Friday 25 September 2020

Caronia, No. 17 Bowen Road - the history of a house

A friend of mine recently moved into a charming colonial house named 'Caronia' at No. 17 Bowen Road. Although I have often walked or jogged along Bowen Road I never knew this house existed. It is hidden in the trees and the only access is by steps leading up from Bowen Road. Bowen Road runs for 4 km from Magazine Gap Road to the junction of Stubbs Road and Tai Hang Road. No. 17 is the last house on the vehicular stretch of Bowen Road after which access is available for pedestrians only. The road is named after Sir George Bowen, Governor of Hong Kong from 1883 to 1885. The aqueduct section consisting of 21 granite arches was built between 1885 and 1887. The house may have been  named after the Cunard liner RMS Caronia launched in 1904 on Clydeside.  Perhaps the house owner had a romantic relationship on the ship. The house equally well could have been named after the charming Sicilian hill-top town bearing the same name. The house was built in 1923. The three neighbouring houses at No. 16, No. 15 and No. 14 were completed around the same time.  An old house like this must have an interesting history. My friend asked me if I could look into the history of the house and find out something about the people who lived there. These four colonial houses were clearly visible from anywhere in Hong Kong or Kowloon. The photograph below shows them in 1949.

No. 17, 16, 15, and 14 Bowen Road (Source: Getty Images - Common Usage)

Today, No.16 has been demolished and a new building is being constructed. No.15 has been subject to substantive renovation and structural work which has altered its original appearance. No. 14 has been completely demolished and two modern houses have been built on a concrete podium  above the road on the original plot. Only Caronia remains pretty much unchanged.

Map showing the four properties

Formerly No. 14 (now 12b and c) 

No. 15 Bowenn Road

The garage block - perhaps originally one for each house

What is left of No. 16

My first view of the house, No. 17,  through the trees 

Set amongst trees and splendid gardens

The Terrace

View from the roof

History enthusiast, Alex Macdonald, did a search at the land registry and found that No 17 was completed in 1923. The first registered owner was Captain Frank Leader Brown born 5 October 1888 and passed away 8 August 1968 in Worthing, Sussex.  He served in the Royal Engineers since 1907/1908 when he is listed as a subaltern. When WW1 broke out in 1914 he had attained the rank of Captain. Records indicate that he served in Hong Kong before the war as he gives an address in 1913 as Royal Engineers Mess Wellington Barracks, Hong Kong. Forces war records indicate that he saw service in Italy during the war. Locations included Monte Cassino, Anzio, Salerno and San Marino. Could this be the reason he named the house Caronia. 

After the war, possibly in 1922, he left the Army and came back to Hong Kong. He appears on Juror's Lists in 1923, when the house was completed and is listed as a Civil Engineer working for Hongkong Electric (HKE). His address is given as No. 17 Bowen Road. This continues from 1923 until 1941 indicating that he lived at No. 17 for those eighteen years until the war started in December 1941.

In June 1928, he is listed on the manifest of Empress of Australia returning to the  UK with his widowed mother Mary Gertrude Brown of Littlecourt, Goring-upon-Thames. He was thirty-nine and his mother was sixty-two. They travelled from Hong Kong via Manila and Vancouver and then across the continent to board the Empress of Australia at Quebec. Travelling with them was Muriel Winifred Holmes (nee Bateman) the wife of Harold Kennard Holmes, whose address, strangely enough,  is given as No. 17 Bowen Road. Did they all live together or did Harold Holmes house-sit for them? Harold and Muriel Holmes had married in 1905 at St John's Cathedral. She had previously been a teacher at Belilos School.

Had Harold and Muriel's marriage broken down? Was there a romantic relationship between Muriel Holmes and Frank Brown? There certainly was later, as Frank and Muriel married. I have not found a date for the marriage but it was probably in the early or mid-1930s. Harold Holmes later married Ellen Florence in 1938 in Essex. The marriage did not last long because he died four years later in 1942. 

