The story of the return of the Chinese Dagu Bell 2005
In the year 2000, I finally found the perfect venue for my teenage dream of an art centre – the unused lodge in Victoria Park. The beautiful 140-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage in Victoria Park was right in the middle of our city of Portsmouth, and became my base for many years.
Over the next few years, I often noticed the Chinese pagoda war memorial in the park – and wondered why it seemed incomplete. The plaque on the memorial made reference to a bell, but there was no bell on display.
One day while pottering around the park greenhouse in 2004, I took a second look at the makeshift tool holder. The rounded iron structure used to hold brooms and rakes was actually the missing bell. We realised the significance and took the bell back to the gatehouse to put on public display.
Researching the history
I began researching the history of the bell, a came across a profound and totally unexpected personal connection. I discovered that in 1860 my great, great grandfather – Thomas Lane (VC) – was involved in storming the very same Chinese fort from where the bell originated. In fact, the bell was made as an early warning system amid invasion fears 20 years later.
Thomas Lane was one of the most colourful soldiers the British empire had ever seen: Kipling used him as an inspiration, he emigrated from Ireland due to the potato famine, he was treated in a Crimean hospital by Florence Nightingale and he fought at Rorkes drift. He won 9 medals around the world – but forfeited his Victoria Cross for desertion in South Africa as a protest against the command there. King George was noted as saying that no one should forfeit their VC – and he won it back, there was much controversy over him being awarded 2 VCs.
It learned that the bell had been stolen from the Chinese by British sailors in 1900, and I began to have the idea that in this modern era – moves should be made to give the bell back to the rightful owners.
Subsequently, I started the process of handing the Dagu bell back to China on condition that they provided replica to hang in the monument in Victoria Park. The home office, Secretary of State, war museum, and the local council ecome involved and permission was eventually granted.
A delegation of 11 people including myself went to China for the return of the bell in a new museum. This was the first relic the Chinese received as part of their Antiquities Recovery Programme and as far as I know the first war trophy the British Empire has ever given back. The Chinese government personally thanked me and said they are forever in my debt as this was one of the most important bells to their Chinese history and they and they did not know where it was on the planet.
Here is the statement I left with Jiaxing Zhang, Mayor of Tanggu Qu Government which has been displayed in the Tiangin museum along with the main focal point the bell since the handing back ceremony.
“This is the Bells destiny. The replica looks better than the original, the people of Portsmouth will be very proud. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive this country for its pillaging past, and look to the future with peace in our minds.”
Mark E.W. Lewis, Oct 2005
Newspaper articles covering the discovery and return
The News, 2005. “Bell missed meltdown and is on its way home”
The News, 2005. “The ‘unexploded bomb’ I found turned out to be the Dagu Bell”
Chinese Newspaper, 29 July 2005
The News, 14 Nov 2011. “Historic bell returned to Chinese homeland.”
South China Morning Post, 26 Nov 2005. “A tale tolled”
Portsmouth District Post, January 2006. “It’s labell epic”
BBC Online, 13 June 2005. “Antique bell is returned to China”
People’s Daily Online, 16 June 2005. “Dagu iron bell of Tianjin returns home”