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.