From British bobby to Hong Kong copper

This year marks the 170th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Police. This talk traces the history of the organisation through the stories of a few very ordinary British constables from the 1840s up to the First World War. Some sacrificed their careers by standing up for the rights of their colleagues, while others spent a lifetime fostering good relations with the local community. These were the men who helped mould the Force into the highly respected organisation which it became during the 20th century.

Christine Thomas has had a 40 year career with the police in Hong Kong and London, working in the fields of Research and Archival Records Management. She is a member of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) and runs her own research service specialising in British expatriates who spent time in Hong Kong.



It’s nice for me to be given the chance to talk a group of pioneering policemen whom I really admire. I’m going to be talking about a few British policemen who spent time in Hong Kong in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Researching Hong Kong policemen, or really anyone who spent time in Hong Kong is never going to an easy task because so many in the records in the colony were destroyed during the Japanese Occupation, and what we’re left with is snippets of information which can be found amongst colonial office correspondence here at The National Archives at Kew, together with other bits and pieces from loads of diverse sources.

So let’s take ourselves off to the Far East. These days we could fly there in 12 or 13 hours. But back in the nineteenth century the journey had to be undertaken by sea. In the 1840s there was no Suez Canal, so the journey took anything from four to six months round the Cape. The railway came to Egypt in the 1850s and then passengers from the Far East would go as far as Suez, and then take the railway up to Alexandria and then catch another boat to the UK. So that reduced the journey-time somewhat, and then the Suez Canal came along the journey [time] was shortened to just six or seven weeks.

Our destination is nothing more than a pinprick on the coast of South China and, if we take a closer look [shows image], here we see the island of Hong Kong, here’s the Kowloon peninsula (ceded in 1860) and here are the New Territories (ceded in 1898 for that famous term of 99 years).

You’ve probably all heard the famous quote of Hong Kong being ‘a barren rock’. In fact the full statement included the fact that there was one tree on the island and that was in a place called Happy Valley. These days we know Happy Valley for its very famous racecourse, but it also has another claim to fame. It’s the location of the colony’s very early European cemetery, and over the years this has become the resting place for over 12,000 souls, many of them policemen.

But, what of the town itself? Well, that developed west of Happy Valley, right on the harbour’s edge. The first buildings were the barracks, and then the trading houses were established. And then, of course, the taverns began to spring up and soon every second building along the main Queen’s Road housed a tavern, from which drunken sailors staggered and collapsed into the gutters.

The sailors’ needs were very simple. All they wanted was grog and women. Apparently, they took their grog laced with gunpowder and arsenic, which apparently gave it quite a kick. And they got their women in the brothels in the Chinese quarter of town.

Hong Kong was fast becoming a lawless place when the dreaded Major Caine was appointed the first Chief Magistrate. Dreaded because of his love of corporal punishment. He recruited the first policemen from the ranks of the military. Most of the soldiers had 18 or 20 years of service under their belts and many of them had married local girls when the regiment had been stationed in Madras. I think, without exception, all of them were suffering from diseased livers.

In 1844 an Ordinance was passed which created the Hong Kong Police Force proper and so the Governor sent to London for experienced men. John May, one of the first Superintendents of the London’s Metropolitan Police, was in charge of A Division. No doubt, on hearing of the formation of a police force in one of the colonies, he thought this a very good opportunity for one of his sons to make a name for himself.

Charles was the eldest son, and he was serving as an Inspector on K Division in the East End of London. He was the perfect candidate. But one man wasn’t enough to establish a new police force, so two sergeants, also from K Division were recommended. These were Thomas Smithers and Huw MacGregor. All of them were going to be advanced one rank, so Charles would be the Superintendent, with Thomas and Huw becoming Inspectors.

Charles was no stranger to high-profile tasks and, in the midst of making all the arrangements for this overseas voyage, he suddenly found that he was directed to travel to France to arrest a murderer. This was no other than the famous artist, Richard Dadd, who had murdered his father in Kent the year before Charles journeyed to Paris on what should have been a very straight-forward and very quick mission. But, as is so often the case, bureaucracy reared its ugly head and he and his sergeant found that they were there for a whole month trying to get the paperwork sorted out. But ever the diplomat, Charles kept his cool and, eventually after a month, he and his sergeant took custody of Prisoner Dade and back they came to London. One of the first things that Charles did on his return was to submit his expense claim to the Receiver. It was a whopping £49/5, which was an enormous amount in those days.

