Who do you think you are?
Rick Stein

Rick Stein - How we did it

Overseas Missionary

Great-grandfather: Henry Parkes

Step 1

Henry Parkes in China
Henry Parkes in China

Rick wanted to investigate his mother's ancestry to discover more about the family from which she had been so desperate to escape. Once again he met up with family members for help; this time his cousins Hugh and Ruth. Ruth gave Rick his grandmother's birth certificate. It showed that she was born in Canton and was the daughter of a missionary, Henry Parkes.

Step 2

Rick was able to pick up key information from vital records. Aside from his grandmother's birth certificate, his cousins also showed him their great-grandparents' marriage certificate. This revealed that Henry Parkes was a Wesleyan minister. He would have been taking Christianity to China just after China's defeat by the British in the Opium Wars

Step 3

Rick flew to Hong Kong to meet an academic expert, Professor Lo, president of the Hong Kong Methodist Church. He discovered that previously missionaries had been restricted to five trade ports along the coast, but following the Opium Wars the whole country was open to them. This led to missionaries spreading much further afield.

Professor Lo explained that Henry had arrived in China in 1862 and left in 1882. He had been trained at Richmond College, but had received no practical training in how to survive in far-flung locations. Rick learned that life would have been very difficult for Henry and his family.

Step 4

Rick set off on a tour visiting locations in the Canton area where his great-grandfather lived and worked, and where his grandmother was born. On Shamian Island, where almost all the 180 expatriates in the city lived, Rick met a local minister who showed him the site of the South China Methodist headquarters.

But Henry and his family did not live among the expatriate comforts of Shamian Island: they lived and worked with the Chinese in the eastern side of Canton. With the help of our local guide, we tracked down the derelict site of the church where Henry had preached and taught. Rick heard that numerous churches have been destroyed in China, either many years ago or during the more recent Cultural Revolution.

Step 5

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Rick reads his great-grandfather's letters

During their tour of Canton, Professor Lo provided Rick with a package. It contained business letters written by Henry Parkes in China to the missionary headquarters in London. Such letters are also available on microfiche at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In one letter, dated 1873, Henry requests permission to return home to England after 10 years in China. He states that this is for the benefit of his wife and children, and that his own medical advisor agrees.

By this time, Henry and his wife had four children under the age of six. They would have lived in conditions where cholera, smallpox, typhoid and the plague were rife. Another letter, written seven months later, indicates that Henry had received no response, and that in the meantime two of their children had tragically died. Despite their family loss and continued written appeals, Henry and his family spent another ten years in Canton, finally returning to England in 1883.

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