Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Indexing the Inscriptions 1986 - 1995

In November 1975 a Hong Kong Government Gazette announced the “Intention to Remove and Dispose of Human Remains at the Colonial Cemetery”. In effect this meant that over 3,000 graves were to be exhumed. Over a thousand headstones were to be re-sited within the cemetery whilst the remains from 2,285 graves without headstones were to be deposited in a new ossuary. The reason for this massive exercise was to free up space for the construction of the approach roads to the Aberdeen Tunnel. I must admit that although I was aware of this notification I let it pass with little thought - I was newly arrived in Hong Kong and was trying to adapt to a new job in a new country. Little did I know that ten years down the road the Colonial Cemetery was going to play a major role in shaping my future life.

One Saturday in 1986 having some free time on my hands I decided to take a stroll through the old cemetery. As soon as I entered the gates I left the hustle and bustle of the busy city behind me. I was transported back to the earliest days of the Colony and found that each gravestone had its own tale to tell. A midshipman killed under the walls of Canton in 1857; a fireman killed “by the falling of a house” in 1882; a captain who was murdered by Chinese pirates in 1890; and a Police Constable from Lincolnshire who died in 1858 and who stated in his will that he wished a stone to be placed over his grave - the stone is still there and is one of the earliest for a British police officer in the Colony.

I suddenly became very concerned. What was the fate for this cemetery after 1997? Would it be preserved or would the constant demand for land or the cost of upkeep condemn it. There and then I decided to embark on the very ambitious project of recording and indexing all the legible inscriptions. August 1985 had seen the grave numbers reach 12,000 but thankfully I had no idea about the statistics at the time.

I started out with pen and paper recording the inscriptions section by section and then back at home indexing the individual entries on slips of paper - this was long before every home had a computer! During the summer months when it was too hot to spend hours under the glare of the sun, or too dangerous to kneel on the ground near the gravestones for fear of snakes, I would spend my time collating details from other sources such as burial records, newspapers - and even that Gazette that had been issued in 1975 which had details of over 3,000 burials. Many of the early inscriptions were difficult to decipher by the 20th. century and where only partial names or dates could be determined these additional sources provided much needed identification.

As the years wore on a hand-held tape recorder took over from pen and paper and eventually in June 1995 – just a few weeks before my final departure from Hong Kong – I finished the very last section. Since my return to the UK I have spent my time inputting details from the manual index into a computer database – and supplementing it with details of deaths & burials in China !!

The question I know many will be asking is “Why did I do this all on my own?”. Quite simply because I knew of no-one else who had the same very strange interest as myself. Once I retired and set up my own research business I published details of the project on the internet and now, month by month, the enquiries are coming in and I am slowly beginning to link people up with their ancestors who lay buried in that very peaceful spot - but so far away from their homeland.

In future blogs I hope to bring you stories of some of the people who lay buried in the former Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley.

If you would like a search of my Hong Kong Burial database / Hong Kong Cemetery Index please contact me at

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Rest In Peace - or maybe not !!!

The Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley has seen more than its fair share of exhumation projects over the years. Not only has space been at a premium but road widening schemes have also encroached on what should have been a peaceful haven. A few poor souls - having been buried - found that a some years later their remains were dug up and moved to another spot within the cemetery. Then, a few years on, yet another project threatened their resting place and they were dug up and moved for a second time. So much for that “Last Resting Place” !

Alfred Gordon Ursell was 49 years of age, married with two sons and the family lived at 19 Fung Fai Terrace in Village Road, Happy Valley. Alfred worked as a Chargeman in the Fitters Department at the Royal Naval Yard and his sons were apprentices in the Dockyard. Alfred had been in Hong Kong for ten years and was shortly due to transfer back to Portsmouth. On Friday 16th. March 1934 he was working at the west side of the dry dock when suddenly at 3.55pm he tripped. He fell 35ft into the dock before striking his head and then rolled the remaining 10ft. to the bottom dying instantly. His body was taken to the Royal Naval Hospital to await burial the following day.

