Katie Leeper goes In Search of Sir Robert Hart

Katie Leeper of the MA in Public History at Queen’s recently completed a placement with the Sir Robert Hart Project working with Craigavon Historical Society on the In Search of Sir Robert Hart documentary by the P7s of Hart Memorial Primary School.

Katie’s blog post follows, describing her research on the project.

Reposted from Special Collections and Archives at Queen’s.

In Search of Sir Robert Hart; from Portadown to China

Katie Leeper

The most vital aspect of Public History is engaging with your audience. The collaborative documentary project between the Craigavon Historical Society, Hart Memorial Primary School, and Queen’s University of Belfast was the perfect opportunity to teach and inspire a younger generation about the many sides of history in action. This P7 class was from Portadown and for the past few months they had been learning about their school’s namesake, Sir Robert Hart. Beyond simply learning about Robert Hart, the school was looking to create a documentary about Hart. The National Lottery Heritage Fund aided the Craigavon Historical Society in their development of this project. This was a chance to not only help reinvigorate the recognition of Sir Robert Hart in Northern Ireland, but also to give the children of Hart Primary a tangible connection to both their school, and their town, where Hart was born.

Queen’s University of Belfast, Dr. Anna Hanuskiewicz, © 2019 Queen’s University Belfast.

Sir Robert Hart was born in Portadown in February of 1835. At the age of 15 he attended Queen’s University in 1850, where he excelled academically. When he graduated in 1853 at 18 years of age he was awarded a Modern Languages scholarship which helped pave the way to his working in China. Robert Hart was recommended by Queen’s when the Foreign Office of Britain asked for recommendations for men to aid in their effort to develop British interests in China. At 19, Robert Hart set sail for China. Hart would once again quickly distinguish himself when he reached China.


Sir Robert Hart Blue Plaque, located in Hart Memorial Primary School, Portadown, photo courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.


By 1859 he went to work for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, and was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Canton. A mere four years later, Hart was promoted to Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. Hart helped to develop a postal service, ports and waterways in China. On leave in 1866, Hart returned to Ireland where he met his wife, Hester Jane Bredon, also of Portadown. She remained in China with Hart until 1879. The pair would not meet again until 1906. In total they had three children together. Hart had a reputation for being diligent and focused, with a strong moral code. His work at the Chinese Customs was his life. He also had a great fondness for recording his memories and experiences, leading to the wealth of resources now kept in Special Collections at Queen’s University Belfast.

MS 15/6/1/B8 “Chinese Customs”
Drawings of Sir Robert Hart-original drawing for cartoon in “Vanity Fair” by IMP. (27 Dec. 1894) ©2019, Special Collections and Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.

Unfortunately, much of Hart’s collection of pictures, letters, and more were lost during the Boxer Uprising of 1900, when his home and belongings were destroyed. One of the few things saved were the 77 diaries written by Hart. The majority of pictures and letters currently housed in Special Collections were gifted to Hart by friends and family. In 1908, Hart would leave China, and settle in England. He was appointed Pro-Chancellor of Queen’s University from 1908 until 1911. In 1911, Hart passed away at the age of 76.

MS 15/6/1/B33, Sir Robert Hart portrait- London (c. 1910) ©2019, Special Collections and Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.

Queen’s University of Belfast was not only where Sir Robert Hart attended university, but is also where the majority of artefacts from Hart’s personal archive reside in Special Collections. Robert Hart’s surviving diaries, photographs, glass slides, and letters are all contained in Special Collections. These objects were donated to the university by Sir Robert Hart’s great-grandson. Special Collections and the Sir Robert Hart Project at Queen’s University Belfast have digitised the diaries and have been working to transcribe them, not a small task given that there are 77 total diaries. Multiple staff at Queen’s University of Belfast are experts on Sir Robert Hart and the Irish-Chinese relations from the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular Dr. Emma Reisz and Dr. Aglaia de Angeli have been spearheading the research and writing about Robert Hart at Queen’s. Queen’s University was a natural partner for the Hart Memorial Primary School and Craigavon Historical Society due to their resources and research into Sir Robert Hart.

MS 15/1/1, 13 & 77, Hart Diaries, ©2019, Special Collections and Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.



This is where my part in this story began. Dr. Emma Reisz had reached out to the history department at Queen’s looking for a placement student to help with Queen’s role in the NLHF Hart Memorial School documentary project. Working with media and history, as well as seeing how history can be used to inspire kids are both important in my studies, so I leapt at a chance to do both in the internship.

My experience in this placement was a unique one, allowing me to view and participate in many facets of public history. It began with traditional research as I perused various databases of photographs, culminating in a visit to Special Collections to further research the images. Thus I used everything from books to online databases to manuscript materials in my search for images. The results then had to be cut down and organised for more professional use.

Lanyon Building Date Marker reading ‘V R 1848’, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.
Lanyon Exterior Date Marker, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.

The next phase of research focused on architecture as I searched for buildings at Queen’s that originated from its beginning in 1845 to Sir Robert Hart’s return to Belfast in 1908. Less traditional research methods had to be used here. I started with a few books on the history of Queen’s University and its campus, but then searched online for any further information that had been published about campus history. To confirm and further research my findings, however, I had taken the time to search around the Queen’s campus, looking for date markers or landmarks.

