William MESNY (1842-1919)

The following biography was adapted from information provided by Jim Thompson - and available on his website. William Mesny was the brother of Jim's maternal great-grandmother Mary Ann Mesney (b. Jersey 1847, d. Toronto, Canada 1905) - an extra "e" appears to have crept into the surname somewhere in the course of history.

William Mesny - Chinese General and Plant-Collector

(Source: 'A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey', G.R. Balleine, 1948 who quotes "Mesny's Miscellany; Family Information" as his source).

Born in Trinity, Jersey to William Mesny (a cobbler) and Marie Rachel Nicolle on 9th October 1842. The Mesnys are an Alderney family, but Wm Snr had settled in Jersey. In 1854, aged 12, William Jnr went to sea.

Some years later he deserted his ship and made his way to Hong Kong. Here he quickly learnt the language, and made many Chinese friends among the merchant class. He had several narrow escapes from marriage - the prestige of Britain then stood high and there was keen competition among fathers to secure a British son-in-law.

China was rent with civil war, and the Tai-ping rebels looked as though they might overthrow the Manchu dynasty. Both sides were recruiting foreign mercenaries. Mesny returned to Shanghai, and tried to raise a company for the Emperor's service. He enlisted a band of scallywags of all nationalities, but on the night they were to sail, being overheard speaking French, he was arrested by a party of French marines, who were rounding up naval deserters, and his company left without him.

Navigation on the Yang-tse was then very dangerous. Fighting was going on on both banks; the ports were constantly changing hands; and each side seized any cargoes it could lay its hands on. Ordinary commerce was at a standstill, so big profits could be made by any boat able to run through the danger zone. Bags of salt bought for a dollar at Shanghai sold for thirteen dollars at Hangkow. Mesny embarked on this business, first in a small sailing boat, the Rob Roy, then in a Chinese junk.

He also made what he calls "a few very successful speculations in the arms trade". Once his boat was seized by Imperialists, and he was wounded in two places. Another time he was captured by Tai-pings, who fixed his ransom at $100,000 - "a princely price", he says, "for a poor Jerseyman". At first he was treated badly but, when his captors discovered that he could play Chinese tunes on his four-octave flutina, their behaviour entirely altered. After six months of not unpleasant captivity he was rescued by a British gunboat.

When Robert Hart became Inspector of Chinese Customs, Mesny obtained a place in that service. But, when Gordon was lent to the Chinese Government to command a force that was to suppress the Tai-pings, Mesny served under him as Lieutenant.  When Gordon returned to England in 1865, Mesny remained in the Chinese Army.

He volunteered for service in Szu-chuan and Kuei-chon in 1868. In 1873 he became a Major- General (aged 29) and was created Ying Yang Pa-t'u-lu (Penetrating Knight of the Pa-t'u-lu, the Chinese equivalent of the French Legion d'honneur).

At intervals between official duties he travelled from end to end of China, penetrating into districts that no European had ever entered before.  On these travels he acquired fame as a plant-collector, and "discovered" a number of new specimens.

In 1880 he was decorated for three generations San Tai Kao Feng. He volunteered for service in Hsin-Kiang, and went to Hami. In 1882 he served in Shansi as Adviser on Foreign Affairs, and the nineteen great industrial works undertaken by the Viceroy Chang Chih-tung were planned by Mesny, and authorised by imperial rescript.

In 1883 he volunteered for active service, and was sent to Yunnan, and in 1884 to Foochow. In 1885 he was in charge of the two arsenals at Canton, and in the following year he was promoted Lieutenant-General.

In about 1882 he had married "Han" [Fenglan Han?], by whom he had a son Hu Sheng [Hushen Pin? born 11 March 1885] and a  daughter, Marie Wan-er, who married an Englishman, F.H. Watson, and had two children. Around this time (1885) he became a Mandarin of the First Class, always wore Chinese dress and a magnificent pigtail, and was said to be the only European who could speak Chinese without a foreign accent.

In 1889 he was decorated with the Hua-ling Plume and promoted to Colonel. In 1890 he was awarded the decoration of the Pao Hsing (the star of China).

In 1889/90  he went to North An-hui twice on Famine Relief. In 1895 he began to publish in Shanghai - a chatty magazine, Mesny's Chinese Miscellany, written entirely by himself and full of information that he had gathered on his travels about Chinese customs,  plants, cities, etiquette, superstitions, and secret societies. Also pages show that he still kept in touch with his native island, he constantly reprinted verses and paragraphs copied from the Jersey Observer.

He never abandoned his British Citizenship and was Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Horticultural Society, and of the Imperial Institute. The Oxford University Library website refers to a William R.Mesney translating parts of the New Testament into Chinese, but this has not been confirmed as being one and the same person.

He died in Hankow, aged 77, on 11th December 1919.

Another researcher, Keith Stevens, has also carried out extensive research on William Mesny (the latter's grandson Reggie served as a major in the same Indian Army regiment as Keith), and has provided the following additional information:

Mesny was captured and imprisoned on two occasions, released each time with the assistance of the local British Consul.

William and Han had two children. Their daughter [name?] married but separated after having two children (Reggie, and a daughter) and worked in Hankou as a typist. After being interned during the war she moved to Jersey, and then in 1954 went to the USA to live with her daughter. William's son Hu-bin married, but appears to have been childless, and died in 1963 - probably in Ningbo or Shanghai.

William' marriage to Han in 1882 was under Chinese law, but was confirmed under British Consul jurisdiction in 1897. She "divorced him in 1910 and sounded - from HIS description - a real harridan". The primary reason for his extensive travelling in China was to make his fortune - "he was an entrepreneur who wanted to sell the Chinese guns, railways, fairgrounds ... anything they wanted".

William was buried in Hankow, but the old French cemetery has long since been dug up and built upon. A picture of him taken in 1881 can be found on the answers.com website.

Note: The Jersey Post Office published a series of stamps to commemorate "Jersey Adventurers" - the third in this issue was for William Mesny on the 150th anniversary of his birth, accompanied by a short biography.

Click here to view the "Mesny tree"

Page last updated: December 2006