Women’s History Month: A Story from the Archives

Amelia Leybourn: An intrepid Edwardian missionary nurse in China

There are many extraordinary women who have come from Warrington as we have seen in past projects that the Museum and Archives have undertaken, a prime example being the relatively new Warrington Women A-Z database a new resource capturing information on Women’s History accessible via the museum’s website.

But, there is one woman, who is yet to feature on this database, who although is not from Warrington, seemingly felt strongly enough connected to the town, to deposit a collection of Chinese documents that she had gathered through her lifetime. Her name was Miss Amelia Leybourn.

Those of you who follow our museum social media channels, may well have already encountered Miss Leybourn, a missionary nurse originally from Urmston who  travelled overseas to worked in China for the majority of her life. The documents that she deposited at Warrington Archives have been used to carry out research into her fascinating life, and it is the  story of Miss Leybourn’s international travels that we will look at in this special blog, to celebrate Women’s History Month.

The Story Begins

It was not until in 2019 when Warrington Library hosted a ‘Fun Palaces’ event that Miss Leybourn’s documents had ever really been looked at closely. But the Chinese Calligraphy group Mulan Culture who were holding a calligraphy workshop during the event took an interest in this collection and decided to carry out some independent research into the documents. What they uncovered was a wonderful story of an Edwardian lady whose strength and bravery allowed her to undertake life threatening work helping to provide Chinese people with medical care whilst also spreading the Christian religion.

The research first introduced Miss Leybourn to us in the October 1911 edition the Manchester Courier newspaper (Figure 1). She appeared in an article detailing the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society in the local areas and the article describes how the group’s Manchester division were introduced to a Miss A.L. Leybourn of the C.M.S Medical Mission, Hok-Chiang, China.

Figure 1. Article in the Manchester Courier dated 25th October 1911









The article records the Lady Mayoress’s great admiration for the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society, translating the Bible into different languages, currently having reached a massive 432 languages. At the meeting, Miss Laybourn provided an account of the missionary work being carried out in China alluding also to the ‘cruel and ignorant methods of native doctors. This description can sound insulting to Chinese people and traditional Chinese medicine, but terms such as these were commonly used by missionaries in the UK at the time. By showing the worst aspects of medicine in China, Missionaries hoped to raise more funds for their hospitals and surgeries. A later blog will look at the work of medical missionaries in China and the changes they endeavored to bring to women’s medicine in the country.

So, we can see from this article that Miss Leybourn was working as a missionary in China in 1911. But what do we know about her early life before her missionary work?. Thanks to the census records, we have quite a clear record of what Amelia’s early life was like.

Daughter to William and Louisa

Born on 19th November 1868 in Manchester, Amelia Louisa Leybourn lived as a young girl with her family at 19 Beech Street, Cheetham, Manchester. She was baptized on 31st January 1869 at Ebenezer Chapel, Cheetham, Lancashire by Reverend Thomas Chope. The daughter of William Leybourne and Louisa Mary of 3 Beech Street, Cheetham (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Marriage registration of Miss Leybourn’s parents (10th March 1864)





Aged only 2 years, Amelia can be seen on the 1871 Census living with her father William aged 31 years and a Muslin Salesman (textile trader), her mother Louisa aged 28 years, her siblings Edward aged 3 years, her sister Ethil aged 5 months and brother Robert also aged 5 months and a general servant by the name of Esther Yates (Figure 3).

Figure 3. 1871 Census for England and Wales




Ten years later, now aged 12 and a scholar, Amelia can be seen again on the 1881 Census, still living with her family but at a new address of 135 Slade Lane, Levenshulme, Manchester. Amelia’s father is still working as a textile trader (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4. 1881 Census for England and Wales




Figure 5. 135 Slade Lane, Levenshulme (Image courtesy of Google Map

Then in 1891, the Census shows that Amelia is now a young adult aged 22 years, still living with her family, but this time at the new address of 20 Ash Cottage, Levenshulme. Sadly, we see that Amelia’s mother Louisa has died, leaving her father William a widow and looking after their children. There is also another brother Norman aged 15 years, whom we had not met previously, and her cousin Charles also aged 15 years, who appears to be living with the family whilst at school (Figure 6).



