The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which established diplomatic relations between Britain and China, did not permit a diplomatic mission in the capital itself. That right had to await the 1860 Convention of Peking. Another provision of the Convention was that the Chinese were obliged to assist in the procurement of suitable permanent accommodation for a legation. Accordingly, Frederick Bruce, the newly appointed British minister, wrote to Prince Kung, in effect the governor of Peking, in November 1860 that ‘Several houses have been inspected in the last few days, but with [one] exception … which is more or less suitable, all have been found either too small or in such disrepair as to make them untenable’. The exception was the palace that belonged to the Duke of Liang, the descendant of a former Emperor, that lay to the south-east of the Forbidden City, in an area where visiting foreign envoys were customarily lodged and which became Peking’s legation quarter. A rent of 1,000 taels per annum was agreed, with British rehabilitation of the palace being in lieu of the first two years’ rent. Since the Duke of Liang was ‘absent on the public service’, Bruce asked Prince Kung to confirm the deal, which he did the following day. Bruce went to Tientsin for the winter, leaving the legation Secretary, Edward St John Neale, in charge of bringing the Liang palace into habitable order. He returned to Peking to take up residence in March 1861.
The Liang compound, of about five acres, was rectangular in shape, with its long axis running north-south, surrounded by a massive wall over four metres high. Along the eastern boundary was a canal that ran south from the Forbidden City to the Tartar or Manchu city, and on the western boundary were the Imperial Carriage Park and an open area called the Mongol market. The compound’s northern neighbour was the Hanlin academy, faded by then from its heyday as Imperial China’s highest academic institution, and its southern neighbours were Chinese dwellings and shops. The gatehouse into the compound was off the canal road, near the south-east corner. The palace itself, which became the minister’s residence, was north from the gateway: a traditional Chinese building with a series of courts divided by handsome timber open pavilion structures roofed with green glazed tiles. It was all on one floor, and re-planned as far as practicable for its diplomatic entertaining role by enclosing some open pavilions and connecting them with corridors so as to form a large dwelling around a central courtyard. The interiors of the state apartment were handsome, with the ceilings highly decorated ‘with gold dragons within circles on a blue ground, which again are in the centre of small squares of green, separated by intersecting bars in relief of green and gold’.
As staff numbers grew, especially of Chinese teachers and their young British student interpreters being trained to serve in the increasing number of consulates, the compound was extended. Between 1860 and 1875, five separate pieces of land that adjoined the compound were bought direct from their owners, each with old Chinese houses on them which were replaced with new European-style buildings. After 1866, when Major William Crossman arrived in Shanghai, these new buildings were planned by, and built under the supervision of, his Shanghai staff. The first addition to be bought (B on the tinted 1894 plan), in 1861, was a large old house at the south-east corner containing ‘buildings, of earth or brick, to the number of seventy three, all constructed with earth and wood (that is the usual manner)’: it was replaced by quarters for 1st and 2nd secretaries. The second (D), a small house on a slither of land at the north-east corner of the compound, was acquired in 1866 for the minister’s stables. The third site (E), at the south-west corner, on which formerly stood a temple, became in 1866 the legation’s new stableyard and the accountant’s house. The fourth (C), at the south-east corner, bought from the German legation in 1876, became the site of a new house for the Secretary of the legation, and the fifth (F), later in 1867, extended his garden. These additions brought the area of the compound up to about seven acres.
Besides the new buildings on them, other buildings were inserted into the jumble of the original compound and some of the old Chinese buildings were converted. There seems never to have been any attempt to rationalise the planning of the compound.
The residence, the old palace itself, all on one floor, was brought into good shape and re-planned as far as practicable for its diplomatic entertaining role. Open pavilions were enclosed and connected to each other with corridors to form a large dwelling around a central courtyard. A large new reception room was built at the north end of the main axis. The outbuildings were radically re-arranged and extended. The west pavilion between the first and second central halls was converted to a church, and the east pavilion opposite, which almost abutted the escort sergeant’s small house beside the gatehouse, was used as escort quarters. The area to the west of the residence housed the students’ quarters and, in its centre, a Chinese building was divided into a reading room, billiard room and hall with a small stage: a bowling or skittles alley ran along the wall with the Imperial Carriage Park, and a fives court stood opposite it.
Little more was built in the 1880s and 90s, except the so-called bell tower, which was built to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1877 where the axes of the entrance gate and of the church crossed.
The British compound, the largest in the legation quarter and meticulously maintained, was the main focus for the forty years from 1860 of the diplomatic community’s frenetic social life, acted out in the midst of Peking’s smells, squalor and official Chinese aloofness.