They were interned at Stanley Camp in January 1942. They were billeted in A4/15 which was in the Prison Officers Club Building. They retired to Worthing where Muriel died in 1967 and where Frank died the following year.

The next owner of No. 17 came as a bit of a surprise. I recognised the name immediately. It was Elizabeth ('Emma') Appleton Fidoe. She was one of the five European volunteer military nurses who were raped by Japanese troops at St Stephen's College Hospital on 25 December 1941. She is listed as an owner of No. 17 from 1948 until 1951 when the London Missionary Society acquired the house possibly under the terms of her will. 

Emma Fidoe (nee Dudley) was of Irish extraction born in Kilkenny in 1898. Her family moved to Aldershot, England. Her father was working with the British Army (possibly in a civilian role). She became a nurse, and at one stage was working as Matron at the London Jewish Hospital. She married SQMS (Staff Quarter Master Sergeant) Joseph Henry Fidoe, RAOC in December 1935. The marriage is referenced in the China Mail 31 December 1935. The wedding took place at St John's Cathedral. The newspaper reports that Emma had just arrived in Hong Kong on the troopship HMT Neuralia. The ship was sunk by a mine in 1945.

HMT Neuralia (Source:

Joseph Fidoe was born in 1891. He had served abroad since 1931 in Egypt, China and Hong Kong. He had been married twice before. His first wife, Nelly Proudman, had predeceased him. They married in 1912 and had a daughter Molly. Nelly died in 1925 and in the same year, Joseph Fidoe married May Dudley in London. She was Emma's sister. She died in China in 1934. The following year he married his thirty-seven-year-old sister-in-law, Emma. The wedding was a big event with a well-attended reception at the Gloucester Hotel. A few years later, Joseph Fidoe left the Army and in 1938 appears on the Jurors List as an employee of Tai Koo Dockyard. However, after this, he seems to disappear into the ether.  He was not in Hong Kong in December 1941. So what happened to him - did he predecease Emma? Did they separate and divorce? I can not find any record of his death. We know that Emma was working as a military nurse serving with the Nursing Detachment of the HKVDC in December 1941 and that she was raped and abused by Japanese soldiers on Christmas Day after they took over St Stephen's Collge Hospital. We know that she was not interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. She must have avoided internment on the grounds of Irish (neutral) nationality. How did she survive in Japanese occupied Hong Kong? What was the source of her funds? Did she continue to practice as a private nurse? All we know is that in October 1945 she was repatriated on the hospital ship HMHS Oxfordshire.  She was demobbed from the Nursing Detachment in London in May 1946 and then returned to Hong Kong to resume her career as a private nurse. 

In 1948, she appears as the new owner of No. 17 presumably assigned to her by Frank Leader Brown but how does a nurse afford a house like this and why did she need such a large house. Emma lived at Caronia until her premature death aged 52 in 1951 at Queen Mary Hospital following an illness.

Letter from Emma to Adjutant ND, HKVDC dated October 1946 (Source: HK PRO)

Letter from Commandant of ND HKVDC to Emma (Sept. 1945) (Source: HK PRO)

Notice of probate (Source:

The next owner of Caronia, No. 17 Bowen Road,  was the London Missionary Society (LMS) - it may have been bequeathed to the society by Emma Fidoe. The LMS retained it only until 1954. The next owner was Elsie Sue Ming. Joseph Luk and Moira Moser who lived at Caronia as long-term tenants advised me that she (Elsie) had set up a school at Caronia called Marymount. After Elsie Sue Ming's death the property was acquired by the Fung Family who have owned it since 1978.

Houses have a history, they have tales to tell about the people that lived in them, the lives they led, the things that they witnessed, their happiness and sadness. It's wonderful that this house still remains to whisper evocatively of days gone by and how things used to be.  To quote the writer, L. P. Hartley, "the past is a foreign country they do things differently there."