Figure 6. 1891 Census for England and Wales

Amelia as a Registered Missionary

On the 1901 Census, we see Amelia now aged 32 years is still living with her family, now at 16 Brownsville Road, Heaton Norris, Manchester. Her father William appears to have remarried to Florence and the couple have had two children Frederick and Iris. He is still working as a Cotton Muslin Salesman. It is on the 1901 Census that we are first able to see reference to Amelia’s early missionary work as she is recorded as having the occupation of Trained Nurse Missionary (Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7. 1901 Census for England and Wales




Figure 8. 16 Brownsville Road, Heaton Norris, Manchester (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

Granted Entry into China

We do not have a record for Amelia on the 1911 Census, so perhaps she may have already taken up her new Missionary role in China. Indeed, on 10th November 1899 when Amelia was aged 30 years, a Chinese Passport/Visa was issued to her, granting entry into China (Figures 9 and 10). Within the terms of the passport, Amelia is recorded in Chinese writing as having the occupation of a ‘nun’ or ‘sister’, so we know that by November 1899, she had already undergone her medical training.

The passport granted not only entry into China but permission to also travel throughout the country to undertake missionary work. The first line of the passport/visa states that permission is granted by the British Consulate, and we can see that there is what is called a red ‘Chinese Chick Stamp’ which were used by the British Embassy (in Chinese Script) authorizing the passport. The stamp on Miss Leybourn’s document shows that the British Consulate was in Foochow, China (Figure 11).

Figure 9. Passport issued to Miss Amelia Leybourn for entry into China (Warrington Archives)











Figure 10. Miss Leybourn’s named at the top of the passport (Warrington Archives)

Figure 11. Passport stamp of the British Consulate at FooChow, China (Warrington Archives)

We are fortunate to have a translation of Miss Leybourn’s passport/visa which was very kindly produced by the Chinese Calligraphy Group (led by Wendy Ding) as mentioned at the start of this article. The translation reads as follows:


The British Empire authorizes this edict direct to the General Counsellor in charge of local trading affairs, FuZou.

Under the TiangJing Treaty, Section 9, British people who have been issued a passport, are allowed to travel freely in the mainland, dealing with trading affairs once the local customs office has stamped their passport.

Local Customs have the right to verify the passport and release all baggage to enter. A truthful verification must be reported to the General Consular.

No maltreatment is allowed. Applicant Miss Lu [meaning nurse] from Church of England (Miss Leybourne, Medical Missionary).

She is intended to travel within the FuzHou Province.

After the applicant’s approval from General Consular and Local officials, the Applicant must be dealt with politely and kept under local protection.

No block

Miss Leybourne

10th November 1899

8th October Qing Density Guang Xu 25th Year

Local governor Mr Xu issued validation for one year.

What would life have been like for female missionaries in China?

A female missionary was seen as having a ‘civilizing mission’ to conduct whilst they undertook their roles in China. Their main function was to introduce a Protestant middle-class culture to the Chinese population, conducted through religious education. Chinese women were always considered to be the inferior sex and in receiving an education from the missionaries, they were effectively seen as receiving an ‘alleviation of their gender’.

Early Trailblazers

Two prominent women missionaries who travelled to China during the 19th century were the Englishwomen Annie (Hannah) Royle Taylor (Figure 12) and Canadian Susanna Carson Rijnhart (Figure 13). These ladies were both explorers of Tibet, undertaking dangerous expeditions which surpassed even the most experienced of explorers. After studying medicine and working in the slums of London, Annie Taylor joined the China Inland Mission to work as a missionary in China.

Figure 12. Annie (Hannah) Royle Taylor with her Tibetan servant (Public Domain)







Figure 13. Susanna Carson Rijnhart

Daily Activities

As a missionary in China during the 19th century, your life would have been arduous. The heavy workload and exhaustion led to many missionaries having serious health problems such as mental breakdowns. This was certainly not for the faint hearted!

Sadly, female missionaries were paid at a lower wage than male missionaries, this pay imbalance is still the case today. For example, the first two female missionaries to be sent to China, Beulah and Sarah Woolston, both received an annual salary of only 300 dollars each.

The female missionaries shared homes and formed small groups, usually of about three. The groups would carry out their teaching, preaching and medical skills for Chinese women and children.Minnie Wolfe who was a missionary in Foochow, recalls what a daily routine was like for the missionaries like our Miss Leybourn: “A bell rings for prayers at 9 o’clock, and we will go down and take our places at the head of the table. Someone choose a hymm, ‘Awake my soul’ is a great favourite. And then follows a short simple talk on some verse of the Word, or a sentence from the Lord’s Prayer, and the Matron usually closes with prayer. Then the women and I adjourn for lessons to a ‘class-room’ upstairs, to leave the schoolroom free for our little day schoolgirls. We begin with repetition-two texts and a page of the ‘Catechism’ are usually repeated without mistakes, and then explained, -after which we turn to St. Mark’s Gospel, and each woman repeats in turn the incident from our Lord’s life taught in class the day before, with the chief lesson to be drawn from it. It is wonderful how well some of the women do this, though others again need much questioning to draw out what they remember. Now we are supposing a class which has been taught for about six weeks; the poor ignorant minds are beginning to wake up and to take in slowly and wonderingly the strange, sweet story of a Saviour’s love patiently repeated to them day by day. How fresh and quaint the familiar Bible incidents sound in their Chinese dress from the Chinese lips! At eleven o’clock they go to the matron for study; dinner is at twelve, and at two they were taught the ‘Picture Bible’ by the matron for an hour. From four to six o’clock, supper time, they are free to do their own needlework and after supper preparation begins till nine o’clock bed, with a break for prayers at half past seven”.

