Pre-war Hong Kong- the Myth of Mediocrity (2) – Tenth Rate Men

In my first post I gave examples of a view of pre-war Hong Kong that can be summed up in novelist Stella Benson’s dismissal of its British elite as ‘tenth rate men, eleventh rate women.’ In this post I consider the first part of her claim. The trouble is that merely saying ‘this man was or wasn’t tenth rate’ proves little, because there were enough British males in Hong Kong in the 1930s and early 40s for every category of competence to be represented, but luckily there is some objective evidence relating to professional esteem and career trajectory which enables us to go beyond the ‘individual men’ approach. I’ll start right at the top with the Governor.

This quotation from Oxford historian Anthony Kirk-Greene, himself a former colonial administrator, relates to the immediate post-war period, but I’m confident that it would have been just as true of the years leading up to the Japanese attack:

As with ambassadorships, Whitehall ranked its colonial governors in four grades. In 1946 there were ten first-class governorships, representing the pinnacle of the colonial service. Nigeria, Gold Coast, Kenya, and Tanganyika in Africa joined Ceylon, Palestine, Straits Settlements (Malaya), Hong Kong, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. ( This article is mainly focused on the post-war Empire, but it also discusses the situation in the 1930s and 1940s)

High esteem was reflected in salary. In 1945 the Hong Kong Governor got £7,000 for ruling a colony of 2.5 million people while his unfortunate Ugandan counterpart had to make do with a mere £5,000 for steering a territory with about twice as many people. That in itself is quite a blow for the ‘dumping ground’ thesis (see first post), But lets look at the two men who ruled Hong Kong in the period under review and see if we can deduce anything about their quality. Anthony Kirke-Green again, to give us some orientation:

Really outstanding governors, of course, might hold two or more successive governorships. If a man were successful in the testing ground of chief secretary in a major colony… or of a minor governorship… the way was open for him to aspire to the plums of the service like Nigeria or Kenya, Ceylon or Malaya, Tanganyika or Hong Kong.

Geoffry (it seems this is the correct spelling) Northcote entered the Colonial Service in 1904, held two chief secretaryships (the Gold Coast and Northern Rhodesia) and moved to Hong Kong in late 1937 from the Governorship of British Guiana. It seems a normal kind of career progression for a successful man as described by Kirke-Green: two stints as the number two, a try-out as number one in a minor colony, culminating in promotion to one of the top ten.
Northcote had got to know Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke in the Gold Coast, and soon after his appointment he invited him to join him in Hong Kong in the important role of Director of Medical Services. We should note that Selwyn-Clarke was willing to move to Hong Kong from the same post in Nigeria, a colony with a population well over ten times as large, which is further evidence that Hong Kong was not considered a refuge for the dead-beats and losers of the Colonial Service. I’ve already written at length about Selwyn-Clarke’s personal qualities, so I’ll just refer the reader to:
Anyone who considers Selwyn-Clarke, for all his admitted ‘mulishness’ and excessive attachment to his own opinion, anything but first-rate has very high standards indeed. As I’ll show in my concluding post, Northcote, with Selwyn-Clarke as an important ally, inaugurated a period of reform that belies the idea that Hong Kong before the war was reactionary and unchanging, unstirred by the liberal ideas that were slowly transforming the world.

Northcote’s successor was unlucky enough to arrive so close to the war that he had little opportunity to leave his mark. Before coming to Hong Kong on September 10, 1941 Mark Young had been Governor of another of the ‘pinnacle’ positions ‘, Tanganyika, having moved there from a senior position in another, Trinidad and Tobago. Again, this looks absolutely what one would expect from Kirk-Greene’s account. Of course, the crucial premise is that the official has been successful in the previous posts, so I think we can assume this of both Northcote and Young. (
The Colonial Secretary – the number two – when the war broke out was Franklin Gimson, who was even more unfortunate than Young as he arrived just one day before the Japanese attack. Gimson had spent all his colonial career rising though the ranks in just one colony, Ceylon – but the island was regarded as the very best posting of all, ‘the premier colony’ as Kirk-Greene puts it. (India had its own system and didn’t come under the Colonial Office). His war-time record was controversial: Geoffrey Emerson reports that most of the internees he spoke to for his 1973 thesis on Stanley Camp didn’t admire him, but the preface to the book version of Emerson’s work (2010) registers a vigorous defence of Gimson’s role in Stanley, one with which I wholly concur. In any case, the Colonial Office thought highly enough of his actions to elevate him to the Governorship of Singapore in April 1946.

