Andrew Hillier draws on the Richard Family Collection in Historical Photographs of China to evoke the moving relationship between Guy Hillier and his young amanuensis, Ella Richard. Andrew’s book, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817-1927, is published this month by Renaissance Books.
We last encountered Guy Hillier diving for cover, as he came under fire during the short-lived restoration of the emperor Puyi in the stifling heat of July 1917. The events were described by Ella Richard, Guy’s confidential secretary and amanuensis, who had joined him the previous year. Guy’s wife, Ada, was living in England with their four children but, already seriously ill, she would die later that summer. However close Guy and Ella then became, it would be over two years before they married. With twenty-two years between them, there may have been a paternal element in the relationship but it was one in which the famously austere banker found solace and amusement in his final years.
By the time he was appointed manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Peking office in 1891, Hillier was already losing his sight through glaucoma and, by the early 1900s, it had completely gone. Rejecting his offer to resign, the Bank provided him with an amanuensis. When he returned from visiting his wife in 1916, the position had once again become vacant and the Bank asked Ella if she would be interested. Born on 7 September 1879, she was the eldest daughter of the famous missionary, Timothy Richard, and for some years had been looking after her widowed father. However, he had recently re-married and, with her new-found freedom, she jumped at the opportunity. A keen, if somewhat scatty, writer, she recorded their life together in a diary and various other accounts, along with a cache of photographs, pasted into albums.
Ella Richard had first met Guy in Shanghai 1902, when this ‘desperately shy young woman’ was giving a ‘finishing course’ to Morna, the youngest daughter of the well-known barrister, William Venn Drummond. Guy’s brother, the Customs Commissioner, Harry Hillier, was Drummond’s son-in-law and Guy was staying with the family during the Boxer Indemnity Protocol negotiations. ‘Listening to the blind banker playing the piano’, Ella later wrote, ‘little did I dream what Fortune was to bring us both.’
She arrived in Peking on 9 September 1916, a day earlier than expected. But far from causing embarrassment, there was a flutter of excitement as she entered this intensely masculine world. It soon became clear that, sharing her love of literature and sense of humour, Guy was captivated. Ella would be there to comfort him when news arrived that his son, Maurice, had been killed in action. So also, when his wife died. Although conducted at a distance for over ten years, his was a not untypical empire marriage, and he and Ada had remained fond of each other. Unusually, given Ella’s non-conformist background, Guy was a devout Roman Catholic and a two year delay before re-marriage was customary. The wedding eventually took place on 20 December 1919 in Hong Kong.  Although there were few guests, it was celebrated in style, with Guy, as his son, Tristram observed, dressing as though he was still living in the 1890s.
Although still manager of the Peking agency, Guy left the routine work to his deputy and he and Ella spent much of their time in a set of rooms, he had long occupied at Pa-li-chuang (Balizhuang), a Buddhist monastery in the western hills. Whilst there were only the most limited sanitary facilities, including a large earthenware flower-pot for basic needs, it provided a tranquil haven from the bustle of Peking.
Here in spacious courts under beautiful old trees and sophora, we would sit, I reading out aloud to him while he knitted (he knitted very well)… In the trees overhead, we would hear the blue jays or the drumming of woodpeckers or the song of orioles, and outside in the high road would pass a string of camels with clanging bells.
In late 1921, Guy’s daughter, Madeleine, came out to join them and almost immediately became engaged. Her fiancé, Charles Todd, was a dynamic and colourful personality, who had fought in the First World War and was now working for the Eastern Trading Company.  Guy’s son, Tristram, also arrived from England and the wedding, which took place on 25 February 1922, was a large- scale family affair. 
Having lived in the city for over thirty years, Guy had suffered from Peking’s harsh climate and was in failing health by the early 1920s. After a short illness, he died on 12 April 1924 in the presence of Ella, Madeleine and a Jesuit priest, Father Mullins. A lavish funeral was attended by large numbers of Chinese and Westerners and concluded with a long procession to the French cemetery at Beitang, the flowers being carried in a separate carriage. 
Several days later, Ella returned alone to Balizhuang and, passing through ‘the little green gate into [their] own courtyard’, she was ‘enveloped by a sense of peace’.
The plum-trees were a mass of snowy blossom and the pear tree was in its exquisite livery of tender green and cool clusters of white bloom. I went to his room and knelt by his bed and felt at last I had come home and that he was near me, watching me … and looking upon all the beauty of our loved home. 
 A selection from the Richard Family Collection can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China. I am grateful to two of Ella’s great nieces, Fiona Dunlop and Jennifer Peles, for allowing me access to Ella’s writings and providing me with much fascinating information about her. Save where otherwise stated, all quotations are from Ella’s papers.
 North China Herald, 3 January 1920, p. 48.
 See generally, Sue Osman, ‘Charles Todd and his family, 1893-2008’ (unpublished, Private Collection).
 Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose (London: Longmans, 1954), pp. 42-61.
 China Illustrated Review, 19 April 1924. For Guy’s last days and a moving description of the funeral, see Frank King, The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned, 1919-1945: Return from Grandeur, Vol. 3 of The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 146-147.
 Ella survived well into her eighties, a somewhat daunting presence for her great-nieces, when they visited her in her South Kensington flat. She died on 14 October 1963.