Unmarried Missionaries

Initially, the missionaries only sent out married couples and a few single men. Wives served as unpaid assistant missionaries. The opinion of male dominated missionary societies being that unmarried woman, such as Miss Leybourn should not live unprotected and alone in a foreign country and that the spiritual work of missionaries could only be undertaken by ordained men.

The first unmarried female missionary in China was Mary Ann Aldersey, an eccentric British lady who opened a school for girls in Ningpo in 1844. Early unmarried female missionaries were required to live with missionary families. Later, they may have shared a home.

Even though female missionaries formed the majority, they were still excluded from participating in any policy decisions within the missionary organizations, because these were usually dominated by men. It was only during the 1920s, towards the end of Miss Leybourn’s career, that women were finally listened to, as well as being allowed to vote in missionary meetings in China of the American Board. 

Cultural Adjustments   

In their work, Christian missionaries were often faced with cultural morals and practices which were alien to them. Chinese society placed women in a low position, with many documenting what would be described as degradation. Poor women were certainly in a difficult position, they appeared to have almost no rights at all and were often married off as children. It was common for them to be treated as slaves by their in-laws.

Almost all the missionaries would be required to learn the Chinese language, as without this, they would be unable to communicate the Gospel to the Chinese people. This was a difficult task and many just could not get a grasp of the new and quite different Chinese language. On average, it took about five years of studying the language for the missionaries to reach a proficiency suitable for their role.

Aside from the overall poor respect given to Chinese women, Christian missionaries noted five practices in Chinese culture which they attempted to alleviate. These included female foot-binding (Figure 14), female infanticide, child betrothal and early marriage and the suicide of widows (a custom called suttee).

Figure 14. Lotus shoes for bound feet, China (WAGMG: 1864.34.1632) (Warrington Museum Collections)

So universal was foot-binding in China, that unbinding feet could not be made a condition of acceptance into schools for girls.The missionaries persisted with their work however and did have some success in being able to persuade some Chinese girls to unbind. Sadly, a process that causes considerable pain. In fact, unbinding was more frequent amongst Christian Chinese girls. An early anti-binding society was set up in Foochow during the 1890s, and they provided strong support to the missionaries.

Opium abuse was not gender specific, and this was also something that missionaries attempted to eradicate from both male and female Chinese culture.

There were many cultural rules that needed to be followed by both male and female missionaries whilst they were living and working in China. For example, male missionaries could not interact with Chinese women. Evangelical work amongst Chinese women was therefore the sole responsibility of female missionaries. Similarly, only female missionary doctors could treat Chinese women and female missionaries managed girl’s schools.

Women’s Foreign Missionary Society

During the 1860s, women’s missionary organizations, especially the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (Figure 15) of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and individual women, began to become missionaries around the world in large numbers. In fact, the number of female missionaries, would soon outnumber the males, but this indifference was not without friction, with phrases such as ‘the head of woman is man’ being reiterated. The fact being that it was not felt that women should dominate men in this role.

Figure. 15. Founders of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society.(1895)








A Natural Sailor: Travelling between England and China

We know from passenger lists that for many years, Miss Leybourn made regular trips between England and China. Why she was returning home to England we have not yet discovered, but we can presume that it is likely to have been to make visits to family or to undertake missionary work.

The earliest record of one such journey records a sailing from London to Hong Kong made on 16th January 1896. We see her name towards the bottom of this passenger list- her record reads ‘single English female’ and her intended disembarkation is recorded as being Hong Kong (Figure 16).

Travelling long distances during the 19th and early 20th century was no small undertaking for anyone and was certainly a particularly brave venture wot be undertaken by a women on her own. At the time of this journey, Miss Leybourn would only have been in her twenties. We can see on the passenger list that there are also a number of other single females travelling to Hong Kong, so it could be that these ladies like Miss Leybourn, were all part of an early missionary party.

Figure 16. Passenger List for sailing from London to Hong Kong on 16th January 1896 (The National Archives)










We know that in 1907, Miss Leybourn made a crossing from Liverpool to China at the age of 38 years.

