Kate Barff (nee Katherine Anne Clayton) was born in West Sussex, England in 1833. She married at an early age and accompanied her husband Samuel to Eastern Europe and later Greece, where the latter served as British vice consul in the port of Patras. She was the mother of three sons and a daughter when the family arrived in Hong Kong in 1870. Samuel took up the position of assistant postmaster in the colony, later rising through the ranks of the civil service as deputy registrar and accountant for the Supreme Court. In an 1884 document, the Barff family is listed as living in a house called “The Hut” on Castle Road in an affluent neighborhood of Hong Kong. In April the same year, Kate’s daughter Lucy died at the age of nineteen and was buried in the Happy Valley Cemetery, where her gravestone can still be seen today.
Shipping intelligence in the English-language newspapers shows Samuel and Kate Barff arriving in Nagasaki from Shanghai aboard the steamship Yokohama-maru on April 27, 1894. The couple’s motivation in choosing Nagasaki as a place of retirement is unclear, but they were certainly not alone. Many other foreign visitors were calling at the port and deciding to stay, captivated by Nagasaki’s moderate climate, beautiful scenery and peaceful multinational community. An added amenity was the Shimabara Peninsula near Nagasaki gaining popularity as a summer resort among the well-heeled expatriates of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Still another factor may have been the Sino-Japanese War, a bloody clash between Japan and China that raged in regions close to Nagasaki from July 1894 to April 1895. Lionel C. Barff, the youngest son of Samuel and Kate, stayed with his parents in Nagasaki while serving as a correspondent for The London Illustrated News during the war and submitted numerous sketches to the magazine. Before returning to Victoria, Canada (where he had been working previously as a mining broker and art teacher) in May 1895, he held an exhibition in his parents’ residence, including paintings of Unzen, Aba and other areas near Nagasaki that the writer of an article in the local English-language newspaper praised as displaying “a delicate and refined scheme of colour wedded to a keen sense of composition.”
In early 1897, Samuel and Kate Barff acquired the lease to No. 15 Minamiyamate, a large hillside house known among foreign residents as Cliff Field. Samuel’s health deteriorated over the following months. He died on August 25 the same year, aged sixty-nine, and was buried at Sakamoto International Cemetery. The census conducted by Japanese authorities at the end of 1897 shows Kate Barff living at No. 15 Higashiyamate alone as a "widow."
On January 4, 1898, while still living at No. 15 Minamiyamate, Kate Barff bought the opulent stone bungalow at No. 14 Minamiyamate, a house in use at the time as the U.S. Consulate. The building still exists today as the Former Alt House, a National Important Cultural Property preserved as part of the Glover Garden theme park. When she realized in December 1898 that the American government intended to move the Nagasaki consulate to another location, Kate posted an advertisement in The Nagasaki Press offering to sell or rent the bungalow at No. 14 Minamiyamate, with the rather odd postscript that "if preferred" she was willing to rent or sell No. 15 Minamiyamate (Cliff Field) instead. The result of the advertisement was not published, but related documents indicate that she found renters for Cliff Field and moved her own place of residence to No. 14 Minamiyamate. In February 1899, she held an auction of household furniture at No. 15 Minamiyamate, including several of her son’s oil paintings.
Kate Barff received news in 1900 that her son Lionel, who had traveled to northern China to cover the Boxer Rebellion as a special correspondent for The Illustrated London News, had fallen gravely ill while following the march of allied troops from Tientsin to Beijing. She boarded a steamship to Shanghai, intending to rush to his bedside, but, upon landing, learned of his death due to typhoid fever.
After the tragic death of her son, Kate became an increasingly eccentric and conspicuous presence on the Minamiyamate hillside, engaging in squabbles with her neighbors over property boundaries, submitting peculiar messages to the editor of The Nagasaki Press, and bothering the British consul with trivial complaints. In September 1901, she wrote to Nagasaki Prefecture Governor Arakawa Yoshitarō (addressing him incorrectly as Harakawa) announcing that she was paying her annual ground rent of 422 dollars for No. 14 and No. 15 Minamiyamate “under protest” because local authorities were planning to build a public road between the two properties.
The outcome of Kate’s protest is unclear, but Nagasaki authorities went ahead with the construction of public roads on the hillside—to such an extent that it is difficult today to discern the original features of the neighborhood.
In February 1903, now living in her original house at No. 15 Minamiyamate, Kate Barff transferred No. 14 Minamiyamate to the influential British merchant and longtime Nagasaki resident Frederick Ringer and his wife Carolina.
Kate Barff showed no intention to leave Nagasaki, preferring to remain alone in her hillside refuge. But her erratic behavior came into the spotlight in 1912 when she caused a commotion over an unpaid debt, dragging the British Consulate into a dispute and even involving the governor of neighboring Saga Prefecture. In a letter to the British Embassy on the case, acting consul G.H. Phipps describes Kate Barff as “a very well-known character in this port. Her eccentricities are notorious and have increased with the passage of years, until it may be doubted whether she can now really be said to be responsible for her actions. She receives a small monthly allowance from her son, who is resident in Shanghai, and lives on that and such sums that she can ‘borrow’ from various local foreign residents.”
According to Phipps, Kate stayed in the Kaihin-in Hotel in Karatsu, a seaside resort in Saga Prefecture, for a period of three months in the summer of 1912 and ran up a bill of over 200 yen. When she attempted to leave Karatsu by train the innkeeper intercepted her at the railroad station and demanded payment. She claimed later that she was assaulted and forced to leave her luggage in the railroad station as ransom. She also insisted that she had been offered free accommodation at the hotel in exchange for promoting it as a resort for foreign travelers, although she was unable to provide any evidence of such an agreement. Phipps tried to get to the bottom of the matter by communicating with Fuwa Hikomaro, the governor of Saga Prefecture. In a subsequent report, the latter refuted the claim of violence and assured that the luggage would be returned immediately, but he warned that the innkeeper would take legal action if the bill remained unpaid. The files in the British Consulate archive end there, indicating that the issue came to a peaceful conclusion, probably with the intervention of Kate’s son in Shanghai.
|The gravestone of Samuel and Kate Barff at Sakamoto International Cemetery, Nagasaki|
The eccentric lady, who had spent most of her life in the distant outposts of the British Empire, lived quietly in Nagasaki until her death on May 5, 1922 at the grand old age of eighty-nine. She lies with her husband today under a single gravestone at Sakamoto International Cemetery.
(The above is an excerpt from a work in progress entitled The Alt House of Nagasaki: An Architectural Biography)