Sailing Through Time: A Chinese Junk Ship’s Voyage to Victorian England

As I’m working on my romantic fantasy novel series (Fae of the Crystal Palace) set around the Great Exhibition, I wanted to share some interesting stories I’ve uncovered during my research. Here is the story of the Keying.

In the vibrant tapestry of the 19th century, the Chinese Junk Ship Keying emerges as a captivating tale, carving its way through the Seven Seas to Victorian England in 1848. 

As the Keying sailed into the East India Docks, it became an instant sensation, an exotic marvel against the industrial backdrop of the city. The 800-ton Chinese junk, with its distinctive three masts and eye-catching design, is believed to be one of the first Chinese vessels to visit England. Its arrival coincided with a time of unprecedented curiosity about the world beyond British shores and it remained a side attraction during the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The East India Docks at Blackwall was the initial harbour for the Keying, and curious seekers flocked to it, eager to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary ship that had voyaged from the Far East. For a shilling, visitors could step into a world filled with the aroma of foreign spices and the allure of the mysterious East.

One can only imagine the scenes as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, accompanied by a royal entourage, made their way to Blackwall to inspect the Chinese junk. The royal party’s journey, as documented in the press of the time, drew crowds along the route, and the arrival at the East India Docks was met with tumultuous cheering. The Queen’s excitement as she explored the junk’s deck, marked by the running up of the Royal Standard of England by the Chinese sailors was widely reported.

The Keying opened its doors to the public, offering a unique and immersive experience. Gorgeously furnished in the style of the Celestial Empire, the interior showcased a collection of Chinese curiosities that fueled the Victorian fascination with the East. Thousands flocked to board the ship daily. The ship’s exhibition became a social event, attracting both the curious and the aristocratic.

Leaflets enticed visitors with promises of an encounter with a Mandarin of rank, a renowned Chinese artist, and the chance to explore a vessel that had journeyed across oceans. 

The Keying’s journey began in 1846 when a group of British investors clandestinely purchased the Chinese junk in Hong Kong. Despite a Chinese law prohibiting the sale of their ships to foreigners, the Keying set sail for London under the command of a British Captain with a crew of both British and Chinese sailors.

The journey of the Keying was no ordinary maritime venture. Already a century old, the junk sailed to New York City, where it arrived in 1847. It soon became a spectacle for curious onlookers, drawing crowds and fascination. Famed showman, P. T. Barnum had a copy of Keying built in Hoboken (there are reports that he claimed he had it towed from China), and exhibited it with a crew that may have included some of the Keying Chinese.

The Keying wasn’t without challenges. There were legal disputes over unpaid wages for the Chinese crew in New York leading to many of the sailors leaving. Undeterred, the Keying continued its journey to London.

Interest in the Keying waned over time, and the vessel was eventually sold and towed to the river Mersey near Liverpool in 1853. Moored at the Rock Ferry slipway, it continued to be exhibited for public viewing before being dismantled.

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Image details: Keying in 1848. Public domain image – Rock Bros & Payne, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Kylie Fennell
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