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Uniquely HK

History Matters

The Anglican Cathedral

The rear view facing Garden Road | Courtesy of Richard Garrett



Hong Kong was ceded to the British and inevitably the Church of England was to dominate religious life.


Even before Hong Kong had been taken over, in the spring of 1840, a memorandum was issued to the “British and Foreign community residing in China” saying that, in the event of it becoming a british settlement, a Church of England church should be erected. When the British took possession in 1841 there was a delay in implementing this and, despite a public subscription having been started, no serious action was taken until September 1843 after the Treaty of Nanjing had formally ceded Hong Kong.
Apart from the government officers and the traders, something had to be done to provide somewhere for the troops to worship. The first church for the army was a wooden hut but it is uncertain where it was sited. In any event a year or so later a larger mat-shed church was built on what became the Murray Barracks parade ground. This would have been close to where the Bank of China Building is today. A drawing by Chinnery shows it to have been quite a small structure and one wonders how many soldiers it could accommodate at one time.
A view of the Cathedral ca. 1890
Meanwhile the powers that be were debating the details of how the church should be set up in Hong Kong. Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, firmly believed that the expansion of the Anglican community should be episcopally rooted. A meeting was held in London in 1841 and it was decided that Hong Kong should have a bishop. It took some time for one to be appointed but the decision was made, so the next step was to prepare a cathedral for him. The funds raised in Hong Kong were supplemented by funds raised in England, and on 11th March 1847 the Governor, Sir John Davis, laid the foundation stone of the Church of St John the Evangelist.
The site was halfway up “Maritime Hill” today’s Garden Road. The first chaplain, Vincent J Stanton, spoke on Matthew 12.6, “I tell you something greater than a temple is here”. Despite the words the building was not as grand as some had hoped. As ever there had to be compromises to the design to suit a limited budget. Nevertheless what emerged is a typically Victorian gothic style church with a tower, the epitome of what Englishmen think of as place of worship.
The altar | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
Interestingly the cathedral has a freehold on its 53,175-square-foot Garden Road property. This means that it has a lease in perpetuity, as long as the land is used for ecclesiastical purposes. The freehold was granted by Queen Victoria and the agreement was solidified in 1930 in the Church of England Trust Ordinance, which incorporated the group of trustees that hold the property for the cathedral. The land wasn't handed over to China along with the rest of Hong Kong Island in 1997, because at that point, it was no longer the UK's to give away. However, on the day of the handover, July 1, amendments to Hong Kong laws took effect that simply removed all references to the queen.
Construction of the first stage was completed in 1849 and Bishop Smith arrived on 27th March 1850. Mr John Wright, a post office clerk, recorded in his diary; “His Lordship the Bishop of Victoria landed at 8.15am in HMS Hastings’ barge. He is a tall thin pale looking man.” The colonial chaplain, Stanton, received him at home, in the college on the promontory above Glenealy. The house in known today as Bishop’s House although the building was part of St Paul’s College right up to the second World War. Bishops lived there in their role as college warden, of which Smith became the first. Bishop Smith preached his first sermon in the cathedral on Easter Day 1850 although John Wright “did not think much of his sermon”.
The Bishop's House on Lower Albert Road


St John’s Cathedral was expanded in stages up to the 1880s, and looked over to the skyline dominated by the Bank of China and the Hong Kong Bank. A sight line was imposed by the height of the two buildings, with the understanding that nothing in between should be built higher. Nevertheless, the Cheung Kong Center, on the site of the old Hilton Hotel, is six storeys higher.
Despite what must have appeared as a desperate and inevitable situation, on Christmas morning 1941 the Reverend Alaric P Rose took the morning service in St John's with a congregation of 100, whilst shelling continued on the island. That afternoon, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, made the decision to surrender to the Japanese after a hard fought battle, which had lasted for less than three weeks.
During the Japanese occupation, it was converted into a club house for the Japanese and thus suffered damage. The cathedral was fully repaired after the war and then reopened. It was declared a monument in 1996. The cathedral has many historical features, including stained glass windows, a small wooden altar piece from the Sham Shui Po Prisoner-of-War Camp and regimental flags buried during World War II.
The cathedral continues to flourish today and apart from regular services there are weekly lunchtime concerts. Evening recitals of many kinds are held throughout the year, vocal or instrumental. The grounds are not extensive but they are a peaceful oasis amidst the bustle of Central.
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.


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