The Great Fire of Hong Kong

Submitted by David on Mon, 07/26/2010 - 08:16

This is a guest post by Hong Kong writer and editor Adam Nebbs.

Great Fire of HK - Front

Collective Memory is a term used quite often in Hong Kong these days, amid the ongoing destruction of our city’s heritage. But several very significant events from our early history seem to have drifted into complete obscurity. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is a well-known event in the United States, but how many Hongkongers are aware that just a few months later a typhoon devastated their own city, killing more than three times as many people? What was once known locally as The Great Fire of 1878 is another, similarly forgotten disaster.

I first came upon the Fire (without even realising it, when I was researching a story on 19th-century visitors to Canton) in Isabella Bird’s The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. In that book, which opens in Hong Kong on Boxing Day 1878, the author describes arriving in the Colony by ship during a fire and making her way through the mayhem to the residence of Bishop Burdon on Lower Albert Road. Much later I read Around the World by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who also mentioned being in Hong Kong at the time of a serious fire. Returning to The Golden Chersonese, I found that both authors were writing about the same event, and on further investigation soon discovered that yet another writer, Constance Gordon-Cumming, was also here at the same time.

The coincidental presence of these three visitors was a result of Hong Kong’s early development as a viable international tourist destination, which followed the opening of the Suez Canal and America’s First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, and a railway linking Calcutta and Bombay in 1870. The growing number of foreign visitor arrivals during the 1870s – from English aristocracy to Thomas Cook’s first round-the-world package tour – seemed, therefore, an appropriate starting point for a book that has just been published as The Great Fire of Hong Kong.

Great Fire of HK - Back

Research for that first chapter alone took quite some time, but the real work began with examining in detail the birth of the first Hong Kong Fire Brigade, an official but mostly part-time outfit that few historians seem to have ever mentioned, and none at all covered in any detail. Then there was the English shopkeeper accused of starting the Great Fire. Thanks to a number of resources, especially the Carl Smith Collection of index cards kept at the Public Records Office, I was able to piece together something of his life in Hong Kong from 1867 to 1879. Many other forgotten working-class expatriates found their way into the story, too, and tracing their lives and deaths became one of the more compelling and time-consuming aspects of writing this book.

Wherever possible I tried to use only primary-source information, and let the people speak for themselves through contemporary books, local and international news reports, court reports, official despatches and so on. More than a year after making that first Isabella Bird-Andrew Carnegie connection, I had a completed manuscript for a book that I hope will now help restore Hong Kong’s memory of a very real catastrophe that destroyed hundreds of buildings between the harbourfront and Hollywood Road.

The Great Fire of Hong Kong is published in Hong Kong by Bonham Media. It includes eight illustrations, one map, two appendices and a full index. Price HK$138. 


Adam, the fire is an interesting topic - I hadn't heard of it before.

I hadn't heard of the Bombay - Calcutta railway either. Do you know what affect it had on the travel times from Europe to HK, and how widely it was used for travellers along that route?

Regards, David

Hi David,

I'm not sure how much time was saved by the rail link - probably not more than a week - but it certainly made travelling through India much easier and more attractive, and it was a popular connection for early leisure travellers. Thomas Cook's round-the-world tours went this way from the 1870s, taking in Benares (Varanasi) and Lucknow, as did the fictional Phileas Fogg, in the other direction, in Around the World in 80 Days. Others chose to visit Ceylon instead, so took the sea route on P&O or Messageries Maritimes (the French Mail line).

Constance Gordon Cummings book "Wanderings in China" is free online at

Here is a quote:

"At 2 p.m. this morning we were aroused by the wild clanging of the fire-alarm — a sound which I have happily not heard since the first night of my arrival, when it impressed itself so awfully on our senses. Strange that my first and last night in Hong-Kong should be marked by such haunting memories ! The house stands so high that it commands a wide view of the town, and looking out, we saw the flames rising from a point near the naval yard. Fortunately it did not turn out to be very serious, but Mr Coxon had to start instantly to join the fire-brigade (of which I think he is captain). Curiously enough he was introduced to me, sitting on his fire-engine, the morning of that awful Christmas night, and this morning he came straight from his engine to the steamer to say good-bye !

The house she stayed in was the home of Atwell and Louisa Coxon, on Seymour Terrace, on Robinson Road.

Quite right, Adam.  It was at the home of Snowden's, subletting from the Chief-Justice, where the author had her view of the fire. 

