1799  — 1845

George Tradescant Lay

Naturalist and missionary in China; British consul.

George Tadescant Lay was a naturalist and missionary. Born in 1799, he was dispatched to Macao as an agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1836, serving until 1839. While there, he and Samuel Wells Williams distributed Christian literature throughout the countryside around Macao. He was one of the founders of the Medical Missionary Society in China, formed in Canton in 1838, and he served as vice-president under T.R. Colledge.

Lay and Edwin Stevens were aboard the Himmaleh on its voyage through the China seas looking for trade and missionary prospects, though the voyage was overall unsuccessful. They also traveled with Liang Fa and Liang De aboard the Huron to visit a Chinese community in Nanyang. Stevens died from an illness he contracted on that journey.

After three years of literature distribution, he found so little scope for the Bible Society beyond what others were doing that, like Karl Gutzlaff, he thought he would be more useful as a government employee. Accordingly, during the First Opium War from 1840-42, Lay became an interpreter. He joined Robert Morrison and Gutzlaff on the staff of British Naval Captain Elliot and then Sir Henry Pottinger because the missionaries were the best linguists available, and he played a major role as a negotiator.

He was outspoken, saying that opium “as merchandise blasts and withers every kind of dealing that is mixed up with it” (Broomhall, 240). When the Treaty of Nanking was concluded, Lay moved to Guangzhou (Canton) to serve as British consul. His task there was most difficult, since the Chinese were still deeply bitter about the British attack on the city. Fundamentally a naturalist, and still primarily a missionary, he was not personally equipped to carry out his orders to “heal old wounds,” especially against strong opposition from the British merchants in Guangzhou. After he left the city, mobs sacked the foreign Factory area, thus ending an era in Sino-Western relations.

Lay was transferred to Fuzhou (Foochow) and then Xiamen (Amoy) to establish consular procedures. At Xiamen, his consulate was a “mere farmhouse on a mud flat” (Broomhall). He died there in 1845.


  • A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates, 235-6, 240, 251, 262, 271-2, 300, 400.
  • Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, 216, 222.
  • R.G. Tiedemann, Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume Two: 1800-present, 147.

About the Author

Laura Mason

Research Assistant, Global China Center.