Vyvyan Edward John DENT was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in November 1896, at its Isis-Urania temple in London, taking the Latin motto ‘Migrabo’.  He progressed very rapidly through the necessary study and exams, and was initiated into the inner, Second Order in January 1898.  However, he was unable to make any sustained contribution to the Golden Dawn’s meetings and rituals because he lived in China.





By the 19th century the Dent family had been farmers in Westmoreland for generations, leasing land at Maulds Meaburn and Crosby Ravensworth.  Farming in so remote an area was a hard life, and since the 17th century at least, there had been a family tradition of younger sons leaving the farm (which they wouldn’t inherit anyway) and going into trade in India.  Four of the younger sons in the 1780s and 1790s generation of Dents were particularly lucky: they went out to India and China in the years after Waterloo, with Britain left ruling the waves and the Chinese empire weakening.  They got in with a group of men, the future founders of Magniacs, Jardine Matheson, Baring Brothers bank and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation - rivals, friends and in-laws, all trading between Britain, India and China.


The four Dent brothers didn’t all work together: Thomas and Lancelot ran the company best known as Dent and Co; William traded alone, and moved into English railway finance; and Robert worked first on his own, then with some partners none of whom were Dents. Opium into China and tea and silk out again - you’d think that it couldn’t fail; but businesses involving the Dents had a tendency to go bankrupt down the years, in a welter of legal cases and disputed Wills which meant the Dents never kept as much money as they had made.


Vyvyan Dent was a grandson of two of the four brothers; and his father, Henry William Dent, had worked for two more of them.



Vyvyan Dent’s father’s father: ROBERT DENT


Robert was the eldest of the brothers Dent, born in Maulds Meaburn in September 1893, and should have inherited the family farm.  It seems, though, as if he didn’t want to take up that burden.  The writer of the Stepneyrobarts family history website thinks that - despite the lack of evidence for this - Robert must have gone into the India trade, and at a very young age, because in 1820 he spent £30,000 buying himself a partnership in Rickards, Mackintosh, Law and Co, which went through a variety of names in the 1820s but always described itself as a ‘general agent’.  I agree with the Stepneyrobarts writer - you wouldn’t have got that kind of money out of farming in Westmoreland.  Rickards Mackintosh (as it was by 1830) specialised in making deals for goods and money transfer between India and Britain. It went bankrupt in 1833, owing eye-watering sums not only to traders but also to individuals.  Around the time that the partnership was beginning to unravel, Robert also tried his hand at investing on a different continent, buying a copper mine on the border between Venezuela and Colombia.  Like many an investment in 19th century South America, especially in unseen mines, it promised far more than it delivered; though the land remained in the family until 1866.


Law suits about money owed by Rickards Mackintosh were still being fought in 1839 and the fact that the firm was struggling shortened several of its partners’ lives: one of them, William Fulton, died in 1830 - perhaps his hand had steadied the tiller; Robert Rickards died in 1836; and Robert Dent died in 1835 with his youngest child, Henry William, only a year old.



Vyvyan Dent’s mother’s father: WILLIAM DENT


I haven’t found out much about this particular William Dent.  William is a common fore-name in the clan and it’s been hard to identify this one amongst all of them.  He was youngest of the four trading brothers, born in 1798.  Like the three older ones, he was involved in trading between Britain and the East.  However, unlike the others he seems to have concentrated on India rather than moved into Hong Kong or China, and I think he never went into partnership with anyone, at least until he came back to England.  I haven’t been able to find any details of his marriage to Mary, and I don’t know her surname.  I hazard that they married in India.  They were still living in India in the late 1830s and both their daughters were born there, Catherine in 1833 or thereabouts, and Emma Sabine in 1839.  By the early 1850s William had brought his family back to England. By this time William was a seriously wealthy man.  He was still involved in trade with India and was living in St Pancras parish near where Euston Station is now.  By the end of the decade, though, he had moved out of London to Bickley Park (at that time in Kent) and perhaps he had retired, because in 1861 he described himself to the census official as a landowner and magistrate, not as a businessman.  He was still involved in one business project however: he was the prime mover behind the district’s first railway, the Mid-Kent Railway which ran from Bromley to St Mary Cray; he became the railway company’s first chairman.  He could still afford to pay a butler, a housekeeper as well as a cook, two housemaids, a kitchen maid and a lady’s maid to tend his wife.  Both his and Mary’s daughters had married in the mid-1850s.  Catherine married George Welstead Colledge, who worked for the Indian Civil Service; and Emma Sabine married Henry William Dent. 