On a lighter note, in one letter the author has this at the top:

Care of Mrs. Snowden, City of Victoria,
Isle of Hong-Kong,
Christmas Day

In case the address at the head of this letter should appear needlessly elalborate, I may quote a little conversation which I overheard soon after my return to England. Said a young barrister to the wife of an English M.P., — " Didn't Miss G. C. say she was staying with the Chief-Justice of Hong-Kong? How do we come to have a Chief-Justice there? Isn't it somewhere in Japan.'''

Said the lady, — " Well, really I never thought about it before, though we have relations there. But now you come to mention it, I think you are right " !

"plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose"

Yes, Francis Snowden was Acting Chief Justice in the absence of Chief Justice John Smale, who was in England on long leave, and so occupying his Caine Rd residence. The Snowdens usually lived at The Albany. Coincidentally it was Francis Snowden who, over lunch, gave Isabella Bird the idea of visiting the Malay peninsula after Hong Kong, a journey that gave her the material for The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither.

Aha, I see - so the new railway was a big advantage if you were a leisure traveller, but maybe not so relevant if you were just travelling from HK to Europe?

I hadn't heard of Messageries Maritimes until recently either, but they crop up in the Jurors Lists from the 1890s. eg the 1894 list shows seven people working for Messageries Maritimes. That's almost 1% of the list, giving an idea of the company's importance. So much to learn!

Adam, please could you give us a rough outline of the area that was totally destroyed in the fire, and would have been rebuilt? It'll be interesting to see if there is a cluster of Places in that area, with similar post-fire construction dates.

Regards, David

Hi David,

The book contains a fairly detailed map showing the exact area of destruction (based on a map sent to London right after the fire by Hennessy), but basically it was about 10.5 acres in an area framed by Queen's Road, Pottinger Street, Hollywood Road and Peel Street. Rebuilding began in January 1879.

Further to the above: The RMS Oceanic set a Liverpool-to-Hong Kong record of 40 days in April-May 1875, but only sailed between Hong Kong and San Francisco after that. Six weeks was about standard sailing time between UK and HK during the 1870s for steamers (which also had sails at the time). However, I found a mail despatch sent by Governor John Pope Hennessy from Hong Kong on December 27, 1878 that was received in London 35 days later on January 31. This despatch may have been helped along by the Calcutta – Bombay link, or taken up by train from, say, the Italian port of Brindisi. To make the Calcutta to Bombay link work for you timewise, you would have had to have good sea connections in Bombay or Calcutta (depending on direction of travel). It’s possible that some travellers would have re-connected with their original ship, choosing the overland India train route for tourism purposes.

Not really accurate, I'm afraid. The fire covered an area more to the north of Queen's Road as well (basically where The Center is), and didn't extend that far west along Hollywood Road. It also destroyed the site of what is today the main front building of the Central Police Station. If I could scan the map from my book I would, but my scanner is playing up. Plus, the publisher might have issues.

Nicely scanned. I have the originals of these, but the the first and third have been hand tinted. All three appear inside the book, and the top two were combined by the designer to make the front cover, which you can probably tell. The large building on the left of the third picture is the old British Hotel on Queens Road.

Just about got the hang of map making thanks to David's online tutorial. This one shows the area of Central destroyed by the Great Fire of 1878, in a contemporary setting.

EDIT: Part or all of the boundary line now seems to disappear from the map on my browser. Sorry if anyone else has this problem.

[gmap line=22.285234685375766,114.15448307991028 + 22.284797875916503,114.15515899658203 + 22.28414265916869,114.15466547012329 + 22.283993745843215,114.15481567382812 + 22.283795194495873,114.154611825943 + 22.283497366946164,114.15508389472961 |line=22.28345765655827,114.1551160812378 + 22.28304069680444,114.1554057598114 |line=22.281948653461086,114.15451526641845 + 22.28305062443208,114.15539503097534 + 22.281660749704432,114.15430068969726 + 22.281819593229684,114.15387153625488 |line=22.28297120339125,114.15310978889465 + 22.282643591120965,114.1533350944519 |line=22.281789810082443,114.1538393497467 + 22.28259395283123,114.15401101112366 |line=22.28262373580718,114.15369987487793 + 22.282603880490587,114.1540002822876 + 22.282653518776794,114.15334582328796 + 22.283000986286843,114.15307760238647 + 22.28338816335232,114.15346384048462 + 22.28354700491517,114.1533350944519 + 22.28338816335232,114.15346384048462 + 22.28354700491517,114.1533350944519 + 22.28392425290372,114.15372133255005 + 22.284232007087844,114.15404319763183 + 22.2843511375579,114.15411829948425 + 22.2845000505027,114.15395736694336 |line=22.28392425290372,114.15372133255005 + 22.284232007087844,114.15404319763183 + 22.2843511375579,114.15411829948425 + 22.28448019545256,114.15392518043518 |line=22.28484751342379,114.15420413017273 + 22.284509978026715,114.15392518043518 + 22.285194975481314,114.15444016456604 |zoom=17 |center=22.283844832359147,114.15470838546753 |width=480px |height=450px |control=Small |type=Map]