The Neighbours - No. 16, 15 & 14

No. 16 is now demolished. A new structure will go up in its place no doubt lacking any sort of charm that these old houses once exuded. We have not yet been able to find the previous registered owners. I did notice that in 2012 it was sold by Tony Chan, the feng shui master, closely linked to Nina Wang, for the princely sum of HKD380mm.

No. 15 is still the original house although  after much structural renovation. The house was constructed in 1920. The first owner is listed as Thomas William Shearstone. He may have been the developer. The house was acquired in 1923 by brothers William and Anthony Carroll along with No 14. In 1925, the property was acquired by Peak Tramways who owned the property until after the war. 

No. 14 has been demolished and the two new properties built on the plot  have been re-numbered  12 (b) and 12 (c). The less than charming building incorporates the Seychelles Consulate. As with No 15  it was first owned by TW Shearstone (possibly the developer). The house was assigned to the Carroll Brothers in 1923. It was assigned to HK Telephone Co in 1947. In December 1941. Henry and Sarah Refo and their four children were renting No 14 from the Carrol Brothers. The Carroll brothers were considered as traitors by the British and had been interned together with Japanese and Italian civilians. 


Ted Lee

Alexander Macdonald 

Joseph Luk 

Moira Moser

Wednesday 16 September 2020

23 Coombe Road - the story of a house

The house was known during the Battle for Hong Kong as Glen Iris or simply as No. 530 the Peak. It still remains and is one of the oldest surviving residential houses in Hong Kong. It is known today as No. 23 Coombe Road and sometimes referred to as Carrick. It is currently empty and looks weathered, dilapidated and uncared for, but it has an interesting history. In recent years it has been subject to some controversy. The Hong Kong Government agreed to a land swap with the current owners so that the government could preserve this historic building. The owners who had applied to redevelop the property were given in exchange a plot of land across the road on which they could build a large residential house. The controversy relates to objections mainly from residents of Coombe Road who think that the new property will mar the countryside and disturb the ecology. Some of the detractors of the scheme feel that No. 23 is unattractive, not particularly notable, and should be redeveloped rather than preserved through the land swap arrangement.

Coombe Road links Magazine Gap with Wan Chai Gap. House No. 23 is situated near where Coombe Road joins with Wan Chai Gap, and close to the former Police Station which now houses the Police Museum. The plot for No. 23 was acquired by John Joseph Francis, an Irish soldier who first came to Hong Kong in 1859 and later became a prominent lawyer and long term resident of Hong Kong.  J.J. Francis acquired the land in 1886 and built the house in 1887. He named it Stonyhurst.  The house was built in the Palladian style and designed by architects Danby & Leigh, the forerunner to the firm of Leigh and Orange.

The entrance to No 23 today (Writer's Collection)

The former police station -  now a museum
The first owner J.J. Francis was born in Dublin in 1839. He joined the Royal Artillery and served in Hong Kong in 1859. He discharged himself from the Army by purchase and continued to live in Hong Kong. He became a solicitor's clerk and later qualified as a solicitor. After Francis died in 1901 the property changed hands several times until in 1921 it was acquired by Hong Kong Electric Co. who owned it until 1976. At this time the house was known as Glen Iris or No. 530, The Peak. This is how it is shown in the 1938 road map of the Peak below. 

Road Map of Peak District dated 1938 (Govt. Maps Office)
The area encompassing Coombe Road, Magazine Gap, Wan Chai Gap, Middle Gap Road and Mount Cameron Road was a major military zone during the Battle of Hong Kong. The area was heavily bombed, shelled and fought over. The Winnipeg Grenadiers Battalion HQ was located at Wan Chai Gap. West Infantry Brigade and West Group Royal Artillery had their HQ's located here after West Brigade Shelters were destroyed on 19th December 1941. The Royal Scots also had their Bn HQ at Wan Chai Gap during part of the battle. Most of the private houses along the three roads (Middle Gap Rd, Mount Cameron Rd and Coombe Rd) were occupied by the military. 

