Another Norwich/Japan connection: Dr Herbert Blackburn

Dr Herbert Blackburn (1862-1902) was director of the Nagasaki hospital from 1892 to 1895.

He married Emily May Sutton at the Congregational Church in Prince’s Street, Norwich on the 10th September 1890. He was working in Hong Kong as a medical practitioner at the time, so we can assume that Emily traveled to Hong Kong with him after the marriage and then went on to Nagasaki with him.

Emily was born in 1861, in Norwich, the daughter of a Norwich analytical chemist, Francis Sutton. Francis Sutton was the author of “Systematic Handbook of Volumetric Analysis” and the founding partner of a chemical manure works, Baly, Sutton & Co. He was also the Public Analyst for the County of Norfolk and Consulting Chemist and Analyst to the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture.

Herbert Blackburn was born in 1862 in Lancashire, the son of a clerk in the colonial service, James Blackburn and his wife Mary Kirkham nee Bowen. James Blackburn had been in Calcutta in the 1870s, returning to England in the early 1880s, perhaps because of illness, as he died in May 1882 at the age of 46. His widow Mary died a year later, at the age of 43, in Rawalpindi.

Although Herbert’s younger brother Arthur was baptised in India, Herbert appears to have stayed in Yorkshire with his aunt and uncle as a child and then went on to study medicine in Manchester and Edinburgh.

The Blackburns also had Norfolk roots, through Joshua Blackburn, Herbert’s grandfather and Sophia, his grandmother, who were both born in Norfolk.

Herbert and Emily moved from Hong Kong to Nagasaki in 1892 and a year later, Emily gave birth to their first child, Enid Marjorie. 20 months later, their second child, Stanley Napier was also born in Nagasaki. Napier was the maiden name of Emily’s maternal grandmother.

The foreign settlement at Nagasaki had by that time been established nearly 40 years and was entering its ‘golden years’. Nikolay Aleksandrovich, the future Nicholas II and last tsar of Russia had visited in 1891, the 5th Earl Spencer in 1896 and Sun Yat Sen several times from 1897. Although Nagasaki had lost ground to Yokohama and Kobe in commercial and political importance, Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 meant that the port’s proximity to China gave it a new salience. The Canada Pacific Railway’s transcontinental railway completed in 1886 had resulted in a British “all red” route from Britain to Australasia, taking in Nagasaki on the way.

In 1894 the Unequal Treaties were revised and a new Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation was signed. In the same year, Herbert was appointed vice consul to the US Consul William H Abercrombie, a fellow doctor.

Despite this, the Blackburns’ time in Nagasaki was shortlived and unhappy. Emily died 6 months after giving birth to Stanley, at the age of 33 in March 1895 at 8 Minamiyamate. She was buried at the Sakamoto International Cemetery.

Herbert travelled back to Britain with his children in October 1895. Initially the children stayed with their grandparents, the Suttons, in St Faiths Lane and then Lower Close, Norwich, until they were old enough to go to boarding school.

Herbert seems to have continued to travel abroad and within Britain, from a base in Rickmansworth, but by February 1902 he was staying at Weir Hall in Edmonton, a high class home for inebriates. He was meant to have left the home in March, but had an attack of sciatica. According to the wife of the proprietor of Weir Hall, at the beginning of March he seemed depressed, and explained to her that it was the sixth anniversary of Emily’s death. He went out on the evening of the 7th of March, coming back “unsteady”, and explaining he had had a glass of beer. He played a game of whist and then retired to bed. He was found the next morning, breathing heavily and perspiring. A doctor was sent for but he died later that day, of an overdose of opium. Herbert’s brother in law, presumably Francis Napier Sutton, testified that Herbert was addicted to drink. The evidence showed that he was also in the habit of taking drugs. A verdict of death from misadventure was returned. He was buried at the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich.

Enid went on to board at Uplands School in St Leonards on Sea and Stanley became a naval cadet at Dartmouth Naval College. Enid married Cunliffe Middleton at St Peter’s Notting Hill in 1920. She died in 1985, at the age of 92, in Woodbridge, Suffolk.

Stanly went on to become a naval commander, and was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, for commanding the Victoria & Albert royal yacht and was also awarded a DSO and CBE.

He was appointed from the battleship Collingwood to the Laforey Class destroyer Linnet on 15 December, 1914. He as also awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal for lifesaving at Harwich on 31 January 1916 and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 30 July, 1916 while still in this appointment.

Stanley was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander on 30 July, 1924, and then promoted to the rank of Commander on 31 December, 1930.

He lived in Bury St Edmunds towards the end of his life and was placed on the retired list in 1944 on account of age, at the rank of captain. He died in 1950, at the age of 55, at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge of a variety of ailments including cirrhosis of the liver.

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