Early Life in Ireland
Sir Robert Hart was born 20th February 1835 at 42 Woodhouse Street, Portadown. His parents were Henry Hart (1806-1875) and Ann Edgar. He was the eldest of a family of twelve children. The Harts were a middle-class Ulster family with a background in distilling, shop-keeping and farming. The family moved from Portadown to Lisburn where they settled at Ravarnette House for a number of years.
Robert Hart was 10 years old when he left home for the first time. He travelled to England to the Wesleyan School at Taunton, Somerset. At the end of the school year Robert was sent home from Taunton unaccompanied. His father was furious and decided to send his son to Wesley Connexional School, Dublin, not quite so far away from home.
Hart was 15 years old (1850) when he came to the newly founded Queen’s College, Belfast. He distinguished himself by starting each academic year with a scholarship and finishing each year with a prize. Robert Hart graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s College, Belfast in 1853 when he was 18 years old. He was the only candidate awarded a graduate scholarship in Modern languages, value £40 for the academic year 1853-54.
In 1854 the British Foreign Secretary, Earl of Clarendon, put in place a scheme for the development of the consular service in China and Japan. The Foreign Office sent a circular to the Queen’s Colleges in Ireland (Galway, Belfast and Cork), requesting recommendations. Robert Hart was one of 36 men from Queen’s College, Belfast to put their names forward for consideration. College Council nominated Hart. On April 13th he was appointed to the post of Supernumeracy Interpreter in China. With £100 for his passage Robert Hart set sail for China. He was 19 years old.