Thomas’s Work (7): Post-war Reconstruction

Note: Copies of the two letters referred to can be found at the bottom of this post.

The Stanley internees naturally expected that the end of the war would bring a speedy return of freedom and normal living. They were sorely disappointed. Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson posted a notice in Camp telling them to stay put and not provoke the Japanese by celebrating too uproariously. It was excellent advice: 20,000 or so Japanese soldiers were the only armed body in Hong Kong, and it wasn’t absolutely certain that all elements in the Imperial services were going to accept the surrender; New Zealand writer James Bertram, who’d been imprisoned with his fellow volunteers in Shamshuipo and then sent to work in Japan, reports fighting in Tokyo between ‘die-hards’ and ‘moderates’, and a move by the former to kill the American airmen imprisoned alongside him – for forty eight hours it was ‘touch and go’ around Tokyo he tells us.[1]

Hong Kong recovered from its wartime ordeal with remarkable speed – rationing was ended in November 1945, six years ahead of Britain. People deported to China moved back and by February 1946 the population was over a million once more.[2] But things didn’t look so rosy in the early days after the Japanese surrender (confirmed in Stanley on August 15/16) or even after the arrival of Rear Admiral Harcourt’s fleet on August 30.

Hong Kong, pounded by American planes since October 25, 1942, had been allowed to slip into a state of near anarchy as the Japanese occupiers gradually lost a hold that had always depended on little more than fear inspired by massive violence. In their final days the Japanese had encouraged triad gangs to loot at will.

Lord Kadoorie paints a vivid picture of Hong Kong at this time:

Hong Kong really took off from a base of being the most looted city in the world – there wasn’t a piece of wood to be seen in Hong Kong when I got back from Shanghai where I’d been a prisoner of war….And the whole city was, well, there was one cable across the harbour, there was some light in one or two buildings on this side (Hong Kong-side) and there was some light at the Peninsula Hotel, which was the Japanese headquarters. But other than that there wasn’t any light at all in the place. And it was black. Rats all over the place…and {the dogs} had become so wild that they had to get police with guns to shoot these dogs because it was so dangerous.[3]

Most Stanley internees stayed in Camp, where they created an unfavourable impression on journalist Russell Clark and others who’d come in with Harcourt’s fleet: Clark portrays them as whingeing endlessly at their continued confinement and the failure, as they saw it, of the authorities to look after them properly.[4]

Whatever the grievances, real or imaginary of the internees, back in Hong Kong, according to Clark, things soon started to improve:

By about 3rd or 4th September things were settling down nicely. We were all breathing rather more freely and some plan, purpose and, particularly, ‘drive’ in relation to the colony’s reconstruction was becoming evident.[5]

A few brave ‘pioneers’ like Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson left Camp quickly. The first large group out were key government personnel, whose task was to help Gimson reclaim Hong Kong for the British before the Chinese could take it: on September 3 Jean Gittins and about twenty government servants left Stanley for the city.[6]

Food was now being parachuted in to the internees so there was no immediate problem, and, in any case, the state of Hong Kongin August 1945 meant that large-scale baking would have been impossible. Harcourt’s first statement, made about ten days after the re-occupation, explained what he’d done: labour had been engaged for road and drain clearance, public services, hospitals, light and water supplies and for the ‘preparation of dockyards and factories for early operation’. He added that ‘equipment in the workshops and factories had been shockingly neglected’;[7]  Thomas was about to find this out for himself.

My guess is that Thomas was sent from Stanley into Hong Kong either just before or after this speech – sometime between the 7th and 11th of September. The first surviving word of Thomas is a telegram dated September 13:

arrived safely at Hongkong hope be home soon.

He gives his postal address as the Hong Kong Hotel. That ‘safely’ is not just a formal assurance; Hong Kong was still a somewhat risky place at this time. According to his brother Wilfred, on some date before September 13 he’d written an undated letter, now lost, which informed his family of his release.[8]  The telegram was probably sent from the Gloucester Building, where Cable and Wireless were offering to despatch telegrams to any part of the British Empire for $1 a word.[9]

The position of workers like Thomas is summed up by Russell Clark:

Essential Service workers took over whole of Hong Kong Hotel where they lived on a communal basis. Europeans issued chits for everything until new currency arrived and lived off rations issued by the navy.

