The rugby dynasty started with Charles Itzi Schlee, when he came to Shanghai in the mid 1880s to work as a clerk in Robert Anderson & Co a tea merchant company. Companies in China were also given a Chinese name, Anderson’s was Hip Wo. They had offices in Shanghai, Kiukiang [Jiujiang] and Hankow [Wuhan]. Kiukiang was one of the important tea centres. It was situated on the Yangtze River beyond Nanjing but before Hankow another important treaty port.
The Schlee Family
Shanghai rugby across three generations
'From Tea to Art'
Birth Announcement for Robert Schlee, 28 July 1893, North China Herald
Charles Itzi Schlee (1865 – 1943)
Rugby player for second and third Shanghai Football Clubs (1886 – 1889)
Robert Schlee (1893 – 1972)
Player for Shanghai Rugby Football Club (1913 – 1923)
Philip John Ringland Schlee (1924 – 2011)
Player for Shanghai Rugby Football Club (1948 – 1950) with 1 interport cap (1949)
The Shanghai (Black) and Hong Kong teams line up for the final interport fixture plated at Hong Kong Football Club on 19 February 1949
Unfortunately, I do not have a named team list but the players on the day were:
Hong Kong: D Lochlan, R de Rome, D Henderson, P Franklin, M H Robinson, D Nolan, J R Henderson, P V Carrel, N I Meffan, H M G Forsgate, E J Brown, T Bowman,
P Hutson, A J Taylor, J Warne.
Shanghai: R L Gosling, D G Day, E J Kidby, H G Proudman, R H D Colt, P B Leckie, J B Huang, M P Langley, T S Luscombe, E Cooke, N C Ansdell, P Schlee, P Grahame, R G M Wedderburn, R H Salter, S R D Brabant-Smith and coach Billy Tingle
Charles, who was born in 1865, was the son of Rudolphus Schlee and Ida, nee Fokkes who hailed from Hamburg, Germany. The first mention of Charles living in Shanghai was in a report of a rugby game. The match was the first of the 1886-87 season in December, playing for the Second Shanghai Football Club’s ‘coloured jerseys’ team against the ‘white jerseys’. The following year he is recorded as a ‘heavyweight’, running in the Shanghai Athletic Club’s Foot Paper Chase Handicap. This was a five mile race across the countryside around Shanghai, following a paper trail, a course that included jumps for the human ‘hounds’. The reported noted that ‘Schlee showed great pluck and determination and was the first home by a long way.’ Later in the year he joined the committee of the Shanghai Gymnasium, a position he was re-elected for the following year.
In 1889 he was also enrolled into the Freemasons into the Northern Lodge of China in Shanghai. Later that year he played rugby in the first match that the third Shanghai Football Club played after they broke away from the disinterested clutches of the Shanghai Athletic Club who had been managing the affairs of the second Shanghai Football Club. The match report noted that most of the players ‘were very much out of condition.’ A few weeks later Schlee turned out in a game of association football in a contest which was described as ‘A capital game [which] resulted in a draw.’ It was not unusual for a football club in this era to play both rugby rules and association rules as most men were happy to play both forms of the game, seeing themselves firstly as ‘football’ players in the generic sense of the word.
The Schlee rugby playing dynasty is, as far as I am aware, unique in that it played rugby in Shanghai across three successive generations. Even the Bidwell / Martin family whose family connections in Shanghai dated continuously from perhaps as early as the late 1850s but certainly early 1860s up until 1951, and whose Shanghai rugby games spanned the years 1892 to 1941 played across just two generations. Their story appears in detail in my book It’s a Rough Game but Good Sport. The Schlee family’s rugby playing dynasty lasted an impressive 64 years from 1886 to 1950 up to and including as noted below the last Shanghai vs. Hong Kong interport fixture in 1949 and the very final game of the original Shanghai Rugby Football Club (SRFC) in 1950.
In a memoir published in 1974 by Enid Sanders Candlin, herself the daughter of a tea merchant, we get a glimpse of Robert ‘Bob’ Schlee’s life in Shanghai between the wars. She recalled that Bob, one of her family’s greatest friends, ‘played the violin, read, rode entertained, and delighted us with his conversation.’ He divided his time equally between China and England, generally travelling between the two overland via Siberia. He fought in the First World War and was involved in the Second. Being a Shanghailander, he never learned to speak Chinese but was fluent in Russian. He had lived in Moscow in his youth in order to learn it, at that time the Russian trade was very important to the tea merchants. He was described by Candlin as having ‘an easy and genial nature, taking life as it came, he found friends in all sorts of different milieus; he used to make music with White Russians in Shanghai, he knew all the taipans, and he was also at home with unworldly people like ourselves.’
It would appear that during the Second World War neither Robert nor his children were in Shanghai and therefore avoided being imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps, as was the fate of many who stayed in Shanghai. Robert’s middle child Philip served with the Royal Armoured Corp during the Second World War. He returned to Shanghai, the city of his birth, in 1947. Prior to his departure his father told Philip that ‘The firm should always be headed by one of the family. You’re my son – go out and run it.’ Aged only 23 or 24, he was a young man thrown into the post World War turmoil of Shanghai with a family company and fifty staff to manage. During the war, Shanghai had lost its status as a treaty port and until May 1949 was under the control of the Nationalist Chinese government. On his arrival Philip enjoyed the good life with a car, comfortable flat and servants. However the increasing challenges of living in Shanghai led to mounting anxieties. One particular problem was paying the staff. With the raging inflation, if a suitcase full of cash was delayed coming back from the bank, it could have lost its value by as much as twenty percent.
Sometime around the early 1890’s Charles’ brother Henry Schlee, described in his obituary as ‘an ardent student of Rudyard Kipling’, came out to Shanghai to work, joining his brother at Robert Anderson & Co. There is no record of him playing either form of football but like his brother Charles, he did participate in the very popular ‘smoking concerts’ organised by various sporting and social clubs. One early example was when the brothers appeared together in the Kiukiang Amateur Dramatic Society’s seventh concert of the season in March 1894. The detailed account of the evening noted that, ‘Mr. C. Schlee’s violin solo, and he seems to be a master of his instrument, was heartily enjoyed, and Mr. H. Schlee kept the audience in roars of laughter with his description of “Jay Gould’s” appetite.’
Another example was in the summer of the same year, this time in Shanghai at the Shanghai Cricket Club’s Smoking Concert, The report of the evening noted that, ‘Mr. Charles Schlee enraptured his hearers with a couple of violin pieces. The first was the composer [Edward] ‘German’s tuneful “Old English Dance,” played with the judgement and taste of a thorough musician, following upon which, as an undeniable encore, Mr. Schlee gave the beautiful intermezzo from Cavallera [sic] Rusticana [see below] the execution of which was as near as perfection as possible.’ Having impressed Shanghai with his virtuoso violin playing over several years, Charles was asked to join the committee of the Shanghai Philharmonic Society in October 1895. It was at one of their concerts in Shanghai’s Lyceum theatre the following year that Charles, on the violin, was accompanied by his wife on the piano playing Charles Auguste de Bériot’s Septième Air Varié, ‘a serious piece of music, excellently and very tastefully performed.’
A caricature of Robert Schlee by the Russian cartoonist Sapajou, 23 January 1926, North China Herald
By 1904, Charles was running Hip Wo, Henry; his younger brother was also still involved in the business which now had its Shanghai offices at 6A Peking Road [Beijing Road East]. In that year, Henry’s two year old son had a frightening accident in Foochow [Fuzhou] when he fell from a second story window, his head hitting a flower pot and breaking his thigh bones. Fortunately he recovered.
