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New website for tracing ancestors who lived or worked in China


A unique online research platform has been launched by a team from the University of Bristol to help researchers track down hard-to-find information about ancestors who lived or worked in China in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The free China Families database contains more than 60,000 records from material that is difficult to access. It includes records created for Shanghai Municipal Police, the Chinese maritime customs service and WW2 Allied civilian internees and refugees in China, along with lists of graves in Chinese cemeteries, Shanghai death registers, and more.


Historian Robert Bickers, who leads the China Families project and specialises in British relations with China, told Family Tree the new resource relates to the tens of thousands of British people and other nationalities who lived and worked in China between the 1840s and the 1950s. The project was launched at Family Tree Live on 26 April, when Professor Bickers said: ‘China sounds exotic, a long away, somewhere that only a few people would have been involved in. In fact, there is a China story in many, many British lives.


‘If you had ancestors in the Royal Navy, they probably spent some time on the China station; if they were in the military, they might have served in some of the wars in China or the garrisons; if they were in the Merchant Navy, they may well have worked on the China coast for some time.’


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Many young men in Bristol, for example, spent a couple of years in Shanghai working for Bristol’s H.O Wills Cigarettes (which created British American Tobacco in China) before returning home to the UK port city. More than 100 men of the Shanghai British Contingent sailed back to the UK together in September 1914 to volunteer to fight for British Forces in WW1.


One of these men, researched by Professor Bickers, was Ernest Fearn from Aldershot, who settled in Bristol after he was invalided out of the Army and became a local newsagent. His limp was the only outward indication of his war service, the result of losing his toes to frostbite in the trenches.


China Families also includes guides to how to find newspapers and directories that were published in China and contain thousands of names, with ancestors from all over the world, including the USA and Australia.


Professor Bickers added: ‘It’s worth checking to see if there might be a China story in your family history. There’s much more material than you might imagine that’s available.


‘China Families is a new tool to help you try to piece together that China story.’



Images: Nanking Road, Shanghai, 1902 © University of Bristol; Professor Robert Bickers © Karen Clare for Family Tree.


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