Thanks Adam, no problems viewing the outline here. (Though I made the map a little bit taller, so the bottom of the blue line isn't hidden.)

I read something this week about a building that was burnt down on this day in 1878. Interesting that the writer hadn't connected it to being part of this large fire. Another example of how it has slipped from memory.

Hi there,

My IE 8 on Windows 7 requies a few refreshes before the blue frame is visible.  Some cache or scripping problem, I guess.  But my Forefix on Windows XP or IE 7 on Windows XP from another machine worked out just fine.

Best Regards,


Adam, sorry, I can remember thinking I must remember to tell you about the fire, but can't think where I read it now....

Thomas, thanks for the extra info. I find the blue line doesn't show in IE 8 on my PC either, though in FireFox it is fine :-(

I wonder if choosing 'filled polygon' works any better than lines?

Regards, David

Ugh! The reason I went with Lines was because Filled Polygon gave me a headache filling in such a complex shape. If anyone else fancies a go....




[gmap polygon=22.28306932144202,114.15544992687501 + 22.28163973599602,114.15429121258057 + 22.28178865182861,114.15379768612183 + 22.28257293926307,114.15393716099061 + 22.282622577560257,114.15333634617127 + 22.28293033460954,114.15304666759766 + 22.28336714990352,114.15345436336793 + 22.283585557038748,114.15326124431886 + 22.284369834393914,114.15413028003968 + 22.284508819795427,114.15391570331849 + 22.28525338209363,114.15446287395753 + 22.28480664519054,114.15512806179322 + 22.28419113867467,114.15463453533448 + 22.28401244272704,114.15485984089173 + 22.28377418110825,114.15466672184266 + 22.283446570719445,114.15511733295716 + 22.28306932144202,114.15544992687501 |zoom=17 |center=22.28361649804218,114.15417194366455 |width=480px |height=450px |control=Small |type=Map]

Same problem unfortunately - so if you're reading this and can't see what we're talking about, a temporary workaround is to use Firefox to look at this page.

Anyone who has read The Great Fire of Hong Kong can find some new supplementary material, including photos, here. The multitudes who have not can read a couple of short extracts. This site will, I hope, be ongoing as more historical material that can enhance readers' enjoyment of the book in some small way comes to light.

Regards, Adam

Submitted by
Paula (not verified)
Thu, 04/07/2011 - 22:58

Ive just listen to the radio program good to hear your voice.  I know for a fact 5 people in Wales uk have a copy of your book. I am interesting in seeing the next one. Well done.



Hi Adam,
In researching the area around Cochrane and Gutzlaff Streets (see my forum posts of the captioned title,, I came across the 1878 great fire which destroyed over 300 houses in Central from Queen's Road to Hollywood Road. I also read your book and found a map which shows the affected area. The site (I.L.104) is right at the heart of the affected area. 
According to your book and news reports at the time, all of the houses in the area were destroyed and rebuilding started at the beginning of next year (1879). 
The old house remains which belong to a cluster of back-to-back tenement houses sharing common back and side walls could be built all at the same time right after the fire (1879). The AMO appraisal mentions records of unlicensed brothels in 1882-4. The 1897 map of the area shows the back-to-back format which remained unchanged up to 1960s/70s when the houses were demolished but some parts of them remain until today.
The fire essentially cleared the area so most of the houses within the affected area were rebuilt at the same time. This could be an important clue to date the construction time of the houses.
Would be grateful if you could provide more insights into the development of this area after the fire. The house remains could be accessible via a small aley beside 108-110 Wellington Street.


