George Underhill Sands (1824-1881?) – connection to three HK companies

Stephen Davies and Hugh Farmer have collaborated in researching the life of George U Sands (1824-1881). In particular his time as the captain of a steamship in China and his later involvement in three Hong Kong companies.

Stephen’s contributions are indicated, all others are from HF.

Any information about Mr Sands during his time in both China and Hong Kong and in particular his connection to the three companies would be of great interest.

Born –  New York 1824
Married – Jean Billie born UK 1823 died Paris 1883
Died – Hong Kong or Westchester County, New York  or ?, 1878 or 1881. (He was not buried in the Hong Kong Cemetery)
A George Underhill Sands (1824-1881) is buried in the Bailie/Benedict plot at Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye, Westchester County, New York, USA (3)
“Sands lived in Hong Kong and died there in 1878.” (4)

“Charles Van Alstyne Sands [born c1835 in New York]. His brother was George Underhill Sands. George was an interesting man in his own right, a multimillionaire China trader and shipbuilder who lived with his family in a mansion in Hong Kong.” (1)

SD: My suspicion is that Sands was of (though in what way who knows) the famous Sands family of New York (, ch. XXIX) one of whom had traded with China in 1805/06 (but died on the way home). They were very numerous, so that if he was of them it wouldn’t surprise me. He was evidently a bit of a mover and shaker in the HK shipyard business and my suspicion, given that all the first ferries imported by Douglas Lapraik for his Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company, founded in 1865, were US, Hudson River side-wheelers sent as knocked-down kits for re-assembly, is that Sands’ business – which may go back to Russell & Co. importing earlier versions of similar vessels, may have been to bring Yankee expertise to the putting together of the vessels.
That might also explain the Novelty Iron Works, since the original of the name seems to have been a New York outfit making steam engines for ships and general engineering (see excellent 1851 article here In 1861 he was captain of the Hankow, steamship, 650 tons, built 1860 in New York and owned by J.M. Forbes (the Russell & Co connection), and he continues to be peripatetically listed as her skipper until 1869 (missing years 1864, 1867 and 1868).
The New York Times of 3 Oct. 1860 had the following story: “NEW STEAMER FOR CHINA — THOMAS COLLYER yesterday morning launched from his ship-yard, foot of Forty-second-street, a new steamer to be called the Hankow. She has been built for J.M. FORBES & CO., of Boston, and is intended for the Chinese river trade. She is 212 feet long, 30 1/2 feet wide, 12 1/2 feet deep, and is about 600 tons register. She is to have a beam-engine of 48 inches diameter of cylinder, and 12 feet stroke, This is the third steamer which has been built here for the same firm, and for the Chinese coast-trade. One of them was sold for a handsome advance to the Chinese Government as a war vessel, and one to the French for the same purpose. The Morgan Iron Works furnish the engines, as they have those of all the other steamers. The launch was a successful one, and witnessed by a large company. She will be brigantine rigged, and will proceed to China waters in command of Capt. GEORGE U. SANDS.” (The Morgan Iron Works were rivals to the Novelty Works.)

SD: The New York Times for June 23 1862 had a story on all the Hudson stern-wheelers built for China including the Hankow – see
My hunch is that Sands came ashore in Hong Kong seeing better opportunities servicing ships than driving them. In Singapore in 1861 there was a Patent Slip & Dock Co (Director William Cloughton – see The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4 May 1861, p.1, 3rd column, second down), so maybe Sands was taking on/setting up a second local agency of an existing outfit (or ‘borrowing’ trade names that had the right ring!)

HF: Keppel Corporation derived its name from Singapore’s Keppel Bay, the country’s primary deepwater harbor. Discovered by Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, the harbour provided a sheltered location for the establishment of the British Empire’s colonial outpost in the country. In 1859, the first dock was built in New Harbour. By 1861, the Patent Slip and Dock Company had been established to provide harbor and ship repair services. That company later merged with its chief rival, Tanjang Pagar Dock Company, in 1899, and then changed its name to New Harbour Dock Company. The following year, New Harbour itself was renamed as Keppel Bay. (6)

SD: Regarding the discovery of Keppel Harbour by Henry Keppel as suggested above. It was actually ‘discovered’ by the omnipresent William Farquhar and charted by Capt. Daniel Ross IN in 1819, though of course there is reasonable evidence that the Chinese had known of it (entered by the Dragon’s Teeth Gate (Long Ya Men – 龍牙門)) as early as the Ming Dynasty or before! It was charted as ‘A Plan of the Harbour, Singapore’ and became known as New Harbour to distinguish it from the exiguous shelter of the Singapore River, where Ross had suggested Raffles place the new settlement when he was consulted. It remained with that name until called Keppel Harbour in Sir Henry’s honour in the early 20th century largely, I suspect, because of Sir Henry’s service as 2ic China Station 1856-57 and C-in-C 1867-72. He didn’t serve in Singapore in any big way until 1837, and there’s scant chance that, with Ross’s chart, no one would have anchored in the known and charted (New) Harbour before then.

SD: The Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company, set up by Douglas Lapraik in 1865, was a power in the Pearl River ferry business, taking on all comers (the existing operations by Russell & Co. and Jardines, inter alia) and hanging in there until the whole business was rationalised in the later 19th century, with shareholdings taken by Jardines and Swire (I think) to deal with beggar-my-neighbour competition. That’s probably not super- accurate. The whole company history can be found in Beancaker to Boxboat [details shown below (5)].

Harvard University Library has a collection of Sands’ business records (which  I am unable to access) consisting of account books, letter books, diaries, financial material related to his management of:-

  • The Patent Slip and Dock Company
  • The Novelty Iron Works
  • The Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company

And the George U. Sands business records kept at Harvard Business School contain similar resources:- account books, letter books, and unbound papers reflecting Sands’ activity in the management of the same three companies and continues, “He was very familiar with the river trade and steamboat navigation, having been a captain himself. The collection highlights the transportation industry and the introduction of steamboats to China. The collection includes correspondence relating to shipment of iron, instructions to steamboat captains, and business transactions, including meetings with American merchant agents.” I am also unable to access these.

The Novelty Iron Works was definitely a Hong Kong concern (there were at least two companies in the USA with the same somewhat curious name). As obviously was the Steamboat Company. But confirmation is needed that The Patent Slip and Dock Company was active in HK.

A George U. Sands is found in the 1880 United States Federal Census (3)

Sands Street, Kennedy Town is named after  “Captain George Underhill Sands – Shipbuilder” (2)

The image accompanying this article is of the Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Co Ltd’s “Honam”.


(2) Signs of a Colonial Era, A Yanne and G Heller, HKUP, 2009
(4) Sands’ Business Records, 1866-1880 while working in HK,  Harvard University Library – I am unable to access these
(5) Beancaker to Boxboat, HW Dick and SA Kentwell, Nautical Association of Australia, 1988
(6) Keppel Corporation Ltd, Singapore

One comment

  • Ralph Wood

    I am a relative of George Underhill Sands and have written a sixteen page paper on his life, fully footnoted. I am a descendant of the Charles Van Alstyne Sands mentioned above. My paper explains the whole background of the Sands family, and how George became involved with famous Boston China traders. It names several ships whose construction he oversaw, including details of his trip as Captain of the Hankow, transporting it from NY to Hong Kong. I, also, have a photo of the Hankow in Hong Kong harbor. He died in Hong Kong in 1877 and his body was embalmed and transported to NY for burial. My paper includes details gleaned from his business papers at Harvard.

    I would love to exchange information with anyone with information regarding him, particularly, any photo of him or his place of residence in Hong Kong.

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