The next journey that we have a record of Miss Leybourn undertaking is again recorded on a British Passenger List for the ‘Mongolia’ on which she travelled 2nd class. The sailing was taken on the 23rd February 1912 for a crossing from London to Sydney. The record shows that Sydney was a stopping port only and that Miss Leybourn’s final destination was in fact Hong Kong (Figure 17).

Figure 17. Passenger List for travel aboard the P&O ‘Mongolia’ on 23rd February 1912 (The National Archives)










As mentioned previously, making a sailing of this nature was not like it would have been today, these journeys took weeks to make and the conditions in which the passengers were required to stay were much more primitive. We see in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald dated 3rd April 1912 that the ‘Mongolia’ on which Miss Leybourn was travelling, was docking due to dock into Circular Quay at Sydney. It records the vessel as being with the P&O line, having left London with many passengers and a full cargo, making calls at other ports on route (Figure 18). Miss Leybourn would have been 45 years when she made the crossing via Sydney.

Sadly only a few years following Miss Leybourn’s voyage, the ‘Mongolia’ (Figure 19) hit a mine on 23rd June 1917, 50 miles South by W of Bombay and the vessel sank. The vessel was carrying passengers as well as mail for India, Australia and China as well as a full general cargo for Australia.

Figure 18. Newspaper article from The Sydney Morning Herald Wedneday 3rd April 1912 (page 22) ‘R.M.S Mongolia Due To-Day’






Figure 19. Acrylic painting of the R.M.S Mongolia in a gale on 9th July 1904 by W Dallimore (Australian National Maritime Museum) 










Five years following her trip on the Mongolia, we see Miss Leybourn making a journey on a ship called the Philadelphia (Figure 20), this vessel was part of the American Steamship Line fleet. Miss Leybourn is aged 48 years and sailing home from China on 15th May 1917 (Figure 21).

Figure 20. SS Philadelphia (American Line)








Figure 21. British Passengers List for the Philadelphia sailing China to Liverpool on 15th May 1917 (The National Archives)










In 1924, Miss Leybourn travelled on the ‘Kalyan’ a member of the P&O steamship fleet. She embarked in London bound for Kobe. The passengers including Miss Leybourn embarked on the 15th February 1924. Miss Leybourn is recorded as being 55 years of age, travelling as a Missionary Nurse and with an intended permanent residence in China (Figures 22).

Figure 22. British Passengers List for the ‘Kalyan’ travelling from London to Kobe in 1924 (The National Archives)











We know that the ‘Kalyan’ was a passenger vessel built in 1915 and owned by P&O Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. It made its first appearance in Southern waters when she left London on 22nd December 1922 for s single round trip. Her tonnage was 9144 gross and measured 480’ length, 58’ breadth and 7040 horsepower (Figure 23).

Figure 23. P&O S.S ‘Kalyan’(CC-BY)







Then in July 1931, Miss Leybourn appears on an Out-Going Passengers List for person leaving the United Kingdom on ships bound for areas out of Europe. She is travelling again on the ‘Kalyan’ embarking at London and bound for Yokohama. The vessel departed from London on 23rd July 1931. Miss Leybourn aged 62 years is recorded as being a Missionary permanently residing in China and bound on this voyage for Hong Kong (Figure 24).

Figure 24. London to China crossing in July 1931 made by Miss Amelia Leybourn (The National Archives)











The next journey Miss Laybourn appears on is a journey home from London to Dairen. She travelled on the Alfred Holt & Co. vessel the ‘Patroclus’ which is recorded on the Passengers List as carrying the 68-year-old Miss Leybourn in 1st Class as a Missioanry Nurse returning from China to reside at an address in Flixton which we know was Miss Leybourn’s home. In the final column of the list, we see that Miss Leybourn is recording her permanent residency as England, so this may record the final voyage which she made at the end of her missionary career (Figures 25 and 26).

Figure 25. Passenger List for the ‘Patroclus’ arriving in London from Hong Kong (The National Archives)









Figure.26 Photograph of the ‘Patroclus’ (Alfred Holt) dated 1923 (The National Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool)









So hopefully, you’ve managed to gain a brief overview of some of the intrepid adventures that the extraordinary Miss Amelia Leybourn undertook during her career as a missionary nurse in China.

Miss Leybourn’s bravery and commitment are admirable qualities and she is certainly a wonderful role model for women living during the 21st century.

For more information about some of Warrington’s other amazing women, visit the ‘Warrington Women A-Z’ database here: https://wmag.culturewarrington.org/local-history/resources/warrington-women-an-historical-a-z/

For further information on the life of Miss Amelia Leybourn see her blog series here: