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.


1 comment:

  1. I loved reading the article about 23 Coombe Road, once called Stonyhurst—the historic house that endured hardship during the battle of Hong Kong in 1941. I appreciate your thorough research on the home. I agree that the building built in 1887 has witnessed a dramatic change in Hong Kong.