Vyvyan Dent’s father HENRY WILLIAM DENT


Henry William Dent, always called Harry, was the youngest child of Robert Dent and his wife Charlotte.  He was born in  Mitcham Surrey on 7 February 1834.  After his father’s death his mother moved back into London for a few years, to the area just north of Regent’s Park.  In the 1840s she lived in in Blackheath, and then she moved out of town again to Kent, where she died in September 1861.  She tried to leave her money to Harry and his older brother Thomas but I’m not sure how much they actually saw of it, as so much of her inheritance from both her husbands was tied up in ‘Jarndyce-versus-Jarndyce’ law suits.     


As he happened to be at school on the day of the 1851 census I know that Henry William Dent attended Rev Edward Selwyn’s school in Victoria Terrace Lee in Kent.  It was inevitable, I suppose, that on leaving school Henry William would follow the family trend and go East.  However, he didn’t go as a trader, he joined the Bengal Civil Service.  It must have been during his years as a civil servant in India that he qualified as a barrister - I haven’t been able to find out when he passed his exams or which inn of court he became a member of; and I’m not sure he ever practised law, either in Britain or anywhere else.  I just haven’t been able to find any information on that side of his life.


First cousins Henry William Dent and Emma Sabine Dent married each other on 10 July 1856 in  Bromley and went, probably almost at once, to set up as a couple in Calcutta, where their elder son, Ernest William, was born in April 1857.


It’s possible that Henry William Dent became a barrister in order to work for his uncles in the family firm.  Either that, or the idea of having a barrister on the staff - moreover, one who was closely related to you - appealed to Thomas and Lancelot Dent.  One way or the other, in 1859 Henry William Dent left the Indian civil service and went to work for Dent and Co as the senior employee in the firm’s Shanghai office.  He quickly established himself amongst the English community there, becoming a consul, getting involved in the syndicate that set up Shanghai’s second race course (though that was soon bought out by a more ambitious scheme), and being elected one of the first chairmen of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.  Long separations were part of the territory for families where the breadwinner earned his crust in the Empire, and on the day of the 1861 census Henry William was in China while Emma Sabine and Ernest William were staying with her parents in Bickley.  Emma Sabine may have made the trip to England to leave her son with his grandparents while he went to school - although he seems rather young for that, aged only four.  On the other hand, maybe he was ill: after this one appearance on the census he disappears from history.  With or without Ernest William, Emma Sabine returned to Shanghai and died there in 1863, a year after the birth of her second son.





Vyvyan Edward John Dent was born in May 1862 in the Dent hong in Shanghai.  What’s a ‘hong’?  Used in this kind of context, the Chinese word means a warehouse.  As I’m sure that the Dent family didn’t live on the top floor above the firm’s tea and opium cargoes, I think of it as something more like a compound, with a warehouse but also living quarters standing in their own grounds.  Even at this early period, some western residents of Shanghai were building homes on a grand scale.  The most interesting thing about the Dent hong is that it was not in the British concession in the city, it was in the French one, on the corner of what were then the Avenue du Roi Albert (which I think is now Nanlu Shanxi) and Route Vallon (now Nanchang Lu).  The property was still owned by the Dent family in the 1930s. 


I do think Vyvyan’s early years must have been rather lonely: with his mother dead, his father with his own problems, and living thousands of miles from other family members, the child’s closest ties may have been with his nursemaid, who was almost certainly Chinese.  His future life was also diverted from whatever his parents had planned for him by Dent and Co’s bankruptcy, which happened when he was four.  A new Dent and Co was set up some years afterwards, by Vyvyan’s cousin Alfred (a younger son of Thomas Dent); but Vyvyan never worked for the family firm.  Of course, he may not have wanted to!  Henry William Dent seems to have stayed on in Shanghai for a short time after Dent and Co’s collapse, perhaps trying to sort out the mess, but then he returned to England and lived in London from the early 1870s until his death.  On the day of the 1871 census, Vyvyan was living with his grandparents, William Dent and Mary, who had moved to 7 Palace Road Surbiton Park.  William Dent was still able to employ a butler, cook, kitchenmaid, housemaid and a nursemaid for Vyvyan, so life was comfortable enough.   However, it was an elderly household, with both his grandparents over 70.  They both died in 1877, while Vyvyan was at school.