Thomas Smithers had joined the Met on the formation of K Division in 1830, and at that time he was twenty nine years of age, married with a little baby son. He was on the lookout for a job that would provide a decent wage for his family. He proved a very efficient police officer and he gained promotion to sergeant after five years. Many years later, Charles May was to say of Thomas that he’d never found any man more conscientious in the discharge of his duties. By the time of his Hong Kong recruitment Thomas had four children, with the youngest being just a year old.

Sergeant Huw Macgregor was a relative newcomer to the Met; he’d joined in May 1838. He had spent ten years in India with the 26th Regiment, so he was no stranger to travel and to the ways of the East.

A priority task for Charles was, prior to leaving for overseas, was to find himself a wife. This he did, and he married just one week before sailing. Thomas, as we know, was already married with several children and it was the same with Huw. However, Whitehall wasn’t prepared to go to the extra expense of paying for the passages of wives and children. Charles was OK, he received quite a decent salary and he could afford to pay for his wife’s passage himself, but Thomas and Huw left their families behind in London

They set sail from London in October 1844 and arrived in Hong Kong the following February, five months later. Charles had planned very well and they arrived with 50 truncheons, 50 rattles, 50 lanterns, 20 pairs of handcuffs, a sword and belt for the superior officer plus a pair of pistols, police cutlass and a cape (again, no doubt for the superior officer). They also came supplied with material for the uniforms for the European contingent of the force

Charles wrote his first report on the state of the police just a few weeks after they arrived. In this he recommended having a central station from all which all duties could be coordinated. The building recommended as being that first central police station was actually that being used as Number Three police station in Wan Chai, although for over a hundred years, since 1904/1914 it was in use as a post office.

Most of the time police work was very humdrum but one evening in 1847 brought a little excitement. Daniel Cordwell, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, received information that a pirate boat was being provisioned in the harbour. The informant was none too certain which boat it was but he pointed out a couple of possibilities. So two boarding parties were formed, with Cordwell in charge of one and Thomas in charge of the other, and they struck together.

As Thomas got onto his boat, the master and crew panicked and took flight straight into the harbour. Thomas found the boat contained muskets, powder, stink-pots, not the usual sort of cargo for a law-abiding vessel. Thomas had struck gold, but his Assistant Superintendent came up empty-handed. Perhaps the choice of boats was intentional because, perhaps, Cordwell didn’t want to become involved in any possible fight. It has to be said that Cordwell was a rather dubious character, and it wasn’t long before he was asked to resign from the police force after being arrested for debt.

After a couple of years Thomas managed to save up enough money to bring his wife, one of his sons and his little daughter to Hong Kong. Thomas’s half-brother, John Smithers, also turns up in Hong Kong around this time, and I think it is more than likely that it is he was responsible for accompanying Mary and the children on that very long sea voyage.

One day in August 1848 Thomas’s duties were to take two constables to the other side of the island, to an out-lying station there. The journey was going to be made on the police boat, and after dropping off the constables he was to patrol around the island on the lookout for pirate vessels. As the weather was good, the colonial surgeon recommended taking along seven European police constables who were in the hospital, because he thought that the sea air would do them the power of good. Thomas was also looking forward to being at sea because during the summer months he suffered from really severe bouts of fever.

So they set off, and the day dawned calm, and very beautiful. But, without their knowledge, approaching across the South China Sea was a typhoon. And it hit during the afternoon. The police boat made for a neighbouring island to take shelter in one of the bays and ride out the storm. Many Chinese junks were also sheltered there. At midnight one of these, buffeted by the wind, was thrown against the police boat breaking it into pieces and throwing the police and crew into the raging seas. Thomas, along with his son, 13 crew members and seven European constables were all drowned.

