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Uniquely HK

History Matters

An Enduring Mansion

Johnston's House, the front view with balconies ca. 1842 | Courtesy of Wattis Fine Art


At present the Court of Final Appeal is housed in a colonial style building on Battery Path. What was the building used for before?


The site is right in the heart of Central at the foot of what became known as Government Hill. The site seems to have been acquired by the first Administrator of Hong Kong, Alexander Johnston. He had served on HMS Nemesis during the first Opium War: the war that led to the founding of Hong Kong as a British Colony. He had been appointed Administrator by Charles Eliot in 1841 and the first Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Pottinger, retained him in that position. One of his duties was to sell land to the early businessmen and no doubt he picked a prime lot for his own use. He obviously built a fine mansion on the site and when Pottinger finally arrived in Hong Kong in 1843 it is reported that he lived there until he resigned in June 1844. His successor, John Francis Davis also rented it for a while, before moving to Caine Road.


The rear view of the old house overlooking Queen’s Road


Johnston played a major role in Hong Kong’s early development, laying out Hong Kong’s first streets including Queen’s Road. He raised a subscription for a permanent Anglican Church; up till then services had been held in a temporary structure. He was one of the first Justices of the Peace and served on the Executive and Legislative Councils. He was also heavily involved with dealings with the Chinese sector of the community, issuing regulations for the bazaar. These included the provision of the election of three headmen responsible for making rules and keeping order. He also took an interest in the natural history of China which led to his being elected a Member of the Royal Society in 1845. He retired in 1853 and returned to England.


The site and “Johnston’s Manse” does not appear to have been used by him for his own residence. In 1846 the Government considered buying it for use as a courthouse, but balked at the asking price of $13,000.00. After Johnston retired the house was sold off and was owned by a number of prominent businessmen. It was acquired in 1867 by the firm of Augustine Heard and Company. At that time the American company was one of the major trading firms is the East.


The French Mission Building today. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

The firm was founded by Augustine Heard who had been trading out of Boston. He had gone to Canton in 1830 where he bought a partnership in Russell & Co. In 1840 he set up his own company in partnership with Joseph Coolidge. He never married but in 1841 he brought his nephew John Heard to Canton. At that time, during the Opium War when Jardine was banned from Canton, they managed Jardine’s opium business. Although some people like to claim that Americans were not involved in the opium trade, in reality they were. However, they came late to it and with more opium being grown in China they tended to look for alternatives to trade for the tea and silk that they wanted. Three years later Augustine returned to America and left John to run the firm. Other nephews also joined the firm but John seems to have dominated until he left in 1875.     


Augustine Heard & Co had initially established a branch in Hong Kong but in 1856 they made it their headquarters. When Heard’s bought the house at Battery Path they were at the peak of their power, but by then the pattern of trade was already changing. One aspect was that Chinese businessmen were a growing competition and the old style firms had to adapt. Heard’s did not do so fast enough and when their dishonest US agent defaulted on a debt in April 1875 they went bankrupt.


The entrance to today’s Court of Final Appeal. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.  


Meanwhile the building also changed. Alterations in the 1870s and 1880s changed it; adding an extra storey. In 1915, it was acquired by the Paris Foreign Missions Society, which commissioned a major renovation. This was an extensive rebuilding and the architects were Leigh & Orange, who remain in business today. In the process, a chapel topped by a cupola was added in the north-west corner, and the building was refaced with red bricks. It reopened in 1917 and became known as the "French Mission Building". This is the structure that remains to this day. The granite and red brick structure of the building can be described as neo-classical in style.


In 1953, it was sold to the government. It was then used successively by the Education Department, the Victoria District Court (1965–1980), the Supreme Court (1980–1983), and the Government Information Services Department (starting from 1987). Since the handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 it has been used as the Court of Final Appeal. It is not destined to stay much longer as the former Supreme Court Building, which until recently had housed the Legislative Council, is being prepared for it to move into.


The building was declared a monument on September 14, 1989. After the relocation of the Court of Final Appeal it will be available for some, as yet undetermined, use. However, it looks likely to remain for many years to come as a reminder of Hong Kong’s past.


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



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