The old East India College where Henry William Dent most probably went to be prepared for the Bengal civil service had closed down as part of the changes that were made in the wake of the Indian Mutiny.  Haileybury School had been founded on the old College site, in 1864.  Vyvyan Dent spent three years at Haileybury, from 1875 to 1878; he then went to the Realschule in Cassel in Germany, and also spent some time in France.  Such an education, adding German and French to the English and Mandarin Chinese he already knew, would have been a good preparation for a job with Dent and Co in Shanghai.  They were also a sound basis for the completely different kind of career Vyvyan chose.  Whereas you can view Dent and Co, Jardine Matheson and others as poachers, Vyvyan opted to be a gamekeeper instead: he joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs department in 1882 and remained on its staff until his retirement, with the rank of Commissioner, in 1916.


The Chinese Imperial Customs department had been set up in 1854.  It was run from Peking by the imperial government, but most of its senior staff were foreigners; the first two of its inspector-generals were English.  For most of Vyvyan’s career the inspector-general was Robert Hart, who expected sophisticated use of the Chinese language and high standards of both expertise and morality from his juniors.  The department had been founded to ensure the government was able to collect its taxes but it soon diversified into a range of allied fields, everything from harbour management, customs and excise collection, financial record-keeping and loan negotiation.  By the time Vyvyan reached the summit of his career in the department its bureaucracy was gigantic, with 738 British employees, 170 German ones and 12,389 Chinese.  A typical career for a European employee involved short periods of time in a number of towns in your early years, leading (hopefully) to promotion to posts at the headquarters (Peking, where the inspector-general was based) and in the most important office (Shanghai, where the inspector-general’s immediate deputy worked) as you became more senior and experienced.  Pay was always a problem, because the actual amount you received in any year was linked to the fluctuating price of silver.  To make matters worse, at their retirement employees would not get a departmental pension; they had to save up for an annuity themselves out of their unpredictable pay.  For these reasons, employees tended not to take the generous periods of leave they were entitled to - for example, two full years (admittedly on half-pay) for every 10 years worked.


All Vyvyan’s postings were in the area of China which spoke Mandarin Chinese.  He began his working life with a spell at Hankow; he was based at the port of Chefoo (now Yantai) during the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-95) which the Chinese essentially lost; then he went to Kiukiang; then to Foochow; then on to head office in Peking; and finally, by 1908, to the Shanghai offices in the Customs House on the Bund - a very English-looking tudorbethan building with a Big-Ben style clock - as Acting Deputy Commissioner with responsibility for outdoor goods, bonding, and returns.  Here’s a bit more information on the cities in which Vyvyan worked, and what they are called in modern Chinese usage:

-           Hankow is now Hankou but no longer exists, being one of three towns merged to make the modern metropolis Wuhan.  Wuhan is in Hubei province at the confluence of the rivers Han and Yantze.

-           Chefoo is what foreign residents of China called the town the Chinese know as Yantai, one of the ports set up by the Treaty of Nanking.  It is in Shandong province, north of Shanghai, and in Vyvyan’s time was a centre of the silk trade.  There was a strong German presence in the town and later the whole province was ruled by Germany.  Chefoo did not have a foreign concession area as such, and social amenities for Europeans were rather thin on the ground.

-           Kiukiang is now Jiujang.  It’s a town on the Yangtze river in Jiangxi province and was a treaty port from 1862.  It is situated in an important rice-growing area and rice was one of its main exports.  In Vyvyan’s time there were also two, Russian-operated factories making brick tea for the Russian market.  Kiukiang was a centre of the opium trade; I wonder what Vyvyan thought of that?

-           Foochow is now Fuzhou.  It’s in Fujian province.  During the 18th century Foochow had been the centre of tea exports to Europe but by Vyvyan’s time this trade had been largely replaced by exports of camphor and lacquer-ware goods.  The town was an important centre of Protestant missionary work - something Vyvyan would have had little sympathy with.  Unlike Chefoo, Foochow had a proper European concession area and social life was sophisticated, with a race course, a Club, a freemasons’ lodge and facilities for sports; there was even an English-language newspaper.


In 1892, during his period working in Chefoo, Vyvyan married Ada Battinson.  The marriage took place in Shanghai Cathedral, which made me think that Ada came from a family based in China.  Not so, however.  Ada had grown up in London and Vyvyan had probably known her since they were both teenagers, as her family lived very close to Henry William Dent’s home in Talgarth Road West Kensington.  The Battinson family came from Halifax and Ada’s father Isaac drew his income from several patents he had been granted for improved machinery to comb wool, linen and other cloth.  Ada and Vyvyan had one child, Robert Vyvyan, born in Chefoo in 1893.