Major Kenneth Baird, Winnipeg Grenadiers, in Letters to Harvelyn (1957) recalls that No. 530 The Peak was used as an officers mess by the Canadian Army. 
"After making my report and asking for orders, [from Lt-Col Sutcliffe at Bn HQ] he sent me up to the mess at 530 Coombe Road, just near our battalion HQ. This house was someone's beautiful home." 
"Our mess at 530 Coombe Road was selected because it was close to the central dugouts where every part of our defence system on the Island was linked by phone. I had my company office in a huge house - 528, Coombe Road. The second day there, the Japs put a 6-inch shell in one of the rooms killing six men and wounding several more."  
According to the 1941 Jurors List, No. 530  was the home of Edgar Thompson, a senior engineer with Hong Kong Electric Co Ltd. Thompson was also a member of the special guard contingent of the HKVDC known as the Hughes Group. He was captured whilst defending the HKE power station at North Point on 19th December 1941. He was incarcerated in POW Camp for the duration of the war. His wife Maisie and daughter Ann had been evacuated before the war. Edgar Thompson survived the period of incarceration and returned to Hong Kong after the war as Chief Engineer of HKE. The family were later to re-occupy their pre-war home at No. 530 The Peak. Thompson retired in 1954.

No 528, The Peak where Major Baird had his Coy HQ was the house immediately next door to No. 530. Captain Terry, Paymaster was wounded and hospitalised, and Major Baird was slightly injured at No. 530 (the mess). This occurred when Captain Terry was shaving in a bathroom on the second floor, and Major Baird was standing in the doorway chatting with him when a shell hit the wall above the bathroom window. The bathroom was wrecked. Terry was badly injured and Baird was thrown fifteen feet into the next room. At the time there were around ten officers having breakfast in the dining room on the ground floor. They had felt the impact as the shell hit the upper floor, but the house was strongly built and sustained little external damage.

In happier times (Source:
Today - with an air of faded gentility, dilapidation and decay (Writer's Collection)
In 1986, Walter Greenwood, a Hong Kong lawyer and Magistrate, published a detailed and well-researched article about John Joseph Francis, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch. (Volume 26). He had done much for the local Chinese community, for example, he had actively campaigned to stop the mui tsai system in which Chinese girls were subject to a form of slavery. He had also contributed to the efforts to fight the spread of the bubonic plague. He was instrumental in forming the Po Leung Kok, a society for the protection of the innocent. 

Hidden among the trees, but with a story to tell (Source: Writer's Collection)
This is a house with an interesting history dating back to 1887. It is good to see that the house has been protected from demolition and redevelopment. Now the authorities need to ensure that it is well conserved and put to good use. Perhaps a museum focused on the history of the Peak, with exhibits, coffee shops and dining so that the sound of people conversing and children playing can reverberate once more through its empty rooms and passageways. It's a place that deserves to be cherished as part of Hong Kong's history and brought to life again.


