Thomas’s Work (5) The ‘Siege Biscuits’

In a previous post[1] I’ve described Thomas collaboration with Dr. Geoffrey Herklots in the baking of a nutrition-rich ‘siege biscuit’ designed to help the population of Hong Kong withstand a siege of three months:

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.

After the surrender, Selwyn-Clarke was given permission by Captain Tanaka, the officer in charge of Lane, Crawford, to take and distribute these biscuits.

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.[2]

As the biscuits were clearly still in the hands of Lane, Crawford, my guess is that they were stored in the ‘big Lane and Crawford food warehouse’ from which volunteer lorry driver Gwen Priestwood picked up food to deliver during the fighting.[3]

Selwyn-Clarke had access to a supply of these biscuits. In October 1942 he was told about two Canadian missionaries who had avoided internment and were living in their flat in  Kowloon. He sent a representative, Miss L.,  to visit them:

Miss L. proved hesrelf to be as capable as she was charming and had come prepared to help, bringing with her some bread and a few ‘siege biscuits’. These biscuits had been compounded by a British dietician before the war, and were supposed to be sol nutritious that two biscuits would supply a man sufficient sustenance for a day.

F. D. & H. F. Collier, Covered Up In Kowloon, 1947, 68

However, one of the few certain things about the later history of these biscuits is that Selwyn-Clarke didn’t get all of them. Just before Thomas and Evelina were moved from the French Hospital to Stanley, those in the Camp had a surprise; former Colony hangman R. E. Jones recorded this in his diary for April 21, 1943:

1 lb. vitamin biscuits issued. The Japs gave them to us but they were ours in the first place & have been allowed to go musty. A rats (sic) nest was found in one tin.

In fact, the Japanese seem to have a huge supply of these biscuits:

The Hong Kong Government had prepared large stores of these in readiness for a lengthy siege, but the capitulation had come so quickly that few of them were used until later, when the Japanese put them on sale. Afterwards they were sold off readily, the price rising up to six yen per pound.

Colliers, 1947, 68

Dr. Herklots tells us that the siege biscuits had been sealed in petrol tins,[4] but these had obviously been removed and stored without proper protection.

Did any of these biscuits fall into the hands of the internees themselves? I think the evidence suggest that they did, but this is far from certain as there were at least two other kinds of biscuit in the Camp. Firstly, the Red Cross provided biscuits, which, both before and after the spring 1944 re-arrangement of the ration system, were part of the payment to those internees who did extra work.[5] Secondly, the Camp bakers, including Thomas of course, baked biscuits inside the Camp using soya flour, and it is these that are difficult to separate from the ‘siege biscuits’. We’ve already seen that Selwyn-Clarke believed the ‘siege’ biscuits to be baked from soya bean flour, while according to Herklots (who’s more likely to be correct) the flour was whole wheat mixed with fresh peanut oil. This suggests that we can’t necessarily trust those accounts that talk about soya bean biscuits!

Rations in Stanley Camp were bad enough, but those in Stanley Prison were so low and lacking in nutrients – just rice, salt, and if the prisoners were lucky a little vegetable matter – that anyone not receiving supplementary food, as was the case with Chinese prisoners without well-off friends outside, soon succumbed to one of the diseases of malnutrition. Allied prisoners were luckier: their wives or the Camp authorities were always willing to send in food. But sometimes there seems to have been a blanket ban on such parcels, at other times they were accepted but not delivered. Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and his deputy David Edmondston both died of malnutrition (and medical neglect) while in the Prison, Grayburn after a relatively short time,[6] and even after extra food was smuggled to him (see below).

Banker Andrew Leiper was held in Stanley Prison from January/February 1944 until June 1944, when the Allied prisoners were transferred to Canton, and he records that in late May 1944 the seven internee prisoners were allowed to receive ‘small packets of food’ from the Camp. These packets – ‘wrapped in coarse paper bags’ – included ‘two small soya bean biscuits’. The extra food ‘undoubtedly helped to save our lives’.[7]

Thomas mentions these beans, which he used to make bread:

From time to time we managed to get maize and Soya beans which we roasted and added to the dough, obtaining the best results by using ¼ oz. to 4 oz. flour.[8]

But there’s no reason to believe that he and the other bakers didn’t bake biscuits with this flour too, even this early. As we’ll see below, they certainly did so in 1945.

William Anderson, who was arrested on June 28, 1943[9] and taken to Stanley Prison the next day,[10] states that had ‘Vitamin biscuits’ and ante beri-beri pills sent daily into him from Stanley while in prison but didn’t always get them.[11] It’s possible that he was sent the ‘siege biscuits’ before Leiper joined him in Prison, but it’s also possible he was referring to the same soya biscuits, which were a useful source of Vitamin B.