I wonder whether Vyvyan had any qualms about marrying Ada and taking her - an Englishwoman with no experience of the far east at all - to China in the 1890s?   He was not to know, I suppose, that the Qing dynasty’s end (the last emperor abdicated in 1912) was going to be followed by ever-more-violent and politically partisan fighting for control of the power vacuum that was being created; which only finally ended in 1949.  Although I think that Vyvyan’s promotion to Peking probably came too late for it, he and Ada may have been living in Peking in 1900, when the city’s foreign residents were besieged in their residential quarter during the Boxer rebellion.  Shanghai, his last promotion, was safer, at least up to the 1920s, being tantamount to a foreign city in China.  Vyvyan’s time there will have been a very busy one, as Shanghai was the point at which money and goods flowed into China during the economic boom which followed concessions made by the dowager empress (China’s de facto ruler at the time) in 1900. 


Vyvyan and Ada seem to have led a life very similar to any other foreign couple living in Shanghai between 1900 and 1930, one based around very western-style leisure and venues - clubs, tennis, the race-course, dinners, charity concerts...  Almost like being in England; or the USA - baseball teams started to visit Shanghai before the first World War.  The friendships of most foreign residents would be made through work, and wouldn’t involve the city’s Chinese residents at all; though Vyvyan also sought out the few foreigners in Shanghai who shared his interest in Chinese history and religion.


One of the things that had brought Vyvyan and Ada together was a shared a delight in music and they were both accomplished musicians.  Ada sang well enough, and was brave enough, to do it in public at charity concerts, though she was never professional; and Vyvyan had several musical compositions published (I haven’t been able to find out anything about these unfortunately).   Ada must also have been a notable hostess, as Vyvyan had already gained a reputation for hospitality and for the large number and variety of his friends.  Many of these friends were Chinese - I’m not sure how common that was, amongst Europeans living in China at that time.  Some of Vyvyan’s interests also set him at a distance from the more imperially-minded members of China’s English community, and (although the writer of the obituary I found was discreet about it) Vyvyan does seem to have had a reputation as an eccentric.  His collection of china probably didn’t raise many eyebrows, but Vyvyan was also interested in Tibetan tantric buddhism and collected objects connected with that, which were exhibited at the Liége World Exhibition in 1905  and also at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of April-December 1904, better known as the St Louis World’s Fair (of ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ fame).  The writer of Vyvyan’s obituary described his religious views as more Confucian than Christian, and he visited Chinese temples - not something many European residents were prepared to do.  He was also interested in the sexual-psychological basis of mythology and folklore, and in the occult, though he was sceptical about the genuine-ness of spirit manifestations and the like.   


Between 1896 and 1898, Vyvyan and his family were living in Brunswick Square Bloomsbury, on a two-year spell of leave.  Henry William Dent had died late in 1893 and Vyvyan may have needed to make a trip to Europe to help wind up the estate.  Robert Vyvyan would also have been able to meet his Battinson grandparents for the first time.  Vyvyan had brought with him some of his collection of Chinese artefacts, and during his stay he donated a set of four silver and enamel lucky charms to the British Museum.  He had also brought some seeds of the Chefoo lantern creeper, which he sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. 


It was during this long leave that Vyvyan was initiated into the Golden Dawn.  Who recommended him?  There are several possibilities.  One goes back as far as Bromley, where not only William Dent was living in the 1860s but also his brother Thomas, of Dent and Co.  Bromley’s social round at that time will have included William Farr and his family.  Two of William Farr’s daughters were later members of the Golden Dawn.  It’s possible, too, that both the Dent brothers knew relations of Mrs Farr from their time in the far east: her surname before her marriage had been Whittal; and a man called Whittal was known to Henry William Dent in Shanghai.  So that’s one possibility.  Another is that Ada Dent knew people in the Golden Dawn from her pre-marriage days in Fulham; several Golden Dawn members lived there.  I’m not so keen on that as a route, because Ada was never in the Golden Dawn herself.  It’s more likely that Vyvyan Dent was introduced to the GD through freemasonry, a good source of GD members, though more in its first two years than later.  I haven’t found any evidence that Vyvyan was an active freemason in England - he hardly had any time to be, after all; but he may have been a freemason in China (impossible to find anything out about that) and during a period of leave in 1886 he went (as a visitor) to a meeting of the lodge Quatuor Coronati number 2076.  William Wynne Westcott was a member of QC2076 and Samuel Mathers often attended the meetings as a guest.  The symbolism of freemasonry was a common topic for talks at QC2076 meetings.  A shared interest in the subject may have led to a chat between Westcott and Vyvyan after the formal part of the meeting was over; and they may have kept in touch in the following years.





