K A Watson OBE JP – a Man With a Vision

Tymon Mellor: Kenneth Albert Watson or Ken was one of the territory’s great protagonists. He was a member of the Legislative Council, a member of the Urban Council and an active letter writer to the South China Morning Post. He spent much of his life trying make the territory a better place to live and actively encouraged the use of private enterprise to assist in its development.

Ken was born in Singapore 30 July 1912. His father James was a private in the Highland Light Infantry and appears to have travelled the world, being noted in India in the 1911 census. Kenneth arrived in Hong Kong before the Pacific War and worked in the banking field, no doubt mixing with all the other expats where he met his future wife, Florence Isabel Lammert, the daughter of Lionel E Lammert the director of the auctioneering firm of Lammert Bros[i].

With war on the horizon, he joined the Hongkong Naval Volunteer Force and was promoted from a probationary cadet to Cadet in November 1938[ii]. He clearly found his calling, being promoted to Action Lieutenant in 1941[iii]. However, with the drums of war beating, on the 28 May 1941, Ken married Florence, or Isa as she was known in St. John’s Cathedral[iv].

With the occupation of the territory by the Japanese in December 1941, Ken was captured and sent to the Argyle Street POW camp[v], where 850 officers and their batmen were interred[vi], and Isa along with her family were interred in the Stanley Camp.

Japanese POW Card

Following the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the reunited Watsons moved into “High Tide” on Island Road on the south side of Hong Kong Island. In November, 1946 Ken started his own photographic studio, the Gainsborough Studio located in Wyndham Street.

Gainsborough Studio

Family life was clearly good and, on the 19 Aug 1949, Isa gave birth to their first daughter Elizabeth, who was later baptized in St. John’s Cathedral[vii]. Isa went on to have two other daughters, Carolyn and Linda[viii].

With a new family to support, Ken joined his father-in-law’s firm and became an authorised signature for Lammert Brothers in October, 1949[ix].

By the early 1950s, Ken started to become active in expanding the development of cultural opportunities in the territory. As the joint governor of the new City Hall Museum sub-committee, he started to promote the museum and its importance for a more balanced society. In this role he wrote to the SCMP looking for ideas for the new museum and experience running a museum[x]. With poor living conditions, insufficient schooling, few hospitals and inadequate water supply, he championed the cause of the new City Hall on the grounds that for “any real and permanent improvement, the public must be encouraged to develop a spirit of self-help and civic pride”[xi]. Construction of the City Hall commenced in February 1960 and was completed by March 1962[xii].

Ken would seem to have a knack for self-promotion and building the fortunes of the Lammert Brothers, and in April 1955 he was promoted to become a partner of the company[xiii]. While he was being recognized for his professional work, he also started to get involved with local politics and the fairness of the Colonial Government system and the approach to the Urban Council election[xiv]. This would ultimately lead him to be appointed to the Urban Council in April 1957[xv] where he became active in traffic issues, becoming a representative of the Traffic Advisory Committee on public transport in 1962. Prior to that assignment, he was appointed an Unofficial Justice of the Peace in 1961. In July 1964 he was appointed an Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council by the Queen[xvi].

His civic work seemed to have focused on planning for the future, include covering issues such as constitutional reform, improved transport arrangements, commercial radio and housing. Rather than just criticising, he proposed solutions including arrangements to make projects attractive to private enterprise. In 1956 he proposed a cross harbour bridge, to be funded by the development of housing on the reclaimed land needed for the construction, and this model would later be used to fund MTR railway lines. In February, 1961 he promoted the idea of an underground railway to serve the growing population. His proposal was to terminate the KCRC single track at Shatin and build a new electrified railway within the urban area. He calculated that the cost savings of constructing new roads to accommodate the growing population would pay for the new railway. His idea for an underground railway was presented to the Rotary Club, where he noted, “On the map I offer you a blue-print of how it might be achieved in Hong Kong”[xvii]. And so the seed for the MTR was sown.

Underground Railway

In recognition for his work for the community, he received an OBE from the Queen in the 1964 New Years Honours’[xviii]

On retirement, the Watsons retired to the UK and Ken died peacefully on the 3 May 1999 at the age of 87[xix]. His wife Isa passed way on 2007 at the age of 90.

Sources

Ancestry.com

South China Morning Post

[i] Lammert: Last of Well-Known Family in HK, South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 1971

[ii] Naval Volunteers, South China Morning Post, 19 Dec 1938

[iii] The Hong Kong Government Gazette, 17 Jan 1941

[iv] Card 150815, Carl Smith Collection, HK GRS, 1941

[v] UK, World War II Allied Prisoners of War, 1939-1945, https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/61642/

[vi] Reunion Dinner, South China Morning Post, 1 Oct 1955

[vii] Card 150897, Carl Smith Collection, HK GRS, 1949

[viii] More Children Back for Holidays, South China Morning Post, 28 July 1964

[ix] Notice, South China Morning Post, 3 Oct 1949

[x] City Hall Museum, South China Morning Post, 22 May 1952

[xi] City Hall, South China Morning Post, 27 Oct 1953

[xii] Hong Kong City Hall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_City_Hall

[xiii] Notice, South China Morning Post, 25 May 1955

[xiv] Local Politics, South China Morning Post, 19 May 1955

[xv] New Member, South China Morning Post, 27 Apr 1957

[xvi] The London Gazette, 3 Jul 1964

[xvii] Tube Railwats Major Solution, South China Morning Post, 8 Feb 1961

[xviii] Philanthropist Knighted, South China Morning Post, 1 Jan 1964

[xix] Obituary, South China Morning Post, 6 May 1999

This article was first posted on 18th November 2021.

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