Sunday, 28 February 2016

Natasha du Breuil and Valentine Rodolph Burkhardt. Hong Kong Naturalists. Part 1. Natasha

The original article has been modified thanks to information including a photograph from Peter Burkhardt, Valentine Burkhardt's grandson.

In two recent posts I referred to Madame Natasha du Breuil who was active in Hong Kong in the 1950s writing about aquaria and local reptiles**. Thanks to the archives of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the London Gazette, Wikipedia in Russian and Google Translate, I have been able to find something about her and her remarkable history. In doing so, I uncovered black deeds in China between the two world wars, and her later life in Hong Kong with a retired British army officer who operated in intelligence and special operations in China in the 1930s and early 1940s.

I initially tracked Natasha from a Google search which showed the address of a member of the Lepidopterists’ Society in December 1952. V.R. Burkhardt’s address was shown as: c/o Mme Natasha du Breuil, 6 Basilea, Lyttelton Road, Hong Kong. I recognised Burkhardt as the author of articles on Hong Kong butterflies and soon found that the two lived together and collaborated on publications until their deaths three-months apart in the mid-1960s.

I will start with Madame du Breuil. She was a White Russian antiques dealer who was said by the newspapers to have lived in Peking (Beijing) from 1918. The SCMP of 23 October 1966 contained a notice that she had died, the ‘widow of Le Marquis du Breuil d’Echappere’ on 16 October, aged 75, giving a presumed date of birth of the last quarter of 1890 or 1891. I have been unable to find any information on her early life, maiden name or when she was married. However, her name was not Natasha, as she clearly was known by, but Natalia. As we shall see later, I do have more information on her husband.

From a 1936 Shopping Guide to Peking
By the late 1940s, she was resident in Hong Kong, probably one of first of many thousands of White Russians to move from China through Hong Kong as the communists took control and before exit visas were required. However, she was also in Hong Kong in 1937, possibly temporarily, as the Japanese invasion of China and the continuing civil war made life in Peking difficult. She announced in the SCMP:  Travel to Peking now being difficult Madame Du Breuil has brought down the entire stock of Old Cathay from 22 Legation Street, Opening shortly. 6 December 1937. In 1936, her shop was listed in The Peiping (Peking) Shopping Guide (Peiying Press, Yientsin).

I have found no evidence that she was or was not in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of 1941-45.

On 9 January 1947 the SCMP contained the statutory notice that she, Natalia du Breuil, had applied to the Governor of Hong Kong for naturalization as a British Subject. Her address was 6 Basilea, Lyttelton Road, that used by Burkhardt in 1952. Basilea, a terrace of six two-storied houses, with Number 1 shown here on Gwulo, was demolished by developers in 1954.

On 17 April 1947 the SCMP reported that she had donated HK$100 to the British Flood Relief Fund launched to provide relief after the floods that devastated Britain after months of hard frost. The cynic in me cannot resist thinking that could have done her application for naturalization no harm.

Natasha du Breuil was clearly a learned, highly intelligent and socially active newcomer to the Hong Kong scene and, one suspects, someone who was seen as a little exotic, but very much as socially superior, with her French name, to most other White Russians who in pre-war China were at the very bottom of the European social scale. Burkhardt family tradition has it that she daughter of the last Tsar's Master of Horse.

Madame du Breuil in 1953.
I have blacked out the wife of
the Chief Justice
The only photograph I have found in SCMP was taken on 11 November 1953 at an event at the YWCA when she would have been 62.

Her activities reflecting her wide interests in the culture and history of China to natural history, in Hong Kong included the YWCA, Biological Circle (Committee, 1952) and later the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) as a member of council of the Hong Kong branch after it had been resurrected in 1959. For example in May 1950 she gave a talk at the YWCA on Chinese silk; in 1953 she gave talks for children at the same venue on ‘Fish, newts and tortoises’ and on ‘Preparing an aquarium’. In the same series, Burkhardt spoke on butterflies and J.D. Romer on snakes.

Her, and Colonel Burkhardt’s, address by 1956 was 86 Main Street, Stanley (now a restaurant).

Natasha du Breuil and Valentine Burkhardt at the Luk Kwok Hotel, Wanchai, Hong Hong.
For a companion photograph (with the name of the restaurant on a table cloth) see the article on
Burkhardt. Photograph probably circa 1965

In his report for 1966, the President of the Hong Kong branch of the RAS, J.R. Jones* wrote: ‘Towards the end of the year we lost one of our most faithful members, Madam du Breuil, who was always an inspiration and a most zealous supporter of the Society. We feel her loss very deeply.’ The next year he added that the Society’s collection of books had been enhanced by the addition of ‘about 100 books from the library of the late Colonel Burkhardt and Madame du Breuil generously presented by Colonel Burkhardt's daughter’.