For most Europeans employed in the far east, retirement meant packing up and returning home.   However, in Vyvyan Dent’s case things were not that simple.  He retired 1916, when Europe was two years into the supposed war to end all wars, so the time was not auspicious for starting again in England.  In addition, there were financial reasons for staying - I’ve mentioned above the financial problems that working for the Chinese Maritime Customs department could give its employees when their careers were over.  On the other hand, the struggles of the various factions to take control of China’s ex-empire showed no signs of reaching any conclusion.  I think, though, that Vyvyan never considered the option of going home.  Robert Vyvyan was working in Shanghai.  And any annuity Vyvyan had saved up for, would stretch a lot further in China than in England.  I think, too, that for Vyvyan, England wasn’t ‘home’, he was more at home in China, where he had spent most of his life.  He opted to stay in Shanghai.


Vyvyan Dent died, in Shanghai, on 20 February 1929.  Ada and Robert Vyvyan stayed in China until some time in the late 1930s.  By that time an invading army from Japan was in control of some parts of China; and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong who’d risen to prominence in 1934, were looking increasingly likely to step into the power vacuum if only the Japanese could be ousted.  Ada died in Surrey in 1940.




BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.


Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert.  Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986.  Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914.  The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation.  All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden. 


Family history: freebmd; ancestry.co.uk (census and probate); findmypast.co.uk; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families; thepeerage.com; and a wide variety of family trees on the web.


Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD.  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.


Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.


Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources.  I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.




THE rest of the DENTS

Before I start, a note about the website www.stepneyrobarts.co.uk.  I drew heavily on this site for my history of the Dents and their doings.  It was a well-researched site, clearly based on original documents, family and otherwise.  However, by January 2014 it had disappeared completely from the web and I couldn’t find all the information that was on it at any other website.  A dreadful loss.  I can only suggest that anyone wanting to try to find out more about particular members of the Dent family, or Charlotte Lloyd Robarts, should google their names and see what comes up. 


Dent and Co


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 15 p841 lamented the lack of information on the Dent family of Hong Kong and Shanghai, especially compared to the amount of archives relating to (for example) Jardine Matheson.  However ODNB did give some basic information on the brothers who founded the firm last-known as Dent and Co: Thomas Dent who died in 1872 but had returned to live in England long before; and Lancelot, who joined him in the 1820s.  P842 after the collapse of the original firm, Thomas’ 3rd son Alfred (1844-1927) began again, becoming head of the renamed Dent Brothers and Co and chair of many other industrial and financial concerns.  Oxford DNB is now (January 2014) online at www.oxforddnb.com,; when I searched using “William Dent” “Jane Wilkinson”, I was able to go straight to the right page..



Wikipedia on Dent and Co, which the article saw as the third of the 3 original Canton-based companies who moved first to Hong Kong and then opened up in Shanghai as well; the other 2 being Jardine Matheson, and Russell and Co.  The firm had had several names before being called Dent and Co.


The first Dent, Thomas, went out to Canton/Guangzhou 1823 as partner in Davidson and Co.  Davidson left the partnership 1824; it was reformed as Dent and Co 1826.  The next Dent, Lancelot, went out to join Thomas, and when Thomas left 1831 became senior partner, still based in the East.  An arrest warrant issued by the Chinese Imperial authorities inn 1839 for Lancelot, for opium smuggling, began the Opium Wars.  Lancelot and T C Beale worked as partners in the firm 1840-57, it being known during those years as Dent Beale and Co; then Beale left, and Lancelot carried on with the firm as Dent and Co.  The firm moved its HQ from Canton/Guangzhou to Victoria Hong Kong in 1841.  It was then one of the first companies to set up in Shanghai, starting there 1843 at 14 The Bund and exporting silk and tea.  (Addition 17 Oct 2012 by S A Davis: most sources on Dent and Co skip lightly over the fact that what they were importing into China was opium.)


