Robert B. Mauchan

Robert Buchanan Mauchan was born in Dumbarton, Scotland on May 25th, 1868. His parents were cattle merchant Andrew Altera Mauchan (1842-1922) and Catherine Downie Buchanan (1844-1919). He came from quite a large family and was the oldest of 10 children. His known siblings were Elizabeth Altera (1869-1957), Mary Mcalpine (1871-1924), Catherine Buchanan (1873-1953), Andrew Clarke (1876-1945), Colin Buchanan (1878-1905), John (1880-1927), David Buchanan (1882-1916), Agnes Houston (1884-1918) and Charles Buchanan (1887-1964).

He was educated at Dumbarton Burgh Academy and then Glasgow Athenaeum where it is believed he was taught Nautical Engineering as a trade.

His professional career began quite early, around 1882 when he was just 14 years old, with William Denny and Brothers, one of the largest River Clyde shipbuilders in Dumbarton. The firm was most famous for completing the legendary Clipper Ship, Cutty Sark.

Likely to seek his own fortune, he moved to China in 1887 at the age of 19 and settled in the bustling city of Shanghai with its large foreign population of French, British and Americans. He spent the next seven years with the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. In 1894 at the age of 26 he took a position with S.C. Farnham & Co., the largest foreign (British) shipyard in Shanghai, which would eventually become the Shanghai Dock and Engineering Co., Ltd.

On April 30th, 1904, at the age of 35, he married 25-year-old Janey Helena Bruce Weir at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Church of England) in Shanghai. Miss Weir was born in Shanghai in 1879 to the Marine Superintendent and Engineer of the China Merchants Steam Navigation Co., Thomas Weir (1845–1929) and his wife Cecilia Hamilton (1851-1946). The Mauchan’s reportedly lived at 'Aulderwood', Route Dupleix, (present day Anfu Road), about two miles from the shipyard. This was in an exclusive area of Shanghai where a number of stately western villas were built. Many have survived to this day and are being used as shops, hotels and restaurants, although I have not yet been able to verify Aulderwood’s exact location or status to date.

Soon thereafter, his experience (and likely his connections) resulted in his working for the Chinese Government (Qing Dynasty) directly, when in 1905 he took a position with the Government owned Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works, formerly part of the Kiangnan Arsenal, taking with him a group of engineers, managers and experts from his former employer, S.C. Farnham & Co. According the ‘The Engineer’, he took the position on the condition that the Chinese open the yard to commercial contracts and not just government contracts, making the venture far more sustainable and wresting the monopoly away from the British owned yards. He was largely responsible for bringing the shipyard up to the most modern standards of the day of the Europeans, Americans and Japanese.

It’s unclear what motivated Mauchan to leave S.C. Farnham & Co. beyond personal career and financial opportunities, but when you look at all the things he did, you could surmise he had it in for his former employer:

      1. Left the company

      2. Took a number of skilled employees with him

      3. Made it a condition that the Kiangnan yard do all the Government work, taking this lucrative work away from S.C. Farnham & Co. and the other British yards, and also opened up Kiangnan to commercial shipbuilding and repair, putting them in direct competition with the British yards.

      4. Was instrumental in getting the EFC contract when the US Government already had a working relationship with Shanghai Dock and Engineering Co. (formerly S.C. Farnham & Co. which had merged with another British shipyard named Boyd & Co).

I assume at the very least Robert did not have a non-compete clause in his employment contract.

In 1908 Robert and Janey welcomed the birth of their daughter Cecilia Dorthea Mauchan in Shanghai. Sadly, she passed at the age of eight in 1916, and as yet I've been unable to determine a cause. Passenger lists show that Cecilia joined her mother and Aunt Evelyn on on voyage back to Scotland in the summer of 1914.

In an article written by Stephen Marshall in the September 1918 edition of ‘The Forum’, Mauchan spoke passionately about his work at Kiangnan and the Chinese people, saying:

The action of the United States Shipping Board in awarding a huge contract to the Shanghai yard is going to produce remarkable results for America in China”. He went on to state “Do you realize the effect building American ships in China will have upon the young men of China? Knowing as they do the part shipping plays in winning this world war, can you not see the sentimental side of it as well as the economical? Closer commercial relations must result; a development of the vast opportunities for commercial relations between China and America. China is intellectually awake. Shipbuilding in China is not a new venture. It goes back hundreds of years. But building American ships there is new and novel. It has an appeal that strikes the Chinese mind with tremendous force at a time when all eyes are turned toward her.

After the war America must have an outlet for its surplus steel and machine tools, machinery and agricultural implements. Without a large export business built up with countries like China, America will be in a disadvantageous position. But the development of shipbuilding in China will in no wise effect America. The reciprocal relations will more than balance.

Mauchan is believed to have stayed with Kiangnan for the next 28 years until his retirement.

On May 26th, 1933 Robert and Janey arrived in Greenock Scotland together aboard the Canadian Pacific Steamship Duchess of Richmond. They settled in a beautiful estate called 'Brincliffe' with Janey’s mother Cecilia (her father had passed in 1929), located on Dhuhill Drive in the exclusive upper section of Helensburgh, Scotland, facing the ocean. Just around the corner is the famous Hill House designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. As an interesting aside, Janey's brother Cecil Hamilton Weir was lost on the Lusitania in 1915.

The timing of their move from their beloved Shanghai was likely due to what was known as ‘The January 28 Incident’ to the Chinese or ‘First Shanghai Incident’ to the Japanese which occurred between January 28th and March 3rd, 1932 when Japanese forces first attempted to take Shanghai by force. If the turmoil had not occurred he may have very well stayed in Shanghai until his dying day.

Robert passed-away three short years after their move back to Scotland, on March 11th, 1936 at the age of 67. Janey passed-away the following year on April 3rd, 1937. Robert and Janey are buried in the Faslane Cemetery, Garelochhead, Argyll and Bute, Scotland. Their tombstone (see right), mentions their daughter Cecilia as an 'Also' without her specific date of birth or death.

She is believed to have died while they lived in Shanghai and was likely buried initially in the graveyard adjoining the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where Robert and Janey were married, worshipped and likely baptized their daughter. That graveyard, like most western cemeteries in Shanghai and throughout China were desecrated during the violent and chaotic Cultural Revolution of the '60's and '70's, the land re-purposed and the tombstones broken up and used as building material. It's is not known if her remains were brought back to Scotland with her parents, or were lost during those turbulent later years.

The Cathedral remarkably survived, and after many years or neglect and use as government offices and even a movie theater, has been painstakingly restored to it's former glory, although not as a functioning church. See here for more information about the Cathedral.

Shanghai fell to the Japanese Empire in November of 1937, and with it, the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works Robert had worked so hard to develop for the Chinese.

Courtesy of Anthony Page via

He spent the majority of his life in Shanghai, nearly 46 of his 67 years. During that time he had a front row seat to the dramatic changes China, and especially Shanghai would face. From the fall the Qing dynasty, to the new Republic, Nationalist/Communist Civil War and finally the beginning of the invasion and occupation by the Japanese Empire. Shanghai grew rapidly during this tumultuous period.

For his service to China he was awarded the following:

  • Wen Hu - 2nd Class (1914), aka 'Order of the Striped Tiger'

  • Chai Ho - 3rd Class (1917), aka 'Order of the Precious Brilliant Golden Grain', based on the date, likely for his work securing the contract from the USSB for the Celestial and her sisters.

  • Pao Kong - 3rd Class (date unknown), details unknown.