Published: 05:00, 11 October 2021
| Updated: 14:09, 11 October 2021
Military heroes are commemorated for their exploits in battle but for one who gained the nickname Chinese Gordon, it was his work helping the poor in Kent which saw his immortal status confirmed and remembered still today.
As time has progressed, it is that side of Major General Charles Gordon which has been commemorated in Gravesend, where he was based for five years in the 1860s.
Last month marked the 150th anniversary of his departure from command of the Royal Engineers based at the Thames Forts in the town, guarding London from the threat of French invasion.
His notoriety and celebrity status in Victorian Britain had already been established due to his actions on the battlefield in China.
A decorated military commander, Chinese Gordon gained his reputation leading the "Ever Victorous Army" – as the Emperor of China dubbed it – and helping pacify the country after a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty was repelled.
His achievements leading forces loyal to the emperor saw him bestowed with honours by the Chinese and British.
He joined the army in 1852 and completed his training with the Royal Engineers in Chatham, becoming a commissioned second lieutenant.
Gordon had shown his talents as a map-maker and in designing fortifications and – having served in the Crimean War in the 1850s – returned to Chatham where he served as an instructor.
But having grown bored of the garrison duties bestowed – despite being promoted to captain during the posting – he begged the War Office to send him back into action wherever there was a battle.
He got his wish and Captain Gordon went to Hong Kong to fight in the Second Opium War in 1860 but arrived shortly after the end of the fighting, much to his disappointment.
Before setting sail for China, the Taiping rebellion was well-known to Gordon and although he initially sympathised with their cause, he became horrified on learning of the atrocities being carried out to peasants in villages across the country.
As a commander in the Ever Victorious Army and defeating the rebels, Gordon saw victory in 33 successive battles, earning him the honour of the Yellow Jacket by the emperor which made him a member of the ruler's honorary bodyguard and chief commander of Jiangsu province – a rank equal to that of a Field Marshal in the British Army, although he was now officially a colonel.
He accepted the accolades but, as a deeply religious man, turned down the gifts and heaps of silver and riches offered him for his success in defeating the rebels.
Gordon would later write about his Chinese campaign: "I know I shall leave China as poor as I entered it, but with the knowledge that, through my weak instrumentality, upwards of eighty to one hundred thousand lives have been spared. I want no further satisfaction than this."
He returned to England and was stationed at Fort House in Gravesend tasked with strengthening the defences of the capital.
With his strong evangelical outlook and desire to help the poor, it is this for which his legacy is now celebrated for in Gravesend.
The town's Gordon Gardens, where a statue to the man stands still today, is named after him and he lived in the nearby Fort House in the New Tavern Fort from 1865 to 1871.
The building no longer exists after it was demolished having been struck by a German V2 rocket in 1944.
His overwhelming generosity and dedication to helping the young poor in Gravesend earn an education was to be his ultimate legacy.
Commemorative services have been held at his statue around the time of his death – January 26, 1885 – and continue every year to remember his contribution to the town.
He worked at the Gravesend Ragged School and set up schools at Fort House and East Terrace in Gravesend as well as teaching at St Andrew’s mission, now St Andrew’s Church, in Royal Pier Road.
Gordon also donated his salary – reportedly about 90% of his £3,000 salary, equal to £330,000 in today's money – to help fund the institutions and often donated food, tea and tobacco to people in the workhouses.
He also has a bronze bust in his honour located within Westminster Abbey.
But as with any figure, his career is not without controversy.
In 2009, a team of Chinese investigators visited Britain and the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham to search for lost Imperial Chinese artefacts reportedly stolen by Gordon and his troops and brought back to Britain during the civil war in China.
"Charles Gordon was a great character..."
When the museum reopened after lockdown earlier this year, a new attraction focussing on General Gordon's time in the Sudan – where he served after leaving Gravesend – was launched.
The exhibition explored Chinese Gordon's experiences in the context of the religious revolution which saw colonial rule in the African country overthrown in the late 19th century.
It was during this episode that Gordon met his end and also saw him gain martyr status and the second title as Gordon of Khartoum.
He had become governor-general of Sudan during which time he worked to end slavery and set out a number of reforms to abolish torture and public floggings for those opposed to the Egyptian state.
He was killed when troops beseiging the city broke through and entered the palace where he was stationed in Khartoum.
Despite taking a stand – and reportedly against orders of the leader of the Madhist group – Gordon was killed.
Accounts at the time said Gordon had donned the ceremonial gold-braided blue uniform of the governor-general and a red fez, went out unarmed except for his synonymous rattan cane – he was said to have refused to take a sword or rifle into battle – and was killed alongside his bodyguard.
It cemented his status as a hero and the British press romanticised his death as it portrayed Christian imagery of Gordon's death as a Christ-like figure dying for the sins of all humanity.
Historians have debated his death was further highlighted due to a lack of support from the British government – led by William Gladstone – and served a political purpose to show the waning support for war in Africa and supporting the colonies.
Chinese Gordon, or Gordon of Khartoum, continues to inspire today and the latest to be intrigued by this relatively unknown British and Kent hero is an author who has just penned his first novel.
David Bissenden, a retired town planner who now lives in Cheshire, came to know of Gordon's story when visiting Gravesend.
The 67-year-old has written a story inspired by Gordon's time in Gravesend and his departure in 1871.
"Gordon's death cemented his status as a hero and the British press romanticised his death..."
He said: "I used to work and live in Thurrock, so often took the ferry to Gravesend and was fascinated by its heritage of old building, pubs and maritime history. I always felt the place was crying out for a novel which could bring these elements into play.
"My debut novel 'The French Emperor's Woman' brings together two disparate historical events that occurred in 1871.
"The first was Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Gordon leaving his posting in Gravesend after working for six years as commandant of the Thames Forts.
"The other is the French court, lead by the ailing Emperor Napoleon III, moving to live in Kent after losing the Franco-Prussian War and being forced into exile.
"I was intrigued by the notoriety of Charles Gordon and therefore decided to use him as a character in my novel.
"His legacy of the fine Thames forts, and his charitable works, makes him a unique figure in the history of Gravesend..."
"Gordon never married and does not appear to have had any serious relationships with women. "He seems to have followed a strict celibate lifestyle, in accordance with his strong Christian religious beliefs. Such a lifestyle was common during the Victorian era.
"His legacy of the fine Thames forts, and his charitable works, makes him a unique figure in the history of Gravesend.
"Charles Gordon was a great character – on the surface the typical straight laced Victorian gentleman soldier but behind the scene he did great work for the poor in Gravesend.
"I thought the juxtaposition of this confirmed, probably celibate, bachelor, and the debauched history of the French court might be the starting point for an interesting novel."
A memorial service is held each year to honour General Gordon and is staged by the statue in the park which bears his name in Gravesend.