Echoes of Natasha du Briel collection of antiques appear in the sale rooms. Thus, in November 2012 at Christie’s in London four jade figures from her collection were sold at auction, a Ming Dynasty hat finial for £2,750, a lion for £23,750, a duck for £5,250 and a mythical beast with cubs for £30,000. The provenance stated: ‘From an old English private collection, acquired in Hong Kong in the 1950s and thence by descent. By repute, from the Mme. du Breuil Collection, Hong Kong’. As a collector and former dealer, she clearly knew what she was about.

Some of the jade items from Natasha du Breuil's
collection sold at Christie's in 2012
There was also a jade box sold at Christie's in 2013 for £10,000. The lot was accompanied by an old letter to Lady Winifred Cecil (1903-1992) stating that the box had been sent to her by N. Du Breuil, Old Cathay, Legation Street, Peking. Since Lady Winifred Cecil was married in December 1937, the letter must have been sent at some time earlier.

But what of Madame du Breuil’s husband? Well, that’s where the black deeds come in. He was the grandson of Diego Y Eshappar or Dubreuil-Eshappar or Dubreuille-Echappare or Dubreuil-Echappare (1816-1867). The grandfather was born in Spain of French descent. He came to be a famous Russian naval engineering officer. His father was Governor of Manila in the Phillipines and after his wife died his new wife, a member of a local tribe, ignored his children. Therefore, he asked  the Russian explorer Fyodor Litke to take on his sons as ship’s boys and take them to St Petersburg for a good education. Diego joined the navy and became the pioneer of steam power in the Russian fleet. His son produced Vladimir N. Dubreuil-Echappare who graduated from the top military academy Corps des Pages (cadets had to do a turn as a page to members of the imperial family) in 1909. By the time of the Russian Revolution he was a Colonel of the Life Guards’ 3rd Rifle Regiment. Life Guards officers enjoyed a one or two rank upgrade over the rest of the Russian forces and so he was probably the equivalent of Major. As a White Russian on the eastern front, he withdrew from Omsk to the east with the American mission. In China, first in Harbin and then Tienstsin (Tianjin) he worked for "Our Way”, the newspaper of the Russian Fascist Party, as a translator. That party was founded in 1931 but there was a forerunner founded in Harbin in 1925.

It was from Tientsin that the extraordinary story of Dubreuil-Echappare reached the SCMP.  On 7 June 1927 the newspaper reported:

Boys Kidnapped
Sensational Affair in Tientsin
Russians Arrested
     Tientsin was startles recently by the news of an extraordinary kidnapping story.
     It appears that on Friday, on a charge of attempting the abduction of Anastasius and Alexander, two of the four sons of Mr N. Kulayeff, a wealthy Russian financier, of Villa Margherita, Woodrow Wilson Street, Tientsin, the police of the First Special Administrative Area [the old German concession, administered after the First World War by the Chinese government] arrested two Russians, named Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski, in the cellar of some empty premises at No 74, Taku Road
    It is alleged that these two men were concerned in demanding from the father of the two young men a sum of $150,000 in ransom money and that the two young men themselves were found in the cellar with them when the police arrived.
Arrest of Mr Echapparre
     About 9 p.m. on Friday evening, the British Municipal Police, acting upon information received from the Chinese authorities, arrested Mr W [sic] Du Breuil d’Echapparre, a well-known former officer in the Russian army, while on his way home from his office, on a charge of being a fellow conspirator in the alleged offence.
     On Saturday morning, Mr D’Ehapparre was handed over by British Police to the police of the No 1 Special Area. A fourth man, an unidentified Russian, is now being searched for by the Chinese police. This man drove the automobile in which the lads were taken to the house in Taku Road.
     According to the police evidence, the two Kulayeff brothers went on the Thursday evening to a cinema and afterwards proceeded to Kiessling’s Cafe in Woodrow Wilson Street. At about one o’clock they started to accompany two girls to their homes in the Ex-Russian Concession.
Taken in Car
     On the Bund, it is alleged, they met Mr Du Breuil d’Echapparre, who asked if he might walk with the party. The five persons then crossed the Russian Ferry and the girls were seen home.
     The two Kulayeff brothers and Mr d’Echapparre then returned to the ferry and on reaching the city side, the latter said he would like to take them home in his car, which was waiting near-by, at the corner of Council Road.
     The young men, who had previously been slightly acquainted with Mr d’Echapparre, consented. Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski were, it is alleged, inside the car, while another Russian was acting as chauffeur.
At the Point of the Pistol
     The car was driven first to the French Concession and then in a roundabout way to the ex-German Concession in the neighbourhood where the lads’ father lives. Here, it is alleged, d’Echapparre produced a pistol and told the lads they would be held to ransom. Masks were placed over their faces, the blinds of the car were drawn down and at the point of the pistol, their captors took the two lads to the cellar of the premises at No 74 Taku Road.
     Two men kept watch while the others took a demand to the father for ransom money. The police state that Mt Kulayeff was presented with a letter demanding the sum of $150,000. Mr Kulayeff rejected the demand but, apparently fearing for the well-being of his sons, he did not inform the police of what had occurred, and tried to deal with the matter himself.
     The detectives of the First Special Area, however, had already learned of the disappearance of the young men and they set to work smartly to ferret them out. It was a quick piece of work. which reflects great credit on the police, for within a few hours, the young men and the Russians, Unuzhnikoff and Sokolovski were discovered in the cellar in Taku Road.

