Mapping Of Hong Kong Part 3 – 1845 The Collinson Map

Tymon Mellor: On the 24th May, 1843 Lieutenant Thomas Bernard Collinson, RE boarded the Mount Stewart Elphinstone[1] with a detachment of sappers and miners, two civilian clerks of works and three works foremen, who were bound for the new colony of Hong Kong. Collinson had been appointed by the Board of Ordnance to produce a detailed map of the new colony. The map published in 1845 would go on to be recognised as one of the “most complete” maps of its time. It would remain in use until 1930 when it was replaced by a new survey and the GSGS 3868 map series.

Copies of all the charts and maps discussed can be found at

The Royal Sappers

The early days of the colony were tough times for the new British settlers. The small island of Hong Kong had a local population of around 5,650 inhabitants, most associated with quarrying, farming and fishing. The arrival of the British in January 1841 brought with it the building of new infrastructure for the military and also merchants eager to do business with China. Within two years of the 1841 Nanking Treaty, the new town of Victoria had risen with “a line of godowns for 2 or 3 miles along the north shore of the island and the mainland of China”[2].

The fledgling government had few resources and was heavily reliant on the military to provide technical and engineering support. Local infrastructure had organically developed around the new developments, but with military facilities spaced around the island at Victoria, Stanley and Sai Wan, new roads were required.

plate XV

The Uniform of the Royal Sappers

By August 1841 a detachment of the Madras sappers and miners had constructed a fort on Kellett’s Island, and two batteries for heavy artillery pieces were erected at either end of northern coast. Lieutenant Ouchterlony of the Madras sappers was the Garrison Engineer responsible for the construction of the early buildings and roads. Many of the buildings were of a temporary nature while the roads were no more than bridle paths.

In January 1843 the Board of Ordnance selected Major Edward Aldrich RE to be the first Commander Royal Engineers with direction to construct permanent facilities for the military and also for the installation of public services. He was to be assisted by Lieutenant Collinson RE and a party of 33 sappers (Royal Sappers and Miners who would later be unified with the Royal Engineers in 1856) and one sergeant, William Tinte to assist in the construction of public works and military facilities.

Major Aldrich arrived in September 1843 taking over the command from Lieutenant Ouchterlony[3]. Lieutenant Collinson and his men arrived one month later on the 4th October 1843, following their 120-day journey from England.

Collinson reported to Major Aldrich, whom he described as “a clever and handsome man, but not a pleasant fellow to deal with”[4] and for a while they were the only two engineers in the colony.

Lieutenant T B Collinson

Thomas Bernard Collinson was born on the 17th November, 1821 in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England, then a part of County Durham, and was the ninth of fifteen children of Rev. John Collinson, Rector of Gateshead.

Collinson’s Entry in the Register of the Royal Engineers (1860)[5]

Thomas had an older brother, Richard who joined the Royal Navy in 1823 at the age of 12 and rose through the ranks to become a captain by 1842[6]. Richard was engaged with survey work and was assigned to HMS Ætna under commander Edward Belcher. Richard was responsible for surveying much of the coast of China before embarking on an arctic expedition to search for Franklin’s missing northwest passage[7].

Thomas followed in his brother’s footsteps in joining the military, who in 1838 joined the Royal Engineers as a youth of 16 years and 8 months. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and commissioned in to the Corps of Royal Engineers as No. 683, with the rank of second lieutenant, on 16th June 1838.

Thomas Bernard Collinson - Wikipedia

T B Collinson

His first assignment was to work on the Ordnance Survey work in Wales, Ireland and Northern England, preparing the new map of Britain. This introduced Thomas to the practical realities of topographic survey, the importance of establishing triangulation or trig stations, and the quality of the survey equipment. Prior to his departure for Hong Kong, he made a request in April 1843; “I beg to recommend that the telescope be 30 inches in length, and the instruments generally of the best construction Mr Simms[8] can make. I have also to request that the instruments may not be packed up until I have an opportunity of seeing it.”[9]

A Troughton Simms Theodolite

Hong Kong was a hard ship posting, with malaria and other ailments taking a heavy toll on the new arrivals, as Collinson noted in February 1844 after five months “Out of the 50 soldiers I brought out with me (& this in the cold season) twelve have gone – some died & some sent back to England half dead; amongst the former I am sorry to say is my poor servant Corny – He was hardly two months in China.”[10]

Between 1843 and 1852 three parties of sappers were assigned to Hong Kong, and of the 67 men, 27 never made it back to England. The third party of 18 sappers, when they left in November, 1852, the party had dwindled away to 8 men as 7 had died, 2 deserted, and 1 was invalided[11].

Collinson Sketch of The Harbour of Hong Kong from North Point (1844)

During his stay in Hong Kong, Collinson made the first records of many place names, including: Shek O, Chai Wan, Shau Kei Wan, Quarry Bay, Tai Tam, Tin Wan, Wan Chai, and Pok Fu Lam. Cape Collinson, Mount Collinson, Collinson Street, Cape Collinson Road and Path, on Hong Kong Island, were all named in his honour[12].

Collinson would spend nearly three years in Hong Kong, when in June 1846 he left the territory for service in New Zealand. There he would assist in the construction of roads on the North Island and take part in quelling native disturbances in 1847[13]. He returned to England in May 1850 some seven and a half years later.

Collinson regularly wrote to his parents and other members of this family and prepared a book for his children describing his seven years away. These records now provide many details of his life in the places he worked. To get the most out of his letters, as common at the time, he would write in two directions on the paper to double its capacity.

Collinson Letter from 1842

On his return to England he was assigned to the Great Exhibition until he was placed in charge of the Royal Engineers at Aldershot in 1856, the same year he married Katherine Backer, the daughter of the Reverand J Backer, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Durham. They had six children together over the following 12 years. In the subsequent years he was posted to Corfu and Malta before returning to England where he was appointed as the commander at Dover until his retirement in 1873 as a Major General.

Even in retirement he continued to work and was appointed as the architect to the Scottish Prisons Commissions before he had to retire due to poor health. During his working life and upon retirement he both wrote and sketched, publishing a number of books and papers[14]. Following the death of his brother Richard, he edited and published his journal on the artic expeditions. Collison died on 1st May 1902 in Ealing. He was a wealthy man with three servants and left an estate of £20,534 10s 8d[15].

Chuck Chu (Stanley) from the North West (1844)

Life in Hong Kong

When Collinson arrived in Hong Kong in October 1843 he met up with a new group of officers along with his brother Richard who was surveying the China coast on HMS Plover. As he noted, “So I began my foreign service under very favourable auspices”.

Collinson was initially stationed in the barrack buildings with the Royal Artillery, but once the new Royal Engineers buildings had been constructed, he set up an office and mess (canteen) for the RE team. He was responsible for arranging food for the cooks as he recorded:

“We had two Chinese boys who did all of our marketing. Every morning they received their instructions and with a basket and string of ‘cash’ they went to market. There was a capital market where everything rateable from fine apples to rats was procurable, and everybody from the governor to the Coolie went or sent there for their daily supplies. Cash is the smallest Chinese coin, a thin copper coin with a square hole through it, and of the value (at that time) of the 1/24th part of a penny, a measure of the cost of living in China. A Coolie would go to market with a few of these in his basket, but a respectable person would carry a long string of them run through a bamboo cord and divided into bundles of 100 each. These would be slung over the shoulder and cut off as required. Afoo and Akoy [the two boys] brought back our supplies every day, with an account of every cash spent, without the aid of any writings. Beef, mutton and bread were rarities reserved for the foreigner, and bad at that, though from 4d. to 6d. a piece, potatoes 1½d., and fowls 5d. a piece, tea 2s. at the least. On the whole it was the cheapest living I ever experienced, our chief trouble being to prevent the cockroaches eating the corks of the bottles to get at the beer and wine.”

Part of Collinson’s Illustrated Letter (1845)

Adapting to the hot tropical conditions, the troops were dressed in white American cotton twill, cut like a uniform sewn up by local tailors. They had a white hat with a neck cover and during the day they carried white umbrellas to provide protection. In the summer of 1845, prior to leaving the territory, Collinson was asked to survey a new road under construction, and to avoid working in the heat of the day, he worked overnight and slept during the day. With his assistant and four coolies, he undertook the survey by candlelight, “an improvement in surveying in the Tropics; that I take the credit of inventing to myself”.

