Backhouse, Sir Edmund Trelawny, second baronet 1873-1944, historian and authority on China, was born at Middleton Tyas, Yorkshire, 20 October 1873, the eldest son of (Sir) Jonathan Edmund Backhouse, who became first baronet, by his wife, Florence, youngest daughter of Sir John Salusbury Salusbury-Trelawny, ninth baronet. Admiral of the Fleet Sir R. R. C. Backhouse [qv.] was a younger brother.
Backhouse was educated at Winchester where he gained a scholarship, and at Merton College, Oxford, of which he was a postmaster. He was placed in the second class in classical honour moderations in 1894. Owing to ill health he did not proceed to a final school. Before leaving Oxford he had shown signs of an extraordinary ability to learn foreign languages, and eventually he mastered those of most European and Asiatic countries. With these accomplishments he became attached to the British legation at Peking as a student interpreter, and eventually he was able to read and write Chinese perfectly and even to translate the difficult bamboo characters. The Boxer rising took place in 1900, three years after his arrival in Peking, and he went through the siege of the legations, gaining the China medal and clasp. In 1903 he was appointed a professor at Peking University, a post which he held for ten years, and it was then that he established his reputation as a scholar of Chinese. He made a vast collection of rare Chinese books and manuscripts; these, numbering 27,000, he afterwards presented to the Bodleian Library.
While at Peking University Backhouse collaborated with J. O. P. Bland [qv.] in an historical work, China under the Empress Dowager (1910), and in Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). He also collaborated with (Sir) Sidney Barton [qv.] in the revision of Sir W. C. Hillier's English-Chinese Dictionary of Peking Colloquial (1918). In 1913 he was appointed head of the school of Chinese at King's College, London, but the appointment was not taken up.
By his translations of State documents Backhouse rendered valuable service to the British Government. Among them were the secret Russo-Chinese agreement of February 1901, the Anglo-Tibetan treaty of September 1904, and the imperial patent in Manchu and Nepalese conferred on the King of Nepal by the Emperor Ch'ien Lung of China in 1790. Between 1922 and 1926 he assisted with the production of a Documentary Course of Chinese for Student Interpreters of the British Legation, Peking, and in 1923 he translated into Chinese the encyclical letter of the Lambeth Conference of 1920. From June 1936 until April 1937 he acted as honorary translator in Japanese to the British embassy in Peking, and he translated many State documents for The Times.
Backhouse succeeded his father as second baronet in 1918, later becoming a member of the standing council of the baronetage. He was elected a member of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale, Paris, and was offered distinguished posts in Europe, but China called. He had never married, and now he devoted his whole life to study and writing, becoming a recluse as time went on. In his house in the West City of Peking he lived the life of a Chinese scholar, even wearing the long native robes. Little by little he gave up all social contacts with his European and American friends, and would receive only two or three of them; thus he gained the reputation of being something of a mystery man. But he continued to see his Chinese friends, among whom were scholars, officials, and members of the old imperial family. It was during this period that he worked on an immense English-Chinese dictionary, and he wrote the histories of the private lives of some of the Manchu emperors of the Ta Ch'ing dynasty. When the Japanese invaded Peking in 1937 Backhouse was forced to leave his Chinese home, and he took refuge in the compound of the former Austrian legation, later going to live in a house in the British embassy grounds. The Japanese, deeply suspicious of all written documents, made a bonfire of his papers and manuscripts, among them the dictionary and histories, and so the priceless records and labour of nearly half a century were lost. Turning to religion in his last few years he became a Roman Catholic in 1941. After war was declared between Great Britain and Japan in 1941 and the foreign diplomats were repatriated, his name was on the list of civilians to be sent home, but he refused to leave Peking, the city he loved above all others. The Japanese authorities permitted him to stay, even when most other British residents were sent to a prisoners' internment camp in Shantung. Backhouse died in the French Hospital, Peking, 8 January 1944.
Contributor: Hope Danby.