Thomas was just weeks away from his pension and his wife and young daughter were left penniless. They had no means of getting back to England, but local tradesmen made a collection and this brought in enough money to pay for their passages back to London. Both Charles May and the Governor recommended that a decent pension be paid to Mary but officials in Whitehall thought otherwise. They granted a paltry £20 per annum, providing Mary didn’t marry. Mary and Harriet were reduced to living in virtual poverty. Mary died just a couple of years later, Harriet was left an orphan and it wasn’t long before she too followed Mary to the grave.

In the history books, any history books which mention the Hong Kong police, you’ll normally find about a one-line entry on Thomas. Today I’ve given you a little bit more information (not a lot because obviously the talk is limited in time). But I’ve been researching him over the last 20 years and you’ll find a book on there about 40 or 50 pages long on his family background and whatever. There is a lot more to Thomas than just a one-line entry in the history books

Huw McGregor gave very good service for a few years and then returned to the UK to be with his family and they settled in Yorkshire where Huw went on to have a very long career with of the Yorkshire constabularies.

Charles May spent the rest of his life working towards bringing law and order to Hong Kong. He had to wait ten years before seeing the opening of the first purpose-built central police station and another decade before a building really large enough for purpose was built. Charles was a pretty keen speculator and he soon owned land and property in Hong Kong. This apparently included a notorious nest of brothels quite near to the police station and it was only after considerable pressure from the Governor that Charles actually sold these on. Perhaps it was for this reason, or perhaps the close proximity of the brothels to the station that resulted in a regulation which required all European and Indian policemen to undergo a monthly medical examination to make sure they hadn’t picked up anything unpleasant.

Charles died on his way back to the UK in 1879 having spent 34 years in the Far East. He was buried at sea, off Singapore, but he is remembered on the family headstone in Kensall Green Cemetery. I think it’s fair to say that John would have been very proud of his eldest son, which is more than can be said for the youngest son, but that’s a whole different story and it doesn’t have anything to do with Hong Kong!

So back to that fledgling police service in Hong Kong. Many European constables had to be recruited locally because the UK government wasn’t prepared to go to the expense of shipping the whole force out from England. Most of them were discharged soldiers or sailors and their love of drink obviously brought problems. Pay was really low in those early days and that didn’t help with recruiting men of good calibre.

Salaries were increased slightly in the 1860s but then men had to sign up to do a five year tour of duty and if they stayed for ten then they became entitled to a pension. However, the average length of a European constable at this time was three months, much the same as it was in the Metropolitan Police.

In 1867, six constables were recruited from the Met but only three of them proved to be of any value. The other three were dismissed shortly after arrival. During the 1870s major recruiting campaigns were undertaken in the UK and police officers came out from Scottish constabularies as well as the Royal Irish Constabulary. These men proved to be just what Hong Kong was looking for.

Then the Metropolitan police was targeted again and a batch of 20 constables recruited but, oh dear, Met officers in Hong Kong don’t always seem to have gone together because within weeks of arrival, one of them was dismissed for insubordination and mutinous conduct. The man in question was George Brierly. Now George was a really experienced constable having seen service first of all with the Royal Irish Constabulary, where he served for seven years. He resigned on 15 November 1870 to get another situation. And that situation turned out to be with the Metropolitan Police.

Now it appears during the recruitment process for the Hong Kong Police in London, that George had asked to see copies of the regulations governing the Hong Kong Police. He wanted to know what he’d be letting himself in for, but apparently they weren’t available. But he was told that they were similar to what he was serving with under the Met. So they set sail for Hong Kong and it was only during the sea voyage that the men became aware of this regulation requiring them to undergo the monthly medical examination. To make matters worse they heard it was normally conducted with a warder at the jail, sometimes even convicts. I think we all know how stories can become distorted, but it’s fair to say that they were not at all happy about this.

Nowhere is this controversial examination mentioned, although it has to be said that the full regulations that that time were at least 18 pages if not more than 20 so disagreement was very short. The group arrived in Hong Kong on 10 March. Two days later they were sworn in at the Magistracy, a couple of days later they were informed of the full regulations including the monthly examination. Murmurs of discontent rumbled through the ranks, probably fuelled by members of the Scottish contingent who had come out a couple of years earlier because they too objected to this.

