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Thomas Russell Hillier McClatchie (1852 – 1886)

by Laszlo Abel

Published Online

Laszlo Abel, martial arts researcher

Australian Laszlo Abel arrived in Japan in 1976 in search of “noncommercial” martial arts. After trying out “ninjutsu” and finding it unsatisfactory, he turned to Yumio Nawa Sensei’s manrikigusari, or chain art. Unanswered questions about the roots of the art led Abel on a fascinating odyssey of historical research. In this article published posthumously, Abel pieces together the highlights of the life of Thomas McClatchie, one of the first foreigners of the Meiji period to have studied Japanese martial arts.

Thomas Russell Hiller McClatchie was born in the winter of 1852 in Shanghai on 5 January, the third son in an English missionary family of four boys and four girls. His mother was Isabella Sarah Parkes (1825 - 1908) while his father was the Reverend Thomas Booth McClatchie (1814 - 1885).

Isabella and Thomas were married in Shanghai in 1846 and, at the time of their son’s baptism at Shanghai’s Holy Trinity Church on 5 May 1852, Thomas is recorded as being a clerk. He is also found in the “Foreign Office List of 1885”, as being a missionary and the consular chaplain at Hankow, China and later became Canon of St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong and of Holy Trinity, Shanghai.

The McClatchie name is of Scottish ancestry with prominence in the Galloway and Ayr districts of Scotland. However, this line of the McClatchie clan may claim roots in Dublin, Ireland. This is where the Reverend McClatchie was born and where he successfully completed a Bachelor’s degree in 1838 and a Master of Arts degree from Trinity College in Dublin in the spring of 1854. His father, also called Thomas, is recorded as being a “scriba” or clerk.

In 1844, the Reverend accepted the position of missionary for the Church Missionary Society and was sent to China. While there, he married and had four children, the last being Thomas Russell. In 1853, the family returned to England and is recorded in the 1861 census as living at 11 Charles Terrace, Bethnal Green, London, Middlesex.

In 1863, their father’s missionary commitments found the family now with seven children returning to China. It was here soon after his 18th birthday that Thomas Russell Hillier McClatchie entered Her Majesty’s Foreign Service. Details concerning his service are available in the “Foreign Office List of 1885.”

“He passed a competitive examination, and obtained an honorary certificate on March 17, 1870 and was appointed a Student Interpreter in Japan on March 30. He was promoted to be a 2nd Class Assistant, April 1, 1873, and a 1st Class Assistant on April 1, 1882. He was acting Vice-Consul at Edo (present-day Tokyo) from April 1 to October 24, 1878. McClatchie was later appointed Registrar of the Japan Court on October 1, 1883. He is recorded as being the Acting Vice Consul at Yokohama from September 20 to November 28 1883”.

In a letter his father wrote on 12 July 1871 in Shanghai to a work colleague, he described his son’s achievement, “My third son is in the Consular Service in Japan. He also took first place at the Civil Service Examination and obtained a greater number of marks than any previous candidate since the establishment of these examinations.”

The position of Student Interpreter was paid £200 annually and was considered the first step for a career in the diplomatic corps.

The impetus to embark on such a vocation probably came from two quarters. His elder brother Harry Parkes McClatchie (1847 – 1883) also joined the diplomatic corps after clearing the entrance examinations outstandingly, and was based in China, and his uncle Sir Harry Smith Parkes (1828 – 1885) K.C.B., G.C.M.B., was a distinguished and long serving diplomat in both China and Japan.

It appears that Thomas was unable to sit this examination in England, as was normal practice, but quite probably in Hankow, China where his father was Consular Chaplain.

In Japan, Thomas worked for his uncle, Sir Harry Parkes, the minister of the British legation. His relationship with his uncle, his scholastic excellence and public speaking ability are exemplified in an excerpt from the journal that Parkes kept and which is partly reproduced in his biography, “The Life of Sir Harry Parkes’. This excerpt written in Yedo (Tokyo) on 12 December 1878, says,

“Russell is a great comfort to me, and I shall be very sorry when he leaves me at the end of the month. He has distinguished himself by an able speech at the St Andrew’s Dinner on the 30th ult, which I had to attend, and where Russell had to give the toast of the bards and authors of Scotland, owing to the person who had undertaken the toast having broken down only the evening before the dinner. Russell had only an hour or two at night to think over what he should say, and yet he reviewed Scotch poetry and literature with considerable ability and used very excellent and eloquent language. It was altogether the speech of the evening. Then the day before yesterday he read his paper on the Yashikis of Yedo, which was also very good.”