Collinson had a large Chinese barque (or junk) at his disposal, and he occasionally lived on and used it for parties with his men, possibly Hong Kong’s first leisure junk trip! He arranged for two or three armed Madras sappers to join the trips as guards against pirates. The boat, flying the Union Jack, was soon known throughout the territory and was generally welcomed. On one occasion, a boat approached in a threatening manner, but recognising they were British military on board, it changed tack and soon departed.

A drawing of a room Description automatically generated

Collinson’s Room in Hong Kong

Collinson enjoyed visiting villages and tried to engage with the local culture, but like many, he struggled with the language, “I made a small attempt, but as my teacher knew no English and I knew no Chinese I found that the study of Chinese and the survey could not advance together[16]”. On visiting a school in a village of 70 houses in what is now Wong Chuk Hang, he noted “from the number of drawings on the walls I should say “Boys will be boys” even in China”.

There was a social scene with regular balls, but very few western ladies, “20 ladies go to each of them & dance with the same 200 officers & others all night”. He would also take a morning horse ride around Happy Valley before having breakfast at 9am.

The Survey

The 1845 Ordinance Survey map of Hong Kong consists of four sheets, covering the Hong Kong Island, Kowloon peninsula, and the surrounding islands. The map has been drawn at a scale of 4 inches to 1 mile or 1:15,840. The map adopts the conventional legend signs used by the Ordnance Survey including one of the first uses of contour lines.

Collinson and his team set to work, using the winter months of 1843 and 1844 to undertake the outdoor surveying, and the summer months to complete the calculations and drawing work. His approach was to establish a baseline from which he could develop a survey network with over 39 survey points or triangulation station across the island.

A trig station, marked with a granite post, was located at key points where there was a line of sight to adjacent stations, allowing Collinson to establish a theodolite at each station and to measure the angles between the other stations. With a known baseline and the measured angles between the stations, trigonometry was used to locate each trig station. The key to success though was to ensure that the length of the baseline was accurately measured.

The baseline of 803m located at Shek O, now within the area of the Shek O Country Club, was formed with two stations established on low hills of 78m and 36m high. To accurately measure the distance between the two trig stations, the traditional way would have been to use a chain, typically 100 feet long along with marking posts to ensure a straight line. However, the two stations chosen were on hills making such distance measuring more complex as the surveyor would need to adjust for height. Thus, the length was most likely established through triangulation using a ‘ten-foot pole’ or similar device of a known length and by measuring the angle in between.

The bearing of the baseline and location in terms of longitude and latitude would have been established with a compass and observation of the stars.

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Distance Measuring with a Chain

While Collinson was establishing the baseline, his team would have been exploring the island looking for suitable locations for the other trig stations. They would also have started the secondary survey, identifying all the topographic features to be captured on the map and establishing spot heights needed to identify the contours.

Maps of the time used hachure, short lines to reflect topography, and these provided clear visualisation of the landscape but provided no factual details such as slope steepness or provided the information necessary to draw a cross section. Both of these features are critical for the design of new roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. Collinson was setting a new standard:

“I employed the contour plan of showing hills, then beginning to be used in Ireland, this means showing on the map, lines at regular vertical intervals from the sea to the top of the hills, and which therefore indicate the forms of the hills. These of course are of great use to surveyors and engineers and I have been told since that the maps have proved of good service in this respect.”[17]

Trig Stations indicated on the 1845 Map

The location of the baseline is problematic as there are very few options to sight adjacent peaks, thus once the baseline was established, the only survey stations visible would be on Pottinger Peak and D’Aguilar Peak to the north and south. Once these trig stations were set up, the survey network could be expanded across the island.

Extending the 1845 Survey onto the Hills

From each trig station, local surveys were undertaken to complete the details using a plane table or tape and compass. Spot heights and change in levels were recorded to allow the development of contour lines, a process requiring Collinson to establish the height of objects and draw a line or contour of areas at the same height. The coast line and marine environment were established from the Belcher Chart published three years earlier in 1841.

Collinson Primary Survey

Contour lines were not new as they had been used on earlier European maps, but the British only started to understand their merit during the Schiehallion Experiment of 1774, where the scientists needed to understand the shape of the Scottish mountain by drawing cross sections to study the impact on gravity. The adoption of contours on the Hong Kong map is said to be the first by the Ordnance Survey, but as Collinson notes, it was being used in the survey of Ireland.

