Great excitement last week! It looks as though we’ve found some more details about Douglas Bruce! Well, I can’t take any credit for that – my friend Mary, who’s keen on genealogy, seems to have unearthed him via the census of 1901 and 1911 – more of this below.
If you’re new to this blog, and you’d like to find out what this is all about, it’ll probably help you to scroll down to the first post about the Mystery Challenge,in which I’m asking readers to help me find out more about the love letters from 1920’s China:
I’ve said that I’ll be posting more transcripts of the letters, so here is the second in the series (The tantalising thing is that there’s no way of telling which other letters might have been sent in between, especially as Bessie doesn’t give any dates, just the day of the week.)
Your note came last night and might have been a real letter because a coolie delivered it right into my own hand – and how I wish it had been! I needed something yesterday.
Don’t worry I’m not going to burden you with the intimate details of my latest family row. And if you ever catch me working the self-pity gag, please remind me forcibly that I’m not getting any more than I deserve. Sometimes I lose my “sense of perspective” and think I’m more to be pitied than scorned, but I do honestly try to keep away from that point of view.
I gave Margaret your message and we shall love to come Saturday if there is anything doing. I’m not sure about Jimmy yet but will let you know in a day or so. If he doesn’t come and you are going to bring us home, will you spend the night, and Sunday? I wish you were coming for tea today - Jimmy’s gone to Canton. Nuff sed
Those last two words, ‘nuff sed’ seem more like current slang (or text-speak) than something written more than 90 years ago. My efficient copy editor, Liz Broomfield of Libro Editing picked on this phrase as being incompatible with that period, as she hadn’t realised this was part of the real letter.
This short note gives us a hint that Bessie’s marriage was going through a tricky patch (”my latest family row”). The mention of Margaret shows that she was still part of Bessie’s deepening friendship with Bruce, and that everything was apparently all above board on the surface as her husband, Jimmy was included in the invitation. Although Bessie invites Bruce to ‘spend the night, and Sunday’, I don’t think this meant what it sounds like to us, as Jimmy would be at home too on that Saturday. (This picture shows Bruce as best man at a wedding, but this woman is not likely to be Bessie, though it could possibly be Margaret.)
So who was Douglas Bruce? The dates I’ve mentioned in previous posts, indicated that he was in his early twenties in 1916. In my post of 9th January, you can see that I thought his middle name was ‘Gregg’ – or at least a nickname that Bessie had sometimes used. (The full text of that letter will be posted here soon). My friend’s search for a Douglas Gragg Bruce, born in the right decade, drew a blank, but now it seems that his middle name was Gordon.
I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea of where to start searching so I was very grateful when Mary agreed to do this for me. I didn’t know that there are different companies who can help provide information (at a cost, as they have had to purchase various archives She used Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk, and discovered that some other family has recently been trying to record their own family tree –
the Tighe and Weston family, and they had uncovered an entry for
Douglas Gordon Bruce
Birth 11 June 1892 in Chiswick, Middlesex*, London
(This picture comes from this site) His father , Charles Stoddard Bruce, was born in 1854 in Edinburgh Currie, Midlothian Edinburgh, and died in 1905. Charles married Kate Holmes in 1878, and they produced 7 children. All of these dates of births and deaths are listed on that page.
Lists of Dates? How boring!
I used to think that, but not now that I’ve realised how many stories are buried just below the surface.
Douglas Bruce was only 13 when his father died. What impact did that make on him? His only brother, Charles Edward Bruce was 8 years older than him, but died in 1920, aged 36. Douglas Bruce would have been in China that year – would he have gone back to England for his funeral? Would Bessie have comforted him for the loss of his brother?
The 1901 census shows Douglas Bruce at 8 years old, living with his parents and siblings in Chiswick, in the Ecclesiastical parish of Turnham Green. He was the baby of the family, and it wouldn’t be surprising if at least some of his 5 big sisters pampered him a bit. I can imagine him twisting them round his little finger, and continued with this approach to older women as an adult - especially when you read Bessie’s letters to him (‘and you so young and all’).
The 1911 census confirms that he was on good terms with at least one of his sisters, as Douglas Gordon Bruce appears as a resident in the house of his sister, Edith May Penelope Bruce (1886 – 1938) and his brother-in-law, Douglas Robert Finnis, living at 66 Barrowgate Road in Chiswick, possibly in one of these semi-detached houses (not very sympathetically developed!)
Douglas was eighteen at that time, and his occupation is given as Clerk to Public Company. This position would have been a stepping stone towards his job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (South China) The earliest records that I have of him in China is 1915.
Mary has unearthed a few more interesting dates, which I’ll write about next time along with another of those letters.
* Those of you who know London might think I’ve made an error by saying that Chiswick was in Middlesex on the census of 1901 and 1911 - but at that time, it would have been different.
If you haven’t yet read my latest posts about the photos and letters from China in the early 1900s that inspired the middle section of my second novel, Paper Lanterns, you might find some of this a bit confusing. (This picture shows the small treaty port of Kongmoon, where several of the pictures were taken.)
