Billings was married on 5 July 1905 at the British Consulate followed by a service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. China-born and eight years his junior, his wife Nellie Rosa Scott was the only daughter of Captain James Alfred Scott of the SS Sual. Nellie’s mother did not attend the wedding, she had died of rabies in 1898. George’s best man was rugby teammate C C Dunman, a member of the previous generation of rugby players, A J H Moule, played the organ. The newly married couple headed to Ningpo for their honeymoon on the steamer Pekin.
Three children arrived, the first, a daughter named Nowelle, born at 18 Sinza Road on 29 July 1906. A second daughter named Joyce was born on 31 July 1909 at 9 Carter Road [Shimen No.1 Road]. Finally a son arrived named after his father, born in Leicester, England, at 81 St Peter’s Road on 1 February 1911.
There was regular family holidays, often in China to places such as Weihaiwei, Hong Kong, Tsingtao [Qingdao] or Tientsin and sometimes further afield in Yokohama and Kobe in Japan or Victoria in Canada. Playing the queen, Nowelle took part in a performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Country Club in 1916. Ten years later with the dramatic company of the British Women’s Association, she played the role of Amelia in a one-act farce titled The Mere Man.
A GIANT OF SHANGHAI RUGBY
Billings in his headmaster robes in Canada in the 1930s (Courtesy of the Billings family)
George Michael Billings (1878 - 1956)
After more than twenty-five years in Shanghai, Billings left the city to go to Victoria Island in Canada to serve as the headmaster of the University School, a boarding school run on English public school lines. He was headmaster from 1928 to 1929. When the school fell on hard times during the depression, George left to become the principal at the local Oak Bay Public School. In 1932 he returned to the University School as headmaster staying until 1935 when returned to England buying a large house in Poole, Dorset. After a long retirement, he died in Poole in 1956 aged 78.
When he left Shanghai in 1927, Billings was a highly respected member of the Shanghai community. He arrived in 1902 as a bachelor and left with a wife and three children. In contrast to the other two families in this chapter, there was no Shanghai dynasty of Billings before or after his time in China.
Billings was born in Leicester St Martin in Leicestershire, England, on 15 February 1878. He attended Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Leicester from 1886 until 1896. After school he won a science scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford. Following his third class honours in Natural Sciences, (a sure sign his sportsmanship took precedence over his studies), he travelled to the Far East.
Family lore tells that when he arrived in the Far East he went to the bank to obtain a remittance from his family, he discovered that his father had died and that the transfer of funds that he was expecting had been stopped by the heir to this estate, his step brother. In 1901 he was appointed the Assistant Master at the Raffles Institute in Singapore. Playing for the Straits Settlements team in Hong Kong, he took part in two interport cricket matches in November 1901 firstly against Hong Kong and secondly against his soon-to-be teammates, Shanghai. Shanghai won the three-day game by one run, despite being on the losing team, Billings would have been remembered by his future teammates; he took five wickets for thirty-seven runs off an impressive twenty-five overs in the first innings followed by a further three wickets in the second and scored an unbeaten forty-three in the second innings.
While in Shanghai, Billings played in three interport cricket fixtures against Hong Kong, it was only in his last, twenty-one years and aged forty-four, that he made a similar impact, getting a five-wicket haul in one innings and a further three in the second as well as making a good contribution with the bat. When his engagement was announced in 1905 his prowess at cricket earned him the title “CB Fry of the East".
In 1902 he arrived in Shanghai, being employed as the organiser of the first school in the International Settlement to be built for boys of Chinese origin. After one year he took up a position as Vice Principal of the Public School for Boys and Girls in Boone Road. The school’s headmaster was George Lanning, father of the four Lannings brothers with whom Billings played both cricket and rugby. When George Lanning retired in 1907 after thirty-two years of service, with eighteen as Headmaster, Billings replaced him.
During his stewardship, Billings oversaw the boys move to a new school on the North Szechuen Road Extension [Sichuan Road (North)] in 1911, and the girls move in 1922 to a new building in Yuyuen Road [Yuyuan Road]. During a furlough home to England in 1910, his first since he had left ten years before, he visited many public schools in England, looking at the modern teaching techniques and used this information to help design the new boys’ school.