By 1907, the profitability of the tea trade in China had substantially declined, hampered by competition with Ceylon [Sri Lanka] and India and a high export duty from China. In response to such economic forces, the China Tea Association was formed in London in 1907. Charles Schlee was elected its first Chairman. One of the goals of the new association was to set ‘out on its labours with the hopeful aassurance (sic) that “China tea on its merits fears no rivals”’, noting that ‘it may be some encouragement to a fresh effort on the part of the Chinese planter to know that he will now have a powerful and organized support from foreign merchants in any attempt to rehabilitate his business.’ Efforts were made to promote China tea as a healthier option than its Asian rivals. In a review of the tea trade in 1907 it was noted that ‘There can be no question of the superiority of China tea in the aesthetic properties of aroma and flavour, while it is distinctly a more wholesome beverage and superior dietetic nutrient. While Indian, Ceylon, and Java teas contain an excessive amount of tannin, the fruitful mother of dyspepsia, only an insignificant amount is found in China tea.’
The fact that Charles was the Chairman of the Tea Association based in London suggests that the he was living in London, a fact confirmed by the U.K. censuses of 1901 and 1911 which showed the whole family living in the Croydon area. In the census of 1911, Robert Schlee, Charles’ eldest son, now aged 18, had his occupation listed as ‘China Tea Trade (learning)’.
Previous Persons of the Month
Person of the month 1 - George Michael Billings (with club 1902 to 1927)
Person of the Month 2 - Commandent Louis Guillaume Fabre (with club 1936 to 1941)
Person of the Month 3 - Victor Vause Winser Fretwell (with club 1927 to 1934)
Person of the Month 4 - Eric Byron Cumine (with club 1930 to 1934)
Person of the Month 7 - The Schlee family (with the club 1886 to 1950)
A source referenced copy of the text below is available on request
Detail from the 1904 Shanghai Hong List
By at least as early as 1913, Robert was in Shanghai, following in his father’s footsteps in work and play. He joined the SRFC and played rugby regularly in the years before and after World War One until 1923. In March 1923, Robert can be found travelling from London to Yokohama with his wife Edith whom he had married some years earlier. In August 1923 his Uncle Henry died aged only 56, in the United States. Henry had left Shanghai in 1917 moving to Hankow for a few years before emigrating to Duxbury, MA in the U.S. He left behind a wife and two children.
Robert continued athletic pursuits after finishing his rugby career. In 1925 he fell from his horse while participating in a Shanghai Paper Hunt race, repeating this feat the following month. Robert had Edith went onto have at least five children. Robert junior was born in 1920, Alix in 1921, and Philip John Ringland in 1924 followed by Charles in 1929 and Nick in 1931.
Extract from the 1889 China list directory
Charles had married his German born wife Theresa a few years earlier in December 1892. Their first child, Robert, was born in Shanghai at 17 Nanking Road on 27 July 1893. Robert was followed by brothers John in 1895, also born in Shanghai, Guy in 1898, born in England and in between, a daughter, Emily in 1901, also born in England.
The Shanghai team arrive in Hong Kong, from the China Mail, 19 February 1949
Match report from the 1 December 1885 edition of the North China Herald listing Charles as playing for the 'Coloured' team
For China, 1949 was an historic year. In May, the Communists took control of Shanghai and in Beijing in October, declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Philip’s instincts were to close the business down, even when many people were still hoping that foreign business could continue under the new regime. However, his father hated the idea, sending him a cable to tell him so. Furthermore, the older Chinese workers, many of them themselves sons and grandsons of the original employees of Andersons, had complete faith in Philip and in the company, thinking that they could offer them some sort of protection. On the morning of 23 May 1949, shortly before the Communists arrived, Philip went to his office near Soochow Creek. The first thing he saw was a big Union Jack hanging from the warehouse window. From the warehouse he heard strange noises and experienced an overpowering smell of cooking. “What the hell’s happening?” he demanded. “Communists come soon, master,” his head clerk told him, “so everyone come here for protection.” Philip recalled years later that there couldn’t have been a worse place to come for protection – in this new world, a British firm was no longer a place of refuge.
