Morrison and Hobson Families

  • Morrison, Robert, 1782-1834.
MSS.5827-5852 & 7127
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


The papers are the product of a period of considerable spiritual, cultural and political change in China. They are a significant source for study of the development of Protestant missions in China (in particular the role of the medical mission and the introduction of Western medicine), and also provide evidence of the involvement of the missionaries with issues of British trade and diplomacy.

MSS. 5827-5852: correspondence and papers, especially of the Revd Robert Morrison (1782-1834), missionary in China, 1807-1834; John Robert Morrison (1814-1843), Chinese interpreter, Colonial Secretary of the Hong Kong government; and Dr Benjamin Hobson (1816-1873), medical missionary in China, 1839-1859. The majority comprise personal and domestic correspondence of the Morrison and Hobson families and their friends, with less emphasis on official papers, although the collection includes letters on the Peacock expedition to Siam and Cochin China led by Edmund Roberts (1784-1836), United States merchant and diplomat, 1832 (MS.5830), and letters to Benjamin Hobson from leading missionaries. 1843-62 (MS.5839). Insight into missionary work in China can be gained in particular from the letters of the Revd. Robert Morrison. MS. 7127: 'Domestic Memoir of Mrs Morrison', by the Revd. Robert Morrison, addressed to his children Mary Rebecca and John Robert Morrison (1814-1843), 5-7 January 1824. Mary Morrison, Robert's first wife, died of cholera at Macao on 10 June 1821. This memoir was compiled by Robert Morrison during the voyage home from China aboard H.E.I.C.S. 'Waterloo'.



Physical description

26 files, 1 volume

Acquisition note

MSS. 5827-5852 presented by Capt. Archibald Hobson, grandson of Dr Benjamin Hobson, 1962-65 (various accession nos.). MS. 7127 presented by Mr and Mrs J. Hobson, 1995 (accession 349999).

Biographical note

Context and content of the collection

To those aware of the missionary endeavours in the Far East and the development of Western medical practice, the work of the Revd. Robert Morrison and Dr. Benjamin Hobson may be familiar. For this reason alone any material relating to them may be of interest. However, it should be made clear that, whilst the following papers do contain correspondence referring to the work and environment of the two missionaries, they consist for the most part of personal correspondence between family members, rather than of 'official' material. The letters of Robert Morrison to his son and daughter (MSS. 5829, 5842) do give an indication, in particular, of the spiritual/evangelical work undertaken by him; but few papers relating to Dr. Benjamin Hobson give an account of his medical work. (The major source of related manuscript material will be found in the archives of the London Missionary Society, currently held by the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.)

The papers are nevertheless significant. They are the product of a period of considerable spiritual, cultural and political change in China. Their interest can be found in two areas; firstly in their contribution to an understanding of the development of Protestant missions in China, particularly regarding the role of the 'medical mission' and the introduction of Western medicine; and secondly in the evidence provided of the involvement of the missionaries with issues of British trade and diplomacy, together with the effect of these affairs on missionary activity.

Development of missionary activity

The first half of the 19th century, that is the period covered by the arrival of the Revd. Robert Morrison in 1807 as the first Protestant missionary to China up to the departure of Dr. Benjamin Hobson in 1859, saw the origins and expansion of Protestant activity particularly in the area relevant to the following papers, of Southern China (Canton, Hong Kong and Amoy).

The London Missionary Society, founded in 1795 was keen to start work in China; equally, the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810, the Church Missionary Society, founded in 1799, and other denominational societies, all had representatives in Southern China, many of whom were in correspondence with Dr. Benjamin Hobson (see MS. 5852/26, MSS. 5838, 5839). For the first decade however, Robert Morrison worked in isolation and it was not until the foundation of the Anglo-Chinese College in 1818, to which the printing press of the London Missionary Society was attached, that the mission became established. Although first located in Malacca, the college was transferred to Hong Kong in 1843; it was headed by William Milne, and later by James Legge, both significant contributors to the work of the L.M.S. (See MS. 5832 for correspondence relating to the College).

Christianity though, was not completely alien to Chinese society, for there had been a Catholic presence in mainland China since the 16th century. Initially though, Protestant missionaries met with considerable hostility from the Catholic community on arrival. (See MS. 5828/2-3). However, whilst the Catholic/Jesuit missionaries tended to become integrated into Chinese society, often travelling inland, the Protestant workers remained in the ports, retaining the Western culture and being less tolerant of that of the Chinese. The approach of the Protestant missionaries was as much philanthropic as evangelistic, and the desire to establish medical and educational facilities contrasts with the greater spiritual preoccupations of the Catholics.