Two weeks later they were ordered to attend this examination. Each and every one of the new recruits refused. The stand-off continued for three days, but eventually they all gave in. But George, being the most outspoken, was singled out as the ringleader and [was] dismissed and refused the cost of his passage back to London. But George had organised a petition which was signed by all the powerful merchants of the time. He also got the press onto his case which meant that the whole nasty incident received an awful lot of publicity. Again a collection was raised and this brought in enough to get George back to London. But the Metropolitan Police refused to take him back because he had been sacked from Hong Kong.

I’m pleased to say that he went on to have a very long career with the Water Board. And I say I’m pleased about this because I have a certain amount of sympathy for George. These days he would have made an excellent Federation Man but back then he was just seen as being a troublemaker. The remainder of the men were reinstated but that monthly examination was never again held, so George had done his bit.

Another of the major problems facing the force was the question of language because the rank and file consisted of Europeans, Indians, and Chinese, few of whom could speak to each other. So in 1869 a Language School was established.

A few months after Brierly’s dismissal, another couple of his colleagues caused another stir in the colony by asking to resign. They cited loads of reasons, one of which was that they were compelled to learn a language which they saw as being completely useless and they had absolutely no interest in acquiring. Where they allowed to resign? No, they were dismissed!

One of these men, Frederick Cooper continued on to Queensland, Australia, where he found employment on the railways and in later years he served as Alderman on the council and then ended up running a very successful hotel. He died at the age of 77 and is buried in Brisbane. After this, many were to use Hong Kong as a staging post to the Antipodes.

Now it may seem, from these last two intakes that Met officers were a load of troublemakers, but actually nothing could be further from the truth. From the 1867 intake George Horspath served for 28 years, retiring as Chief Inspector, Thomas Grey served got 20, James Halloran served for ten. And here are George Hennessey and William Stanton from that 1872 Met intake, they went on to serve for 20 years, along with Joseph Corcoran and William Baker, all of them retiring as Chief Inspectors.

But enough about recruits from London’s Met Police, lets journey North of the Border because the recruits from Scotland were always very highly acclaimed as individuals. John Swanson was no exception to this. John had been born and raised in Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, and as a teenager he joined the Edinburgh police and in 1871 was one of 45 recruits to the Hong Kong police.

They arrived in January 1872 and the press reported their arrival. As they were all Scotsmen they were dressed in their kilts, but when they heard that this was not the normal attire in Hong Kong they changed into something a little bit more ‘normal’ [for Hong Kong]. That is all except one of them, he wasn’t to be put out by fear of a little ridicule and he came ashore proudly flourishing his national attire. How proud would the whole bunch of them have been to know that the 20th century would see the Hong Kong Police pipers at the Edinburgh Tattoo?

John proved to be an efficient officer and he was also very careful with his money. After five years he had saved enough to bring out his bride. Annie Sanderson arrived in Hong Kong on the Fleur’s Castle on 9 October 1876 and the couple were married ten days later. Annie’s arrival and the marriage were both recorded in the diary of one of John’s colleagues.

In the following year John was promoted to Inspector and his career can then be tracked through the Hong Kong Blue Books, a great source of information for anyone who served in colonial government. [Shows image] Here we can see his advancement from an Inspector Third Class to Inspector First Class. 5 May 1877 – Third Class, 1 February 1884 – Second Class, 1 January 1888 – First Class.

The couple’s first child, Maria Jane, was born the year after their marriage, but this was Hong Kong and the climate was far from kind to babies and young children. Maria Jane died before she could reach the age of two. Another daughter, Margaret Corder Bremnar, died at the age of three years and ten months. A baby, known only by the initials DM, lived only for an hour. Annie Agnes lived for ten months and finally Archibald died just before his sixth birthday.

These deaths are all recorded on a headstone in a remote section of the cemetery in Happy Valley. The inscription also records where the children died, which in turn gives us the police stations where John was posted to. 1879 – Chokewan [?], 1884 – Wan Chai, which was on the Prior, 1886 – Number Seven Station, at Westpoint and 1890 – at the Gap.

According to the newspapers, John dealt with some pretty gruesome murder cases and some run of the mill gambling cases. Not to mention the Case of the Stinking Fish, where he spotted (or should I say his nose alerted him to?) a couple of hawkers who were trying to get rid of their rotting fish onto unsuspecting members of the public.

