Walter Henry Medhurst

Mr. Medhurst, in conversation with Choo-Tih-Lang, attended by a Malay Boy.
Mr. Medhurst, in conversation with Choo-Tih-Lang, attended by a Malay Boy. ca.1845. Printed in oil colours by George Baxter. © The Trustees of the British Museum. 1949, 1011.90.

MEDHURST, Walter Henry (1796-1857) — Malacca, Jakarta & Shanghai

Missionary, printer, linguist, lexicographer and translator. From 1823 he produced the “T’e-hsuan ts’uo-yao mei-yiJeh chi-chuan” (Monthly Magazine), the early issues of which included his “Yao-liu-pa isung-lun” (History of Java), subsequently separately published in 1824 with two woodcut maps. Also produced “Ancient China : Shu jing : the Shoo king, or, the historical classic : being the most ancient authentic record of the annals of the Chinese empire” in 1846 — supposedly compiled by Confucius, containing fifteen woodcuts — twelve maps and three astronomical and zodiac illustrations, distinctively printed on Chinese papers. A manuscript “survey of a part of the east coast of China, including the northern part of Foekën and the southern part of Chekiang”, deriving from an 1835 voyage along the Chinese coast, also survives in BL. Principally remembered for his translations of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese, and his Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-Japanese dictionaries.

Born in London 29 Apr 1796 and baptised 12 Jun 1796 at St. Martin in the Fields, the son of William Medhurst and his wife Sarah Susannah Mitchell, who had married at Bloomsbury in 1791. Educated at St. Paul’s School and later apprenticed to the printer Joseph Wood of the Gloucester Herald. In 1816 he began working for the London Missionary Society. After studying at Hackney College, he left Britain for Malacca armed with press and type in September 1816 as a missionary printer. En route, he stopped at Madras for several months, where he married Mrs Elizabeth Braun(e) (1794-1874), née Martin 19 May 1817. He joined William Milne in Malacca in July 1817 and swiftly acquiring skills in Malay and Chinese, he transformed the printing operations of the mission station. He was subsequently ordained by Milne 27 Apr 1819. Always independently minded, Medhurst moved to Penang in 1820 and then on to Batavia (Jakarta) in 1822. After initial technical problems with heat and varnish, he concentrated on lithography for printing, managing to source local stones from the mountains of Java. On a prolonged return to England in the 1830s he wrote “China : its state and prospects, with special reference to spread of the gospel” (1838). Returning to Batavia in 1838, he then moved on to Shanghai in 1842. In poor health, he returned home 10 Sep 1856, but died 24 Jan 1857 a few days after reaching London. He was buried at Abney Park Cemetery where a white stone obelisk to his memory survives. His son Sir Walter Henry Medhurst (1822-1885) became British consul at Hankow and later Shanghai.

BM. COPAC. ODNB. Ching Su, “The printing presses of the London Missionary Society among the Chinese” 1996.

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