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Looking At Hong Kong's 1905 Defences

Philip Bruce

An informative insight into the defences of Hong Kong at the turn of the century is given in the diaries of James Frederick Lewis, who visited the colony in 1905 to prepare a report on the subject and to adjudicate in a land dispute between the War Office and the colonial authorities.

His grandson, Colonel H.M. Lewis, was in Hong Kong a few years ago and was able to walk over much of the ground mentioned in the diaries. Colonel Lewis' grandfather was born in 1846 and in 1864 he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He spent the next 18 years in the Fortifications Branch of the War Office- for five of which he worked under the direction of the Indian Government on the design and defences of Aden.

In 1893, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and three years later he went to Ascension Island to plan new batteries and to generally overhaul works there. Service in the Falklands and a spell in the United Kingdom followed and in 1898 he was sent to the newly acquired British territory of Wei Hai Wei, on the north-eastern tip of Shantung province of China, to report on the proposed defences. This assignment involved a visit to Peking to report to the British Ambassador and Colonel Lewis returned via Japan and Canada.

Shortly after his return he was promoted to substantive Colonel and appointed Commander, Royal Engineers, Gibraltar. The four years in this command were extremely busy and he retired, at the age of 57, in May 1903.

However, the War Office asked Colonel Lewis to travel to Hong Kong and in January 1905 he arrived to review the defences of the colony and to adjudicate the land dispute. He delayed his return home to go to Port Arthur, which the Japanese had just captured from the Russians and his report created much interest in the United Kingdom. Though he volunteered for the service on the outbreak of war he was not accepted because of his age and he died in 1918.

Colonel Lewis (grandson) has kindly allowed us to reproduce the following extracts from the diary entries for Hong Kong.

"Saturday, 14th January 1905. I had the scale of Hong Kong too small. The harbour seems enormous and crowed. I had intended to go to the Hong Kong Hotel and gave my baggage to the porter but I got a pleasant note from Nathan [the Governor] and decided to put up at Govt. House. Capt Smith, the A.D.C., came off and I went up with Ponsonby in two Govt. chairs. Government House is a fine building well placed about 200 ft above the town. Unpacked. Saw Nathan. Retrieved my bag which had not come up from the HK Hotel. Sir Matthew Nathan gives a dinner party every night. Twenty four this night. I took in Mrs Chichester wife of the Ch S.O."

Colonel Lewis spent a leisurely Sunday, attending services at the Cathedral where there was a "good musical service and a sensible sermon." However: "The building had a queer sort Gothic but effective." He strolled down to Arsenal Street, lunched with Nathan, went up the Peak to see the Austrian Consul and came down by the tram. Most sedan chairs had four bearers, he noted. "My four had a hard time!"

On the Monday he called in on Major General V. Hatton who said he would have liked Lewis to stay with him but the governor got in first. "He talked much, but sensibly, about land, defence, garrisons, N. China, French etc." The afternoon was occupied by formal calls upon various ladies.

Tuesday, January 17, saw him, with Colonel Brown and Colonel Darling, visiting Gun Club Hill where barracks housed four companies of Asiatic Artillery. He noted: "Park site very rough but with capabilities. Viewed the place from the hill at N. end of Park...250ft."

The following day seems to have been occupied by a visit on a steamer to Lyemun and Sai Wan at the east of the island. Then he went off to play golf with the Bishop at Deep Water Bay: "Pretty trip. Chance to study coast."

January 19 saw Colonel Lewis visiting Stonecutters Island where they landed at the north east pier "near the present Civil Mag. Looked at N.E. Bn. Building. Walked to East Bt 2-4g converted from 2g. Then to Central - the 10" being remounted - at least the Empl. was being reconstructed." From there we walked down to the S.W. pier and returned."

On the 20th he examined Pinewood Battery1, "2-6" VII. An admirable site 1000ft. Good P.F2 sites in front. Fine views - good reserve of land."

Saturday, the 21st, saw him looking at new roads in Kowloon, calling on Russians detailed from a destroyer which ran into Wei Hai Wei and watching the Volunteers shooting. There was also a visit to the theatre. On Sunday, church, consideration of the land question, lunch with the governor alone and a walk.

On Monday, the 22nd, he steamed, in the "Tommy Atkins" through the Lyemun pass and round Tat Hong rocks "to see the look of the ground and of the defences from the outside. Then steamed up Chung Kwango and we three Colonels climbed to a village...about 500 feet. Then we lunched and then walked back to the village of Chin-Lan-Chun. Looked at the proposed barrack site at the top of Customs House Pass. Lovely view to eastward - water and peaks. Then down the pass and steamed back. We're-embarked at 4 p.m. The Kowloon Peak area will make a magnificent exercising ground and the barracks will be excellently placed in a tactical point of view to meet an advance from the North or East." Were these barracks ever built?

