Sir Robert Hart

Vol. 11 No. 1 - 2019

Sir Robert Hart

from Portadown

by David Weir

Museum Outreach Officer, Craigavon Museum Services

One of my favourite objects within the Craigavon Museum Services’ artefact collection is a framed cartoon drawing of Sir Robert Hart, which was published in Vanity Fair on 27 December 1894. The caricature depicts Hart in Chinese dress, with Chinese characters in the top corner reading “Shanghai Customs” (although the Chinese characters are written backwards).

Robert Hart
Caricature of Sir Robert Hart,
printed in Vanity Fair, 27 December 1894.

Istill remember the first time I came across this caricature, all the way back in 2010. Immediately my curiosity was aroused. Who was this Robert Hart? Why was an obviously western man dressed in Chinese robes and why was this sketch in the museum collection at all? A little bit of research soon unveiled the answer.

Robert Hart was a local man, being born in Portadown in 1835. He attended Queen’s College Belfast (Queen’s University Belfast today) at the age of 15, where he excelled, graduating in 1853. Especially good at languages, Hart was offered and accepted a job as an interpreter with the British Consular Service in China. Departing for China in 1854. Hart would have an extraordinary career, becoming one of the most famous and influential figures in the world as detailed in Peter Rowley’s accompanying article.

A Local History Project

Yet despite his fame in life, the name and achievements of Robert Hart have been all but forgotten in his home town. In 2018 we (that is Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School and myself on behalf of the Craigavon Historical Society) tried to change this. Thanks to a grant of £2,002 by the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council in March 2018, I was able to work with the 60 pupils of the primary 7 classes of the school to create a film detailing places in Portadown associated with Robert Hart and the Hart Family. What follows is a print version of the locations we identified.

Drumcree Old Church

Robert Hart was the son of Henry Hart (1806-1875) and Ann Edgar (1809-1874). In 1834 Henry and Ann were married in the old Drumcree Parish (COI) church. This church was built shortly after the Ulster Plantation and was described as “a plain stone building, rough cast and white-washed”.1 The present church was consecrated and opened in 1856 and stands almost exactly on the same site occupied by the old church.

Henry and Ann lived in Milltown, nine miles outside Portadown on the shores of Lough Neagh. At Milltown Henry, in partnership with John Smyth of Loughgall, ran a small distillery and corn mill. The whisky produced in the distillery was marketed as ‘Bog Water Whiskey’ due to the water passing through the turf bogs.2

42 Woodhouse Street

Robert was the first of twelve children born to Henry and Ann. Robert’s niece Juliet Bredon writes that he “was born on the 20th day of February 1835, in a little white house with green shutters on Dungannon Street [known as Woodhouse Street today], in the small Irish town of Portadown, County Armagh”.3

Woodhouse Street
42 Woodhouse Street, probable birthplace of Sir Robert Hart, c.1953. Quinn Brothers bought the premises in 1947 establishing a spirit, meal and grocery business. Image courtesy of Hugh Quinn of Quinn Brothers Funerary Services, Obins Street.

The house described belonged to Robert’s grandfather James Hart, who ran a wine and spirit grocery shop from the ground floor, with living quarters above. In 1930 a memorial tablet was erected above the house entrance which read: “To mark the birth-place of Sir Robert Hart, G.C.M.G. 1835-1911. Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs for 40 years. The greatest friend and benefactor of China. He received decorations from Austria, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Sweden. This tablet was erected by the Ulster Tourist Development Association”.4 A blue ceramic circular plaque inscribed with “at this site Sir Robert Hart 1836-1911 Inspector General of the Chinese Customs was born” was also attached to the house.

However not everyone accepts that Robert was born in this house. The Rev. Hubert Coffey of Milltown Parish Church records that the elderly residents of Milltown insisted that Robert had actually been born in the Hart House at Milltown. Coffey writes: “They often heard their fathers say that on the day the son and heir was born in Milltown the mill employees got an unforgettable privilege – a half holiday from four o’clock in the afternoon, instead of having to work the full day from six o’clock in the morning to seven at night”.5

It has not been possible to ascertain which story is correct, although researchers from Queen’s University Belfast still favour Woodhouse Street as his most likely birth location. What we do know is Robert spent his early years living between his parents’ house at Milltown and grandparents’ house in Portadown.