Lancelot Dent was one of the committee of Far Eastern businessmen which founded the firm that became the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, in March 1865.  The collapse of Dent and Co began with a run on the bank Overend Gurney and Co which spread to other banks. Dent and Co had to shut its Hong Kong office in 1866 before ceasing trading in 1867.


A Legacy of Opium by Douglas Fraser.  Tenby Heritage Pubns 2010 p5 by 1831 the firm that would become Jardine Matheson, and Dent & Co, did 2/3 of non-government trade between Britain and China.  At this time all such trade went through Canton, the only Chinese port open to foreign shipping.  P20 in the 1830s Dent & Co was one of several British enterprises carrying on a completely illegal trade in opium along the Chinese coast.  P23 the company undercut their British trade rivals and renaged on a price-fixing agreement reached with them (about opium) so they were neither liked nor trusted by other trading companies.


From elsewhere on wikipedia, 2 dates of importance in the history of Dent and Co, Jardine Matheson and other far eastern businesses:

-           1834: the year that the East India Company lost its monopoly of British trade with China

-           1842: date of the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the opium wars and made concessions very important to British traders: the cecession of the island now called Hong Kong to the British; and permission to create five treaty ports on Chinese territory.


Dent and Co’s collapse doesn’t seem to have worried the Times very much:

Times Thur 8 November 1866: the Money Market and City Intelligence that day was the first time the Times had mentioned that something was wrong at Dent & Co.  The report contained one small paragraph saying that Dent Palmer and Co (a completely separate business from Dent & Co) had refused “yest” to take any more draughts on “Messrs Dent and Co., of China”.  An even shorter note in Times Fri 9 November 1866 p6 Money Markets and City Intelligence says that the draughts refused were to a value of £30,000.

Times Sat 10 November 1866 State of Trade noted that the failure of Dent and Co was being “reported” quite widely, though it gave no further details. The report was more concerned that the firm’s failure was adding to the atmosphere of gloom in the City but it tried to reassure readers by saying that relatively few British companies had been affected by it.  In saying that, the Times demonstrated how out of touch it was with how the failure was being felt elsewhere: Times Sat 12 January 1867 p7 item State of Trade was a report from a correspondent in Manchester that people there were worried about affect of the “failure of Dent and Co” on local businesses dealing with China.

Times Thur 15 August 1867 p7 a letter to the business column was talking about the difficulty of getting money owed, out of the wreckage of Dent and Co.


Family history of the Dent brothers, composed 2011 from two web pages: Stepneyrobarts and  //parsonsfamily.blogware.com/indiI, neither of which can now (January 2014) be reached.  The information held at //parsonsfamily.blogware is still on the web.  I eventually found it by googling “Thomas DENT 1796-1872"; amongst the responses was a web page beginning archive.is/D121 and when I clicked on that I found a page with a reference to parsonsfamily.blogware.  The Dent brothers are all children of William Dent (1762-1801) of Trainlands, county Westmoreland and his wife Jane née Wilkinson:


Robert Dent 1793-1835 who married Charlotte Robarts née Lloyd.


John Dent 1795-1845; neither website knew who he had married but his children were

            John DOB unknown

            Robert Cecil born 1826.


Thomas Dent 1796-1872, of Dent and Co.  He married Sabine Ellen Robarts and had a large family: 4 daughters and 8 sons including Alfred.


William Dent 1798-1877 (see below) father of Emma Sabine Dent.


Lancelot Dent 1799-1853, Thomas Dent’s partner in Dent and Co; he died unmarried.


Wilkinson Dent 1800-86 died unmarried. 


Documents now held at the Cumbria Record Office indicate that there was also a sister, Elizabeth Dent, who died unmarried in 1847.  Wilkinson Dent took over the farm on her death.



ROBERT DENT was never a partner in Dent & Co

The ex-website

www.stepneyrobarts.co.uk/149858.htm looked at Robert Dent’s life from the point of view of his wife Charlotte Robarts, née Lloyd and her life as the widow of two men who’d made money and lost it in trading ventures in the Far East.  It had specific birth data for Robert Dent: 21 September 1793 in Maulds Meaburn Westmoreland.


Charlotte’s dates were c1793-1861.  Her first marriage was to James Thomas Robarts (1784-1825) who’d worked for the East India Company in Macâo and Canton. Charlotte Robarts’ 2nd marriage, to Robert Dent, took place in 1826 in St Pancras old church.  For most of their married life they lived at Mitcham House, Mitcham Surrey.  Their children were:

            Charlotte Dent born 1828

            Thomas Wilkinson Dent born and died 1829

            a second Thomas Wilkinson John Dent born 1830

            Robert Wilkinson Dent born 1832, who died in India

            Henry William Dent, Vyvyan’s father, born 7 February 1834 in Mitcham. 


