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