The initial task of the Protestant missionary, as evidenced by the Revd. Robert Morrison was to master the native language and prepare appropriate literature. (See MS. 5829, 5851/1). Yet the adoption of a secular as well as clerical role was a necessary feature of early pioneer missionaries; thus both Robert Morrison and his son John Robert were appointed translators to both the trading companies and to the British government. Only after the conclusion of the first Opium wars of 1839-42 did the need to combine these two roles lessen. From this time onwards the 'professionalisation' of the missionary began; Dr Hobson and his medical colleagues were able to practice first and foremost as physicians. (See below).

An assessment of the spiritual impact of the work of protestant missionaries is difficult, with numbers of converts relatively low. However, missionary activity did have an effect on Chinese society. One such example is evident in the origins of the Tai-Ping Rebellion (1847-1853). The movement was led by Hung Hsiu-Chu'uan, who had been introduced to Christianity, by Leang A-fa, the first convert of Robert Morrison. The intention of the rebellion was to establish a quasi-Christian society, free of both idolatry and the evils of opium, and to overthrow the Manchus; however it was unsuccessful.

Introduction of Western medicine to China

By the mid 19th century the medical role was integral to missionary activity. Official recognition of western medical practice was not obtained until 1911 and the overthrow of the Ch'ing Dynasty, however the foundations, be they practical, educational, or literary had been laid by the pioneer Protestant missionaries, in particular by Benjamin Hobson. (See also Biographical Summaries).

The impact of Western medicine was both short and long term. In the short term numerous patients were seen in the hospitals established by Hobson and the Medical Missionary Society (MS. 5852), and many, often straightforward, conditions treated. In the long term, prejudices were broken down, evangelism facilitated and a gradual acceptance of Western culture initiated. Moreover the introduction of Western medicine to China is particularly significant since it was completely alien to that of the Chinese, whose theory of the nature of man, diagnostic ideas, based on the pulse, and approach to therapeutics, which included, moxibustion and acupuncture, were incompatible with those of the Western physician.

Despite such contrasts, the period of 1800-1860 saw the establishment, by merchants in Canton, of an Institute for vaccination in 1815, with the successful introduction of vaccines in Peking in 1828, and the opening of dispensaries and ophthalmic hospitals by Peter Parker, Thomas College etc. (See Wong K. and Wu L., A history of Chinese medicine). Equally important is the commitment to medical education such that by 1915, sixteen of twenty-nine medical schools in China were sponsored by missionary organisations.

Involvement in British trade and politics

In addition to the relevance of missionary activities, the papers may be of significance concerning issues of British trade and politics. Until 1842 British citizens were only supposed to be resident in Canton for trading purposes; consequently British missionaries were often attached to the large trading companies, for example Robert Morrison with the East India Co.; John Morrison Hudson with Jardine, Matheson and Co.; significantly too, medical missionaries prior to Hobson, including James Livingstone, Thomas Colledge and Alexander Pearson were appointed essentially as surgeons to the East India Company (E.I.C.).

In general the British community in the Chinese ports was greatly influenced by the trading companies. It is of note that although Robert Morrison was employed as translator for the E.I.C., the company would only finance the publication of non-religious works and translations.

The missionary, with his linguistic skills, was of great assistance to both British traders and diplomats in a period of frequent negotiations for trade agreements, and at a time when trade constituted the key issue in Anglo-Chinese relations. It is therefore noteworthy that Robert Morrison had accompanied Lord Amherst to Peking in 1817 (See note below) and became Chinese Secretary and Interpreter in 1834, and that John Robert Morrison was translator to Edmund Roberts in his search of trade agreements in Siam and Cochin China, (See MS. 5830) later became government interpreter for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Nanking. (See MS. 5830, 5831).

Moreover, the state of Anglo-Chinese relations determined to some extent the course of missionary activity, and this is particularly evident following the Treaty of Nanking, which opened the five ports of Canton, Amoy, Fuchow, Ningpo and Shanghai. Similarly the granting of religious freedom is arguably a concession to Britain on the part of the Chinese diplomacy.

