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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Thomas Henry Gidley, a 19th century Gidley hero in Hong Kong

I just found this by accident today, whilst checking on the Gidley Medal for a correspondent.
The following extract is taken from A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery, by Patricia Lim. In 1894 an outbreak of bubonic plague was widespread in the slums of Hong Kong. By May 1894 nearly 400 plague cases had been found and by June there were nearly 800 - 900 dead. The police were roped in to help control the spread of the disease.
"Thomas Henry Gidley and George Phelps were among the policemen to receive honourable mention and public thanks. Gidley, who died in 1904 aged 31, must have been 21 when he was made ward master on the Hygeia [a hospital ship moored at sea] and responsible for the plague victims during every stage of their illness, from admitting them, to nursing them and finally, all too often, to coffining the corpses. Phelps worked with him, removing the victims of the disease from their houses to the hospital ship and later helping with the coffining of the dead, which included filling the occupied coffins with quicklime. Gidley, who won a plague medal in 1894, lost a daughter, Eugenie Esmeralda Ernestine aged 4 years to the plague in 1886. A policeman with a young family during these years must have been fraught with worry."
Now these dates don't add up. If Thomas Gidley was 21 in 1894, he was only 13 in 1886 when his "daughter" died, and therefore only 9 when she was born.
I checked his details. Thomas Henry Gidley was indeed born in 1873 - in Plymouth, Devon, the oldest child of Hubert John Gidley (sometimes just known as John) and his wife Elizabeth, nee Diamond. Hubert John was born in Bishopsteignton, Devon, a member of that Gidley branch I call the Gidleys of Chudleigh. By the 1871 census Hubert John was a sailor based in Plymouth. By 1881 he had become a Police Constable in Plymouth. But by 1898 Hubert John and his family had set out to seek their fortune far from Devon, and is found on the Hong Kong voters' lists as a foreman at the China Sugar Refining Company.
Possibly his health declined rapidly after that, as by 1901 I think he is back in Plymouth, having found employment as a drayman and living with his sister Susan Purdie. His wife and children remained in Hong Kong at that time.
I have so far located nine children for Hubert John and Elizabeth. The oldest was Thomas Henry, our hero of the 1894 plague year. He was indeed just 21 at this time and rose to become an Inspector of Police by the time of his early death in 1904. However, he did not marry Florence Alice Leyman until 1900 in Portsmouth, back in England. I have not found any children for them so far. Florence may have died in England in 1952.
The next five children of Hubert John and Elizabeth were all born in Plymouth between 1874 and 1881 - Rosina Florence, Hubert John W, Bertha Ann, Venetia May and Sydney Maurice. They became an extremely well-travelled family.
Rosina Florence married Edward Jacobs in "China" (probably Hong Kong)in 1894. Her sister Venetia was also married in Hong Kong, to Leonard Bliss. Sister Bertha, however, married in British Columbia, Canada, in 1898, Thomas McNichol.
Brother Hubert John W, who was a member of the Sanitary Dept. in Hong Kong married Emily Sybil Russell in 1906 in Plymouth, Devon and then went out to British Columbia, possibly to join sister Bertha, to fill a similar post in Vancouver. Two children were born to them there, then Hubert died in 1913, and Emily brought the two children home to England, where a third child was born postumously in Bristol in 1914. Then the family was off again, emigrating to Australia in 1923.
Sydney Maurice Gidley was difficult to track. The only record I have of him is of his departure from Liverpool for Shanghai in 1921 with his wife Eleanor, and his two small daughters, Margaret and Enid. His place of marriage and their places of birth are not known. In 1941 there is a tantalising extract from the wartime diary of A. H. Potts, published on the Old Hong Kong website (
"Mon, 8 Dec 1941
After the first few days an excellent chap named Gidley (?) was put in charge of the coolies and drivers, he housed and fed them in the racecourse stables and lived there with them – he arranged that if a man was to be away during chow time that some biscuits and a tin of meat was given to them before leaving; however he was too late as during the first few days many lorries were lost through deliberate sabotage, which was undoubtedly largely due to the treatment meted out to the drivers.
Fri, 12 Dec 1941
The coolie labour which we were employing was to remain with Gidley in charge. We packed up after tiffin and moved out to Shouson Hill, ...
Mon, 15 Dec 1941
We found Capt. Wiseman in charge of the small pool at Happy Valley and attached ourselves to him for rations, but I arranged for my men to sleep in one of the private boxes so that they would be undisturbed. Major Grieve was also there in charge of coolie labour, his command of 12th Co. RASC having been transferred to Major Dewer. Lt. Gidley was still living in the stables with his coolies."
Sydney Maurice was too old at 60 to be a Lieutenant in the Army, but it's possible he later had a son. But it could be another Gidley entirely.
And finally the three youngest children of Hubert John Gidley and his wife Elizabeth were all born in Hong Kong, and, sadly, all died there too, at a young age. They are all buried in Hong Kong Cemetery. Angus George Gidley born in 1886, died in 1901, aged 15. Laura Frances born 1888, died aged 11 months in 1889, and Eugenie Esmeralda Ernestine, born in 1891, died in 1896 aged 4.
So this is the solution to Patricia Lim's error. Eugenie was Thomas's sister, not his daughter, and her date of death was not 1886 but 1896, after the plague had passed (though I have no idea what she died of). The inscription on the grave she shares with her sister Laura reads "In loving memory of/ Laura Frances/ died October 22nd 1889/ aged 11 months/ also of/ Eugenie Esmeralda Ernestine/ died March 31st 1896/ aged 4 years and 5 months/ children of Hubert and Elizabeth Gidley/ Far too lovely were our darlings/ for this cold and bitter life/ and although we weep to miss them/ they are far from worldly strife."