William Richard Carles and Korea

W. R. Carles’s book Life in Corea, published in 1888, is one of the very first books about the country based entirely on personal experience. Carles made 2 visits to Korea from China, where he was working in the British Consular Service. The first was a private visit made in later 1883, then he was appointed Vice-Consul in Korea in April 1884 and served there until some time in 1885. Later in 1884, he was charged with making an exploration of the economic potential of the northern regions, which were still unexplored by any western power. This journey lasted from September 29 until November 7, 1884. He then left for a visit to China, and was absent during the aborted Gapsin coup of December. He describes both journeys in his book.

Click here for a PDF file of the Blue Book Report by Mr. Carles on a Journey in two of the Central Provinces of Corea, in October 1883. (published 1884)

Click here for a PDF file of the Blue Book Report by Vice-Consul Carles of a Journey from Söul to the Phyöng Kang gold-washings, Dated May 12, 1885. (published 1885)

Click here for a PDF file of the text of his White Paper Report of a Journey by Mr. Carles in the North of Corea  presented to Parliament and published in 1885

Click here for a PDF file of the text of his paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society in London early in 1886 and published in their journal that year

Click here for a PDF file of a corrected scan of his book Life in Corea (published 1888, reprinted in 1894)

No account of Carles's life seems ever to have been published. What follows is mostly based on records and materials available through the Internet.


The Life of William Richard Carles


by Brother Anthony

Carles in 1889

Helen Maude Carles in 1898


William Richard Carles (1848 – 1929) was the second son of the Rev. Charles Edward Carles, B.A., Vicar of the parish of Haselor, Warwick, and Georgiana Baker, his wife. His father had studied at Catherine Hall, Cambridge. His elder brother, Charles Wyndham Carles (1842-1914. M.A. Lincoln College, Oxon) was born on 29th December, 1842. William Richard Carles was born in Warwick on June 1, 1848. Both brothers were educated at Marlborough College, where they played cricket. William Richard entered the Consular Service in 1867, when he was sent as a student interpreter to China, nominated by Marlborough School. He served in various parts of China from 1867 to 1901. Among the posts he held was that of Assistant Chinese Secretary, a testimony to his language ability (Coates, p.139). He reports in Life in Corea  that his first journey in Korea was a private one made in the early winter of 1883, at the time that a treaty between Great Britain and Korea was being negotiated by Sir Harry Parkes. He was appointed “provisionally” British Vice-Consul for Corea on March 17, 1884, at the same time as William George Aston (1841-1911), then Consul at Nagasaki, was appointed to be “provisionally” Her Majesty's Consul-General (The London Gazette, March 25, 1884, p. 1404). Both served there in 1884 and into 1885 and were the first European representatives to reside for any length of time in Korea. Carles was perhaps chosen for the position on account of his knowledge of Chinese.

Aston was born in Londonderry, educated at Queen’s College, Belfast, and had been in Japan since 1864, arriving there first as a student interpreter. He had been studying Korean since the mid-1870s and was very fluent in both Japanese and Korean. He had accompanied Vice-Admiral Willes in 1882 as interpreter during his visit to Korea, when Willes drew up a treaty based on the American treaty with Korea, and signed it on behalf of the British government, but this treaty was later repudiated by the British government. Aston, with others, had to make repeated visits to Korea in 1883 to negotiate a new treaty, which Aston and Sir Harry Parkes, the British Minister to China, drafted. This new treaty, the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Her Majesty [Queen Victoria] and His Majesty the King of Korea, was signed at Seoul on 26 November 1883, and marks the beginning of Anglo-Korean relations. It was Aston who in May 1884 secured the land on which the British legation / embassy now stands.

Carles says in his Life in Corea that in all he spent some 18 months in the country. The first part of the book, chapters 1-4, describe his first visit late in 1883. This was a private visit, on the invitation of a Mr. Paterson, a partner in the firm of Messrs Jardine, Matheson & Co.. It happened to coincide with the visit by Sir Harry Parkes to Korea to negociate the new treaty. Carles accompanied two other Englishmen, Paterson and Morrison, and a Dane, the rest of the group being composed of Chinese servants, 3 ponies and several dogs. They arrived at Chemulpo from Shanghai on November 9, 1883. After a few days in “Soul” (the way Carles always spells Seoul), on November 16 they set out to explore the mining areas immediately to the north and east in already freezing weather. After returning they spent a few more days in Seoul, then they went to Chemulpo to return to Shanghai but their boat had left. They were obliged to take another boat to Busan, then on to Shanghai, where they arrived on Christmas Eve, 1883.