To be honest, I’m finding it quite hard to put all these snippets of information into some kind of cohesive whole, so that readers might be able to help me with my Mystery Challenge:
Now that I’m looking back at the process of writing the novel – creating fiction out of real-life letters and snapshots , it’s beginning to seem that Mark Twain was right when he said, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ Whether or not that is true, I’m finding it more difficult to manage than fiction – In my novels I am free to invent what I like but it’s a different matter with these tantalising glimpses of people’s lives nearly a century ago.
Perhaps my best way of presenting the ‘truth’ is to show you the letters, one by one. All of this material must have been part of the effects of Douglas Gragg Bruce (d.o.b. unknown, but certainly the early to mid 1890s) as they were all in a box of papers and photos acquired by my husband.
I’ll start with Bessie, because hers were the first that I read. The final of these five letters was written by her close friend, Margaret Hartle, dated September 1920. From other material, I can assume that Bessie’s letters were written from Canton.
Ah, you are a disturber! What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once, mind you! And you so young and all. The poor young idlers that we endeavour to teach to shoot must certainly not have got their money’s worth this morning, and now at our first opportunity (recess) we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and will never get. It’s a great bond, this being crazy about the same person. I only hope I’ll be able to preserve enough of a sense of decency from the wreck to give her the chance I wish I could take myself.
Does it sicken you to hear me rave? Perhaps if I make an utter ass of myself , you’ll leave me be – which is what I want of course. Any idiot can see that that is all I want.
Margaret can’t come to dinner on Saturday so if you want to change our places and go have tea with her in the afternoon, it will be all right. I’ll take a walk with you Sunday morning. She is going with her mother to Pack Hok Fung sometime Saturday afternoon so you won’t be embarrassed by having us both picking on you at the same time. You’d better write her a chit and invite yourself to have tea with her, and if she doesn’t take you up, you can come along here as we planned. Will you bring Bing with you? I mean it. I thoroughly detest you.
The only object of this letter was to tell you that I found the hat & coat in the suitcase)
I haven’t yet been able to identify the woman above, but I like to think it could be Bessie’s friend, Margaret.
I am hoping that once I’ve posted more information and photos, some of you might be able to find someone who knows someone who might know something about a descendant of someone who knew some of these people!
THERE’S A FREE COPY OF PAPER LANTERNS FOR ANYONE WHO CAN DISCOVER MORE ABOUT THIS INTRIGUING LOVE STORY.
If you’ve read my latest novel, Paper Lanterns, you will know that the middle section of this book was inspired by the photos and letters from China in the early 1920s. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t normally read somebody else’s personal letters, but when the writers and the recipients are no longer alive, it’s different – or at least, it feels that way. Even so, I do feel a twinge of unease, now that I’m trying to find out about more about them and their possible descendants. Douglas Bruce is seated between the two other men, ignoring the camera, holding a magazine with a picture of a woman on the back page.
Mr Bruce’s treatment of the young Chinese woman, Shing Mui, seems to have been less than kind, in spite of the fact that she has written, ‘ I have seen many many persons not so good as you are, I again thank you for your kind love.’ The letter was probably written in 1916, and it seems likely that he was in his very early twenties at that time.
This picture shows him standing very close to two other young Chinese woman, and the one on the left strongly resembles the second photo of the girl in my previous post, Shing Mui. Who are these women, and who is the man at the rear, appearing to keep a wary eye on them?
I know that it’s not for me to judge this young man for his behaviour nearly a whole century ago, and although he might have been called a ‘cad’ in those times, because of his involvement with the married English woman, Bessie, she herself acknowledges her own responsibility. After her husband, Jimmy, has put a stop to the budding romance, she writes to Mr Bruce, ‘I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have brought you into this mess.’
Bessie seems to have started the flirtation in a light-hearted way, together with her close friend, Margaret Hartle, ‘we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and never will get. It’s a great bond – this being crazy about the same person.’
This picture shows ‘Mr Bruce’ on the left, and the way that the young woman is leaning against him as she laughs, it could well be Bessie herself, but I haven’t yet got enough information to identify her among the many other pictures of young women in this collection.
It’s pictures like these that bring these men and women to life. They make me want to find out more about them, and at the same time, they make me feel sad. All those young people, here on the screen - moments of real people’s lives captured as they happen, but at that same moment, they have gone and can never be recaptured.
What is clear, is Bessie’s distress as she writes the final words of the very last letter that she will write to him, “This is my last letter to you for the present and so it’s good-by too, and I am heartsick Bruce dear. I never knew I would care so much. My dear. My dear why did you come so late?”
If you’d like to read the previous posts about this challenge, just scroll down to 6 Degrees of Separation – Can you help solve the challenge? Please forward this to anyone who might be interested in helping me with this challenge (anyone who supplies me with any information about these people will receive a free copy of Paper Lanterns)
So far, this is all the information I have about Douglas Bruce, the recipient of the love letters I refer to in the previous post. I would be really grateful if anyone could find out more about him and/or his descendants .
Douglas G* Bruce was employed by the Asiatic Petroleum Company. The earliest evidence of his employment there is this company memo, dated in pencil, Wuchow 1915.
