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09 June 2021

Take One Orange, Add A Twist


The Chater Collection and Bizen-Ware Collection of Sir Catchick Paul Chater by James Orange.
Image: Liz Chater's private archive.

This isn’t so much about James Orange’s successful career in Hong Kong, it is about his early life and in particular, the first journey that took him to the fragrant harbour. He is, of course, remembered for his engineering skills in Hong Kong, predominantly the Tytam Waterworks project. He is also famously known for pulling together the Chater Collection book that catalogued the 430 paintings and drawings that made up this unique and valuable art owned by Sir Catchick Paul Chater.  James was a collector in his own right and it is very likely that he and his good friend Sir Paul Chater spent some time during their 40 year friendship discussing, comparing, even gossiping about their joint love of Oriental art, china and porcelain ware. Was James influenced and encouraged by Sir Paul? It is very likely, their areas of interest where the same, for instance, they both collected Chinnery. If you were to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum or the British Museum in London to view James’s collection, I would like to think that you would be seeing a portion in mirror-image of what was in the Chater Collection, which is now sadly lost, apart from 80 pieces housed at the Museum of History in Hong Kong.


But what of James Orange? He was the energetic and enterprising head of Leigh and Orange, a firm of architects and civil engineers, associated with most of the big schemes of modernizing and extending Hongkong during the late 19th century. His friendship with Sir Paul Chater developed during an exciting time of growth and expansion in Hong Kong, one that Sir Paul was spearheading. Such building and engineering projects required a cool head, analytical mind and a design visionary to match his own unbridled ideas. Sir Paul was the mover-and-shaker that was making Hong Kong an enviable place to be both economically and personally.  I imagine that if Sir Paul said “how do I do this?” James  replied “leave it with me”. James was behind Chater’s vision of strong durable wharves and godowns, and the skills he used during his early engineering career in England gave him the confidence to make the strongest buildings for Chater’s Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company. James was instrumental in the creation of almost the entire premises and docks of the Hongkong and Whampoa Dock Co., the wharves and godowns of Alfred Holt & Co., the piers and wharves of the Star Ferry, the huge installations of the Asiatic Petroleum and Standard Oil Companies, as well as the Hongkong Rope Works, Green Island Cement Works, and the Junk Bay Flour Mill, to name but a few. All of which had some connection to Sir Paul Chater, whether it was as a creator, a company director, investor or advisor, somewhere in the burgeoning businesses of the up-and-coming Hong Kong, Sir Paul had a part to play. Then of course there was Sir Paul’s own showcase home, Marble Hall, and Sir Paul’s generous donation of funds to enable St. Andrew’s Church to be erected in Kowloon. Conveniently adjacent to this own land and back garden; all designed by the talents in the staff of Leigh & Orange. Chater would not have anyone else other than James when it came to the big reclamation project that he undertook. It was a trusted and professional working relationship from which they both benefited, as well as a trusted and solid personal friendship bound by their respective love for the Orient. Their friendship mirrored the kind of foundations James used for his buildings; solid, sturdy and completely reliable.


Early Orange Life


Very few, if any, know of the early years because his life in Hong Kong acted as a separating barrier to his family back in England. James’s father, George, was a salty seafaring ship owning captain, based in Jersey, Channel Islands. He was born at St. Brelade, Jersey, in 1810, one of the sons of the shipowner Jean Orange and Anne Orange (née Le Brocq). He had been an apprentice, mate and master in the foreign trade for 26 years when his Master’s Certificate of Service (number 45019) was issued in 1851. His first engagement as master was in the Brazil trade in 1834. He became master of the schooner AMELIA (1834) in 1837 and in the following year managed to save her cargo after she was stranded on rocks in the Black Sea. Between 1839 and 1845 he was master of the schooner AMICUS (1839). Later in life he had ship owning interests as part of the partnership of Orange and Briard, including the barque AMICUS (1856) and full-rigged ship FORT REGENT (1863), employed in the India and China trades. George Orange died at St. Helier in 1871[1].


George had married Mary Pirouet in August 1839 in St. Helier, Jersey. They had at least 10 children. James was born on 21st November 1856 in St. Helier, Jersey.

Baptism entry for twins James and Francis Orange in St. Helier, Jersey.

He and his twin brother, Francis, both chose the same path; they were educated together and subsequently took their engineering apprenticeships together, both qualifying as civil engineers at exactly the same time, on the 8th February 1876.  During their apprenticeships, they worked on the same projects, and as twins, their bond must have been even stronger than most.


Not the best image. The twins, James and Francis Orange, Jersey Channel Islands.
Image: Society Jersiaise photographic archive

They both entered the profession in 1872 under the guidance of civil engineers Edward Perrett and Charles Whitaker, both serving as indentured pupils for the next 5 years. They were given separate lead responsibilities but also shared their design ideas. For example, Francis was given sole charge of erection of the Grape Sugar Corp. Factory,  and Floating Swimming Bath Charing Cross, and James assisted him. Whereas James was given sole charge of erection of manufactories at Whitechapel and Belvedere.


In 1877 they were both engaged with Mr. F.T. Reade in the design for ironwork of the Metropolitan Fruit and Vegetable Market Scarboro’ Spar.


