Kei Lun Wai – Limonite Mine,Tuen Mun, and the Interim Mining Policy Committee
Tymon Mellor: Directly after the Pacific War, like many other places, Hong Kong was struggling to recuperate. There was limited capital available and the Government had few resources. Mining was seen by many as a low cost investment, creating employment, generating hard currency and providing revenue to the Government. Unfortunately, this vision was not shared by the Government’s Interim Mining Policy Committee to the detriment of a prospective Limonite Mine at Tuen Mun.
Limonite deposits are widely spread throughout Hong Kong and is commonly known as Ochre, with both red and brown types being in the greatest abundance. The mineral is formed from the weathering and leaching of iron from the igneous rocks to form a ferric-hydroxide mixed with clay and other impurities. The mineral find, north of Tuen Mun at the village of Kei Lun Wai consisted of small nodules that when crushed, formed a red powder to be used as a pigment in the paint and pottery industries.
On the 17th February, 1948 Mr Fung Shing To wrote to the Lands Office for a mining permit for the extraction of Limonite in Lot 1726 close to Kei Lun Wai. The site was within a private estate of 37 hectares that had been in his family for over 30 years. A low hill covering around 6 hectares seemed to be abundant in Limonite and he wished to excavate the mineral.
Before the Pacific War, the site was How Lee Farm, with over 4,000 lychee trees being cultivated in addition to vegetables, poultry and pigs. The trees were cut down during the fighting and the family of seven people lost their regular income. As Mr To wrote, “Fortunately, in the course of the theft of the tree roots by natives, a strata of reddish stones, known as Red Ochre, was discovered at a short distance (some 18 inches), below the surface.” He wished to dig up the Ochre and use the sale of the mineral to pay for the flattening of the land and its return to farming.
Mr To estimated that the local market consumption for Red Ochre was around 50 tons per month, most of which was imported at the time. In his letter, Mr To highlighted the benefits his mining would have in creating new industry and “as well as contributing to its revenue in the form of Taxes, Profits Tax (it is hoped), and Mining Royalties”. He also noted that the production of local pigments would support local industry and reduce its reliance on importing from hard currency countries. There was even the prospect of exporting the material.
Extraction of the ore would not require any deep mining, just removal of the top 0.6m of ground to expose the nodules, “even less earth removal than is undertaken for an ordinary building site”. The mineral would then be sold locally at around HK$50 a ton.
The application came at a difficult time for the Hong Kong Government. An Interim Mining Policy Committee had been established in 1947 to draft new mining regulations, and the new Prospecting and Mining Regulations, 1948 was taking some time to prepare. In early in 1948, the Committee agreed that no new mining licences would be awarded until the results of the geological survey of Hong Kong were published. This activity had commenced before the war, but through a series of unfortunate accidents, the original manuscript was lost. Furthermore, there was only one geologist in Hong Kong and a new team had to be recruited to implement the new mining policy. Thus, it looked as if no new mining licences would be issued for 18 to 24 months. But what to do with the requests for permits?
Thus, as a stop gap measure the Chairman of the Interim Mining Policy Committee, G.A.C Herklots, proposed in a memo dated 24thMarch, 1948 two courses of action:
- short term mining leases be initiallly issued, but to expire on the 30th June 1950; and
- clays including Kaolin and earths and corals be excluded from the new regulations.
The second clause was proposed to allow the ongoing exploitation of Kaolin and the development of earth and corals for pigments and lime, respectively. The latter, being important for the extensive post-war building programme.
As recorded in a memo of the 2nd June, 1948:
“We have minerals, but nobody knows how many; we can get revenue, but not unless some staff, however small, is provided to see aren’t swindled”. The memo concluded; “People are, I presume, still taking out minerals illegally and paying us nothing”.
Following discussions, it was agreed that the new policy would cover all minerals and no new licences would be awarded until a Superintendent of Mines was appointed. This would eventually be Mr William Murray Keay, who started on the 11th October, 1951, and who established what would become the Mines Department.
In ‘The Geology of Hong Kong’, published in 1952 it noted; “One of the most promising deposits of Limonite is at Kei Lun Wai, near Castle Peak approximately at the 21 mile post. The Limonite which is red in colour and consists of small nodules, lies about 2 feet below the surface of cultivated fields”.
The Hong Kong Annual Report for 1948 and 1949 reported, “Surface scratchings for ochre, a hydrated oxide of iron, are worked on and off. The ochre is used by small local paint companies.”
On the 11th June, 1948 a decision had been made:
“the applicant will have to be refused for the present. The best that can be offered is reconsideration about April, 1949.”
Examining the 1963 aerial photograph of the site, small excavations can be seen along-side fruit trees and new development that would take over the area. The mine never progressed beyond scratchings.
- Hong Kong Annual Report, 1948, 1949
- The Geology of Hong Kong, 1952
- Public Records Office HKRS-156-1-1265
- Public Records Office HKRS-896-1-7
This article was first posted on 29th December 2017.
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