I have also looked at those structures from the escalator and wondered how old they might be. As my research on the burned district didn't extend much past the fire itself, I couldn't tell you if they date from just after the fire, but they would almost certainly not date from before it happened, as almost everything in that area was made from wood up to that point. 

Although the boundaries of the fire damage on my map in The Great Fire of Hong Kong were marked according to my own research, I later found a hand drawn map of the fire that was made a few days afterwards, which was sent back to London by J. Pope Hennessy, and the outline is almost exactly the same. 

Sorry I can't be of more help. 



Abridged from the Daily Times, January 4


CHRISTMAS Day, 1878, will ever be sadly memorable in the annals of Hong Kong. At about eleven o'clock p.m. the fire Bell clashed out a wild alarm on the chill night air, rousing the merrymakers from their enjoyment of the fireside, the after dinner cigar, or the social dance. At first it was currently supposed that the conflagration was nothing very serious, and even when it began to exhibit signs of spreading rapidly no one apparently imagined that it would prove beyond the powers of the fire brigade to cope with. As the night wore on, however, and the fire became a lurid blaze, leaping swiftly from house to house, and burning with an intensity which the presence of highly inflammable ingredients, a low thermometer, and a high wind only could account for, the alarm began to grow general.


To mention the area of property destroyed will show the appalling nature of the catastrophe. On the Praya side of the Queen's-road from a few houses east of Gilman's Bazaar to the P. and 0. Company's Godowns are a mass of ruins; on the opposite side of the road, from the east side of Stavely street to the east side of Messrs. Koss .and Co’s, Pottinger-street, is in the same state, except about half-a-dozen houses, which appear to have had all the loose wood work removed before the fire got near them. Above the Queen’s-road the whole of the houses' bounded by Pottinger-street on the east, Hollywood-road on the south as far as the Old Bailey and an irregular line on the west extending from Hollywood-road to Lyndhurst-terrace, thence to Gage-street, along Graham-Street, and ending at the north-east corner of Staveley-street, have been reduced to a mass of debris, nothing but a few, party walls remaining with here and there scattered portraits, broken vases, curios, and fixtures.


The number of houses destroyed has been counted and is found to be three hundred and sixty-eight, fewer than was at first estimated. The ground measures ten and a half acres. It is impossible to give the exact amount of the pecuniary damage done, but many of the shops were largely -stocked with valuable goods, the district including the shops' of many of the most prosperous Chinese and Indian storekeepers. The loss may, however, be roughly estimated at from $800,000 to $900,000 of this about $140,000 falls upon the Hongkong and $70,000 upon the China' Fire Insurance Companies; the German Insurance Companies have lost heavily, and some of the British offices suffered though in smaller degree. The Scottish, however, came out unscathed. A great deal of property was, of course, uninsured, and some valuable houses in Hollywood road came under this category. Some persons have, unfortunately, lost their all, and will have to begin life afresh. The majority of the Chinese, however, managed to carry off not only their valuables, but a largo proportion of their stock-in-trade and furniture also.

While the fire was at its height at the upper portion of Pottinger-street great fear was felt that the Catholic Cathedral would be burnt, and smoke was at one time seen issuing from one of the chimnies, but the flame was immediately put out, being fortunately observed before it had any time to get hold. Had the flames once got a firm hold on the Cathedral, probably the large block of houses between Pottinger Street and Wyndham street would have caught fire, and possibly the conflagration might have extended as far as the City Hall. The European houses destroyed were Messrs Koss and Co.’s Messrs.Heise and Co's, Mr. Norouha's printing-office, Mr. Noronha's and Mr. D'Almada's private dwellings. Mr. Vincent's bakery, Mr. Schmidt's gunshop, Mr Lilley's shop, and Messrs. Gaupp and Co.’s house. The Stag hotel had a very narrow escape, and the east side of the house is much scorched. The Parsees and Indians are very heavy losers.


The fire was viewed from the water, and from the 'Peak presented a magnificent but saddening spectacle. There was comparatively little smoke, the wood being so highly combustible, and the glare was accordingly more than ordinarily bright; While ever and anon a gigantic shower of sparks afforded a gorgeous pyrotechnical display.  The night was clear, bright, and starry, and the star appeared crimson. The ashes and debris were carried up to a great height by the breeze and were to be seen scattered about as high up the hills as the Gap. The tired, worried, and anxious crowd looked longingly for the dawn, and their number received constant recruits as one street after another became the prey of the merciless element. When the sun rose the homeless ones began to move their effects further east and north, and St. Paul's College grounds, the new road and turf Banks in Glenealy ravine, Dr. Ayres's garden, and the space by the tanks opposite the Daily Press Office were thronged by crowds of Chinese with piles of goods.


