Hong Kong Water Supply – Kowloon Peninsula

Tymon Mellor: The acquisition of Kowloon was primarily undertaken as a military exercise, but with it came the responsibility to provide fresh water for the existing population and the new large military contingent. The solution was to establish a number of wells and an associated rudimentary water distribution system, elements of which can still be seen today.

The first official suggestion to acquire Kowloon was made by Captain W K Hall of HMS Calcutta, who in a letter of March, 1858[i] thought the time was right to obtain the cession of Kowloon Point and Stonecutters Island before another power, such as the French, would take advantage. By 1859, the Governor Sir J Bowring recommended “The possession of the small peninsula opposite the Island is become of more and more importance. To say nothing of questions of military and naval defence, it would be of great commercial and sanatary value, while to the Chinese it is not only of no value, but a seat of anarchy and a source of embarrassment.”

1860 Kowloon Rental Agreement

It was generally agreed that Kowloon Peninsula should be acquired by the British, but the approach was not clear. The British Government in March 1860 proposed a military occupation while the Governor Sir H Robinson proposed a civilian occupation by renting the land from the Cantonese Viceroy, Lao Tsung Kwong. While discussions continued, with the backing of the HK Government, Kowloon had already been used as a camping ground by civilians since the previous month, February, 1860 as it was considered an open and healthy spot.

1860 Kowloon Lease Map

On the 21st March, 1860 a lease on the peninsula was granted by Viceroy Lao for an annual fee of five hundred teals of silver. Three days later, notice was given to the inhabitants that no further settlers would be allowed, while existing residents would be protected and outlaws would be driven away. The land was immediately occupied by the military, initially establishing camps[ii] while permanent barracks were erected.

1860 Kowloon Peninsula

With the signing of the Peking Convention on the 24th October, 1860, the lease arrangement was cancelled and the peninsula “with a view to the maintenance of law and order in and about the harbour of Hongkong, be ceded to H.M. the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland…”. The peninsula was formally handed over to Lord Elgin by the Chinese on the 26th December, 1860 in the company of 2,000 British troops.

Discussions continued over the responsibility for the management of the new land, with the military authorities considering that it had been acquired mainly for military purposes, and plans for the erection of barracks and facilities were drawn up and approved by the War Office in London[iii]. The dispute was finally resolved by 1864 when much of the land was given to the military for barracks and naval facilities, with the remainder left with the colonial government. With the issue of land ownership resolved, in the summer of 1864 land sales commenced for some 26 marine lots and 39 inland lots.

1860 Kowloon Military Layout

By 1891 the civilian population of Kowloon had grown to over 13,000, concentrated in Yaumati and Hunghom, along with 1,000 Indian troops[iv]. The need for a water supply was now pressing.

1891 Kowloon Census

The new acquisition comprised the southern part of the peninsula up to what became Boundary Street, but which had no major watercourses and with much of the area covered in low barren hills. The latter were used for military firing ranges along with isolated areas for farming. Four valleys were identified as possible water sources and a number of trials were undertaken to establish the suitability of the areas for supplying water. In a report of May 1890, Mr Osbert Chadwick advised that a well, 3m in diameter had been excavated in these low foot hills, in a site known as Valley No. 1. The well was a trial to see if the sandy soil had sufficient ground water to allow water extraction throughout the dry season, and suitable enough to supply a Kowloon water distribution network.

The trial was positive, and during November and December 1891, further tests were undertaken to confirm the security of the water source.

1890 Kowloon Water Supply

The ground conditions consisted of a sandy clay, around 3m deep with the water table close to the surface. To improve the efficiency of the well, 225mm cast iron pipes were laid with open joints to form a land drain and to supply the well. During January to March, 1892 pumping tests were undertaken using a 1,800m3/d (400,000 gallons per day) pump, powered by a portable engine previously used for the Tai Tam reservoir works. To minimise water loss down-stream of the well, a dam was constructed through the water bearing soil, founded on impervious stratum to trap the ground water. Pumping tests demonstrated that a steady water flow of 845m3/d (186,000 gallons per day) could be extracted without significant ground water draw down, and it was concluded that 454m3/d (100,000 gallons per day) of water could be safely extracted each day.

1892 Kowloon Water Supply

An analysis of the water by Mr W E Crow, the Government Analyst, confirmed that the water was of high quality, but there was some local pollution by Albuminoid Ammonia arising from decaying matter associated with adjacent cultivated lands.

The forecast demand for water was developed based on a criterion of 38 litres (10 gallons) per day per head, suggesting that a supply of 454m3/d (100,000 gallons per day) would support a population of 10,000 people. To ensure sufficient supply even during the dry season, and also allowing for a growing population, two additional wells were proposed in adjacent valleys.

The final scheme proposed in the summer of 1892, was to reserve four adjacent valleys, an area of 89 hectare (220 acres) for water works, sinking new wells in valleys 2 and 3 to supply 1,054m3/d (232,000 gallons per day). A buried pipe line would connect the wells to a pumping station at Yau Ma Tei, where the water would be pumped into the distribution network and to a storage reservoir on the hillside at an elevation of 70mPD (230ft). If necessary, a second reservoir could be constructed within the hills behind Hung Hom. The pumping station was to house a 12 house power Worthington type triple expansion steam engine. The estimated cost of the works was £18,900, to be paid for by consumers with the installation of water supply meters.

