in 1887 traveled to China to take up his position at Zhenjiang, a small Treaty Port on the Yangtze River.

Though important enough in Chinese eyes, the British saw Zhenjiang as a remote inland posting, 260 kilometers – and several days’ steaming – upstream from Shanghai. Still, Mason found life here suited him at first. He soon mastered the local Chinese dialect, and Zhenjiang’s tiny foreign population appreciated his enjoyment of shooting, cricket, and horseraces. Mason’s superiors considered him industrious, conscientious, and talented, and his linguistic fluency promised regular promotion.

But Zhenjiang’s appeal soon wore out. There were “no shops, no society, no theaters or concerts, no daily paper or magazines… and our indoor amusements [were] practically confined to billiards, poker, and learning Chinese.” The work was routine and, with so little to do, life revolved around petty irritations and scandal. Many foreign men kept Chinese mistresses (politely known as “housekeepers”), and Mason found himself in a louche platonic relationship with Yan Xiatang, a vain young Chinese man whom he called “Gazelle Eyes.” Boredom began grinding Mason down. He looked at the long-serving old China hands, of unimaginable seniority and worth millions, but grown apathetic and joyless through overindulgence and malaria, and began to wonder whether he was wasting his youth.

Charles Welsh Mason. Image courtesy of Johanna Mason.

Attempting to spice up this dreary existence, Mason made contact with the Gelao Hui, the Society of Elder Brothers, one of many anti-dynastic organizations plotting to overthrow China’s oppressive, ineffectual Qing dynasty “and open the road for civilization, just law, equitable taxation, and unrestricted trade.” Initially he could do little to further their ambitions, but then in 1891 Mason unexpectedly inherited 5,000 pounds, and decided to use the money to arm the Gelao Hui. He had grandiose dreams: Capturing Zhenjiang would draw more revolutionaries to his banner, and this swelling army would surge upstream to conquer the vast walled city of Nanjing. With Nanjing’s resources behind him, first central China and then the rest of the country would fall; within a year or two Mason himself might be seated on the imperial throne at Beijing.

If all this sounds ludicrous, Mason was only drawing inspiration from recent Chinese history. In 1853, after erupting from an even more obscure rural base, the Taiping rebels had captured Nanjing and held it as their capital for 11 years before being defeated by imperial forces. Perhaps if led by a foreigner and using modern methods of warfare, a new uprising might succeed.

During the early summer of 1891, Mason indiscreetly began sounding out his foreign colleagues about volunteering for his embryonic rebellion. Most treated his scheme as a symptom of impending mental breakdown, but then Mason seemed to strike lucky with a newcomer to the service, an American named Henry Croskey. Croskey appeared sympathetic, so Mason sketched out his plans in a notebook, writing down the names of several Chinese who he thought might help them.

That August Mason traveled to Hong Kong where, disguised in a wig, false beard, and mustache, he recruited a band of disreputable foreigners as mercenaries. He also bought 250 firearms, labelled as crates of “shovels and steel,” and five pounds of dynamite, carried for safety in his hand luggage.

On September 12, Mason’s ship docked at Shanghai, where customs officers swiftly unearthed the arms – having received no less than three anonymous telegrams about them. Though he later blamed Croskey, Mason probably alerted officials himself, having described the cargo on the bill of lading as “shipped by dealers in guns and munitions of war.” He attempted to bluff things out with Shanghai’s Inspector of Customs, Robert Bredon, claiming to be planning a sting operation to capture the Gelao Hui rebels when they turned up to collect the arms. Bredon initially played along, urging Mason to lie low while he hushed the matter up. But Mason stupidly fled back upstream to Zhenjiang, dreaming of starting the revolution with his bagful of dynamite and some brass knuckle dusters. He arrived to find Chinese and British gunboats waiting for him, and was escorted back to Shanghai under guard.

Interviewed at Shanghai, Mason refused to say much. His silence suited the British, who were keen to avoid a scandal, but the case was eventually forced to trial by irate Chinese authorities, who were threatening to create a diplomatic storm over what could have become a serious rebellion.

