The China Fleet Club - Hong Kong
AND THE CHINA FLEET CLUB
THE ROYAL NAVY first came to Hong Kong at the request of the British opium merchants based at Canton whose ever increasing business, made illegal by successive Chinese Emperors, was jeopardised by the actions of one Special Imperial Commissioner for the suppression of the opium trade. In one week he had confiscated 20,291 chests of opium causing the merchants to seek shelter in the bays of several neighbouring islands, one of which was Hong Kong.
During January and March 1840 several Naval Actions took place which forced the Chinese to the conference table. A convention was finally agreed upon which allowed the British to take possession of Hong Kong island on January 26th 1841.
The home government, however, was not satisfied. Further expeditions between October and December 1841 resulted in many Chinese cities being taken, the Grand Canal being blocked, and the Fleet laying off outside Nanking. By the Treaty of Nanking of August 1842, the British Merchants gained the freedom they wanted, and the ‘jewel’ of Hong Kong was added to the British Crown.
Hong Kong meant many different things to many different people over the 150 odd years of its status as a British Crown Colony. To some it has meant the view from the Peak, to others the magnificent harbour or the crowded shopping areas of Tsim Sha Tsui. To the ratings of the Royal and Commonwealth Navies, however, for over 50 years it meant the CHINA FLEET CLUB.
View of Hong Kong Harbour looking North to Kowloon RN Dockyard in the foreground 1900.
Establishing The Navy Base
SOON AFTER THE British Crown took possession of Hong Kong in 1841 the Naval Authorities began to erect buildings along the foreshore of the original West Point site and on a new site in Central, which was to prove to be the permanent one. While store depots were established ashore, the Navy also made use of a succession of ships moored in the harbour, until 1897 when HMS Tamar arrived. This ship gave her name to the present dockyard and was scuttled in 1941 prior to the Japanese occupation in WWII.
The original HMS Tamar moored in Hong Kong Harbour
The dockyard continued to expand entailing an increase in personnel and for the first time, in 1859, it appeared in the Navy list under the heading of "HM Victualling Yard" as well as under "Dockyard".
In January 1861 when Britain acquired the Kowloon peninsular the Navy gained a site for a coal storage yard and Stonecutters Island as a quarantine area. The remainder of the century passed with no apparent change in the yards.
In December 1901 additional land was purchased to the north of the Kowloon yard, again for coal storage, and the site in Central was slowly expanded to cater for the rapidly growing Naval presence.
Many wanted the Navy to move all its facilities to the Kowloon yard, but the Admiralty resisted and both sites remained Naval property until October 1959 when the Kowloon yard was handed back to the civil authorities.
The Central sited dockyard was surrounded on all sides by Army barracks which jealously guarded their land and would not allow any further expansion along the shore line - the only possible way to expand was seaward reclamation. In 1902 the foundation stone for the extension was laid and by 1908 39 acres had been created.
The new sea walls were 4,580 feet long and included a floating basin and a graving dock. The basin, designed to have an area of 9 acres and a depth at the lowest Spring tide of 30 feet, today is a well known landmark along Hong Kong's crowded foreshore.
The graving dock could take three submarines side by side at one time. The dry dock was eventually filled in October 1959 and all that remains today is the memorial stone taken from its head. This stone, with its brass inscription can be seen in a small garden in today's base.
The dockyard was under Japanese control from the surrender on 25th December 1941 until Admiral Harcourt and a very strong fleet arrived to repossess it on 30th August 1945. In September Admiral Harcourt was appointed Commander in Chief of Military Administration.
The Navy proved to be invaluable to the rehabilitation process, helping civilian organisations, providing medical aid and maintaining Law and Order. More important even for morale was the way the service brought a welcome return to normality to the social scene by organising children's parties, dances and even cricket matches.
A key role in the Navy's own social life, and in that of the Hong Kong community in general, was played by the China Fleet Club which had been established in the mid-1930's and really began to come into its own with the post-war years.
The natural culmination to all this was Victory Day on October 9th when the march past, outside the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank took 15 minutes.
On November 28th 1957 it was announced that the Naval dockyard would be closed down. The reason given being that there was no future requirement for a full scale dockyard in Hong Kong due to the reorganisation of Naval forces. However to soften the blow the yard was to be run down over a two year period.
Though the dockyard had closed there was still a considerable Naval presence that had to be contained within the restricted area the Admiralty would retain. It was with some surprise that in August 1959 the public learned that the Navy had retained a toe-hold in Central and a sizeable portion of its old water front. The Colony learnt that the Hong Kong Government had agreed to pay £7 million for the Royal Navy Dockyard and Kowloon Naval Yard, to pay $210,000 for a wall around the new yard and half the cost of walling up the dry dock.
