Wednesday, 6 July 2011


William was born in 1843 in Alverstoke, Hampshire the son of a carpenter. He lost his mother when he was seven years old but had an elder sister named Emma.

As a teenager William joined the Royal Navy and was posted to HMS Urgent just as the ship was about to embark on a voyage to the Far East. She arrived in Hong Kong on 7 June 1860 and stayed for two weeks before heading north to the Gulf of Pechelee where the Great Wall of China meets the sea. This was the time of the Opium Wars and HMS Urgent was one of the ships deployed in getting troops to the northern ports. In September the ship was back in Hong Kong where she stayed for six weeks before going to Shanghai. William was certainly seeing something of the Orient and took the opportunity of buying some presents for his sister. The ship arrived back in Hong Kong on 16 January 1861 and was berthed at Aberdeen on the south side of the island.

On Sunday 10th. February the seamen were allowed leave to go into the city of Victoria – a walk of several miles over the hills. Whilst coming back to the ship William was attacked by a band of armed Chinese robbers and struck on the head with a sword. Poor William received medical care but died two weeks later on Sunday 24th. February at 9 o’clock in the morning. He was just 17 years of age.

William Abrahams was buried in the cemetery in Happy Valley on Monday 25th. February with all his messmates in attendance. Although no headstone survives to William’s memory it is likely that he was buried in Section 12 as this is the section where other seamen were buried in February 1861. A photo of the section appears at the top of this blog. According to the burial register William was buried in grave number 2326.

A few days after the funeral David Yeomans the Assistant Paymaster wrote a letter to William’s father informing him of the sad news. After the factual information he continued

“He was a smart, civil and good tempered lad and had he not met with such an untimely end would have been a good seaman, and gone on well in the Service, but as it has pleased God to take him to himself so young, so ought you be contented for we must now hope that he is in the land of joy.

His messmates wish me to tell you how sorry they are for him, but no one onboard is more sorry than myself. He was a great favourite of mine on account of his civility and smartness which now induces me to tell you the sad news.

His clothes have been sold, they brought £4 and his pay is £6 more - altogether then ten pounds which will be paid to you by writing to the Admiralty. According to the copy I send you he bought some things for his sisters which will be sent home by the first opportunity. He has wished his sisters to get part of his money so I hope you will do as he wished as it would have pleased him so much.”

This letter, plus another written by one of William’s friends, still survive within the family. It is with grateful thanks to one of William’s great nephews that I was able to put this story together for you today.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A Short Walk

Stepping through the back gate of the Hong Kong Cemetery on Stubbs Road one immediately descends into a serene, peaceful world far away from the frenentic hustle and bustle of the thriving city. Apartment buildings tower into the skyline but once inside the cemetery all that can be seen is thick green foliage and the smell of frangipani wafts through the air.

Just inside the gate on the right hand side is a long narrow section. All that can be seen are a few numbered stones nestling in the grass. This area was reserved for burials made at Government expense—more commonly referred to as Pauper Burials.

The narrow path descends quite steeply as it snakes its way down the hillside. A small triangular area on the left contains the graves of expatriates from Shanghai. They had originally been buried in the Bubbling Well Cemetery in Shanghai but due to the closure of this cemetery in the 1950s some families had the remains of their loved ones moved to Hong Kong.

At the bottom of the next set of steps the path splits into two and bends sharply to the left. The upper path leads around a large section shaped like a boomerang. The majority of graves here date from the mid to late 1930s. This area provides wonderful views over Happy Valley and out to the Harbour.

The path leads on to a section containing graves from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Below this are military graves from the late 1920s through to the 1950s – including those of soldiers who died in the second world war. The graves in these sections are shaded by trees.

The lower path leads down to a large area which has no protection - where the sun blazes down with all its intensity throughout the summer months. I can remember starting this section on a sunny spring day. I had just left one of my dogs at the vets for an operation and I was really worried for her. Recording the memorial inscriptions took my mind off the events of the day but as the morning wore on the heat built up and eventually I had to retreat to the shade. Amongst graves from the 1920s can be found many old headstones from the 1850s. Oh what stories they can reveal.

The former Colonial Cemetery contains the graves of people from all walks of life—from destitute right up to high ranking Government officials. The former colony would not have been what it was without the ordinary people—the tavern keepers, the seamen, and the lowly civil servants. Keep reading my blog and you will be taken on walks through many areas of the cemetery and hear some of the stories behind the stones.

If you think you may have an ancestor buried in this far off land please contact me. I am always happy to search my index of Hong Kong Burials:

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Hong Kong Cemetery - Do not despair if your ancestor had no headstone !!

Less than 50% of the persons buried at the Hong Kong Cemetery, Happy Valley, had headstones erected to their memory. Even if they were a prominent and highly respected member of the community it did not mean that they would ever get a headstone. More often than not immediate family members were back in the UK and arranging for a stone was not a viable option in days long ago. Take the case of Mr. G.W. Avenell who died on 12th. February 1927 of Typhoid Fever.

Mr. Avenell had been born in Farnham, England on 9th. March 1880 and as a young man saw service in the South African Wars where he was awarded the DCM. He first arrived in Hong Kong in 1902 with the Sherwood Forresters and then went with his regiment to Singapore. On leaving the military he returned to Hong Kong as Armourer Staff Sergeant to the Police and Hong Kong Volunteers. In 1918 he joined Messrs. Lane Crawford as manager of the Ship Chandlery Department.

