First edition. The engineer John Birch (1847-1900) was born in the West Indies, where his father, an army officer, was stationed, but Birch came to Britain as a young man, working as an engineer in Birkenhead and then establishing his own business in Liverpool. The business flourished (in part due to overseas projects and contracts), and moved to London in 1890, where it developed specialisms in railway and marine engineering. In March 1899 Birch sailed to China and made two expeditions through the country, before returning to England in the late summer of that year. In September 1899 he set off for China once more, in order to survey the Upper Yangtse region with a view to undertaking railway projects in the area. During this second expedition, which coincided with the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, Birch set off from Lanzhou with Captain W.A. Watts Jones RE, to travel down the Huang He river by raft, but the raft was overturned with the loss of Birch’s life on 24 June 1900. (Although Watts Jones survived, a few weeks later he was caught up in the military upheaval of the Boxer Rebellion, captured, and, according to the concluding paragraph on p. 379, ‘barbarously murdered at Kwei-hwa-cheng [modern Hothot] by the Deputy Prefect’.)
As the note on p. [v] explains, Travels in North and Central China ‘presents the narrative of travel contained in Mr. Birch’s diary somewhat compressed and simplified in form’ and the final entry is followed by an extract from a letter written by Birch on 22 June 1900 (two days before his death), describing the final stages of his journey across the Tibetan plateau to Lanzhou, and the plan to proceed by raft. The work is notable for its careful and precise descriptions of places visited and scenes observed, and was well-received by contemporary readers as a useful and informative account of China.
Typical of its reception was the review in the Geographic Journal: ‘[Birch’s] first two journeys led from Peking to Kalgan and Mukden respectively, including a visit to the Ming tombs on the return from the first, and to the mausoleum of the Manchu kings, a little to the north of Mukden, on the second. On his return from England Mr. Birch undertook a more extensive journey in western China, ascending the Yang-tse to Wan-hsien above the gorges, and then starting overland through Suchwan by a route somewhat north of Mrs. Bishop’s [described in her book The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (London, 1899)]. The province was traversed in various directions, both north and south of the capital, which was twice visited; but the most interesting journey was that from Cheng-tu north, across the highlands which separate the basins of the Yang-tse and Hwang-ho, which have still been traversed by but a few Europeans. [...] The route followed was in part entirely new, and led through country really belonging to Tibet, though marked as part of China in most maps. [...] Some magnificent scenery was traversed, two passes nearly 14,000 feet above sea-level being crossed, while the party was twice overtaken by snow. The alpine and other flowers, including many English kinds, were very beautiful at these high altitudes. At one of the passes Mr. Birch considers that he must have been very near the headwaters of the Ta-tung, but exploration to the west is necessary before the hydrographical system can be fully elucidated, as some of the water flowing north from the passes turns back on the plateau itself. The position of Ta-chau on the map is said to be incorrect. It is deeply to be regretted that Mr. Birch did not survive to give a full narrative of this important journey’ (vol. XXI (1903), pp. 64-65).