Southampton and the King of Siam

The year was 1897 and the King of Siam had decided to embark upon a tour of Europe. He was the first Siamese monarch to do so and it came just four years after the Franco-Siamese War in which his kingdom had to cede land to the French empire. It is generally considered that his trip was an attempt to improve relations with the European colonial powers who threatened Siam’s independence. King Chulalongkorn would have been made well aware of life in the West, having been tutored in his youth by Anna Leonowens. Her memoirs became the basis for the novel Anna and the King of Siam and, later, the musical The King and I.

Chulalongkorn left Bangkok for Europe on board his royal yacht Maha Chakri in April 1897, arriving in Venice on 14 May. His tour was extensive, taking in every sightseeing opportunity along the way. From Venice he ventured to Switzerland, before heading to Rome, France, and Austria. Whilst he was gallivanting around Europe, his royal yacht appeared at the fleet review at Spithead, joining one hundred and seventy Royal Navy ships in marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. From Austria he visited Hungary, Poland, and then Russia, where he enjoyed a state banquet with Tsar Nicholas II at the Peterhof Palace. The two men toasted each other’s health in English.

Chulalongkorn with Tsar Nicholas II.

Chulalongkorn with Tsar Nicholas II. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Next on his to-do list was Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, before Maha Chakri brought him to England on 30 July. On 4 August he travelled from his lodgings at Buckingham Palace to Osborne on the Isle of Wight in order to visit Queen Victoria. It was around this time that Maha Chakri appeared in Southampton Water, before she sailed into the yards at the suburb of Northam for repairs. Just like a modern tourist, Chulalongkorn made sure he saw all the sights during his first stay in England, but it was not long before he was off on his travels again. On 21 August he left Charing Cross on a train bound for Dover, where he boarded a ship for the continent, arriving in Germany several days later. Kaiser Wilhelm II, like his cousin Nicholas, also put on a big banquet for the King of Siam, and he too toasted him in English. The following week, Chulalongkorn travelled to Friedrichsruh to visit Otto Von Bismarck. The King of Siam then visited Belgium, before arriving in Paris on 11 September. The Franco-Siamese War had ended four years earlier but trouble still flared up from time to time and it was reported that whilst at the Louvre, Chulalongkorn refused to shake the hand of a French Vice-Admiral who had fired upon Siamese forts back in 1893. Despite this minor set back, it was reported that the King of Siam discussed matters of French colonial expansion with the president, Félix Faure, and he later wrote him a letter in which he noted their sincere friendship. The two men enjoyed lunch at Le Havre, before Chulalongkorn boarded SS Stella to take him back to England. Incidentally, SS Stella sank during a voyage from Southampton to Guernsey two years later in 1899. There is a memorial in Southampton to a heroic stewardess named Mary Ann Rogers, who perished after giving up her life jacket and a place in a lifeboat so that others might be saved.

The Duke of Cambridge greeting Chulalongkorn at Victoria railway station, London, in August 1897. Image © Illustrated London News Group

The Duke of Cambridge greeting Chulalongkorn at Victoria railway station, London, in August 1897. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

A large crowd of curious onlookers had assembled at Southampton Docks during the evening of 17 September 1897. The King of Siam had attracted large crowds almost everywhere he went during his tour and Southampton was evidently no different. SS Stella sailed into view just before nine o’clock. Waiting for him on the dockside was the Mayor of Southampton, Edward Gayton, and a large contingent of other local dignitaries. A big shed next to the water had been illuminated and a red carpet was extended from the berth to a special train that waited nearby, ready to convey the king to London. The gangway linked the ship with land, and a Siamese minister went to introduce Chulalongkorn to the Mayor of Southampton. The king reportedly descended the ramp rapidly, immediately grasping the mayor’s hand. “I did not expect this. It is very kind. Thank you very much,” the king is reported to have said. The mayor replied by offering Chulalongkorn a ‘most hearty welcome’, and reportedly thanked him for choosing a Southampton firm to repair his ‘magnificent yacht’ (it had previously been reported in the press that the yacht was to be repaired in Portsmouth). The mayor regretted not being able to show the king the ‘various objects of interest in our town’, and assured him that should he ever have an opportunity to visit again, he would receive a hearty welcome. The king allegedly shook the mayor’s hand repeatedly during this short speech, whilst apparently enthusiastically stating his appreciation. He went into the shed where he saw Captain Cumming, the Royal Navy officer who had sailed Maha Chakri from Bangkok, and who had then taken her around Europe. The king, in his short overcoat and Homburg hat, rushed towards the captain, eager to hear about his yacht. After a short conversation, he boarded the train to London. It would not be his last visit to Southampton.