McClatchie an early member of the Asiatic Society of Japan was elected to the position of Councillor in the society’s 1882-1883 financial year. In all, he presented five original papers on various topics for the society that are still available through the “Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan”. These are, with dates of presentation,

“The Sword of Japan: Its History and Traditions” (26 November 1873)

“Japanese Heraldry” (25 October 1876)

“The Castle of Yedo” (22 December 1877)

“Discovery of Human Remains in Ibaragi-ken” (23 October 1878)

“The Feudal Mansions of Yedo” (10 December 1878)

Ernest Mason Satow (1843 – 1929) the distinguished English diplomat and scholar, in a private reply letter to E. H. Villers in 1897 described McClatchie as, “One of the best scholars in Japanese whom we ever had, the late Mr T.R.H. McClatchie joined the service just after leaving school.”

Thomas McClatchie was a member of the Masons joining Yokohama Lodge No. 1092 E. C. (English Constitution). In 1876, he was raised to the position of Inner Guard and later attained the highest privilege of Worshipful Master in 1878. In 1879, he was made D. G. Director of ceremonies for the District Grand Lodge of Japan.

In 1879 in Yokohama, he published “Japanese plays (versified)” which was later republished by W. H. Allen in 1890 In London with his younger brother Ernest Suter (1867 - 1929) described as being the editor.

In February of 1879, Thomas McClatchie and several other notable missionaries and ministers are listed as being subscribers to the first annual report of the Tokio Christian Association. These notable foreigners included, W. G. Dixon, W. Dening, A. C. Shaw (one of the first SPG Missionaries to Japan), Sir Harry S. Parkes, and A. H. Mounsey.

While a photograph or other image of Thomas McClatchie has unfortunately not been found, a physical description, his athletic and artistic prowess, are fortunately preserved in several editions of “The Japan Daily Herald”, an English language newspaper published in Yokohama in the Meiji period.

“The results of the Autumn Regatta of the Amateur Rowing Club of Yokohama are printed in the 18 October 1879 edition. In the Tokio (sic) versus Yokohama one-mile race, Tokio was the early favourite however changes to the team produced a second place. McClatchie a member of this team is recorded as being 10st 12lbs (approx 69 kgs). At the end of the meet a half-mile scratch four race was arranged. In this McClatchie’s team took first place honours.”

In the same edition of the paper a report on “The Amateur Dramatic Corps” rendition of “Ivanhoe” was reported,

“…. An entirely new version of some of the songs was supplied by Mr. McClatchie, aided by a dark poet whose modesty prevents him coming to the light; and as these additions treated of passing events they pleased immensely.”

The theatre was packed and the report continues:

“As to the actors it would seem invidious to judge too closely or criticise too keenly where amateurs only are concerned. We cannot, however, refrain from giving a few words of well-merited praise. First and foremost we must mention Wamba (Mr McClatchie)…. His rendering of the part was perfection throughout, from the loving caresses of the huge pie, through the thimble-rigging scene and the earbiting of a restive horse at the tournament, down to the time where he dons the cowl to rescue Rowena nothing was overstrained or exaggerated, but the true gentleman shone through all. This is perhaps the highest praise that can possibly be given, for only those who have tried, know how hard it is to play the fool without degenerating in tone.”

The following Saturday in the 25 October 1879 edition, the results of the autumn meeting of the Amateur Athletic Association of Yokohama was released. Fourteen events took place at a cost to each participant of US$1.00 per event.

McClatchie took out the finals of the 100 yards flat handicap race in 11 seconds. In the “Ladies Purse”, a 600-yard flat handicap race for Association members only, he managed second and in the 120 yards hurdle over 10 flights he took out 3rd place.

Thomas’s interests in Japan were very diversified. Not only was he well respected in the foreign community through athletics and drama, he also excelled at the study of the Japanese language and developed a deep interest in various cultural pursuits.

Kenkichi Sakakibara (1830-1894)

According to this research, he became the first foreigner ever to win acceptance into a school of Japanese swordsmanship in the Meiji period. This achievement helped set a standard and pave the way for other foreigners to enter the martial arts, which at that time was one of the more esoteric aspects of Japan still considered taboo to non-Japanese.

