The solicitor’s clerk and Commissioner Ye’s fur coat

200px-Ye_Mingchen

Ye Mingchen (1807-1859), governor of Canton (now Guangdong), China

Frederick Fisher might be forgiven for thinking that while he had committed a crime, his grudging admission should have won him some leniency at the very least. Fisher was a clerk in a firm of London solicitors. One the firm’s clients was a Lieutenant Tracey who had seen service in the second Opium War (1856-60). Tracey had been present at the Battle of Canton in which a small face of around 6,000 British troops had overcome and captured a city of over 1 million Chinese.

During the battle the lieutenant had been instrumental in the capture of Commissioner Ye Mingchen (also rendered as Yeh Ming-ch’en) who had famously resisted British influence in the region. One of the items Tracey had taken in spoils was a fur coat belonging to the Chinese viceroy. In April 1859 he had left this at the London solicitors where Frederick Fisher worked.

This must have been a temptation for the young clerk. On small wages and with what was probably a rather dull job he saw the exotic coat made from the fur of hundreds of grey squirrels and decorated with gold buttons, and took it. Fisher pawned the item with a broker in Pentonville and pocketed the money and the ticket (or ‘duplicate’).

The coat was soon missed and the solicitor (a Mr Preston) in whose private office it had been deposited must have flown into a rage or panic. This was an expensive and irreplaceable item and he looked for the culprit. Preston’s suspicions fell on Frederick and he interrogated him. Under pressure the young man buckled and when his boss offered him a way out, by saying that if the coat was returned all would be well, he caved in and admitted his crime.

Imagine his horror then when, having accompanied a detective and Mr Preston to the pawnbrokers and retrieved the missing fur coat, he was arrested. When he was taken before Alderman Phillips  at the Guildhall Police Court and accused of theft, he demanded to know  the lieutenant had sanctioned the prosecution given that the coat was now back in his possession.

The magistrate told him it ‘was immaterial, as the charge was of stealing a coat out of the possession of Mr Preston [my italics], who was responsible to Lieutenant Tracey for it’.

Having admitted his guilt there was nothing Fisher could do but ask for his case to be dealt with summarily, therefore hopefully sparing himself a more lengthy prison sentence. Alderman Phillips remanded him to await his decision on the following Saturday. Sadly we have no idea happened to him because the papers had moved on by then, and poor Frederick Fisher’s fate remains a mystery.

As for Ye Mingchen (who was condemned in the English Parliament as an ‘inhuman monster’ by Lord Palmerston), he was taken as a prisoner of war to Calcutta in British India, where he died of disease a year later; a victim (like many) of British Imperialism. He is remembered as Chinese patriot who stood up to the West and there is a state of him  in Guangzhou.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 23, 1859]

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