“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Marjorie Hessell Tiltman – What you do when you’ve left China?

Posted: February 26th, 2014 | 12 Comments »

Marjorie Hessell Tiltman was the wife of Hugh Hessell Tiltman, a well known journalist in 1930s China. I covered him briefly in my book Through the Looking Glass, a history of foreign correspodnents in China – ‘Reporting from Manchuria in the early 1930s was not without its hazards. Hessell Tiltman, a British journalist for the London Daily News and three-time president of the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents’ Club, became well known for covering Japan’s latest outposts as its expansionist policy advanced. He was arrested by the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, in Manchuria for spying and bizarrely charged with “taking a photograph without a camera”, an accusation neither the journalist nor anyone else seemed to really understand. However absurd a charge, the Japanese were probably right to watch Hessell Tiltman as he probably was a spy, at least part-time. In 1934 he published his take on the Manchurian annexation in association with Colonel P. T. Etherton in their book Manchuria: The Cockpit of Asia. Etherton had been British consul-general in Kashgar between 1918 and 1922 where his major task had been to thwart Bolshevik expansion into either British India or Chinese Turkestan. After that he had been involved in various Balkan machinations before travelling to Manchuria. It is hard to imagine that Hessell Tiltman was not aware of who Etherton was and could not look at the “diplomatic” roles he had undertaken and add two and two together to get “spy”.’

Anyway, this post is about his wife, Marjorie. After leaving China it seems the Hessell Tiltman’s settled in West Sussex and Marjorie wrote a delightful book about life in their cottage and village in the late 1930s just before the war, Cottage Pie. I came across a copy the other day while sorting out my father’s book collection – he had no idea how she linked to China. She also wrote on China, including a novel entitled Master Sarah about the opium wars. Still, life in Sussex seemed to please her most…..

Hessel Tiltman - Cottage Pie

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12 Comments on “Marjorie Hessell Tiltman – What you do when you’ve left China?”

  1. 1 Major (Rtd) David Etherton said at 11:10 pm on August 6th, 2014:

    Taking a break from the garden and surfing Etherton links I came across your entry. Thank you , it certainly ties in with the Etherton/Tiltman publications , see also ” Japan Mistress of the Pacific”.

  2. 2 Rosemary Jones said at 3:08 am on September 5th, 2014:

    I discovered Marjorie Hessell Tiltman’s Sussex books through the wood engravings they contain by Gwenda Morgan, at least that’s in the two sequels to ‘Cottage Pie’ which are ‘A Little Place in the Country’ and ‘The Birds Began to Sing’. I live in Worthing and through local knowledge I have found the house where she lived: it is in Brook Lane, Coldwaltham, just south of Pulborough in West Sussex. I wish I could find out a little more about her as I found these books really quite captivating. I know she lived in Pulborough when she died.

  3. 3 malcolm lindsay said at 4:18 pm on November 3rd, 2014:

    I have just come across a copy of ‘English Earth’ by Tiltman – marvellous! Over the years I have been putting together a collection on English Country Life !850-1950 and this book is a great addition. I will now look out for the Gwenda Morgan illus. copies. I am pleased to correspond on this subject.

  4. 4 Paul French said at 1:43 am on November 6th, 2014:

    Malcolm, I’d recommend Esther Meynell’s Sussex Cottage from 1936 – first pubed by Chapman and Hall

  5. 5 Brenda Sorrell said at 9:05 pm on October 29th, 2015:

    This is most interesting! I am in the process (together with my husband) of working on my father, artist John Gascoigne Lake’s memoir. He writes: ‘ It was in Coldwaltham that I met Feliks Topolski when he first came to this country. He was staying near us with an authoress who had built herself a cottage and had a double-decker bus converted as extra accommodation, in a field behind the guest house. Her husband was an international journalist and the only time we met him, he had just come back from Japan, about which he was very enthusiastic.’ After WWII, my mother sister and I would spend summers in our caravan in Coldwaltham. One year, we bumped into Mrs Hessell-Tiltman and were invited to her thatched cottage for drinks. As a child, I was impressed with the black and red Japanese lacquer bowls and being given Schloer apple juice to drink. The garden had ornamental fir trees and the yellow double-decker bus. Mr Hessell-Tiltman was away in Japan. On my birthday, I received a box containing little Japanese paper dolls, man and wife. I still have them, about 60 years later.