Biographical Summaries

Robert Morrison (1782-1834):

Robert Morrison was born on 5 January 1782 near Morpeth, Northumberland. In 1798 he joined the Presbyterian Church, and in January 1803 began to study at Hoxton Academy [now Highbury College]. Once accepted by the London Missionary Society in 1804, he transferred to the Missionary Academy at Gosport where he remained until 1805. As Morrison's destination was to be in China, he spent two years studying the Chinese language and acquiring a basic knowledge of medicine, from an introductory course for missionaries at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London.

Morrison was ordained on 8 January 1807 at the Scots Church, Swallow Street, Westminster and arrived in Canton on 7 September 1807. The first two years in Canton were dedicated to further study of the Chinese language and to work on translating the scriptures. In 1809 he was appointed Chinese Translator in the East India Company, a post which he held until the lapse of its Charter in 1833, thereby gaining both a secure income and the right to remain in China. From 1833 to 1834 he held the post of Chinese Secretary and Interpreter under Lord Napier.

It is for his role as a pioneer missionary that Robert Morrison is perhaps most significant. He was the first British protestant missionary to work in China, and his influence can be seen neither in the number of converts he made nor in any overt role as an Evangelist, but rather in the foundations which he established for future missionary work in a society otherwise hostile to Christianity. Against this background, Morrison's task for the London Missionary Society was to make "the translation of the Holy Scriptures, into the Chinese language, the first and grand object of his attention". His three major works were a Dictionary of the Chinese language in three parts, completed in 1823, a Grammar of the Chinese language (1815), and, with the assistance of the Revd. William Milne, a Translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 1819.

The most significant of Morrison's educational endeavours was the establishment in 1818 of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. The Morrison Education Society, created after Morrison's death by foreign residents in Canton, encouraged a mutual exchange of cultures and knowledge of languages, and Morrison's commitment to the need for a greater understanding of Chinese language and culture by the west led to the founding of the Language Institution in Bartlett's Buildings, London, 1824-26.

Morrison's observation of the medical needs of the native community resulted in the establishment of a dispensary in Macao offering medical treatment to the Chinese. The dispensary was headed by a Chinese practitioner, familiar with the main principles of Western medicine, who was assisted by Dr. J. Livingstone, surgeon to the East India Company. However it was not until Benjamin Hobson's arrival in China in 1839 that the influence of Western medical practice became significant.

Robert Morrison died in Canton on 1 August 1834. He was married twice. Firstly in February 1809 to Mary Morton, who died in 1821, and secondly in November 1824 to Eliza Armstrong. He had seven children, two (John Robert and Mary Rebecca) by his first wife and five by his second.

John Robert Morrison (1814-1843):

John Robert Morrison, the eldest son of the Revd. Robert Morrison by his first wife Mary, was born at Macao in 1814. He was educated initially in Europe, studied the Chinese language under his father, and from 1827-30 attended the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca.

From 1830 Morrison worked as a translator for the English merchants in Canton, China, and in 1832 accompanied Edmund Roberts, a United States merchant and diplomat, on an investigative mission to Siam (Thailand) and Cochin China (former French colony of Indo-China), resulting in the conclusion of trade treaties. He was also responsible for compiling the Chinese Commercial Guide, which provided information on British trade in China to the merchant community.

Following the death of his father in 1834, he was appointed Chinese Secretary to the British government. In this capacity he was directly involved in the diplomacy surrounding the outbreak of the 'opium wars' (1839-42), and in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Nanking.

With the establishment of peace, Morrison was made a member of the Legislative and Executive Council, and official Colonial Secretary of the Hong Kong government, by the English plenipotentiary Sir Henry Pottinger.

In addition to his official duties, John Robert shared his father's commitment to the spread of Christianity. On the death of Robert Morrison, he continued the work of the English Protestant Church in Canton, supporting those Chinese converts persecuted by the Chinese authorities, assisting with the revision of Robert Morrison's translation of the Bible, and appealing to the London Missionary Society to continue the missionary work in Canton. In February 1838 he was made Recording Secretary of the Medical Missionary Society. John Robert Morrison died in the autumn of 1843 from malarial fever. He was unmarried.

Benjamin Hobson (1816-1873):

Benjamin Hobson was born on 2 January 1816 at Welford, Northamptonshire, the son of an Independent minister. He began his medical studies as an apprentice at Birmingham General Hospital, and, in 1835 transferred to University College London, gaining the M.B. degree of the University of London, and Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Prompted by a desire to use his medical knowledge in the service of Christianity, Hobson was appointed as a medical missionary for the London Missionary Society. In 1839 he left for China. On his return to England in 1859 he practised medicine in Clifton and Cheltenham, until retiring in 1864.

