Sir Harry Smith Parkes: Papers

Scope and Content

The collection contains a wide range of professional and personal papers, covering mostly the 1850s to the 1880s. There is an extensive selection of printed and manuscript material collected in Hong Kong, China and Japan during the various periods of Parkes' career. There are also around 750 letters, the correspondents including Sir Rutherford Alcock, Major-General Charles George Gordon, Lord John Russell and Sir Ernest Satow. Most of the personal correspondence addressed to Parkes dates from the last two years of his life, with much of the remainder relating to periods of particular activity such as the Second China War. The collection also contains maps, a few documents in Chinese and Japanese, and a separate holding of letters, sketch maps, memoranda and other papers regarding Gordon's campaigns at the head of the so-called Ever Victorious Army in service of the Chinese Imperial government during the 1860s. The papers are grouped into the following sections:

Correspondence and despatches

Letters to Parkes and others; letters from Parkes; despatches to Parkes; despatches from Parkes: China, 1849-1865; despatches concerning Parkes: China, 1860; despatches from Parkes: Japan, 1865-1882.

Material from O.H.M.S. envelopes

China: despatches, memoranda and minutes; China: miscellaneous documents; China: pamphlets and newspapers; China: railways, telegraphs and mines; Hong Kong; Straits settlements; Japan: business and government; Japan: correspondence; Japan: pamphlets and newspapers; Japan: loans and finance; Japan: Hodges; Japan: Granville letter; Japan: naval and military capacity; Bonin Islands; Korea; the United States of America: relations with China and Japan; treaties; trade; diplomacy; civil service; letters and despatches concerning Parkes' services; notes and memoranda; miscellaneous; personal.

Other material

Charles George Gordon; memoranda; miscellaneous documents; printed documents; parliamentary printed papers; pamphlets; periodicals, press cuttings, articles and proofs; maps; architectural drawings; railway photographs; portrait photographs; envelopes and covers.

Documents in Chinese

Second and Third China Wars; Taiping Rebellion; Liu-ch'iu Islands; miscellaneous documents.

Documents in Japanese

Documents in Korean

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Harry Smith Parkes (1828-1885), British minister to Japan, 1865-1883, and subsequently to China and Korea, 1883-1885.

Parkes was born on 24 February 1828 at Bloxwich, near Walsall. He was the youngest of three children, and the only son, of an ironmaster and his wife. By the age of five he had been orphaned, and in 1841, after education at the King Edward the Sixth school in Birmingham, he proceeded, on account of a family connection, to China. After a short period studying Chinese, he joined the suite of Sir Henry Pottinger in the Yangtze campaign of 1842, which brought the First China War to a conclusion, and as a fourteen-year-old he witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. In September 1843 he commenced work for the British consular service in Canton, and in the next few years served as interpreter at posts in Amoy, Foochow, Shanghai and Canton. In 1854 he was appointed consul in Amoy, and the following year he travelled to Siam to assist Sir John Bowring in negotiations for a British treaty with that kingdom.

From 1856 to 1858 Parkes was acting consul at Canton. Shortly after taking up this post he assumed direct superintendence, under Bowring's guidance from Hong Kong, of the case of the lorcha Arrow. The boarding of this vessel by the Chinese, aggravating as it did British grievances arising from the flouting of treaty obligations by the authorities in Canton, led to the outbreak of the Second China War. Parkes' inflexible conduct, whilst approved by his superiors, became a source of abiding controversy. After the capture of Canton Parkes was appointed one of the three allied commissioners in the city. He was made a C.B. in 1859.

Allied forces returned to China in 1860 to assert the ratification of the Treaty of Tientsin. At this time Parkes was instrumental in acquiring as British territory the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong harbour, intended primarily as a depot for troops in transit. Parkes accompanied the expedition to the Peiho in the office of Joint Chinese Secretary of Lord Elgin's Special Embassy, and had leading roles in the reduction of the Taku forts and in negotiations with imperial commissioners at Tientsin and Tungchow. When fighting was renewed during the course of these negotiations, Parkes and his entourage were arrested and transported to Peking. Several of the party were killed by the rigours of captivity; Parkes himself narrowly escaped execution. After three weeks he was freed through the agency of Prince Kung. Parkes' steadfast behaviour throughout the ordeal met with general praise in Britain, and when he returned to England in 1862, after having established consulates on the Yangtze at Chinkiang, Kiukiang and Hankow, he was lionized in society and appointed a K.C.B. at the age of thirty-four.

