A Customs Officer’s view of China: the photographs of R.F.C. Hedgeland

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|7th June 2018|Collections & Research|0 comments

This week’s blog looks at the photographs of Reginald Hedgeland, an officer with the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. Throughout over thirty years of service across China, Hedgeland photographed the work of the Customs Service and his domestic and social life, giving an insight into the life of a Customs officer.

Reginald Follett Codrington Hedgeland was born in Exeter, Devon on 18 December 1874. He joined the Chinese Maritime Customs Service in May 1898, having graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford, the previous year. Hedgeland was one of many foreigners from Europe and America who made up the higher levels of the Customs Service, which was controlled by central Chinese government. Originally established by foreign consuls to collect maritime taxes during the Taiping Rebellion in 1854, it expanded to include other functions such as domestic customs, postal services, and waterway and harbour management, and it was involved in politics and diplomacy.

Hedgeland’s long career in China, which saw him retire with the rank of Commissioner in 1930, took him to many ports. His first posting was to Hoihow [Haikou], a port on the mouth of the Nandu River on the island of Hainan in the south. Later posts included Nanking [Nanjing], Tientsin [Tainjin], Macau, Hong Kong, Nanning, Aigun, Swatow [Shantou] and Canton [Guangzhou]. These varied postings are captured in the three photograph albums of his now held at SOAS Archives. The photographs show many aspects of Hedgeland’s daily life in China, including views of rooms in his houses and offices, of his colleagues and staff, and of his social life. Many of Hedgeland’s postings were to remote ports such as Nanning or Aigun, where the foreign social circles would have been confined and social opportunities limited. His photographs of the club house and golf course in Nanning show the somewhat improvised nature of the entertainment available there. Hedgeland’s archive documents an experience of the Customs Service far removed from the foreign experience of Shanghai, Hong Kong or Peking [Beijing].

It is likely that Hedgeland took some of the photographs himself, but it is also likely that he collected photographs taken by friends and colleagues as well as purchasing some from commercial photographers. In this respect the albums are similar to those of John Oswald, the subject of an earlier blog. The albums were compiled after Hedgeland returned to England in 1930. The time gap between the photographs being taken and the albums being compiled may explain some of the inconsistencies and contradictions in the photographs’ captions.


Further photographs from the Hedgeland collection can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China, alongside photographs of China from other SOAS Archive collections.

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Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: special.collections@soas.ac.uk tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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