Anderson and Leiper had these items sent in legitimately: police officer George Wright-Nooth smuggled in supplies to Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and four policemen who’d been imprisoned after a failed escape attempt. These foods included ‘vitaminized chocolate’ – itself smuggled in on the ration truck by the courageous Leung Hung[12] – and ‘small biscuits’. Chocolate and biscuits had the advantage that they were easily concealed and left nothing behind (tins, for example) that the prisoners would find difficult to conceal.

The only clear indication that the internees managed to get their hands on some of the siege biscuits – either by smuggling or through legitimate channels – is provided by Block 9 Quartermaster George Gerrard.

In late March, 1945, the Camp authorities started to prepare for an Allied landing on Hong Kong Island. They realised that this would obviously mean an end to the rations the Japanese sent into Stanley, and that, if they were lucky enough not to be killed outright, they would be strictly confined to Camp so that they couldn’t offer any assistance to the attacking forces. The Camp had already suffered accidental casualties from  American bombing, so measures were taken to prepare to meet problems caused by armed conflict as well as to ensure some kind of food supply. R. E. Jones ‘s diary gives us glimpses of this process:

March 22, 1945 1st. aid kits being prepared in Camp districts.

March 24 1st. Aid, Salvage & demolition squads being formed in each block in case of emergency.

March 25 Emergency rations issued to Blocks (1 Tin meat, 38 biscuits & 8 multi-vit. Tablets. North in talk reckons on things happening here between now & end of April.

 Mabel Redwood – who knew Evelina well from their joint involvement in Catholic activities in Stanley – tells us a little more about these biscuits:

 Over a period of time, each kitchen gradually built up a stock of gritty biscuits, made by mixing dry ground rice with soya bean flour, baked hard. These were to be our iron rations, and not entrusted to individuals….Each of us had to hand in an empty tin of stock size, which was filled with biscuits, then the whole block’s supply was put under lock and key in the block.[13]

 As Block 9 quartermaster, George Gerrard was directly involved in these preparations:

28 March, 1945 (W)e are making preparations in case there should be a landing here and food difficult to obtain during the first few days. I have taken charge of a tin of mutton per head and tins of {siege}[14] biscuits equivalent to 38 biscuits per head also other biscuits are being made in camp…

This does seem to imply that there were two kinds of biscuit, one baked in Camp, the other outside. But Thomas seems to suggest that he didn’t see the siege biscuits again until after he’d left Stanley:

 (T)he biscuits when we came out of Stanley Internment Camp in 1945 were in excellent condition…. [15]

This might indicate that the biscuits weren’t available for testing until after he’d left the camp. However, it’s also possible that he was referring a little loosely to the period that followed the Japanese surrender when the internees were technically free but forbidden to leave Stanley because of the very real dangers that would have awaited them in town – Japanese soldiers who refused to accept the surrender, looters, the absence of any organised services and so on. We do know that some biscuits, either ‘siege’ or soya bean flour, were released at this time. Barbara Anslow was kind enough to provide me with her memories of this issue:

Thank God these biscuits weren’t required under siege conditions, but they were issued to us after news of the Jap surrender but before the Fleet arrived 2 weeks later – they were very very hard, but still much appreciated[16]

But Barbara Anslow too is unsure as to the source of these biscuits:

In the last year in camp, when it seemed likely that the Allies might try to re-take Hong Kong, arrangements were made to store ‘siege biscuits’ in case the camp was cut off from food supplies. 

Perhaps these were some of the supplies Selwyn-Clarke was able to appropriate from Tanaka, but it’s more likely they were made from rice in our kitchens by your Dad!  Each separate block was given a small supply, which was somehow kept under lock and key (two keys, I believe, so that the issue had to be sanctioned by two separate trusted internees).   

I’m inclined to think that the internees did have access to a store of ‘siege biscuits’, but I think that the evidence I’ve been able to assemble so far is inconclusive.


[2] Footprints, 1975, 74. See also man in

[3] Gwen Priestwood, Through Japanese Barbed-Wire, 1944, 7.

[4] G. A. C. Herklots, ‘Food and War inHong Kong’, Nature, March 6, 1946.

[5] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973, 97.

[7] G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 203-204.

[8] Unpublish manuscript of article in The British Baker, September 1946.

[9] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 160-161.

[10] China Mail, April 4, 1947, page 2

[11] China Mail, October 17, 1945, page 2.

[13] Mabel Redwood, It Was Like This, 2001, 179.

[14] Gerrard’s writing is difficult and the transcription was a heroic task; the word transcribed ‘seize’ here is presumably ‘siege’.

[15] Unpublished manuscript of British Baker article.

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