Saturday, August 28, 2010 | By: Rudi Butt

King Of Libel Suits


Updated (partial) on October 18, 2010

Part II of Newsies in the Nineteenth Century
1881-1951 The Hongkong Telegraph 士蔑報

First issue appeared on June 15, 1881. The Hongkong Telegraph was founded by Robert Fraser-Smith (d. February 9, 1895 Hong Kong) to whom the newspaper owed its Chinese name, 士蔑 which was simply "Smith". I was unable to trace Fraser-Smith’s background before he became the proprietor, publisher and editor of the Telegraph. Fraser-Smith was often referred to as atrabilious and scandalous and had been jailed several times for libel. When Fraser-Smith died in 1895, his interest in the Hong Kong Telegraph was acquired by John Joseph Francis Q.C. [1] his more than once prosecutor in the court-of-law. Francis was said to be a sparring partner of Fraser-Smith, in-and-outside of the court-of-law. Francis retained the controlling interest of the newspaper until 1900, whereupon he reorganized the newspaper company into a limited liability company and had it registered on February 22, 1900. Robert Ho-tung and several of his Chinese associates became the principal shareholders of the newspaper company, which they felt would serve as an organ in which to give expression of their views. The shares were held under the name of the Chinese Syndicate 香港華商公局, predecessor of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
[1] J.J. Francis was a leading legal professional at his time and was the third barrister in Hong Kong to become a Queen’s Council.
Surely Fraser-Smith ought to be crowned the king of libel suits in the nineteenth century Hong Kong, taking into consideration the number of lawsuits brought against him as well as the diversity in backgrounds of the people he attacked. That I know of, he defended himself without counsel in all cases and he was very good in it, unlike the Tarrant Caine Libel Case in 1859 in which the defendant - William Tarrant, proprietor and editor of The Friend of China, had to defend himself without counsel since the plaintiff - William Caine, Hong Kong’s first Magistrate and later Lieutenant-Governor, hired all the barristers in town before the lawsuit was served. Tarrant lost the case and was sent to jail where he spent the next twelve months. Incidentally, Fraser-Smith also logged nearly a year’s jail time, in total, serving sentences from libel suits brought against him. Here is an account of some of the more famous cases.

1863 photo of Bandmann in the role
of Shylock in Merchant of Venice
- July 1882: sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for libeling the German tragedian, Daniel Edward Bandmann.
Bandmann (b. November 1, 1839 - d. 1905), son of a Hess-Cassel Jewish factory owner, made his name known in the operatic world not in Germany but in New York as a promising young actor in the Altes Stadt Theatre in 1857. His first English-language performance was also in New York in the Niblo’s Garden on January 15, 1863. The Bandmann Opera Company he later established became a prominent establishment and many famous American artists were at one time or another members of the company. A Shakespearean actor, Bandmann’s most popular roles included Hamlet, Shylock, and Richard III. Bandmann gave up acting in 1884 and settled in Missoula, Montana and became a rancher. The libel suit took place when the troupe was performing in Hong Kong during its Far East and Australia tour that started in 1879.

The Hongkong Daily Press followed the pre-trial hearing and the trial of the Smith and Bandmann Libel Case that started on July 18, 1881 quite diligently. To view these reports, go to this Hong Kong Public Libraries Page; check 'Old HK Newspaper; in the text box, type 'bandmann' 'libel', then check 'Keyword' and in the following box select 'Content'; and press Search. Enjoy, if you are people of the "lower class" as I am as described by the Singapore Straits Intelligence. A brief and clear report can be found in the October 5, 1882 edition of The Wanganui Herald (of New Zealand) entitled The Bandmann Libel Case.

- June 25 1883: sentenced to pay $100 and costs to James Bulgin, publisher and editor of China Mail, whom he attacked in the Telegraph on June 5; Bulgin sued for $1,000. Bulgin had been in the Far East for a long period time; in addition to Hong Kong, he had stationed in Yokohama and Shanghai.

- November 1883: sued by John Macneile Price, Surveyor-General, who was accused by Fraser-Smith of jobbery and corruption; the case was won by Fraser-Smith. J.M. Price, FGS, FRGS [2], Surveyor-General from 1873 to 1889, was also remembered by the schematic design of the Hong Kong Observatory that he proposed to the home government in London in 1882. The plan was approved in May and construction started the followoing year in 1883.
[2] FGS - Fellow of the Geographical Society; FRGS - Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
- February 1890: sentenced to pay $250 and costs to Oscar Grant; I was unable to find out who Grant was.

