Thursday, January 30, 2014

Creggan on the Peak

The 1879 Chronical and Directory.

Just thinking about old Trade Directories is likely to trigger a bout of narcolepsy in any sensible human being. Even so, I have recently been absolutely riveted while pouring over the ones from China. It isn’t because of what they reveal in isolation. It is because of the picture that emerges when you match up their data with maps, letters and other bits.

My recent focus has been the directories that cover the inhabitants of Hong Kong in the late 1870s and through the 1880s. In these directories, the names of the first residents of The Peak are listed separately. The Ladies Directory is also included in a separate listing, and the professions of the mostly European men, the ones who bought and used the directories, are in an opening section. When you cross reference these sections, a picture of the various social, political and business entanglements of the senior business, and government men begins to become clear.

Thomas Jackson was in the first wave of those who built family homes on The Peak, but he wasn’t the very first to build up there. That distinction goes to another Irishman, the 6th governor of Hong Kong, Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell from Dublin. His house got blasted away by a typhoon, but that’s another story.

It took well over three decades after the founding of the Colony for a building boom on The Peak to really take off. The challenges of the topography were substantial. Jackson’s home, Creggan – named after his home parish in Armagh, was built in the late 1870s, a full decade before The Peak tramway was installed. Construction materials had to be hauled up the mountainside by a mixture of human heft, horses, and donkeys. One of early inhabitants, the successful opium merchant Emanuel Raphael Belilos, used camels to cart his goods up to his home on The Peak.

I am particularly curious to learn more about the construction details of the early houses on The Peak, so if anyone knows more about it, then I am all ears. I do have some sense of what is required to build a house – at least in modern times. In the mid-1970s, my husband and I built a four-story circular tower addition to our mountain-side home. At least we had a reliable 4X4 to ferry our supplies up the switchback.

The coolies and tradesmen of the late 1870s in Hong Kong had nothing like a 4X4 or power tools to make their job easier. One team of coolies would carry materials part way up and a second team would then take on the next leg of the trip.  It was all done relay style. I can barely imagine the cost to these men. Certainly, it meant an early death for many of them.

Meanwhile, those with the wherewithal, and the right ethnic background, flourished on The Peak. They escaped the worst of the plagues and other episodes of communicable diseases that were rife in the Colony long before the underlying causes of many illnesses were both understood and addressed.

In the 1889 Directory, there are fifty-five men listed, and they are living in thirty-nine different residences. For twenty-three of these men, there do not seem to be any wives or daughters living with them. This may sound like a surprisingly high ratio – close to half of them – but the men on The Peak were more likely to be married than many men in this time and place. After all, these were the men who could afford a wife, if they wanted one.

These were also the men who were the social crème de la crème. Sixteen of them served as Justices of the Peace. That is almost one in three of the men on The Peak. Given that there were ninety JPs in all, drawn from the upper class of the entire island, this is a pretty high representation. The clubs and organizations they belonged to overlapped, and were part of the spark that began and the glue that ensured the ongoing success of many business enterprises.

According to the1889 Directory, Thomas Jackson served on the Chamber of Commerce, was a Steward of the Jockey Club, President of the Rifle Association, and served on committees with the Hong Kong Public School at St. John’s College as well as the Diocesan Home and Orphanage. Of course his mother would have preferred that he had been a member of the Temperance Society rather than the Jockey Club, but that would not have been a fit with who he was. In the Jockey Club, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Hon John Bell-Irving, and the Hon Phineas Ryrie. Both men were like him, insatiable deal makers and successful businessmen. Both served on several other committees with him over the years, and both had significant connections to the bank that Jackson managed, now known as HSBC.

There are people who know way more than I do about the history of The Peak. Two of them deserve special mention: David, the animating spirit of the website gwulo where he has many posts on The Peak, and Annelise Connell who is responsible for many of these posts.  Given the day that I am posting this, it is appropriate to wish them both "Kung Hei Fat Choy".

NOTE: I have posted a ten page document on my website giving background on the men of The Peak who were listed in 1889. Soon, I will do this for other Directories so that we can better understand the trajectory of these men and their community through time. I will also write more about Creggan, and post some maps I have been creating to go with them, based on what I have been learning.
UPDATE: I have just uploaded my transcription of the 1887 Directory of The Peak residents.


  1. Hi Sharon, Happy (Chinese) New Year to you too!
    Another interesting post. I'd be interested to know if the stone for buildings was all imported, or whether any was quarried locally. When I look at this photo of the Peak Hotel,, I'm struck by how neatly the rocky outcrop in front of the hotel has been cut away. Did some of that rock end up in any of the nearby buildings?
    Regards, David

    1. I would be surprised if it didn't. I had been wondering the same thing when I have looked at some of the rock work that was used to deepen the perch on the ledges in order to make room for not only a house, but also a road access.