Battle of Waterloo - Ensign Thomas Deacon wounded at Quatre Bras and a daughter born during the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815. It was a contest between the coalition of Britain, Prussia, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands including Belgium, and the Germanic States of Hanover, Nassau and Brunswick; and against the re-assembled French Army under the command of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte had escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba in February 1815. He landed at Antibes in the South of France with his personal escort of 600 men and marched towards Paris. Louis XVIII, the newly restored King of France sent an army to stop him, but the army allied themselves with the old Emperor and joined his ranks. The King, a constitutional monarch, who had spent so much of his life in exile, fled Paris and Bonaparte marched into Paris, unopposed, at the head of a large and still growing army.
   The coalition included Russia and Austria, but they were not able to raise their respective armies in time for military intervention. The coalition formed two armies, a British Army and their Dutch and Germanic allies, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian Army under Field Marshal Von Blucher. The British Army included the King's German Legion mainly comprised of Hanoverians who had fled to Britain to serve in the military with the aim of freeing their homeland from Napoleonic occupation. In June 1815, Bonaparte left Paris at the head of an army of some 123,000 men and 360 guns with the intent of defeating the two opposing armies before they could come together. The defeat of the two armies would open the way for the subjugation of continental Europe.
   Lord George Byron, the romantic poet and adventurist, described the allied countries, in his lengthy epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as the 'United Nations', and in so doing, gave rise to the moniker that replaced the League of Nations. It was a massive set-piece battle that from the outset stirred the imagination of Georgian Britain and the rest of Europe. It was a clash between the nation-states of Europe and the concept of the French-controlled superstate. The victory brought peace to Europe for some 100 years.
    Charlotte, the Duchess of Richmond, hosted a ball in Brussels on the night of 15 June. It was attended by the Duke of Wellington with his officers, many of whom were accompanied by their ladies, who had come out to Brussels to be with their husbands. It was by all accounts a grand occasion.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by R.A. Hillingford
Byron captured the essence of the evening so vividly in his poem The Eve of Waterloo. He describes how the ball was interrupted by the cacophony of the cannon's opening roar. It was a call to arms, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte was heading to Brussels.
There was a sound of revelry by night, And Belgium's capital had gathered then Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men; A thousand hearts beat happily, and when Music arose with its voluptuous swell, Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again, And all went merry as a marriage-bell; But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!  
The opening battle was fought at Quatre Bras on 16th June, and the main battle two days later at a location on rising ground south of the village of Waterloo. The battlefield is still a very popular tourist destination, just as it was in the 19th century. The topography has been somewhat altered by the amount of soil dug up for the construction of the Butte du Lion (the Lion Mound) seen in the photograph below. The construction of the mound was commissioned by King William of the Netherlands in 1820 and was completed in 1826 near the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded in the battle.

The Writer on the Battlefield of Waterloo with Butte du Lion in the background

You can ascend to the base of the lion by a steep flight of steps. The platform below the lion provides in one coup d'oeil a 360-degree view of the battlefield, the sunken lane, and the farmhouses of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. The mound commemorates all those who fought, and the many who died, at Waterloo and Quatre Bras. There is also a circular building near the mound that is called the panorama. It houses a painting 360 foot long and 39 foot high that was commissioned in 1912. 

    I am digressing, so let me now return to the subject of this post. He was a young officer, an Ensign, by the name of Thomas Deacon who fought at Quatre Bras and was wounded in the battle. His pregnant wife with two young children walked from Quatre Bras to Brussels searching for her wounded husband. She found him in a military hospital in Brussels. She by then was exhausted, famished, sick and wet-through. Her baby was delivered that night on 18 June and named Waterloo Deacon.

    I first heard of Thomas Deacon when reading a book with the rather grand title Recollections of Military Service, in 1813, 1814, and 1815 through Germany, Holland, and France including some details of the Battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. The book was written by Sgt Thomas Morris who served with the 73rd Regiment of Foot. It was first published in 1845 and is one of several first-hand accounts of the battle. 

    Whilst advancing under fire through the rye fields at Quatre Bras, Sgt Morris recalled that Ensign Deacon was on his right-hand side. On his left was Private Sam Shortly. Pte Shortly was killed outright by a musket ball to the forehead. Ensign Deacon was severely wounded by a musket ball that passed through his arm. The young officer withdrew to the rear to get his wounded arm dressed and attended. Deacon had been accompanied by his wife Martha and their two children who were somewhere in the rear. After having his wound dressed he looked for his wife but was unable to find her, and was later put on baggage-train to Brussels for hospitalisation. Martha heard from soldiers from her husband's battalion that her husband had been wounded and conveyed to Brussels.