- December 1890: convicted of criminally conspiring with a Telegraph reporter George William Ward to bring a charge of rape against John Minhinnett, a foreman of the Public Works Department. The two were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with damages to Minhinnett of $3,000. The case showed that Fraser-Smith and a man called Webber; I have no idea who he was, borrowed $7,000 from Minhinnett for some time and had not returned the money. Minhinnett had, therefore, initiated bankruptcy proceedings against the two. Fraser-Smith intended to force Minhinnett out of Hong Kong or put him under a circumstance he could no longer be in a position to press forward the bankruptcy proceedings. Ward, as instructed by his boss, met Minhinnett and threatened him to give up the proceeding. When Minhinnett did not respond to the threat, Fraser-Smith and Ward then accused him of rapes. The alleged victims were two young girls: the Eurasian (half-German) daughter of the Chinese woman Minhinnett lived with, and a Chinese girl the couple adopted. J.J. Francis QC, appeared for the prosecution. Unbeknown to both at that time, I suspect, Francis would one day take over from Fraser-Smith as owner of the Telegraph.

The China Mail gave the trial proceedings two third of a page coverage in its October 10, 1890 edition. The report can be viewed at the Hong Kong Public Library Page, simply follow the instructions written above, but type ‘minhinnett’ in the search text box.

- 1892: sued by John Mitchell of Butterfield & Swire for libel, who obtained $250 damages from Fraser-Smith.

The Singapore Straits Intelligence gave these harsh comments about Fraser-Smith in its August 8, 1882 edition following the sentencing of the the Smith and Bandmann Libel Case
"… This has been done in Hong Kong, where Press privileges have been rankly abused by a person named Fraser Smith, and he has suffered one of the consequences - legal punishment. This person having a printing office at his disposal, started a newspaper, called the Hong Kong Telegraph, and commenced operation by abusing all who differed from him. His hand was against everyone, and every man’s hand was against him, though many were frightened to repel his attacks. In the coarsest of language he assaulted individuals and institutions alike, and when argument failed he had recourse to the last resource of lampoonists - that of raking up unpleasant incidents of a private nature, and throwing them in the face of the party he attacked with unblushing effrontery. The man was a perfect nuisance. He was like a mad dog, snarling and frothing at everyone, and running “amok” through the place, and biting the first man he met, and by some he was held to be a perfect terror. By the lower class he was admired. There is always a class who mistake Billingagatism for fine writing, and continual journalist swearing as exhibition of talent, and such people were supporters of the Telegraph …"

Editorial office of the Hongkong Telegraph
In 1916 or 1917, American dentist Joseph W. Noble (b. 1839, Dublin - d. September 22, 1901, Hong Kong) acquired a majority interest in the newspaper company and took on the role as publisher. Noble graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1883 with a dentistry degree, and joined alumnus Herbert Poate in Hong Kong in 1887. Poate and Noble were the first two dentists to practice in Hong Kong. Their firm, Poate and Noble, provided free dental service at the Alice Memorial Hospital. Noble was one of the keen supporters for the establishment of Hong Kong’s first medical school and was involved in realizing the plan to incorporate the Hong Kong College of Medicine into the University of Hong Kong. He was the college’s lecturer in Dental Surgery from 1896 to 1912. His interest in newspaper began at the turn of the century (but I don’t know what were the reasons) with the establishment of the South China Morning Post. Nobel became a member of SCMP’s board of directors in 1904 and steered the newspaper company through a number of financial crises in 1905-06. He was elected chairman of the board in 1907 and held on to the chair until 1911. Noble, however, kept quite a low profile; he was listed in the Who’s Who in the Far East for that period of time simply as a dental surgeon, and there was no mention of his name at all in the "Twentieth Century Impression of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China".

For a period of time, SCMP and the Telegraph jointly published an evening paper, named Evening Edition South China Morning Post and The Hongkong Telegraph. The Hongkong Telegraph merged with the South China Morning Post in the beginning of 1941. The two were split after the Pacific War and five years later in 1951 the Hongkong Telegraph closed.

I was able to find the following personalities who worked for the Telegraph either as editors or managers.