In 1878 James was engaged by Mr. J. Marmont M.I.C.E., to construct Tramways at Gloucester and Reading. In 1879 he erected large sheds at St. Malo, France, for Messrs. H. Young & Co.,  later he was Manager of Pilsometer Engineering Company Works Battersea.


In 1880 James became engineer to Messrs. H. Young & Co., contractors and engineers and carried out various works such as Victoria Station Improvements, Waterford and Wexford Railway Viaduct and Bridges (something Francis worked on with him), Brighton New Shelter, and Clacton Water Works, which may well have brought him to the attention of the Public Works Department in Hong Kong. He also, in conjunction with Mr. Ancell, designed and carried out several warehouse buildings of special iron construction in  Southwark St; Jersey Public Offices and Library and Bilen Market.


His professional path was about to swap an island in the English Channel for an island in the South China Sea. In November 1882 James secured the position as resident engineer with the Public Works Department in Hong Kong, with special charge of the Tytam Waterworks. But first, he had to get there.


He left England in early November 1882 on a voyage he probably thought would be relatively straightforward. Taking a boat from England to Trieste where he picked up the P and O Mail Steamer Malwa, departing there on 14th November.

The Malwa. Image courtesy of    

It had a brief stop in Venice on the 17th and another in Brindisi on the 20th, departing after a 6 or 7 hour delay, at 10.30am.  It had been held up as the captain was forced to wait for a delayed mail train. By now the Malwa had around 200 passengers on board; besides all the overland travellers for India, China and Australia who were scheduled to transfer at Suez to two other connecting vessels, one called the Ravenan and the other called Ballarat, the Malwa had her own Bombay passengers and several French travellers going to Alexandria, Bombay being James’s destination port. The smooth uneventful voyage was about to change, and be anything but.


Having left Brindisi and after about 2 hours at sea, that dreaded cry of “a man overboard” was heard. A life-buoy was thrown over the stern, look-outs were sent to the mast-head, a boat was lowered and the steamer turned around. A Portuguese cabin steward, who had apparently been drinking heavily, had tied twelve dozen new knives around his waist and had deliberately jumped overboard and was drowned, search though they did, the man was not seen again. Needless to say, this incident cast a severe depression over the ship for some time. By Thursday 23rd November the Malwa came into Alexandria. Some passengers got off the boat to look around only to be met with a burnt town and destroyed fortifications. One can only guess at what James must have been thinking, but it must have been something like “things can only get better. Can’t they?”. The ship continued on to Port Said and made it through the canal and reached the Suez end by mid afternoon on Saturday 25th November. What happened next, ended up being subject to a detailed investigation. Having dropped off the Canal pilot, the captain of the Malwa was heading towards the rendezvous point in the Suez Harbour near the canal exit, to meet the Ballarat for passenger transfer. Most of the passengers were on the starboard side of the Malwa watching the Ballarat as they proceeded towards her; she was of particular interest to everyone as she was a new steamer.  Suddenly the second officer called out “everyone rush forward”. All commenced to do so, but immediately there came a shock, a crash, a smashing of booms and stanchions, a tumbling on deck of the port-side lifeboat, a tearing away of dead lights and it was seen that a vessel, the Clan Forbes, had steamed directly at the Malwa amidships, port side, and tore a large hole in her water-line that was probably 8 feet long and 2 feet wide. There was a further large hole below the water-line which had been made by the fluke of the hanging anchor of the Clan Forbes. Two passengers, who happened to be ships captains in their own right immediately sprang into action. Captain Fowler was lowered over the side on a rope by fellow passenger Captain Chisholm. Capt. Fowler called for blankets which he then stuffed into the hole, and tried to keep it in place with his feet. Captain Atkinson, Commander of the Malwa seeing that it was hopeless and that she was going to sink ordered the boat stations to be lowered. Lord Beresford, a third fellow sea-faring captain of the Royal Navy who was also a passenger, shouted to Captain Atkinson to head for the shore and beach the ship, which would save both life and ship. Capt Atkinson heeding the advice and immediately headed for the quarantine ground at full speed, which was about a mile away.  It was an anxious time; he had no idea if the ship would reach It before the water got too high in her. She sailed at great speed towards the mud flats opposite the quarantine area. The quarter-boats were being lowered to the rail, and as the Malwa passed close to the stern of the Carysfort, a man-of-war, lying at anchor, the captain shouted “I am sinking send your boats.” The fully manned man-of-war boats were in the water very quickly, and they raced after the Malwa as quickly as they could, the crew pulling their oars at a fast pace. All on board the Malwa were quiet and collected, and the sight of the man-of-war boats following them restored confidence that their fate would not be a watery one. The passengers were told to brace for impact, but the ship quietly slid onto the mud without any perceptible jolt at all, and gently settled on the mud bed. Initially the ladies and children were placed in the man-of-war boats, but the captain, finding that the ship was upright and had settled down, ordered them back to the ship. The water inside very soon filled up level with that outside, about one foot below the main deck, it then being low tide, although at high tide the next morning it was of course up to her ports; about four feet over the main deck, about one foot over the saloon tables.  The mail bags were on the upper deck, having been got up for transhipment, and officers and men at once began to salvage, baggage etc. Some of the latter which had been stored on the orlop deck got wet of course, but it was at once got up and transferred to the Ravenna, excepting such as belonged to the Ballarat passengers, which was sent off with them. Remarkably, there was no extra excitement, except a little rushing about for baggage, all had great confidence in what was being done.  All felt that they had much to be thankful for, if she had been a mile or two further out at sea, it is doubtful she could have been beached in time, and would very likely have sunk in deep water, with untold consequences to all the passengers, including James Orange. Also on board was a well known Armenian barrister based in Calcutta, Gregory Charles Paul and his wife, Aglaia. She was the only passenger whose valuable dresses suffered irrevocable damage. James, along with all the other passengers who were destined for Bombay, had to wait in Suez for a week until the next steamer arrived. The remaining passengers then took their connecting ships as planned; the Ballarat continued to Australia via Colombo and the Ravenna went to Calcutta and China.