James Hart’s house and business in Woodhouse Street was taken over by P.J. Sheil, followed by the Quinn brothers and lastly the Emerson family. The house was demolished in 1968 to make way for the Magowan buildings car park. The blue circular plaque commemorating Hart’s birth there was salvaged and, after brief stays in the Portadown Museum and St. Mark’s Parish Church, now hangs in the entrance foyer to Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School.

St. Mark’s Parish Church and Thomas Street Methodist Church

Robert was baptised on 8 March 1835 at St. Mark’s Parish Church. At the time the church was known as St. Martin’s Parish Church, the name change to St. Mark’s occurring in around 1872.6 In the baptismal register it gives his father’s occupation as a grocer in Dungannon Street, adding further strength to the argument that Portadown was Robert’s birthplace. Within the church is a memorial tablet commemorating the life of Doctor Alexander Bredon (1803-1866), the Hart family doctor.

Although Robert was baptised in St. Mark’s Parish Church, the Hart family were a devout Methodist family. Juliet Bredon records that Henry was “Wesleyan to the core”, and that it was not unusual for members of the family to ask each other at the dinner table “What have you being doing for God to-day?”.7 In Portadown they would have attended the original Thomas Street Methodist Church which was erected in 1832. This church remained the principal place of Methodist worship in the town until 1860, when the current Thomas Street Methodist church was built. The old church was taken over by Thornton’s wholesale grocers. Today the former church is abandoned waiting for use again.

Mandeville Arms Hotel, High Street

Robert’s mother Ann worked in the Mandeville Arms Hotel in High Street, which was owned and run by her brother Richard Edgar. The hotel was previously known as the Obins Arms, which was under the ownership of Richard’s father-in-law Henry Atkin.

Henry announced Richard’s takeover of the hotel in an advertisement in which he reassured the public that Richard would conduct the business “in such a manner as, it is hoped, will give general satisfaction”.8 That Richard lived up to this confidence is revealed by an 1846 description of the hotel as “excellent”.9

Advertisement for Mandeville Arms Hotel
Advertisement for Mandeville Arms Hotel and Posting Establishment, published in The Ulster Times 10

The Hart Family. Henry Hart and Ann Hart are seated. Robert is standing, third from right, c.1866. Image (MS15/6/1/A1) courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.

More than a hotel, the Mandeville Arms occupied a central part in the life of Portadown. Taking advantage of the arrival of the Ulster Railway from Belfast in 1842, Richard founded a posting establishment within the hotel. By 1846 Richard had successfully established the Mandeville Arms as the town’s central post office with Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland recording Richard as the town’s “Post Master” and that “Letters from DUBLIN and all parts of the SOUTH OF IRELAND, also from ENGLAND, arrive every morning at seven, and are despatched every evening at a quarter before seven.- Letters from BELFAST and all parts of the NORTH OF IRELAND, also from SCOTLAND, arrive every night at twenty past ten, and are dispatched every night at half past nine.- Letters from ENNISKILLEN and all parts of the WEST arrive morning at two, and are despatched every night at half-past nine.”11

It is interesting to speculate whether Richard’s position as post master and his development of the postal service in Portadown influenced his nephew Robert Hart’s decision to create a national post service in China.