As the months passed, Philip’s challenges became more alarming. One day he was ordered by the Communists to produce his books for examination prior to yet further taxation. While examining the books, the Communists discovered that Philip had been sending telegrams overseas forecasting the tea crop. He was accused of economic espionage but eventually managed to explain that the forecast was important to regulate the price of tea. For the time being, Schlee had an advantage; he knew the tea business inside out. Recognising this, the Communists allowed him to sell 100,000 cases of green tea, -a third of the annual crop- to North Africa securing for himself a healthy return. In return, the Communists learned how to operate the tea market and the names of his customers. After ‘helping out’ the Communists, he had no problem obtaining the lucrative exit permit. After he left Shanghai, like many old Shanghailanders, he settled in Hong Kong where he continued in business. By 1959, it appears that he had settled back in England. He was living in Chelsea with his wife Heather, (whom he had married in 1954).
He founded Sea Containers Limited in 1965. The company grew; by 1999 it had a turnover in excess of USD 1.3 billion. It was engaged in three main activities, passenger transport, marine container leasing and the leisure business. The passenger transport division included Hoverspeed Ltd, operating across the English Channel, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and the Great North Eastern Railway. In addition, the diversified company owned three ports in the United Kingdom, the Illustrated London News publishing group, fresh fruit plantations in Brazil and the Ivory Coast, marine container manufacturing facilities in the U.K. and U.S., a naval architects company and a business travel company, both based in the U.K. Philip continued in business well past retirement age. In 1999, aged 75, he was still acting as a Director of Sea Containers Limited and was the Chairman of Robert Anderson & Co. Ltd., by now a private investment firm. He eventually retired from his executive duties in 2005 due to ill health.
Philip’s younger brother Nick, an established artist, recalled that Philip had accumulated riches in his life and gave him an “open cheque” to buy paintings to build a family collection. He chose well buying paintings by better known artists such as David Hockney, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, and by lesser known but influential artists such as Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Leon Kossoff as well as art by Peter Lanyon, Stanley Spencer and Gillian Ayres. The substantial Schlee Collection has appeared in art galleries around the world. In 2013, it was donated to Southampton City Art Gallery, one of the largest bodies of work ever to be given to the city, a wonderful testament to a story that started in Shanghai in the mid 1880s selling tea.
Philip died in Mallorca in March 2011 aged 86, Robert, his father died in September 1972 aged 79, while Charles, his grandfather died in 1943 aged 78.
Philip's first match in Shanghai, from North China Daily News, 18 November 1948
Despite the fact that after the Second World War the SRFC had to rebuild itself from a standing start with less opposition available to play, Philip was the most prolific of the three generations of Schlees that played rugby in Shanghai. From his first recorded match late November 1948 until the last game of the SRFC in mid March 1950, about 15 months, he played in at least 25 games of rugby. Notable opposition included the British navy boats, HMS Belfast, HMS Sussex, HMS London, HMS Black Swan, the Australian navy’s HMAS Shoalhaven, and a Combined British & French Navy team. His earlier matches were playing for the second team but within a few months he had earned his place in the first team, a position which he retained into the New Year when he played in the club’s most important match of the season – the interport fixture.
The match, played in February 1949, was the fifteenth and final interport fixture between Hong Kong and Shanghai. The team who earlier in the season had been described as woefully unfit were placed under the supervision of Billy Tingle, a man who had played for Shanghai for many years before the war and was a physical education teacher of some repute. Tingle had knocked the team into shape, often under floodlights, and the foreign navy boats had provided stiff opposition in the weeks leading up to the much anticipated fixture. A few days before the match, the team and Billy Tingle flew from Lunghwa Airport on a Hongkong Airways flight to Hong Kong to represent their city. Despite all the preparation, Shanghai lost the match 17:0. The loss at least ensured that the Morse Cup would stay in Hong Kong. Had Shanghai won the match, the solid silver trophy would most likely have been lost in Shanghai following the arrival of the Communists. The trophy was recently rediscovered in a dusty cupboard in Hong Kong Football Club, now restored to its former glory, it remains at the Club today. You can see details about the Morse Cup here and the history of the interport fixtures here.