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Early Links between Birmingham and China

Although Chinese people did not settle in Birmingham until the twentieth century, Birmingham played a part in the first official trade mission from Britain to China. The story can be traced through letters in the Matthew Boulton Papers, Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service.

In 1792, Lord McCartney, the British Ambassador to China, wrote to Matthew Boulton, the great Birmingham businessman, requesting the presence of a skilled worker to accompany him on his posting. He wanted "a person capable of making judicious observations upon metals and modes of working." Clearly, the intention was to inquire into the state of Chinese industry to obtain intelligence information for commercial purposes. He was able to take to China a collection of Birmingham patterns and designs, including tools, buttons, coins, stained glass, buckets and toys to encourage British exports.

The mission had an effect. A letter to Matthew Boulton from James Cobb at East India House in London in 1794, noted how the Chinese Embassy was very interested in Birmingham manufactured goods: "all the ornamental articles were much admired and most of the articles of utility might very easily be brought into use amongst the Chinese." Birmingham's metal goods helped to pay for the vast quantities of tea, which Britain imported from that country.


By the start of the twentieth century Birmingham and East Asia were linked by trade, travel and education. Among the early commercial connections was a mission by a Cadbury's sales representative to Hong Kong in 1900.

This picture from the Cadbury Archive at Birmingham Central Library shows Harold Waite (in the bowler hat) proudly displaying the company's Cocoa Essence.

Chinese Special mission, Birmingham, 1906

Another Birmingham-based firm supplied goods to China. The Metropolitan company - which later became Metro-Cammell - built railway carriages for the Chinese imperial train.

This photograph documents a visit by the Duke Tsai Yee and members of the Chinese Special Commission to the Metropolitan Works in Washwood Heath on May 14th 1906 (from the Benjamin Stone Collection in the Archives and Heritage Service).

Helen Caddick in Beijing, 1914
One of Birmingham's foremost female travellers, Helen Caddick, visited China in 1909 and 1914. Her diaries in Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service are a fascinating record, filled with photographs and postcards, describing the culture and customs of a changing society.

This photograph shows Helen Caddick in Beijing with a group of former students of Birmingham University who'd returned to China. Her diary entry for January 9th 1914 records:

In the afternoon Mr Lo sent his carriage for me and I drove to his house. All the eight Birmingham students were there (from left to right in the back row: P.N. Lo, T.H. Yeh, C.J. Pan, K. Shen, L.C. Woo, S.Z. Wang, Y. K. Yen, K. Y. Gao, H.N. Lo). We went in the garden, or court yard, and sat under a tree to be photographed Mr Lo had a professional photographer Mrs Lo, Mrs Bien, Li Hung Changs granddaughter, and a girl friend were there. It was a very nice house, and we had an endless number of different Chinese cakes, sweets and a hot dish of minced meat done up in pastry balls very delicious Chinese tea and coffee. I stayed about two hours. They were all very nice and sent messages to their professors and friends some of them are in the Finance Department, in the Home Office, Banks, university etc. all seem doing well.

This page is based on research by Malcolm Dick and Chris Upton.

Chinese History in Birmingham
Early Chinese presence in Birmingham
Post-war Chinese settlement
Resources on Chinese history in Birmingham