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Uniquely HK

History Matters

The Governor’s Getaway

The original Mountain Lodge

 

Hong Kong’s governors have always had a residence in town and even today the chief executive lives in Government House on Upper Albert Road. However, in the days before air-conditioning, the only way to escape the heat was to move upwards, and the governor was one of the first to have a retreat on The Peak.

 

The site chosen by the government for a getaway was right at the top of Victoria Peak. It had originally been formed for a small military sanatorium, which was not a success. They bought back the site and $1,000 was spent in converting it “for the use of His Excellency the Governor and the officers of the government”. “Mountain Lodge” was ready in 1867 and Sir Richard Macdonnell made full use of it, but other officers did not get a look in.

Mountain Lodge was built of timber but it was soon shown to be inadequate. After one summer’s use it was flattened by a typhoon; the next spring the governor asked the Executive Council to authorise spending $9,000 to rebuild it. The plan was for a three-room bungalow so strong that no typhoon could seriously damage it. Obviously with only three bedrooms it was not a mansion and in October 1873 governor Arthur Kennedy wrote to the Secretary of State asking for permission to extend Mountain Lodge. No sooner had it been done than the great typhoon of September 1874 struck and tore most of the roof off. The Governor and guests were there at the time and it was remarked that they “must have had a terrible night”.

The Governors obviously liked Peak living and when in about 1892 Mountain Lodge was devastated by wet rot and white ants, temporary quarters were set up first at Craigieburn and then at The Cliffs on Plantation Road. It took some time to plan a new building but a contract for a new Mountain Lodge was let to Sang Lee in 1900, and in September 1902 Governor Blake moved into a splendid new house.

The accommodation comprised a Drawing Room, Boudoir, Dining Room, Billiard Room, Governor’s Office Waiting Room, Private Secretary’s Office, School Room and two Drying Rooms. In Addition there were two large Bedrooms with Dressing Rooms, five other Bedrooms, a Maids’ Room and a Man Servants’ Room. The other servants were housed in a detached structure that provided space for 3 Boys, 2 Amahs, 16 Coolies, a Cook’s Room, a Gardeners Room, and two Gate Keeper’s Rooms. The house was heated by coal fires and lighted by gas. The total site was about 43 acres, which included about 2½ acres of garden and pleasure grounds, including 2 grass and one concrete tennis courts. Now it really was a mansion.

It lasted until the Japanese occupation when, like most Peak buildings, it suffered from neglect and looting. After the War “It was felt that rehabilitation of Mountain Lodge would be perpetuating an out of date, uncomfortable and expensive house.” The house was demolished and the gatehouse is all that remains. This itself was in danger of falling into ruin but the Government decided that it was a potential attraction to tourists and it was renovated in 2006.

Living on the Peak was not necessarily as healthy as one might think. It was Governor Sir William Des Voeux who pointed out one of the disadvantages of living on the Peak. In his autobiography he noted “the fog was as dense as that of London, the air is so full of moisture that water would run down the sides of the walls in streams, and the linens were too damp to sleep on at night.” Growing tired of the wetness, he and his family would go down to Victoria City (now Hong Kong Island’s Wan Chai, Central and Western district) to sleep for several nights where the sky was clear and dry but the heat unbearable. The Rev. E.J. Hardy in 1905 put it more succinctly saying “If you live on the Peak your clothes rot; if you live below, you rot.”

Sanitation on the Peak was also a problem. Governor Hennessy very quickly came to believe that there was a problem with the water supply at Mountain Lodge. He demanded an inspection of every Peak house including Mountain Lodge. Thirteen houses were inspected and it was found that only three were using the dry earth system that he favoured (the earth closet was at the time a strong rival of the water closet, even Queen Victoria had one, as it did not require the use of scarce water.), and that even Mountain Lodge had no latrine for its hired labour. Hennessy wrote in August 1877 “From the evil consequences to my own health and another member of my household from using the water from the little valley N.E. of the Governor’s Mountain Lodge, I was convinced that what was called the Government sanitary station was a dangerous place to reside at.”

Today with air-conditioning and modern sanitation there are few who would shun life on the Peak. However, one who must is the Government’s Chief Executive, as he no longer has a retreat there. The old Mountain Lodge site is a public garden to be enjoyed by those willing to take the short walk up Mount Austin Road.

 

Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com

 

Mountain Lodge with the Eyrie in the foreground. Courtesy of Richard Garrett

 

The last Mountain Lodge

 

The remaining gate house. Courtesy of Richard Garrett

 

 

 

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