Gillian Bickley's book should have wide appeal in Scotland as well as in Hong
Kong, and further afield among educators and others interested in perspectives
promoting better understanding between East and West.
It is particularly timely with the handover of Hong Kong to China as a reminder
of the lasting legacy of the early teachers and administrators of the Colonial Service,
and as a tribute to the many Scots who took their talents to the Far East.
As Lord David Wilson of Tillyorn puts it in his perceptive introduction to the
book, "Stories about the heroic endeavours of many a lad of parts - the young man
from a lowly background who reaches high position through good education and
great determination - are the very fabric of Scottish ambition".
Frederick Stewart was born in a humble village in North Eastern Scotland, the
son of an Aberdeenshire crofter tailor, who became the first headmaster of Hong
Kong's Government funded Central School (later renamed Queen's College), laid
the foundations for the Education Department, influenced the development of
education in modern China (through pupils like Sun Yat Sen and Robert Ho Tung),
and finished as Colonial Secretary and occasional Acting Governor. Not bad for a
struggling boy from Rathen Parish School who won a bursary to Aberdeen
Grammar and went on to Aberdeen University.
Intended for the Church, an advertisement for a Headmaster and Inspector of
Schools in Hong Kong at #500 a year (with house), caught Stewart's eye. As Gillian
Bickley remarks, "It is a wonder that Stewart, renowned both as student and adult
for his modesty, was bold enough to apply. Possibly he took confidence from the
restriction to applicants under twenty five, (and) the recent appointment to the
Chinese Consular Service of his former Aberdeen Grammar School junior,
G. P. Thomson, also a tailor's son, encouraged him." But it was the patronage of his
University Principal, the Very Reverend P. C. Campbell, who remembered him
from early Greek classes, that clinched it. Campbell recommended Stewart to the
Bishop of Hong Kong, Chairman of the Board of Education, who had been begging
the Church Missionary Society for an energetic Christian schoolmaster 'willing to
teach the rudiments', and Stewart was the answer to his prayer.
Old Colonial hands will be amused by Stewart's voyage to Hong Kong from
Southampton on the SS Indus as a 'Chief Cabin Passenger'. The P&O overland
route via Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Aden, Ceylon, Madras and the Straits to China,
was a leisurely and luxurious affair not unlike the voyages of the Corfu and Chusan
before air travel succeeded the sea.
Trials and tribulations awaited the earnest young Stewart in Hong Kong after the
ease of shipboard life (beef tea and gargantuan meals when not lazing on deck
chairs), not the least being his introduction to the Central School when pupils
crammed into the hall chanting by rote at the tops of their voices drowned out his
cries for "Silence!" Then there were the traditional Chinese attitudes to education
and the prejudices of the bureaucrats of the Secretariat (from the Governor down)
Stewart had strong views on the relative importance of English and Chinese as
mediums of education (he believed in both), the education of women (not as 'the
superfluity and mistake' held by contemptuous traditionalists) and the
modernisation of Chinese thought (he saw himself as a facilitator) believing in a
consistent policy of educating pupils in Western knowledge while preserving their
Of course Stewart made enemies who eventually forced him to resign. The
sinister Dr Ernst Eitel succeeded him as Inspector of Schools (effectively Director
of Education) and used his closeness to the choleric and unbalanced Governor Pope
Hennessy to harass the demoted Head of the Central School. Stewart was shunted
sideways by apparent promotion to Acting Colonial Secretary and blocked as
The feuds and infighting of the bureaucracy in the Nineteenth Century will fascinate
all Hong Kong readers with any experience of the vagaries of the Government
Secretariat in this century. Nothing has really changed, only the personalities, and
many of them make this section of the book more interesting than the rather sober
pilgrim's progress of Frederick Stewart to his early death of pneumonia at the age of 53.
Gillian Bickley brings dedication and scholarship to her tribute to Frederick
Stewart. Perhaps she overstates the importance of the Central School and Stewart's
place in education in early Hong Kong by omitting the pioneering work of the
Anglican and Roman Catholic churches through their schools which pre-date
Stewart, but there is little doubt that he was a man revered as a scholar and teacher
by the Chinese as 'The Golden Needle', remembered 'like the breezes of Spring'.