Fung Fai Terrace was just a short walk from the Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley where Alfred’s body was laid to rest on Saturday afternoon. His eldest son was the chief mourner but many friends and colleagues were present at the graveside. The Royal Navy Chaplain officiated. Alfred was buried in Grave No. 9426 in Section 7.

A few weeks later Alfred’s widow returned to England with her sons.

Normally this would be the end of the story but not in Alfred’s case. Thirty five years later HK Government Gazette GN 2524 dated 19th. December 1969 notified that 460 graves were to be exhumed from the Colonial Cemetery on 24th. June 1970. Any remains not claimed by relatives before that date would be moved to an Ossuary within the cemetery – “or will be otherwise disposed of as the Director may think fit”. Presumably Alfred’s body was not claimed for his remains were exhumed and placed in the Ossuary on 7th. June 1971.

Just over four years later in November 1975 Government Gazette No 48/1975 announced “Notice of intention to remove and dispose of human remains at the Colonial Cemetery”. Surely Alfred would be safe on this occasion. But no – the 1975 Gazette listed a staggering total of 3467 graves for removal - plus 187 sets of exhumed remains which were deposited in the existing Ossuary (Alfred was one of these). Work was to start within the month and the remains were to be temporarily deposited in a bone store until the new ossuary had been built. It was 1983 before Alfred’s remains came out of the “bone store” and were laid to rest in his niche.

His last resting place? One can only hope.

I use this story as an example to show that even if you know that one of your ancestors was buried in a certain grave in a certain section of the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley that there is no guarantee that he or she will still be in that location. As far as I am aware my Hong Kong Cemetery Burial Index is the only resource which actually tracks the movement of these graves. If you want to find a Hong Kong grave then please contact me – I may be able to assist.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Monument to members of the Hong Kong Police Force who died of Cholera in 1883

August is the hottest month in Hong Kong with temperatures rising to 35°C. In the 21st. century the majority of homes and offices have air-conditioning making the climate bearable. In the 1880s this was not the case and families had to cope, not only with the heat, but also with the constant fear of cholera, typhoid and even plague.

Frederick COOKSON had arrived in Hong Kong in 1881. He was a native of Taporley, Cheshire and had been born c. 1854. He found the Hong Kong climate difficult and never enjoyed good health. Frederick was a Police Constable attached to No. 4 Station which was situated near the Naval Yard on the outskirts of town. The station was in a dreadful condition and had been condemned so he and his family lived nearby in a private house.

As the summer of 1883 progressed Frederick developed chronic diarrhoea and by 9th. August his wife was also suffering. The couple were taken to the Civil Hospital and were diagnosed with choleraic collapse. Cholera is highly infectious and the medical superintendant thought it advisable to seek advice from the Deputy Inspector of Hospitals. The newspapers reported that “Dr. Gordon does not consider the cases to be true cases of cholera of the epidemic and infectious form”. Elizabeth COOKSON did not last the day and died a few hours after admittance. Her three children were being looked after by a neighbour whilst Frederick remained in hospital.

George DURRANT was a friend of the COOKSONs and a fellow Police Officer. he had helped them whilst they were unwell but the day after they were admitted to hospital George came down with the same symptoms. He too was admitted to the Civil Hospital where it was decided that both Frederick and George should be isolated. They were put under the charge of the doctor from the quarantine station on Stonecutters Island and George died after only a few hours. The authorities were by this time getting very worried in case they were in the midst of a full scale cholera outbreak so instead of having George’s body buried in the Colonial Cemetery it was towed out to sea by a steam launch and sunk in deep water, five miles away. George was a native of Old Weston in Huntingdon and was 32 years of age.