Robert Dent died in 1835.   Charlotte Dent lived north of Regent’s Park for a few years before moving to Lee Terrace Blackheath in the 1840s.  She died in 1861; her money was left principally to her sons by Dent, Thomas and Henry William, who was known as Harry.


Stepneyrobarts listed the partners in Rickards Mackintosh Law and Co, traders between London, India and China, as: Robert Rickards; Eneas Mackintosh the uncle of James Matheson; James Law; and John Williamson Fulton.  The company’s London offices were at 15 Bishopsgate.  Robert Dent also invested in land in Venezuela.  It had a copper mine on it but the venture failed.


Evidence to back up Stepneyrobarts about Robert Dent’s venture in South America.  Amongst papers held at Cumbria Record Office in Kendal there are:

-           letters to Robert Dent 1831-32 from Brian Adams in Caracas about mines in Venezuela

-           details of the sale of the Bolívar estate to the Quebrada Railway and Mining Co in January 1866.


The collapse of Rickards Mackintosh:

Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register volume 17 1835 p211 in the middle of long article detailing the financial mess the collapse of the company had left behind it, mention of the first meeting held by the company’s creditors, on 17 May 1833, and a reference to its owing over £1million. 


I found a reference on the web (whose details I’ve now lost) saying Rickards’ dates are 1769-1836.


The Legal Observer volume 18 1839 p123: article on cases involving money owed by Rickards Mackintosh in London, which have still not been resolved.  Many private citizens were owed money because they had used the firm as a bank when moving money from Calcutta to Britain.  It was Mackintosh and Co c 1819-20; then Rickards Mackintosh and Co, general agents, from 1823.  Fulton was a partner in it from 1823 until his death in January 1830.



WILLIAM DENT 1798-1877 brother of Thomas, Lancelot and Robert:

Marriage of Katherine Mary (registered a second time, as Catherine Mary) Dent to George Welstead Colledge registered Cheltenham Jan-March quarter 1854.  Allen’s Indian Mail vol 9 1851 p466 list of 8 men who’d passed the September exams to enter into the East India College next term included George Welstead Colledge.


Via web: www.londongardensonline.org.uk item on St George’s churchyard Bickley.  The church had been built 1863-65 on land formerly owned by William Dent “chairman of the Mid-Kent Railway Co”.

Via googlebooks: The Economy of Kent 1640-1914 by Alan Armstrong 1995; p224 says that William Dent had been the prime mover in getting the company that built the Mid-Kent railway started.  At its Bickley/Bromley end, it ran from the station called Mason’s Hill which opened in 1858.

London Gazette 27 November 1857 p4152 announcement required by the the Mid Kent Railway (Bromley to St Mary Cray) Act 1856, giving details of the route the new railway would follow.  The railway would go across land currently owned by William Dent “of Bickley Park”.



HENRY WILLIAM DENT son of Robert Dent and wife Charlotte:

Allen’s Indian Mail 1856 issue of 18 July 1856 Marrs p436 incl Henry William Dent of the Bengal Civil Service to Emma Sabine Dent daughter of William Dent of Bickley; on “July 10" [1856].  The same details appeared in the Times Mon 14 July 1856 p1a.

Familysearch came up with: Ernest William Dent born 20 April 1857 in Calcutta; baptised there May 1857.  Parents Henry William Dent and wife “Emma Lavina”.  Familysearch didn’t have a death for this boy; on the other hand he definitely didn’t attend Haileybury School like Vyvyan did so I rather assume he died in  Shanghai before getting to that age.  Certainly no mention of him again in records of H W Dent or Vyvyan.

Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals 1854-63 Volume 1 by Robert Hart, Katherine F Bruner and J K Fairbank 1986; p355 fn59 Dent & Co are described by the editors as having “an extensive business in opium” via Calcutta, Bombay and London, with fleets along the Chinese coast and “receiving stations” off the treaty ports.  H W Dent himself is described as “of Dent & Co, a bitter rival of Jardine Matheson and Co”.

Shantung Road Cemetery Shanghai 1846-68 by E S Elliston 1946 has Dents listed in it; Emma Sabine but perhaps her son Ernest William as well.

