Charles Batten Hillier (1820-1856)

A few years ago, Andrew Hillier visited the Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum, in search of information about his great-great-grandfather, C.B. Hillier, who had published two pieces on Chinese numismatics in the Transactions of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in the 1840s and 1850s. Since then, Dr Hillier has completed a PhD on the Hillier family in China and Hong Kong. Now a Research Associate at the University of Bristol, he kindly agreed to write this guest-post, putting C.B. Hillier’s work into a broader context.


Charles Batten Hillier (London Stereoscopic Photographic Company, London, c. 1853.  Author’s Collection)

Chinese Coins in an Imperial Setting

 ‘The history of the Western world’s interest in Chinese numismatics has yet to be written’, yet as Helen Wang has pointed out in her outline survey, it is a history which goes well beyond simply the study of Chinese coinage.[1] It introduces new information across a range of related disciplines and also casts light on imperialism in East and South-East Asia. By exploring why Westerners took an interest in Chinese coinage and how they expressed that interest, we can obtain fresh insights into Sino-British relations in the nineteenth century.

With the cession of Hong Kong to Britain and the opening of the treaty ports at the end of the First Opium War (1839-1842), there was an increasing number of studies of Chinese coinage, mainly targeted at merchants, bankers and administrators. It is, therefore, particularly interesting to find two pieces in the early Transactions of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, which were for a more general, albeit reasonably academic, audience and the second of which was concerned with the history of Chinese coinage. Founded in 1847 and based in Hong Kong, the branch had a small but active membership, both in the colony and in Shanghai.

Both pieces were compiled by the island’s Chief Magistrate, Charles Batten Hillier. The first was a summary of a paper which had been read to the Society: ‘Chinese Copper Coinage:  Notes on the Tsien, or copper cash of the Chinese: extracted from a native publication, the Ta-tsing Hwuy-tien’. The original Chinese title was 大清會典 (pinyin: Da Qing huidian, Collected statutes of the great Qing dynasty). [2]

The second was ‘A Brief Notice of the Chinese Work 錢志新編 (Chronicles of Tsien: a new arrangement) and a Key to its 329 Wood-cuts of the Coins of China and neighbouring nations’, published in 1852. Hillier had presented a manuscript copy of his translation of this work to the Society at a meeting on 7 November 1848, and also provided an introduction to it.[3]

Who was Hillier and what do these papers tell us about the British community in Hong Kong at this time?

Hillier came from a naval family — both his father and grandfather had been Pursers during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time he left school in 1835 at the age of fifteen, the size of the Navy had been drastically reduced and, instead, he joined the merchant navy, serving on an East Indiaman, which plied between Britain and India. In 1840, his ship was in Madras when it was requisitioned to take extra troops to China following the outbreak of the Opium War. In circumstances which are not entirely clear, at some point he left his ship and, when the war ended, stayed in Hong Kong. Having acquired at least a smattering of Chinese, he was taken on as an interpreter in the Magistrates Court. Although the British numbered only some 600, a large number of Chinese of all backgrounds had come across from the mainland and soon exceeded 10,000, providing plenty of work for the court and William Caine, its first magistrate. Having come under Caine’s wing, Hillier quickly rose to become Assistant Magistrate and then, to the colony’s amazement, in 1846, at the age of just 26, he succeeded Caine as Chief Magistrate.[4]

Although two of Hillier’s brothers had shown considerable intellectual ability — one was a scholar in both Hebrew and mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, before becoming a clergyman, it is clear from contemporaneous accounts of his work that Hillier’s strengths were thoroughness and integrity rather than any academic prowess. It is all the more surprising that he had the inclination and ability to undertake these two works of translation on Chinese numismatics, particularly as he was not even a member of the Society and presented them as a guest contributor. However, by the mid-1840s he had developed a proficiency in Chinese, both spoken and written, and his recent marriage may also provide a further explanation.  His wife, Eliza Medhurst, whom he had married in 1846, was the daughter of the celebrated missionary and Sinologist, Walter Henry Medhurst (1796-1857, author of China: Its State and Prospects, 1838), and her brother (confusingly, also called Walter Henry Medhurst) was already establishing a reputation in the consular service. Both were members of the Society and, with their fascination with all things Chinese, may have encouraged Hillier to take on these tasks.

