Alexander Skirving Watson, pharmacist who lent his name to one of Hong Kong’s oldest companies

The Hong Kong Dispensary was founded in Hong Kong in 1841.

Alexander Skirving Watson, a British pharmacist, joined the company as Manager in 1858, and by 1862 the name A.S. Watson began to feature prominently with the Hong Kong Dispensary and eventually became the official name of the pharmacy and was then incorporated in the A.S.Watson Group. The Hong Kong Dispensary and A S Watson have thus had a presence in Hong Kong for around 177 years.

A S Watson Chemist Detail Advert China Mail 1.8.1878

China Mail 1st August 1878

The following article about A.S Watson, the man, was written by Peter E. Hamilton, and first  published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn. The publisher, HK University Press, has kindly granted permission for it to be posted here, but retains copyright over this material from 2012.

HF: I have been unable to find an image of Watson and would be very grateful to be sent one.

Watson, Alexander Skirving b. 1837; d. 29 November 1865, Brompton, London. Pharmacist and merchant

A.S. Watson’s life was all too short, but his name has acquired an indelible place in the history of Hong Kong and in its citizens’ daily life. He first appeared in Hong Kong in October 1858 as the new head pharmacist of the Hong Kong Dispensary on Queen’s Road, a subsidiary established in 1841 by the Canton Dispensary (founded in 1828) after Hong Kong’s occupation by the British.

Opened by Dr F.H. Young, a naval surgeon, and Alexander Anderson, later Colonial Surgeon, the Hong Kong Dispensary initially operated in a matshed at Possession Point. Later it moved to premises in Queen’s Road. In 1856 Thomas Boswell Watson, a doctor from Edinburgh who had been working in Macau since 1845, sold his practice in Macau and bought a share in the Hong Kong Dispensary. His nephew Alexander Skirving Watson joined the Dispensary in 1858. Thomas Watson returned to Scotland in 1859 and died in 1860, aged 44 years. The name Watson began to headline the pharmacy’s advertisements in the early 1860s and gradually emerged as the company’s new official name, just as the shops it operated came to be known as ‘Watson’s the Chemist’. Watson last appears in Hong Kong’s records in 1863; he died in England two years later at the age of 28.

Counting from when its predecessor, the Hong Kong Dispensary, was established, Watson’s is possibly the oldest retailer still in existence in Hong Kong and unquestionably among a tiny few that have operated continuously since the early days of the colony. By 1941 Watson’s was already the largest chemist, retailer of health and beauty products, dealer in wines and spirits, and manufacturer of aerated waters in Asia. Today it is part of the A.S. Watson Group, which in turn is part of Hutchison Whampoa Limited.(1)


A. S. Watson Group celebrates 175 The Manila Times 2nd November 2018


  1. Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012 This wonderful book collects in one volume more than 500 specially commissioned entries on men and women from Hong Kong history.

This article was first posted on 8th November 2018.

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