This remarkable structure offers a precious glimpse of local history

Steel support beams help maintain the reservoir’s structural integrity
Granite piers connected by rounded arches
Pipes positioned above each columnal pier poured water into the reservoir
Steel reinforcement to ensure tourist safety
Red bricks formed the arches for transfering the loading from the ceiling to the granite piers below
Solemnity and security provided by concrete, bricks and steel
Each granite column is formed by 14 identical blocks
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Bishop Hill Reservoir

The Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir, nicknamed Bishop Hill Reservoir, is a few blocks from the busy Sham Shui Po district. Located underground, the structure reflects the romantic ancient Roman attitudes to architecture. Following vigorous local rallying, in June 2021, the government’s Antiquities Advisory Board accorded the defunct reservoir a Grade 1 historical building status.

Near the beginning of the twentieth century, the Hong Kong government had to find ways to meet the needs of the city’s booming population. In the decade between 1891 and 1901, Kowloon Peninsula’s residency count drastically doubled, and previous waterworks could not meet the increased demand. Additionally, in 1898, the New Territories transitioned from Imperial Qing to British colonial rule, bringing the matter of meeting the new entrants’ basic needs into the hands of the British government. As such, the British administration began seeking ways to remedy the shortcomings of the local water supplies. At the time, this comprised three wells, several pipes, a water tank, and an underground dam.

Kowloon Waterworks Gravitation Scheme

To help alleviate stress on the contemporary water supply, in 1902, the government launched the Kowloon Waterworks Gravitation Scheme. The plan utilised the territory’s running hills and boulder-studded watercourses as perspective reservoir sites. This resulted in the construction of the Kowloon Reservoir and catchwaters, the Tai Po Road filter beds, Bishop Hill Reservoir, and other connecting water pipes of varying sizes to form a comprehensive water supply network. Constructed in 1904, the development of Bishop Hill Reservoir was entrusted to the British architectural firm Denison, Ram & Gibbs. Previous projects handled by the firm include the Helena May main building, the University of Hong Kong’s Eliot Hall, and the now-demolished Repulse Bay Hotel.

The government’s Antiquities Advisory Board accorded the defunct reservoir a Grade 1 historical building status

Green Island Cement

The design elements of Bishop Hill reservoir featured an effective concrete recipe favouring local materials such as cement from the Green Island Cement brand, sand gathered from neighbouring beaches, and hand-crushed igneous rocks found in different locations in Hong Kong. The reservoir’s hybrid concrete-and-brick construction marks the architectural transition that was in progress at the time, as pure brickwork steadily gave way to concrete formations. To help increase the water supply in Kowloon, Bishop Hill Reservoir was built in Bishop Hill (a.k.a. Mission Hill) at Sham Shui Po. With a storage capacity of 9,900 cubic metres, Bishop Hill greatly surpassed other functioning watercourses of the era (the former Yau Ma Tei Reservoir and the since-demolished Hung Hom Service Reservoir had capacities of approximately 740 and 420 cubic metres, respectively). Due to this significantly greater holding power, Bishop Hill efficiently met the freshwater needs of residents in the Kowloon Tong, Sham Shui Po and Tai Hang Tung districts.

Japanese occupation of Hong Kong

Bishop Hill Reservoir faced many hurdles throughout its brief career. In 1938, terrible leakage forced its suspension, a hiatus prolonged by the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (Lasting from 25 December 1941 to 15 August 1945). By 1951, the reservoir was officially recommissioned. Its earlier leakage problem was resolved by adding a 150-millimetre-thick concrete wall to strengthen the existing perimeter.

Bishop Hill Reservoir ceased operations in 1970. In the same year, the Shek Kip Mei Fresh Water Service Reservoir, which held ten times the storage capacity of Bishop Hill, was commissioned, rendering the latter obsolete. So, the government ordered it to be hermetically sealed from public view. Slowly, Bishop Hill Reservoir faded from public memory, hidden from sight for forty-seven years.

Antiquities and Monuments Office

In 2017, the Water Service Department discovered cracks at the top of Bishop Hill Reservoir. Tree roots had breached the dome, posing a structural hazard to the entire establishment. A department investigation took place. After confirming that the reservoir was defunct and that the Antiquities and Monuments Office had no objections, the Water Service Department decided to demolish the site and redesignate the government land for general use.

In October 2020, demolition work began. Two months later, the disused reservoir was revealed to contain brick arches and a cement roof fashioned in Romanesque architecture. Before the rediscovery of Bishop Hill Reservoir, two other century-old reservoirs – the Magazine Gap Road and the Hatton Road service reservoirs – were demolished in 2010 and 2011, respectively, with no objection from the Antiquities and Monuments Office. On 29 December 2020, after much public outcry, the tear-down of Bishop Hill Reservoir was suspended. In the aftermath, the Antiquities and Monuments Office defended criticism that its board did not raise objections to its demolition in 2017, citing that the Water Services Department described the location as a disused “water tank’” with no mention of its historic design.

A virtual tour of Bishop Hill Reservoir

Much work was put into Bishop Hill’s restoration. Yellow lighting effects were added to complement its beauty, as well as the orderly arrangement of the piers and the ever-expanding arches, creating a sense of solemnity and security. Participants begin their journey at the assembly point at Berwick Street in Shek Kip Mei. Volunteer tour guides lead visitors up a steep climb to Mission Hill, passing by ping pong tables, towering trees, and Buddha statues to reach the notable site. A virtual tour of Bishop Hill Reservoir is also available on the Water Service Department’s website, providing a panoramic view of the interior beside descriptions of its architectural features.

Euro-style granite piers and red brick arches

Imitating ancient Roman civil engineering works, Bishop Hill Reservoir features Euro-style granite piers and red brick arches. As Hong Kong’s first circular underground service reservoir, Bishop Hill’s interior is cement-bonded earth-filling. A circumferential cement wall highlights the 1951 repair works. Granite piers emphasise its fine craftsmanship. Each is composed of fourteen smooth blocks, which all measure sixty-one centimetres in length, forty-six centimetres in width, and thirty centimetres in height. The piers are arranged like a Roman arcade, their contiguous segmental arches uniquely carved with three-ringed openings.

Kowloon Reservoir

Gravity encouraged the water to flow through the pipe works. Water was carried through the main pipe to filter beds from the hilltop Kowloon reservoir before coursing into Bishop Hill, then to the distribution system. At its completion, the reservoir’s diameter was approximately forty-six metres. Its height from floor to vault reached about 6.85 metres.

The practical and the aesthetic do not have to stand in opposition. Bishop Hill Reservoir stands as proof. Its remarkable structure offers a precious glimpse of Hong Kong’s water supply history over the past hundred years. For those interested in exploring its practical design wisdom up close, the Water Supplies Department allows a limited number of monthly public tours and self-guided visits.

Text & photos by Victoria Mae Martyn