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Collection of Admiral Henry Craven St John

Identifier: Coll-1872

Scope and Contents

This collection is composed of effects that belonged to Henry Craven St John, a young Lieutenant (later Commander, then Admiral) who brilliantly fought against pirates in the Chinese Seas in the 1860s. It includes: a presentation scroll to Commander Henry Craven St John, conveying thanks for his fighting piracy at Laksui (1866); a covering letter from the Admiralty (1866); a mahogany and brass-fitted medicine box (1860s); and an album of c. 300 watercolours executed by Henry Craven St John, including views painted while serving on the China Station (1850s-1870s). This exceptional collection offers a fascinating insight into the events and life in the Chinese seas in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion, and contains some rare and beautiful watercolour sketches of various landscapes across Europe and East Asia in the 19th century.

Scroll and covering letter: presentation scroll signed by James Whittall, Tai-Pan of Jardine Matheson and member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and nearly 250 leading inhabitants, to Commander Henry Craven St John, conveying their thanks for his 'gallant services at Laksui' and indefatigable exertions to 'root out the piracy which infests these seas'. The scroll was made in Hong Kong on the 4th of July 1866, and is made of several sheets of quarto blue paper backed with linen, rolled. It is accompanied by a covering letter from the Admiralty forwarding the document to St John at his new station, 17 October 1866.

St John's medicine box: mahogany and brass-fitted medicine box containing a number of glass dispensing bottles (some of them still retain their contents), scales, and weights. This box was used by St John while serving on the Chinese Coast from 1864 to 1866 as a young Lieutenant in Command based on Hong Kong. No doctor was present on the ship, and St John used this box to deal with the medical needs of those onboard. The box also contains a provenance note written by St John's grandchild.

Watercolours album: album containing c. 300 watercolours executed by St John during his service with the Royal Navy during the 1850s-1870s. The paintings show his interest in natural history and represent coastal landscapes from all around the world. Places depicted include: Malta, Florence, Naples, Crete, Gibraltar Bay, Corinth, Corfu, Isle of Wight, Jamaica, Nagasaki and various bays in Japan, Hong Kong, Canton, various bays in the Chinese seas, Opossum Bay, etc. Also includes paintings of ships and birds, and scenes of naval battles against pirates.


  • Creation: 1850s-1870s


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

The bottles contain powders and organic material, and need to be handled with care, with gloves and under supervision, and only if strictly necessary. Please contact the repository in advance if you would like to see this collection.

Biographical / Historical

Henry Craven St. John was born in 1837 in the Ross and Cromarty district of Scotland, the son of Charles William George St. John and Anne Gibson and a great grandson of Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. He entered the Royal Navy in 1852 as a midshipman on the Cumberland first and later on the Nankin, aboard which he become an acting Lieutenant in 1857.

While on duty on the Chinese Coast, his main task was to deal with the numerous pirates operating near Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). He appeared to have been extremely successful in this endeavour, and in July 1866 he was promoted commander at the age of 29, and recalled to the UK. The burghers of Hong Kong presented him a scroll connveying their deepest gratitude.

In 1873 Henry Craven St John was promoted to captain of HMS Sylvia, a Cormorant class surveying vessel commissioned to sail the seas around China and Japan mapping out the coastline, 'for arduous surveying work in Japanese waters'. He then became commanding officer of the Central battery ship HMS Iron Duke in August and held the office of Naval Aide-de-Camp to HM Queen Victoria between 1887 and 1889. In 1889 Rear-Admiral St John was promoted to 'flag rank' and in 1891 succeed Rear-Admiral James E. Erskine as Senior Officer on the Coast of Ireland. Admiral St. John retired from active service in 1901.

St. John had a great interest in natural history, as his works and some of his drawings suggest. In 1880 he published a book entitled Notes and sketches from the wild coasts of Nipon, with chapters on cruising after pirates in Chinese waters (Edinburgh, David Douglas, 1880) and he also edited and published his father's zoological notebooks on Scotland, Charles St. John's note books 1846-1856, (Edinburgh, David Douglas, 1901).

Henry Craven St John died in 1909.


0.8 linear metre

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased in June 2018. Accession no SC-Acc-2018-0112.


Scroll: c. 2800 mm x 280 mm.

Album: 54 cm x 34 cm x 10 cm.

Processing Information

Catalogued by Aline Brodin in July 2018, using information from the seller.

Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379