Porter, Francis Knowles (1845–69), interpreter with the British legation in China, was born in Belfast, fifth son of the Rev. John Scott Porter (qv), minister of Rosemary St. presbyterian church, a prominent figure in unitarian and liberal circles. His mother Margaret was the daughter of Dr Andrew Marshall (1779-1868), a Belfast doctor; his eldest brother, Andrew Marshall Porter (qv), QC, became master of the rolls in Ireland in 1883. Francis Knowles Porter was educated at the Royal Academical Institution and QCB, and graduated with a BA degree in 1865. An application to the Foreign Office resulted in his selection as one of eleven candidates allowed to complete for three places as student interpreters attached to the British legation in Peking (Beijing). He was one of the successful candidates and with the other two left for China early in 1866.
The new students were under the supervision of Thomas Wade, Chinese secretary and chief secretary to the legation, and each of them was assigned a Chinese teacher. Porter was able to combine some sightseeing with his study, including an expedition to Mongolia. A year and a half later a three-day examination for three senior studentships was conducted by the assistant Chinese secretary, John McLeavy Brown, like Porter a Queen's graduate, in the presence of Robert Hart (qv), inspector-general of maritime customs in China, another Queen's graduate, and of Sir Rutherford Alcock, the ambassador. Porter came first. The success boosted his salary from £200 to £300 a year and secured him nearly another year in Peking (Bejing). Then he was posted to the consulate at Ningpo (Ningbo). Six months later, on 8 April 1869, he was drowned when he went for a night swim in the river while on an Easter boating holiday upstream with two companions.
Porter wrote home regularly. His letters reveal his inquiring mind and observant eye, but most of all his excitement at being part of an exotic world so recently opened to western eyes. His aim is to share his experiences, trivial or dramatic, with his much loved family. Porter's was a promising career cut short, but he has left in his letters a commentary on the China of his day from an unusual angle.