28th Regiment of Foot form a square to fend off French cavalry at Quatre Bras (by Lady Butler)
Martha and her two young children, Louisa Maria (b. 1809) and Charles Clemments (b. 1811) walked all the way to Brussels, a journey of some twenty miles.
Conveyances there were none to be had, and she was in in the last stage of pregnancy, but encouraged by the hope of finding her husband, she made the best of her way on foot, with her children, exposed to the violence of the terrific storm of thunder, lightning, and rain, which continued without intermission for about ten hours. Faint, exhausted and wet to the skin, having no other clothes than a black silk dress and light shawl, she yet happily surmounted these difficulties, reached Brussels on the morning of 18th, and found her husband in very comfortable quarters, where she was also accommodated; the next day giving birth to a fine girl, which was afterwards christened Waterloo Deacon. (Sgt Thomas Morris)
Thomas Deacon was born in 1788. He married Martha Ann Durrand on 31 August 1809. They married at St George's Church in Hanover Square. They were both aged twenty-one. She was the daughter of John Hodson Durand, who was Member of Parliament for Maidstone from 1802 to 1806. She appears to have been from a well-to-do family. However, I can not find much information on Thomas Deacon. I wonder whether he may have been a soldier in the rank and file. This is pure speculation but if he was an NCO, rather than a commissioned officer their marriage may not have been approved by her family and she may not have received financial support. Their first daughter Louisa was born in Woolwich, an Army depot, in 1809, in the same year in which they married. Suggesting the marriage may have been a necessity.  Their son Charles Clements was born in Hythe in 1811, another Army garrison town. This suggests that Thomas Deacon may have been in the Army before he was commissioned in the 73rd Regiment in April 1813 at the rather late age of twenty-five.  It would not be late if he had been commissioned from the ranks. We know his commission was not purchased. At that time officers in the cavalry and infantry regiments generally purchased commissions. There were exceptions, for example, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers commissioned those who had attended training courses at their depots, and promoted on merit and seniority. During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a shortage of officers which was not filled by those willing to purchase a commission in the normal way. Gentlemen generally purchased commissions, and there was a derogatory term of 'not quite gentlemen' for some officers commissioned other than by purchase, for example by merit on the battlefield. There were some officers who were gentlemen, but impecunious, and could not afford to purchase a commission. Some of these joined as rank and file but messed with the officers. They looked to distinguish themselves during the battle to win a commission.  Perhaps Deacon was one of these.
   Gordon Corrigan in Waterloo A New History of the Battle and its Armies  (2014) sets out the cost of purchasing a commission as an Ensign as being £900 for the prestigious Foot Guards and £400 in the Line infantry. The purchase price would be nine and four times the annual salary of an ensign. A sergeant could be commissioned without purchase following gallantry on the battlefield or a record of long service and good conduct. Gordon Corrigan suggests that as many as 10 per cent of officers at Waterloo had been commissioned from the ranks. Officers commissioned from the ranks were particularly useful as Adjutants as they were responsible for drilling, which was vital in battle in getting men into position and to form squares etc. Deacon served as an Adjutant in Ceylon.
    Waterloo Deacon, born 18 June 1815 during the Battle of Waterloo, was in fact christened Isabella Fleura Waterloo Deacon. After recovering from his wound, Thomas Deacon was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and was sent out to India and Ceylon. During Deacon's service in the Far East, Martha had five more children, but four of these died in infancy. Thomas Deacon reached the rank of Brevet Major in 1846. He died in 1853, whilst still serving in the Army, at the late age of sixty-five. He was buried in Madras, Southern India. Martha his loyal, long-suffering wife, died in 1855.
    As for Isabella Fleura Waterloo Deacon, as far as I can see she never married. She lived a long life and died in 1900 in Southsea, Hampshire. The local newspaper The Hampshire Advertiser reports the death of Isabella Fleura W. Deacon. I wonder whether she had stopped using Waterloo in her name. At the time of her death, she had been living with her niece who was the daughter of her brother, Charles Clements Deacon, who had walked, with his mother and sister from Quatre Bras to Brussels where Isabella was born in a military hospital just as the Battle of Waterloo unfolded and changed the history of Europe.


Main Sources:

Recollections of military service in 1813, 1814, and 1815  by Thomas Morris

A blog entitled All things Georgian