Captain Cumming had been assisted by Lieutenants Walsh and Saunders and around two hundred Siamese crew on their long journey. Maha Chakri was now at the Day, Summers, and Company iron works at Northam for alterations and repairs. A company called Beaton Brothers, located on Floating Bridge Road, were tasked with the sail work. She had been built by Ramage and Ferguson at Leith in 1892 and despite being fitted out with all the furnishings you’d expect from a royal yacht, she was in fact a 2,500 ton cruiser, with six 4.7-inch guns and about a dozen other small quick-firing guns. Her bow had a ram, and during the conflict with France in 1893 it was suggested Maha Chakri could be used to strike French ships. Chulalongkorn would have already been familiar with the Southampton shipbuilder’s workmanship. In 1878, Day, Summers, and Company had built another royal yacht for him, named Vestari. A local man named Worthy Johnson went with the Vestari as an engineer and served the King of Siam for five or six years before sunstroke forced his return home. Johnson may have seen Maha Chakri in 1897, for at that time he was the landlord of the nearby Yacht Tavern. At the same time, at the nearby yard of Summers and Payne, work was being carried out on a new royal barge for the King of Siam. This barge was thirty-six feet long, made of cedar, and painted royal blue with intricate gold decoration. Once complete, it was loaded onto Maha Chakri in Southampton Water.

Maha Chakri at Cowes. Image © Illustrated London News Group

Maha Chakri at Cowes. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

With the workers of Southampton busy on the two vessels for the king, his crew needed to keep themselves occupied. About one hundred of them had been put up at John Doling’s Emigrants’ Home. Incidentally, John Doling’s wife Ada, and his sister Elsie, would survive the sinking of Titanic some fifteen years later. A couple of days before the King of Siam first set foot in the town, one of his crew found himself in a spot of bother. The Hampshire Advertiser reported that some of the crew had been ‘spending their money rather freely in the purchase of revolvers, double-barrelled shot guns, rifles, and other implements of warfare, and some of the Southampton tradesmen have been doing very well’. One of the chaps had been inspecting his new purchase when the gun suddenly discharged, firing a bullet into his chest, just below the heart. The newspaper offered a cautionary conclusion, stating ‘… this accident will serve as a lesson to our interesting visitors, who should know that they must not handle strange weapons without at least a little knowledge of what they are doing’. Thankfully, a few days later, the same newspaper reported that the Siamese sailor was doing well in hospital.

On 20 September, the Mayor of Southampton received a telegram from Chulalongkorn’s people in London. It thanked him for his kind reception, and contained a reply to the mayor’s welcoming speech. It read:

Sir, – It gave me great pleasure on landing once again in England to receive so cordial a welcome from the chief magistrate of such a city as yours, the importance and prosperity of which is so closely connected with Eastern trade. While thanking you for the heartiness of your welcome, the warmth and geniality of which could not be affected by the inclemency of the weather or by the lateness of the hour for which my arrival was necessarily timed, let me add also an expression of my high appreciation of the admirable workmanship for which your city, for many generations, has been so justly famed, and of which I am now taking advantage in the repairs that are being effected to my yacht, which, if time permits, it is my desire to inspect personally before leaving England. I wish all success to the prosperity and industry of a city which has done so much to connect the East and the West by turning the ocean that used to divide us, into a highway that brings us together.

Kind words and high praise indeed. A few days later, the mayor received another telegram, informing him that the king proposed to visit Southampton again on 1 October.

The special train rolled into the Italianate railway station on Terminus Terrace a little before half-past twelve. The mayor was there, backed by his band of important people, and a large crowd of people watched on with interest. The carriage stopped so that it was in line with the red carpet that had been laid out on the platform. Captain Cumming boarded the train and was greeted by the king, the two men then stepped out of the carriage, with Chulalongkorn leading the way. Men of the Hampshire Regiment 2nd Volunteer Battalion formed a guard of honour outside the station and the king, dressed in a dark suit, inspected the ranks whilst doffing his silk hat. The crowd caught a glimpse of the illustrious visitor and cheered him loudly. The king and two of his sons joined the mayor on board the first of a six carriage convoy and, accompanied by an escort of mounted police, they made their way through the dock gate and past a Siamese flag that had been raised for the occasion. After leaving the yard at Northam, Maha Chakri had been placed in the docks where the paint work could be completed. She was dressed with flags, and the crew lined up along the bulwarks to meet their king and employer.

