William Gill – Explorer and Spy

Captain William Gill unexpectedly inherited a fortune and spent it on exploration and intelligence missions for the government of Queen Victoria. He travelled in Persia, China, Tibet, Turkey, Romania, Libya and Egypt.

Gill had an international reputation as an explorer and won the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He was also honoured by the French.

Still in his thirties, he was murdered whilst working undercover in Egypt. This 90-page A4 format book, full of illustrations, was written by one of Captain Gill’s great-great nephews. It tells Gill’s remarkable life story and contains many extracts from his remarkable travel diaries.

William Gill book cover

The book is currently out of print but can be downloaded in PDF format free of charge here.

27 thoughts on “William Gill – Explorer and Spy”

  1. Hi Tony, many thanks for letting me post a plug for my biography of William Mesny, “The Mercenary Mandarin”, which will shortly be available from Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong (http://www.blacksmithbooks.com/books/mercenary-mandarin-british-adventurer-became-general-qing-dynasty-china/).

    There’s a whole chapter about his journey across Sichuan and Yunnan with Gill in 1877, culled from Gill’s own diaries and “River of Golden Sand”, along with what little Mesny wrote about their trip in his “Chinese Miscellany”.

  2. Just to follow up above thread, Blacksmith Books of Hong Kong should be publishing my book on Mesny (The Mercenary Mandarin) towards the end of the year. There’s a chapter on the journey that Mesny made across China with Gill in 1877, including extracts from Gill’s diaries – and, of course, my own opinions of the two men.

    Many apologies for increasingly turning this page of your blog into a plug for my own work, but I’ve tried to return the favour by listing Glimpses of a Victorian Hero in the bibliography.

  3. I look forward to reading your Biography of William Mesny. John E. Hill my brother in Oz will also enjoy it. Please keep on this task. I share your passion! Joyce E. Hill, W.Van. BC. Canada

  4. In the introductory notes to Gill’s book “River of Golden Sand”, Edward Colborne Baber included this-

    Ҥ 45. On his return to Cheng-Tu Captain Gill was joined by Mr. Mesny, a gentleman from Jersey,
    who has passed a good many years in the interior of China, and particularly at Kwei-Yang-Fu, in
    the service of the Chinese Government.1 Captain Gill had intended in his preface to render his
    thanks and a tribute of praise to his companion for the assistance which was derived from him
    during the journey from Ch’eng-Tu to Bhamo. And when circumstances caused this prefatory
    essay to be written by another hand, he still desired that the following words of his own should
    be intro duced :

    — If Mr. Mesny’s name occurs but rarely in my book, it is but because he was so thoroughly and
    completely identified with myself that it seldom occurred to me to refer to my companion
    otherwise than as included in the pronoun ‘we.’ But I should be loth to let slip this opportunity of
    thanking the companion of so many long and weary marches for the persistence with which he
    seconded my efforts to achieve a rapid and successful journey ; for his patience under difficulties and some real trials, and for the courage he showed when it was called for. Above all, I desire to say how much I feel that, in our dealings with the Chinese officials, the friendly relations we were able to maintain with them, and the aid we were able to obtain from them, were in large easure due to Mr. Mesny. Especially in the negotiation for our passage between Yun-Nan and Burma was Mr. Mesny’s help invaluable. And I feel that whatever credit may attach to the successful accomplishment of the journey, a very large share of it is due to Mr. Mesny, who, for the love of travel alone, gave up a remunerative employment under the Chinese Government to become my companion. As long as the events of those sixteen weeks shall have a place in my memory, so long will the kindly support of my companion be among the freshest and pleasantest of them all.”

    I think it only fair to include this rather laudatory description of William Mesny in your blog.

    Jim Thompson

  5. Have set up a Facebook page (“The Mercenary Mandarin”) for my book on Mesny, with several hundred photographs from the places he visited, including on his journey with Gill.

    1. Let’s hope David replies – it would be good to have an update. Meanwhile, I have had a few more copies of my William Gill book printed, if anybody is interested. £10 a copy plus postage.

