1890s View from the Peak
Where: As the title says, we're up at the Peak, looking out to the southeast with Mount Kellett over on the right. Here's a modern map of the area, with the red dot showing where I think the photographer was standing, and the arrow pointing in the direction we're looking.
I've also highlighted the main roads:
- Yellow: The road from Victoria Gap and the upper terminus of the Peak Tram to the very top of the Peak, known as Mount Austin Road today.
- Purple: The road to Victoria Gap from Central. The earliest residents of the Peak would have been carried home along this road in sedan chairs. Today we call it the Old Peak Road. (Originally the Old Peak Road and Mount Austin Road were one continuous road known simply as Peak Road.)
- Green: Plantation Road.
- Blue: Tramline of the Peak Tram.
- Orange: The road from Victoria Gap to the Pokfulam Reservoir.
Here they are on the photo.
When: The eBay seller described the photo as:
View from Victoria Peak Hongkong China Vintage Albumen Print 1880s
But sellers often knock a few years off the date of a photo, hoping that an earlier date gets them a higher price. Is this really an 1880s photo?
The first clue is that we can see the tramline. The Peak Tram started running in 1888, so the photo wasn't taken any earlier than that.
The next clue is something we can't see: just after Plantation Road passes under the tramline, a modern photo would show the junction with Barker Road. Construction of Barker Road started in October 1897, but there's no sign of it in this view. That gives us a ten-year window of 1888-1897 for when the photo was taken.
Our next clue is this grand building.
It's the Mount Austin Hotel, which opened for business in 1891. It wasn't a great success, and was sold to the government in 1897, when it was converted into army barracks.
Some time during the 1890s the building saw a major extension. Here's a view of the building from a later postcard, with the additions highlighted.
If anyone knows which year the hotel / barracks buildings were extended, please leave a comment below, as it may further narrow the range of years the photo could have been taken. Until then, we can say the photo was taken between the opening of the Mount Austin Hotel in 1891, and the start of work on Barker Road in 1897. Not quite the advertised "1880s", but not too far off.
What: Let's take a closer look at the buildings in the foreground, then make our way downhill, before finishing with a mystery I hope you can help solve.
I've highlighted the three nearest buildings.
- Red: We only get a glimpse of this one. I believe it is Tor Crest, but please correct me if I'm wrong.
- Blue: This is the pair of semi-detached houses known as Meirion.
- Green: The third building, with it's curiously narrow second storey, is Bahar Lodge. The owners must have found the second storey a bit odd too, as later photos show the building with its second storey removed, and a flat roof in its place.
All of these buildings have long since been demolished. Today you'll find Overthorpe occupying the combined site of Meirion and Bahar Lodge, while 22A & 22B Mount Austin Road stand where Tor Crest used to be.
Streams and a waterfall
Just to the right of Bahar Lodge, the road bends as it crosses the stream I've marked in blue.
After the stream makes that sharp right turn, it is hidden from view. Maps show it merges with two more streams that flow down from the Peak, then the enlarged stream reappears in a more lively form.
The three streams feed the Lugard Waterfall, a popular sight along Harlech Road, especially after rainy weather.
Returning to that bend in the road, here's the view today.
I could make out that the ground dips into a valley, but otherwise it is very difficult to match the modern view to the old photo - there's just so much more vegetation today.
However there is an easier match if we walk a little way downhill...
The house was called Haystack, and to get to it you'd have to cross this bridge.
There's still a building on the same site today, and you still have to cross a bridge to get to it. The span of today's bridge looks to be modern, but the stone supports on either side may well be the originals.
The current house is still known as Haystack. It is much larger than the 1890s building, but there's a chance it's an extension rather than a replacement. Do readers know if any traces of the original building remain?
The Umbrella Seat
Continuing downhill, at the corner we can see the Umbrella Seat, a popular spot to sit and admire the view out over the city and harbour. (Today we'd think of Lugard Road as the prime sightseeing spot, but it hadn't been built when this photo was taken.)
The current seat is a newer design than the seat from the 1890s.
But not so much newer, as photos from the 1920s show this 'new' design was already in place.
It no longer attracts the sightseers though, as this is all the view you get today.
I'd like to see these trees and bushes given a trim so that visitors can enjoy the view again.
Finally, that mystery building.
In the 1890s, the ground in front of the hotel sloped steeply down towards the stream we mentioned earlier.
Looking at the above crop, note the corner on the right where the road disappears behind the hotel. If you stand on that corner today and look up the valley, you'll struggle - there isn't any valley to be seen! Instead you'll see the flat ground of the Mount Austin Playground, a small but very well-kept park.
A surprise but no great mystery - Hong Kong is always cutting rock away here, filling in a dip there, all in the quest for more flat land to build on. But look more closely at the old photo to see the mystery: the roof and chimney of a building at the bottom of the valley.
I haven't seen it in other photos or maps, so I wonder what it was?
The present-day park has public toilets in a building that is at a similar location as the roof and chimney. At first glance it looks old too.
Alas, its bricks look new.
So I think it's a modern building, and the location is just a coincidence. If you know anything about the mystery building, or have any other comments or corrections to add, please leave a comment below.
Before we finish, the postcard view of the extended hotel is worth a second look.
The handwritten note along the top of the card says:
This is our barracks you will see until recently it has been known as Peak Hotel
The soldier who wrote on it was mixing up this building with the real Peak Hotel that stood where the Peak Galleria is today. It wasn't his fault though, as the printed caption reads:
Please take off Peak Hotel, Hongkong and put on Military Barracks on the Peak, Hong Kong
It's hard to know which is worse:
- That the printer took the publisher's instruction and just printed it word for word, or...
- That when the publisher received the batch of mis-printed postcards, he still sold them to unsuspecting soldiers!
Turning the card over we see that the publisher in question was M. Sternberg.
The Gwulo website has more facts and photos for:
- Barker Road [1898- ]
- Mount Austin Hotel [1891-1897] & Mount Austin Barracks [1897-????]
- Tor Crest [1890-????]
- Meirion [1890-1953]
- Bahar Lodge [1890-????]
- Lugard Waterfall
- Umbrella Seat
- The Peak Hotel (2nd generation) [1890-1938]
- Moritz STERNBERG the man, and M. Sternberg his postcard company
And if you have copies of my books, you'll find more stories and photos from the Peak in Volume 1 (photos 2 & 3), Volume 2 (photos 15 & 16), and Volume 4 (photo 5).
Gwulo photo ID: A623