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The mystery of Sai Ying Pun’s Algar Court

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The super-sleuths and history buffs at theDesk co-working space in Sai Wan crack an age-old street name mystery

By Grace Fung

Sitting on Western Street in Sai Ying Pun, sandwiched between First Street and Queen’s Road West, is a small, gated dead-end lane we’ve walked past a thousand times while trekking the district. Named Algar Court, it doesn’t look like anything special, because it isn’t. Like all Hong Kong alleys, it’s nondescript, it’s got pipes lining the walls, peeling paint, damp cardboard piled atop drains and the odd cat scuttling across the shadows. But this ordinary lane, in all its inconspicuous glory, has been bugging us incessantly at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan. We just can’t get it out of our heads.

Why? Simple. Recall other Anglo-Saxon street names in our area. Davis Street, Catchick Street, Belcher’s Street, Bonham Road, Forbes Street… and the list goes on. If you’ve ever glanced over the Wikipedia page for ‘Colonial Hong Kong’, at least one of these names will ring a faint bell. ‘Davis’, after John Francis Davis, the city’s second governor. ‘Belcher’, after Sir Edward Belcher, the Englishman who first took possession of HK island. ‘Catchick’, after Sir Catchick Paul Chater, notable colonial businessman. ‘Forbes’, after WH Forbes, the man who once managed the Rope Works facility on his eponymous street. And the list goes on.

Algar Court looking out towards Eastern Street, Sai Ying Pun

The origins of Anglo-Saxon Hong Kong street names are typically just a Google search away. Two, at most. They are, as you can imagine, usually named after old governors, colonial bureaucrats, business magnates, industry pioneers and English nobility of varying levels of historical renown. More examples abound: Hennessy, Fleming, Gloucester, Chater, King… all easily attributable and unequivocally accounted for.

But there’s one anomaly: Algar. Algar Court.

The question that begs to be answered is this: who in the hell is Algar? Why name a dank dead-end lane in a once plague-infested area after this Algar? We don’t know any Algars. So we’ve been obsessively searching and searching but to no avail. Until now.

A stairway on Algar Court leading towards First Street, Sai Ying Pun

Chapter 1: The American

During our investigation, we come across one Algar E Carleton of Vermont, USA. Carleton arrived in Hong Kong some time in 1910 to fill a post as as Vice Deputy Consul for the United States. He was later appointed interim Vice Consul in 1917. Highly-educated and a graduate of the USA’s Dartmouth College, he was, according to newspaper reports ‘well-known in the community’ and ‘a keen student of Far Eastern Affairs … always tactful and courteous in all matters coming within his province’. In 1912, he married Margaret Henderson at St John’s Cathedral, which to this day is typically reserved for the festivities of the upper echelons. Leaving Hong Kong for a post in Riga, Latvia, he died there in 1934.

Carleton has the typical profile of a colonial politician who, due to the fact that he was well-respected by other colonists and held high political posts, would warrant a small road named after him for the rest of posterity. His name and life story doesn’t seem so out-of-place when pinned on maps near the likes of Bonham (third governor) or Davis (the second). If these men would’ve been contemporaries, they would’ve probably mingled in the same cocktail parties and sipped the same champagne.

South China Morning Post (Sep 2, 1924)

So we found him. Case closed. Right? Wrong.

We quickly find out it’s impossible that our mysterious SYP lane was named after our American, Algar Carleton. Why? Jump ahead with us a little. In 1950, a proposal to construct a cinema on Algar Court was rejected by the colonial office due to the fact that ‘the lane has been named Algar Court and therefore [the authority] was of the opinion that it should be considered to be a private street’. DE Greenfield, then Land Officer, continues in the correspondence: “As the leases were originally granted in 1857, Algar Court has probably become a public right of way and cannot be closed or diverted.” Which means that not only did Algar Court precede Algar Carleton’s time in Hong Kong, the lane itself could possibly have been established as early as 1857.

Excerpts from a correspondence with the Colonial Office from March 20, 1951. Courtesy of the Public Records Office of Hong Kong.