Thomas had lived ‘on a communal basis’ for most of the last 4 years, and now, at least, he was amongst friends and being properly fed. But anything like normal life in the Colony was a long way off indeed in those early days. Hong Kong’s Chinese majority were still having a dreadful time:

500 Chinese a day were still dying of starvation.[10]

And the Indians, although they had started the occupation as the most favoured nationality, with the best rations, by the end of it their emaciated looks made them stand out even amongst a ‘pitifully thin’ population.[11]

Even though he was one of the privileged minority, and he was probably delighted to get back in to town, and thrilled at the prospect of returning to work, Thomas might not have felt so happy about the conditions he found when he arrived. On September 12, the China Mail reported that, while things seemed good in Stanley – there was butter in quantity, cheese, oranges, apples, chocolate etc – these conditions could only be envied by the essential workers in town. They were promised shorts, shirts and shoes but didn’t get them – they had, it seemed, ‘the dirty end of the stick’.[12]

Still, there was a free dental clinic for the essential workers run by the former dental technician who had acted as a full dentist in Camp to great acclaim, ‘Sammy’ Shields and some RAF dentists.[13]

As Thomas was certainly in Hong Kong by September 13, he might well have attended the funeral of James Carson Fergusson, a Masonic district grand master, Scottish constitution.[14]  Thomas was an enthusiastic Scottish Constitution Freemason. If he did, this might have been the time he learnt about the death of Fergusson’s deputy, Ralph Shrigley. Thomas mentioned this terrible tragedy years later; he undoubtedly knew Shrigley through Freemasonry, and his suicide to avoid further torture stayed with him for a long time.[15]

The next day, September 14, he sent home a letter from Room 321, Hong Kong Hotel saying that he was continuing in charge of bakeries but longing to get home.[16] This letter is also lost.  As Evelina was obviously not an Essential Worker she stayed in Stanley a little longer: a Colonial Office telegram dated September 18 told Thomas’s family of her release; this presumably means ‘release from Camp into Hong Kong’.

Meanwhile, for the expatriate population, more help was at hand: relief stores that had arrived on HMS Vindex including contributions from the Australian Red Cross now awaiting distribution – they would go first to the ‘900 odd internees at Stanley’, second to essential services, and third to their dependants.[17] Whatever else Thomas got from these supplies, he acquired some Red Cross notepaper, as his only two surviving letters from this period are written on it.

On September 16, The Hong Kong Sunday Telegraph[18] listed some of the food delivered by the navy since the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet, and this included 31,500 tins of white flour, so somebody was needed to bake bread. However, there were probably naval bakers, so even this delivery wouldn’t have created any urgent need for Thomas’s services. Wherever, the baking took place, it wasn’t the Lane, Crawford bakery in Stubbs Rd., as we shall see.

There was a 10 p.m. curfew at this time – it had to be relaxed on September 16, a day of fireworks and celebrations at the official Japanese surrender.[19] On the same day Lord Kadoorie declared that Hong Kong had a future of unlimited hope as the war damage was ‘not nearly so severe as we’d been led to expect’. Nevertheless, the present realities were underlined by report of the successful looting of Australian Red Cross supplies of milk and shoes from Queen’s Building: a gang had taken advantage of the diversion of sentries caused by the surrender arrangements, and future guards were now to shoot ‘without mercy’.[20]

Thomas’s first recorded post-war product was a wedding cake; it’s not known exactly when he made it, but it was eaten, with or without his help, on September 17:

James Stuart Buchanan Bang Stuart decided at 9.30 a.m. he would get like to get married. Edith Alice Johnston was agreeable and the pair went to Hong Kong from Stanley and made all arrangements, being back in Stanley by 11.30 a.m. the same day!

Yesterday they were married at the Supreme Court by Mr. Leo d’Almada, the well-known solicitor, the witnesses being Mr. and Mrs. Owen Hamilton and Mr. and Mrs. George Halligan. The wedding cake was made by Tommy Edgar of Lane, Crawford’s (sic) and the reception was held in the mess of Stanley Prison where the bridegroom is employed.

Mr Stuart, who was one of the really willing workers during internment at Stanley….[21]

James Stuart had been in the ‘Stanley Platoon’ of warders during the fighting, and he was one of those in this detachment who had, for some reason, been interned in Stanley rather than the PoW Camp at Shamshuipo. George and Ivy May Halligan, like Thomas, are in British Army Aid Group records as uninterned in December 1942, but I don’t know why they were kept out or where they were living.

Slowly conditions began to improve. On September 25 The China Mail[22] reported a speech by Harcourt that said Hong Kong’s real problem was lack of coal but that a supply from Australia was expected soon.

On October 1 Thomas sent home his first surviving post-war letter, again from Room  321, of the Hong Kong Hotel. The letter was written on Australian Red Cross Society notepaper. He noted that he’d just received the letter of August 23rd, ‘the first since September, 1943.’ He continued:

Well I think it is pretty well official now that I can not come home till about Christmas, Everyone is shouting for bread.(we have not had bread, meat or fish since January 1943 {sic –  should be ‘January 1944’, but even this claim is false. }.

He claims to be ‘fit’ (as he had done throughout the war) and states that the Navy and the Australian Red Cross are ‘doing their stuff now’. He glances at his work:

am very busy getting bakery into working order.

His family would have to wait for the next letter for more details.

