CHINA has always been a mystery to the West, but someone who as a boy more than 200 years ago had more understanding than most, and was later to sit at Westminster for the county and then Portsmouth, left a fabulous estate near Havant that celebrated Chinese culture.

This was Sir George Staunton (1781-1859), a “very good natured” man but with the curious habit of kowtowing every time he spoke, according Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent and other novels on Irish life, who met him in the House of Commons.

She observed that it was “as if he had been pulled by a string and brought up again by a spring to perpendicular then churning head and whole body up and down as you might push up and down a figure of old on spiral springs jumping up on opening a snuff box.”

Another observer, lawyer Henry Crabb Robinson, one of the founders of London University, wrote in his Diary: “He has a jiffle and a jerk in his bows and salutations which give him a ludicrous air; but he is perfectly gentlemanly, and I believe in every way respectable. He is a great traveller, a bachelor and a man of letters.”

Staunton was the son of a distinguished physician and diplomat who in 1792 had been appointed Secretary to a British mission to the Chinese Imperial court (also called an ‘embassy’). It was a huge exercise, involving 700 troops and seamen travelling on two ships, the Lion and the Hindostan, which set sail from Portsmouth.

An enormous retinue of natural historians, scientists, mathematicians and men of letters were part of the mission, the intention being to demonstrate the skill and learning of the West to the Chinese.

Leigh House, by J. F. Gilbert, 1833

Leigh House, by J. F. Gilbert, 1833

At the time, Staunton junior was being educated ‘at home’ and his father decided to take him along as a page. Before leaving, French missionaries started to teach Chinese to the 12-year-old, who had an aptitude for languages. On the journey, he furthered his grasp of Chinese, so by the time the delegation arrived he was “eminently conversant”. In fact, he was the only English member of the party who could talk with the Emperor.

It was an experience that determined the next 24 years of his life and accounted for his kowtowing behaviour at Westminster. After returning from the mission, he had gone up to Trinity College, Cambridge, but gave up due to his father’s dislike of “the injustice of the college examinations”, then a new means of assessing performance.

So, in 1799 at the age of 18 he went out to Canton (Guangzhou), northwest of Hong Kong, as a ‘writer’ for the East India Company. Trade with China had started in the late 1600s, though the Chinese were not enthusiastic. Most early dealings involved the exchange of tea for silver and it was only in 1762 that a trade station or ‘factory’ had been established at Canton.

There were foreign interpreters at the factory, but Staunton was the first Englishman there who had ever learned Chinese. Within a few years he was promoted to the post of chief interpreter, but his interests were much wider than trade and he spent much time in two-way translation of important works. Amongst these was a translation into Chinese of a treatise on vaccination, then unknown in the country.

Aged only 28 he hoped to be appointed ambassador to Peking (Beijing), but was overlooked. However, he did eventually head ‘the factory’ and in 1816 took part in another mission to Peking, which, like the first, was not a great success. Oddly enough, one reason for this was that he recommended members not to kowtow before the Emperor.

This practice, which was foreign to Europeans, has been described as a “degrading ceremony of kneeling and knocking the head [the literal expression in Chinese] nine times against the ground”. Recent research suggests that, in fact, attempts to blame failure of the missions on refusal to kowtow are misguided.

Staunton audience with the Chinese Emperor, from William Alexander, 1793

Staunton audience with the Chinese Emperor, from William Alexander, 1793

Twenty-four years after Staunton’s visit as a boy to China, having as he put it “accumulated a competent fortune in addition to my patrimonial inheritance”, he returned to England to pursue a career in politics. He was at first a short-lived MP for the rotten borough of Heytesbury in Wiltshire, and then sat for eight years for Mitchell, near Truro – another rotten borough with only 20-30 houses. He fell out with his patron, who opposed Catholic Emancipation.

Both constituencies were quashed by the first Reform Act of 1832, which in principle Staunton supported. He was a Canningite, a follower of the late PM George Canning. In 1832-4 as a liberal/whig he held one of the two Hampshire South seats. Then in 1838 he gained Portsmouth in an unopposed bye-election and held it for 14 years with fellow-whig Francis Baring (later Baron Northbrook).

This was a time when many parliamentarians had accepted that reform was necessary so that constituencies which could previously be bought were abolished and the ‘manufacturing towns’ and others given better representation.

Staunton had himself come round to this position, as he wrote in his Memoirs. He confessed that Heytesbury “had no constituents for whom it might have been both my right and my duty to plead”. And: “I had literally nothing to do, and, therefore, I hope it will not be a very serious charge against me, that I did nothing!”

On his return from Canton, as well as pursuing politics he looked for an estate to better his “social position and…happiness”. In July 1819 he found it, near Portsmouth, Leigh House, as it was then called, the home of William Garrett.

Until a few years ago it was thought that the estate was all the work of Staunton. But research by Derek Gladwyn and excavations in 1992 by Chris Currie have shown that much was already there when Leigh Place was sold by Garrett, who had himself acquired the estate in 1801, commissioning the Southampton architect John Kent to rebuild an existing house and much more.

Gothic Library, the only remains of Leigh House. Image: Ralph Cousins

Gothic Library, the only remains of Leigh House. Image: Ralph Cousins

By 1819 Staunton had therefore acquired a fine Regency estate of more than 500 acres with fabulous existing features, including a “pinery, hot-houses, green-houses and stoves, surrounded with shrubberies and walks”, according to William Butler’s Topographical Account.

He greatly extended the house and brought back many plants from China. He also erected a profusion of small buildings with Chinese and Turkish features around an artificial lake. Still to be seen are the Shell House, based on the Market Cross Chichester, the Beacon and part of the Chinese Bridge.

The HCC Staunton Country Park, Havant, is a mere remnant of what was once an extensive estate with a grand house, views of the sea, extensive parkland and gardens, follies, and the large lake. All that remains of the house is the Gothic library, where Staunton kept the 2,000 Chinese books he brought back.

Amongst the many things he learned in China was the technique the Emperor used for paying his doctors. He explained: “The moment I am ill, the salary stops till I am well again.” Now there’s a thought.

Havant Museum has published many downloadable booklets, that tell the story of Sir George Staunton and Leigh Park, especially one by Steve Jones (No. 80:

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