Pottinger Street and its tunnel

Submitted by David on Thu, 02/01/2007 - 09:00

You probably know the stone steps of Pottinger Street in Central, but how did it get its name, and what happened to its tunnel?

Pottinger Street is one of the oldest streets in Central district, and is named after Hong Kong's first Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger. Born in Ireland in 1789, he certainly packed a lot into his life. By the age of 12 he had moved to Bombay, later joining the British East India Company. By twenty he was a lieutenant in their army, but by thirty he had switched to their political service and was a Resident Administrator of Sindh province, now part of Pakistan. He retired from India in 1840.

After a short spell in London, in 1841 he was heading East again, sailing to China. This time he was acting as Minister Plenipotentiary of the British Empire, according to the following proclamation by Queen Victoria:

"To all and singular who shall read this patent, be it known that because there is a disputed matter with the great Ch'ing empire which makes it necessary to depute a competent minister to negotiate on My behalf, I especially appoint Sir Henry Pottinger, baronet, minister Plenipotentiary. Given at our Court at Buckingham Palace the 14th of May in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty one, in the fourth year of our reign."

After a short stop in Hong Kong he continued on to Northern China, together with the British expeditionary force. After a brief military campaign, he negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, which formally ceded Hong Kong island to the British. He returned to Hong Kong and was appointed it's first Governor in 1843, but resigned just one year later. It seems that it was Hong Kong he disliked rather then the role of Governor, as he went on to be Governor of the Cape Colony, and later Madras. So, quite a character, but what of the street he gave his name to? The Rev. James Legge mentions seeing it in mid-1843, so it would have been one of the first streets in the new city. Here's Rev. Legge's description of how the street and the surrounding area looked at that time:

Turning to the west, where Wellington Street runs into Queen's Road, you could see a few Chinese houses on either side of the latter, and Jervois Street was in course of formation, the houses on the north side of it having the waters of the bay washing about among them.

Eastwards from the same point on to Pottinger Street, Queen's Road was pretty well lined with Chinese houses; the Central Market was formed; and on the other side were some foreign Stores, and a tavern or two. Looking up Aberdeen Street, you saw a few indications of building, and a house on the south of Gage Street, forming the head quarters of a Madras Regiment; and looking up Pottinger Street, you could see the Magistracy and Gaol of the day, where the dreaded Major Caine presided, and below them were two or three other buildings.

On from Pottinger Street, a few English merchants had established themselves, and the house which long continued to be known as the Commercial Inn was a place of great resort. On the west of D'Aguilar Street, not then so named, building was going on, and just opposite to it, was a small house called the Bird Cage, out of which was hatched the Hongkong Dispensary.

All the space between Wyndham Street and Wellington Street was garden ground, with an imposing flat-roofed house in it, built by Mr. Brain, of the firm of Dent & Co.

As he looked up Pottinger Street to the corner of Wellington Street, he'd also have seen Hong Kong's first Roman Catholic church, as the building was finished at about that time. That church burnt down in 1859, but a grander replacement was quickly built in its place. Here's a photo from 1865 that shows the two domed towers of the newer building, now described as the Roman Catholic Cathedral. It kept that status until the larger cathedral on Caine Road was built. [Does anyone know when the Wellington St/Pottinger St site changed from church to cathedral?] The photo comes from the Public Library collection, and shows "Queen's Road from Battery Point showing the original Roman Catholic Cathedral, Clock Tower". [I guess that Battery Point would be the old Murray Battery, roughly where the Central Government Offices stand today above Battery Path. Can anyone confirm?] Here are another couple of photos, giving a closer view of Pottinger Street. The photos come from reader Moddsey, who estimates they would have been taken in the 1930s. In these old photos you can often see what looks like a litter bin with a white cloth roof standing along the sides of the steps. They are sedan chairs, waiting for a customer - there was no mid-levels escalators in those days, so these were the alternative if you didn't fancy walking. The photos are also a reminder of the street's Chinese name, 'Sek Baan Gaai', usually translated as 'Stone Step Street', but more directly meaning something like 'Stone Slab Street'. Now back to the original question, what happened to the tunnel under Pottinger Street?

Unless you've lived here for many years, you probably didn't know it was missing, as there is no trace of it remaining today. When it was last checked in the 1980's, it was considered to be at risk of collapsing, and so was filled in.

This tunnel, along with Hong Kong's other Air Raid Precaution Tunnels, was built around 1940-41, so it would have been finished some where very close to the street's 100th birthday. I wonder whether many people used it though, as with only one entrance it would have been very claustrophobic.