Meanwhile, Frederick appeared to be rallying - but then he was hit by a relapse and died on 11th. August. Two other patients in the Civil Hospital, originally thought to be suffering from cholera, recovered and were discharged. The infection did not spread. Unfortunately the Cookson’s youngest child – nine month old Elizabeth – died on 13th. August “of some infantile malady”. The surviving Cookson orphans were left in the hands of the Government.

The records show that baby Elizabeth was buried in a different section of the cemetery to that where her parents lay. However, nearly a century later all three graves were amongst those 2,285 graves without headstones that were to be exhumed to make way for the approach road to the new Aberdeen Tunnel. It is fortuante that the Hong Kong Police had the foresight to erect a monument to the Cookson family and to George Durrant – for without this all trace of them would probably have vanished forever.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

A Scout's Funeral

One of the high tiers within the cemetery is the last resting place of Thorvald Emile ANDERSEN, a young Scout Cub Master. During the First World War most Scout leaders had been called up for military service resulting in the decline of the Movement. In 1920 one of its founders, Lt. Col. F.J. Bowen returned to Hong Kong and reorganised the Hong Kong Branch of The Boy Scouts Association and the first Scout Rally was held at the Murray Parade Ground at Garden Road on 8 January 1921. The Prince of Wales visited Hong Kong in 1922 and on 6 April presented a Banner bearing his own Coat of Arms to the Hong Kong Scouts as a trophy for the winner of a Colony-wide scout competition. These were momentous occasions and Andersen was almost certain to have attended.

By the middle of June summer had arrived in the Colony and one Saturday afternoon Andersen took a party of Scouts to the bathing beach at Stonecutters Island. At 7pm all the Scouts apart from Andersen were back on board their launch for the return home. Andersen had seen some friends on another launch and decided to join them – he told the Scouts to go off without him and started swimming towards the other launch. Suddenly he was caught with cramp and sank below the water. Mr. Knight of the American Express Co. was aboard the other launch and immediately jumped in (fully clothed) to try to help the young man. Unfortunately Andersen did not surface and it is thought that the strong current carried him into deep waters. The would-be rescuers searched and searched but were forced to give up when darkness descended. The police recovered the body early on Monday morning at Shamshuipo.

Andersen, 19 years of age, was an apprentice at Kowloon Docks and Cub master of the St. Andrews Troop of Boy Scouts. He lived with his family at Orient Buildings and was a popular young man. His father had previously worked for the Kowloon Godown Co. but had recently moved to Shanghai where his family was due to join him.

The funeral was held late on Monday 19th. June. The coffin draped with the St. Andrew’s Troop colours was carried to the ferry by members of his troop.

It was transferred to the hearse on arrival at the Hong Kong wharf and then the cortege slowly made its way to Happy Valley. The cortege was due to pass the Monument at 5.40 and it was here that the procession was swelled by a large number of friends. Walking immediately behind the hearse was the deceased’s mother and younger brother.

Scouts carried the coffin to the graveside where the Revd. Lindsay of St. Andrews Church, Kowloon conducted the burial service. Andersen was described as being a clean straightforward worker and the Scout movement had lost a keen and zealous worker. The Last Post was sounded by Bugler Lim of St. Andrew’s Troop.

The troops represented with their commanding officers were: St. Andrew’s Troop (Scoutmaster Farrell), Wesleyan Troop (Assistant Scoutmaster Williams), Murray Troop (patrol Leader Westlake), 5th. Troop (Cub Master Fenton), Ellis Calorie Troop, Saiyingpun Troop (Scoutsmaster Leung), and 8th. Troop (Scoutsmaster Wong), The St. Joseph’s Troop was represented by Scouts not in uniform.

The memorial inscription reads: In loving memory of our dear son, Thorvald Emil ANDERSEN, born 20th. October 1902, accidentally drowned while bathing off Stonecutters Island on 17th. June 1922. Erected by his sorrowing father and mother.

For a search of my Hong Kong Cemetery index please e-mail:

For photographs of Hong Kong Scouts during the 1920s please refer to the HK Scouts website.