The new HMS Tamar, and fifth in line, gradually emerged between 1959 and 1962 in the form of a compact, modern Naval Base between Harcourt Road and the water front. The road, de-signed to link Con naught Road and Gloucester Road was completed in 1961, and built across former dockyard land. On either side old naval buildings were pulled down and used to fill in the dry dock. The buildings of the Tamar Section were left to the last but by 1962 the new office accommodation and quarters were ready in the western end of the base and transfer was made across the few hundred yards from the eastern end.
The tower block was completed in 1978 on the site of the old dockyard workshops, and was opened on the 4th March 1979 by the Prince of Wales. The seafront to the East of the basin was reclaimed and in 1986 the new workshops were built.
THE EARLY YEARS
THE ROYAL NAVAL CANTEEN
The First China Fleet Club The Royal Naval Canteen
UNTIL THE CHINA Fleet Club was opened in 1934 the Royal Naval Canteen looked after the recreational needs of the Men of the Fleet in Hong Kong. That predecessor of today’s Club, even before the First World War, was situated close by the old "Blue Buildings" on the corner of Arsenal Street and Hennessy Road.
But by 1920 the future of the Canteen was in question. The Commander-in-Chief, China Station, reported that the Hong Kong Government was considering a reclamation scheme to widen and straighten Queen’s Road, which would mean the demolition of the Canteen.
Perhaps this was timely. The old Canteen was in such a bad state of repair generally, no modern sanitation even, that plans were afoot to spend something in the region of $10,000 on redecoration and repair.
The premises had been purchased at an original cost of $40,000 and their value in 1920 was between $120,000 and $150,000.
There were delays over the next three or four years while the possibility of a Union Jack Club for both the Army and Navy was considered. But in 1924 the decision was made to abandon this idea and to concentrate on a Club for naval personnel, leaving the Army to go its own way.
A possible site had been selected for a new Canteen on reclaimed land on Arsenal Street and Queen’s Road. It was estimated then that $1,400,000 would be needed for this project and that could be met as follows:
From the old Canteen $500,000
Compensation from the HK Government for the old site $400,000 and the balance of $500,000 made good by an Admiralty grant.
Further delays were caused when the Admiralty objected to the site - it was too near the Naval Arsenal! During the next few years the Naval Dockyard expanded considerably and a good deal of land changed hands between the Admiralty and the Hong Kong Government, the net result being that the Naval Arsenal was transferred to Stonecutters Island.
A NEW CLUB
IN 1929 NOTICE was formally received from the Government that the Royal Naval Canteen would have to be evacuated, the Government offered compensation for the old site and made an offer of a site on Gloucester Road where a new Canteen could be built.
One might have said the Club was home and dry at last - not quite! Money, or the lack of it, raised its ugly head. The compensation the Hong Kong Government offered was nowhere near sufficient to meet the cost of a new building, which at that time was in the region of $735,000. All that could be raised was:
From the old Canteen $166,000
From the Weihaiwei Canteen $ 30,000
Government compensation $154,000
A balance of $385,000 had to be found!
Admiralty turned down a request for an interest-free loan of £20,000 but after considerable discussion with the Treasury a "gift" of £5,000 was eventually approved in July 1931.
After many meetings and discussions to find ways and means to raise the necessary capital for the new Canteen, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank came to the rescue. The late Sir Vandeleur M.Grayburn, then Chief Manager of the Bank, agreed to an overdraft to cover the cost of erecting and furnishing a new building to take the place of the old Canteen. "Blue Buildings", a name given when the old building became the Canteen, because of the colour of the exterior, is still commonly used by members of the club.
With this assurance from the Bank, plans went ahead for the new building. Messrs. Leigh & Orange were appointed Architects and Mr A.S. Mackichan started preparing plans for consideration by the naval authorities. Plans were submitted for a six-storey building, plus basement. Provisions were made for Bars, Billiards Rooms, Reading Rooms, Dining Rooms, Cubicles, Dormitories, Offices, Staff Quarters, Kitchen, Laundry, Boiler House, a Mineral Water Factory and a Theatre.
The plans were provisionally passed and tenders called for. But great consternation was caused when the receipt of the tenders showed the costs far exceeded the original estimates. A signal received from the Commander-in-Chief read "The Trustees of the Club are placed in a most difficult position, from which they must extricate themselves". The Commander-in-Chief was unable to sanction such a large outlay over and above the original estimated costs.
After more conferences were held by the Naval authorities, Architects and Contractors, a revised plan was produced. This reduced the size of the building by one storey and other savings were made by the use of cement "other than Green Island Cement" and also by the use of less expensive materials for internal construction, and smaller lifts.
The revised plans, with their great reduction in overall costs, were eventually approved and work finally began. The list of contractors sounds a bit like a slice of Hong Kong’s history:- Messrs. Lam Woo & Company, Dodwell & Company, Jardine Matheson & Co., Messrs. W. Jack & Co, Hong Kong Electric and the HK & China Gas Company.
Further appeals were made to the Admiralty for financial assistance, and an Admiralty Fleet Order was issued to all units of the Royal Navy asking for contributions. The response was generous. In addition to the donations from the Fleet, the Admiralty donated £7,000 from a surplus from the old Naval Savings Bank. And the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank handed back, as a gift, the Interest which had been charged on the bank overdraft over approximately three years.
