The Professor

‘Rags to riches’ (and sometimes back to rags) stories are not uncommon in this blog, but this man’s journey was probably the most extraordinary of them all.

John Fryer came into the world in Hythe in on 6 August 1839. His father, another John, had married Mary Ann Wiles, originally of Kingston, near Canterbury, the  previous year.  John senior worked with his own father in the family grocery in Hythe  High Street. They  seem to have been prosperous at that time and owned the premises from which they traded, but the business failed in 1852 and everything was auctioned to pay the debts,  including a barrel organ ‘with three barrels set for sacred music’. Although John Fryer senior is sometimes claimed to have been a Methodist minister, there are no records of this, though there are a few of him preaching – aided no doubt, by the barrel organ.

He and Mary Ann had a long-standing fascination for all things Chinese, to the extent that Mary Ann made rice ‘a substantial part of her diet’. John  junior,  who shared their interest,  was educated at Prospect House academy in Hythe, where he was nicknamed ‘Chin Chong’. He earned part of his school fees by working at Mackeson’s brewery in Hythe. He then took an apprenticeship as a pupil teacher at St James in Bristol, a ‘ragged school”. This qualified him to attend Highbury teacher training college to which he won a scholarship.

On graduating, John accepted the position of headmaster at St Paul’s college in Hong Kong.  The post he took on is better described as ‘only master’ as the school, set up to teach English to Chinese boys with an interest in Christian ministry,  had then just thirty-odd pupils (today it has two thousand). He sailed for the Far East via the Cape of Good Hope, a journey which took a hundred and forty two days. He was homesick and did not care for his fellow passengers. and wrote in his diary:

It is with a combination of curious feelings that this journal is commenced. There is a mingled hope and fear, gloom and light; anticipations of a bright future, and occasional forebodings of ill
John Fryer
St Paul’s College Hong Kong in  the 19th century

He stayed at St Paul’s for two years before taking a post as an English teacher in Beijing, with the intention of learning Mandarin. Here he met other teachers and politicians and mingled with the diplomatic corps. The job was sponsored by the Church Missionary Society and they agreed to pay the passage to China for John’s fiancée, Anna Roleston of Chudleigh, Devon.

The long-awaited reunion was a disaster. When Anna arrived in Beijing, she was pregnant, apparently by the captain of the ship on which she had sailed. Their relationship had continued throughout the voyage. John later said that the man had somehow administered to her a strong aphrodisiac. This seems unlikely, a story invented by either Anna or John to excuse her behaviour. It also bears a remarkable resemblance (sea voyage, love potion, betrayed groom) to the legend of Tristan and Isolde.

John did the decent thing and quickly married Anna, but the scandal was so great that she was obliged to return to England with her child, Willie. The Church Missionary Society was appalled and wrote:

It is quite impossible that we should retain as an  accredited Agent of the Society one whose wife is under such a cloud. 

John had taken Anna to Shanghai to join her ship home and now, without funds, found himself stranded there. However, another school teaching post was offered, which he had little choice but to accept. He applied to the American Mission for work, but was rejected, again because of the scandal. In 1868, he finally managed to secure employment with the Chinese government at the Kiangban Arsenal  as secretary and interpreter.

He wrote:

It is a great relief to feel settled and able to get on quietly with one’s work. Indeed I may say I was never more happy in my life than I am in my new situation of Translator of Scientific Books for the Chinese Government. It is an honourable and useful position as well as being respectable, and with a salary of £800 a year

The Fryer’s house at Shanghai

He stayed for twenty-eight years, brought Anna back out and started a family. Anne, born at the end of 1871, was followed quickly by John, Charles and George . At some point after the birth of George in 1878, Anna took them back to England, perhaps on a visit to family or to arrange education. She died there at her home town of Chudleigh in 1879. The children were sent to Kent and boarded for a while in Canterbury and nearby Blean. Her first child, Willie,  appears in the 1871 census for Chudleigh, living with his Roleston grandparents, but is then untraceable

Anna’s grave in Chudleigh.

In Memory of Anna, the Beloved Wife of John Fryer of Shanghai China, who Entered Into Her Rest on the 20th October 1879, aged 41 Years. After a Long and Severe Illness Her End Was Peace.

On 8 June  1882 John married again, to an American, (Anne} Eliza Nelson. The following year, they set out for England to arrange the futures of John’s children. They travelled via New York, Eliza’s home town. Here, Eliza was taken ill and John travelled on to Hythe alone for the reunion with his parents and children. Eliza joined them later at the house John had rented for them and apparently enjoyed visiting all the ‘historic curiosities’ of Hythe, including St Leonard’s church and Saltwood Castle. She stayed until January 1885, though John soon returned to China. When she re-joined him, she took the oldest child, Anne, and the youngest, George, with her. John  junior and Charles were to attend Prospect House Academy in Hythe, as their father had done.

In 1888 the family were on the move again. Leaving George in China, but taking Anne with them, John and Eliza collected the other boys from Hythe and took them to New York. Anne and John junior were to study at Alfred University, Eliza’s alma mater, while Charles went back to China with them.

Four years later, Charles and George were uprooted from China again and taken by Eliza to California. It was intended that they would all study eventually at the State University at Berkeley. Their father came to visit their new home and had an interview with the President of the University, who happened to mention funding for a Chair in Oriental Languages and Literature

During his time in Shanghai, John had translated over eighty Western scientific works, collaborating with scientists and mathematicians. He also established the Shanghai Polytechnic Institution and Reading Rooms in 1876 and taught there himself. Eventually, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate. He also acquired a  Chinese name, Fu Lanya. But now it was time to move on.

Fu Lanya………………………………………and his second wife

In 1896, John left China to become the University of California’s first Professor of Oriental Language and Literature.  Apart from two long trips back to China, in 1900 and 1908, John worked at Berkeley until his retirement in 1913.  when he became Professor Emeritus. Towards the end of his life, was described as ‘a man of rare intellectuality, much learning and strong moral fibre’.

The Fryer family at their California home

His daughter Anne married; John junior took on his father’s post in Shanghai, but died of typhoid in 1896; Charles also married and became a professor at McGill University in Montreal; and George joined a shipping firm in Shanghai.

John & Eliza Fryer in later life

Eliza Fryer died in 1910 and John in 1920

The grave of John and his wife in Oakland, California


Fred Daganais,  John Fryer’s Early Years in China, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 36 (1996), pp. 129-149.

David Wright, John Fryer and the Shanghais Polytechnic: Making Space for Science in Nineteenth Century China, Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Theodore Huter, Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China,  2005
Nellie Blessing Eyster, A Beautiful Life: Memoir of Mrs Eliza Nelson Fryer, 1847-1910, Lack Bros, Berkeley, date unknown