Later the Mandeville Arms Hotel was taken over by William Hall who rebranded it the Imperial Hotel.12 It remained Portadown’s principal hotel until its closure in 1961. Today its site is occupied by the Toymaster Shop. Incidentally the Mandeville Arms Hotel is not be confused with The Mandeville Arms public house (known as McConville’s Bar today), which was opened in 1910 at the West Street/Mandeville Street junction.13

Portadown Distillery, Castle Lane

In 1839 disaster hit the Hart family when Henry’s distillery at Milltown burned down.14 Needing work, Henry found a job in the Portadown Distillery, owned by William Hutcheson. The Distillery had been a landmark in Portadown for many years. Writing under his pseudonym ‘The Chiel’, the founder of the Portadown Times W.H. Wolsey records that the Distillery was established by members of the Religious Society of Friends at the end of the 18th century. Opposite the Distillery a cut was made to provide water from the River Bann for the Distillery’s needs. Known as the ‘Quaker’s Gut’, the cut would become the town quay, where for a century materials for the town’s growing industry were offloaded from barges and lighters. In 1956 the quay was filled in, and is now the car park next to Shillington’s (Haldane Fisher) warehouse.15

Henry Hart worked at Portadown Distillery until around 1842, at which point he accepted a job as general manager with Hercules Bradshaw’s Distillery at Culcavey, Hillsborough. The new job necessitated the Hart family’s move from Milltown to Hillsborough and so began the Harts’ long connection with that area.16

The Portadown Distillery was later converted into a flour mill, with John Calvin its last operator. Calvin’s Mill closed in 1965. Only part of the building remains standing today.

Ballinteggart House, Drumnasoo Road

Despite the family’s move to Hillsborough, Portadown would still have an important part to play in Hart’s life. In 1866, after 12 years working in China, he returned to Ireland to see his family now based at Ravarnette House, Hillsborough. During his visit news reached him that the family’s old doctor, Alexander Bredon, had died. Hart travelled to the Bredon residence at Ballinteggart House to pay his respects, writing in his diary: “After a quiet week at Ravarnette went to Portadown & called on Mrs Bredon; sat there from 3.10 to 5.30; liked Miss B. very much; passed the house first of all, but fancied the face in the window. She likes Erard’s Pianos: strange enough, that is the name of the maker of the one sent to Peking. Did not call on anyone else at Portadown”.17 The ‘Miss B.’ mentioned in the diary entry was Hester (Hessie) Bredon, the daughter of Alexander and his widow Catherine Bredon

Hart, who was actively seeking a wife, became enchanted with Hessie and five days later asked her to marry him: “Tea’d & spent the evening at Mrs Bredon’s: asked Miss B. while at the piano “could she find it in her heart to come to China with me?” and afterwards asked her Mother: both say “yes”, but say the eldest brother must be consulted.”18 The eldest brother consented and Robert and Hester were duly married on 22 August 1866 at St. Thomas Parish Church, Dublin. Soon they left for China and would have three children together (Evelyn Amy Hart, Edgar Bruce Hart and Mabel Milburn Hart).

It would be over 40 years before Hart would return to Ireland, but again he never forgot his birthplace. Between 1869 and 1877 he purchased land in the townland of Kilmoriarty; the land, not too far from Ballinteggart House, had formerly belonged to his family. He later sold the land in 1904.19

The Bredon family left Ballinteggart House in 1902.20 Today the house is the home of the Troughton family and the Armagh Cider Company.

Hart departed China for the last time in 1908, and spent his final years living in England. He died in Great Marlow on 20 September 1911 at the age of 76 years. He was buried in the graveyard of All Saints Church in Bisham, Berkshire.21 Interestingly when I mentioned this to the primary 7 pupils of Hart Memorial Primary School they said that I was wrong as they believed that Robert was actually buried near the school. Asking to see the burial site, I was taken by the pupils to the edge of the school playing fields, where hidden among the trees there was a small earthen mound, next to which were some flagstones from a disused path. I was heartened to see that the memory of Robert Hart was still being kept alive in schoolyard stories.

The name lives on

Although he was not buried in Portadown, his name lives on through the Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School in Charles Street, Portadown. The school was formed from an amalgamation of Edgarstown No. 1 Academy (a Church of Ireland school in Montague Street), Edgarstown 2 (a Methodist school), Academy school (a Presbyterian School in Church Street), and the senior pupils of Park Road School (a Church of Ireland school).22 After a year of delays, the school was officially opened on 19 June 1936 by the Rt. Hon. Lord Charlemont, James Edward Caulfeild, Minister of Education. In the assembly hall he unveiled a portrait of Sir Robert Hart and bronze tablet, which can still be seen in the school today.