The Bishop very kindly gave permission to many persons to send goods for temporary storage in the College premises and on the grounds, and hence this corner of Wyndham Street presented throughout the whole of Thursday a most animated sight. Many of the residents in Wyndham street moved their furniture, as a good deal of alarm was felt at one time lest the wooden verandahs in this street should catch fire from the showers of sparks and ashes. Happily, however, the precaution proved needless, and about four o'clock the people commenced to take back their goods, and all the houseless were obliged to seek shelter for themselves and effects, the cold being severe at sundown. By seven or eight o'clock the upper streets were cleared of foods and furniture, and silence succeeded the bustle and uproar which, had ceaselessly prevailed throughout the day. Coolies required for removing goods were at a premium, and refused to commence work for any one until they received $3 in advance. Captain M'Kirdy, of the steamer Perusia, kindly offered to accommodate on board his ship a thousand of unfortunate people who have been rendered homeless.


The Scene of the fire is one of utter desolation. In most cases nothing but the  party walls of the houses remained standing, and the roads were covered to a depth of several feet with bricks and charred wood. A striking feature was the almost entire absence of any other material. The fire had consumed everything so completely that no trace was left of the contents of the buildings, except in very isolated cases. Many of the houses burnt had,however, been cleared before the fire reached them, the occupants having taken alarm at the approaching flames hours before they reached their domiciles. Of the more substantial buildings the bare walls, standing unsupported and with threatening appearance of falling, were all that remained. Where the danger was great traffic was stopped, ropes being placed across the street and sentries put on guard. First thing yesterday morning a large number of coolies were engaged in clearing the roads in such parts as were absolutely necessary for purposes of traffic. In the afternoon the demolition of the Hospital walls and those of the houses in the neighbourhood was commenced,


A number of European prisoners were brought out to assist in this work. A party of Sailors were also engaged in pulling down the houses in other parts, and numerous coolies under the direction of gentlemen from the Surveyor-General's department. Numbers of residents visited the scene of the fire and inspected the ruins. ' At about five o'clock yesterday afternoon the fire at Mr. Lilley's house, which was thought to have been quite subdued, broke out again, but after a little time it was extinguished. Late last night different parts of the ruins were still smoking a little, but all danger is now happily past.


From the ruins of a house in Queens-road occupied by Woo Hing, bullion broker, $60,000 in notes and $19,000 in bullion was dugout yesterday morning. The money was in a vault. At the Wan Kat pawnshop, at the corner of Graham-street and Wellington street, two iron safes were found among the debris. An attempt had apparently been made to break one of them open, but without success. Smoke was issuing from around the door as if the contents were smoldering but what they contained or what was the condition of their contents we have not heard.


There was also a safe lying among the ruins of the Leong Yik pawn-shop, No 84 Wellington Street. The safe was open, and as far as could be seen it contained only a large quantity of cents. Whether the door has been opened and other money been taken out, or whether it was simply broken by the fall we were unable to ascertain, At one time of the day a man was apprehended stealing the copper it contained.


The Chinese, with their usual business-like alacrity, have put up "notices of removal", on the heaps of bricks lying where their houses formerly stood. One of these is in English and reads as follows:  Nam Shing has removed to No. 110 side room of Stag Hotel Queens-road." Mr. Afong, the photographer, has taken a number of views of the ruins, which will be interesting memorials of the disaster.



Does anyone have any copies of the Lai Afong pictures?



The publisher was sold a few years ago, a couple of years after the book was published. I lost touch with the new owners after that, and they stopped sending me royalty checks (which by that time were so small as to not be worth chasing up). The book was quite poorly distributed, not even being listed on Amazon, so I suspect there are a few hundred of the initial 1,500 run (as I recall) still left somehwere. As to where they might be, I have no idea. Copies are available in about 35 public libraries, though. 


Sorry I can't be of more help and thanks for your interest,


Best regards,

Hi Adam,
Thank you for your reply. It is quite bad that no royalty cheque was provided no matter what the amount is. I will keep on searching for the book. I look forward to more publications about Hong Kong history from you.