Hong Kong Police Archives

Hong Kong Police History


Vignettes from Hong Kong Police history

“From British Bobby to Hong Kong Copper”

Talk at The National Archives at 2pm on 18 September



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.

Graves of the family MAY

It was a cold, wet, blustery day when I visited the once vibrant Victorian town where I hoped to find a stone to the memory of Charles MAY and his widow, Harriet.  Charles was a former Metropolitan Police Inspector who left England in 1844 to establish the Hong Kong Police.  He ended his career as Chief Magistrate and Colonial Treasurer.  Charles had been buried at sea off Singapore but is remembered on his father’s tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery. 

But what of Charles’ family – his widow and his children?  Where could they be found.  Most of the family had lived and died in East Molesey, Surrey but my search at the local cemetery had drawn a blank.   The next logical choice of burial place was Brookwood but requesting searches of those records is a costly affair.  Not having such funds available I had to put my quest to one side and concentrate on other aspects of the MAY family tree. 

I turned to his youngest son to see what he had made of his life.  My search in this respect was short for I found that he had died when he was just a teenager.  Strangely, both he and his maternal grandmother had died a long way from London so it looked as if the whole family had moved to the countryside for a few years.  Then another clue came to light indicating that Mrs. MAY might also be buried in the same place as her youngest son and her mother.  And this was how I came to step off the train on that cold, wet, blustery day.

The town itself was a sorry sight with the once elegant buildings in a dilapidated state.  Shop after shop was boarded up and there was the feeling of decay all around.  The cemetery was on the outskirts of town and I did not feel happy until I reached the large gates and entered into another world of peace and solitude.   It was a large cemetery and it was obvious from the outset that many of the older graves were in areas that were somewhat overgrown and now set aside as “wildlife sanctuaries”.  As always I knew my chances of finding a stone were slim but as ever I let my feet take me where they felt was right.  I wandered and wandered and got wetter and wetter !!

Knowing a little of Mrs. MAY’s character I felt she would have wanted a rather grand headstone so I looked for monuments which could only be described as “over the top”!  After an hour I found myself on one of the side paths when I spotted a huge cross towering over a section.  It looked quite out of place so I trudged through the damp grass to get a look at the name – no it was not the one I was after.  I was getting a little despondent by this time and dropped my head to look at my soaking feet.  As my eyes lowered I caught sight of a tiny cross to my side – it bore the surname of MAY.  My heart nearly jumped out of my chest.  I bent down to examine the whole inscription and to my utter disbelief found that I had chanced upon the grave of Charles’ three grandsons.  I was not even looking for them and had no idea that they too were buried here.  Once again I can only say that the family MAY directed my feet.  They sure want to be found !

With utter excitement I took picture upon picture.  Now where were Mrs. May, her youngest son and her mother?  Surely they must be somewhere near.  They were, but they did take some searching.

The youngest son was the first to be buried in this cemetery and his grave could be found a few yards away.  His maternal grandmother shares the grave with him.  The top of the headstone has now collapsed and lies on top of the grave but the main part still stands proud showing that this was the son of Charles MAY, Chief Magistrate of Hong Kong.

The grave of Mrs. MAY can be found a few rows in front of her grandchildren.  To my surprise hers was not the main name on the stone.  Her daughter in law had died in the 1920s and her eldest son had arranged for her to be interred in the same grave as his mother.  When he died a few years later he was also buried in the same grave.  Three for the price of one !  Well actually four for the price of one because The Honourable Charles MAY is also mentioned on this monument.  Rather annoyingly I was not able to make out all the inscriptions because the graves on either side were rather overgrown.  Will I be going back in a few weeks time on a much drier, much brighter day – with a pair of secateurs – you bet I will.

For more photos please visit my flickr album on the family MAY:   http://www.flickr.com/photos/twigletsadventures/sets/72157626907662334/

If you would like to read about Edmund, a younger brother of Charles, please follow:  http://metropolitanpoliceresearch.blogspot.com/

Charles MAY – Metropolitan Police Officer

Those who have been reading my blogs on this site will know that in 1844 three Metropolitan Police officers left London aboard the SS Oriental bound for the new British Colony of Hong Kong where they were expected to establish a brand new police force.  One of these was Charles MAY who became a prominent personality in the early history of Hong Kong.  He is mentioned in most Hong Kong history books and so much has been written about him over the years that I always felt that there could be nothing more to be found.  What a silly thought. For “anoraks” such as myself there is ALWAYS something else waiting to be discovered !!!  Having had a quick look through my own “archive” the following little known facts about Charles’ service with the Met. seem worthy of note:

Joined as Police Constable                                               7 November 1835

Promoted to Sergeant                                                     20 November 1837

Whilst serving on T division his collar number was                 T21

Promoted to Inspector & transferred to K Div                7 June 1839

On the night of the 1841 census Inspector MAY & his trusty Sergeant, Thomas SMITHERS, were on duty at the Police Station in Newby Place, Poplar.  They had three prisoners in their cells.

