History - The First Century

When the Union Flag was raised over Possession Point on 26 January 1841, the population of Hong Kong Island was about 6,000, mostly Tanka fishermen and Hakka charcoal burners scattered in a few poor villages around the coast. Within a few months, the population soared. Into Hong Kong's fast-rising godowns and spreading quays poured many merchants eager to do business in the new mart that had so suddenly sprung up across the Pearl River from the familiar settlement of Macau. Ships carrying many flags anchored in the harbour. Trade boomed, and with it the infant town. It was not long before grog shops, gambling dens, opium parlours and houses of ill repute sprang up among the bustling commercial premises along the praya.

Two months after the British landed, the law and order situation was critical.

Captain Charles Elliott, who as British plenipotentiary had seized Hong Kong, appointed Captain William Caine of the 26th of Foot (Cameronians) Regiment as Chief Magistrate. His 1,400 pounds budget was meant to cover salaries for himself and a 32-man force, pay for a prison and clerks.

By 1844, the law and order situation had not greatly improved. Private watchmen who patrolled the narrow streets with lanterns, banging gongs to frighten away evil spirits and wrongdoers, were less than totally successful.

On 1 May 1844, the government gazette officially established the Colonial Police Force. Although there had been some sort of haphazardly organized force for three years, it was this law that founded the police in Hong Kong as a distinct, disciplined body. The notion of a professional, paid law enforcement organization was novel. The Metropolitan Police in London had been formed a mere 12 years earlier.

The infant Hong Kong force was chaotic, disorganized and made up of largely suspect individuals, Chinese, European and Indians. Less than a year after the law establishing the Police was passed, a man arrived to take command who would have an immense influence on the way Hong Kong was protected. Charles May, using the Irish Constabulary as his model, forged a 171-strong force, built stations at Central, Aberdeen and far-off Stanley, and attempted to recruit constables of better quality.

May was promoted to Chief Magistrate in 1862. In 17 years, he had created a workable police organization that had faced pirates, triads and criminals and brought some degree of stability and safety to the crowded streets of the growing city.

Life was still dangerous. By 1862, Hong Kong's population had reached 120,000 and Britain had obtained the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. It was hazardous to walk the streets at night and even in their homes, residents rightly feared burglars. The force was stringently reorganized with taut discipline imposed, veterans were imported from the Bombay Native Infantry and there was a universal pay rise to boost morale and performance.

By the 1870s, the Force had been regenerated and was working effectively. The corrupt and incompetent had been purged, more Chinese had been recruited and a contingent of sturdy Scots was imported from the Edinburgh Police. Crime dropped significantly; 384 people had been convicted of highway robbery in 1866, an alarming figure that dwindled to 24 in 1876. Murder and piracy also dropped.

That respite was a rare one in an era of turbulence. The great Tai Ping rebellion was shuddering through China, its furious ramifications shaking Hong Kong. Triads, in a pattern that was to become familiar in times of peril, used political upheaval for their criminal benefit.

In 1893, there was an appointment that was to have extensive ramifications. Francis May, one of a string of Irishmen who headed the force in its first half-century, took command, aged 33, and set to work like a whirlwind.

The Police College was established and regulations said every recruit had to pass through its doors. May not only ran the police; he headed fire services, ran the prison, sat on the forerunner of the Urban Council and was an active Legislative Councillor. He went on to become Governor; throughout his career, he kept a close interest in the force he had helped reform and strengthen.

The 20th century arrived with hope. Trade was growing constantly, the dreadful plague of the 1890s, which took thousands of lives and in which police played a heroic role, faded from memory, and schools, hospitals and banks flourished. In China, momentous changes were looming which, as had happened before and so often since, were to hit Hong Kong like a typhoon.

The upsurge of nationalism that led to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and formation of the Republic of China caused turmoil. Warlord armies roamed over the land and the turbulence caused waves of new settlers to swarm over the Shenzhen River. There were strikes and boycotts that caused great civic unrest in Hong Kong. The police, as always, bore the brunt of keeping the peace in an era of upheaval.

During World War 1, many expatriate officers had left to join the military. Ten died on the Western Front, many others never returned to Hong Kong. It was during that period civilians entered the force with 352 men sworn in as Special Constables in the Special Police Reserve. It comprised three companies, Britons and Indians in one, Chinese in a second, and a third made up of Portuguese. They were a valuable backup to the hard-pressed regular force and the start of a noble tradition of service.

To bolster the ranks, recruits were drawn from far away, signed on at the port of Wei Hai Wei in Shandong Province. Their sturdy presence was welcome; politically-inspired strife caused tension throughout Hong Kong, a situation made worse by threats to harm workers who refused to join strikes. A special police squad was formed to guard those who wished to work. Even at sea, there was trouble; so daring were pirates and hijackers of ships that a special squad, made up largely of White Russians, was stationed on coastal vessels to prevent piracy.

When the Japanese invaders came over the border in December 1941, chaos prevailed. As Allied soldiers and Hong Kong Volunteers fought the enemy, police struggled to keep the peace among panic-stricken residents, to curb looting and protect the public. Nobody knows how many police died during the Battle of Hong Kong. Expatriates were rounded up to spend dreary years in internment, or to face a sudden or slow death. Many local policemen managed to leave Hong Kong and escape to Free China. Some disappeared, never to be heard of again, their fates unknown.