Hong Kong Cemetery 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.



Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery Talk at TNA

I will be giving a free talk at The National Archives, Kew, on Thursday 8th. September at 2pm.  The talk will take the form of a virtual walk through part of the cemetery stopping at the graves of a few very ordinary people and exploring the stories behind the stones.  All are welcome.

Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley

I have recently returned from another wonderful trip to Hong Kong when, needless to say, a considerable amount of my time was spent within the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley.  On this trip I managed to photograph most of the gravestones so now I have some 7000 images to incorporate into my collection !  Naturally many of the headstones have weathered over the years and the inscriptions are rarely crisp and clean but even a faded name can glow like a beacon and light up the world if it is your grandfather or perhaps your great grandmother.  I also spent time searching out other sources which would help in establishing details of persons who were buried in the Hong Kong Cemetery but who have no headstones at all.  Approximately 50% of the persons buried had stones erected in their memory but the other 50% lay almost forgotten.  Fortunately, over the years, I have indexed and cross referenced material from a wide variety of sources and I now have details for 95 – 99% of the burials which took place within the former Colonial Cemetery Hong Kong.  There are gaps in official sources and it is not known whether the “lost” Hong Kong Burial Registers will ever come to light.  I will certainly keep searching – just in case they did not get destroyed during the Japanese Occupation.  In my own mind I feel certain that they are lying undiscovered in some forgotten store cupboard in Hong Kong.  Perhaps one day they will see the light of day again !! 

If you think one of your ancestors might have died and been buried in Hong Kong please contact me.  Even if he or she does not appear on other lists that you may have consulted there is still a VERY good chance of finding their lasting resting place. Perhaps they are amongst the 50% who do not have headstones in their memory.

The Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley, Hong Kong was opened in January 1845 following the closure of the Old Protestant Burial Ground at St. Francis’ Yard, Wanchai.

Hong Kong burial registers do not appear to have been kept until 1853 when the St. Johns register was started.  The first entry on 2nd. January 1853 is numbered 800 with the second entry being 807 on 13th. January.  Thenceforth, all burials were recorded whether or not they were performed by the Chaplain of St. Johns.  On 29th. October 1855 Frederick Makee was buried and the service conducted by a Russian officer who was a prisoner of war.  A year later a seaman was charged and fined forty shillings for conducting an unauthorised burial service.  On 18th. January 1857 a Malayan seaman from the Brig “Tempo” was buried without the knowledge of either clergyman or sexton.

The St. John’s burial register continued to be the only record of burials until the 1880s, following which the task of recording was taken over by the Sanitary Board.

Over the years the monuments in the Old Protestant Burial Ground in Wanchai were vandalised or used in surrounding buildings.  In 1889 a decision was taken to remove all the remaining monuments and place them together within the Colonial Cemetery.  Some 48 monuments were saved.

The Great Storm of July 1889 wreaked havoc on the Colony and the Surveyor General reported: 

On the morning of 29th. I was at the Peak, and such was the violence of the storm that (with some others who were staying at the Hotel) I had to wait a considerable time before the chair coolies would venture on the descent, owing to the force of the wind and rain.  However, we started about 9am.  I shall not readily forget the journey down.  I followed the road as, all things considered, it appeared to me a preferable route to the tramway.  Along the upper levels the gusts of wind threatened to carry us off the mountain path.  During the descent the water rushed in sheets down the steep mountain slopes, the nullahs were full, and the side drains and culverts of the road overflowing.  I arrived at the Government offices about 10 o’clock. ………….. Then began the most appalling thunderstorm within my own experience, or that, I venture to believe, of the majority of the residents in the Colony.  For hours flash succeeded flash in rapid succession, and the roll of the thunder was almost uninterrupted, while the rain descended n masses.  Several buildings were struck by lightning and six coolies were killed in a matshed at the Peak.   ……………..  The storm raged with greatest intensity between the hours of 1 and 5 am of the 30th

He continued:

Although more or less damage occurred in almost every street and road in the Colony the chief scenes of disaster were …………………….. 3) the heavy landslips which having their origin in the steep slopes above the Tytam Aqueduct, swept down the mountain side, carrying away the masonry of the Aqueduct itself in three places.  In the case of the heaviest of these slips, the torrent carried the debris straight through the Public Cemetery and landed the greater part on the race course in Happy Valley below. ……………………..  Mr. Cooper estimates that during the storm at least 30,000 cubic yards of earth were carried by these landslips across the line of the aqueduct.  This included besides earth, a large proportion of huge granite boulders, dislodged from the mountain sides, some of them many tons in weight.  After crossing the aqueduct the course of the principal landslips followed the ravines which traverse the Public Cemetery in the Happy Valley.  The bridges and part of the boundary wall were destroyed, the bed of the nullah was choked and about 5,000 cubic yards of sand were carried through the Cemetery and deposited on the Race Course below, but fortunately not a single grave was in any way injured or disturbed.

In 1894 another violent typhoon hit the Colony but this time 20 monuments were damaged.  In 1908 the Cemetery Chapel, Sexton’s quarters and Green House were damaged and in 1927 many gravestones had to be repaired after a vast amount of debris and silt cascaded down the mountainside.   The cemetery survived – it might be said – “through hell and high water”. 

The cemetery was fast filling up and by the 1960s little room was left.  In 1961 over a hundred graves were exhumed, followed in 1970 by a further 460.  But it was the mid 1970s that proved to be the most disquieting time for those laid to rest in the Hong Kong Cemetery.  The construction of the Aberdeen Tunnel and associated approach roads meant that large chunks of the cemetery were to be lost.  920 civilian graves with monuments were moved to other locations in the cemetery, along with 262 graves relating to military personnel.  A staggering 2,285 graves which had no monuments were to be exhumed and the remains placed in an ossuary which was to be built within the cemetery.

Fortunately my database of burials for the Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley includes details of most of these exhumations and repositionings – so “the dear departed” can still be found.  If you would like me to check my Index of Hong Kong Burials & Inscriptions then please use the “Contact Us” tab at the top of this page. 

Technorati Tags:

Hong Kong Cemetery

Colonial Cemetery, Happy Valley

A tranquil spot in Happy Valley, Hong Kong is the resting place for many who travelled to the Far East from Europe in the 19th. Century.   The former British Colony was a thriving trading centre and home to merchants, military and members of the colonial service.  Members of the Royal Navy and merchant seamen all spent time on what was once termed ‘this barren rock’. 

In the early years the fledgling colony was stricken with outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and bubonic plague and these took their toll on the community.  The Old Protestant Burial Ground in Wanchai was soon full and ground for a new cemetery had to be found.  In the 1840s Happy Valley was on the outskirts of the growing city and was seen as an ideal spot.

From 1985 to 1995 I spent my weekends in the Hong Kong Cemetery transcribing and indexing those of the inscriptions that were still legible.  Some 12,000 people had been buried since the cemetery had opened and I did not like to think of them lying forgotten so far away from their homelands.  It was a tremendous undertaking that I had set myself but I ploughed on regardless.  In the height of the summer when snakes came out to bask in the sunshine beside the graves, or when typhoons raged and the resulting deluge threatened to wash away the graves, then I found other sources of information to supplement my index:  church records, obituaries, government gazettes.  Each source added additional information to the sometimes sparse and maybe illegible inscriptions. 

I left Hong Kong in the summer of 1995 having completed the last inscription in the last section just one week before. 

Genealogists searching for details of that elusive ancestor could well find that they are laid to rest in this far flung outpost.  Perhaps I have them in my database !!  Please use the “Contact Us” tab at the top of the page if you would like to contact me.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,