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OTD 1918 - from an inspirational library

Sitting in the unique and delightful Gladstone'sLibrary on a rather grey day, I've been aware that tomorrow is 104th anniversary of my great uncle Mortimer's death. And reflecting on just how much he has, through that death, given me.

On 22nd January 1918 Det Insp Mortimer O'Sullivan HKP took a party of police to a tenement in Wanchai, Hong Kong, to investigate a series of robberies. Armed, as was usual then, with just a search warrant and his walking cane, only a few of the constables carried revolvers. They walked into a trap and within minutes O'Sullivan & 3 other policemen lay dead, their bodies riddled with bullets. Another policeman and at least two unconnected civilians later lost their lives.

Some things are better understood with hindsight. Then, there was still the assumption that the criminals of Hong Kong and southern China had a grudging respect for HK's police and wouldn't dare use a firearm on them, although they were trigger happy enough amongst the local people. In reality, this time had passed and the place was awash with weapons following the fall of the Qing dynasty, and assaults on the police would become almost commonplace.

Four days later, O'Sullivan's niece, the baby daughter of his brother & fellow HK police inspector, died of cerebral meningitis. Inside five days, Insp Patrick O'Sullivan had buried his brother and child. Grief stricken, he - my grandfather - also buried the story of the Gresson St Affray, even from his own family. Only in the last 15 years or so have we started to uncover it.

In 2009, I had the utterly unexpected and unique opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to unearth the whole story. And what a story it was. Turned out to really begin 50+yrs before and continue for another 30yrs. Since then, I've had so many directions to explore and write about, including 'Policing Hong Kong - an Irish History', 'Women, Crime and the Courts Hong Kong 1841-1941' and now '10,000 miles to the trenches: HK Police in the 1st World War'. The history of that awful morning in Wanchai has opened up so many possibilities for a great-niece. It feels wrong to be grateful for a tragedy - but I hope that I can do justice to their stories, their memory and their sacrifice.

Images - Gladstone's Library - from my desk, 21.1.2022, Det Insp Mortimer O'Sullivan HKP, Insp Patrick O'Sullivan HKP all ©


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