Hong Kong stories: The two men who built the tram and ferry services we use every day


Scotsmen William Jardine and James Matheson are responsible for some of the most important transportation developments in the city

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JM & Co helped establish the Star Ferry in 1898.

As one of Asia’s most successful trading groups, Jardine, Matheson & Co’s presence is felt all across Hong Kong today. Their portfolio includes Jardine Motors, Hongkong Land, Dairy Farm and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. But the company has come a long way from its roots as a tea-trading firm, back in 1832.

JM & Co was founded in Canton (now Guanghzhou) in 1832 by two Scotsmen, William Jardine and James Matheson. Jardine, who was a surgeon on the ships of the British East India Trading Company, discovered that trading opium was far more profitable than practising medicine. In Canton, he met the Magniac brothers, Charles and Hollingworth, who owned the established trading firm, Magniac & Co. Jardine joined the firm, which would later become JM & Co.

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William Jardine is one of the founders of the Star Ferry and the tram system in Hong Kong.

His partner, Matheson, began to work for his uncle as a free merchant in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India, trading goods and services between different places.

However, after failing to deliver something for his uncle, Matheson was fired. He then set off for Canton, where he established himself as an independent merchant, before joining Yrissari & Co. After its owner’s death, Matheson took over, and joined forces with Jardine, thereby setting the foundation for their future partnership.

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Following the departure of the East India Trading Company from the region in 1834, JM & Co took it upon themselves to fill the gap. That year, the company’s first private tea shipments set sail for Britain. They beat most competitors to take control of the far eastern tea market.

In 1839, JM & Co saw the potential of Hong Kong as a trading base, and moved its operations there. By 1843, Hong Kong was officially declared a British colony, and the following year, the company subsequently opened offices in Shanghai, Amoy (now Xiamen) and Foochow (Fuzhou).

The group celebrated many firsts: the first steamer cargo line from Calcutta to the Far East, the first foreign trading house to establish a presence in Japan, and the construction of the first railway line in China.

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The establishment of Hong Kong Tramways was an important development for the city.
Photo: SCMP/Dickson Lee

In the 1860s, the company’s trading activities were enhanced by its expansion into shipping, banking and insurance. They then moved their main office from East Point to Central, and introduced the first inter-office telegraph in 1869.

One of the most important contributions to the city and its residents, however, was JM & Co’s role in establishing Hong Kong Tramways in 1884 and the Star Ferry Company in 1898.

In the 1900s, the company suffered many setbacks because of conflicts in China, the first and second world wars and then the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. JM & Co subsequently closed their offices in Hong Kong and China in 1941, although a presence was maintained in Chongqing.

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The company resumed operations in 1947. That same year, Jardine Airways – the forerunner for what is now British Airways – was formed.

JM & Co today runs businesses across a number of industries. The founders, and their subsequent successors, faced difficult times, and were required to evolve, reinvent and adapt themselves to survive the rapid industrial growth of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne

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