After being appointed Vice-Consul in April 1884, Carles returned to Korea at the end of April and attended the ceremony in the palace on May 1, 1884, when Sir Harry Parkes presented a letter from Queen Victoria to the King. After the conclusion of the ceremonies, Carles took up residence as Vice-Consul in Chemulpo, which was still a very small settlement with no adequate buildings and little to do. He made occasional visits to Seoul, endured a dreadful summer, then early in September he was ordered by London to make a survey of the so-far unexplored northern regions, to see if there were business prospects for Britain in that direction. They set off on September 27 and returned to Seoul on November 8. On his return, Carles was ordered to take up the position of Vice-Consul in “Fusan” (as it was then known). He therefore sent his furniture down to Fusan and left for a short visit to Shanghai. He had not returned when the Gapsin Coup erupted on December 4.

On December 4, 1884, Aston attended the dinner held to celebrate the opening of the Korean Post Office, during which a group of pro-Japanese reformists staged the Gapsin coup, killing and wounding many of the pro-Chinese conservative ministers. Aston and his colleagues were taken through icy streets to the safety of the American legation. A few days later, on December 9, Aston wrote informing the Korean foreign Minister that he had decided to move the Consulate-General to Chemulpo, presumably to the building that Carles had recently vacated. Aston fell sick at this moment and was obliged to leave Korea to convalesce in Japan, late in December or early in January. Carles had clearly returned to Korea quickly and on January 12 wrote from Chemulpo as "acting Consul-General" to inform the Korean foreign Minister that Aston had left the country. 

Carles was present at and describes in his book Life in Corea events in Seoul during the spring of 1885, and lists the gifts of food he received from the King. He does not say when he left Korea.The last communication from Carles appears to be on 5 May, in which he notes the appointment of E. H. Parker  to be second Vice Consul in Korea, to be based at Pusan. (Korea University, p. 126) By 12 June 1885, Aston was clearly back in Korea, for on that day he wrote to the Foreign Ministry about the possible grant of border trade rights to Russia. (p. 137) Aston‘s last communication was on 22 October 1885, when he wrote to the Foreign Minister saying that he had that day handed over charge of Consulate General to E. Colbourne Baber, “who will discharge the duties of Her Majesty’s Consul General during my absence on home leave.” (.p.177)  He seems not to have returned to Asia after that.

            We know that Carles was in London in January 1886, when he presented his paper about Korea to the Royal Geographical Society. In July 1886, Carles was appointed Vice-Consul at Shanghai (The London Gazette, July 13, 1886, p. 3396). He cannot have left at once, though, since he and Helen Maude James were married in Devon in September 1886. He was appointed Consul at Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) in July, 1889 (The London Gazette, July 19, 1889, p. 3895). His wife, Helen Maude, is recorded as having given
birth to a son at Shanghai in 1890 (North China Herald, February 14, 1890, page 1.) but the newspaper records no name and nothing more is known of him. Another son, Alan James, was born on 1 February, 1894, in Chinkiang.

In September, 1897, Carles was appointed Consul at Swatow (The London Gazette, November 15, 1897, p. 6077). In May, 1899, he was made Consul at Tientsin / Tianjin (The London Gazette, June 20, 1899, p. 8866) and was promoted to Consul-General there in June, 1900 (The London Gazette, August 14, 1900, p. 5032). During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, he attempted to act as go-between for the besieged legation in Peking. Carles apparently came in for  criticism at the time of the Boxer uprising. He  sent a message which Lancelot Giles, one of the student interpreters at the Legation in Beijing said caused  “much comment and ridicule”. The message read: “Yours of July 4. 24 troops have now landed, and 19,000 here. Gen.Gasalee expected Taku tomorrow. Russians hold Pei Tsang. Tientsin under foreign government; and Boxer power exploded here. Plenty of troops on the way, if you can hold out with food. Almost all ladies have left Tientsin.” Giles said that he thought the message perfectly clear and “probably purposely obscured to avoid giving the Chinese any news, if it fell into their hands.” (Lancelot Giles, The Siege of the Peking Legations: A Diary, ed. With introduction by L. G. Marchant, University of Western Australia Press, 1970,  pp. 165-66, entry for 28 July 1900.)

Tianjin was the scene of heavy fighting during the Boxer uprising and endured a long siege. In January, 1901, Carles was made a Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and he seems to have retired back to England soon after. Coates writes that Carles “…collapsed from overwork and anxiety less than a month after the legations had been relieved, went home sick, and retired. The Foreign Office showed their opinion of criticism of his behaviour in Tientsin by procuring for him a CMG. (p. 187) Apparently, he “… collapsed so completely  at Tientsin under the Boxer strain that absolute cessation of work was medically ordered.” (p. 357). Carles was one of six successive consuls at Tientsin who had some form of nervous breakdown (p.357).  After his return to England, apart from a paper on the history of Shanghai he presented to the China Society in London in May 1916, there is no record of any activity by him for the rest of his life.