  6. 6 Paul French said at 8:17 pm on October 30th, 2015:

    Marvellous – I wonder whatever happened to the bus. I believe Tiltman visited Japan again after WW2 around the time of the outbreak of the Korean War (1950). Tiltman urged Japan to join the fight in Korea against communism and the creep of the USSR. This was really an impossible position for Japan after WW2 and didn’t happen – no one much else supported the idea.

  7. 7 Louise Wallace (nee Mosley) said at 10:23 pm on May 28th, 2017:

    When I was around 12 I was awarded a school prize – a book by Marjorie Hessel Tiltman called “God’s Adventurers”. I am now 94. Could I be right about this? I am pretty sure it was signed “Henry Southwell” though I no longer have the book.

  8. 8 paul French said at 5:18 pm on May 30th, 2017:

    Louise – you are right – God’s Adventurers was published in 1933 – so that was probably the book. Henry Southwell was probably the then Bishop of Lewes – obviously he and Marjorie shared a Sussex connection – as perhaps do you? Paul

  9. 9 Emma Tanner (Hand) said at 11:10 pm on May 10th, 2018:

    Marjorie Hessell-Tiltman was my aunt – my father’s sister. My father died in 1963 following a long illness. Prior to his death, I spent a great deal of time in the care of my Aunt M at White Cottage, Coldwaltham. We had also spend some time living in her other cottage, Widness, across the lane from White Cottage before moving to the Meynell’s place at Greatham. We were always convinced that Uncle Hugh was a spy and we naively hoped that some evidence would emerge after his death. That did not happen. We then hoped that some information would present itself when my aunt died but that was not the case either. I doubt we will ever know the full story. But I can tell you that Uncle Hugh lived for at least the last 20 years of his life in the penthouse suite of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo and would be met at Southampton docks by an ‘official’ car to ferry him and his two Japanese ‘secretaries’ up to Coldwaltham on his visits back to UK. He was found dead in his cabin at Port Said on a return trip to UK – I can’t remember which year. Natural causes. There was a photograph of him with Emperor Hirohito on Aunt M’s desk. I had no idea as a child who Hirohito was or why I should find this photograph interesting. So many memories of Aunt M and Uncle Hugh. As a child growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s I found both Marjorie and Hugh a bit intimidating so it was not until later that I began to appreciate what extraordinary lives they had led. Aunt M remained as sharp as a razor, well-read and intellectually curious right up to her death at the age of 99.

  10. 10 Paul French said at 6:20 pm on May 18th, 2018:

    how wonderful – thanks for sharing – of course he was a spy! (but in a good way!!)

  11. 11 Phil Berry said at 5:16 pm on December 11th, 2018:

    Her books are a delightful record of the early years of WW2. Her cottage which I visited yesterday is still very appealing, with views between the trees of the wonderful landscape she talks about. The kind owners showed me a book of the 1949 extension and we would be grateful to know how long she lived there.

  12. 12 Kimberly Sims said at 8:35 pm on February 7th, 2021:

    We have bought a house, Court Cottage, which Marjorie owned (along with a connected house, Court House) in Pulborough. (We have found her name on the deeds, where she has outlined in detail some charges on the conveyance back in 1984). Our cottage, which is a listed building (strangely, the adjoining Court House is not) overlooks the South Downs as well and has a beautiful garden. We would love to know when she moved here from Coldwaltham. We have managed to get a copy of her book, Cottage Pie about the Coldwaltham house which we are looking forward to reading!

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