The single, sloping entrance to the tunnel was on the section of Pottinger St about midway between Stanley and Wellington Streets. From there the tunnel ran for appx 75m, straight back into the hill. Its only other claim to fame seems to be its ventilation system. It was one of two ARP tunnel networks in Hong Kong (the other was the the tunnel under the governor's residence) that used ducted ventilation. That would have been a necessity for this tunnel, as with only one entrance and no ventilation shaft, there was no other way to circulate fresh air.

Though no signs of this tunnel remain, luckily Hedda Morrison's excellent set of photographs includes a view of Pottinger St from Queen's Rd Central, taken in 1946-7, shortly after the end of the war. The tunnel entrance can be clearly seen:

The shape of the main staircase is different today, with a steeper initial staircase leading to a short platform.

I guess this section of the staircase was remodeled during construction of the large building to the left of the staircase. However if you look from Queen's Rd. C. up the right side of the main staircase, you'll see the same three flights of steps that are shown on the older photos.

The only other point I could find in common with the Hedda Morrison photograph is the lamppost you can see on Wellington Street! There's one in exactly the same spot today, though rather less ornate than the old style.

As usual if you have any interesting information about the street, its tunnel or surroundings, please do let us know.

Regards, MrB

More information:

Update, 24th Oct 2018: Corrected Pottinger's name from Henry Eldred Curwen Pottinger to Henry Pottinger.


Submitted by
Pete S (not verified)
Thu, 03/08/2007 - 22:38

Great article.

Had you noticed the green ventilation tower on the lowest section of Pottinger St? It sticks up between two of the stalls on the right hand side as you are looking uphill. What purpose does this serve?

for clarifying that - I guessed that was where it was, but wasn't sure. Now it is a locked door, with a sign saying something like 'meter reading room'.


Some weeks back, reader 'moddsey' sent us some more information about these:

Murray Battery was indeed at the top of Battery Path. It was situated where the Central Government Offices (CGO) West Wing is located today. A photo of the Battery can be found on Page 38 of Hong Kong - A Rare Photographic Record of the 1860s by Arthur Hacker and published by Wattis Fine Art in 1997. The photo shows the Battery looking east south-east towards CGO (today's East Wing), Lower Albert Rd, St John's Cathedral and Government House. The same photo exists in the HKPL archive. Attached are photos of the Battery and CGO from the HKPL archive. One of the photos shows a view of the Battery looking west towards the Roman Catholic Cathedral circa 1890. I attach comments made by Surveyor-General Brown on 14 Aug 1890 with regard to the extension of the CGO and the proposed acquisition of the disused Murray Battery Site:

Item No 29 – Extension of the Government Offices and construction of New Law courts. […] it will be necessary, at no remote period, to provide a considerable sum for the purpose of furnishing adequate accommodation for the Government Departments and the Law Courts. The Colony has out-grown what was thought, and probably was sufficient, years ago. The loss of time and prejudicial effect on public business owing to the offices of the Attorney Genera; and Crown Solicitor, the Land Office and the Treasury, being removed so far from the Chief Secretary and the Surveyor general are very serious. I propose to provide accommodation for these offices, and for the Law Courts, in buildings to be erected in the vicinity of the present offices. It is hoped that the Military Authorities will give up the disused Murray Battery for the purpose. The site is sufficiently central for all purposes, and commanding as it does the Queen’s Road and the Harbour, is, in my opinion, unrivalled as regards its capability for architectural effect. The new buildings erected on such a site should be worthy of the Colony. In the hope that something may be decided, I have inserted the sum of $150,000 in the Estimates, but this must be regarded only as a very rough approximation.

I also attach a picture postcard of the CGO (looking south) circa 1910s. Government House and the lane coming down to the CGO can be seen. As you mention, an air raid shelter is currently situated at the bottom of the lane.

Thanks to moddsey for sharing this information. Regards, MrB

Submitted by
Vinnie (not verified)
Thu, 08/19/2010 - 08:30

From Stanley Street up, were the steps always flattened, making the staircase like a steep ramp?  Seems a bit tricky to walk on especially if wet... but makes an interesting site to see.


I'm a fan of "forgotten" historic relicts and  stumbled upon this site by chance. The stories here are fascinating! 

Well, when I followed a link by user Moddsey, I found this:


Stop the video when it shows the busy HK street with the long staircase. Ain't that Pottinger Street? Pls note the sloped wall on the right side, the lamppost at the upper end of the staircase, and the marquee of the shop to the right. some details are different from the pictures here, for instance the advertising next to the window by the sloped wall is missing, but the video is from 1949, so some changes have to be expected.

Well, I'm not sure. It could be Pottinger Street. What do you think?