In October 1884 Inspector Swanson play an important part in preserving peace in the colony. Cargo boat coolies had gone on strike and riots had broken out. The unrest spread to Eastern District where more coolies were intimidated. The Inspector assured them of police protection so they returned to work, but the next day a mob assembled ready to attack them. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the Inspector who armed his men with bamboo poles and they managed to drive the rioters away. John was extremely popular within the community and the local Chinese residents gave him the nickname of ‘Ironsides’. Diplomacy comes in many forms and being a big brash Scotsman obviously worked wonders in Hong Kong.

But in 1890 John’s health began to fail and by the February he had developed pleurisy. In the early hours of Friday 6 February he slipped into unconsciousness and passed away. John was also buried in that remote section high up on a hill in the cemetery in Happy Valley and his headstone can be found right next to that of his children.

Now before I leave the story of this Scotsman I must relay a lovely little story about ‘Wee Jock’ Swanson, one of his surviving children. The story goes that when the child was just five years of age he saw his father chasing a man in the street. As the man scampered past, Wee Jock caught hold of his cue and held onto it until his father could come up and actually make the arrest. His father’s colleagues were in such admiration of this little child for having done this that they made a collection and purchased a silver cup on which was engraved ‘presented to J Swanson by members of the Hong Kong police force in admiration of his bravery and courage in arresting a thief.’ A lovely little anecdote!

Now, as we’ve seen, Hong Kong’s location on the edge of the South China coast saw severe typhoons sweeping in and wreaking havoc in the colony, bringing down the flimsy buildings and causing hundreds of deaths. The Typhoon of 1874 was particularly bad and at Central Police Station, the police quarters were unroofed and most of the woodwork destroyed. Across the harbour, Yau MaTei police station was under four foot of water and when the sea receded it left a steam launch and other small craft stranded on the basin floor. The Great Storm of 1889 affected the whole of Central District.

Now we’ve reached 1898 when the New Territories were ceded to Britain for that term of 99 years. As head of the force it was the duty of Francis Henry May to ensure that the handover in law enforcement went as smoothly as possible. No referendum would have been held and, consequently, the local Chinese villagers would have had absolutely no say in their future. Suddenly they found that they were to come under British rule and British police stations were being erected in their land. They were extremely unhappy about this.

In April 1899 Francis May, together with a group of Sikh policemen journeyed out to the New Territories to get the lie of the land and inspect the new matshed which was to be the temporary police station at Tai Po. The party was met by what was described at the time as a group of hostile natives and the local elders were quite unable to control these. So the police group retreated to their matshed, but that evening they heard drums and saw lighted flares approaching in the distance and so they withdrew to the safety of a nearby hill. They had to sit there, or lie there, as the matshed came under a hail of bullets and was set alight. So thank goodness they had left it in time!

In the following days a new building was erected, but that suffered exactly the same fate. It was weeks later that the British flag was eventually erected on Matshed Hill, and this was only achieved with the assistance of HMS Fame and her 12 pound guns. It took weeks of high level talks between the Colonial Secretary and the Governor of Kwangtung before the situation began to calm a little bit.

With the expansion of the colony came an expansion of the police force and by 1900 ten new police stations had been built. The Annual Report of 1899 shows that 38 Europeans were recruited, with three coming from the Plymouth police, two from Edinburgh and one being an approved candidate on the roster of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The lad from Ireland was Edward Brown and the RIC letter of recommendation states that he was a young man of excellent character and respectable family. On receiving his first pay packet he bought a straw hat, three pairs of socks, two pairs of pyjamas, a tweed suit, a hat and a pair of cufflinks.

At this time the fire brigade was manned by volunteers from the police force. Edward’s diary notes his pay and we can see that he received an extra nine dollars a month for brigade duties. I also like the note at the bottom of the diary about sending home a shawl and walking stick, obviously presents for his parents. Edward also had a long and successful career in Hong Kong, reaching the rank of Inspector. The armour was seen as being a very important part of the household in this extremely hot and humid part of the world.