His teacher was Sakakibara Kenkichi (1830 – 1894), the 14th headmaster of the Jikishin Kage Ryu of swordsmanship and reported to be one of the best exponents of the Japanese sword of his day.

How Thomas came to be accepted into Sakakibara’s instruction is explained in an article that appeared in the Japanese newspaper “Tokyo Asahi Shinbum” on 5 May 1902, titled “Asakusa Koen Kenbutsu Nozoki Gekiken kai”. The events were also confirmed during an interview with Sakakibara’s grandson Sakakibara Daijiro at his home in Tokyo on 9 March 1986.

“One day, the young brash McClatchie stomped into Sakakibara’s training hall, then located where the Ueno City Office is presently found, walked onto the training area without removing his footwear and challenged one and all to a duel. The Japanese were not very impressed with this invasion of their privacy and abuse of their sacred customs and promptly accepted this challenge. McClatchie was soundly defeated and not being totally ignorant of his infringement on Japanese customs and tradition begged forgiveness and for the opportunity to join the school.”

Further evidence of his acceptance as a student of Sakakibara’s is presented in the program of the very first Gekiken Kai (lit. a “martial arts show”, which McClatchie himself describes as a “fencing contest”) held in the Tokyo suburb of Ueno on 15 April 1873. These shows were developed by Sakakibara as a means of not only preserving the martial arts but also designed for monetary gain. On this program, the names of Thomas McClatchie and Jack Vince (sic) or Jack Binns (sic) appear as special students. A search of the Japan Directory for Jack’s residency in Japan around the time of this contest found no record.

McClatchie’s interest in pursuing this martial art probably ignited his decision to research his paper “The Sword of Japan: Its History and Traditions”. It was presented to the Asiatic Society on 26 November 1873. Interestingly he did not mention his association with Sakakibara nor that he was his student. Perhaps, this is an indication that he should keep certain things close to his chest.

A woodblock print of an early Gekkenkai competition

His passion and diligence in taking on swordsmanship must have consumed him for the next few years, as he did not present another paper to the Asiatic Society until 1876.

In “Zusetsu Kengo-shi” by Imamura Yoshio, McClatchie is recorded as having been a member of the dojo for three years and of attaining either a Mokuroku (scroll) or Menkyo (licence) grading. In regard to this rank, Namiki Yasushi sensei, headmaster of the Jikishin Kage Ryu, offered further information on 18 November 1989. He said that after three years McClatchie would have received the Reikenden (lit. “About the heart”) mokuroku.

Things started to turn sour for Thomas McClatchie in the early 1880s. In a letter that Parkes wrote to his daughter living in Kobe, Japan dated 25 June 1883, he says,

“Yesterday morning (Sunday) …… I stayed quietly at home and visited Russell in hospital.”

The doctor responsible for the health of the officers of the British legation at that time was Erwin von Baelz (1849 - 1913). Baelz was a strong advocate of establishing physical exercise guidelines for Japanese university students based on Japan’s martial culture. He also became a student of Sakakibara Kenkichi. It is quite possible that Baelz’s close contact with Thomas McClatchie contributed to his later decision to pursue the martial arts.

Such was the standing of Thomas Russell Hiller McClatchie in Yokohama society that when he died a lengthy obituary appeared in the “Japan Weekly Mail” on 27 February 1886. The editor describes McClatchie’s life, personality and ultimate demise.

“… as having speedily distinguished himself by his rapid proficiency of learning the language and his scholarly ability is demonstrated by his having been commissioned to write an article on “Japan” for then the new edition of the “Encyclopedia Britannica”. An ardent lover of all sorts of athletics, he thought nothing of subjecting himself to the severest course of training with an unstinted prosecution of his studies. This rash treatment probably undermined his constitution, for a comparatively light illness contracted in 1882, developed obstinate symptoms, which, refusing to yield treatment, finally reduced him to a mere wreck of his former self. Complete change and the air of his native country were prescribed and this he finally resigned himself to. On his way home he passed away at Penang”.

The first leg of his fateful homeward journey started from Yokohama aboard the steamer “Thibet” via Kobe and Nagasaki bound for Hong Kong. From there he took passage on the steamer “Nepaul”. This ship’s log records the cause of McClatchie’s death as chronic diahorrea. The date was 23 February 1886.

Investigation to locate McClatchie’s grave in Penang through the British authorities there proved fruitless. As he passed away on board a ship it can only be presumed that he was buried at sea.

