From Suffolk to Beijing: our woman in China

Dame Barbara Woodward, Britain's ambassador to China and the first woman to hold the port. Picture:

Dame Barbara Woodward, Britain's ambassador to China and the first woman to hold the port. Picture: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/ Teri Pengilley - Credit: Archant

While Felixstowe port is the terminal for most Anglo-Chinese cargo traffic, the UK's Suffolk born-and-bred ambassador to China works to strengthen ties with the Far Eastern superpower. Don Black tells her story.

The huge container ship CSCL Arctic Ocean is pictured arriving at Felixstowe. The China Shipping Lin

The huge container ship CSCL Arctic Ocean is pictured arriving at Felixstowe. The China Shipping Line vessel is registered in Hong Kong. - Credit:

When the Prime Minister ended a major visit to China this month a newspaper there described her kindly as 'Aunt Theresa,' a tiny sign that all had gone well.

Credit for this success, which contrasts with challenges Mrs May faces in Whitehall, goes at least partly to the efforts of Suffolk woman Dame Barbara Woodward, British Ambassador to the People's Republic of China, and her team.

Dame Barbara speaks fluent Mandarin, the Chinese predominant language, an ability that is much appreciated in a country that in the past felt neglected by English speakers.

She represents the Queen and UK government and is responsible for direction and work of the embassy and its consulates, including politics, trade and investment, cultural relations and visa and visa services.

Her top priority is commerce that is worth £60 billion to our economy, but also important are social and cultural links between the two nations.

'Chinese tourists on average spend four times more than the average tourist in Britain, she points out. 'However you cut the cake, tourism is somewhere between our third- and seventh-largest industry.'

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Dame Barbara has a good knowledge of the Stowmarket district from her childhood days and of Southwold from her time at St Felix School before going on to St Andrew's University in Scotland and Yale in the US, where she studied international relations.

She comments: 'Diplomatic relationships with the States and China are built on different histories, cultures, understanding and legacies and they come through in different ways. Both are incredibly important.'

Her present appointment began in 2015 and she was made a Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George in 2016 for services to UK/China relations.

She joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1990 and for three years was deputy head of its human rights department. She served in Beijing as political counsellor and deputy head of mission from 2003 to 2009.

Dame Barbara suggests that young Britons should consider learning Mandarin, partly because websites such as Chineasy translates the complex characters in a fun way. 'It's getting easier to learn because the Chinese have become better at de-constructing and teaching their language. It's definitely worth starting young.'

She was born at Gipping, near Stowmarket, on May 29, 1961, into a family rooted deeply in Suffolk farming.

They established a company of auctioneers, valuers and estate agents, Woodward & Woodward, that traded from 1900 until 1972.

Arthur Woodward, Barbara's father, joined the firm in 1938 and was serving in the Territorial Army when war broke out in 1939.

He led an advance landing party of the Suffolk Regiment on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944, and was awarded the Military Cross 'for outstanding leadership and courage.' His uncle, Lieutenant William Woodard, was killed in battle in 1917.

Dame Barbara is by no means the first woman in her family to achieve much in a man's world. Her aunt Mary studied in London at the College of Estate Management in the 1930s as the only girl among 800 men.

Pressure built up rapidly after the outbreak of war in 1939. Male staff joined the forces and Mary helped her father Gordon with the heartbreaking task of requisitioning properties for the army and air force.

The most difficult of these were farmhouses and land needed for construction of Wattisham, Rattlesden, Great Ashfield and Mendlesham airfields.

Mary remembered having to cope with distraught people as they were forced to leave their homes. Some thought that it would be for only a short time; others realised that it would be for ever.

Thomas Woodward, who died in 1890, farmed 398 acres at White Hall, Old Newton, founded a dynasty. He and his wife Kate had 15 children, with three by a previous marriage.

His eldest son George realised that East Anglia had (and probably still has) more pigs than people and that a special market for them would do well. It became one of the biggest pig markets in England, attracting as many as 2,000 pigs into Stowmarket every Thursday.

As for Suffolk's China connections, Felixstowe port has been part of Hutchison International, of Hong Kong, since 1991, but it was previously partly owned by Chinese interests through Orient Overseas Container Line operating the former Walton terminal as a separate enterprise.

C Y Tung founded OOCL in 1947. His son C H Tung, who knew Felixstowe like the back of his hand, became Hong Kong's chief executive when the former British colony was handed back to the People's Republic of China.

The name of John Hutchison, Scottish founder of the Hutchison group in the mid 19th century, is respected in China. He established a medical dispensary for poor people in Canton (Gwuangzhou) before his shipbuilding and transport companies grew big.

My thanks to local historians Steve and Sue Williams for their help.