But, we’ve now reached the war years and as we all know 2014 is the centenary of the start of World War One. Now I don’t profess to be anything of a military historian but I did think it appropriate to end this particular talk with mention of the 11 Hong Kong Policemen who gave their lives during that conflict. Four of these lads were recruits from London’s Met Police and all of them were relative newcomers to the service with only eight years’ service between them. One of their colleagues described the first time he set foot on his beat alone in London:

‘At the end of the Beat Instructional you were sent out into the world on your own and, believe me I never felt lonelier in my life. A helmet, which felt like a ton on my head; a tunic, which hooked up tightly around my neck; trousers, in which you could hardly bend your knees; a long truncheon in your back pocket; a pocketbook, whistle and arm-knit [?]. I prayed that all would be quiet for the next couple of hours.’

A couple of years later this same constable performed his last night duty on one of London’s bridges. It as December 1909 and he relates:

‘If anybody knows of a colder place at that time of year they are welcome to it. It was this beat that decided me that there had to be warmer places than this and I made up my mind to leave the police and to go overseas. A couple of months later, I found myself on a steamer on the way to Hong Kong.’

The recruits received a bounty of £15 from the Crown Agents with which to buy kit, this normally consisted of a topi and a white suit. Unfortunately the uniform in Hong Kong was no more comfortable than that in London and our friend tells us that the cloth of which the summer suit was made was not far short in quality of that worn by the inmates in Victoria Gaol. However the topi was seen as an improvement on the helmet and this was worn at all times by men on day duty with the peaked cap being worn at night. No doubt transfers to the detective department, with its crisp, white linen suits was seen as something to aim for.

But war loomed on the horizon and 1915 saw the departure of 38 Hong Kong policemen who travelled to the UK to enlist. The first volunteers left in July and by November another batch was ready to leave. The night before departure the men were treated to a farewell dinner at the Astor House Hotel and a letter was read out from a colleague who was already somewhere in France. He said that he was thoroughly enjoying himself and that life would be like an adventurous holiday when some more of the Hong Kong Policemen had joined him.

The next day, dressed in their police uniforms and carrying their guns, they marched from Central Police Station down to Blake Pier accompanied by the police pipe band. The balconies along the route were crammed with office workers and the streets were lined with people cheering, and they sailed out of the harbour to the strains of Auld Lang Syne.

Alchurch joined the King’s Royal Rifles, Sillas the Coldstream Guards, whilst Edwards and Singleton went straight into the Royal Flying Corps. Six months later Arthur Alchurch, police Constable 52, was killed during the Battle of the Somme. He is remembered with honour on the Arras Memorial.

The first thing Robert Edwards did on arrival back in the UK was to marry his sweetheart. He and Singleton then enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough and both were soon promoted to Corporal. Another Hong Kong Police Constable, Peter Boyd-Gardiner, had also joined the Royal Flying Corps and the last words he had said to his father before enlisting were ‘I have an ambition Father and I will not rest before I fly a Hong Kong aeroplane.’ During a training exercise flight in Norfolk, Gardiner’s plane crashed and he was killed.

In the spring of 1917, Edwards found himself in France. The RFC undertook aerial observation with the aircraft flying at very slow speed and at low altitude over the German defences. The work became even more dangerous with the arrival of the Red Baron. April 1917 was to become known as ‘Bloody April’ and the average flying life of a RFC pilot in Arras during this month was just 18 hours. Robert Edwards, Police Constable 155, was killed on the 30th April 1917. His grave can be found at Warlincourt British Cemetery in France

Edward Charles Sillas joined the Coldstream Guards. He was killed on 1 July 1917 and he is remembered on the Menin Gate.

Frederick James Singleton survived the conflict of war but he couldn’t escape the flu pandemic which followed. He was hospitalised in Glasgow where he died on 2 November 1918, just a few days before the Armistice. Frederick James Singleton, Police Constable 69, is buried at the Glasgow Western Necropolis.

Our 11 Hong Kong policemen are all remembered on a plaque in Hong Kong, and with that I must end this really brief insight into the history of the Hong Kong Police. So thank you all for coming along and I hope you’ve enjoyed these few stories.

Transcribed by Lucy Palmer as part of a volunteer project, March 2015