Following his death, the administration of his estate with a gross value of £237, was granted to his younger brother Ernest Suter on 2 June 1886.

According to Thomas Russell Hiller McClatchie’s last Will and Testament, his estate included his “Consular uniform, sword, Masonic regalia, school prizes which consisted of books, medals and other prizes won by him at athletic sports, his family bible, books, parchments and other documents relating to the family”.

The witnesses to this document were two Englishmen, Charles David Moss (d. 1903) and Geo Hodges (d. 1915). Both are buried in the Yokohama General Cemetery.

Efforts to find thriving descendants of the McClatchie family have proven unsuccessful even though research has been extensive. As a result, an introduction of several family members and a family tree follow.

His younger brother Ernest Suter McClatchie was born in England and is described as an author in the 1901 census and as a journalist on his death certificate, produced several self-published works. Financing was probably aided by his inheritance from his brother Thomas. These books are:

“Waxwing”

“False Plumage”

“Stefan Melikof: a nihilist drama in four acts”

Andrew Churchman of Hammersmith printed “Stefan Melikof” in 1891 and following two worldwide library searches, the only copy found was in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland.

Ernest married Ada Clark (1872 - 1953) in 1917. A search for their last Will and Testaments and any children found nothing. In the 1953 death certificate of Ada it does state that the informant of her passing was her nephew F. A. Clark of Cockfosters.

Millicent Mary McClatchie (1864 – 1954), born in China, was Thomas’s youngest sister and lived until 1954. She never married. Following a trip back to China with her sister Florence Mary (1857 – 1933), from 1895 to 1899 where they stayed primarily with their sister Ellen Louise (1854 – 1924) and her family, she authored “In Varying Scenes And Climes”, an unpublished work that describes their travels in some detail.

This work contains minimal biographical data and was found in the Hong Kong Public Records Office. It was purchased from Ms Kendrick, a niece of Millicent’s, however the records office was unable to provide a current contact.

Ellen Louise, the only child of the Reverend Thomas and Isabella to start a family, married William Scrope Ayrton (1849 - ??), in China in about 1880. William was a Consul in the British government. They had five children.

Their youngest son Frank Alsagar and his wife Kathleen Mary celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1942. It was their daughter Mary E. (b. 1918) who appeared in the 1954 obituary notice of her aunt Millicent Mary McClatchie. She may have been the Ms Kenrick mentioned in the records of Hong Kong Public Records Office.

In closing, one can only guess how if Thomas Russell Hillier McClatchie had survived longer than his 35 short years, the legacy of Japan this energetic intelligent, articulate man would have provided us today can only be imagined. Instead, we have an unmarked grave and a mystery in not knowing what he actually looked like and the likelihood of never knowing this.

Time Line for TRH McClatchie

5 January 1852: Born in Shanghai, China

1853: Family returns to England

1863: Family returns to China

17 March 1870: Passes examination and appointed Student Interpreter

1 April 1873: Promoted to 2nd Class Assistant

15 April 1873: On program of first Gekiken kai

26 November 1873: Presents “The Sword of Japan: Its History and Traditions”

25 October 1876: Presents “Japanese Heraldry”

1876: Inner Guard for Masons Yokohama Lodge

22 December 1877: Presents “The Castle of Yedo”

23 October 1878: “Discovery of Human Remains in Ibaragi-ken”

10 December 1878: “The Feudal Mansions of Yedo”

1878: Worshipful Master Masons Yokohama Lodge

February 1879: Subscriber to first report of Tokio Christian Association

August 1879: Published “Japanese plays (versified)”

25 October 1879: “The Japan Daily Herald” report on Amateur Athletic Assoc of Yokohama autumn meeting

1879: D. G. Director of Ceremonies Masons Grand Lodge of Japan

1879: Leaves for study leave for 2 years

1882-1883: Elected Councillor In Asiatic Society

1 April 1882: Promoted 1st Class Assistant

25 June 1883: Diary entry by Parkes of his visit to Thomas in hospital

1 October 1883: Appointed Registrar of the Japan Court

27 February 1886: Obituary appears in Japan Weekly Mail

Thomas McClatchie Family Tree


We would like to express our gratitude to Mrs. Mayumi Abel for providing the unpublished manuscript used as the basis for this article. For further reading, an interview with Laszlo Abel in two parts originally published in Aikido Journal is linked below:

Interview with Laszlo Abel (1)

Interview with Laszlo Abel (2)