Billings adopted a forward thinking and localised philosophy for the school’s curriculum. ‘The development of natural sciences has always occupied the headmaster’s thoughts.’ the North China Daily News reported as part of review of his time in Shanghai, adding, ‘A distinctly commercial side has also been introduced into the curriculum of the school as an endeavour to meet local requirements.’ In addition to the above, Billings also stressed sports and public spirit as being important in a child’s education. He believed that ‘only one half of the voice of the school comes out of the class-room.’
Shanghai Football Club
On rugby committee 1903-04
Shanghai Rugby Football Club
Club Captain 1904-07
Vice President 1909-14 and 1921-25
Billings on holiday in Weihaowei, 1918 with his children Joyce, George and Nowelle (Courtesy of the Billings family)
Above: The unmistakeable silhouette of Billings raising his arms in the line out while towering above the opposition, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1910
Billings watching his school play cricket against Rev. A J Walker's school in 1909
Shanghai vs. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
The first Interport fixture against the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, played in Shanghai on 26 February 1910
Shanghai won by 10 – 3
P. Fowler A.W. Burkill (President) C.W.T. Elsworth (Referee) Captain E.I.M. Barrett
P. Lambe E.S. Little V.H. Webber P.M. Lancaster H.G. Allen F.C. Evans
H.H. Girardet L.M. Beytagh T.J. Fisher Dr. J.F. Murray
R.M. Saker G.M. Billings W.R. Butchart (Captain) H.H. Fowler E.S. Elliston
Billings/ farewell party thrown by the old Mi Hoo Long Rifles Shanghai Volunteer Corp in 1927
For biographies of other Shanghai rugby personalities from 1867 to date including those killed at war and rugby internationals see here.
During his time in Shanghai George fulfilled his civic duties. In 1910 he acted as a juror in a case involving an Indian watchman who tried to shoot a Sikh police constable. Like many of his contemporaries he was member of the Mi Ho Long Fire Brigade, serving as foreman for three years. He worked his way through the ranks to become Captain during his seventeen year service with the ‘A’ Company of the SVC from 1902 until 1919. In the 1918 annual inspection at the Recreation Ground, 931 men (out of a possible muster of 1,180) from the various units were paraded. Captain Billings’ ‘A’ Company were the largest contingent, with 106 men.
It was through his sporting endeavours that Billings became best known. He was a giant of a man. In team photos he towers above his teammates. Heavily built, with an intimidating stern face, he was well suited as a fast bowler, mid order batsman, rugby forward and soccer goalkeeper. He represented Shanghai in rugby, soccer and cricket. In April 1908 Billings played in goal for ‘England’ against ‘Scotland’ in the final of the inaugural ‘Prentice-Skottowe’ International Cup. Presenting the cup to the winning team, Mr Prentice said ‘He would suggest that next year Mr Billings should keep goal on his knees, or that the goal posts be placed further apart. It seemed that Mr Billings could reach almost from post to post, and he certainly would not allow the ball to enter the net above his head.’
Billings first played rugby as part of the fourth Shanghai Football Club in November 1902, also playing soccer for the Club. He was one of the rugby representatives on the SFC Committee and led the break away from the Shanghai Football Club to the Rugby Club. He missed the inaugural interport game in February 1907 due to illness and did not make his own debut in an interport fixture until February 1910 against the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. This proved to be his only interport cap. He last played rugby in February 1913.
Following the breakaway from the Shanghai Football Club in 1904, Billings was the new rugby club’s first Captain and served in this position for three years. He was made a Vice President of the Club in 1910. At this time there was only one Vice President and he retained the title until 1914. After the First World War, more Vice Presidents were allowed and he once again became one in 1921 until 1925. He captained the Shanghai Cricket interport team and was the Shanghai Cricket Club’s President from 1923 until 1927. He was remembered in cricket circles ‘as a keen cricketer not only in the field but as one who always “played cricket” in the true sense of the term.’ One of his most, memorable contributions to cricket on the field was in the 1922 interport cricket match in Hong Kong, Billings won the match for Shanghai when with one wicket left, he drove the ball out of the ground for six.