Conditions in Suez were far from ideal. The hotels were already very busy and those passengers from the Malwa waiting for the next steamer to arrive, found that they were sharing single rooms with up to 14 other people. It was a very difficult week for everyone and the arrival of the SS Thames couldn’t come soon enough. That ship already had an almost fully laden passenger count, but the ship-wrecked and weary travellers from the Malwa were taken on board and took up positions on deck and inside where they could. Most slept in upright chairs for that 15 day journey from Suez to Bombay. James was not disembarking in the port, but was carrying on to Singapore, presumably still sleeping in a chair. The final leg between Singapore and Hong Kong on the SS Thames, really continued the nightmare voyage. The vessel developed some serious trouble when a metal wall on the high pressure cylinders broke and created a very dangerous situation; without it, high pressure steam could have escaped and caused untold damage and injury to passengers and crew.  Given his engineering background, James may have been called upon to help, I doubt very much that he would have stood idly by and not offered to assist in some way.


When he finally arrived in Hong Kong on the 11th January 1883; I’m pretty certain he would have been happy to get his feet on dry land, have a decent hot bath and sleep in a comfortable bed. His Hong Kong career lay before him, yet he certainly already had some tales to tell. James helped shape Hong Kong’s future, his work has become part of its history and heritage, yet it could have all been so different had he not been saved by a fellow passenger and very experienced naval captain, who took control when panic struck Capt. Atkinson and his vessel began floundering.


An investigation heard accounts of the incident from both crews, but  a German passenger onboard wrote a brief account for the Frankfort Gazette in which he said:

“……we left the Canal on November 23rd at 3pm, and were approaching Suez, when, through some inexplicable carelessness, we came into collision with another steamer. Watertight compartments kept her afloat, but we began to sink rapidly. Our crew composed chiefly of Lascars, ran about in utter confusion; the captain lost his head entirely, and actually shed tears, instead of trying to save the vessel and the lives of the passengers. At last, one of the latter, an English naval officer, took command of the ship. He sprang on the bridge, ordered all boats to be lowered, and the ship’s head turned to the bank. He then signalled the engineer to put on full steam, and these energetic orders having been obeyed, we managed to run ashore just as the water reached the deck….”

 In the spring of 1883, the conclusion of the investigation in London was that both ships were to blame, each having taken actions that resulted in the collision. However, even by having the high ranking Naval captain Lord Beresford write a public letter supporting him and his actions, Captain Atkinson’s actions and behaviour at the time did nothing to discourage passengers telling their side of the unfolding incident.

James Orange went on to become very successful in Hong Kong, and eventually joined with Robert Leigh and the well-known partnership of Leigh & Orange was formed. James retired around 1915 and settled in London at a charmingly appointed flat at No. 3 Gray’s Inn Square. His brother Francis had for many years been based at No. 11 Gray’s Inn Square; still showing in their latter years they were continuously close.  Whereas his brother had, eventually married, James remained single and passed away in September 1927 at a London nursing home. Comfortably off, he left an estate of just over £35,000.


Extract from the Will of James Orange

He left his collection of art split between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. There were also numerous bequests to various friends and close family, bequests to the Bishop of Hong Kong for distribution amongst various Church of England charities; the Italian Convent, Caine Road and St. Paul’s Institution in Causeway Bay, as well as other named bequests and legacies. As he was unmarried and childless, the residue of his estate was bequeathed to his two nieces, Elsie and Doris Orange, daughters of another brother, Edwin.


James’s cremation at Golder’s Green Crematorium on the 30th September 1927 was largely attended, and even Alfred Bryer, a colleague from his days at Leigh & Orange, was there. This branch of the Orange family of Jersey died out with the passing of his brother Francis in 1933, the other four brothers of James and Francis having predeceased them.


But one thing is certain, he left a marvellous art collection and a wonderful career legacy that is still talked about today, and to think he very nearly didn’t make it to Hong Kong in 1883; not many people live to tell the tale of being rammed at sea, inches from death, nearly sunk, deliberately run aground and so much more. However, we are pleased he did.


© Liz Chater 2021

[1] George Orange biography summary extracted from their collection.