Norton Court and the Opium Trade


The title to this piece sounds a bit dramatic but … could there be a link between the two back in the 1800s ?  We begin with some background history to set the scene.


The Portugese first visited China with trade in mind in 1513 and in 1557 were permitted to establish a settlement at Macao.  At this time Britain had not shown an interest in China concentrating their attention on India where, in 1600, the East India Company, who had a monopoly on British trade in Asia, set up its headquarters.  The Portugese held a near monopoly on trade with China until 1695 when the emperor declared Chinese ports open to foreign trade.  The British were dominant in Asia by this time and in 1699 the East India Company ship ‘Macclesfield’ made its first successful trading visit to Canton with at least one ship visiting annually thereafter.

Although the East India Company (‘the Company’) theoretically had a monopoly on trade with China more than half the visiting ships were owned by private merchants, trading largely between China and India, and in 1770 the Company began issuing licenses to these merchants known as country traders.  The Company kept a monopoly on the trade in Chinese tea with the private traders concentrating upon Indian cotton, pepper and opium.

Tea was the most important import to Britain with taxation on the product providing vast amounts of money to the treasury.  The problem was that Britain didn’t really have anything the Chinese wanted to exchange for the tea other than silver and this in turn became a huge drain on the treasury’s bullion store.  Opium was to provide a solution to this dilemma.  India was the prize of the empire and, largely in the Bengal area, produced huge amounts of opium that was readily available to the British traders with ships racing backwards and forwards between China and India trying to satisfy the demand.

Opium had been used medicinally in China for centuries but not until the Dutch popularised the smoking of it in Java in the seventeenth century did it come to be viewed as a drug.  In 1729 the trade in opium into China reached such a level that an edict was imposed banning its import.  The Company later complied with this edict but remained involved in the trade by purchasing the opium crop at source in India and selling it to the country traders who continued to openly import it to China.

The demand increased exponentially and by 1836 opium had become the worlds most valuable single commodity trade with imports to China reaching £18 million.  The traders had at last found something the Chinese wanted in exchange for tea and ‘blind eyes’ were turned everywhere with the huge benefits to the British treasury not to mention the huge sums of money being accumulated by certain companies and individuals.

Back in England we find one Lancelot Dent born in 1799 at Crosby Ravensworth, Westmoreland, son of William and Jane Dent.  In 1823 one Thomas Dent arrived in Guangzhou, China, and became a partner in Davidson & Co changing the company’s name to Dent & Co when Davidson left the following year.  Lancelot Dent had been doing business in India where he had great influence over several agencies who controlled the opium sold at the Calcutta auctions.  In 1826 he arrived in the Orient and became senior partner in Dent & Co in 1831 when Thomas left the company.  Dent & Co was a leading player in the area and along with Jardine, Matthieson & Co and Russell & Co were one of the three original Canton companies in colonial Hong Kong.


In 1838 the Chinese commissioned an official to once again bring an end to the opium trade and in March he gave the traders three days to hand over their stores and sign a bond agreeing not to trade in opium any longer.  The most prominent trader in Canton at the time was Lancelot Dent who was rumoured to have 6000 chests of opium in his warehouse.  Dent was ordered to appear before the Chinese official and although apparently willing to do so was prevented by his fellow traders in fear of his safety.  With the situation getting out of hand, the British government promised to recompense the traders for all opium handed over and along with a warrant for the arrest of Lancelot Dent the traders complied handing over a total of 20,283 chests valued at £9 million.  The traders would not sign the bond to cease the trade but sixteen of them including Dent and Matheson had to sign a guarantee that they would leave China never to return.  It was this series of events that triggered the ‘Opium Wars’ that ensued.  As a result of the agreement to leave China the entire British community moved to Macao but with the new years opium crop already purchased in India they had every intention of continuing to trade in China and the trade continued to flourish through the period when the two countries were officially at war.  In January 1841 the Convention of Chuempi was signed to end hostilities and as a part of their reparations the Chinese ceded Hong Kong to the British.

By 1841, Jardine, Matthieson & Co was trading with 19 intercontinental clippers racing between India and China whilst Dents were not far behind with 13 of their own as well as numerous smaller coastal vessels.  Dents went from strength to strength.  In 1841 they moved their HQ to Victoria becoming one of the first Hong Kong companies to purchase land as part of the urban development program in Central District.  Dents were also one of the first companies to open offices in Shanghai when the city opened to foreign trade in 1843 building at No 14 The Bund from where they traded tea and silk.  Dents built property in Hong Kong on the corner of Pedder Street and Praya Central, the waterfront, in 1850, redeveloping it in 1864.  [Coincidentally this land was later acquired by Hong Kong Land Company and Gloucester Tower was erected here in 1932.  The site is now home to the Landmark Complex].  Dents were members of the committee that launched the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Ltd in March 1865 and provided the Chairman, Francis Chomley, at the very first committee meeting in August 1864.

Our story now returns to England.  In 1800 Thomas Richardson, clerk to a London bill discounter, and John Overend, chief clerk at Smith, Payne & Company, bank of Nottingham, founded Richardson, Overend & Company with Gurney’s Bank providing the capital.  Bill discounting was carried out by merchants alongside their normal business but Richardson considered there was a business to be made for a London house to devote itself entirely to this purpose.  The company proved an immediate success and in 1807 Samuel Gurney, of the Norwich Quaker family, took control and renamed the company Overend, Gurney & Co in 1809.  Its business expanded dramatically and for the next 40 years it was recognised as the greatest discounting house in the world.  When Samuel Gurney retired the company expanded its portfolio into railways and other longterm investments and neglected the cash reserves that were necessary for their core role.  They soon found their liquid assets to be only a quarter of their liabilities and took steps to rectify the situation selling shares to become a limited company in 1865.  This proved to be bad timing as stock and bond values crashed and after they were refused help by the Bank Of England they suspended payments in May 1866 and went into liquidation the following month.  At the time of their collapse they owed £11 million, about £1000 million at today’s values.  [This was the last run on a British bank until Northern Rock in 2007].  The following crisis saw more than 200 companies fail as a result of the bank going under.

A number of Hong Kong trading houses used Overend, Gurney & Co including Jardine, Matthieson & Co and Dents.  Jardine, Matthieson & Co were fortunate in that their mail steamer from Calcutta brought them the news one hour ahead of their rivals giving them the opportunity to empty their holdings in the bank before anyone else in Hong Kong knew of the collapse.  Dents were to be one of the 200 casualties and were forced to close their Hong Kong offices moving to Shanghai and the company officially folded in 1867.

We do not know exactly what Edward Webb’s role would have been in Dent & Co but the article does describe him as having been a ‘partner’; one of five that owned the company at the time.  As such he would certainly have been aware of, if not directly involved in, the company’s opium dealings.  If it was the opium trade that paid his salary then was this the source of the funds that were used to purchase the Estate ?  It is also interesting to note that he had returned to England several years before the company failed and the Citizen article stated that he had been a partner implying that he wasn’t anymore.  Could he have jumped ship at just the right time ?

OK, so I admit that this is a pretty tenuous link between Norton Court and the opium trade but something to think about all the same.  I apologise to serious historians for glossing over most of the details from this time.  To compound this, for anyone who found this tale of interest but does not want to delve too deeply into the serious history of the times, then I would recommend reading James Clavell’s ‘Tai-Pan’ novel that encapsulates the events nicely in a fictional format.

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