Working Class British Women working in Hong Kong in 1930's

Submitted by Jane Saunders on Tue, 01/30/2024 - 18:02

Hello David,

Do you know if working-class women from the UK worked in Hong Kong before WWII or during the war?  I have conducted some preliminary research which says that British women did work as nannies and cooks at mainly ex pat homes in Hong Kong.  I do know that more educated women were employed as teachers and sometimes in nursing profession.  

Hello Jane,

Usually I'd turn to the Jurors Lists to see who was working where, but women still couldn't be jurors in Hong Kong at that time, so they don't help. 

One glimpse into women's occupations is the list of Civilian Internees, compiled in 1942. If you search for 'Miss' or 'Mrs' on that page, and look in their 'Title' column, you'll get an idea of the types of jobs British women in Hong Kong were working in before the British surrender in December 1941.

Please could you share what you found about British women working as nannies and cooks pre-WW2? That will be interesting to learn more about, and may spark responses from other readers.

Regards, David

Hi David, many thanks for your helpful reply and it was interesting looking through the list of jobs women did pre 1941.

Many were stenographers, nurses, clerks and missionaries.  Interestingly there was a female Prison Matron and also Manageress of the YMCA who shares my surname! 

I will do a deeper dive and let you know about any women working as nannies or cooks.  Once again, thank you.


Hong Kong British society was notorious for its snobbery during the period you are looking at, Jane. Any working class women would have had a hard time socially unless they already had family in Hong Kong. In case it's useful, the Canossian Convent tried to ensure that its charges left them with the skills to earn a living. Stenography was taught and the exam results published in the local newspapers. Two of my father's female cousins, both born and bred in Hong Kong, were sent to board at the Canossian Convent in 1917 when they were orphaned. They both qualified as stenographers and were subsequently able to support themselves - one worked  at the Repulse Bay Hotel - the other became a teacher of stenography herself. When they married they each gave their address as the convent, so maybe the convent continued to give them accommodation. Accommodation would have been a huge problem for single working class women arriving without family to support them, especially as there was a pool of young British women who had been brought up in Hong Kong. I think the governor always had a British governess for his children, but I don't know if she would have been "working class" - nor do I know how many other British families imported British governesses when local amahs were so readily available. My uncle's wife became friends with a nurse from the Peak Hospital, Alice Randle. I recently uploaded a photo of her at  I'm afraid  I don't know anything about Nurse Randle's background or fate after 1938.


The Government Blue Books in HKGRO are a good source of information showing the names of officers/staff and their occupations.

Dear Jill, 

Thank you so much for your detailed reply and also for highlighting how snobbery and lack of financial resources would have impeded working class women.  The Canossian Convent information is invaluable as I hadn't come across them yet but will look more into that. It's uplifting that the Convent prepared the girls for the outside world and gave them a means to be self supporting and your father's cousins clearly went on to get good work after leaving the Convent.  I really appreciate your time in sharing all of this information.



This is an interesting topic to raise Jane.  Reading through the diaries over the last couple  of  years I was often struck by the impression that those British in Stanley Camp and possibly Hong Kong generally pre war were predominantly middle class, professional, ex pat , military or similar.  A world away from the life of my Great Aunt who was also interned in Stanley Camp.  British, from  a poor background in rural Somerset, she had married a Chinese man in Wales in the early 1900s.  He became naturalised British in the 1930s.   During the war she and two sons travelled to Hong Kong to stay with family   They were forcibly taken from their apartment by the Japanese.  I don’t know if she was  actually working at the time because generally at that time married women didn’t work outside the home but she was certainly  of working class .  She was a kind, strong woman  but I do  know that when she was repatriated she was in a poor physical state.  I will be interested to see what information you find ,


Hi Linda

What a fascinating story about your Great Aunt.  She must have been an incredible woman to have gone through so much but also to have taken such a leap of faith/love to.

I will share any other information I find and thank you for taking the time to share the story of your Great Aunt.

Best wishes



Ps  Linda - would you know what method of transport your Great Aunt and her children used to travel to Hong Kong once war had broken out?  I understood there were no passenger ships after September 1939 but maybe she made some of the journey overland?

Hi Linda,

That's fascinating as we couldn't find any passenger ships travelling to Japan/HK after WWII broke out so this information is so helpful.  Your Great Aunt sounds like an incredibly brave and strong woman.  Would you be able to share her name?  I understand if you can't.  

Many, many thanks.



Jane when you say  “we” are you part of a research group?

Where did you get the information that there were no passenger ships?

Records are held by National Archives at Kew. 

Hi Linda

No, I'm not part of a research group.  I'm conducting some research for a writer who is looking into transport to Hong Kong at the outbreak and during the Second World War and if many working-class people were in HK at that time. 

I will check out the National Archives at Kew.  Thank you, Linda.



There were regular ships documented in the National Archives  but only a few passengers disembarked at Hong Kong. Most seemed to go to Singapore, Shanghai or on to Japan and India. 

In answer to your previous question I did suspect you might be asking regarding a story for publication, and I would not wish  to be included with this. However good luck with your research and I am pleased to have been able to direct you to the correct document source   


Thank you, Linda and of course, nothing would be used in any writing or publication.  I am purely looking for ways people were able to travel to HK after the outbreak of war to be able to verify the writing.  I do appreciate all your help and thank you for sharing the incredible story of your great aunt and please be assured that none of this would be used in any respect.

With best wishes



Apologies I can’t see how to add a photo here but for example a passenger list departing Glasgow Mar 1941  they see mostly male professional/ civil servant not working class