What of the other ‘leaders’ of Hong Kong society? There were enough outstanding men to cast further doubt on the ‘tenth rate’ label. I’ll briefly consider the heads of probably the three most important non-governmental institutions: the University, the Anglican Church and Cathedral, and ‘the Hong Kong Bank. (I’ve left out the police because I haven’t been able to find out enough about the Commissioner John Pennefather-Evans to present a clear picture.)

Duncan Sloss, appointed head of the University of Hong Kong in November 1937, had come from Burma, where he’d led the University of Rangoon through a major expansion. (
He had been far more than a university administrator there, playing a major role in the government. He’d proved controversial, and has been accused of sparking off a Student revolt that was to end in Burmese independence after WW11, but his administrative talents nor his ability to bear the weight of huge non-academic responsibility were not seriously in doubt and he was appointed unanimously by the committee (Peter Cunich, A History of the University of Hong Kong 1911-1945, 2013, 332). The University, Sloss discovered, was in crisis because of uncertainty as to its future role; within weeks of his arrival, he’d evaluated the situation and devised a strategy for bringing it back from the ‘brink of disaster’ (Cunich, 2013, 332). He pressed forward on the crucial matter of University science teaching, and negotiated the deal whereby Lingnan University, forced to flee Canton by the Japanese invasion, could get started again by sharing some of the Hong Kong facilities. The University’s research culture was admittedly poor, so Sloss tried to build on the few excellent parts he found, for example, by encouraging Geoffrey Herklots to set up a Fishery research Station supervised from the Biology Department (Cunich, 2013, 357).

One of the men under Sloss at the University was Lindsay Ride, who’d been made a professor of physiology in 1928. Ride was a man who seemed able to turn his hand successfully to almost anything: before the war a medical professor and author, during the fighting head of the Volunteers’ Field Ambulance Unit, and after escaping from Shamshuipo in early 1942 the founder and leader of the BAAG, a resistance organisation that chalked up a huge number of successes – in escape, evasion, intelligence gathering, sabotage, propaganda and relief – partly because Ride proved a master at managing the complex relations with other British organizations, the Americans, and the two warring Chinese factions of Communists and Nationalists. After the war, Sloss emerged from Stanley to get the University back on its feet, to be followed by Ride who started the process whereby it now vies with the Universities of Tokyo and Singapore for the top position in Asia ( It’s actually one of the top fifty universities in the world, and amazingly it began its ascent to the global first rank under the leadership of two men who were active in Hong Kong before the war!

Bishop Ronald Hall was the head of the Colony’s influential Anglican communion. This is what a current Hong Kong Anglican source has to say about him:

Bishop Ronald Owen Hall was the longest serving, the most influential, and perhaps the most controversial bishop in the Hong Kong Anglican Church. His episcopacy, from 1932 to 1966, covered the most tumultuous period in the history of China.  (

Controversial – why? Well, for a start:

In 1926 when he visited the tomb of Confucius, he was so overwhelmed by its harmony and beauty that he did something that would have shocked his fellow Anglicans at the time.  He bowed three times in front of it.  In 1936, Bishop Hall asked a Chinese bishop to baptise his own son in Hong Kong – a British colonial outpost – making the political and theological statement that Chinese and British Christians are equal in the sight of God.