THE CHINA FLEET CLUB (1934 - 1939)
HK Harbour, HMAS Tamar and RN Dockyard
IT HAD ALREADY been established during all those meetings in the 1920’s regarding the status of the Canteen, that it belonged to the Men of the Fleet.
On 11th January 1933, the foundation stone of the China Fleet Club, as it had been renamed, was laid by Admiral Sir Howard Kelly, G.B.E., K.C.B., C.M.G., M.V.O., then Commander-in-Chief, China Station.
The China Fleet Club stands on Government land. Then, as today, it embraces an area of 19,757 square feet. It is leased to the Trustees of the Club for 999 years; the lease was antedated to 25th June 1863, and executed on 20th June 1934. The Crown Rent for the property was, and is, $408 a year.
When the Theatre was completed and opened on 27th December 1933, it was immediately booked by the Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Club for rehearsals and production of plays.
Tombola was a great favourite too and was played in the Theatre three evenings a week. The Club took a 10% share of the takings. Tombola has never lost its popularity and is still played in the Club regularly.
On 21st March 1934 the China Fleet Club was formally opened by Commodore Frank Elliot, R.N., Commodore Hong Kong
During 1934 the China Fleet Club was legally established as a Corporation and on the 18th May, the Governor signed an Ordinance entitled "An Ordinance for the Incorporation of the Trustees of the China Fleet Club." This Ordinance made the Trustees of the Club, as appointed by the Commodore, or Officer-in-Charge of R.N. Naval Establishments in Hong Kong, a Corporation with the power to hold and deal with its property. The advantages of having the Club incorporated are that in the event of either of the Trustees leaving Hong Kong new Trustees can be appointed by the Commodore-in-Charge to ensure continued operation of the club.
Senior Sailors Bar China Fleet Club
By the end of the first year of operation the Club showed a profit of $35,000. However, prices of Beer, Wines and Spirits were rather high compared to other Clubs in Hong Kong and the Club was not patronized as well as it could have been. So in 1935, the number of Boys employed was cut by 25 per cent, and the cost of meals, wines, beer and spirits reduced by 10 per cent. The Mens Bar was enlarged, taking in a Reading Room. These moves were very satisfying, and the Club became very popular throughout the fleet.
From then on the men used the Club a great deal more and on return from the North, billiard and snooker competitions were organised. Silver cups were presented by Messrs. H. Ruttonjee & Son and members of the winning teams were presented with replicas of the cups. Medals purchased from Club funds were presented to the runners-up. These competitions were held annually until 1940.
During the 1930’s the Theatre was engaged for long periods by the H.K. Amateur Dramatic Club, the Philharmonic Society and the H.K. Singers. It was also extensively used for Ship’s Concerts, Military Concerts, dances organised by the Fleet and also by the Cheerio Club of Hong Kong. Boxing contests were also held in the winter.
Although prices had been reduced and the Fleet spent less time in Hong Kong - Singapore being an established naval base - considerable profits continued to be made. By 1938 the overdraft at the Bank had been reduced to approximately $75,000 and all debts in connection with the construction and furnishing of the Club had been paid. The improved financial situation gave considerable satisfaction besides dispelling any doubts as to the Club’s ability to pay its way in the future. Letters of congratulation were received from the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, China Station.
It is interesting to know what the China Fleet was like in those days. The Fleet, at that time, consisted of the 8th Cruiser Squadron, comprising five or six ships of the "County" or "London" Class cruisers; the 8th Destroyer Flotilla comprising the old "D" Class destroyers; the aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Eagle, H.M.S. Medway, submarine Depot Ship and Submarines; a M.T.B. Flotilla; a score or so of gunboats and a few sloops. The Shore Establishments didn’t exist then, and the Ship’s Company of TAMAR was accommodated in the old ‘Tamar’. The veteran with her white sides and tall yellow masts lent a lot of atmosphere to the Dockyard, but was doomed to be scuttled in the harbour during the war - a sad loss.
A small naval air station was already in operation before the War, at Kai Tak.
Towards the end of the 1930’s it became obvious that the Club was not large enough to cope with the needs of such a fleet. The Architects were asked to prepare plans for the addition of a new wing to the Club and for an additional floor on top of the existing building. The Hong Kong Government was approached and it was tentatively agreed that the plot of land adjacent to the Theatre should be purchased by the Club and a seven storey building erected there. The Chief Manager of the Hong Kong Bank was approached, and without hesitation, agreed to guarantee an overdraft of $1,000,000.
The idea was to allocate the new wing of the building for the use of Chief and Petty Officers, and others of similar rank. The existing building was to be for the exclusive use of junior ratings, and the existing kitchen was to be completely modernised.
Then came 1939 and rumours of war. All plans for the modernisation and extension of the Club were suspended on 3rd September 1939, when Europe was plunged into World War II.