In fact, the earliest official reference we can find to Algar Court as a geographical location is in a 1909 government report promulgating new hawker regulations in the area, a year before Carleton arrived. So, that decisively strikes out our first and most obvious Algar. Which, in hindsight, also makes sense, since street-names are usually fashioned after last names instead of first. Disappointed but not disheartened, we continue our search.

SEE ALSO: 10 facts about Sai Ying Pun you (probably) didn’t know…

Chapter 2: The Sports Aficionado in Shanghai

Our investigation then leads us to a second possible suspect, one Albert Edmund Algar. Last name Algar, not first, so we’re already off to a promising start. AE Algar was an esteemed architect-cum-engineer who once ran for Shanghai Municipal Council and split his time between colonial Shanghai and Hong Kong. Born in 1874, the earliest mention of him in local newspapers is 1904, when he was re-elected as the president of the Shanghai Recreation Club. And, aside from his professional accomplishments, he had an affinity for sports and recreation that helped build a reputation for him in the fragrant harbour. An avid golfer and tennis player, he was a member of the Shanghai Society of Architects here and would later incorporate Algar & Co in Hong Kong in 1915, moving his business south. He died in 1926, rumour has it due to heartbreak caused by his wife’s death just a couple of months before. His company would heavily feature in Hong Kong’s economy until it was liquidated in 1950.

Algar & Co’s articles of incorporation from 1915. Courtesy of the Public Records Office of Hong Kong.

Aha! The timeline fits. Our Shanghai sportsman precedes Algar-the-American by a plausible stretch of time – and just precedes the earliest official reference to Algar Court in 1909. Besides, maybe it’s not a mere coincidence that a road or lane is named after a prominent engineer – an engineer so prominent, in fact, that despite being mostly active in Shanghai, his name would regularly feature in the SCMP from the 1910s to the 1950s, after his death.

There is no evidence that AE Algar had any part of city planning in the early days of the colony, due mostly to the fact that he was neither present nor alive. But it still holds that a geographical location can be designated (or re-designated in retrospect) to someone so respected in the colonial East that authority would see fit to celebrate his life perennially by attributing a lot of land to him.

This, of course, was (and still is) all conjecture. And we’re not satisfied with uncertainty and conjecture. Redirecting ourselves, we realise we have to venture further back in time. The further back we go, the sparser the records, the more illegible the handwriting, but… the richer the mystery. We can’t resist. And to continue our quest, we have no choice but to turn to official means.

We enter the term ‘Algar’ into the search function of the Public Records Office online catalogues. The familiar Algars appear over and over again: Albert Edmund the engineer, Algar Carleton, the Vice Consul. Then, a record appears, dated 1872, earlier than all the others.  It reads: “ALGAR, T”.

Chapter 3: ALGAR, T

We venture into the dark papery wilderness of the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong on a sweltering June afternoon. Armed with nothing but shadows of three possible colonial Algars active and alive around same time, we’re annoyed that we don’t already have a clear idea of which one this tiny, stupid, ordinary lane was named after. But we’re hooked. Definitely hooked. One pertinent question overrides all others: ‘who in the flying eff is Algar?!’

We pull up every official record connected to every colonial Algar we can find. Articles of incorporation, marriages of daughters and sporadic years of jury duty of ‘AE ALGAR’. Governmental gazettes promulgating the appointment, marriage and re-appointment of ‘CARLETON, ALGAR’. And then we pull up ‘ALGAR, T’.

The earliest related record for ‘ALGAR, T’ comes from the notes of an esteemed historian and reverend, the late Carl Smith. It’s a transaction dated January 29, 1872 (see below), detailing the entrance into business partnership as ‘house and land agents, rent collectors and collectors of debts’ between TW Barrington and a Thomas Algar, at an office located on Queen’s Road West.