Parkes returned to China in 1864 to take up the consulship at Shanghai, and in March 1865 he was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Japan. That country was in a state of political turmoil that culminated in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It was a strength of Parkes' diplomacy that he recognised early the importance of the emperor in Japanese affairs, and was accordingly in a position to assume pre-eminence amongst Western diplomats after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. In the course of eighteen years as minister in Japan, Parkes played an important part in the transition of the country from feudalism to industrial modernity; his influence was felt particularly in the spheres of currency, finance, and railway construction. In 1872 he accompanied the 'Iwakura Mission' on its visit to Great Britain; he also spent the period from November 1879 to January 1882 in England, and in 1881 was made a G.C.M.G. Further controversy dogged the later years of Parkes' career in Japan, largely on account of his attitude towards the question of treaty revision.

In July 1883 Parkes was appointed minister plenipotentiary to China. One of his first actions was to travel to Seoul to conclude a treaty with Korea; in March 1884 he was additionally made minister plenipotentiary to that country, and returned there to ratify the treaty. Parkes' tenure of the Peking legation coincided with the Franco-Chinese War, and the disruptions caused by this episode added to the burdens of his work. Sir Harry Parkes died in Peking after a brief illness on 22 March 1885.


The initial deposit in 1956 was received in two parts, which were amalgamated. The combined deposit fell into two categories: material contained in twenty-four O.H.M.S. envelopes, with broadly thematic titles supplied in a hand other than Parkes'; and the rest. The status of the O.H.M.S. envelopes as indicators of an original order derived from Parkes' own use of the papers is dubious: it seems more likely that the material was sorted in this way after his death, either by a family member or by a biographer. In 1956-1957 the contents of the envelopes were nonetheless left intact, while the remainder was sorted into eight series according to the nature of the material. The correspondence which comprised the bulk of the second deposit was at first listed separately, but by 1988 it had been combined with the correspondence series in the first deposit to form a single alphabetical sequence. Little additional sorting was carried out, but most of the nine series created in 1956-1957 were subdivided subsequently, to create a total of forty-eight files.

A few items have been moved from one file to another. Some documents which near the time of their creation would have been located together have been reunited, and several envelopes have been placed with their original contents. The location of a very small number of documents within the O.H.M.S. envelopes has been rationalised.

Access Information

Any person wishing to consult the collection must obtain written permission from Matheson&Co. Ltd, 3 Lombard Street, London, EC3V 9AQ. Applicants may submit their request using the standard Jardine, Matheson letter of application, which is available from the Manuscripts Reading Room and via the University Library web pages (

Acquisition Information

The collection is comprised of separate donations made by two sisters, Mrs N.M.B. McGrath and Lady Jean McEwen, granddaughters of Sir Harry Smith Parkes. In 1956 Mrs McGrath deposited the Parkes material over which she exercised control with Cambridge University Library. In March 1968 Lady McEwen, of Binfield, Berkshire, despatched a second set of Parkes papers to the Library, which consisted almost entirely of additional correspondence. Both sets of papers were confirmed as donations to the University in April 1969. Further documents, concerning shares purchased by Parkes in the China Shipper's Mutual Steam Navigation Company, were discovered in August 1998 in a storeroom of Matheson&Co., and donated to the Library directly by that firm.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Conditions Governing Use

No photographic work of any kind may be carried out without the prior written permission of Matheson&Co. Ltd.

Related Material

Official papers relating to Parkes can be found at the Public Record Office, Kew.


Further information about Parkes' life and career can be found in Stanley Lane-Poole and F.V. Dickins, The life of Sir Harry Parkes (2 volumes; London, 1894).