Dent & Company’s early days in China and John Dent
The following article was written by Christopher Munn and published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. The publisher, HK University Press, and Christopher have both given permission for this to be posted here. Christopher co-authored the article with Sooni Shroff-Gander.
Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped article.
Dent, Lancelot b. 1799 Westmoreland, England d.1853 Cheltenham, England. Merchant
Dent, Wilkinson b. 1800 Westmoreland, England d.1886 London. Merchant
Dent, John b. 1821 d. 1892 ?London. Merchant.
Dent & Co. was one of two powerful opium trading houses on the China coast at the time when Hong Kong was taken by the British (the other was its competitor and arch-rival, Jardine, Matheson & Co.). Founded in Canton and run by three brothers, Thomas, Lancelot and Wilkinson Dent, Dent & Co. was at the forefront of the China trade from the 1920s to the 1860s. Lancelot and Wilkinson Dent oversaw the firm’s relocation from Canton to Hong Kong in 1841. Their father, William Dent of Westmoreland, was at one time a merchant in Canton, and Thomas, the third son, was the first of the brothers to follow his father in seeking his fortune in China.
In 1820 Thomas joined the Canton firm of W.S. Davidson & Co.,and four years later, having become senior partner, changed the name of the firm to Thomas Dent & Co. Thomas was canny enough to invite Robert Hugh Inglis, son and nephew of two of the East India Company’s directors, to join as one of his partners, thus establishing impeccable connections for the firm.
In 1827 William Dent’s fifth son, Lancelot, joined the firm and later succeeded Thomas as senior partner when his elder brother left the company in 1831. Wilkinson Dent, the sixth son, arrived in Canton via Calcutta in 1835 and was present in 1839 when Lancelot was drawn into a clash with the Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu. Sent to Canton by the Chinese Emperor to suppress opium smuggling, Commissioner Lin began by requesting a meeting with Lancelot Dent, who in the absence of William Jardine, was regarded as the ‘head man’ of the foreign smugglers. Dent & Co. was alleged to possess 6,000 chests of opium. Fearing imprisonment by the Chinese authorities, and urged on by his brother Wilkinson and other merchants, Lancelot declined the invitation unless he was granted safe return. Lin refused to compromise and threatened arrest, at which point Charles Elliot, Superintendent of Trade, rushed to Canton from Macau to intervene and to place Lancelot under his protection. Lin then issued an order to take hostage the entire foreign community at Canton and demanded the surrender of the opium they held. The result was a stand-off. Elliot attempted to resolve the siege by buying up the opium from the British merchants, in effect making it the property of the British government. This gave him the right to surrender over 20,000 chests to Lin, who had the opium destroyed but then made further demands before normal trade could resume: the signing by merchants of a bond promising on pain of death not to trade in opium. Elliot adamantly refused. What had started as a trade dispute now turned into a confrontation between the Chinese and British governments, and led to the Opium War (1839-42).
In 1841 Lancelot and Wilkinson Dent moved their headquarters to the newly ceded colony of Hong Kong. Theirs was one of the first companies to purchase land along the waterfront, a property augmented soon after by a second site on the other side of the road. In 1843 James Legge wrote about Dent and Co.’s ‘imposing flat-roofed house’ in the ‘garden ground’ between Wyndham and Wellington Streets. In 1851 an employee of the firm, a Mr Braine, offered the house ‘Green Bank’ to the Government for use as Government House, and its garden for expansion and development as a public garden. The government declined his offer.
With Lancelot’s departure in 1842, Wilkinson became head of the firm. In Hong Kong Dent expanded its influence: it backed the publication of a newspaper, the China Mail; supported the Morrison Educational Society’s school; the publication of Legge’s translations of the Chinese classics; and many other worthy projects.
Dent & Co. had its offices in an imposing three-storey colonnaded building on the corner of Pedder Street and the central Praya, directly opposite Jardine, Matheson & Co. Soon the company boasted some of the fastest steamers afloat. As more treaty ports were opened, Dent established a presence in Shanghai, the centre of the tea and silk trade, and after 1860, in the Yangtze ports.
It was their nephew, John Dent, senior partner in the firm, who played the greatest part in Hong Kong life. He was one of the first of the colony’s justices of the peace, appointed in 1843, and was a member of the Legislative Council (1857-61, 1866-67). He led the opposition by marine-lot holders to Sir John Bowring’s plans for reclamation and the construction of a praya. He sat on the inquiry into the activities of the acting Colonial Secretary, W.T. Bridges, in 1858 and, although not a member of the committee appointed by Bowring to investigate the Registrar General, Daniel Caldwell, he was among a group of justices who published their dissent from its recommendation that Caldwell should be retained in office. John Dent was a notable bon viveur. The entertainer and writer, Albert Smith, described a dinner prepared by Dent’s French cook in Hong Kong in August 1858 as ‘one of the best dinners I ever sat down to, in London or Paris’. Smith added that ‘Bets, and horses, and yachts formed the topic of conversation’ – Dent had reportedly paid £10,000 for a racehorse in an effort to win the Hong Kong Cup from Robert Jardine. Earlier, in 1847, in another very personal act of rivalry with Jardines, Dent had taken over David Jardine’s mistress, Alloy. Many blamed the streak of rashness in John Dent’s character, and his extravagence, for the troubles the company was to face in the 1860s.
Dent & Co.played a role in the founding of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in March 1863, for it was the unofficial member of the Legaslative Council and chairman of the Bank’s provisional committee, Francis Chomley of Dent’s who applied to the Governor for a charter of incorporation in December 1864. Within two years, however, the company began to wind up its business and sell off its assets. In 1866 Overend and Gurney in the City of London floundered, touching off a run on the banks and bringing down other businesses, including the overextended Dent’s, which folded in 1867. The partner at the time, Alfred Dent, Thomas’s son and later a business associate of Gustav Van Overbeck said, ‘It was a bitter moment when we had to haul down the old house flag.’
Lancelot and Wilkinson Dent, who retired to a house, Flass, they built in Westmoreland, both died unmarried, and the business passed to their nephews John Dent and Alfred (later Sir Alfred) Dent. John Dent left Hong Kong in the late 1860s and lived quietly in London until his death in 1892.”(1)
HF: I asked Nicholas Kitto if he had any images of Dent & Co. buildings in China. He replied: “I’m afraid I only have the one building … for sure there are others but due to the collapse of Dents at such an early stage in the Treaty Port era, their ownership of buildings has long since been overshadowed by more recent owners/occupiers.
The image above is in Hankow (Hankou, Wuhan) and was taken in November 2012. Hankow only got going as a Treaty Port in February 1861, once the Taipings had finally been pushed out of the area. Dents was the first on the ground (indeed they had a steamer in port and had already secured land when Vice Admiral Hope arrived to formally establish the British Concession), but this building is 120 metres from the Bund (visible left is the rear of the APC building on the Bund) and so would not have been their primary office and godown which almost certainly would have been on the Bund. Given that Dents went down in around 1866, I do wonder whether they would have had the need (and time) to build this building when operations would have been concentrated on the Bund. Neverthless, I recollect we identified the building from an early map (which I do not have); it was owned by Evans & Pew after Dents.”
For more information about Nicholas Kitto and his website please see the link below.
- Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012 This wonderful book collects in one volume more than 500 specially commissioned entries on men and women from Hong Kong history.
- Nicholas Kitto’s website devoted to two projects, both involving historical buildings in China. The first is to photograph the many surviving foreign-inspired buildings in China’s former treaty ports and leased territories. This project is approaching completion. The second is to record Hong Kong’s 108 Declared Monuments.
This article was first posted on 24th April 2018.
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