03 January 2012

Nostalgia Britannica

The former British Consulate, completed in 1908, is one of 29 "Nationally Designated Important Cultural Assets" in Nagasaki city.  The 1992 designation ensured the physical preservation of the property but did not extend to the surrounding neighborhood.  As a result, the former consulate has become like "The Little House" in the famous Virginia Lee Burton story that sinks into the grime and shadow of urban sprawl.   Large-scale groundworks have erased the original line of the harbor, and the once narrow waterfront street is now a six-lane thoroughfare roaring day and night with traffic.  All of the other Western-style buildings that faced the harbor during Nagasaki's heyday as an international port are gone, leaving the consular buildings and gardens like an oasis of history hidden among a discordant cluster of modern office buildings, condominiums and hotels.

The former Nagasaki British Consulate (center, behind the trees) is surrounded by modern buildings and a wide thoroughfare.

Picture postcard (taken from approximately the same angle ca 1910) showing the British Consulate with old Western-style buildings on the left and right.

Launched in rented rooms at the Buddhist temple Myogyoji in 1859, the Nagasaki British Consulate was the first established in Japan after the opening of the country in the dying years of the Edo Period.  The consulate moved to a new building on the hillside at No.9 Higashiyamate in 1865 and watched over the development of the foreign settlement and the emergence of the city as a hub for commercial and cultural exchange.  The consulate moved again in 1882, this time to No.6 Oura, a prime location on the waterfront "Bund" in the center of the foreign settlement.  The British Commissioner of Works purchased the property two years later and acquired the perpetual lease.  Nagasaki enjoyed a golden age of prosperity between the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), and the British decided to demolish the old wooden building and to erect a new building that would better reflect the British presence in the region.

William Cowan, a government architect employed in the Office of Works in Shanghai, submitted plans for the new building in 1906.  Trouble ensued -- the local companies contracted to carry out the work failed to observe deadlines and constantly demanded more money -- but the new consulate began operation in November 1908 and went on to become a familiar landmark on the Nagasaki waterfront.

The Union Jack flies in front of the Nagasaki British Consulate ca 1912.  The consulate boat is hoisted on the seawall to the right,  and a flight of steps leads down to the water from the street. 

Visitors entered the compound through one of the two front gates and opened the front door into the main building.  To the right of the entrance vestibule was the public area comprised of a large drawing room and dining room; to the left was the administrative section including a waiting room, offices of the consul and assistant, storage space and closets for archives, stationery and utensils.  Each of the main rooms featured an English-style coal-burning fireplace with a decorative wooden mantel and iron canopy.  The consul and his family lived in the second floor rooms of the main building, including four bedrooms and a study, bathroom and antechambers.  Out the back door was a long single-story building with a boiler room, coal shed, kitchen and servants’ quarters flanked by gardens.  The two-story building at the rear of the property was separated into two parts: one a Western-style brick structure that served as living space for the British assistant and shipping clerk, the other a wooden building with rows of tatami-matted compartments and other facilities for Japanese employees and their families.

(Then) The daughters of Nagasaki Consul Oswald White frolic (in their father's clothes) in the garden behind the main building of the consulate ca 1922.  (Now) The site remains remarkably unchanged, although a layer of concrete has been applied to the back wall of the main building.  (Photograph by Saya Burke-Gaffney) 

The last consul, Ferdinand C. Greatrex, assumed the post in 1929 and kept the consulate functioning -- like a captain refusing to budge from the helm of a sinking ship -- until December 8, 1941 when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and military police surrounded the premises and placed Greatrex and his wife under house arrest.  The couple remained in Nagasaki until being repatriated by exchange ship in July 1942.  Greatrex's last request was that his savings and personal belongings in Japan be transferred to Konishi Kizo, his faithful former Japanese employee and the last remnant of the consular staff.

During World War II, the buildings stood abandoned and forlorn on the Nagasaki waterfront, but, despite the hatred directed at Britain and its allies, they were not vandalized or defaced.  In fact the greatest damage was inflicted by the atomic bomb, which exploded about five kilometers to the north but smashed in windows and crushed part of the roof.

After the war, the former consulate underwent superficial repairs but remained unused until 1955, when the British government sold the property in its entirety to Nagasaki City.  Over the ensuing years, the buildings housed the Nagasaki Children's Science Museum and later the Noguchi Yataro Art Gallery.  The latter closed in 2007, and the building was left -- once again in its century-long history -- closed and empty in the midst of a changing cityscape, waiting for the repairs and earthquake-proofing planned by the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The date of completion is still unclear, but it is hoped that, this time around, the former consular premises will be used to convey information about the role of the British consulate in the boom years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the life and work of former consuls, and the contributions made by British residents to the industrial, economic and cultural development of Nagasaki.

To conclude, a few photographs:

The former Nagasaki British Consulate was being used as an art gallery before closing in 2007.  It is currently awaiting repairs and reinforcement work. 

Satellite photograph of the former Nagasaki British Consulate (blue box). 

The former Nagasaki British Consulate premises seen from the rear.  The brick building on the right accommodated the British assistant and shipping clerk, while the wooden building to the left served as living quarters for Japanese employees and their families.  The 1992 designation of the consulate as an "Important Cultural Asset" was based to a large extent on the excellent overall preservation of the property, including subsidiary buildings, stone walls and other structures. 

The entrance and gardens have changed little despite the passage of time and the roller-coaster ride of history.

The entrance vestibule seen from the inner staircase.

The fireplaces in each of the main rooms remain in remarkably good condition.  The mantlepiece in the former assistant's office bears the insignia "EviiR," an abbreviation for "Edward VII Regis."  King Edward VII was the reigning British monarch in 1908, the year the Nagasaki British Consulate reached completion. 


  1. Very nice article! Thank you for inviting me to this blog.mm

  2. Hello,

    I live in Tokyo and I visited the consulate a couple of years ago, after the scaffolding went up. Ferdinand Greatrex was a blood relative, my great great uncle's son. I have also been to the Hakodate consulate, where he was vice-consul. It was very exciting to be there, and I felt an enormous connection to history. The people who took me around told me stories of how the sea was just across the road in those days, and that there was a huge wall built in front of the consulate to block the view of Sasebo, across the water.

    1. Hello Elisabeth,
      Thank you for your message. As you know, F.C. Greatrex was the last British consul in Nagasaki. I would be happy to share the information I have gathered about him and of course would be very interested to hear any information that you might have regarding the Greatrex family. Please contact me through my website at www.nfs.nias.ac.jp.
      Best wishes, Brian

  3. Dear Brian,

    Every time I click on the contact link on your website, it takes me to some gift survey and free iphone site!


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hello Elisabeth,
    FC Greatrex ("Cecil") was my grandfather. Are you decended from Hugo Keene? I'm the family historian, and have a shelf of documents relating to the family history. Shall we exchange email addresses?
    Andrew Greatrex