During the time he spent in Korea, Carles made several trips to explore the interior of the country. He published reports about them in various places, including at least one Government Paper, the paper given to and published by the Geographical Society of London in 1886, and in The Field, before publishing his Life in Corea in 1888. The book was republished in 1894. Apart from the monumental Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm by the American Perceval Lowell dated 1886, it is the first book-length account of Korea published on the basis of an extended period of residence in the country. William Elliot Griffis had published his Corea, The Hermit Nation in 1882 without once setting foot in the country. Carles’ book includes photos taken by Lieut. G. C. Foulk U.S.N., “who was in charge of the united States Legation in Soul while I was there in the early part of 1885.” Foulk made a heroic journey through the southern regions of Korea in the autumn of 1884, but his account of it was not published until 2008.

Carles was a keen botanist and he sent plants which he collected to the Royal Botanic Garden in England. In addition to Korea, he collected plants and sent them back to Britain from China (1877-98: Fukien; Hopeh; Kiangsu); India (1884-91 ); and Japan (1892-96). His name was given (unbeknown to himself) to the wonderfully fragrant Korean Spicebush Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) by William Botting Hemsley, Director of Kew Gardens. He became a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London in 1898. A set of his plants from Korea, Kiangsu, and Fokien is in the Kew Herbarium. He also indicates in his book that he was a keen hunter and always hoped to do some shooting, killing both birds and animals, like so many others of his time.

William Richard Carles and his wife Helen Maude were residing at “Silwood”, The Park, Cheltenham (Gloucester) at the 1911 Census, together with Helen Mary, a daughter aged 23, born in China, and 3 sons, Richard Eric (aged 18, born in Berkshire), John Robin (aged 11, born in China) and Henley William (aged 8, born in Dorset). Their son Alan James (aged 17, born in 1894 in China) was serving as a naval cadet at the time. Mrs. Carles’s brother, John Ernest James, a retired school-master, was living with them, as were four servants and a “hospital nurse.” Charles Wyndham Carles, William Richard’s older brother, also a retired school-master, is recorded as being present as a visitor in a nearby house (“The Woodlands” The Park, Cheltenham) on the day of the census. Perhaps he had come on a visit and there was no room for him in his brother’s house? He was headmaster of Cothill School, Marcham, Berkshire at the time of the 1891 census. The census report records Mrs. Carles's age as 51, which would mean she was born in 1860. She was 11-12 years younger than her husband,

A few years later, during the war, Lt Alan James Carles, Royal Navy, was killed (missing in action) when HM Submarine E22 was sunk on 25th April 1916, in the North Sea off Harwich. Acting Captain Richard Eric Carles of the Bedforshire Regiment was awarded the Military Medal “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” (Supplement to The London Gazette, 22 June, 1918), the location is not specified. He died on 14 December 1924, aged only 32.


William Richard Carles died in June, 1929, in Bradfield, Berkshire. His wife lived on until 26 November, 1953, when she died in Reading, Berkshire.




Corea. No. 2 (1885). Report Of a Journey by Mr Carles in The North of Corea. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. April 1885.


“Recent Journeys in Korea.” In The Proceedings of The Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography Vol. VIII, No. 5. May, 1886. pages 289 – 312, having been read at the Evening Meeting of the Society, January 25th, 1886.


Life in Corea (London ; New York : Macmillan and Co. 1888, 1894)

Online at: http://archive.org/details/cu31924023275641


"The Yangtse Chiang", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Sep., 1898), pp. 225–240; Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)


Some Pages in the History of Shanghai, 1842-1856 : A Paper Read Before the China Society on May 23, 1916. (London : East & West, Ltd. 1916)

Online at: http://archive.org/details/cu31924023217809


“The Emperor Kang Hsi's Edict on Mountains and Rivers of China. A translation of the edict originally published in the winter of 1720-21.” 12pp. Map. The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 1922.


Some of the detailed information in the text above is supplied by the first volume of Korea diplomatic documents relating to Britain published by Korea University in 1968 (quoted in correspondence by J. E. Hoare).

P. D. Coates, The China Consuls , Hong Kong; Oxford University Press,  1988,


See also Peter Korniki’s online account of Aston’s life and activities:

A photograph by George Foulk seems to have served as the model for this engraved frontispiece in "Life in Corea"

The issue of the Royal Geographical Society journal includes a map of Korea: Carles's second journey is marked in red.