1896 Kowloon Water Supply

The scheme was approved with some revisions and completed in 1895, with the first water supplied on the 24th December, 1895[v]. The three well system was constructed at a cost of £24,360, and which included a 681m3 (150,000 gallon) storage tank located adjacent to the pumping station at Yau Ma Tei, with two smaller service reservoirs at Yau Ma Tai of 727m3 (160,000 gallons) and one at Hung Hom of 409m3 (90,000 gallons), along with the distribution network.

1896 YMT Pumping Station

According to hphbhk[vi], the pumping station was a complex comprised of three two-storey buildings and a tall chimney for the boiler. The first building consisted of an engine house and a boiler house. The second building had a workshop on the ground floor and fitters’ quarters on the first floor. Between the first building and the second building was a chimney. For the third building, an office, a store, a boy and coolie room, a cook House and a latrine were located on the ground floor, while there was an overseers’ quarters on the first floor.

1895 Pumping Station

From the elevation of the pumping station on Station Street (today’s Shanghai Street) from the set of original architectural drawings, starting from the left were the First building: Engine House and Boiler House; The Chimney; Second building: Fitters’ Quarters and Workshop; Third building: Overseers’ Quarters, Office and Store.

1896 YMT Pumping Station Steam Engine

The pumping station was equipped with steam-driven pumps[vii], which were imported from England powered by coal fire boilers[viii]. The pumping station ceased operation in 1911 following the construction of Kowloon Reservoir in 1906, and the chimney was demolished one year later. In 1911, the remaining buildings underwent a different adaptive reuse. The first building, which had consisted of the engine house and the boiler house, was converted into a post office in the 1910s-1920s. The second building, which had consisted of the workshop and the fitters’ quarters, became a hazardous goods store. The third building, which had consisted of the overseers’ quarters and the office, became a hawkers control office.

1896 YMT Boiler Room

In the pre-war and early post-war days, Yunnan Lane, which was located by the side of the post office, became a place where professional letter writers set up their stalls. There were as many as 37 stalls. This traditional trade gradually disappeared with rising literacy levels within the populace.

The post office ceased operation in 1967 with the opening of the nearby Kowloon Central Post Office. The vacated post office was then used as a “Street Sleepers’ Shelter” operated by the Salvation Army, until the end of the 1990s, when the shelter for the homeless moved across the street to the building at 345A Shanghai Street.

At present, only one of the three buildings remain, the engineer’s office, with the other parts of the pumping station having been demolished.

As for the Yau Ma Tei service reservoirs, much to the surprise of many, one is still in place and in good condition, located next to the Yau Ma Tei Service Reservoir (constructed in 1932). The tank is a buried barrel arched structure constructed out of bricks and mortar.

Service Tanks

The location of the Yau Ma Tei facilities are shown on the map below. As for the storage tank adjacent to the pumping station, the site is now occupied by a Government building providing a refuse collection point and accommodation for street sleepers. From the photo of the pumping station, it would seem that the storage tank was an underground structure and was probably demolished during the course of redevelopment of the area.

Yau Ma Tei

The Hung Hom service reservoir was also an underground structure, cut into the hillside to form a buried tank structure. The location would seem to be within the site of the new MTR Ho Man Tin station. However, it was not encountered during the construction of the station, suggesting that it is outside the major MTR excavation and is still buried, if not removed in the past.

Hung Hom Tank

As for the supply wells, photographs of the supply valley were taken in 1896 (or so) showing the nature of the area. Valley no. 1[ix], gives the impression of a remote area of the territory. Well No. 1 was located in a wide valley, with shallow hills on either side. When you zoom in on the photo, two brick structures are visible, but they are not shown on the map from 1901. They may have been temporary structures associated the earlier pumping trials. The location of the well and dam is now in Pui Ching Street, located either side of the road by Pui Ching Middle School.

Well No 1

Valley No. 2[x], was the key route linking east and west Kowloon and the images of the time shows a prepared road, with a single pedestrian carrying a load. When you zoom in on the image, the well and dam are clearly visible.

Well No 2

This early Kowloon route became Argyle Street and the Well No. 2 was located in what is now the junction with Princess Margaret Road. Evidence of the surrounding hills can be seen in the road cuttings.

Well No 2 Location

The location of Well No. 3 was lost in the early 1900’s when the valley was excavated for the construction of the Kowloon – Canton Railway. The site of the well is now the junction of Wylie Road with Princess Margaret Road.

Well No 3

By 1897, the population of Kowloon had grown to 34,000, with water consumption significantly overtaking the available supply. Additional supplies were sourced from the Kowloon hills, following the acquisition of the New Territories in 1898. However, this was a stop gap measure, and a major new supply was required, the Kowloon Reservoir.



[i] Europe in China, The History of Hongkong from the beginning to the year 1882, By E J Eitel, Page 357

[ii] Allied Camp at Kowloon, National Library of Australia, https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/342101

[iii] National Archive, MFQ 1/1050

[iv] Report on Kowloon Water Supply, Francis A Cooper Director of Public Works, June 1892

[v] Report on Water Supply Kowloon, Lawrence Gibbs, Director of Public Works, January 1890

[vi] Kowloon Pumping Station https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/7838531450/in/album-72157631193302238/

[vii] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/7838530596/in/album-72157631193302238/

[viii] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/7838529802/in/album-72157631193302238/

[ix] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/7838528624/in/album-72157631193302238/

[x] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/7838520180/in/album-72157631193302238/ and


Historic Maps, www.hkmaps.hk

This article was first posted on 6th November 2018.

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