Colonial Ancestors Archives

Early days of Aviation in Hong Kong


Curtiss Oriole Airplane – 1919

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Digital Library

Claude and Reginald Earnshaw were born in Battersea at the turn of the 20th. century.  Their father was a broker at the Stock Exchange and by 1911 they were living in Swanley,Kent.

Reginald was interested in the new phenomenon of aviation and in 1918 he applied to  join the Royal Air Force.  Unfortunately, during the training period it was found that at a certain height blood rushed to his head and for this reason he was judged as being “unsuitable”.  Reginald returned to the Training Reserve Battalion.

After the war the brothers wanted to broaden their horizons and they joined the Hong Kong Police.  Recruiting had ceased during the war but a large intake of 34 men arrived during 1919 and a further 21 in1920.  However, after a couple of years the brothers decided that there were better opportunities to be had outside of the Force.  Reginald became the Manager of the Kai Tack Motor Bus Company and Claude became the Manager of the Palace Hotel.

Even though Reginald had left the Police Force his training stayed with him.  In 1924 he was instrumental in the arrest of a gang of armed bandits in theNewTerritories. His diligence won him a commendation from the Government plus a small reward.

Reginald was still interested in aviation and when the young American aviator, H.W. Abbott, arrived in the Colony he saw it as a perfect opportunity.  The Abbott School of Aviation was formed and Reginald found himself working as mechanic on the Curtiss J N 4 planes.  In order to drum up business Abbott organised an air display which was to be held at Chinese New Year 1925.  Reginald must have been in his element spending all his spare time with the aircraft but it still was not enough.  On a short holiday to Manila he actually made a parachute jump.  The only trouble was that when he returned to Hong Kong none of his friends actually believed him.

The day before the display Reginald told his brother that he was to be part of the event and that at 4pm he would be jumping with a parachute from the small Curtiss plane from a height of 2,500 ft.  He was intending to land on reclamation land inKowloon.  He assured his brother that it was all perfectly safe.  Claude pointed out that the flight would be over the harbour and that there was a danger of landing in water instead of on land.  Reginald said that he would organise a boat to be standing by – just in case that should happen.  Claude advised that perhaps it might be safer not to wear his heavy riding boots as these could cause problems if he should land in the harbour.  Reginald declined this advice saying that if he came down on land he could hit rocks and then he would definitely need his boots.  It seemed that he had an answer for everything – as adventurous/foolhardy youngsters always seem to do !!

The display started at 2pm with the christening of “Felix” the new Curtiss plane built by Abbott.  After the ceremony Mr. W. George Bunter gave a speech outlining the objects of the new school – which, incidentally, happened to be the very early beginnings of Kai Tak Airport.  After this Abbott flew his new plane with a string of fire crackers attached to the tail.  Henry Young who was described as being a famous Chinese aviator followed with a series of daring stunts including looping the loop, nose diving and tail spinning.  The spectators loved it.

4pm came round all too quickly and poor Reginald wondered what he had let himself in for.  Why had he been so rash as to say that he would do this?  Oh well, he had said that he would jump – so jump he must.  He climbed into the passenger seat in front of Abbott with his parachute rolled and ready.  The plane took off and circled three times ascending all the time.  The correct height was reached and Reginald summoned all his courage and climbed out onto the wing of the plane.  He hesitated for about a minute and then jumped.  The parachute opened and he began the descent.    As he looked down he could see that he was coming down over the harbour instead of the land so he pulled on the guy ropes.  But it was all to no avail and he landed in the harbour.  With his heavy boots and thick clothing there was no way that he could stay afloat.  By the time the little motor boat arrived on the scene there was no sign of Reginald.

Abbott and Henry Young went up again and circled and circled in the hope of spotting the young man but there was no sign of him.  The Water Police searched for his body for days.  He was found some 10 days later just a few yards from where he had descended.  It appeared that cords had become entangled around his right leg and the weight of the parachute had dragged him under the water.

On 7th. February Reginald’s coffin draped with the Union Jack and borne on a gun carriage drawn by a detachment from the Water Police made its way to the Colonial Cemetery.  The body was accorded military honours and a firing party from the East Surrey Regiment was present.  At the graveside three volleys were fired and a bugler sounded the Last Post.  His former colleagues from the Hong Kong Police paid their last token of respect by filling in the grave themselves.

His brother, Claude, was the chief mourner and to him fell the sad duty of informing his parents and sister back home.

Claude was a keen cyclist, oarsman and cricketer.   He was also a billiards player and arranged tournaments at the Palace Hotel.  He was described as being courteous and a person who always tried to serve others. 

Just 6 years after the tragic death of his brother, Claude also passed away and was buried quietly in the Colonial Cemetery.

Reginald was buried in Section 16E whilst Claude was buried in Section16C.  In 1975 large sections of the cemetery were under threat due to the Aberdeen Tunnel Project.  Neither of these sections were in danger as they were high on the hill in the centre of the cemetery.  However, room was needed everywhere in order to relocate graves with headstones that were having to be moved.  Neither Reginald nor Claude had headstones and their graves were, therefore, exhumed and the remains later placed in the Ossuary. 

Two simple plaques now record the names of the brothers.  Fortunately they can both be found in the same block of the Ossuary. 

 Together in life – together in death.

Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery, Happy Valley

My talk at The National Archives on the Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley with tips on tracing Colonial Ancestors is now available as a podcast.  It includes the stories of 5 very ordinary people from the UK who were buried in the Colonial Cemetery in the 1870s, 1890s and 1930s.


Stories from old Hong Kong and China

I have just added links (in the column on the right hand side of the page) to some of my blogs which I update regularly with snippets from  Hong Kong and China.  Here you will find stories behind some of the burials in the Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley.  Stories of missionaries, merchants and mariners in old China.  Stories from the annals of the Hong Kong Police.

I have also added a link to a blog where I tell stories about Metropolian Police Ancestors from the Archives of New Scotland Yard.  I hope you find something of interest in my ramblings.

Peeps into China

Today I bring you a short description of Hong Kong as it was in the 1880s.  This is from a personal copy of “Peeps into China” by E.C. Phillips

 The first view of Hong Kong was a chain of mountains rising in the background to lofty peaks and diminishing as they approached the sea into small hills and steep rocks.  The town of Victoria was built along the sea-coast and there were large European club-houses and the Cathedral.  One of the principal ornaments in town was the clock tower which made even high trees look quite small.  The most ancient houses of the colony could be found in a street that led to the clock tower and close by was the hotel where tiffin could be taken.

 Here is an extract from a letter written at the time:

“Steamers were always either coming or going; and here too telegrams were constantly arriving.  Besides English merchants, Chinese, American French, German, Hindoo merchants and others also traded with the little island and shared what wealth she had.  Hong Kong is very English looking compared with other places in China and the people are not only governed by English laws but their crimes are tried by English judges.  It is only because Hong Kong belongs to the English that telegraph wires are to be found here as the Chinese will not have them anywhere else because they think that they would offend the ghosts or spirits of the places through which they would pass.  For the same reason also the Chinese have hardly any railroads.”

I wonder what they would think of Hong Kong in the 21st century.  The traders and merchants of all nationalities are still there.  The Cathedral is still there.  But that clock tower which seemed so tall in the 1800s would now be dwarfed by science fiction like skyscrapers !!

If your family history has revealed links to Hong Kong and to Colonial Ancestors then remember that I am here to help.

Technorati Tags: