The Queen's Eyes in Chicago

Mike Conklin
The Queen's Eyes in Chicago
Thu Jul 7, 2005 19:55

The Queen's Eyes in Chicago

British Consulate celebrates 150 years here.

`Let's just say things have grown in complexity.'

By Mike Conklin
Tribune staff reporter

July 4, 2005

Americans are celebrating Independence Day, but the British Consulate in Chicago also has something special to toast. This is the 150th year for the diplomatic mission here, and two days in 2005 in the life of Deputy Consul Jonathan Darby show just how far its reach has extended in that time.

On the first day, Darby was in Liberal, Kan., in the far southwest corner of the state, to hobnob with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other VIPs. Darby was Britain's official representative to the community's Pancake Day, an annual festival it celebrates jointly with Olney, England, about 45 miles outside of London.

Twenty-four hours later, Darby was in a penitentiary in the southeast corner of Nebraska, listening to complaints from a British subject serving a life sentence. Monitoring Brits in Midwestern U.S. prisons is also part of the Chicago consulate's responsibilities.

Pancakes in Kansas? Prisoners in Nebraska? Those certainly weren't part of the job description in 1855, when Queen Victoria appointed John E. Wilkins to represent the mighty British empire in the new, promising hub on the U.S. frontier known as Chicago.

A lawyer and Canadian mercantile agent, Wilkins' principal duty as the queen's lone delegate here was to coordinate food exports to a homeland fighting the Crimean War. Occasionally, he was called on to perform marriages, register births, locate missing persons, arrange trips for the indigent and deliver mail to British citizens.

The queen took an interest in the American diplomatic outpost. In 1872, she authorized sending thousands of books from London as a donation in the wake of the 1871 Great Fire.

When the books arrived, Chicago used them to establish one of the country's first free municipal libraries.

"To say that things have changed between then and now is a description that simply does not do the history justice," said Andrew Seaton, current British consul general to Chicago and a career diplomat with 30 years in foreign officeservice. "Let's just say things have grown in complexity."

Today, Seaton oversees a staff of 50 professionals working from a suite taking an entire floor in the Wrigley Building. They cover a 13-state, Midwest region that dwarfs Great Britain both geographically and economically. The consulate promotes trade and investment, arranges cultural and governmental exchanges, handles visas, and, as Darby's schedule reflects, represents British interests in an assortment of other ways.

The Chicago office is one of seven consulates in the U.S. and, as part of Great Britain's diplomatic mission to this country, answers to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. The embassy presents British political policy at the national level.

"We do not operate in a vacuum," Seaton said. "Responding to needs is an important part of what we do."

Busy times

Last year, the consulate here processed 18,500 visas, answered 8,200 telephone inquiries from British citizens, handled 1,200 cases requiring assistance and issued 109 emergency passports.

"There are something like 73 foreign consulates in Chicago, and, from my view, the British are at the top of the list both for volume of work and how they do it," said J.D. Bindenagel, a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations vice president and former U.S. ambassador to Germany. "I'm sure many think this world is nothing but formal balls and cutting ribbons, but I guarantee it's not."

The trade team here of 20 is one of the largest for any of the British consul general offices in the U.S.. They work both sides of the street -- finding markets here for British concerns and encouraging American companies to locate in the United Kingdom.

"Chicago and the Midwest are seen as very, very fertile ground for us," said Seaton, who came here in 2003. "A big reason is the great diversity we see here, in industries as well as people. Much of what we do is simple matchmaking."

The consulate's district is composed of 13 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"I think a lot of their work [in the consulate] goes unnoticed because, quite frankly, the British tend to blend into this country so well," said Christine Brenkus, executive director of the British-American Chamber of Commerce for the Midwest, a Chicago-based organization independent of the consul general's office. "People probably would be surprised to know there are 800 British-owned companies in Illinois alone."

The official relationship between Chicago and Great Britain extends beyond business and visas. British police officials were here recently in one of many exchanges to study our law-enforcement practices. The same initiatives take place in education, where our English as a Second Language programs are of interest.

Chicago has an active Sister City relationship with Birmingham, an industrial city in the west Midlands region of England, which has led to joint projects between the University of Birmingham and Loyola University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Among other educational pairings: The University of Chicago and the London School of Economics.

The consul general's office is frequently called upon to help coordinate VIP visits, such as Prime Minister Tony Blair's trip in 1999, when he addressed the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, or even last month's visit by the English national soccer team for a Soldier Field match.

The royal family causes ripples for the Chicago office, whether it's talking to callers -- both British and American -- irate over the latest tabloid report or lining up a golf match for Prince Andrew, which it did several years ago when he was here for a promotion.