    2. Hi Jeanette and Tony, thanks for your interest.

      No, haven’t finished Mesny’s biography yet, not found a publisher – work has been filling my time for the last six months or so. HOWEVER, back to it from today – two more chapters and the first draft will be finished, then off to find an agent before rewriting the whole thing 🙂

      1. Good luck with finding a publisher – quite difficult so I’ve been told. would be interested to hear how you get on.

  6. Thanks for this, a very good read. Am writing a biography of Mesny at the moment and your one of Gill has saved me a third visit to the RGS to check his papers.


    1. Hi David,
      Many thanks for your message. Good luck with the Mesny biography. I’d be interested to obtain a copy. I expect you know that there was a Jersey stamp featuring Mesny’s involvement with Gill’s expedition. The artist was Victor Ambrus of Time Team fame.

      1. Thanks Tony – I think I’m about halfway through, and hope to have a first draft done early in the New Year; will try and keep you posted. I knew of the set of stamps but not who the artist was.

        Mesny never wrote an account of his journey with Gill, but there are some snippets about the places they visited together in his 2000-page-long “Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany”. Oddly, neither Gill nor Mesny make much mention of each other in their writings.


      2. Hey Tony, am still ploughing through the first draft of my Mesny book. Paid work has rather stalled my progress, but I did have time to visit the Royal Geographical Society’s archives again, this time to comb Gill’s journals for unpublished descriptions and comments he might have made about Mesny. AND, I found this beauty:

        Mesny is an exceedingly fat man and a fearful talker who seems unable to keep his tongue quiet a moment. He told me his whole history in half an hour he regularly wears his heart on his coat sleeve he was not in our army as I supposed but began life on board ships he had a taste for mechanics and used to carry a few tools about with him. He was taken prisoner by the Tai Pings who treated him very well and insisted on his repairing a musket one day, which he accomplished, and since then he has [so] improved his knowledge and his skill that he has been in charge of an arsenal and not only that but has acted as musketry and artillery drill instructor He has always been well paid but he told me that all his savings were in Honduras and Turkish bonds When he first heard from me (I only wrote to say that I was thinking of travelling and would like to hear from him whether it would suit him to accompany me if I should feel inclined to make use of his services) he was disputing a claim with the Chinese for 5000 Taels he at once resigned his appointment, wrote to the British Legation at Peking that he was coming with me to Kashgar sent a lot of muskets, pieces of copper and stones of many kinds that were his own private property to the arsenal and asked the Chinese Government to pay him for them, but came away without even a promise from them that they would do this and left 2 or 3 houses that he had bought as a speculation in Kwei Yang with no one to look after them, and all this because he is fond of travelling. He sent a lot of tea and satin to England but lost 50 per cent on the value and found out afterwards that he might have sold his goods in the province of Shantung at a profit of 100 percent He is not a likely man to make a fortune amongst the Heathen Chinese He has a round face, black hair, [a] moustache and infernal dresses moti Europeanne et moti Chinoise; can apparently eat anything for on arrival here he was hungry and I had nothing to offer him but these beastly sugared cakes which he enjoyed, however, thoroughly. He always lives la Chinoise and for years has neither eaten European food or used a knife or fork He drinks no wine or spirits of any kind and does not smoke One day when 18 years old he took to smoking opium because everyone else did and got so much with the habit of it that on one occasion when he had been deprived of it the usual symptoms of hunger without being able to touch food, irritability and blue devils generally came over him he did not know what was the matter with him but some one told him all he wanted was a pipe of opium But though so young he fortunately had the sense and strength of mind to resist the temptation was miserable for 3 days but never touched opium again.

        Some body nice gave him a couple of bottles of claret but after carrying it about for some months he gave one bottle away and returned the other to the donor saying he could not expend it But his tongue does wag incessantly

        best wishes


      3. Hi David,
        That’s very revealing, isn’t it! Many thanks and good luck with your continuing research for the book.

  7. While flicking through your excellent book on William Gill, I wondered if you had considered using DNA to establish whether your female ancestor was Spanish or Indian. If you know someone alive today who in a continuous female line of descent from her, you might be able to do it.

    1. Hi Jean,
      Thanks for your messages. Yes, I have done that and indeed give talks on what I discovered. I have the mtDNA myself via my mother who is in the direct female line. The DNA was absolutely typical of India and completely atypical of Iberia.

      1. Thanks. If I had looked at the topics of your talks, I would have discovered that myself! Great to hear that you had success in doing this. Jean in Australia

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