The memo itself was certainly not written during business hours, as you can see from my transcript of the original handwritten ‘poem’ .
The date on the back of the photo of Shing Mui is July 1916, so it is likely that her letters to Mr Bruce were written around that time.
(There were two studio photos of young Chinese women – the one here, and in my previous post has her name written on it. ) I’m not sure whether or not the girl below is a younger version of the same person. In one of my next posts I’ll be including an early, rather grainy photo of Mr Bruce with 4 young Chinese women, one of whom might be Shing Mui.
I’ve been trying to work out when and where Mr Bruce was born. There’s very little to go by, but he would probably have been in his late teens or early twenties, and this would place his birth in the early or mid 1890s.
The first letter from ‘Bessie’,
the married English woman,
would have been written in Canton in 1920,
or even 1919, and Mr Bruce must have been relatively young at that stage, as Bessie writes:
“What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once mind you! And you so young and all.”
One of Bessie’s final letters to Mr Bruce shows that she also calls him ‘Gragg’, which seems to be his middle name*(see above).
If that is so, it could make him easier to track down as Douglas Graff Bruce, born sometime in the 1890’s, probably somewhere in London, as this picture seems to be the earliest one that I have and the picture was taken by London Portrait Co Ltd, 58, New Oxford St., W.C. 109 Finsbury Pavement 8 Aldgate High St, E.C.
In this one he might be a year or two older, because of what looks like the start of a moustache. It was taken by J.J. &S. Johnson – Artists & Photographers, Glossop Road, Sheffield. Is he wearing a uniform of some kind?
There are several more photos and a few more documents that might help readers to trace this man, and his friends, both men and women. This small photo below, taken in 1919 shows Mr Bruce on the right and his friend Mr Meyer, who appears in several other photgraphs and was clearly a very close friend, as there’s a picture of a baby boy named Bruce Meyer.
Although I know that readers of Paper Lanterns have enjoyed the novel, and the storyline of the main character’s grandmother that I’ve created, based on all this material, I have now become totally absorbed in all these real-life characters, most of whom, if not all, will have long departed this life. In fact, I have to admit that it’s becoming an obsession!
PLEASE do circulate the link to this challenge! (And remember that anyone who contacts me with new information will receive a free a copy of Paper Lanterns or The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society)
A chance discovery of love letters and photographs from 1920’s China inspired the middle section of my latest novel, Paper Lanterns. When I first read these letters, I was more interested in working out how I might weave them into a story and setting of my own. I knew that I would need to change: the names of the people involved; the setting from Canton to Hong Kong; and bring the date forward to 1930.
I quickly became absorbed in the lives of my own fictional characters, Belle, Ivy, Rupert and Shing Mui, but now that Paper Lanterns is makings its way into the hands of readers around the world, I’ve had time to look again at the various photos, letters and other papers that came in the box found by my husband (see the article in the Sunday Mercury) and I’d love to find out more about the real people involved in these letters.
If there is any truth in the theory of 6 degrees of separation, a reader of this blog might know someone who knows someone whose (great)grandfather, grandmother, aunt or uncle happened to be in China between about 1915 and 1930 and had some connection with The Asiatic Petroleum co. (South China), Ltd.
This photo was taken in April 1929, almost nine years after the final letter to Mr Bruce written by the married English woman called Bessie, whose love letters gave me the voice for my invented character, Belle River’s journal extracts.
I’m looking for information about any descendants of the man called Douglas Bruce (my inspiration for Rupert MacFarlane). He was employed by The Asiatic Petroleum Company, and it was his effects that turned up in the box of miscellaneous paper items at an auction in 2005.
Here is a close-up of Mr Bruce (on the right) and it would be nice to imagine that the woman on the left might be Bessie’s friend, Margaret Hartle (Belle River’s close friend Ivy, in my novel).
In my next few posts I’ll be showing photos of Mr Bruce with two young women on a beach, one of whom is very likely to be Bessie. There is also a wedding picture that includes Mr Bruce as a guest. I am hoping that I can start to identify some of these people in various other photographs.
The group picture below and the list of names at a tennis tournament have helped me to name at least one more of the men. The list was written by Bessie herself, but unfortunately, there is only a tiny glimpse of part of her face on the far right bottom corner.
PLEASE DO FORWARD THIS LINK to as many of your friends and acquaintances as possible, and ask them all to send the link on in the same way. I think that this type of search is more likely to be successful if readers are completely open-minded and are willing to contact people who are very unlikely to have a direct contact with a descendant of Mr Bruce, Bessie, or Margaret Hartle. 6 degrees of separation might not be an exact science, but who knows what we might discover if people across the world are prepared to send this link to enough other people.
I’LL BE SENDING A FREE COPY OF PAPER LANTERNS TO ANYONE WHO CONTACTS ME WITH NEW INFORMATION about Douglas Bruce, Bessie, and Margaret Hartle. I’m not asking information about Shing Mui. Those of you who have read the novel will understand why.
Keep checking on this site for more pictures and letters about the REAL LIFE love letters that inspired the middle section of Paper Lanterns