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March 09, 2006

John William Fenton

This is something that blogs might (should?) be good at. From The Telegraph:

Researchers in Japan have appealed to readers of The Daily Telegraph to help shed light on the fate of the British soldier who gave the country its national anthem.

Toshio Akiyama, a conductor and head of the Japanese Band Directors' Association, has spent more than a decade trying to find out what became of John William Fenton.

But the trail ends after the soldier left a teaching post with the Army in Scotland in 1883.

Fenton arrived in Japan in 1868 as bandmaster of the 10th Regiment of Foot 1st Battalion in Yokohama.

When the battalion left in 1871, he stayed for another six years as director of the Japanese navy band, the country's first, and the band of the imperial court. The Japanese now want to locate his grave and find out if he has any living relatives or descendants, whom they hope to invite to Japan.


Today band music is a strong tradition in Japan with close to half a million people registered with professional, amateur and school bands.

"It all started with Fenton," said Mr Akiyama. "When he took on the very first band they didn't even have instruments.

"We consider him to be our father and we all want to know how our father died and where his grave is."

Fenton was born in Kinsale, County Cork, in 1828. His father was a sergeant in the British Army and he was baptised into the Church of Ireland.

His first wife, Annie Maria, died in Japan but he later married an American, Jane Pilkington, while in Yokohama.

After leaving Japan he went to Bureau County, Illinois, with his wife and a daughter, Jessie, from his first marriage.

But he appears not to have settled there, writing unsuccessfully to the Japanese government asking for a job before heading to Scotland in 1880.

"He lived in so many countries and travelled so far that we can't guess where he went after Scotland," said Mr Akiyama, who contacted The Daily Telegraph after it published a story on Fenton last year.

"But it is my sincere wish to find out what became of Fenton in my lifetime."

As I say, this should be the sort of thing blogs are good at helping with. The interconnectedness, the linking, the large reach, huge audience. It might just be possible to find out what did happen to him.

In 1883 John William Fenton would have been 53. His death could have come any time after that, up to say, 1910 at the outside? Jessie Fenton we don’t have an age for but say born sometime after 1850? In the English speaking world at that time there was a well developed system of birth and death certificates, all centralized by country. Jessie’s birth is roughly between the time of my great great-grandmother’s and great grandmother’s and I, like so many other families who have done even the most basic geneological research, know who they were, their place of birth, name and so on (Callao in Peru for one of them).

So it’s entirely possible that someone out there knows that they are either John or Jessie’s descendant. It’s also entirely possible that those with access to any of the various birth and death certificate registries could do a quick search.

Another research route would be via the Scottish Regiments and David at Carbarfeidh would be a good place to start. I think he was actually a band master as well.

Anyone with an interest in such little puzzles want to spread this question around a little? See if we can create a meme, find out precisely what did in fact happen to Mr. Fenton? See if there are any living descendants?

I’m sure there must be other possible routes of investigation.  Were there military pensions back then? Who would have paid it? Do those records still exist?

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On Britain's early historic connections with Japan, we ought to mention William Adams:

"William Adams is the first resident from England in Japan. He was named Miura Anjin.

"He was born in 1564 at Gillingham, Kent, England and after studying shipbuilding and navigation, was commissioned in the Royal Navy. In the year 1598 he was employed by the Dutch Rotterdam East-India Trade Company. In June of the same year, as the navigation officer, Adams left Holland for the Orient by the ship 'Liefde'. However due to the violent storms, the ships were drifted to the shore in Usuki Bay, Kyushu, Japan in April, 1600. After his arrival, Adams met Tokugawa Ieyasu, by then the real ruler of Japan, and served the Shogunate government as its diplomatic and trade advisor. . . "

Adams settled in Japan, contracted at least one marriage there, despite leaving a wife back in Gillingham, and he never made it back to England. There is a road in central Tokyo named after him - Anjin Cho - and there are two shrines in Japan as well as a small, inconspicuous memorial in Gillingham, Kent. For all that, few in Britain recall this remarkable historic connection nowadays although the Japanese were and are more aware of the connection. In 1902, Britain signed a Friendship Treaty with Japan. The British embassy in Tokyo is the closest of all the embassies to the Imperial Palace, a fact of iconic significance in the context as is that the Japanese character for England also means "excellent", a testimony to Britain's standing as the undoubted superpower of the 19th century.

In the Battle of Tsushima of 1905 between the imperial navies of Japan and Russia, all the battleships of the Japanese fleet were British built - I once checked in Jane's reference book on navies of the world for the early 1900s. The outcome of this huge sea battle - the largest naval battle since Trafalgar and the largest in the 20th century in terms of the numbers of warships engaged - was that little of the Russian battlefleet survived while the Japanese fleet suffered only light casualties:

One outcome of battle was the mutiny of the Russian Black Sea fleet at harbour in Odessa in 1905 as later celebrated in Eisenstein's movie: Battleship Potemkin (1925) - a largely fictitious propaganda film made under Lenin's patronage. An incidental detail of the lead-up to the battle is that the Russian imperial fleet, en route from the Baltic to the straights of Tsushima, fired on and sank several British trawlers out of Hull in the North Sea under the delusion these were Japanese torpedo boats attacking the Russian fleet. It was the cause of a major diplomatic rupture in Anglo-Russian relations in 1904 but Russia's Czarist government duly accepted liability and paid out compensation.

Btw Will Adams was the inspiration for the TV movie: Sogun.

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 9, 2006 4:31:33 PM

Sorry about typo: Btw Will Adams was the inspiration for the TV movie: Shogun (1980)

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 9, 2006 4:35:02 PM

As part of the historic backdrop to the Fenton link, special pmention should be made of the visit of the Iwakura mission to Britain in 1872:


Posted by: Bob B | Mar 9, 2006 4:49:04 PM

I was never a member of the band! Not good looking (helllllllllloooooooooooo big boy) enough and my singing sounds like drain pipes not bagpipes....interesting story - will do some digging. 10th of Foot were the old North Lincolnshires until 1881 when they merged with the South to become the Lincolnshire Regiment.

Posted by: Dave t | Mar 11, 2006 9:57:12 AM