Outside the mission an angry mob was baying for blood. Inside, the British charge d'affaires, Donald Hopson, and his staff were calmly sipping claret, playing bridge or watching a Peter Sellers film.
The extraordinary tale of the burning of the British Office in the Chinese capital is told in newly released official papers, including Hopson's memorandum to the Foreign Office detailing events. It was August 1967 and the Chinese government had summoned Hopson to present him with an ultimatum, demanding the release of several Chinese journalists jailed in Hong Kong and the unbanning of three Communist newspapers. He refused and, anticipating trouble, "took the opportunity to put the signed photograph of the Queen, as well as portraits of my wife and daughter, into the safety of the office strong room".
The next day a 10,000-strong crowd began gathering outside the office. Inside, the staff did their best to get along as normal, enjoying a meal of "tinned sausages and peas, claret and biscuits and cheese prepared by our ladies".
They then divided up, some choosing to watch the Peter Sellers film The Wrong Arm of the Law and the rest going off to play bridge. "At 10.30pm I had just bid 'three no trumps', when I heard a roar from the crowd outside," wrote Hopson, who was later knighted. "I ran to the window, which looked over the main gateway, and saw that the masses had risen to their feet, and were surging like an angry sea against the small cordon of soldiers who linked arms three deep before the gates."
The troops were quickly overwhelmed and, as the mob began to overrun the British Office, Hopson and his staff retreated to the protected inner sanctum in the hope of escaping the attack.
However, when the mob set the building alight, Hopson reluctantly gave the order to use the emergency exit.
He wrote: "The mob greeted us with howls of exultation and immediately set about us with everything they had.
"We were hauled by our hair, half-strangled with our ties, kicked, and beaten on the head with long bamboo poles. I do not know how long this lasted."
Hopson himself was eventually extracted by a Chinese man, whom he took to be a plain-clothes police agent, who hid him in the police box at the British Office gate.
"Shortly afterwards a medical orderly arrived who pointed out that I was bleeding copiously from a head wound, which I had not realised as, in the darkness, I mistook the blood for sweat," he said.
Later, as the bedraggled office staff assembled in various diplomatic flats around the city, it became clear that all had endured similar ordeals.
Hopson believed that the whole incident, including his rescue, was orchestrated by the Peking authorities.
There was, however, Hopson noted, one saving grace: "The signed photograph of the Queen, which I had earlier placed in the security zone of the office, survived, though slightly singed," he reported.Reuse content