He was a member of the Kowloon Cricket Club and also took a keen interest in lawn tennis having at one time been a member of the Wigwam Tennis Club. He was an enthusiastic worker for the YMCA and the Philharmonic Society. Mr. Avenell was also a Freemason being a member of the Zetland Lodge.

He was survived by a widow and child who were At Home in the UK.

Mr. Avenell was accorded a funeral with full military honours – but no headstone was ever erected to his memory.

Those of you who have read my earlier posts on this Blog will know that large exhumation projects were carried out at the Hong Kong Cemetery in 1969 and 1975. As Mr. Avenell had no headstone his grave was first exhumed in 1969 and his remains moved to the Ossuary. In 1975 the Ossuary had to be removed to make way for the approach roads to the Aberdeen Tunnel. A new ossuary was built and eventually all the remains which had been held in the old ossuary were moved into the new. Although Mr. Avenell, like many others, has been moved around the cemetery perhaps it is all for the good because at least now he has a plaque within the cemetery which shows his name.

If you would like a search of my Hong Kong Cemetery Burial Index please contact me. More often than not I am also able to provide a synopsis of the persons life in Hong Kong as illustrated above with the case of Mr. Avenell.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Sai Wan War Memorial, Hong Kong

The Sai Wan War Memorial, Hong Kong was unveiled by H.E. The Governor Sir Alexander Grantham GCMG on Sunday 20 February 1955. The names of 79 Police Officers are included on the memorial.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission should have details of all those remembered within the Sai Wan Military Cemetery

But remember, if your ancestor was buried in the Hong Kong Cemetery (formerly the Colonial Cemetery) then there is a fair chance that I will have details in my Hong Kong database of burials. It does not matter if there is no headstone because much of the information was extracted direct from the burial registers. I also have 7,000 photos so if your ancestor was one of the lucky ones to have a headstone then there is a fair chance that I will be able to provide you with a picture.

For a search of my Hong Kong Cemetery Burial Index please contact:

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Remembered in Kensal Green Cemetery

I recently visited Kensal Green Cemetery in search of the burial plot of William Barnicot’s father. William has a lovely old stone in the Hong Kong Cemetery and having researched the whole of William’s life I was keen to find where his father lay. However, that is a whole different story and one that is far too long to relate in a short blog. Having found the site I was looking for I took myself off around this famous West London cemetery fascinated by the wonderful old tombs many of them to individuals with connections to the East – Alexander Nesbitt Shaw of the Bombay Civil Service, Sir William Casement of the Bengal Army etc. etc. Then I remembered that there was an inscription here honouring a man who has been on the periphery of my research for many, many years – Charles MAY.

The Hong Kong Police was established in 1845 by three Metropolitan Police officers from the East End of London – Charles MAY, Thomas SMITHERS and Hugh McGREGOR. Charles spent some 34 years in Hong Kong and is mentioned in all the history books - so being rather “famous” I always felt there would be nothing further to find on him. My attention has always focused on Thomas Smithers and Hugh McGregor and after years of research I feel as if I know the Smithers family inside out. But before I get side tracked let’s return to Charles MAY.

After spending the majority of his life in Hong Kong Charles died on his passage back to England in 1879. He had been accompanied on the voyage by his daughter and no doubt it was she who had to watch as her father was buried at sea just before the ship reached Singapore. The MAY family were highly respected in London for Charles’ father, John MAY, had been appointed to the Metropolitan Police at the time of its establishment way back in 1829 and held the prestigious position of Superintendent “A” Division. He worked alongside the two Commissioners of Police – Sir Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne who had their offices in a private house at No. 4 Whitehall Place.

I knew that the MAY family tomb was somewhere within this West London cemetery and I had a very rough recollection of what it looked like but with thousands of graves, and much of the cemetery overgrown, what was the chance of finding it? I would say virtually nil. However, I have always been of the very firm belief that if somebody wants to be found then they will call me to them – or at least allow me to find the historical documents that tell their life stories. In this instance I needed to be led to some specific spot within the cemetery so I continued to meander first down the central avenue and then up a side path here or a side path there. I had no idea where my feet were leading me. After a while I rested on a handy parapet, relaxing and savouring the awe inspiring architecture of the Victorian tombs around me. Suddenly I was aware that the inscription on the side of a tomb right in my line of vision contained the words “Charles” and “John May”. Would you believe it – there was the very tomb I was hoping to find.

Charles, son of the above John May/ Chief Magistrate of Police, Colonial Treasurer and for 34 years in HM Civil Service in Hong Kong China/ died on his homeward passage 25 April 1879 aged 61 buried at sea.I can only say that Charles certainly wanted me to find him!!!!

Friday, 6 May 2011

The earliest surviving headstone to a Hong Kong Police Constable ?

Atop a hillock right in the centre of the cemetery can be found what I believe to be the earliest surviving headstone to a Hong Kong Police Constable. The stone stands firm but leans slightly to one side reminding me of a member of the constabulary who has perhaps had one too many drinks!!

The headstone is now weatherworn and very few details are discernable but the name stands out clear and proud:

Sacred to the memory of Wm. SOUTHWELL, a native of Louth, Lincolnshire

There is no indication here to show that William was in any way connected with the Police but the burial register shows William to be a Police Constable aged 41, buried on 16 July 1858 in Grave Number 1700

William was not the normal poverty stricken police constable of the time for he smoked a meerschaum pipe and carried a silver watch & chain in his pocket. As he lay dying in the Government Civil Hospital one of his last wishes was that he be respectfully buried and that a stone be erected over his grave.

As I look at the old stone still standing on its hillock after 150 years I think to myself that William would have been pleased with the result.