By February 1844, Collinson was busy undertaking the survey work, noting in one of his letters[18], “The survey of Hong Kong progresses steadily – I have more to do than I ever had before & if I had three pair of eyes, hands & heads there would be employment for them all”

A year later by April 1845, following four months of fine weather the ground work was complete with the final site at Chuck Chu / Stanley surveyed. The culmination of the site works coincided with a three-day celebration at the Stanley temple, the 20th to 22nd of the third lunar month, for Tin Hau.

Collinson recorded, “It was a work of some labour, but by the system I adopted, partly by the ordinary triangulation, and partly by the nautical plan of taking sounds and angles from fixed points and plotting them, I was able to get the out of door work done during the winter months, leaving the calculation and plotting to the summer. Lines of lead from mean water mark were carried across various parts, and from these the contours were filled in with an ancient compass and a pocket reflecting lead. To all the points fixed by sounds and angles I also took vertical angles and this therefor formed independent checks to the contours. “

Lei Yue Mun Park stone Trig Station from the Collinson survey

By the summer of 1845 the map was nearing completion, it just needed some finishing work, but by chance in August 1845 Collinson received a box of drawing materials from his parents, “The drawing materials are exactly what I wanted to touch up the plan of Hong Kong & send it home the most handsome survey in the world.”

By November 1845 the original plan had been dispatched to Southampton, the operational base of the Ordinance Survey, and a copy was made for the Governor. The feedback from Southampton was positive to his work.

“I was recorded by the engraving of the map at the Ordnance Survey office in Southampton and by the opinion of J. Arrowsmith, the geographer, that it was the most complete map he had ever seen. Some outline sketches I took during the survey were lithographed to the Board of Ordnance. Those in this book are tracings of them done by Chinese draughtsmen, who copy so exactly that I found them tracing the inscription on the map upside down.”

In addition to the map of the island plotted at a scale of ‘four inches to one stature mile’ detailed maps were prepared for Victoria, Stanley (Chuck Chu) and Sai Wan along with ten outline sketches that were published as lithographs with the map.

The map remained in print for many years with new edition being released to keep it up to date. It would not be until 1930 that another survey and a new map would be published, using the latest in mapping technology, aerial photographs. But that is for another article.


The British military had mapped the Hong Kong Island and the surrounding waters by 1845, but the mapping of Kowloon and the New Territories would be undertaken not by the Government or the military, but by a young Italian priest on missionary duties in southern China. He would be responsible for the production of the map of the San On District, the first survey of the mainland, and his name was Simeone Volonteri.


  1. The ship was named after Mountstuart Elphinstone, a Scottish statesman and historian who served as the governor of Bombay in British India from 1819 to 1827,
  2. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, T B Collinson, unpublished, National Library of New Zealand
  3. The Military History Of The Madras Engineers And Pioneers, From 1743 Up To The Present Time, Major H M Vibart, 1883
  4. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, T B Collinson, unpublished, National Library of New Zealand
  5. WO 25. Including campaigns, marriages, births of children, names and address of next of kin, etc. (with Index), WO 25/3913 1796-1860, The National Archives
  6. Richard Collinson,
  7. Adm Sir Richard Collinson, KT
  8. A reference to William Simms who was an instrument maker to the Ordinance Survey,
  9. Far Eastern Outpost, Lieut Colonel R S Hawkins RE, The Royal Engineers Journal, March 1968
  10. Letter To Mrs Collinson, 22nd February, 1844, HKRS 140-1-1
  11. History of the Royal Sappers and Miners, Volume 1 (of 2), by T. W. J. Connolly, 1857,
  12. Yanne, Andrew; Heller, Gillis (2009). Signs of a Colonial Era. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-9622099449.
  13. Obituary, Institute of Civil Engineers, 1902
  15. Thomas Bernard Collinson,
  16. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, T B Collinson, unpublished, National Library of New Zealand
  17. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, T B Collinson, unpublished, National Library of New Zealand
  18. Letter to Mrs Collinson, 22nd Feb 1844

This article was first posted on 8th March 2024.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Mapping Hong Kong Part 1 – Where Are We?
  2. Mapping of Hong Kong Part 2 – 1841 The Belcher Map

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