Not much of the narrow-minded, culturally smug stereotype here, and you can see why he was a controversial figure among the expatriates. But that wasn’t the half of it. The Bishop was a socialist:

At a time when communism was branded as a godless and evil ideology in the West, Bishop Hall recognized the spirit of personal sacrifice and dedication to the welfare of Chinese people in the early communist movements in China.  He was recognised by both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek during the Second Sino-Japanese War for his work with Gong He, raising huge amounts of funds internationally for its support…. He rejoiced at the founding of the People”s Republic of China in 1949…He helped establish a number of workers’ children”s  schools in Hong Kong, and earned the nickname, “the Pink or Red Bishop”. ((

‘Gong He’, from which we get the phrase ‘gung ho’, was a set of industrial co-operatives founded by the New Zealand communist Rewi Alley to underpin the Chinese war effort against the Japanese. The effects of this war were felt in Hong Kong itself after the Japanese attack on south China October 1938, and Bishop Hall helped Selwyn-Clarke to set up the Social Service Centre of the Churches to provide rice kitchens for refugees and street sleepers, (David M. Paton, R.O. – The Life and Times of Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong, 1985, 217) and he also served with Selwyn-Clarke’s wife Hilda, (and Duncan Sloss) on the committee of the Foreign Auxiliary to the National Red Cross Society of China, whose head quarters was at the bishop’s house. But the war, during which he was out of Hong Kong, brought a still greater storm his way.

In 1944 he licensed the first woman priest in the Anglican communion – not because he believed in female ordination, but because this was the only thing to do in the circumstances created by the war in south China ( After the war, he continued his social activism. There’s a lot more to be said about Bishop Hall, but the point is clear: he was a man of outstanding talents, an absence of cultural or racial arrogance, a social reformer and a campaigner for the Chinese cause in the war against Japan.

I’m not, by the way, claiming with regard to Bishop Hall or anyone else that left-wing ideas are an automatic proof of talent and virtue: but, when they’re found in Hong Kong’s leading ‘white’ citizens they certainly show a willingness to engage in independent thought, and I would go as far as to claim that a sense of the equal value of Chinese people and culture and support for their cause in the war with Japan was an unambiguously good thing. And I should mention while on the subject of Hong Kong’s Anglicans that the Dean, Alaric Rose (who I think was number two in the hierarchy) had a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford (Paton, 105) – PPE was considered perhaps the most demanding Oxford degree, and in 1952 Rose became a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

To leap ahead to the territory of my final post: there was an amazing moment in 1939 when this supposedly smug and ossified colony had socialists as Bishop and Director of Medical Services, a Jewish Marxist editing one of its four English language dailies (another was under the direction of a Eurasian often regarded as the greatest newspaperman in Hong Kong’s history) and perhaps the most influential woman was the Medical Director’s wife, another socialist, who worked alongside Madame Sun Yat-sen to help the Chinese war effort, and was said to be able to twist the liberal-minded Governor round her little finger. One of her friends and co-workers was the Colony’s first Medical Almoner (a social work type of post) who also supported the Chinese Communists in the battle with the Nationalists, and who would, after the war, marry the Vice-Chancellor of the University who in 1939 was himself working to help the Chinese beat the Japanese, albeit while supporting the Nationalists in the rumbling civil war. These people were all involved in one way or another in a movement of liberalisation and reform that drew in people who were in no sense on the political left. It’s amazing the stereotypes about mediocrity, apathy and ‘sleepiness’ have lasted so long.

Someone who definitely wasn’t on the left was the man who many people believed was the real ‘governor’ of Hong Kong, Vandeleur Grayburn, the head of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. When he was appointed in 1930 some people felt that he’d been too long in Asia so rather lacked international experience (Frank King, A History of the HKSBC, Volume 3, 1988, 202-204). Otherwise, he seemed the right man for the job. I’m not the right person to offer an assessment of his role in helping his Bank and the Colony generally respond to the challenges of the worldwide depression that began in 1929, or of his actions and advice in the wake of the Chinese decision to abandon the silver standard in late 1935, but I do note that he was knighted for his services to Far Eastern commerce in 1937 – this wasn’t an automatic honour for the HKSBC head, as he was the first such recipient since the founder, the great Sir Thomas Jackson. ( He also received an honour from the Chinese Government for his defence of their currency (King, 1988, 291). It’s also worth noting that, although he was the man who told Auden and Isherwood that the Sino-Japanese war was just the ‘natives fighting’, in his public capacity he claimed – plausibly as far as I can make out, to have seen helping China as major duty:

I have done my utmost to do what I consider is the principal duty of the Hong Kong Bank – to help Hong Kong and China and the Government of both places – and I think I have done it. (King, 541)

