The Dairy Farm Ice and Cold Storage Company – HKBRAS article

HF: Dan Waters wrote a short piece in 1990 about the Dairy Farm Ice and Cold Storage Company. Dan has kindly drawn my attention to this and given permission to reproduce it.

This was part of a longer article, Hong Kong Hongs with long histories and British connections, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol 30, 1990.

RASHKB says “Anyone with an interest in the history, art, literature and culture of China and Asia, with special reference to Hong Kong, will enjoy membership of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, which is generally regarded as the premier Society for the study of Hong Kong and South China. Dating back over 150 years, the Society is today a very active body, organizing varied visits, talks, seminars and more.”

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The Dairy Farm Ice and Cold Storage Company Limited by Dan Waters

The supply of ice for the preservation of food is obviously important in the tropics. George Wingrove Cooke, correspondent for The Times, in 1857 provided a vivid picture:

“In Hong Kong and Shanghai, a dinner table in the summer season is a melancholy spectacle of spoiled food. The creatures to be eaten were necessarily killed the same day, and the tough tissues are as hard as death stiffened them.”

In the 1850s, large expatriate households often owned at least one cow, and a block of ice bought from George Duddell prevented the milk from going sour. The selling of ice was one of the earliest trades in Hong Kong, and the first consignment of ice was imported by Jardine’s in 1843. The Ice House Company was established in 1845. The price fluctuated depending upon the season and the demand and varied, in 1849, from three to six cents a pound. The ice was stored in a specially constructed building at the corner of Ice House Street at the southern side of Queen’s Road. Importers often lost money. Although the Tudor Company imported ice from North America in the early days, by the 1870s ice manufacturing apparatus was shipped into Hong Kong, and, in 1874, the Hong Kong Times reported the ice making establishment at East Point was completed. In 1881, the Hong Kong Ice Company was founded with its headquarters at East Point.

Hong Kong Ice Company

The Hongkong Ice Company Ltd

Image extracted from: Twentieth century impressions of Hong-kong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China. A Wright, (ed.) 1908.

Later the Hong Kong Ice Company was taken over by Jardine’s, although Butterfield and Swire was the first company to diversify into selling Australian butter, and, later still, frozen foods including poultry, pigs, and the provisioning of ships. B&S was also the first to sign a contract to supply the armed forces. The frozen food business was taken over from Butterfield and Swire, by Dairy Farm, in 1904.

Dairy produce

In those early days milk was obtained from native buffaloes and a few sickly cows. Then, John Kennedy a veterinary surgeon who died in 1902, imported cows from Britain, and, in 1880, the dairy (established 1856) stood next to the Horse Repository close to where the Peak Tram is now situated in Garden Road. At a time when expatriates would not usually condescend to undertake manual work the dairy created quite a stir by employing milkmaids from England. However when the Scottish parasitologist, Dr. (later Sir) Patrick Manson arrived in Hong Kong he was appalled by the unsanitary living conditions and took a special interest in the local milk supply. This led to the founding of the Dairy Farm (well known today for its chain of ‘Wellcome’ supermarkets), in 1886. in spite of the fact that the Chinese had no place for dairy produce in theircuisine and many found the taste offensive.

Sir Patrick Manson 1844-1922

Sir Patrick Manson

In addition to Dr. Manson, W.H. Ray, J.B. Coughtrie. Granville Sharp, Phineas Ryric and Sir Paul Chater were directors. The aim was to povide a hygienic supply of milk from cows kept on about 300 acres of good land in the neighbourhood of where the Wah Fu housing estate now stands, on Hong Kong Island. Although the site is exposed to the south-westerly breezes in the hot summer, which helped to keep the cows in better condition, all food-stuffs and building materials had, in those times, to be shouldered from the sea shore to the top of the hill by coolies. The subtropical climate affected the imported animals and the bulls were not keen to perform their duties during hot weather. After a disappointing first year of trading, nonetheless, in spite of disease among cattle and plague among citizens, a profit was recorded.

Meanwhile Dr Manson returned to England, in 1889, to help found the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

A bad outbreak of plague struck the Colony in 1894 when Dairy Farm was brought to a standstill. This was followed by a rinderpest epidemic which affected most of its herd. Cheuk Yau, a cowman, had the initiative to drive 30 animals away from the infected area, and he brought them back later when the danger had passed. Ah Cheuk died soon afterwards but his widow received a special allowance from the company, and his two sons were given jobs with the firm.

Source: Exhibition at the Wellcome Theatre (the octagonal cowsheds)

Dairy workers and the octagonal cowsheds. Source: Exhibition at the Wellcome Theatre

The herd was later replenished with Frisians from Scotland, and a farmer, James Walker (also Scottish), was sent out by Dr. Manson in 1890 to be the first manager of the farm. He remained in the post until 1920 (some records say 1919).

By 1918 (some records say 1916), the original Hong Kong Ice Company joined Dairy Farm and became known as the Dairy Farm, Ice and Cold Storage Company Limited, following the merging of the food sections of Lane Crawford and Dairy Farm.
Because records were lost little is known of the company’s history between 1920 and 1942. The directors who were not killed fighting the Japanese in 1941, however, did manage to hold a minuted board meeting, on June 1st, 1942, in Stanley prison camp. They later held a joint meeting with the directors of Lane Crawford’s when it was suggested the two firms should co-operate after hostilities ceased.

This idea materialised in 1960 with limited success. In 1972, Hong Kong Land acquired Dairy Farm in the first contested takeover bid in Hong Kong. The old building on Lower Albert Road, used by the Dairy Farm Ice and Cold Storage Company Limited until 1978, now houses the Foreign Correspondents Club and the Fringe Club. In the late 20th century milk is tankered into Hong Kong mainly from China.

This article was first posted on 5th November 2014.


  1. Hong Kong Hongs with long histories and British connections Dan Water full article
  2. The Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Dairy Farm Company
  2. Pokfulam Dairy Farm
  3. Kowloon Dairy Company – horse racing connection
  4. World War Two – 1945 BAAG report – Dairy Supplies in occupied HK

One comment

  • Alison O'malley

    Thank you for this article. My grandfather George Milne and Great grandfather JD Thomson were managers of the dairy farm in the 1940s I think.

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