The kidnapping is also reported in the Russian Wikipedia page on the family but as told by the business man I.B. Kulaev (i.e. Kulayeff) in an autobiographical memoir Under a Lucky Star published in Russian in 2006. Kulaev went on to found the Antonia & Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund in California†.

The story was followed up by the SCMP on 4 August 1927:

     It is understood that the two Russians, Du Breuil d’Echappare and Ugujnikoff, who were committed for trial in connection with the Kulayeff kidnapping affair in Tientsin recently have been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.

The most amateur sleuth will find this incompetent kidnapping puzzling. Did du Breuil d’Echapparre, who was known by those kidnapped, intend to take the money and disappear abroad? What happened to the other kidnapper, Sokolovski? Did he do the Chinese law equivalent of turning King’s evidence? And how did the police get to know of the kidnapping?  In the introductory biographical note on the auction catalogue for the sale of Valentine Burkhardt's stamp collection contains the sentence: ‘When they first met Madam[e] de [sic] Breuil was helping Russians escape the Bolsheviks’. On re-reading my earlier post on Natasha, I am still intrigued by her late husband’s failed attempt at kidnap. Was this some part of White Russian political cloak and daggery or just an attempt to get money for a life in South America?

From a book on the lives of Russian guards officers, the Wikipedia article states that du Breuil d’Echappere went to Argentina and was killed in Buenos Aires on 14 October 1935.

Nowhere have I been able to find any reference to Natasha but from the information on all the du Breuil d’Echappere family, there seems no doubt that this was her husband. There may be information in Russian publications including the book on guards officers referred to above. I know that a number of Russians read this blog. Could they help in providing further information including finding out the pre-du Breuil history of Natasha (Natalia) and how she became interested in natural history.

She had no other family since Colonel Burkhardt’s daughter gave the RAS library her books.

A question that springs to mind is, was she in Tientsin in 1927 at the time of the kidnapping? The question is pertinent because the then Major Burkhardt was Brigade Major (i.e. chief of staff) for the Tientsin Area of China Command (I read that the British Army kept two battalions at Tientsin). Did they first meet then or when both were in Peking in the 1930s?


**Her letters as part of a correspondence group, Aquarists' Internationale, were reported in Water Life magazine. In previous posts are recorded her interests in fish and reptiles. Further extracts on her keeping marine fish and geckos were reported in Water Life June-July 1953 (volume 8, No 3), February-March (volume 10, No 1) and June-July 1955 (10, No 3), June-July 1956 (11 No 3)..

*J. R. Jones CBE MC (1887-1976) was legal adviser to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). He seemed always to have been known by his initials and was the leading light of the Welsh expatriates in Hong Kong. He appeared to have been responsible for the art collection of the Bank. People found him friendly but mysterious; as did I on the one occasion I was introduced to him.  Only on a website describing his gift of a Chinese chair as a prize for the National Eisteddfod in 1933 have I found his names (John Robert Jones) and the fact that he went to Shanghai in 1924 where he was a barrister.

†The translated blurb from the book: The amazing life and the fate of Ivan Kulaeva can serve as a model for the true entrepreneur. Sixteen year old boy, the son of exiled to a Siberian penal servitude of the peasant, after his father's death, managed to become the owner of a number of commercial enterprises. Fate did not indulge self-taught entrepreneur. Defiant, he tries luck on the goldfields in the tundra, drowned beneath the ice of the Yenisei, survived the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Russian-Japanese and First World War, revolution, nationalization of property, kidnapping bandit. Every time starting from zero, he believed in his good fortune, in his lucky star. The book recreates the real life environment, the economy and industry of Siberia. In 1930 in San Francisco, he created Kulaev Awareness and Charity Foundation, whose extensive work continues to this day.

Modified 31 December 2106 and 3 March 2017