Although Andrew Shortrede, editor of the Transactions (1852) described the Qianzhi xinbian in his prefatory notice as ‘a work in great repute among the Chinese, and which must prove interesting to antiquaries and numismatists of other countries’, Hillier does not seem to have particularly enjoyed the subject matter. In fact, he was quite derogatory about it in his introduction to the translation, commenting that the lack of detailed inscriptions and images ‘detracts much from the interest of the Coins of China’, ‘the coins, so far as can be judged from the representations, exhibit a low state of art’, and concludes ‘On the whole, the book furnishes very little information; all worth recording, and I fear much more, has been extracted. The bulk of it is occupied with the historical events to be found in other works, and the remainder is little more than a dry description of the Coins now extant.’

Hillier was the only contributor to write about Chinese numismatics, but there is no evidence that he ever collected such coins and his wife’s detailed correspondence covering their ten years together never once mentions an interest in coins. Nonetheless, whatever his particular motivation, we can see how, in the imperial setting, someone of relatively limited formal education, who was in his early days labelled ‘an obscure adventurer’, might have the opportunity to develop quite esoteric interests and, also, how important these sort of ‘learned’ societies were.

Whilst they are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for reinforcing the colonial presence, with little regard for the local people, such societies can also be seen as vehicles for stimulating a more positive interest in, and sensitivity towards, the indigenous culture. This is certainly reflected in the Transactions of the Society which cover a wide range of topics relating to China. (Medhurst, junior, for example, wrote a piece entitled ‘Marriage, Affinity and Inheritance in China’). The care with which the Society produced the woodcuts is particularly striking, and Shortrede notes ‘For the very beautiful and accurate Woodcuts, the Society is altogether indebted to the kindness of Dr Hobson of Canton, under whose care the blocks were engraved by a Chinese artist.’ Benjamin Hobson (1816-1873), a medical missionary of the London Missionary Society would have been well-known to the Medhursts. [5]

Hillier left Hong Kong in 1856 to take up his appointment as Britain’s first Consul to Siam. Within months he had died from fever, aged only thirty-six. Three of his five children would pursue careers in China: Walter, as an officer in the consular service and also a notable Chinese scholar — he later became Professor of Chinese at King’s College, London, Harry as a Commissioner in the Imperial Maritime Customs, and Guy as the long-serving manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in Peking. It is fitting that on 1 September 1884 Guy Hillier was one of the two signatories to a Mexican dollar note issued by the Bank.[5]


[1] Helen Wang, ‘A Short History of Chinese Numismatics in European Languages’, Early China, 35-36 (2012-2013), pp. 395-425.

[2] C.B. Hillier, ‘Chinese Copper Coinage:  Notes on the Tsien, or copper cash of the Chinese: extracted from a native publication, the Ta-tsing Hwuy-tien’, Article IV, Transactions of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1847 (Hong Kong: Office of China Mail, 1848), pp.40-43. For details of the Da Qing huidian, see Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual (2nd ed, 2000, p. 946, or a more recent edition of this work).

[3] C.B. Hillier, ‘A Brief Notice of the Chinese Work 錢志新編 (Chronicles of Tsien: a new arrangement) and a Key to its 329 Wood-cuts of the Coins of China and neighbouring nations’, Article I, Transactions of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Part II-1848-50 (1852), pp.1-162. I am grateful to James M’kenzie-Hall for drawing my attention to this copy in the Bodleian Library and to the details of Hobson’s career.

[4] For further details, see Andrew Hillier, ‘Three Brothers in China: A Study of Family in Empire’ (unpublished PhD. dissertation, University of Bristol, 2016).

[5] Joe Cribb, Money in the Bank: The Hongkong Bank Money Collection (London: Spink & Son Ltd, 1987), p. 136.


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