Mason hoped that Shanghai’s foreign community would see him as a flighty young man who had gone off the rails slightly, but been good at his job and never caused any real harm. But, as his colleagues from Zhenjiang came forward to give evidence, and letters that Mason had written about his plans were produced (some in a feeble code), everything came out. Croskey revealed the notebook, reading out Mason’s scheme and – fatally for them – naming the Chinese he had suggested as conspirators. Croskey might have been a spy all along, or perhaps turned Mason in for financial gain; customs officials were awarded half the cash value of any contraband they helped seize.

“Regina vs C.H.A.W. Mason” went to trial on October 29, 1891. Despite the evidence against him, and pressure from Chinese authorities, the British decided that “Mason had no relations with any Secret Society, and in fact had no confederates whatever… he [simply believed] that if he could only appear off Chinkiang [Zhenjiang] with a few stray foreigners and a small supply of firearms, his arrival would be the signal for an outbreak which he could guide and control at will.” So the charge was simply possessing explosives without a lawful reason. Mason pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months imprisonment at Shanghai, plus a $5,000 fine.

Meanwhile the imperial government, outraged at the leniency of Mason’s sentence, rounded up and gruesomely executed his servants and the “rebels” named in his notebook. Then they tortured and executed any other Chinese who had ever been remotely connected to Mason, “even a sing-song girl of Yangchow whom I had never had in the house, but to whom I had happened to give a wrist-watch, then a strange bauble to women. She was slung by a hook in the roof of her pretty mouth, poor child.” Yet even after being shown grisly photos of the dismembered remains of “Gazelle Eyes,” Mason refused to halt the slaughter by identifying his real associates – perhaps fearing for his own life had he done so. He would never admit to any remorse for his actions, protesting from prison that his plan all along was simply to provide material for a novel.

Having completed his sentence, in 1892 Mason was deported back to Britain and settled in London. And now he did indeed launch a literary career, under the pen-name “Julian Croskey” – perhaps hiding ironically behind the name of the man who had betrayed him. His first work, a collection of semi-autobiographical character sketches called The Shen’s Pigtail, delved into the petty rivalries and irritations that had bogged him down at Zhenjiang. Next came The Chest of Opium, a crime novella; Merlin: A Piratical Love Story; and finally Max, a fictionalized account of his deportation and subsequent life at Limehouse. Mason’s tales were well-paced and plotted, though he naturally played up to the “inscrutable orient” that readers of the time wanted. Surprisingly, his Chinese characters almost always served as foils for Europeans; there were no insights into their culture, or even much sympathy for it ­– which you might have expected from a man claiming that he had wanted to free ordinary Chinese from their oppressive rulers.

Mason shared rooms in London with a young adventurer and former Canadian Mountie named Roger Pocock, who was planning an expedition to the Klondike goldfields. Pocock left for Canada in February 1898, shortly followed by Mason, who arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in early April. But then on April 12 he married Frances Lambden at Brantford, Ontario, after what must have been a lightning romance. Frances refused to continue to the Klondike, so the couple spent the summer “on a desert island in Georgia Bay” and then overwintered at Ottawa, where the first of their three children was born. Mason also had begun writing magazine articles, including a facetious piece in which he claimed to have been brought to the verge of ruin by literature, and advised young writers “to jump out of its deceptive quagmire as quickly as possible, and turn their hands to something more lucrative, like bricklaying.” Despite this seemingly bitter recantation, he had at least seven pieces published over the next year.

In 1900, the little family moved south across the border and settled in New York, where Mason found work as a columnist with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, who were to employ him for much of the next decade. He also published his final and most Kiplingesque novel, “The S.G.”: A Romance of Peking. Set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion (which must have been unfolding as Mason was writing), the story revolves around a mixed-race heroine, the illegitimate daughter of the British head of the Chinese Customs service – a character closely modelled on Mason’s former real-life employer, Sir Robert Hart.