This research was prepared with two goals in mind, to give some additional information and ideas for filming locations for the documentary project, and to create a walking tour for the P7 students to take around Queen’s University. When Hart Memorial Primary School visited Queen’s they would also be visiting Special Collections, to view the Sir Robert Hart manuscripts and photographs, and to learn about his life from academics and staff at the university. Allowing the class to come face to face with primary source materials in Special collections gave them a unique chance to interact with and observe the process of conservation and research that takes place in libraries and archives. My focus was on helping to create the walking tour and a presentation to give to the Hart Primary School classes a few weeks before they arrived at Queen’s.

Facebook post of Katie Leeper’s visit to Hart Memorial Primary School in Feb. of 2019.
Walking Tour Map, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.

The visit to Hart Primary School in Portadown was one of the best parts of my internship. I had never given a lecture to a whole class of children before, but with the help of the teachers at the school and David Weir of Craigavon Museums Service (who is coordinating the NHLF Hart Memorial School documentary film project) I was able to feel at ease. Meeting the two P7 classes gave us a chance to talk to each other before they traveled to Queen’s, allowing me to be something familiar among all the new experiences at the university. Furthermore, I was able to provide some information about Queen’s, Special Collections, and Sir Robert Hart to further contextualize their upcoming visit.

Palm House, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.

After bidding adieu to the class, there was one final task to complete: putting the finishing touches on the walking tour for their visit to Queen’s University. With a great deal of help and back and forth with Emma Reisz, we constructed a route for the walking tour and began piecing together a script from already compiled research. The Widening Participation Unit at Queen’s also provided us with a framework and advice on how to handle a school tour. Some further research and editing was needed but the script emerged just in time. The fated day arrived as we rushed to finish preparations and refine our programme as best we could. The children arrived, the classes split apart, one half to Special Collections, the other to start the walking tour. The Special Collections programme was created and led by Emma Reisz, Deirdre Wildy and Louisa Costelloe who set up artefacts relating to Sir Robert Hart in the Special Collections’ Reading Room. The kids were then allowed to observe and, in some cases, interact with the objects while they learned about the life of Sir Robert Hart.

Twitter post of QUB Special Collections set up for the Hart Memorial Primary School Visit in Feb. of 2019 to Queen’s.

I led each class on a walking tour, I took them from the Tropical Ravine, to the Palm House, to the Music Hall, Graduate School, Quad and Lanyon building. We also visited the Hart Silver Collection housed in the Naughton Gallery. Ben Crothers was kind enough to set up and open the gallery for the children on the day of the tour. During the second tour I was accompanied by Aglaia de Angeli who also led the class in the talk about the Silver Collection. We were helping “the pupils to follow in the footsteps of Robert Hart”. In 1849, a reception celebrating the opening of Queen’s was held at the Palm House, and in 1850 Robert Hart would begin attending Queen’s. The Music Hall was formerly known as the Student Union, and Robert Hart helped to fund its creation. The Tropical Ravine and the Graduate School (formerly a library) would have both been sites Robert Hart saw on his return trip to Belfast and Queen’s University in 1908, as they were both built in the late 1800s. As evidenced by the brickwork reading ‘1848’ in the Quad behind the Lanyon building, there are still parts of the building that remain true to when Hart attended the university. Taking the kids around to all the sites was a way for them to connect to Hart – they were quite literally walking where he had walked.

Hart Silver Collection in Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.

While the class toured Queen’s, they were accompanied by a film crew, who recorded footage of locations and the class’s experience on the tour and in Special Collections. They also filmed some of the materials housed in Special Collections along with the interviews the children had with staff at Queen’s and with Eileen Chan-Hu of CRAIC NI. All in all, despite some minor hiccups here and there, the class visit to Queen’s University had been a rousing success. The weather was idyllic and the class stayed engaged, despite the length of their trip. While the film has yet to be produced, thinking about the final project fills me with excitement. The film will be screened in Belfast and Portadown and will be available online as well. This is a memory the children will carry with them throughout their lives, how many P7 classes get to make a documentary? While it is impossible to know what the exact impact of this project will be on the future, it has, at the very least, solidified a connection between Portadown and Queen’s. Perhaps, years from now, the name of Sir Robert Hart will be well known in both locales.

Robert Hart Panel in Tropical Ravine, courtesy of Katie Leeper, Feb. 2019.

I can say with certainty that I am in a field of study worth being excited about. Opportunities to experience so many different sides of history are rare. The ability to be in the middle of it all, working with professional researchers, P7 history classes and their teachers, and Special Collections librarians has been illuminating. All my experiences in history before this point tended to separate the academic from the applied, but the Robert Hart Documentary Project reveals just how interconnected the two sides are. I am fortunate enough to have plenty of fond memories relating to history, which is part of the reason I have always loved, and eventually sought to study the subject. Hopefully this project will help spark an interest in these kids’ hearts that will burn throughout their lives. Building community and helping people to realize that this giant concept known as ‘history’ is personally connected to them. Beyond just the local level, figures like Sir Robert Hart show just how interconnected our world is. The bonds Hart helped to forge during his time in China are still visible to this day. Whatever path the future may hold for me, I want to keep working to support history in action, whether that be telling new stories or helping people to remember old ones.

More information about the In Search of Robert Hart documentary.

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