Tuesday, 11 July 2017

John Calder SWANSTON, Hong Kong Police Officer


Today’s story relates to a couple of headstones which can be found in Section 27.  Getting to this section means walking under the flyover with traffic roaring overhead and then making a steep climb up to what I refer to as the “lost sections”.  Cemetery staff look after these sections very well during their seasonal projects aimed at keeping vegetation under control so the sections are certainly not “lost” as far as they are concerned.  However, visitors to the cemetery normally only walk around the lower central sections.  These are on the flat and easy to navigate.  How many people actually know that you can take a little path under the flyover?   Or that this leads to another whole different area of tiers?  Back in the 1980s when I first started my project aimed at transcribing and indexing the memorial inscriptions it was the first area I headed for.  To be honest I felt a little silly kneeling down tracing inscriptions with my fingers so I wanted to be away from prying eyes.  After a few months, having completed these hidden sections, I was confident enough to “come out” and start tackling the very public areas.   

So without further ado let’s head off to Scotland where today's story has its roots.

It was in the village of Dunnet on 26th. November 1851 that the wife of the local blacksmith gave birth to a son.  He was named John Calder Swanston and he was baptised at the parish church the day after Christmas.

As a teenager John joined the Edinburgh Police and in 1871 was one of 45 officers recruited for the Hong Kong Police.  The recruiting officer stated that the HK Police was in a disorganised state “largely composed of Malays, runaway sailors and wandering adventurers”. 

The recruits received a bounty of £15 each.  In addition they were provided with the railway fare to the port of embarkation and 2nd. class Steamer passage to Hong Kong. 


The Crown Agents had made enquiries with two companies.  Mr. Holt and his Blue Funnel Line were using the newly opened Suez Canal and were charging £28 per man for the voyage.  P&O on the other hand were still using the old route whereby passengers would disembark at Alexandria and then make their way overland by rail to the Town of Suez before joining another ship to the Far East.  P&O were charging £50 per man.  Needless to say the Crown Agents chose the cheapest option.  The first batch of 20 recruits – including John - left Liverpool on 2nd December 1871.

Inspector Grey who was on leave from Hong Kong had been responsible for the recruitment exercise in the UK.  In a letter to the Crown Agents he reported:

"The men have a very fair appearance but as for the qualifications of most of them I cannot speak highly, they have nearly all been farm labourers and the degree of education attained by most of them is very imperfect, so much so indeed that but few of them could ever hope to rise to any other grade than that of constable unless they improve themselves very much, however, the Procurator Fiscal says that they are as good as can be obtained in any other police force in Scotland. "

The Suez Canal reduced travel time considerably and John arrived in Hong Kong in January 1872 after a seven week voyage.  On arrival the group dressed in their kilts – after all they were proud Scotsmen and wanted to impress.  However, they were advised that this form of attire was practically unknown in the Colony and they might want to reconsider their decision.  They did.  They changed – that is all except one.  

He had no worries about being laughed at and proudly came ashore flourishing his tartan.  How proud would the whole bunch have been if they had known that the 20th. century would see the Hong Kong Police Pipers at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

John proved to be a good officer and gained promotion to Sergeant.  He was also careful with his money and after five years had saved enough to pay the passage for his bride. 

Annie Sanderson arrived in Hong Kong in October 1876 and the couple were married ten days later.

The following year saw the birth of the couple’s first child, Maria Jane  - and for John his promotion to Inspector. 

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. (Grave number 4426 2nd. July 1879).  Another daughter, Margaret Calder Bremner, died at the age of 3yrs 10mths (Grave 4749 17th.  Nov 1884).  A baby, known only by the initials D.M., lived for one hour.  Annie Agnes lived for 10 months (Grave 5235 7th. April 1890)  and finally Archibald died before his sixth birthday (Grave number 5280)  The deaths are all recorded on a headstone in Section 27.  

The inscription also shows where the children died which in turn gives us the police stations that John was posted to:

1879                Shaukeiwan
1884                No 2 Police Station – Praya East, Wanchai
1886                No 7 West Point – Queens Road/Pokfulam Rald
1890                No 2 Police Station
1890                No 6 Victoria Gap
1891                No 2 – Praya East, Wanchai

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 on unsuspecting members of the public. 

On two occasions the police stations where John was serving became the centre of attention because huge pythons had been seen in the area.  The first was when he was at Shaukeiwan. On that occasion the “beast” was reported as being 12 foot long with a girth of 15 inches.  It had apparently just killed an animal


The second occasion was when he was at Wanchai.  A slighter smaller python had been spotted near the cemetery.  A message was sent to No. 2 Police Station for someone to come up with a gun to shoot the creature.  But before that could happen an enterprising coolie stunned the snake.  It was then taken to the Hong Kong Dispensary where it was pickled and put on display.

In October 1884 Inspector Swanston played an important part in preserving peace.  Riots had broken out when cargo boat coolies had gone on strike. The unrest spread to Eastern District where more coolies were intimidated.  The Inspector assured them of police protection and they returned to work.  But the next day a mob assembled ready to attack.  However, they had not reckoned on the Inspector. He armed his men with bamboo poles and they charged the rioters and drove them off The Praya.   John was given the nickname of “Ironsides” by the locals !

In 1890 John’s health began to fail and by February 1891 he’d developed pleurisy.  In the early hours of Friday 6th. February he slipped into unconsciousness and passed away.

John was a popular member of the community and his funeral was attended by police officers and Freemasons.  He was also buried high up on the hill in Section 27 and his headstone can be found right next to that of his children. 

The newspapers reported that Annie was left with two young children and the Government awarded her a compassionate allowance of $600.   This would have been of some help but she still needed to secure her future.  There was really only one practical answer – she needed to find another husband.  As was often the case she stayed within the close knit community which she knew. 

Her second husband was Police Inspector William Gauld –  a colleague of her husband’s and another of the men from the Scottish intake.  But the climate of Hong Kong was relentless and she and William lost a child in October 1893.  The baby was buried in a neighbouring section to those of her other children but did not have a headstone.  The grave was one of thousands affected by the Aberdeen Tunnel project in the 1970s and was exhumed.

When William’s health began to fail he & Annie retired to Huntly in Aberdeenshire.  A few years later William died and Annie moved back to her home city of Edinburgh where she passed away in 1924 at the respectable age of 74. 

Annie’s surviving son from her first marriage (John George SWANSTON) spent his life in Hong Kong and died there in 1935.  His grave can be found in Section 12 of the cemetery.

Actually there is a lovely little story about “wee Jock Swanston”.  The story goes that when he was just 5 years old he saw his father chasing a man in the street.  As the  fleeing man passed -  “wee Jock” caught hold of his queue and held on for all he was worth until his father came up to make the arrest.  

His father’s colleagues were in such admiration of the child that they arranged a collection and purchased a silver cup on which was engraved “Presented to J. Swanston by members of the Hongkong Police Force in admiration of his bravery and courage in arresting a thief ...."

If any reader should ever come across that silver cup I would love to hear from you.  Of course I would also love to hear from anyone who is descended from John and Elizabeth.