Charles’ younger brother joined the Metropolitan Police in 1842.

In 1843 Inspector MAY of  “K” Division was allowed the following gratuities:

27 April                        6/-

25 July                         £2 2 sh 0d

21 August                     6/-

On 29 June 1844 Charles received orders to proceed to Paris with a sergeant to apprehend a murderer. They arrived in Paris on 1 July and met the British Ambassador.  Then ensued a three week delay whilst bureaucratic wrangling took place between British and French officials.  On 25 July with necessary paperwork in hand the Metropolitan Police officers arrived in the Prefect of Beauvais  – some 56 miles from Paris.  The following day they travelled a further 26 miles to Claremont where the prisoner had been incarcerated.  Eventually with prisoner in their custody they travelled by Post Chaise to Boulogne accompanied by a member of the local Gendarmerie.  Arriving at 7.30pm on the 27 July they found that they were too late for the Steam Boat and were forced to find accommodation.  They caught the boat at 8am the next morning and arrived at London Bridge at 10pm.  Then it was off to Poplar Police Station to confine the prisoner for the night.  The next morning the party were on the river again travelling to Gravesend.  Eventually the prisoner was handed over to the Kent authorities and taken off to Maidstone Gaol.  The bill for this deportation exercise came to a whopping £49 5sh 0d and took a whole month of Inspector May’s time.  Never let it be said that serving with the Metropolitan Police in the 1840s was boring.

It was whilst Charles was in Paris that Sir Richard Mayne submitted the names of MAY, SMITHERS and McGREGOR as being the most suitable officers for the job of establishing the police in the new Colony of Hong Kong.

If you are interested in reading a few more little known facts about Charles MAY keep watching these postings as there are many more that I have discovered over the years !!

Hong Kong Police Research

When Captain William Caine of HM 26th. Regiment of Infantry was appointed Hong Kong’s Chief Magistrate in 1841 the colony was a dangerous and lawless place.  Caine’s police officers were soldiers who were considered unfit for regular army duties.  The pay was low, conditions unhealthy and turnover rapid.  Caine recruited about 90 Europeans of whom only 47 were still in the force in 1845.  The Governor made several requests for experienced police officers to be sent out from Britain but officials in Whitehall decided it would be too expensive to recruit the whole force from England.  It was agreed that a Superintendent and two Inspectors would be sufficient and the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police were consulted and chose three of their officers:  Inspector Charles May and Sergeants Thomas Smithers and Hugh McGregor. The three officers resigned from the Met. on 7th. October 1844 and set sail on the SS Oriental.  They arrived in Hong Kong on 15th. March 1845 and were duly advanced to the ranks of Superintendent and Inspector.

The climate in Hong Kong is hot and humid during the summer months and loose cotton clothing proves the most comfortable to wear.  However, this was the era of the British Empire and loose cotton clothing was not for the British.   Thomas as an inspector had to wear a thick blue dress coat the same as in England !!!  The story of Thomas’ time in Hong Kong – as an East End lad turned Pioneer –  is a story in itself but unfortunately far too long for this Blog.

This then was the start of the Hong Kong Constabulary.  Through the years it maintained strong links with the Metropolitan Police and forged even better links with other British constabularies.  After the riots in the 1960s the Hong Kong Police Force was honoured with the title of The Royal Hong Kong Police.  After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 the title reverted to Hong Kong Police.

Many of the historical records of the Hong Kong Police were destroyed during the Japanese occupation.  This is regrettable but not disastrous for much information can still be found here in the UK.  If you would like to know what these sources are then why not reserve a place at the “My Ancestor Was a Policeman” Workshop to be held at the Society of Genealogists on Wednesday 3rd. November 2010.  Alternatively, if you would like your Hong Kong Police Research undertaken for you, then please use the “Contact Us” tab at the top of this page.

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