Chulalongkorn boarded his vessel as its band played the Siamese national anthem and he spent around an hour inspecting the work. Afterwards, the royal convoy made its way through cheering crowds to the Royal Pier, with Chulalongkorn frequently acknowledging the citizens who had come out to see him. His arrival at the pier was marked by another guard of honour, and the band of the 1st Hants Artillery Volunteers began playing the Siamese national anthem. It seemed like every dignitary in the local area was invited to lunch at the pavilion where the tables were set for two hundred guests, from Lords and Members of Parliament, to Royal Navy officers, doctors, councillors, local businessmen, docks officials, and others. A reporter from the Hampshire Advertiser was also present, and he recorded the speeches. First of all, the Mayor of Southampton toasted ‘the most illustrious monarch who had ever sat upon the throne of England or any other throne’, which was met by cheers. He then made a toast to their ‘illustrious guest, his most gracious Majesty the King of Siam’, and this was also met by an equal amount of cheering. Edward Gayton then made his speech, regaling the guests with the story of Chulalongkorn’s first visit, the subsequent telegram, and now, his return to the town. He thanked the king for ‘giving to an eminent firm in Southampton the work of renovating and redecorating the handsome yacht’, and the mayor told the guests that the king was delighted with his visit to England. He was sure that it had done much to cement the good feeling between East and West. Gayton spoke of how Chulalongkorn had done so much for his people back in Siam, and said that in Bangkok they were more advanced in civilisation in certain respects than they are in Southampton. “Why, they have electric trams there. What do Southampton men think of that? If you are not ashamed of yourselves by the contrast then you ought to be,” he joked, before assuring the king that the matter was in hand and the next time he came to Southampton he would find an electric tram waiting to take him from the railway station to his yacht, and from his yacht to the Bargate. The mayor informed the assembled dignitaries that the king had told him there should a permanent bridge over Southampton Water, and another that linked Southampton and Woolston. The mayor, spotting the Chairman of the Itchen Floating Bridge Company, said that he hoped he and other gentlemen would take the suggestion to heart, and then possibly some day they may have bridges to Woolston and Hythe. Chulalongkorn was not the first to suggest a permanent bridge across the River Itchen, but it would be another eighty years before his vision was realised. The mayor said that he was delighted and honoured to be able to give the king a send-off  in what was his last public function in England. “Long might his Majesty live to reign over a contented and happy people,” he said, before presenting the king with a gift. It was a case of spoons, the stems of which were each modelled on the silver oar which represented the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. Pictured on them were the lions that guarded the Bargate, and in the bowl of the spoon was a picture of the Bargate itself, an iconic symbol of Southampton. The case, inlaid with a gold inscription, was made of Moroccan leather and Utrecht velvet and it was created by Michael Emanuel’s jewellery business on the High Street. Edward Gayton had succeeded Emanuel as mayor the previous year, and Emanuel was present at the lunch in his position as the current deputy-mayor. The inscription read – ‘Presented to his Majesty the King of Siam on his visit to Southampton by Edward Gayton, Esq., Mayor of the Town, October 1st, 1897’.

“It’s a very interesting gift,” the king said, inspecting the case. He then stood, and the two hundred guests rose with him, cheering. When the noise had subsided, and the guests had once again taken their seats, Chulalongkorn thanked the mayor for his kind and amusing words, his warm welcome, and his hospitality. He thanked him for the gift, and said he hoped that his visit to England would lead to a more cordial feeling between this country and his. “I thank you very much for the kindness you have shown to me, and I thank too the town of Southampton, which has done the repairs to my yacht. I now drink prosperity to the town of Southampton, and I ask you to drink to the health of the mayor.”

The guests responded with a long and loud applause, and the mayor then replied, stating that within a few weeks he should be, in his own words, shuffling off this mortal coil, municipally speaking of course, for he hoped he should not ‘shift it’ otherwise. He was coming to the end of his term and whilst he had attended many important functions, he said that none had afforded him greater pleasure than to have had the opportunity of receiving the King of Siam. After the lunch, the guests dispersed, and the King and his family took a trip on the carriage up the picturesque High Street, through the ancient Bargate, and up to the leafy Avenue. Crowds lined the streets to cheer the popular king, before the carriage swung around and proceeded to the railway station so that the king could return to London.


King Chulalongkorn, the ‘Great Beloved King’. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Three days after Chulalongkorn had departed Southampton, one of his crew members appeared at the Southampton Borough Police Court. A young stoker named Bun was charged with unlawfully and maliciously cutting and wounding John Webb of Millbank Street on Sunday 3 October. Webb told the court that Bun and several other crew members were hanging about, and that Bun had a knife. He allegedly rushed at Webb, striking him on the nose. Webb tried to run but fell over a child, and before he could get up, Bun stabbed him twice on the head. When Webb came to, he said he simply got up and went home. Another witness called John Henderson corroborated the events, and said that the sailors all opened their knives at the same time. It was Henderson who had knocked Bun off of Webb before disarming him. The charge was altered to common assault and Bun pleaded guilty, stating through an interpreter that Webb had knocked up against him and he had only acted in self-defence. Since Webb did not want to prosecute, and it was confirmed that Bun would be punished on board the yacht, the sailor was discharged. At this point, Chief Constable Berry said he should like to remark that he had not received a solitary complaint as to the conduct of the sailors during the whole time the royal yacht had been in the port, and it was only through the efforts of its officers that Bun had been brought before the bench in the first place. The Chairman said it was satisfying to hear such an excellent character given to the Siamese sailors, who he said set a worthy example to the crews of many of the English and American ships that came to Southampton.

There was perhaps one incident of ‘fake news’ when the Hampshire Advertiser ran an article entitled ‘SIAMESE SAILORS SMOKE IN CHURCH’. The article said that some of the crew had visited the church at Bitterne on the same day as the stabbing incident. The article informed the reader that, to the amazement of the worshippers, a sailor had a lit up a cigarette and started smoking. A sidesman took the cigarette off him, and put it on the book rack. Another sailor picked it up, and when the sidesman went to grab it, he passed it to a third sailor. Just as things were about to kick off, the sidesman led the sailors to the door, where they ‘wended their way to an adjacent inn, a class of place evidently more familiar to them’. However, a few days later, a sidesman named Cooke wrote to the paper, and made it clear that they had not smoked. One had held a cigarette, but did not light it. The matches were placed in the book rack at his request, and they were then passed to another sailor who put them in his pocket. Cooke went so far as to say the Siamese sailors set an example to ‘many so-called Christians at Church’.

On board the royal yacht, Bun faced his punishment for stabbing John Webb. He was found guilty by court-martial and he was consequently tied by his arms and legs in a bending position. Four quartermasters took turns to issue a total of seventy-five lashes. Other sailors were punished for their roles too, the punishment being proportionate to the offence.

King Chulalongkorn left London for Dover and Calais on 2 October, the day after his lunch in Southampton. Again, a large crowd had seen him off from Victoria railway station, the London Daily News reported that as he waved and smiled, a tear could be seen in his eye. Conjecture perhaps, but it was widely reported that Chulalongkorn had enjoyed his stay in England, and he had viewed the trip as an important one in trying to save Siam from being swallowed up by colonial powers.

Some weeks after the king left English shores for France, Portugal, Spain, and home, Edward Gayton received another telegram from the Siamese legation, which read:

Sir, – I am commanded by his Majesty the King of Siam, my august sovereign, to forward to you the accompanying oxydized and enamelled silver salver, of Siamese workmanship, patterned after the National Floral emblem of the Lotus. His Majesty hopes that you will accept it as a souvenir of his recent pleasant visit to the town of Southampton; and also of the friendly relations established by the stay of his yacht, the “Mahachakri” at your port.

The salver was placed on view in the mayor’s parlour for a few days and was much admired by those who saw it. They would have considered it a kind gesture from a man who, despite a busy schedule, and despite previously having dined with the likes of Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II, still found time to revisit Southampton and have lunch with the people of the town. Public opinion of him from his trip was positive and the crowds were a testament to that. He was perhaps at times viewed as being slightly eccentric, but often he appeared down-to-earth, friendly, amiable, and sincere. He was certainly a man with a great thirst for knowledge.

King Chulalongkorn died in 1910,  in the forty-second year of his reign. Remarkably, Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V as he was also known, fathered seventy-seven surviving children, and the current King of Thailand, Rama X, is his great-grandson. Chulalongkorn visited London again in 1907, to attempt to cure the kidney disease that would claim his life. In modern Thailand he is known by his epithet, Great Beloved King, as a result of his rule and reforms which modernised the kingdom, introducing railways, electric lights, and of course, electric trams. Seven years after his death, the country opened its first university which was named in his honour. He is perhaps best remembered for completely abolishing slavery in Siam and for ensuring the nation’s independence despite pressure from larger powers. He had to cede land to the French in 1893, and in 1909 the Anglo-Siamese treaty was ratified in which he had to cede land to the British. Whilst it was a concession, it did ultimately help maintain Siamese independence, which had been Chulalongkorn’s wish all along.