Hospital drama – discovering the real Matilda of The Peak

The Matilda International Hospital celebrates its 110th birthday this year. Carolynne Dear caught up with chief executive officer Linda Burgoyne to find out more about this Hong Kong institution and its namesake

The gloriously sugar-pink Matilda International Hospital has seen thousands of Hong Kong babies issue forth from its world-famous maternity unit over the years. It sits proudly atop Victoria Peak, surveying great swathes of rolling forest, Aberdeen harbour and the white-peaked, container ship-dotted Lamma Channel below. A fine location indeed for a baby to arrive into the world.

But its elegant rooms and sunlit corridors conceal a less than picture-perfect history. This year the hospital celebrates its 110th anniversary, which leant a fabulous opportunity to catch up with current CEO Linda Burgoyne and find out a little more about the hospital’s tumultuous past.

Burgoyne began her acquaintance with the Matilda in 1991 as a mid-wife – “I’d come to Hong Kong just for six weeks”. She then left and undertook other work for five years, returning to the hospital in 1996, again, “just for a little while”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Burgoyne admits to a degree of confusion in expat circles about the origins of the hospital – “I’ve overheard people assume Matilda was Australian. She wasn’t.”

The hospital is actually named after the very English Matilda Lincolne Sharp, one of the earliest colonials to settle in Hong Kong and whose husband, Granville, bequeathed sufficient money in his will for a hospital to be built in her name.

“Matilda’s story is quite impressive,” enthuses Burgoyne, as we admire the sweeping views over Mount Kellett from her office window. “Given the time period (Matilda arrived in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1858, and she died in the territory 37 years later) you would imagine her to be this rather prim Victorian lady – which I’m sure in lots of ways she was – but she actually led a pretty amazing life.”

Her story carries all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster, or a satisfying BBC costume drama at the very least. Think happy childhood in bucolic rural Georgian England, adventures on the high seas – including shipwreck, marriage and honeymoon in colonial India, and life in Hong Kong in its earliest days under British Crown rule (Hong Kong was established as a Crown colony in 1841 following the first Anglo-Chinese war, just 17 years before Matilda and Granville landed). And the story of her namesake is no less dramatic, including two world wars, pioneering medical developments, financial ups and downs, and larger than life trustees.

Matilda Lincolne was born in the small Suffolk market town of Halesworth in 1829. She enjoyed a simple childhood as one of ten children, and in 1855 met and fell in love with Granville Sharp, an accountant. During their courtship he was posted to the Commercial Bank of India in Bombay and for two years they continued the relationship long-distance. Eventually, in 1858, Matilda set sail from Southampton on board the P&O steamer Malta for a month-long journey to meet and marry her beau.

At the time, steamers travelled through the Mediterranean, via Gibraltar and Malta, and on to Alexandria where the passengers continued on foot to Suez – the Suez Canal was still eleven years away from completion. There, Matilda boarded the SS Madras bound for Bombay.

Emotions were running high on board as she recorded in her journal – the Indian Mutiny had broken out the previous year, and there were also concerns about tropical diseases which struck swiftly and were often fatal.

Happily, Matilda arrived without incident in October 1858 and was married a month later. Within another month, Granville had received a promotion and had been posted to Hong Kong. They set sail again, on the P&O ship Singapore, on December 1, landing in Victoria Harbour at the end of the month.

In her journal, she recalled those early days: “I came to (our) residence in Hollywood Road… in a Chinese bamboo chair carried by two men, supported by long bamboo rods placed on their shoulders.”

Her journal gives a good account of everyday life in Hong Kong at that time, and in some regards the same issues remain discussion points to this day. “Good milk is a great rarity, and, as we fancy cook overcharges, we are going to make an arrangement (with the milk delivery woman)… What would dear father say to the piece of Foochow bacon which adorns our breakfast table? I forget the price but it is enormously dear… It is far cheaper to send for your stores from England.”

But the hospital may never have come about following an ill-fated decision by Granville to sail to Tourane (modern-day Da Nang in Vietnam) on board the the British steamer, Thebes. Matilda almost decided not to accompany her husband at the last minute, but was persuaded on board by the captain. The first couple of days and nights were rough, with Matilda’s amah confined to the cabin where “she does nothing but vomit”. By the third day it was too rough for Matilda to eat anything or indeed get up from her bunk. On the fourth night, despite the sea finally being smooth and also moonlit, Thebes ran into some rocks with a “fearful crash”. Over the next few days, it slowly slipped beneath the waves as the crew and passengers frantically rowed their belongings ashore. “It was an intensely hot day and as I glanced on the sandy reach of land where our stores were, and where our small tent glistened in the sun, I wondered how long we should be left… until succour came.” In the next paragraph, Matilda reports that suddenly “the savages of Hainan were carrying away everything we had been all the morning transporting to the shore – water, biscuits, pork, beef, soda water – all vanished in a twinkling and we saw them with huge baskets running over the hills.”

