Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical held the first of its 2020 talks on 9 January. The main speaker of the evening was Leanne Briggs from the North Down Museum. She talked about Sir John Newell Jordan and the new display of his collection in the Museum. Sir John was born at Balloo near Bangor in 1852. He attended Bangor Endowed School, the precursor of Bangor Grammar School and then went to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in Belfast. He graduated from Queen’s University in 1873 with a first class degree in classics. He then sat the examination for five places in the diplomatic service. He achieved second place and was posted to China. In 1876 he left Ireland. He was to spend the rest of his career in the far east. Most of his time was spent in China, but he also served for ten years in Korea as the senior British diplomat in Seoul from 1896. It was at this time that he received his knighthood.
He found China very different from Bangor. He did not know much about it: the diseases, the extreme temperatures, the culture and language. He was given a year to learn the language. When he arrived in Peking as it was then known, he stayed in the British legation and spent time learning about the country. We were shown a photograph of the legation. He wanted to marry and he wrote a letter to Victoria College in Belfast seeking a bride. As a result he married in 1885 Annie Howe Cromie of Clough and they enjoyed a very happy marriage. She later returned to England to bring up their children.
His career progressed rapidly and in 1906 he was promoted to British Minister to China. He spent the next 14 years in Peking. He admired the culture of China, but hated the corruption and the use of opium. He persuaded the emperor to support the view that opium smoking was evil.
His wife returned to Peking once the children grew older. She was keen on the education of women and we were shown photographs of her with the ladies of the emperor’s court. The family returned to Ireland for holidays and he received honours there: the freedom of Belfast in 1910 and the chancellorship of Queen’s University for ten years from 1912. He used to visit his sister in Bangor and his brother-in-law named Jordan Avenue after him. Sir John retired to London in 1920 but remained active in the diplomatic field. He became a member of the League of Nations Advisory Committee for the Far East. He died in 1925 in London and was buried there. There is, however, a family memorial to him in the Bangor Abbey Graveyard.
The second part of the talk dealt with the Jordan Collection in the Museum. Sir John admired the culture of China and he acquired various Chinese objects, some presented to him by grateful local people. His son Robert Cromie Jordan of Clough presented much of the collection to Bangor Borough Council in 1968 on condition that a room was set aside for its display. The display has now been updated and presented in a room in the museum
There was a doll of a Manchu lady in her special dress. Another item illustrating Chinese dress was a pair of “pot-bottomed shoes”. These had a kind of platform which protected the hems of their dresses and their elaborately embroidered shoes. The collection contains various examples of China including blue and white Ming vases and seventeenth century vases from the royal palace. Sir John was keen to encourage crafts and he tried to get trains built so as to encourage the spread of crafts. Other objects included a belt hook from which a man could hang a bag as his gown had no pockets. It is made of Jade and was a gift to Sir John. There are 16 calligraphic scrolls in the collection, as well as a puzzle ball which contains other balls, all carved from one piece of ivory. It was a gift to Lady Jordan. The collection also includes the elaborate casket and scroll he was given to mark the award of the freedom of Belfast. He was given an incense burner by a merchant to mark the help he had given during bad floods by negotiating a loan. Leanne urged people to come to the Museum and view the collection. Finally the chairman of the society congratulated her on an excellent talk.