Chesney Duncan 鄧肯 was the second editor of the Telegraph, who succeeded Fraser-Smith in 1895 and continued until 1899. Duncan was an active republican revolution sympathizer, who had met Sun Yat-sen on several occasions and was listed as a supporting member of the Hsing Chung Hui 興中會. In fact, the English version of the declaration and mission statement of Hsing Chung Hui was drafted by Duncan and Thomas Reid of China Mail. The Telegraph and the China Mail were the first newspapers to openly champion the republic movement in China. On one occasion, Duncan was called before the Colonial Secretary James Lockhart, who reprimanded him for what the paper published, claiming it amounted to incitement of the Chinese to revolt against a government with which Britain was on friendly terms. Despite the warning, the newspaper's pro-revolutionists attitude has not swerved.

E.F. Skertchly replaced Duncan as editor in 1899 and left in 1901. He moved to Penang and later became the editor of the Penang Gazette and then chief editor of the Straits Echo, and there he died, the year unknown to me. His wife remarried a Samuel Bonnett Darby of Rugby and Brighton.

E.A. Snewin became the editor in 1901 at a time when Robert Ho-tung and his colleagues at the Chinese Syndicate were principal shareholders of the Telegraph. Snewin sat in the inaugural committee of the first Journalistic Association in Hong Kong. He left the newspaper in 1906.

A.W. Brebner
A.W. Brebner was appointed editor in January in 1906 and continued until 1910. Brebner hailed from Aberdeen, Scotland and received education at the Robert Gordon’s College. After graduation he joined the Aberdeen Free Press at a editorial staff. In 1895, he went to Jamaica and became the sub-editor of the Daily Time, and from there he proceeded to Hong Kong in 1906.
Three more names appeared as editors of the Telegraph but there is no information on the time period in which they held the position. They are E.B. Helme, F.L. Pratt and A. Hicks. I found no information relating to Helme and Hicks.

Frederick Lionel Pratt (b.1872-d.1940s) was an Australian who was famous as co-owner-publisher of the "Who’s Who in the Far East".  The co-owner was another Australian William Henry Donald (b.1875-d.1946), the managing director of the China Mail. The directory (1906-07, 1907-08 editions are known to me) was printed by the China Mail. Donald moved to Shanghai in 1911 and became the editor of the Far Eastern Review from 1911 to 1920. Additionally, he was an adviser to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

J.P. Braga
Jose Pedro Braga 布力架 (b. 1871 Hong Kong - d. 1944 Macau) was the manager of the Hong Kong Telegraph between 1902 and 1910 who also succeeded Francis as the publisher. Braga came from a Portuguese family with long standing in Macau. His maternal grandfather Delfino Noronha ran a printing press in Hong Kong since 1844, Noronha and Co., a quasi-government printer, which eventually became the Hong Kong Government Printer. Braga studied at the Italian Convent School (predecessor of the Sacred Heart Canossian College) and St. Joseph’s College in Hong Kong and went to India afterward, and there he graduated from the University of Calcutta. On his returned to Hong Kong in 1899, Brada worked for his grandfather until Noronha’s death in July 1902. Thereafter Braga joined the Telegraph at the invitation of Robert Ho-tung. After having spent eight years (1902-1910) with the Telegraph, Braga went on to become the Hong Kong correspondent for Reuters. He was succeeded as publisher by the new owner of the newspaper Joseph Noble. In c.1920, Braga gave up journalism and ventured into the business domain and there he attained a much higher station in life. Among other achievements, he was appointed Chairman of China Light and Power Company in 1934 (and again in 1938) after CLP's founding chairman Robert Gordon Shewan was oust by the principal shareholders - the Kadoorie family. Braga also sat on the board of several prominent companies which were managed by Shewan, Tomes and Co., a firm controlled by Shewan. I found no personal relations between Braga and Shewan, or any between he and the Kadoories.

Braga was a member of the Sanitary Board between 1927 and 1930. He was appointed the first Portuguese member of the Legislative Council in 1929, he continued to serve in the council until 1937. He was created an OBE in 1935 and was honored with the naming of Braga Circuit 布力架街. Braga married Olive Pauline Pollard (b. January 16, 1870 Launceston, Tasmania, Australia - d. February 13, 1952) 1884 in Calcutta. She was the pianist and violinist with the Pollards Lilliputian Opera Copmany, her father James Joseph Pollard was the founder. Jose and Pauline Brada had five children. One of their sons, Jose Maria (Jack) Braga (b.1897-d.1988) was a famous writer.

- TO BE COMPLETED -

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