Mason’s early pieces for the Eagle appeared under the Croskey by-line and often drew on his China experiences. But by 1905, Mason finally felt confident enough to emerge from behind Julian Croskey. His waspish “Books and Bookishness” column in the Eagle was now appearing under his real name; these 300-odd articles eventually covered everything from popular literature to travel, true crime, poetry, social commentary, adventure, gardening, biography, wildlife photography, and more. He must have spent his entire life reading and brought home a good wage; he owned two cars and lived comfortably in a five-room apartment on Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn.

And yet by 1908 Mason’s life was unravelling again. Despite injuries sustained in a car crash, he began spending increasingly lengthy spells away on his hiking expeditions, and even built himself a log cabin 50 miles up the Hudson River near the township of Fishkill. He and Frances became estranged over plans to holiday at the cabin; Frances refused to accompany him but he went anyway, cutting off her allowance in the hope she would follow. Instead she sued him for abandonment. They divorced and Mason resigned from the Eagle, sold everything he owned, retreated to the woods, and chased off Frances’ lawyers with a shotgun. Eventually his funds were exhausted, and then “completely ruined, I became a bricklayer and woodchopper.”

And so he remained, a hermit on the Hudson, until the outbreak of World War I. In October 1914 Mason, by now in his late 40s, returned to Britain and enlisted as a private in the Army Service Corps. A year later, the following postcard appeared in the Eagle, alongside a photograph of Mason dressed neatly in his military kit:

You mightn’t know it, but I was a sort of literary cuss on your staff 1901-’08, and here I be still alive after 15 months of war and six months at [Gallipoli, in] the Dardanelles. Came back a month ago practically a dead man on a stretcher, but now ready for the next year’s campaign through the mountainous terrain of the Balkans. Expect at last to get a bit of mobile warfare, if it is only running for our lives. Salutations respectfully to the old paper. C. W. Mason.

Suffering from shell-shock and cut by shrapnel, Mason was eventually invalided out of the forces in 1917 and returned to the United States. But there was nothing left for him there. In 1920 the Milwaukee Sentinel found him – or rather his alter-ego, Julian Croskey, making one final appearance – working as a manual laborer, “seated on the roadside eating his dinner from an old tomato can, weary and perspiring from his half-day’s work with pick and shovel under a burning sun.” After the article appeared, Mason’s friends raised some travel money and sent him back to Britain, this time for good.

On April 10, 1922, Mason landed at Liverpool with 25 pounds in his pocket, made his way to Kent and settled in the woods outside High Halden, where he built another eight-foot-square cabin, later extended piecemeal into a bizarre castle of a house, complete with high towers. For a while he supported himself by writing adventure stories for boys’ magazines, but eventually fell out with the publisher. Tracking Mason down in 1939, the Daily Mirror offered a final vignette of the tough, weatherbeaten old man, the former customs official, would-be revolutionary, writer, and soldier, who was now getting along on the old age pension and by growing his own vegetables. Mason had once again withdrawn from society; he avoided listening to the radio or reading newspapers and, although remembering with fondness his past successes as a writer, was “proudest of his wood-cutting and ditch digging.” He died in 1951, aged 84, leaving his entire estate of 142 pounds, 16 shillings to his daughter Valda – named after the heroine of his last novel, The S.G.

In the autobiographical Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason, written at High Halden in 1924, Mason looked back at the heady mix of badly timed idealism, fin-de-siecle boredom, and youthful audacity that had inspired his failed revolt 30 years earlier. Despite stressing time and again how little he regretted his actions, the Confessions is clearly underscored by a deep sense of guilt over the gruesome fate of his Chinese friends. It’s only slightly glib to interpret the rest of Mason’s life as an attempt to atone for this slaughter of innocents: running away from a successful literary career and marriage as if he didn’t deserve them, scourging himself with hard manual labour, and then, when even World War I had failed to kill him, seeking solitude among his quiet Kentish roots.

David Leffman is a British photographer and travel writer and the author of The Mercenary Mandarin, a biography of the British adventurer William Mesny.