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Chapter 2.2
The establishment of the Harbour Master’s Office and its early work
Contributor: Ting Sun-Pao, Joseph
Harbour Masters (From inception to 1860)
Lieutenant William Pedder, R. N. 1841-1853 HM, MM
Captain Thomas V. Watkins, R. N. 1854-1857 HM, MM
Andrew L. Inglis 1858-1860 HM, MM, EO

(HM-Harbour Master   MM-Marine Magistrate   EO-Emigration Officer)

Hong Kong was declared a free port by Captain Charles Elliot in his capacity as Superintendent of Trade on 7 June 1841. A general invitation to merchants to trade there was issued. The Harbour Master’s Office was among the first batch of offices set up by the colonial government. Lt. William Pedder R. N., of the steamer Nemesis, was appointed the first Harbour Master in July 1841. The post was substantiated in June 1843, after the Treaty of Nanjing was ratified and the colonial government was officially established. The Harbour Master was at the same time the Marine Magistrate, an office originally founded in Guangzhou in 1833 at the imperial order of William IV to bring to trial British subjects on board ships or residing in Guangzhou who had committed crimes.[8] The early duties of the Harbour Master were to control anchorages, departures and arrivals of all vessels in the harbour; to preserve order in the harbour; to notify the public of the intended time for last mail; and to exercise magisterial and police authority over persons who had breached the harbour control regulations issued by the Government.[9] In 1858, in view of the rapid growth of shipping and trade and the dramatic increase in Chinese emigration to the Straits Settlements, Australia and North America, an Emigration and Customs Office was set up under the Harbour Master’s Office, with the Harbour Master assuming the duties of Emigration Officer. The early structure of the Harbour Master’s Office was made up of a Harbour Master, supported by an Assistant Harbour Master and an Officiating Marine Magistrate. Each was supported by a clerk. Under them were Indian interpreters, boatmen and coolies. It was a very small establishment with limited authority. In 1854, an Emigration Officer, a sheriff, and a constable were added.[10]

Plate 1: Harbour Master’s Office on Pedder’s Hill 1857

Plate 1: Harbour Master’s Office on Pedder’s Hill 1857

The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, expanded the responsibilities of the Harbour Master’s Office together with its staff establishment. In 1859, the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, reported to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that he had arranged for the Harbour Master to perform the duties of Principal Officer of Customs, so that the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 could be implemented. At the same time, the Governor also arranged for the Colonial Secretary to act as the Registrar of Shipping when there was any official of the Registrar absent.[11]

At its inception, it was likely that the Harbour Master’s Office had discharged its duties on board a ship in the harbour. The first Harbour Master’s Office on land was likely located in a temporary building on the waterfront somewhere in Central in 1843. A room in Lt. William Pedder’s house, built on top of a hill facing Victoria Harbour, was used as the Harbour Master’s Office. The hill and the road nearby were later named after him. In around 1845, a brick house serving as the Harbour Master’s Office was built on the site of today’s old Bank of China Building.[12]

Until 1859, apart from harbour management and the registry of ships, and in the absence of a customs house in Hong Kong, the Harbour Master’s Office took up various responsibilities, including the collection of trade statistics. As the Hong Kong Government Gazette reveals, the Harbour Master’s Office was responsible for the collection of data, including the number and tonnage of vessels of each nation entering the port of Hong Kong each year, imports of opium and treasure, as well as exports of raw silk and treasure.[13] Such trade statistics were prepared by the Harbour Master’s Office until the establishment of the Imports and Exports Office in 1887.


  • [8]
    James William Norton-Kyshe, The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the earliest period to 1898 (Hong Kong: Vetch and Lee, 1971), p. 6.
  • [9]
    Ho Pui-yin, The Administrative History of the Hong Kong Government Agencies, 1841-2002 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004), p. 234.
  • [10]
    Civil Establishment, Hong Kong Administrative Reports, 1854.
  • [11]
    CO 129/74, The Provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act (Effecting the Provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854), pp. 512-516.
  • [12]
    Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong: History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1990), p. 189.
  • [13]
    ‘Government Notification No. 69’ (dated 28 May 1860), Hong Kong Government Gazette, No. 22, Vol. VI, 2 June 1860.
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