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Chapter 4.3
The work of the Admiralty
Contributor: Tam Kwong-lim

After the establishment of Hong Kong, it was surprising that no systematic hydrographic surveys in and around Hong Kong waters were undertaken until well after the Second Opium War in 1860, when the Kowloon Peninsula was incorporated into the colony. The only serious survey in the pre-1860 period appeared to be the work of Captain Richard Collinson, Belcher’s successor. Like Belcher, Collinson did not receive a full grammar school education. He joined the navy in 1823 at the age of twelve. He gradually rose in the ranks and was sent to Asia to take over the survey work from Belcher immediately after the First Opium War. He conducted some large-scale surveys of the eastern approaches of Hong Kong harbour before carrying out some extensive hydrographic work at Mirs Bay and Bias Bay in 1844.[15]

After an initial difficult period, Hong Kong’s economy assumed a growth trajectory following British and other foreign traders being granted advantages in customs services and taxation. The Chinese Customs was then run by foreigners, mainly British. Five other treaty ports were open, with special concessions given to the foreign community who used Hong Kong as their distribution base in trading with China.[16]

Surveys in the 1860s were confined to local coastal areas being prepared for reclamation and construction of port facilities in the face of a growing population (largely Chinese fleeing the Taipings in the north) and a booming economy. Survey assignments included Captain W. Bates’ work on the soundings of the Hong Kong Naval Yard, as well as J.W. Reed’s survey of the depths off the Praya of Victoria Harbour, were completed in the 1860s.

To ensure safe passage at a time of increasing international traffic, including steamships, it became apparent that more survey work needed to be undertaken by hydrographic professionals. The Royal Navy then started bringing in survey vessels, such as HMS Sylvia in 1877, to survey the Tathong Channel, while in the following year, Commander Napier onboard HMS Nassau surveyed Junk Bay and also Fotowmoon Pass (Fat Tong Mun).

The 1890s was a period of rapid economic expansion in Hong Kong. Two survey ships congregated in the harbour: HMS Penguin completed work on Kawlung Bay (Kowloon Bay) and Hong Kong Harbour in 1892, while in the same year, HMS Egeria concentrated on taking soundings and large-scale measurement of New Wharf constructions on both sides of the harbour. In 1893, HMS Tweed arrived to survey the south side of the Island, surveying Tytam (Tai Tam) Bank and Oochau Island (Lo Chau), and then surveying from Lo Chau to Waglan Island, clearing up some uncertainties concerning the southwest approaches. To complete the work on both approaches to the harbour, HMS Egeria, which was still in Hong Kong in 1893, did new triangulation work on the Eastern Approaches, including the waters from Cape Collinson to Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse.[17]

It was, however, two other British naval vessels that undertook most of the survey work and produced the most useful hydrographic data for the maritime community in the period from the end of 19th century to the early 1900s. HMS Rambler was a gunboat of 845t displacement with a 2-cylinder steam engine propulsion and a fully rigged barque, that was able to achieve 10.5 knots. The ship was launched in 1880 and was commissioned as a survey ship in 1884. She was assigned to the China Station in the 1890s.[18]

The earliest record of HMS Rambler’s work was in 1902 when the ship took soundings and triangulation survey of Kau I Chau (Kauyichau) to Mahwan (Mawan) Island, and also in Aberdeen Harbour, Mirs Bay, East and West Lamma Channel, Putoi (Potai) Island and Approaches, as well as Hong Kong Harbour itself. The work of this vessel is now remembered in Hong Kong by the Rambler Channel near Tsing Yi.

The work of HMS Rambler was complemented by another naval survey ship, HMS Waterwitch. She was a wooden vessel built in 1878. By the time she was active in Asian waters, the ship was already some 20 years old. A barquentine rigged ship with a smaller engine of 450 hp, HMS Waterwitch spent most of her time in survey work in Malaya and Hong Kong.[19] The earliest record of her work in Hong Kong waters was a survey in 1899 for the Hong Kong Harbour Reclamation. In 1900 and 1901, she surveyed the area north of Lantau, Tolo Harbour, and adjacent anchorages in Mirs Bay and Crooked Harbour. The ship also made triangulation surveys, as well as taking soundings in Mirs Bay in 1903, Double Haven and Starling Inlet in 1904, and Port Shelter and Rocky Harbour in 1905.

Waterwitch’s extensive survey in Mirs Bay area was extended to Waglan Island in 1906-1907, when a detailed triangulation survey was conducted. The ship also went back to Port Shelter and Rocky Harbour area in 1907 to take some additional soundings and measurements of features. Her last assignment in Hong Kong was to locate the position of some buoys in the merchant ships anchorage in the harbour in 1909.

The surveying of Hong Kong’s waters continued with the arrival of other survey ships. HMS Merlin arrived and started work in 1909, helping with the sounding work for reclamation projects in various parts of the harbour, while doing triangulation work at Castle Peak Bay and Hong Kong harbour. By 1922, Merlin was engaged in taking soundings in the harbour and Hau Hoi Wan (Deep Bay). Her survey life came to an end in 1923 when she was sold to buyers in Hong Kong.[20]

After HMS Merlin, the navy stationed HMS Iroquois at Hong Kong from 1925 to 1927, during which time it surveyed Lingting Island. From 1929 onwards, HMS Herald became the next long-serving survey ship in Hong Kong waters. Herald was built as a minesweeping sloop in 1918 and converted in 1923 as a survey vessel. As a survey ship serving the China Station, the ship was to shuttle between Hong Kong and South East Asia. By the early 1930s, the political atmosphere in Asia was tense and Japanese expansionist ambitions in Asia were increasingly apparent. Consequently, the survey work of Herald turned to a more military nature, as in 1936, when HMS Herald surveyed and fixed the positions of transit marks for laying minefields and guard loops in East Lamma Channel and also in Tathong, thus defending both entrances of the harbour.

The ship also did some soundings at Sha Lo Wan and a major survey of the entrance to Aberdeen Docks, until being ordered to return to Singapore, the Pacific command of the British Navy in Asia, in 1939.

In Singapore, HMS Herald was bombed by Japanese aircraft in 1942, suffering such heavy damage that she was scuttled. The ship was miraculously raised by the Japanese after their occupation of Singapore and was renamed Heiyo. The ill-fated ship finally met her end, hitting a mine and sinking in 1944.[21]

After the departure of HMS Herald, there were no more survey vessels in Hong Kong until the end of the Second World War.


  • [15]
    United Kingdom Hydrographic Office,OD153, Surveying Journal of Captain Richard Collinson RN, China 1840-1844, quoted in Stephan Davis & Kenneth Wong, “Swords become Station-pointers, The Charting of the China Coast 1841-1930”, footnote 124, p.124.
  • [16]
  • [17]
    “Comprehensive List of Survey Material available for Hong Kong Waters held at UK Hydrographic Office”, Collection of Marine Department, HKSAR, p.4.
  • [18]
    J.J. Colledge. Ships of the Royal Navy: An Historical Index, (Nenton Abbot: David & Charles, 1969-1970), p. 450.
  • [19]
    Ibid., p.605.
  • [20]
    Royal Navy Log Books of the World War 1 Era,, accessed 13/01/2015.
  • [21]
    Colledge, J.J.; Warlow, Ben. Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy, Rev. ed., (London: Chatham Publishing).
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