David Bellis on Warren Swire’s Hong Kong, 1906-1940

David Bellis runs Gwulo.com, an online community for anyone interested in Hong Kong’s history. It hosts over 20,000 pages of information, including over 10,000 photographs. David recently visited Bristol to discuss his work, and met the  team. In this, the first of a series of blogs, he explores the photographs taken by G. Warren Swire on his first trip to Hong Kong in 1906-07. Subsequent posts will present photographs taken on the visits Swire made at regular intervals up to 1940. Because it was headquartered in London, each year one of the John Swire & Sons directors made a trip ‘Out East’ (in company parlance). Warren first set out in 1906.

In 1904, aged just 21, G. Warren Swire became a director of his father’s firm, John Swire & Sons Ltd. Two years later he was sailing east to visit the company’s operations in China. Fortunately for Hong Kong’s record, he was a keen photographer.

Here’s what he saw on that first visit…

1906-7 Dockyard construction

Not surprisingly, he paid most attention to the construction of the company’s Taikoo Dockyard. When finished it would boast the largest dry dock in Hong Kong, and break the Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Company’s monopoly on large-scale ship-building and repair.

Here’s the great dry dock being built:

Constructing Taikoo dry dock, Hong Kong, 1906-07.  Sw02-104.

Constructing Taikoo dry dock, Hong Kong, 1906-07. Sw02-104.

The dry dock was the most dramatic sight, but only occupied a small part of the dockyard. Next to the dry dock they built several slips where ships could be hauled up for repair:

Constructing Taikoo dry dock, Hong Kong, 1906-07.  Sw02-113.

Constructing Taikoo dry dock, Hong Kong, 1906-07. Sw02-113.

While over on the western side of the site, the yards to build new ships were taking shape.

His photos show he also kept an eye on the competition. The Royal Navy were building their own dockyard and dry dock around this time. The Butterfield and Swire offices just happened to overlook that construction site, giving him a firsthand view of progress.

He took this photo of the office building, on the seafront at Central:

Butterfield and Swire office in Hong Kong, 1911-12.  Sw07-111.

Butterfield and Swire office in Hong Kong, 1911-12. Sw07-111.

And these photos from the rooftop, looking down onto the Royal Navy’s new dry dock:

Royal Navy dry dock under construction, Hong Kong, c.1907. Sw14-020.

Royal Navy dry dock under construction, Hong Kong, c.1907. Sw14-020.

Royal Navy dry dock under construction, Hong Kong, c.1907.  Sw14-019.

Royal Navy dry dock under construction, Hong Kong, c.1907. Sw14-019.

The Royal Navy’s dry dock was flooded for the first time on Saturday, 15th June, 1907, with the Taikoo dry dock taking its first drink exactly one week later. Despite their significance, neither event is recorded in his collection of photos. Most likely he’d already left Hong Kong by then, escaping the hot summer weather and typhoons to head back to England.

The full Warren Swire Collection (1,971 images) covers the first four decades of the twentieth century, and can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China.

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