The following day, on Hong Kong Island, he walked over Magazine Gap and down through the Aberdeen area while on Wednesday, January 25, he visited West Point and walked around Belcher, Fly Point, and Elliot Batteries. The following day was uneventful. On the 27th he interviewed General Hatton who "agreed to all I proposed" on the land question. Unfortunately, no details are offered as to this question. That afternoon he went out to see a big new reservoir being built, probably at Shing Mun, walking back to a pier along a road well commanded by Stonecutters "though the West Battery guns do not seem to fire round." He commented also: "The area about the reservoir is very steep and intricate. It would be difficult for an attack" - an early appreciation of the defensive importance of Shing Mun.

On the 28th he went to a spur of Mount Kellett proposed for a battery. Though he noted it was a very good site it appears that no permanent installation was built. Sunday meant church again and on the Monday he interviewed the Colonial Secretary. "He agreed to all my proposals about the Land. Hurrah!"

On Tuesday, January 31, Major Painter, of the Royal Engineers, married Miss Turner, daughter of Colonel Turner, late Royal Engineers. "H.E3 . gave away the bride and gave tea afterwards, and champagne for the healths. About 650 people. Very pretty effect. The bride etc., went down in Govt. chairs all white and red. Two Miss Browns were bridesmaids."

Entries for these days also make references to the battle for the Port Arthur and Colonel Lewis was impressed by the Chinese New Year celebrations: "The streets lined with booths like a fair and lots of people all in the best clothes. Chinese crackers popping all about. These are tremendous affairs in scarlet paper about 10 feet long, lowered from a house by a little pulley, where they bang and splutter and shed crackling fragments to the ground."

The following days saw walks, office work, a boat race, sports, dinners and so on.

On February 8 he submitted copies of his Report On Lands, to the GOC, Commander Royal Engineers, Colonial Secretary and the Governor. That day the garrison was mobilised for a major exercise and Colonel Lewis went on board the Admiral's yacht, Alacrity. She sailed out through the Lyemun passage where a good view of the Defence Lights was obtained then rounded the island to anchor in the Lamma Channel for dinner. Two cruisers were also there showing no lights, so the yacht did likewise The plan of attack was for landing parties to go in at Deep Water Bay, Aberdeen, Sandy Bay, and Taikowan Bay4. Torpedo boats attacked soon after the landings. The Admiral's yacht shifted close in to Taikowan Bay and watched the boats going in. There was an occasional round from howitzers mounted up on High West but no other sign of life. "We heard the next day that they had seen both us and the boats. Some of the party had attacked the Belcher Forts5 - were mostly driven off. One set captured Lower Belcher but it was retaken..." The yacht then moved off to watch the torpedo boats but those on board were unable to make out much. "Heard that a party landed and tried to capture the General but he took them prisoners!"

A number of references made over the preceding period in the diary to the Eastern Praya Reclamation Scheme, and to the walk along to Arsenal Street, leads one to infer that perhaps the land dispute involved the naval and military land around HMS Tamar which the civil authorities had long wanted.

Now he started work in earnest on his report on the defences of Hong Kong while continuing his explorations. On February 11 he again visited Mount Kellett and on the 14th he visited the Spring Gardens area of Wanchai, where there was a War Department property. He walked on to Happy Valley and then up to the Wong Nei Chong Gap where he saw a battery. Then he turned onto Black's Link "the new road" running south of Mount Nicholson and north of Mount Cameron to Wanchai Gap. Transport must have been met for he says that he went on to Mount Parker, at the eastern end of the island, where he pointed out to another officer the area required for a battery.

Discussions on his land report continued. On February 16 he walked down from the Peak by the Pokfulam Reservoir Road. Then Along Jubilee Road, now known as Victoria Road, to Mount Davis. "Pretty view of pines and the sea. Studied the Sulpher Channel." The following day he visited Kowloon and walked through Whitfield Barracks, commenting that the Kowloon West Battery6 was too far back.

Saturday, February 18, saw an expedition to the New Territories. He and the Governor crossed to Kowloon and then rode while others went by rickshaws, three men to each. "We went up the new road past the Reservoir and then down a long twisty incline to Fo Tan on the edge of Tide Cove. Very wealthy looking. The new coolies wanted us then to sampan but we stuck to the land. The road ran along the lake. It looked like one for two miles or so and then rose about 150 feet and eventually by a long gradual slope to an embankment which took us to Tai Po Magistrate's House where we put up."