This is nothing new: In 1941, then Chicago consul general Lewis Bernays was asked to entertain the Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- the duke formerly had been King Edward VIII before abdicating for his American-born duchess, Wallis Simpson -- during a three-hour layover here between trains.

The Windsors were headed for a Canadian ski trip and, while the duchess retired to a private room, Bernays and a driver took the duke up and down the lakefront in an enclosed automobile for a tour of the city. Meanwhile, others from the consulate transferred the Windsors' mountain of luggage, plus three Cairn terriers and six personal aides, to another train station.

Impact of Diana's death

No one who worked in the Chicago office will ever forget the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when American mourners left more than a ton of flowers in front of the Wrigley Building that were subsequently distributed to hospitals and senior centers.

"Everywhere we went, people would come up to you and say, `You must be so sad,'" recalled Gus Noble, who worked in the consulate then and now is executive director of the Illinois St. Andrew Society, a not-for-profit organization to preserve Scottish heritage. "It wasn't as if we knew her personally. We became professional mourners that time."

The feelings haven't always been so warm about the British. In 1927, former Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson, running on an "America First" ticket to regain his City Hall office, got the Chicago Public Schools superintendent bumped from his job for being "a stool pigeon of King George" by favoring pro-British books in the classrooms.

At the time, Thompson generated a campaign to capitalize on a wave of anti-British sentiment existing then in the U.S. and rode it into office. A Chicago court eventually overturned the school board's decision to fire the superintendent, however.

"Over the 150 years, our office has been sort of a litmus test for relations between our countries," Seaton said, "and, for sure, there have been wrinkles. For the most part, they've been very, very positive. I am happy to report that's the way they are now."

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Great moments in Chicago-U.K. history

1855: John E. Wilkins, a lawyer and agent for a Quebec mercantile firm, was appointed first consul general in Chicago.

1860: Here's how the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, was introduced to the City Hall press corps by Mayor John Wentworth at a Tremont Hotel reception: "Boys, this is the prince. Prince, these are the boys."

1861: Wilkins opened an office in St. Louis to establish the neutrality of British citizens in that area during the Civil War.

1869: London theatrical producer Lydia Thompson presented her "British Blonde" comedy revue in the Crosby Opera House, a show that introduced burlesque to Chicago with "half-clothed" women, according to outraged Chicago Times publisher Wilbur Storey.

1872: Books from the British, including Queen Victoria, sent after the Great Fire of 1871 prompted Chicago to found its public library, a first for this city and one of the earliest in the U.S. for a major metropolitan area.

1889: Inspired by a visit to London's Toynbee Hall settlement house the previous year, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago's West Side slums.

1892: Englishman Samuel Insull arrived in Chicago to establish a utilities empire for Thomas Edison that lasted into the 1920s and included Commonwealth Edison, People's Gas and the city's electric-powered transit system.

1901: After going bankrupt building a Chicago elevated transit line, Charles Yerkes went to England and built the first subsurface train line in London that evolved into its current underground train system.

1909: Gordon Selfridge, who started in retailing at Marshall Field's in Chicago, returned to London to start Selfridge's, which grew into a world-famous department store chain.

1920: Chicago business leader and Sears Roebuck chairman Julius Rosenwald purchased Encyclopedia Britannica, the legendary, Scottish-born publication, and moved the headquarters from London to Chicago.

1929: Winston Churchill, as ex-chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke to the Commercial Club of Chicago. This was the first of several public appearances Churchill made here.

1946: Mayor Edward Kelly, plus a blue-ribbon committee, was aboard the first post-World War II commercial airline flight to London to meet with United Nations officials about locating their headquarters here. (They were unsuccessful.)

1959: Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh made a 14-hour official stop here aboard the royal yacht Britannia to attend the Chicago International Trade Fair, which commemorated the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were hosted by Mayor Richard J. Daley and Conrad Hilton in a black-tie ball.

1966: John Lennon of the Beatles apologized in a Chicago news conference for his remark that "the Beatles are more popular than Jesus." The comment drew worldwide criticism.

1975: Englishman Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United soccer legend, was named coach of the Chicago Sting, the city's new professional team in the North American Soccer League. Almost a dozen English players signed to play for the team in the first season.

1976: Edward Heath, former British prime minister, guest-conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of a benefit concert.

1993: Lord Mayor Paul Tilsley, of Birmingham, England, signed a Sister City agreement with Mayor Richard M. Daley.

1996: A visit to Chicago by Princess Diana drew a whopping 504 requests for press credentials from Chicago and worldwide media outlets.

1999: Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the Economic Club of Chicago.

-- Mike Conklin

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune

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