Home » Dock Life » The Strange Story of the Chinese Junk Keying at Blackwall in 1848

The Strange Story of the Chinese Junk Keying at Blackwall in 1848

Whilst writing the West India Dock Review and listing the Chinese ships, I was reminded of a story which I have intended to write for some time. The Chinese ships that visited in 2017 were not the first Chinese ships to visit this area, perhaps one of the first was the Keying which was an 800 ton Chinese junk that caused a sensation when it was berthed in East India Docks in 1848.

A  P.L.A monthly article written in 1939 give some of the details.

In 1848, steam was still comparatively in its infancy, and sails and masts were no unusual sight on London River, but many an officer of the watch coming up on deck at Gravesend one day in March must have rubbed his eyes suspiciously at the sight of a Chinese junk in the Thames. There she lay at anchor, her 30ft. bows decorated with two painted eyes, her stern, standing as high as a house, ornamented by a monstrous bird and gaudy flower designs. Strange flags and pieces of red rag fluttered on her masts, and her decks were manned by pale-faced Chinese sailors, wondering at the misty greyness of the Kent landscape.

For almost two years the Keying,a typical Chinese coasting junk, already a hundred years old, had been driven across the Seven Seas to England by Captain Kellett and a party of Englishmen with a Chinese crew. Some said she was originally a pirate ship. This may be just romantic fabrication, but at any rate the junk had an adventurous voyage before she arrived in the Thames.

After a short stay at Gravesend she was towed up the river to the East India Docks and moored in the basin. A hoarding was erected round her, and those wanting to satisfy their curiosity had to pay to do so. For some time the junk was the talk of the day.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert went to see her, and the Queen Mother took a big party. Booklets giving particulars of the vessel, her voyage, and the curios on show were sold at 6d.each and numerous medals were struck to commemorate the event.

The ship’s journey before it arrived in England was unusual to say the least, The Keying was a three-masted Chinese junk which was purchased in August 1846 in secrecy by British businessmen in Hong Kong, defying a Chinese law prohibiting the sale of Chinese ships to foreigners. The Keying was manned by 12 British and 30 Chinese sailors and commanded by Captain Charles Alfred Kellett and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope before arriving in New York City.

The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814–1885), depicting the Junk Keying moored in New York Harbor in 1847 (c. 1853–1855, Museum of the City of New York).

The following newspaper report gives some illustration of the excitement of the Junk’s arrival in New York in 1847

The Chinese Junk.

The junk, the Key-Ying, which arrived at New York on the 8th of July, excited there the greatest curiosity. Her light and graceful build, her sails of matting suspended to her bamboo yards, her smooth and rapid movement-thanks to which, if we may believe the Chinese crew, they have never suffered from bad weather-in short, the singularity of the furniture, which includes some dogs with tongues as black as ink, brought by the captain, all combined to attract a crowd of spectators. The prettiest women of New “York loved to boast of having visited the Chinese junk. Unfortunately the enterprise does not appear to have had the same success in a pecuniary respect. The Chinese sailors, to the number of twenty-six, not having been paid their wages, have arrested the vessel, and Mr. Lord, their advocate, has pleaded for them before the civil court of the district. The crew claim, in the first place, their arrears of wages from the month of September, 1846 : and in the second, to be sent back to Canton at the expense of the captain. According to the sailor’s accounts, they were only engaged for eight months, and were not to go beyond Batavia and Singapore. The Court decided in favour of the crew, maintained the seizure, ordered the sale of the vessel, and condemned the captain to pay each man one or two hundred dollars, according to rank.

Despite these problems,  the Keying stayed several months in New York attracting thousands of visitors each day who paid 25 cents to board the ship. She then visited Boston in November 1847 before arriving in Britain in 1848.

The excitement of the people in New York was matched by the people in London and even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made the journey to have a look around. The following report was written by someone who was rather excited by it all.

Visit of Her Majesty and the Prince Consort to the Chinese Junk. 

The Queen and Prince Albert, accompanied by the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, and the Prince of Prussia, went to Blackwall, on Tuesday afternoon, to inspect the Chinese junk Keying, recently brought to this country. The royal party left Buckingham Palace shortly after four o’clock. The Queen and Prince Albert, with the princess of Prussia, the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, rode in one open carriage and four.

The route taken was down Birdcage-walk, over Westminster Bridge to the Borough road, and thence over London Bridge, through Fenchurch-street, Whitechapel, and the Commercial road, to the East India Docks. The royal party arrived at Blackwall at half-past five, and entered the East India Docks by the Orchard House gate, On the royal carriage drawing up at the entrance of the enclosure, her Majesty alighted, and, taking the arm of the Prince of Prussia, was conducted by Lord Alfred Paget on board the junk. The Prince Consort followed leading the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal. As the Queen placed her foot upon the deck, the Royal standard of England was run up to the summit of the mainmast by the Chinese sailors.

The royal party then proceeded to the poop; from this elevated part of the vessel they were visible to the thousands of spectators on the shipping and dock walls, and their appearance was greeted with tumultuous cheering. To reach this point was a matter of no small difficulty; and we question whether many of our fair readers who may hereafter visit this ship will have boldness to attempt it ; but the Queen mounted the steps leading thereto with the activity of a school girl, and her beaming countenance, when she looked round, evidenced a degree of delight and satisfaction not inconsistent with the character alluded to.

 After the spring heeled Queen Victoria had visited, thousands made their way to Blackwall to look at the Chinese Junk and many commemorative medals and collectables were produced for the general public. Leaflets were produced to attract visitors; the following gives more details of the visits.

The Royal Chinese Junk “KEYING” manned by a Chinese Crew. Visitors received by a Mandarin of rank and Chinese Artist of celebrity. Grand Saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the Celestial Empire. Collection of Chinese Curiosities.

The “Keying” is now open for Exhibition, from Ten to six, in the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steam-boat Pier, Blackwall.—Admission, One Shilling.

In time the interest waned and eventually the Keying was sold and towed from London to the river Mersey by a steam tug arriving in 1853. It was moored at the Rock Ferry slipway near Liverpool for public exhibition before being dismantled on the shore near the Tranmere Ferry opposite Liverpool.


1 Comment

  1. Andy Fairbairn says:

    Very informative thank you.
    As a young apprentice for the graving dock I did a job at orchard dock in the early 70’s which I think was leased to Shell at the time I think.

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