Later in 1872, Barrington & Algar moved offices to 18 Hollywood Road and were able to acquire various lots of valuable land in the quickly developing colony. They were spread throughout the island, from Wan Chai to Sai Wan. But by 1873, according to Smith’s notes, Algar became the sole head of the business and no further record is made to Barrington beyond that year. Perhaps Barrington left the colony or met more unfortunate ends. It frankly doesn’t matter, in any case, because of what happens afterwards…

In a memo dated October 24, 1874, a year after Barrington disappears without a paper trail, ‘Inland Lot 492 [was assigned] in consideration of $2,500 [by] Robert Williams to Thomas Algar, house and estate agent’. Now, remember the 1950 correspondence detailing the potential construction of a cinema on Algar Court? DE Greenfield, Land Officer, cites that the leases for lots around and including Algar Court were ‘originally granted in 1857’. The question begs: where’s Lot 492?

We locate a roll of microfilm scanned off colonial correspondence between TL Walker, acting land surveyor general, and the Colonial Office. Donning white gloves, we scroll past the hundreds of pages and locate a map titled ‘Plan of Land Sold at West Point, Victoria, Hong Kong’, dated 1857.

The contours of the island depicted look foreign, until we recognise the text ‘Queen Road’ lining the middle and realise this was, of course, before land reclamation, when Queen’s Road still marked the harbour. A proposed connection to Bonham Road runs diagonally upwards on the left. Then, it all clicks. In a rudimentary attempt at triangulation, we recognise that the road running vertically is Centre Street. The first turn right? First Street. And Inland Lot 492? Right, smack, exactly in the middle of Algar Court, where historical stone steps lead into the lane.

The 1950 cinema construction proposal cites that a portion of Inland Lot 491 is Algar Court and that First Street runs from Inland Lot 491 to 493, proving that the 1857 Lot Numbers still held in 1950.

And so, at long last, we have unequivocally found our Algar. ALGAR, T. Thomas Algar.

But who was Thomas Algar, really? From 1874-1876, after Barrington’s disappearance, Algar is recorded to have quickly leased off various properties on the island for considerable sums. On March 26, 1877, it’s recorded that his daughter, Sarah Anne, was married to a William Tulloch Gair later of the Royal Field Artillery most likely in the Union Church which was then on Staunton Street. In this record, he is named and titled ‘Thomas Algar, Esquire.’

Esquire. Not a term of nobility, not one of endearing respect, but most certainly one of high standing. The historical use of the title refers to a ‘landed proprietor’ – in modern terms, a landlord, with lots and lots of land. Our Thomas Algar was a successful landlord, a money-wise esquire, who not only owned Algar Court but many other lucrative lots littering the colony. So money-wise was Thomas Algar that four months after his daughter’s marriage, his son-in-law William Gair signed over his salary to him upon leaving Hong Kong for San Francisco.

Auditor’s salary authorisation between Thomas Algair and son-in-law William Gair (1877). Courtesy of the Public Records Office of Hong Kong.

On October 24, 1879, Thomas Algar sold his last property in the colony, which was also the first piece of land he bought with Barrington in 1865 at the price of $1,000, to one Richard Young. The selling price? $6,000, netting him $5,000 in profit. Esquire indeed. This last record lists Algar as working in ’12 Bouverie Road, Middlesex’ in the UK, concluding his successful, colonial sojourn in Hong Kong, as it does our quest to find the Algar, as in Algar Court.

SEE ALSO: The 10 most shocking Kennedy Town crimes over the past century

Today, Algar Court is unassuming, gated and ordinary. But it’s special in other, hidden ways. It is one of two lanes in the Sai Wan area that holds an Anglo-Saxon name – the other is David Lane, likely named after David Trench, off Third Street. One other one might have been Torsien Lane but that thoroughfare has now been effaced from our geography. And, it’s perhaps the only road in our area not named after a colonial politician, an industry pioneer or a business magnate. It was named after an ‘esquire’, a successful landlord. This might have been unusual then but it’s perhaps not so unusual in our times, if you think about it, in an age where the names ‘Sino,’ ‘Sun Hung Kai’ and ‘Hopewell’ are boldly draped in green over major pieces of real estate. But we suppose history does repeat itself, at least in this small way. Case closed.

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