A relative in Peking: MIDN Arthur Leslie Walker
by John Ellis (Leslie Walker was a cousin of John Ellis’s grandmother.)
(This article was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)
As the 19th century was drawing to a close, China had attracted many representatives of Western countries eager to trade. With the trade missions came western influences and local resentment of these influences grew. By 1898 organisations emerged to challenge these foreign influences of missionary evangelism, imperialist expansion and cosmopolitanism.
They called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. To the British they were Boxers. The Qing Dynasty suppressed the Boxers initially and attempted to expel Western influence.
In June 1900 the Boxers beseiged the foreign embassies in Peking (presently Beijing). The embassies were in a quarter known as The Legations and were defended by diplomats, soldiers and some Chinese Christians. VADM Sir Edward Seymour, who had been Commander in Chief, China Station, since 1898, led an eight-nation alliance of 20,000 troops and relieved the Legations. They had held out against the seige for 55 days.
These events did not pass unnoticed in the Australia where most colonies had a Naval Brigade, a forerunner of the Naval Reserve. South Australia declared HMCS Protector would be despatched to join the fray. The Government of Victoria did not have a warship suitable for such operations, but declared they could send a contingent of the Naval Brigade. This spurred the Government of New South Wales into action and by August a contingent was ready to sail from Sydney. SS Salamis, with the Victorian contingent aboard, called in to Port Jackson to allow the NSW contingent to embark. The NSW contingent was under the command of CAPT Francis Hixson.
The Salamis sailed from Sydney on 8 August 1900. One of CAPT Hixson’s junior officers was MIDN Arthur Leslie Walker.
Leslie Walker, as he was known, was born in 1880 at Bega, NSW, where his father, Henry Walker, was the branch manager of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. Young Leslie Walker was just nine when his father died and 15 when his mother died.
Living with older siblings, he settled in Mosman where he completed his secondary schooling at Mosman High School, leaving when he was 15. He joined the Sydney office of Colonial Sugar Refinery as a junior clerk when he was 16 and remained with the Company until he was 34.
Records of the New South Wales Naval Brigade, a forerunner of the RAN Reserve, have been lost and the following information comes from two books published on the involvement of Australian colonial naval detachments in the Boxer Rebellion. The books are based on diaries and accounts from magazines and newspapers.
Walker probably joined the NSW Naval Brigade in 1898, aged 18. By 1900 he was a midshipman and would have trained at the site that later became known as HMAS Rushcutter. Following the call to arms, Walker took leave of absence from CSR and was appointed to D Company of the NSW contingent, which totalled 20 officers and 242 men.
Salamis touched at Hong Kong, where CAPT Hixson and five others were landed, declared medically unfit. The ship reached Taku, China, on 9 September 1900, to learn that the Legation in Peking had been relieved over three weeks previously. On 19 September, 300 men from the NSW and Victorian contingents landed to attack and capture Chinese fortifications at Peitang. On arrival they found the Chinese had destroyed the fort and the Russians, under VADM Seymour’s command, had captured the position. The NSW contingent arrived in Peking on 20 October, where their garrison duties included policing and firefighting. There were some punitive expeditions and raids on Boxer villages.
NSW contingent returns
Although the Boxer Protocol, ending the uprising, was not signed until 7 September 1901, the NSW contingent departed five months earlier. They embarked in SS Chingtu at Taku on 29 March 1901, and returned to Sydney four weeks later. Quarantine regulations delayed their landing until 3 May, when a belated march through Sydney was held. Two years later the officers and men were presented with the China medal at Government House in Sydney. Officers and midshipmen were given honorary membership of an unofficial award, the Military Order of the Dragon.
European forces looted Peking extensively and Walker brought home two large vases that he presented to a sister-in-law.
On his return to CSR, Walker moved to North Queensland and became an Assistant Inspector of Cane, a job involving visits to plantations to check growers’ methods at different stages of growth, note complaints and report on environmental aspects considered harmful to cane development. He left CSR to grow cane on his own account at Gordonvale near Cairns, where he also owned a service station. Leslie Walker died in 1945 at Edmonton, QLD.
Atkinson, J. J. Australian contingents to the China field force, 1900-1901, New South Wales Military Historical Society: 1976.
Nichols, R. Bluejackets and Boxers.Allen & Unwin: Sydney.1986.
Notes on the Walker Family. J.N. Walker, AM, OBE. October 1975.