Thomas’s Work (1): Preparing for War

In a letter that I’ve provisionally dated to October or November 1938, Thomas tells his family that on the day of writing he’d received a letter telling him not to join the Volunteers – a kind of Territorial Army – but to focus on making sure his bakery is ready for any ‘emergency’.[1] As membership of the Volunteers was not compulsory at this time, he might have written offering them his services, or perhaps the movement of Japanese troops in China close to the Hong Kong border, which is the main subject of Thomas’s letter, had prodded the authorities into action. The bakery was the new Lane Crawford facility in Stubbs Rd. opened sometime in 1938 – the advertorial was probably part of an initial campaign to introduce it to customers.[2] In an ‘advertorial’ of November 26, 1938 published in the Hong Kong Telegraph, the company assured the health consciousness Hong Kong consumers that the entire process of baking had been mechanised in a way to guarantee the highest standards of hygiene. [3]

But hygiene wasn’t on Thomas’s mind in this roughly contemporaneous letter: in an attempt to reassure his family he adds, ‘Everywhere is gas proof so we are not worrying at all’ – although it is not clear if Thomas is stating that the bakery is gas proof or if he is expressing a general confidence in Hong Kong’s anti-gas precautions, or both.

It is not known if Thomas made any changes to the bakery in the three years leading up to the Japanese attack, but it is clear that he did use the time to devise a ‘war plan’, one that he was able to put into effect in December 1941: if possible, he would use the Lane Crawford bakery to produce whatever quantity of bread the authorities should demand, but if this exceeded the bakery’s requirements, or if the course of the fighting made the bakery untenable, five smaller bakeries would be stocked and prepared to be brought into action. One of these was almost certainly the Qing Loong (Green Dragon) bakery at 93, Queen’s Rd. East, Wanchai.

As war drew closer, he was given another responsibility: the Colony’s Medical Officer Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, a man who was to play a crucial role in Thomas’s life, asked Lane Crawford to bake a large supply of ‘siege biscuits’[5] – it was believed that even if the mainland parts of Hong Kong fell, the Island should be able to hold out for three months at least (Selwyn-Clarke gives the figure of 130 days as the period for which Hong Kong had been provisioned[6]).

One of my first encounters with helpfulness from a Japanese officer concerned the reserve of four-gallon tins of biscuits, made of soya bean and wheaten flour with the addition of thiamine hydrochloride powder (against beri-beri), which I had had baked in the leading department-store of Lane Crawford against the anticipated siege.[7]

Captain Tanaka, the officer in charge of Lane Crawford’s, allowed Selwyn-Clarke to take and distribute these biscuits[8] (although as I’ll show in a future post this wasn’t the whole story).

The man in charge of developing a biscuit that would contain the necessary nutrients and also be palatable to the taste of the Chinese majority was Dr. G. A. C. Herklots, the reader in biology at Hong Kong  University. Herklots thought carefully about the needs of the Hong Kong population if they should be besieged, and these biscuits were part of a broader nutritional strategy. In 1937, worried by the disruption in supplies of fresh fish caused by the Japanese war on China,[9] Herklots and the Superintendent of Fisheries Lin Shuyan had begun to create a reserve of salted fish – known as ‘siege fish’ – as an emergency supply.[10] In the following years he would take this work much further, as an attack on  Hong Kong itself became more and more likely.

It was the intention of the authorities that the siege reserves would actually improve the health of the population; they were aware that many of the Chinese would start the war in a ‘bad condition’ and they wanted to improve this:

The less the medical authorities were to be worried with malnutrition the more time and skill could they give to the treatment of casualties. The ideal aimed at was a correctly balanced diet, one that would improve the vigour and health of the people during the dreary months of the siege.[11]

Some people argued that a rice reserve alone was adequate, but Herklots reasoned that this would only be the case if an adequate supply of green vegetables was also available, and this was not likely: only one fifth of Hong Kong’s vegetables were locally grown, and the expected blockade and occupation of the New Territories would reduce this fraction still further. Rice would always be the basic food, though, so a government rice monopoly was established and run by a special department largely independent of Food Control.[12]

In order to provide additional nutrients, Herklots created a ‘bean pool’ for soya and other beans, including the Tientsin bean and the red bean. There was also an oil pool (mainly peanut oil) and a salt reserve. But even a diet based on these supplies wouldn’t provide enough vitamins:

