Death of MR. John Thorburn.

Oral Answers to Questions — China. – in the House of Commons at on 23 November 1931.

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Photo of Sir Charles Cayzer Sir Charles Cayzer , City of Chester


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether any claim for compensation from Mr. John Thorburn's relatives has now been received and considered; and what steps he proposes to take to press this claim against the Chinese Government?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

Mr. Thorburn's father has now requested that His Majesty's Minister should lodge a claim for conpensation with the Chinese Government. My right hon. Friend is not yet in receipt of full details, but the request is being considered as urgently as possible.

Photo of Mr Bertram Falle Mr Bertram Falle , Portsmouth North


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will furnish this House with the text of the final reply of the Chinese Government to the representations of His Majesty's Government in the matter of the death of Mr. John Thorburn; and if he will press for an identification of the burial place of the remains of Mr. Thorburn?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

The text of the reply of the Chinese Government and a summary of the report attached to it, which had been received by telegraph from His Majesty's Minister in China, were published in the Press on the 4th of November. I will circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT the text of the note and the complete report which has now been received. I am in communication with His Majesty's Minister in regard to the matter referred to in the second part of the question.

Following is the text of the note and the complete report:


20th October, 1931.


With reference to the case of the disappearance of Mr. John Hay Thorburn, I have the honour to recall that in June last, based on certain reported facts concerning the case, an investigation was made at Quinine and Soochow by the British Consular authorities, and that the result of this investigation was communicated to this Ministry together with certain papers tending to show that Mr. Thorburn was involved in the shooting affair which occurred near Quinsan on the night of 1st June, and was arrested by the gendarmes on the morning of 2nd June, and taken to Soochow on the same day.

When it was known that the inquiry conducted early in July by the representatives of the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to reveal the same facts as found by the British Consular officials, Your Excellency communicated on 29th July to my predecessor, by instruction, a special message from the British Government to the Head of my Government who, as Your Excellency was notified on 6th August, immediately ordered General Chen Yi, Vice-Minister of War, to make a thorough investigation of the matter.

On account a the loss of all direct evidence which caused much difficulty at the initial stage of the investigation, General Chen proceeded with his work with special care and circumspection, which accounts for the fact that his labours could not have been concluded as early as the Government desired. On 25th September, however, when General Chen's investigation had reached a satisfactory stage, my predecessor was able to inform Your Excellency that the arrest of Mr. Thorburn had been established and that the person involved in the affair had been placed under detention.

I have now received a full report from General Chen Yi, a copy of which is attached to the present note. From this report it is evident that the fears of the British Government as to the fate of Mr. Thorburn have been justified. It is with the utmost regret that the Chinese Government has to inform Your Excellency that Mr. Thorburn, after he had shot and wounded two gendarmes who subsequently died, was arrested near Quinsan on 2nd June, and met his death at Soochow at the hands of Colonel Huang Chen-wu on 8th June. The Chinese Government further regrets that it is now clear from the report that Colonel Huang Chen-wu sought to suppress the truth as to what had occurred even from the Government itself.

It may be recalled that the shooting affair near Quinsan occurred just at the time when the general menace of subversive activities in this country was at its height and when orders had been given to the gendarmerie to keep vigilance on all suspects in the regions traversed by the Nanking-Shanghai Railway. It was in these circumstances that Mr. Thorburn was arrested after the shooting incident and taken to Soochow. His own violent conduct, the strange articles found among his belongings, and his refusal to reveal his name and nationality, inevitably produced the suspicion that he was bent on some activity dangerous to the safety of the State. It was therefore owing to this state of apprehension and to the initial absence of any means of establishing Mr. Thorburn's identity that he was not handed over to the British authorities after his arrest.

As the report shows, a sentence of imprisonment for 14 years has been imposed upon Colonel Huang Chen-wu as a result of a trial by court martial, and I wish to add that the Chinese Government has caused the verdict to be communicated to all the military commanders.

The Chinese Government feels thankful for the help afforded by the British officials in supplying all the evidence at their disposal thereby contributing in no small degree to the eventual elucidation of what had occurred.

In conclusion, I wish to re-affirm the determination of the Chinese Government to uphold the modern conception of justice and see it administered within the Chinese territory and hope that the action taken by the Chinese Government in this case will convince the British Government of the sincerity of China's professions in the matter.

I avail myself of this opportunity to renew to Your Excellency the assurance of my highest consideration.


Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs.


Sir Miles W. Lampson.