What ensued was a desperate couple of weeks, with the captain deciding to transport all passengers and crew in the remaining three rowboats to the nearest harbour. Braving stormy seas and the threat of pirates with pitiful supplies, they eventually limped into Hsiao Hai Harbour (today known as Gangbei Gang on Hainan’s east coast). They begged passage on a junk heading to Macau, but due to multiple typhoons, they were stranded in harbour for several days. Eventually they set sail, and ended up back in Hong Kong after the captain of Thebes was forced to take over the Macau-bound junk when its own captain was found to have “smoked himself drunk with opium”.

“Though the rain still fell pitilessly, never did Hong Kong look prettier in my eyes, and never was my home so dear to me,” wrote Matilda.

The ensuing years in Hong Kong saw Granville rise to prominence in colonial society, accumulating a small fortune in banking, commerce and property dealing. Matilda was very active in works of charity. “They were fairly typical for their time and were prominent members of society,” comments Burgoyne. “Matilda was forward-thinking enough to learn Cantonese and she used to roam the Peak with a pistol in her pocket (there were several incidents of burglary while they lived there). She was quite a lady.”

They were one of the earliest groups of settlers on the Peak and lived in a bungalow called Homestead at Jardine’s Corner. It was initially intended to site the hospital here, but the location was moved further south towards Mount Kellett at the last minute in deference to the residents living opposite Homestead.

Matilda Sharp died in 1893 aged 64 after suffering a chill that developed into pneumonia. “Even in death, her fearless and adventurous spirit was to have lasting influence on the future of Hong Kong,” writes Joyce Stevens Smith, former nursing sister at the Matilda, in her biography, Matilda, A Hong Kong Legacy. “The memorial to her life was to be the Matilda Hospital, built and endowed through Granville’s will but her very death took on a unique significance in that she pioneered cremation among Europeans – and the Chinese population generally – in Hong Kong.”

Granville died during a trip to England six years later, and his ashes were buried alongside Matilda’s in Happy Valley cemetery. His substantial estate was divided amongst relatives, and he instructed that the residue be used to build and maintain a hospital “to the glory of God and the good of man; in loving memory of my sainted wife, Matilda Lincolne, the same to be called Matilda Hospital”. The hospital was dedicated to poor and destitute Europeans – including missionaries, deckhands and so forth – and all treatment and accommodation was to be free.

“It was an amazing feat. When they built the hospital, there was no road,” explains Burgoyne. “Stubbs Road didn’t exist and the only way of reaching the Peak was by Sedan chair or rickshaw.”

When it opened in 1907, the 24-bed hospital saw 84 patients in the first year, of which there were three deaths, one birth and fourteen operations. At this time it was operating as a general hospital and staff were dealing predominantly with malaria, diptheria, smallpox, post-natal infection and tuberculosis. The balconies were all open for fresh air as they weren’t able to isolate at this time. Due to Granville’s connections with Paul Chater, who was on the board of Hongkong Electric, the hospital was quickly wired up and able to operate.

“The hospital also boasted one of the first x-rays,” explains Burgoyne. “Which in the 1900s was quite something. It was a very forward thinking institution.”

The Matilda was also a leader in its field in the treatment of cancer. In 1929, the trustees acquired 74 platinum tubes containing 225 milligrammes of radium from the UK and for most of the following decade, the Matilda pioneered radium therapy for cancer treatment, receiving patients from all over the region.

But the lowest point in the hospital’s history came with the Japanese invasion of 1941. Despite red crosses being painted on the roofs but the hospital, it received 97 direct hits from bombs throughout December in the lead-up to occupation because the British army had ammunition dumps nearby as well as guns and grenades stored in the basement.

Any patient who couldn’t be sent home was moved to the basement where they remained with the nursing staff for three weeks. On Christmas Day the white flag of surrender was flown from Government House and the remaining staff and patients were forced by the Japanese secret police to walk the 17km down to Stanley for internment for the duration of the war.

The 26 doctors in Stanley prisoner of war camp had brought whatever medical supplies they could and these were pooled to create a hospital and four clinics. The Matilda medical superintendant, Dr Montgomery, was medical officer for the Indian quarters and ran a clinic in Breezy Cottage, providing instruction to new mothers in babycare. And so perhaps it was here that the Matilda’s reputation as a maternity hospital began to blossom.