But why was the school named after Hart? The suggestion was made by Mr David Rock, M.B.E., J.P., at a meeting of the Armagh County Education Committee on Tuesday 26 March 1935. He argued that: “No man had done more for his King and Country than Sir Robert Hart who had been honoured by every country. There could not be any better centenary memorial than to call that school “The Sir Robert Hart Memorial School”.23


The idea was enthusiastically adopted by the committee and the wider Portadown public24. Yet there was another reason for naming the school after Hart, which was revealed at the school’s official opening by Lord Charlemont:

“I feel that the association of this school with the name of Sir Robert Hart is bound to provide an inspiration for the young people who will be educated here”.25

Having worked with the teachers and pupils last year I can say that the school is comfortably living up to the expectations brought by its connection to Sir Robert Hart; ambitious, enthusiastic and talented, the pupils were a joy to work with and have promising futures ahead of them.

The Sir Robert Hart film produced by the primary 7 classes can be viewed on the Craigavon Historical Society website at:

Robert Hart and wife
Robert Hart with his wife Hester Bredon, daughter Evelyn and son Edward, c.1878. Image (MS 15/6/1/C1) courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Queen’s University Belfast.
  • Bell, Stanley. 1985. Hart of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Lisburn Historical Press, Lisburn.
  • Bredon, Juliet. 1909. Sir Robert Hart. The Romance of a Great Career. Hutchinson & Co. London.
  • Coffey, H.W., Rev. 1950. A History of Milltown Parish The Birches North-West Armagh.
  • Glenny, Thomas, J.R. 2012. The Ground We Stand On: A social history, sifting back through the mists of time.
  • Hart, Robert, Sir. 1866. Sir Robert Hart Diary: Volume 08: March 1866 to September 1866.
  • McAnallen, Paddy. 2012-2013. ‘McConville’s Bar, Portadown’, in Review: Journal of the Craigavon Historical Society, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 48-50.
  • Slater, I. 1846. I. Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland. I. Slater, Manchester & London.
  • St. Marks Parish Church. 1976. Portadown Parish St. Mark’s. 1826-1976. 150 Anniversary. St. Marks Parish Church,
  • The Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School. The Sir Robert Hart Memorial Primary School 1935-1985. Portadown.
  • Newspapers: Northern Whig; Portadown Times; The Ulster Gazette; The Ulster Times.
  • (accessed 03.02.2019)
  • (accessed on 03.02.2019).
  • (accessed 03.02.2019)

  1. (accessed on 03.02.2019).
  2. Glenny, 2012, pp.50-63.
  3. Bredon, 1909, p.9.
  4. Portadown Times, 09.05.1930.
  5. Coffey, 1950, pp.49-51.
  6. St. Mark’s, 1976, p. 42.
  7. Bredon, 1909, pp. 9-10.
  8. Northern Whig, 31.10.1837.
  9. Slater, 1846, pp.518-519.
  10. Ulster Times, 02.02.1842.
  11. Slater, 1846, pp.518-519.
  12. The Ulster Gazette, 28.11.1863.
  13. McAnallen, 2012-2013, p.48.
  14. Glenny, 2012, pp.55-56.
  15. Portadown Times, 11.05.1956.
  16. For more information on the Harts and Hillsborough see Bell, 1985.
  17. Hart, diary entry 31st May 1866, page 38.
  18. Hart, diary entry 5th June 1866, page 39.
  19. Bell, 1985, pp. 17-18.
  20. Portadown Times, 27.02.1931.
  21. The grave of Sir Robert Hart was restored in 2013: (accessed on 03.02.2019).
  22. The Sir Robert Hart Memorial School, 1985, p.2.
  23. Portadown Times, 20.03.1935; Northern Whig, 27.03.1935.
  24. Portadown Times, 22.11.1929.
  25. Portadown Times, 26.06.1936.