He said that this was at present only a mat shed and the permanent house was still under construction. A boat brought the party's things around by sea. Colonel Lewis saw: "Grey hill side, grey mountains, grey sea, grey sky. Very Scotch, but evidently a lovely view on a clear day down Tolo Harbour with its islands and mountains."

The following day the party took sedan chairs up to Fan Ling and then crossed through the pass leading to Kam Tin. They carried on westwards to Yuen Long, stopping for lunch at a police station on the way. The afternoon saw them travel down to Castle Peak Bay where they boarded the boat and returned to Hong Kong.

Summing up, Colonel Lewis noted: "Had a most interesting view of the New Territory with the special idea of deciding on the roads in connection with the new railway. Fanling will become a centre as the country is flat and fertile east and west with only one low pass under 200 feet over which we went. The road, about eight feet wide and practicable for bicycles, is made through Fan Ling to opposite Shan Chun7 in Chinese territory and it is much appreciated. Elsewhere Chinese tracks cross several bridges, built by local subscription, of granite slabs. A well-watered country with fen-schue8 round the villages and not much else. Eucalyptus grows well round the police station. Both ginger and tea were tried on some hillsides but cultivation dropped owing to the rise in the cost of labour, now they are trying apples. Sugar cane and rice mainly, sugar poor but for local consumption.

"On the west of the territory are several fortified villages, square with a tower at each corner and perhaps a moat. The villages are all very regular.

"At Ping Hong, near Fan Ling, came upon a Dragon Show - or rather a Lion, it is said, though he looks more like a dragon. This is part of a theatrical entertainment which is got up by subscription in a group of villages. The lion was a new one! The dragon went through a performance. We had seats in front of a temple. The cards of the managers were given to us and H.E. had a cup of tea.

"At Un Long9 we dismounted and walked through the town. Narrow alleys, very smelly but fair shops. Bought some sliver bracelets which all the women wear. Junks drawing three feet can get up to Un Long.

"It was sunny in the morning and pretty but cloudy afterwards. A grand shoulder of Tar-mo-shan10 above the valley but we could not see his top. Two hundred ducks going home in single file. Some lepers, only 10 in the Territory - they have a dole of rice. Little joss shrines in the front of half wall of the shops. Some quite Moorish in form. Some women wear quaint hats with a large brim with no crown so their heads show through and a sort of curtain four inches deep all round11. "

After this New Territories excursion, on February 20, Colonel Lewis walked to Kowloon City and saw a rifle range nearby. "The city is quaint - narrow and slummy but not very striking. The citadel is falling into ruin. There are a lot of old S.B. guns about with Chinese inscriptions cast on them. The rifle range has a fine stop butt - a mountain of about 2000 feet.

He was now finishing his report on Hong Kong's defences but still found time to explore. On February 24 he went with a Colonel Brown by launch to Shaukiwan: "Walked along the east flank of the Dragon's Back past Tai Long Wan to Pottinger Pass - over it and up to Boa Vista. Then by new path to Taitam Pass, and down the valley leading to the B and S12 sugar factory, then launch back." Good going for a man nearly 60!

The following day, a Saturday, Colonel Lewis ordered a field uniform and a big fur coat from "Ah Men" before going out to Tai Tam again to view the new reservoirs: "100ft granite dam at Taitam; fine. An additional 30 000 gallons just tacked on to the original reservoir. A new reservoir building below also 100ft dam. Borings and other preparation for a very large reservoir to be made by cutting off a shallow arm of the sea. About 60ft to the rock. The water from the lower lakes to be pumped up to Taitam from whence it would flow by gravitation. Back by steam launch."

It is probable that the colonel's visit to Tai Tam was made as much in a professional capacity as a personal one. For the construction of these huge dams to supply the town's drinking water had a significant effect on defensive considerations. They were unprotected and there was much concern at their vulnerability to artillery attack from ships lying in waters to the south of the island.

On Monday, February 27, the diary notes, with relief one suspects: "Sent in report on defences to G.O.C."

Unfortunately, no copy of this report is available in Hong Kong. Perhaps copies exist in British archives.

Phillip Bruce, 2001, www.phillipbruce.com

1   On the western slopes of the Peak, off Hatton Road, the emplacements are well preserved in a picnic area.
2   Position Finder.
3   His Excellency The Governor.
4   Possibly Telegraph Bay in front of Baguio Villas, Pokfulam.
5   Just below Pokfulam Road, near the University.
6   This is probably the battery in what is now Kowloon Park, west to the Museum of History.
7   Shenzhen.
8   Fung Shui woods.
9   Yuen Long.
10   Tai Mo Shan, the territory's highest peak.
11   Hakka women.
12   Butterfield and Swire.
2004| Important notices | Privacy policy Last revision date: 23 January, 2014
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