“When the Japanese took over they warned the Chinese population that if they helped the Europeans they would be beheaded,” later recalled fellow inmate Lady Mary Grayburn, wife of Lord Grayburn, the then chairman of the Matilda Hospital. “Well, the Chinese liked us you know, and… they gave my husband money. He gave it to the director of medical services and with it we were buying drugs and vitamins from China, to (smuggle) into the camps because men were dying for want of them.”

Lord Grayburn was eventually tortured to death for the part he played in this covert operation and is buried in Stanley cemetery.

The hospital building was ransacked and taken over by the Japanese “but we don’t know what for, there are no records,” admits Burgoyne.

After the war, the hospital was requisitioned by the British army because of the threat of invasion by Communist forces in China. It re-opened in 1951 with a new wing, brand new equipment and, for the first time, it began to charge, since it was calculated the Granville Sharp Estate would be swallowed up within 15 years.  

“Although by now it was effectively private, the hospital still did an enormous amount of charity work, and still does to this today,” says Burgoyne. “By the 1980s it was becoming renowned for its maternity unit and in the last ten years we have been carrying out more and more surgery, particularly orthopaedic surgery. The technological advances are amazing. Microscopic spinal surgery is so delicate these days patients can be up and walking by the evening. I would say we’re probably the best-equipped Hong Kong hospital at present for orthopaedic procedures.

“And I think although we’ve changed hugely as a hospital, our heart is still there. For me, I love the Matilda for allowing me to practice the art of midwifery. We’re not a conveyor belt and we are able to spend time helping mums with babycare – we have a 96% take up of breast-feeding, and I would attribute that figure to our ability to put the mother in the centre of proceedings. Every delivery is different and we are able to respond to that. To survive 110 years in Hong Kong without being knocked down is an achievement in itself, I think we’re in the bedrock now.”

All journal quotes have been taken from “Matilda – A Hong Kong Legacy” by Joyce Stevens Smith and Joyce Savidge, available from The Matilda International Hospital.


Hong Kong’s “Matilda babies” look back with affection.

Marianne Reck and daughter Wendy, 1930s

Jasmin Blunck’s grandmother-in-law Marianne gave birth to her mother-in-law Wendy at the Matilda Hospital in 1937. “We don’t have much information, except that despite having no apparent medical complications, she stayed in hospital for ten days. My grandfather-in-law had been sent out to Asia to work. The official residence for expats at that time was The Peninsula Hotel. In 1934 he travelled home to Germany to get married, and the honeymoon was a trip back to Hong Kong on a passenger ship. After the births of my mother-in-law and her sister, world events took over and the family eventually left Hong Kong. Seventy-four years later their grand-daughter was also born in Hong Kong, but this time at The Adventist.”


Julie King with daughter Gemma, 1970s

Gemma was born in July 1978. There had been numerous typhoons that year and she was born during a T3, which escalated to a T8. I was living in Sai Kung and transport to the Island wasn’t great so I’d rehearsed how I was going to get there if I went into labour quickly –  speedboat from Tso Wo Hang to Clearwater Bay and then a taxi. However I ended up running over the due date and was taken in to be induced. During the delivery the air conditioning in the labour ward broke down and my husband and Dr Rance – my obstetrician – spent ages trying to fix it while Gemma was delivered by Sister Sue Cooper and Nurse Sue Sparkes. The windows were rattling and the babies had to be put in the inner corridors for risk of the glass being blown in. The weather was so bad I stayed in hospital for ten days. But it’s a great hospital and I was treated so well I was in no rush to go home!


Sara Hopkirk with Jack, Caitlyn and Erin, 1990s

When I had Jack my maternity insurance cover meant I could only afford a three-bed ward – I banked on everyone else going for single rooms and it worked! I went for the five-day “vaginal package” – I think it’s called something else now. I was in a room on my own with two empty beds. When I had Caitlin 16 months later my firm had changed their insurance provider and maternity was unlimited. So I immediately upgraded to a private room with beautiful views. Bliss. I didn’t want to go home!

As all mums will know, having a baby – especially your first – is a life-changing and very emotional experience. I remember ALL the midwives who looked after us with the fondest memories. They were fantastic. One of the midwives who looked after me with Jack is still there – Mary from Scotland. She’s an absolute gem ….


Anthea Lannoy with baby Joseph, 2016

Joseph was born in June last year. I had to be induced as I was ten days late. As labour wasn’t progressing I ended up having an emergency Caesarean. Whilst this had not been part of my birth plan the staff at the Matilda made the whole process an amazingly positive experience. The umbilical cord was wrapped around Joseph’s neck and I feel I owe them all so much for getting him out safely. The aftercare was excellent – from helping me to sit or stand up, to coming in at 4am to help with breastfeeding and getting him to latch, the staff was all so lovely and caring. We’re planning to have another baby next year and I will not hesitate to go back to the Matilda.