Robert Hart and China’s Early Modernization 1863-66 Volume 2 by Robert Hart, R J Smith and J K Fairbank 1991 p467 fn 94 in this volume, H W Dent is described by the editors as “a merchant consul” and the representative of Dent & Co.  Dent & Co’s offices were at Yangtze Road Shanghai; the firm’s  head office was at Queen’s Road Hong Kong.  (A note from Sally Davis October 2012: Robert Hart was the second inspector-general of the Chinese Maritime Customs department.  He was first appointed in 1863 and finally retired in 1911).)

The China Who’s Who issue of 1922 p84 entry for Vyvyan Dent: H W Dent described here as the managing partner of Dent & Co in Shanghai from 1859 and chairman of HSBC (no dates for the chairmanship, unfortunately).


Shanghai racecourse and the man named Whittal: the website www.earnshaw.com/shanghai-ed-India/tales/library/pott/pott08.htm has a link to www.talesofoldchina/com/shanghai/events.php which lists some of the early western buildings of Shanghai with a few details about the circumstances in which they were built.  There were 4 different race courses.  The 2nd of them was set up in 1860 when a syndicate was formed to buy 40 acres of land for horse racing and cricket.  The syndicate’s members were: R C Antrobus, James Whittal, Albert Heard, and Henry Dent.  They in turn were soon bought out by the 3rd scheme, which was much bigger.


Sources for VYVYAN DENT



My partner and web specialist Roger Wright found it pretty easily on the web via a map called “Shanghai French Concession 1920s-1940s” exact date of which is uncertain but I’d say it’s after 1929.  Avenue du Roi Albert was an important road then, more important than it is now.  On its corner with Route Vallon, to the south of which are the Albert Apartments, is an “*” - that is, a place of note - described as the residence of “R V Dent” (Vyvyan’s son).  Matching the roads up with the modern streetmap of Shanghai was a bit difficult but I think Avenue du Roi Albert is now Nanlu (ie Road) Shanxi; and Route Vallon is now Nanchang Lu (I think!)


Haileybury Register 1862-1910 ed by L S Milford.  Published 1910 by Haileybury College.  The entry for Vyvyan Edward John Dent is on p166; there is no entry for his elder brother Ernest William.


20th Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai and other Treaty Ports of China ed Arnold Wright in London and H A Cartwright in HK and Shanghai.  Lloyds Greater Britain Publishing Co Ltd 1908. I got the details of Vyvyan Dent’s career, his collections of artefacts, and details of the towns he worked in from here.


Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society volume LXIV 1913 p221is the first one to have V Dent of the Chinese Maritime Customs on its list of members; he’d been elected a member during 1912.  Volume LX 1929 pi is the obituary of V E J Dent, described as “one of the most remarkable personalities in China in recent years”.   The obituary had been written by regular contributor “HC”.  In volume LVII p1926 p231 HC is identified as Herbert Chatley DSc of 8 Route Francis Garnier Shanghai.


More about Vyvyan’s various collections of Chinese artefacts, which covered a big range of subjects: The China Journal volume 20, issue of February 1934 p117 in a section on Societies and Institutions, a few paragraphs on “Shanghai Museum (Royal Asiatic Society)” which had been opened “November 15 last” [1933].  The donations so far were listed and included the following items collected by V Dent and now owned by R Dent: “some interesting Chinese official beads and rosaries” (Sally Davis October 2012: an equivalent to a Catholic rosary is used in buddhism) and “a collection of Republican badges and souvenirs now unprocurable” had been given by R Dent to the museum as a gift.  A “good collection of ancient bronze mirrors” and “some Chinese water-pipes and other interesting objects” were only on loan.  Sally Davis October 2012: on the suggestion of the librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society, I emailed a contact she had in Shanghai who had been trying to find out whether any of the contents of the RAS North China branch museum had survived Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  He emailed back to say that he had found nothing so far; and as he hasn’t contacted me since spring 2011 I guess Vyvyan’s collections have been destroyed.


Details of the two international exhibitions at which some of Vyvyan’s Chinese artefacts were shown came from wikipedia; but wikipedia’s information was only general and didn’t mention any particular set of exhibits.


The China Who’s Who issue of 1922 p84 entry for Vyvyan Dent describes him as Commissioner of Customs, retired.


For the politics of China around 1900: 1913: the World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson sums it up neatly.  London: the Bodley Head 2013.




7 January 2014