The Joint Military Court held to inquire into the disappearance of Thorburn, having completed the investigation, its Findings and Judgment are respectfully set out as follows:

(1) At about ton o'clock in the night of the 1st June, 1931, Sub-Lieutenant P'eng Heng of the Gendarmeria stationed at Quinsan was ordered to lead his men out on patrol along the Shanghai-Nanking Railway line. He sent on ahead as patrols the three Gendarmes Li Kuots'ai, Shen Li-sheng and Wu I-sen. When they had proceeded to the neighbourhood of Cheng I Railway Station, they saw a suspicious looking person walking hurriedly along the railway track. They challenged him and called on him to halt. He paid no attention. They advanced to investigate and discovered him to be a foreigner. They then interrogated him. The foreigner however made no reply but fired his pistol and shot and wounded the two Gendarmes Li Kuo-ts'ai and Shen Lisheng. They fell, but Wu I-sen whilst the soldiers behind were coming up courageously advanced and seized him. At this moment the express train from Shanghai to Nanking came by. The soldiers stepped aside and the foreigner wrenched himself loose and escaped. He dropped a bag containing a pistol and a clip of cartridges, a knife and a cartridge-belt containing nineteen cartridges, a small bottle of chloroform and a gauze face mask, a long black kerchief, one white shirt and a bunch of keys. When this was reported to the Company Headquarters of the Gendarmerie reinforcements were sent but who continued the Search and pursuit until dawn of 2nd June, when Wu I-sen recognised and arrested the foreigner near the eastern end of the Cheng I Railway station buildings. Twenty dollars in Chinese notes were found on him. These, together with the articles found previously, were sent to the Company Headquarters of the Gendarmerie at Quinsan, where the prisoner was questioned. His photograph was taken and in the afternoon of the same day he was conveyed to the Regimental Headquarters at Soochow to be dealt with.

(2) After the said foreigner had been sent to the Regimental Headquarters at Soochow, Colonel Huang Chen-wit himself subjected him to further examination. The foreigner's behaviour was extremely insolent. When asked whether his dame was "Sea-scout Troop" he replied, "Yes." Asked his nationality, he replied: "I live at Shanghai. Send me to Shanghai and you will then find out." Asked for his passport, he replied, "None." When shown the bag and its contents and asked whether they were his, he replied "Yes." When asked why he had shot the Gendarmes, he defiantly refused to reply. Because of the report from the Company Headquarters that a brigand had been arrested and because the foreigner had no passport, had carried two pistols, chloroform and a gauze face mask, etcetera, and because he had bought no railway ticket although he had twenty dollars in notes, and because he had been walking hurriedly on the railway track, the Colonel concluded that the man must be a foreign communist desperado. He consequently intended to send him to the Law Courts for trial. But as the wounded Gendarmes Li Kuo-ts'ai and Shen Li-sheng had already been sent to hospital at Shanghai for treatment, Colonel Huang decided to wait until they had somewhat recovered so that he could ascertain clearly the circumstances in which the foreigner had shot them before sending him on for trial. He therefore had the foreigner detained in the Barracks. Li Kuo-ts'ai died on 7th June, and it was reported that there was no hope for Shen Li-sheng (who died later on 12th June). Colonel Huang then decided to send the foreigner to trial. He accordingly summoned the foreigner in the morning of 8th June for a further interrogation. The foreigner, however, still refused to state directly who he was. All he would say was that he lived at Shanghai. After much cross-questioning lie at last fully confessed that he had shot the Gendarmes. Asked where the revolver was with which he had shot and wounded the Gendarmes, he replied that he had thrown it into the water. After having questioned him thus far, the Colonel, unable to control his indignation, reviled the foreigner and cursed him as an outlaw. Hearing these words, the foreigner suddenly sprang at the Colonel, whom he took by surprise and struck him fiercely. The Colonel, in the face of the fierce aspect and savage strength of the foreigner, drew his pistol and shot him dead.

(3) After he had killed the foreigner Colonel Huang Chen-wu realized that he had exceeded what was justifiable in self-defence, and being afraid of incurring punishment, he caused to be destroyed all traces of the evidence, including the corpse, and gave strict orders to all his men not to divulge a word of what had passed, in the hope of covering up the matter. Thus it came about that the first investigation failed to reveal what had actually happened.

(4) The facts above set out were subsequently elicited by inquiries pursued at the various Company and Regimental Head-quarters of the Gendarmerie. Clues were obtained through strict examination of Sub- Lieutenant P'eng Heng and others. Repeated cross-questioning of Sergeant Liu Chang-wen and others at last resulted in eliciting the facts of the case and in the identification beyond doubt of the foreigner in question as the man Thorburn who had disappeared. Colonel Huang Chen-wu was thereupon cashiered and sent to trial. This Ministry constituted a Joint Military Court before which the accused Huang Chen-wu at first denied his guilt, relying on the destruction of the evidence. But when he was later confronted by the evidence collected he made a full confession of the above facts. As regards the point concerning the identification of the foreigner in question as Thor- burn, Colonel Huang was shown the photograph of Thorburn communicated by the British authorities when they were pressing for an investigation, and said it was indeed the man whom he had shot and killed. The facts of the case baying been clearly ascertained, judgment was passed.

(5) The findings of the Joint Military Court were to the effect that the said Colonel Huang Chen-wu was according to law to be punished for his crime by being sentenced to a term of fourteen years' imprisonment. It is on record that he has already commenced to serve this sentence of imprisonment.

Seal of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.