William Bentley and the Opium Wars


I became interested in the story of my great grandfather William Bentley a few years ago. I could vaguely remember a large photograph of him in his Marine uniform on my Aunt Tot’s living room wall. I remember my grandfather John Henry Bentley talking about him with some amount of reverence when I was a small child.

My niece Charmaine sent me a copy of the photo I had remembered from childhood, along with a copy of a newspaper article written in 1914 in which William gave an account of his life in the Royal Marines and the battles fought. His descriptions were remarkably accurate compared to more official accounts, despite the fact that he gave them 54 years after they had occurred at the age of 82.

William Bentley was the youngest son of John Bentley and Susannah Turner, born in the small village of Borden, Kent in 1832. He joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in 1852 at the age of 20. His occupation at the time of enlistment was “Labourer”, but he was literate and in good physical condition when he accepted the Bounty of seven pounds, and signed on for 9 years.
His Story as told to a Newspaper Reporter in 1914

He told how he entered the Royal Marine Light Infantry at the age of 20 years, in Chatham, Kent. The columnist commented on his wonderful memory and how he recounted many exciting adventures when engaged in chasing pirates and slavers while on board the "Bermuda". Of how he was wrecked off the northeast coast of Caucasus in 1854, and lay on the sands for ten days and ten nights until finally rescued. He was invalided home and promoted to the rank of corporal in 1857.

Actually, HMS Bermuda was ship wrecked in the Caribbean and not the Caucasus.

He was drafted to China, and sailed on board the "Inoperatrice" in 1857. 
The ship was almost certainly HMS Imperieuse 
See Below
Sergeant William Bentley in the uniform of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Photo taken in Chatham, Kent in about 1868
The China Medal with clasps for Canton, Taku Forts and Pekin
William Bentley born in 1832 in Borden, Kent died in Toronto in 1920. In his later years he was a market gardener, buying and selling produce in Toronto.
Shortly after his arrival, William participated in the bombardment of Canton, which was captured on Dec. 5, 1857. He came through that fight without a scratch.
On the left a sketch of the Marines boarding the small flat boats from the Gunboats and being rowed ashore at Canton, 1857. The Marines are the ones wearing the white balaclava hats. On the right the Marines prepare to disembark on the shores prior to advancing inland to attack the walled City of Canton.
His story continues.

"In 1859, we were drafted to Northern China, to the Tokyo Forts, which we attacked. We made the attack under Admiral Hope with 1,300 men all told. When you realize that there were about 35,000 Chinese in the Forts, you will know what we were up against."

He told of the hardships they had to face, and how they were in the mud and water up to their necks. "Our loss in that fight, totaled 2 gunboats, 1 dispatch boat, and several boats disabled. Admiral Hope wounded, and 468 men killed and wounded. It was in that fight that I received a wound in my right hand from a fire ball and a bullet went clean through my abdomen, fortunately without touching any vital part."
These two photos taken over 150 years apart. The photo of Taku Forts on the left was taken about 1860, several years after the attack in which William took part. The remains of the trenches in front of the fort are visible. On the right, a photo of how it looks to this day. The Marines suffered 90% casualties in the effort to take the fort in 1859, considered one of the worst defeats in their history. They returned in 1860 and captured the fort easily with large enough numbers.

William stayed in China for several years becoming adjutant to the Division’s Chaplain before returning to England and then becoming a musketry instructor for the Marines.

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