Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

08 March 2022

Looting of golden bells from the Temple of Heaven

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) began as an uprising against foreign influence in China and resulted in fighting between Chinese forces and an eight-nation alliance, which included Britain and Germany.  Following the conflict, troops from the foreign coalition occupied areas in northern China for over a year, during which time looting and acts of violence were common.

In 1920, the British Foreign Office was informed that an individual had approached German officials offering - for a price - evidence of such looting carried out by Indian Army personnel.  The individual believed this would interest the German government as the Treaty of Versailles required them to return looted items, and such evidence might give them some political benefit.  The Germans declined to purchase it, but its existence prompted the British to investigate the matter.

The evidence comprised communications between officers in the 16th Cavalry and inspired a flurry of correspondence between India and the UK.  Reading these, we can determine the sequence of events.

The Temple of Heaven, PekingThe Temple of Heaven, Peking from The Earth and its Inhabitants. The European section of the Universal Geography by E. Reclus. Edited by E. G. Ravenstein (London, 1878). Public Domain Creative Commons Licence
 BL flickr

During the occupation of Peking (modern Beijing), two golden bells were taken from the Temple of Heaven by Indian Army officers; one was taken by C. E. Thornton of the 16th Cavalry from what was subsequently described as a rubbish heap.  The commanding officer gave permission for the bells to be taken back to India as regimental trophies, where the 16th kept theirs as mess decoration.  In 1906, while Thornton was on leave for medical reasons, other officers in the regiment voted to sell the bell.  Thornton objected, claiming that as ‘finder’ he had sole rights over the bell.  The dispute prompted Thornton to contact lawyers and the bank where the bell was temporarily stored, and the whole affair was made public.  Ultimately, the British government decided that as the bells were found in ‘rubbish’ and as commanding officers had given permission for their removal, no looting had taken place.

In 1927, Mr H. Beechey started sending letters insisting on the restoration of either the bells or their value to the Temple of Heaven.  Beechey was persistent; he sent multiple letters to the Foreign Office, various politicians, the Prime Minister, and even the King-Emperor George V himself.

The recipients of his letters were dismissive of such demands; however, newspaper articles from the time suggest the general public was not.  In 1921, the Daily Express reported demands raised by Chinese voices in London for the value of the bells to be restored to the Temple.  Articles continued to appear in various papers over the next decade, but eventually the public lost interest in the story.

In 1994, there were reports in online publications of a bell returned by the Indian Government to the Temple of Heaven, one of sixteen that were taken by British troops during the Boxer Rebellion.  Whether the bells mentioned in file IOR L/MIL/7/16819 were part of this set is unclear, but perhaps there are other files in the India Office Records, waiting to be discovered, that could add to the story.

Djurdja Brankovic
Student of librarianship, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive -Daily Express, 15 July 1921
New York Herald, 3 January 1926
IOR L/MIL/7/16819 Collection 402/153 Alleged looting of golden bells from Temple of Heaven, Peking (Beijing) by British officers of Indian Army, 1920-1927.


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