To meet vitamin requirements large amounts of thiamine chloride were purchased and sent to Hong Kong by air, nicotinic acid was ordered in England but did not arrive prior to hostilities and three hundred tons of red palm oil were imported from Malaya. Arrangements were made with the fishing fleets to bring in the livers of all the large sharks caught, and shark liver oil, rich in vitamins A and D, was extracted and stored in sealed tins.[13]

Herklots adopted a ‘simple technique’ for extracting a solution of Vitamin C from the island’s abundant pine needles, and experiments designed to produce a supply of yeast were underway when the war broke out. But he wanted something more, a biscuit that would be full of vitamins and other nutrients and would be palatable to the rice-eating Chinese majority.  That’s where Thomas and his bakery became involved.

After Thomas’s death, Dr. Herklots was approached for information by his brother Wilfred:

We got on well, Tommie and I, in those hectic pre-war days[14]

Herklots started from something that was easily available in Hong Kong:

Peanut meal, after the oil has been expressed, is pressed into cakes and sold almost exclusively in Hong Kong as fertilizer. This cake is unpalatable as human food, largely because the oils it contains rapidly go rancid, but the fresh meal, straight from the press, has not this objection.

Then he brought in Thomas:

With the enthusiastic co-operation of a master baker and after about thirty trials, it was found possible to make a hard siege-ration biscuit from this meal and whole wheat flour. Each biscuit, which weighed half an ounce and cost half a cent, contained more than a man’s daily requirements of available iron, two biscuits enough nicotinic acid to prevent pellagra and four {biscuits} enough thiamin (sic) chloride to prevent beriberi on a polished rice diet.[15]

That was the problem – most of the rice in Hong Kong had the B Vitamins ‘polished’ out of them, and this was to cause problems in Stanley and even more so in the POW camp, Shamshuipo. The biscuits not only supplied many of the basic vitamins needed by the body, but also provided a day’s roughage.[16]

The biscuit was thoroughly tested:

Everybody liked the biscuits – all nationalities and all ages from six months to over eighty years – for they were tested in three hospitals (including a maternity hospital) before the scheme was placed before the Defence Council.[17]

 The Government approved of the biscuits, and a start was made in producing them at the rate of two tons a day;[18] a larger scheme for making eight tons daily was not implemented due to the outbreak of hostilities. The biscuits contained only 2 per cent water, and they were packed in petrol tins which were then sealed.[19]

Ironically, an improved biscuit was produced on December 7, 1941:

On the day before the Japanese attacked, a satisfactory biscuit was made which contained added calcium carbonate and shark liver oil.[20]

This day was a Sunday, which strongly suggests that Thomas was working overtime in the run-up to the war!

The biscuits continued to be produced until December 15,[21] when it was presumably decided more urgent work needed to be done. I’ll describe the complex history of these biscuits in a future post. The brief was to keep a biscuit that would last at least one year,[22] and, as we shall see, this requirement was more than met.

The two collaborators were separated by the fortunes of war: after the surrender, Herklots was sent to Stanley while Thomas remained outside to bake for the hospitals. But in August 1943, with Thomas and his new wife consigned to the internment camp under terrifying circumstances, the two were to come together again in a new project with the same aim: to provide people with the vitamins whose lack was slowly sapping away at their minds and bodies.


[5] Footprints, 74. Thomas’s September 1946 article  in The British Baker doesn’t mention Selwyn-Clarke but does record the role played by one Mr. Meredith of the Food Control: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/

[6] Footprints, 62.

[7] Footprints, 74.

[11] G. A. C. Herklots, ‘Food and War in Hong Kong’, Nature, March 6, 1946 (henceforth, ‘Herklots’).

[12] Herklots.

[13] Herklots.

[14] G. A. C. Herklots letter of October 29, 1985,, in possession of Wilfred Edgar.

[15] Herklots.

[16] Unpublished version of the British Baker article.

[17] Herklots

[18] Thomas’s British Baker article gives a figure of 1.5 tons by the end of October 1941, with machinery for double this output installed by the end of ‘December’ – which is presumably a mistake for November.

[19] Herklots.

[20] Herklots.

[22] Unpublished version of British Baker article.

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3 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11

3 responses to “Thomas’s Work (1): Preparing for War

  1. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (2): The Fighting | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (4): Baking In Stanley | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  3. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (5) The ‘Siege Biscuits’ | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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