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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gaijin Father of Japan's Railways

Have you ever heard of Edmund Morel? I sure haven't. Then again, I'm a jack of all trades, master of some type of guy.

Edmund... the only time I've heard that name is on British television comedic show Blackadder (the first)... I wonder if his friends called him "Mu" for short?

Anyhow... I shouldn't be joshing about the poor fellow. He's dead.

Born in 1840 (November 17) in England, Edmund Morel died in Yokohama, Japan on November 5, 1871. A mere 30 years on this mortal coil.

By the way - check out the photo of him... that's 30-years-old? I sure don't live as healthy as I could, and I look fine (heavyish, but fine). I look younger than him... and I've almost got two decades on him.

But, unlike me, Edmund was doing things... and doing them in Japan when he died of tuberculosis. I was just screwing women. I still think I win, though.

Edmund? He was building a railroad. I was keeping track of my conquests.

A graduate of King's College in London where he studied civil engineering, he was highly sought after to work with countries seeking to construct railroad systems, such as in New Zealand, Australia and North Borneo, which is now part of Malaysia.

Not to be a prick, but back in the 1860s, despite long and glorious histories, the places where the railroads went were considered to be rough and tumble rural places. So... Edmund wasn't one to shy away from a challenge.

It was while Edmund was in North Borneo that he was asked to come to Japan by British envoy Sir Harry Parkes and help create Japan's first railroad system. Edmund arrived in Japan on April 9, 1870.

He assumed the role of Japan's first chief engineer for railroad and telegraph construction.

(Ed. Note: Parkes, in May 1865, was named by British monarch Queen Victoria to act as "Her Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary and Consul-General in Japan", which he held for 18 years. A plenipotentiary is someone who has full powers when acting on behalf of a government.

We'll talk about Parkes and Parkes wife in another two separate blogs. I love how researching one thing can lead to another!)

Japan, thanks to the advice of Parkes, had high hopes for Edmund, a fact that is proven when you look at then extremely high salary that Edmund was given for his five-year contract:
  • $700 dollars a month in his first year;
  • $850 dollars a month in his second year, and;
  • $1,000 dollars a month from the third year on.
Now... I am unsure if that is an accurate amount. I gathered this information from the City of Yokohama website: HERE

What bothers me is that the figures are given in 'dollars'. Was that American dollars? If so, assume it's 1870 dollars.

But... why would a British citizen be paid in American dollars while in Japan? Was that something that was done? Or maybe they just converted his salary to the popular American dollar (all gaijin are American... riiiight) for the reader's benefit.

As for Edmund's duties, he did not have a one track mind. Along with railroad design, he also helped Japan with several proposals to the education system and engineering administration. In fact, it was Edmund's advice that Japan established its Ministry of Public Works in December of 1870.

What does the Ministry of Public Works do?

It does different things now, but in 1870, its role was to find ways to bring in and utilize foreign technologies.

And that's where the railroad comes in.

It was Edmund who conceived of the actual stations in between and its terminus from Shinbashi-Eki (Shinbashi Station) in Tokyo out west to Yokohama's Sakuragichoh-Eki.

As well, Edmund plotted out what equipment would be required by Japan to build and run a railway system, and helped screen engineers, and teach the Japanese how to inspect future train equipment and instruments coming in from abroad.

The Engineering College (predecessor of Tokyo Imperial Technical University) was established in April of 1871 to educate key engineers.

Edmund met with and discussed the railroad with a couple of Japanese gentlemen—(surname first) Prince (title) Ito Hirobumi (a former samurai of the Chōshū domain and British Knight of the Royal Cross - not to mention Japan's 1st, 5th, 7th and 10th Prime Minister) and Marquess (title) Ōkuma Shigenobu who would later be the 8th and 17th Prime Minster of Japan.

Heady company indeed.

While Ito and Okuma had a bit of a hate-on for each other politically, both were very much interested in Western technologies and ideas - and Edmund had them.

Despite his youth, Edmund was always serious about the work, and had a keen dedication to the job.

It is said that when the weather was too inclement to proceed, he would invite the Japanese engineers and surveyors into his home and hold lectures (IE meetings).

There is also a thought that Edmund was the reason behind Japan utilizing a narrow gauge track of 1,067 millimeters (3'-6") wide versus the standard gauge of 1,435 mm (4-8.5") wide that was used owing to the width of the wheel base of Roman chariots... continued by stage coaches and the trains.

But Edmund went small. Because he had just finished working the wilds of North Borneo where he used the narrow gauge, people thought he brought that same preference with him to Japan.

Whatever. Narrow gauge rail is good to use where space is a premium... and whether it was back in 1870 Japan or not, Edmund was lucky or prophetic enough to have used it in one of the now most densely populated countries on the planet.

Of course, the tracks have a tighter radius, they are lighter - and... most importantly... they are cheaper to construct... saving everyone a few bucks in the process.

There was already a bit of a situation involving the gaining of funds for the project (a previous purchasing agent was caught skimming funds from the sale of bonds - and perhaps as part of the cover-up, he might have sought out the cheaper narrow gauge), so perhaps being unable to raise proper funds for a standard gauge rail line, the narrow gauge was chosen.

Regardless... we can rest assured that Edmund was the one who ultimately green-lighted its use.

It is suspected that Edmund had contracted the lung disease tuberculosis while in North Borneo and he was sick almost his entire time in Japan.

Just prior to his death, the Japanese government wanted to send Edmund out to India, hoping there was a cure - fresh air? - for him... but he was so physically ill that he could not go.

Or... depending on the story, Edmund wanted to avoid the cold Japanese winter, and wanted to stay in India where it was warm for a few months, and petitioned the Japanese government for a leave of absence, which was given.

The same Yokohama City website suggests that the Japanese government gave him an Imperial Grant of ¥5000 as part of the plan to send him to India to recover... which may have just been a token gesture, because it doesn't sound like a lot of money. Nowadays, that's about US/Cdn $50. A nice 1870 gift, but, if the website's previous mention of salary is to believed, it was a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

(Ed. Note: The yen was only formerly introduced in Japan as its currency back in May of 1871.)

Anyhow, it was only four days after requesting permission to leave, that Edmund died.

Edmund was married... to a British woman named named Harriett Wynder, who was only 16 when they were married in 1862. Edmund was 22 then.

Harriet joined her husband in Yokohama in June of 1870, but she, too died in Japan... either of tuberculosis caught after caring for her husband, or depending on the article one reads - of shock and grief. But at the age of only 24? I'm going with tuberculosis.
Bronze sculpt on Edmund Morel's grave site in Yokohama. Photo by Mitsutoshi Masunari.

Their tombs are in Yokohama at the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, and are designated as a Japanese National Railway Memorial.

Andrew Joseph

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