In 1935 Grayburn commissioned the design for a new HKSBC headquarters, (see first post) which was modern in both appearance and the fact that it was the first Hong Kong public building to have air-conditioning, so he was no backward looking cultural reactionary. Still, the building was sometimes known as ‘Grayburn’s Folly’, so it would be fair to point out that not all of the community shared his advance taste (or at least high level of cultural tolerance.) Finally, I think it also worth pointing out that Grayburn refused the full salary package he was offered in his first year at the top and that he and his number two David Edmondston shared one office, Grayburn at a large desk and Edmondston with his at an angle:

From this two-man office, Grayburn and Edmondston ran banks with assets of $1,246million (= £77.2 million) and an Eastern staff of 254 in 1940. (King, 1988, 446)

Of course, he was also a racist with perhaps even more bigoted views than some of his fellows, as his scorn for others extended to thinking that one American at the Bank was one too many. But the HSBC was on its way to becoming the second largest bank in the world in terms of total assets, and if Grayburn was a tenth rate dud he certainly did well to keep them fooled for over a decade!

It’s rare for propagators of the ‘dumping ground for duds’ view of Hong Kong to name names, so I’m left wondering who these tenth-raters actually were. Well, here’s one candidate: policeman George Wright-Nooth felt that Attorney General Sir Grenville Alabaster – nick-named the Blind Knight of Stanley for his habit of wearing dark glasses on even the most sunless of days – was regarded as ‘the archetypal semi-senile civil servant.’ In his rigid conservatism, dogmatic orthodoxy and attachment to red tape, he might seem to have personified the Hong Kong of hopeless ‘duds’, yet Wright-Nooth was forced to admit that whenever they spoke he found his conversation ‘quite stimulating’ and that appearances can be deceptive. In any case, he wasn’t shipped out to Hong Kong because of obvious incompetence: ‘very few young men have commanded the admiration of so many intelligent people’ reads one newspaper cutting, which went on to laud his ‘great intellectual distinction and…judgement of rare clearness and sagacity’ and mention his contribution to various legal reference works and the Encyclopedia Britannica. After the war, effectively blind perhaps because of the deprivations of the occupation, his sisters would read him the clues to the Times crossword in the morning, and he’d give them the answers after lunch. (

I’m not claiming that there were no ‘duds’ in pre-war Hong Kong, nor that the general human standard was pretty much on the level of Athens in the time of Pericles. Merely that the picture is pretty much as you’d expect: a melange of men of differing levels of talent and that the colony was seen as a desirable enough place to be posted, not as a ‘dumping ground’ for failures in either private or public service. In the next post I’ll look at some of the ‘eleventh rate women’ who infested the Colony, and then conclude the series with a general account of Hong Kong life on the eve of the Japanese attack.



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3 responses to “Pre-war Hong Kong- the Myth of Mediocrity (2) – Tenth Rate Men

  1. Brian, I completely agree with this and the previous article. The longer I study Hong Kong’s 1940/41 society, the more impressed I become with the standard of intelligence, competence, and integrity of those running the Colony at that time. There were a few questionable individuals, but generally they were very sincere and capable. Perhaps the ‘Colonel Blimp’ smear came from those who objected to the whole Empire/Colony concept (which is understandable), rather than to the people in question.

    • Thanks, Tony. I appreciate this comment a great deal.
      I’ve grown more and more surprised at the quality of the leading figures in pre-war Hong Kong, perhaps because I’ve been influenced by the stereotype and expected much worse!
      I think that part of the negative view is an understandable reaction to what was perceived as the speedy collapse in December 1941 – people sought the explanation in HK society – but, as you yourself have done so much to show, there was actually a brave and determined defence in which civilians played their full part. And once the occupation begins, I’ve been impressed by the extent the leaders actually led – and took all the risks that involved.
      It will be interesting to see how things look on this subject in 10 years time.

      • Of course, as you suggest, the colonial nature of ‘old Hong Kong’ is another matter. I’m fully in sympathy with ‘post-colonial’ critiques, as long as they’re factually accurate and balanced in presentation.

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