Dr Hobson died at Forest Hill, Sydenham on 16 February 1873. He was married twice: firstly in 1839 to Jane Abbay until her death in 1845, and secondly in 1847 to Mary Rebecca Morrison, daughter of the Revd. Robert Morrison. He had two children by his first wife and two by his second.

Dr Hobson is significant for being the first British protestant medical missionary to work in China. In general the work of the pioneer missionaries, including that of the Revd. Robert Morrison, had focused on the study of the language, the production of Christian literature and on the creation of openings into Chinese society. For Dr Hobson the role of such a missionary was both philanthropic and evangelistic: priority was given to meeting the medical needs of the native people in the belief that this would gain their confidence. His work in China was therefore devoted to the development of medical facilities in Macao, Hong Kong and Canton, the introduction of Western medical techniques, the preparation of texts in Chinese dealing with western medicine, and the provision of medical education in order to train native physicians.

Arriving in China in 1839, Hobson's first post was with William Lockhart at the hospital recently established by the Medical Missionary Society in Macao. Hobson's medical observations at this time cover the famine, small pox, cholera, leprosy and, in particular, the problems of opium addiction. His concern with the harmful effects of the opium trade led him to voice openly his opposition to the attitude of the English government.

In 1843 Benjamin Hobson moved to Hong Kong to take charge of the Missionary hospital newly founded by Peter Parker. As in Macao, the hospital was in great demand, with the treatment of ophthalmic conditions being the most common need. In the more tolerant atmosphere of Hong Kong, Hobson's commitment to the need for medical education of the native Chinese became apparent: firstly in his support for the China Medical and Chirurgical Society, founded in 1845; secondly in the training given to 'pupil assistants'; and thirdly in proposals to the Committee of the Medical Missionary Society for the establishing of 'medical classes'. However, a conflict of approaches to the role of the missionary and to the strategy of the Medical Missionary Society led to the creation of two separate associations, the Hong Kong Missionary Society (1845), supported by Dr Hobson, and the Medical Missionary Society in Canton supported by Peter Parker.

In 1847 Hobson moved to Canton to continue the work which had been neglected since the death in 1834 of his father-in-law, the Revd. Robert Morrison. Although Christianity was increasingly tolerated in China, the native city of Canton remained closed to Westerners, and Hobson had to establish his hospital in the Kam-Li-Fau district, in the Western suburbs. Hobson's medical observations continued, and show a continuing concern for leprosy and the problems of opium addiction. Similarly his awareness of the need for medical education is reflected in the importance of training given to pupil assistants, most of whom were subsequently considered competent to undertake small operations.

In 1856, in the face of the Second Anglo-Chinese War, the Kam-Li-Fau hospital was closed. Dr Hobson transferred first to Hong Kong and then in 1857 to Shanghai, before returning to England in 1859. The eight years spent in Canton were perhaps the most significant in terms of Dr Hobson's contribution to the acceptance of Western medical practice, and enabled the publication in Chinese of major works bringing together selections from key English works on specific medical subjects. These works became standard medical texts for the Chinese and were translated into various languages including Korean and Japanese.

Related material

At Wellcome Collection:

Two letters by Robert Morrison are held as MS.7337/84-85.

The Oriental Collections include Chinese block printed books given by Archibald Hobson.

Finding aids

Database description taken from that in: Richard Palmer, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Wellcome Library for the History & Understanding of Medicine: Western Manuscripts 5120-6244 (London: The Wellcome Library for the History & Understanding of Medicine, 1999) and subsequent typescript supplementary finding aids by Richard Aspin, Christopher Hilton, Keith Moore and Richard Palmer.

Ownership note

The most significant amount of material was brought together by the Revd. Robert Morrison's daughter, Mary Rebecca Morrison, who gathered the correspondence of her father and brother. Her subsequent marriage to Dr. Benjamin Hobson led to the addition of material not only from her husband and their children, but also from the family and children of his first wife Jane Abbay.

The correspondence appears to have been passed to Mary Rebecca's son John Morrison Hobson, at which point it was supplemented by both his own papers and those of his wife Emily Ashton Watts and her family.

Most recently the collection was in the possession of Archibald Hobson, youngest son of John Morrison Hobson, who undertook some preliminary sorting and detective work on the papers prior to donating them to the Wellcome Library.


Permanent link