My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier

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“For this brief moment, the two sisters could be ‘together in heart and affection’, and through such letters bridge the distance of empire.”

We often learn about the commerce, diplomacy, and military campaigns of the British empire without reference to the intimate side of life in these times—the development of self, the position of women, and the importance of family. In this book, the story of empire, so often told from a man’s perspective, is given a unique vantage point through Eliza Hillier’s letters to her younger sister, Martha. Written largely from Hong Kong, Shanghai, England, and Siam, the letters allow us to become a member of her family and follow the daily tribulations associated with the life of a young British woman in the port cities of Asia. We are thus able to share Eliza’s experiences as she leaves home to embark on married life, starts and raises a family, grieves at the abrupt and tragic loss of her husband, Charles Batten Hillier, and then sets about re-building her life.
At once a reflection on the daily components of empire, an entertaining narrative of familial relationships, and the story of one woman’s inner feelings, My Dearest Martha guides us through the vagaries of life for a family who were very much a part of imperial careering and missionary circles in East and Southeast Asia. The letters are complemented by images and commentary from the author, a descendant of Eliza, providing context and depth, which together give us a fuller picture of British colonial life in the mid-1800s from a perspective that will resonate with readers around the world.
My grandfather, Harold Hillier, was a keen and meticulous genealogist. Inheriting a large quantity of papers, he compiled a family tree stretching back to the eighteenth century as well as a family chronicle. Focusing on the careers of the more successful men, he had little interest in examining and describing their private lives, let alone those of the women. He did, however, have transcribed the letters written by his grandmother, Eliza Hillier (née Medhurst), to her sister Martha, between 1846 and 1856. This was extremely fortunate, as they are now barely legible, many being written in a cross-hatched format used to reduce the cost of postage. Shortly before his death, these letters, together with a mass of other papers, were passed down to me and I was able to start working on them when I retired.
In my first book, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817–1927, I used the papers to examine the relationship between family and empire.1 Whilst this showed the important role played by women, I could not do justice to the wealth of information that was available about Eliza. The letters provide fascinating insights into her character and development in a colonial setting, not just as the wife of a British official and begetter of five surviving children by the time she was aged twenty-eight but as a complete personality in her own right. Unusual in some ways, her story is nonetheless one that was replicated across the British World. Yet, because such sources so often disappeared, it is a story seldom told. The chance survival of these letters, therefore, provides a rare opportunity to explore the life of a young woman in empire.
This could not have been done without my grandfather’s foresight, and although he might not have agreed with all that I say, he will have been delighted that the letters have found such a sympathetic publisher. By the end of a long-haul flight from Hong Kong to Denver, USA (during which she read through the initial proposal and transcribed letters), my editor, Abby Leigh Manthey, told me that she felt she was already on first-name terms with Eliza. Since then, despite COVID-19 and other crises, she and her team at the City University of Hong Kong Press have driven this project forward with imagination and skill. It is thanks to them that it has reached fruition and that, along with those who have generously allowed me to use their images, it is so lavishly illustrated. The letters were written at a time when photography was in its infancy, but with an engaging vanity, the Medhursts and Hilliers were quick to catch onto the new medium. Many can now be viewed on the “Historical Photographs of China” website,2 and Jamie Carstairs has kindly supplied digitised copies and helped me to resolve puzzles in relation to dates and locations. Mike Hillier, my cousin and careful custodian of the family albums, and my son, Edward, have also provided their photographic expertise. A more distant cousin, James M’Kenzie-Hall, a direct descendant of Martha, read through an earlier version of the book and made many useful suggestions, as well as providing photographs of Martha’s writing materials, which he had found squirrelled away amongst his late mother’s possessions. Another distant cousin, John Holliday, biographer of Revd Walter Medhurst, has provided much assistance since I started work on the family papers.

Introduction: An Epistolary Relationship

Part I     Intimate Empire

  1     Evangelical Families

  2     Letter-writing and the British World

Part II   The Letters

  3     Marriage, 1846–1847

  4     Early Motherhood, 1847–1851

  5     To Shanghai and Back, August 1851–July 1852

  6     Homeward Bound, 1852

  7     England, 1852–1855

  8     Return to Hong Kong, 1855–1856

  9     At Home in Siam, 1856

10    Sorrow and Bereavement, 1856

Part III    At Home in the Empire

11    Re-building Her Life

              12         Bridging the Distance of Empire

Dr Andrew Hillier is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Bristol. He is the author of Mediating Empire: An English Family in China 1817–1927(Renaissance Books, 2020) and has published articles in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong. He is an active contributor to the Historical Photographs of China Project (, launched by the University of Bristol in 2006, which locates, digitises, and archives historical photographs of China.