Thomas wasn’t the only Lane, Crawford employee working to get things going again: Exchange Building advert – tenants asked to report to A. W. Brown of Lane, Crawford’s on the first floor on Friday 6, October at 9.30 so as to inspect their premises.[23] The building where Thomas had begun his wartime internment was returning to its peacetime life. Brown was a company manager and a member of the same bowls team as Thomas. Another member of that team, Frederick Ivan Hall, had been executed by the Japanese for smuggling messages in and out of Stanley.

On October 7 the Sunday Herald[24] reported that there was the possibility of a shift in  food provision for Essential Service Workers which for the moment would continue at Mac’s Cafeteria on the ground floor of the Hong Kong Hotel – there was a possible shift to giving  them higher salary rather than mean provision. Dried food will still be given to those wishing to mess for themselves. It was also announced that accommodation at the Hotel would be tightened up – large rooms would expected to take 2 people, camp beds to be installed so hotel can accommodate 280 people. Arrangements were in the hands of the food control department. We also learn that the Army had a mess on first floor of hotel, the part formerly known as ‘the Gripps’.[25] On October 16 the China Mail reported a speech by Harcourt saying that changes might be made in provision of meals for essential service workers, who might in future be given the right to buy supplies at the NAAFI.[26]

It seems that this shift actually took place, or that the Essential Workers were allowed the best of both worlds. The China Mail for November 28, 1945 published a letter from Service Civvys (sic) complaining about ordinary civilians using NAAFI stores –  ‘How do they get the coveted ration card’? But he stressed that he didn’t mind ex-PoWs and internees buying from the NAAFI.

On October 17 Thomas wrote his second surviving post-war letter, also on Australian Red Cross Society notepaper. He claims to have put on 17lbs since leaving Stanley – a creditable rate of about 4lbs a week! He describes his problems getting the Stubbs Rd. Bakery working again: he’s got the help of four men from the naval repair ship HM. Resource, but things are a mess because the Japanese used the bakery as a button factory, a rattan basket factory and for salt fish. He hopes to get home before January or February.[27] This period in Hong Kong is not recorded in those online accounts of the work of HMS Resource that I’ve consulted.[28]

It seems that Evelina was also able to draw rations at this time: The China Mail for October 18, 1945[29] reported that Volunteers who have dependents ‘rationed’ by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force must forward proof of relationship, for example, their marriage certificate.

On October 29 Thomas sent a telegram home: mum very fit busy writing. The letter he was composing is lost; the next communication to survive is an optimistic telegram sent on December 19 offering Christmas and New Year wishes and ending see you all soon.

However hard Thomas and his helpers worked, it was obviously not possible to resume normal bread production. On December 6, the China Mail reported complaints that you can’t get government bread at the fixed price and that the bread’s colour has changed from brown to white so people are now buying on the black market. One man found all bread sold out after queuing on each of 4 consecutive mornings. No wonder Thomas’s dream of taking his new (to his family) wife home for Christmas in England came to nothing!

However disappointed the general public was with the efforts of its bakers, appreciation from one source is recorded: in May 1946 a report (now lost) from Tung Wah Eastern Hospital notes their success and progress with the help of Cecil Harcourt, Fehilly[30] and T. H. Edgar of Lane Crawford.[31]

According to the introduction to Thomas’s article in The British Baker Thomas’s return to England didn’t take place until the summer of 1946, [32] and he chose the shorter air route – 10 days as against 35.[33] Whatever he found in England, it wasn’t enough to make him want to return, and he spent the next four years back in Hong Kong.

New Year’s Eve 1947, in a Hong Kong in which racial barriers, although far from disappearing, are much less sturdy than before the war: starting from the front left, we have Eurasian, a Swiss, a Chinese (probable), English, Eurasian, and Brazilian (probable)

 Update: A front page Editorial in the Hongkong Telegraph for Friday, November 25,  1949 throws an interesting light on the experience of Thomas and other Essential Service workers after the war. The Editorial was prompted by the failure of efforts to establish an Essential Workers Corps to act in an emergency, and it speculates that one reason for this was the failure to acknowledge the work done by this group in 1941:

(M)any of those who found themselves posted to the Essential Services and Key Workers Group in 1941 remember the invidious treatment they received  when the war finally came to an end. For many there was little or no recognition of their active services and they were made to feel neglected and forgotten people.


[1] James Bertram, The Shadow of a War, 1947, 273-274.

[3] Cited in Tony Banham, Not the Slightest Chance, 2003, 294.

[4] Russell Clark, An End to Tears, 1946, 77-78.

[5] Clark, 61.

[6] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 1982, 154.

[7] Clark, 99.

[8] Chronology drawn up by Wilfred Edgar in 1985.

[9] The China Mail of September 18 reports on page 1that such a service had been established for ‘some days’.

[10]Clark, 100.

[11]Clark, 48.

[12] Page 2.

[13] China Mail, September 11, 1945.

[14] China Mail, September 13, 194, page 2.

[16] Chronology, 1985.

[17] China Mail, September 14.

[18] Page 6.

[19] China Mail, September 17, page 1.

[20] China Mail, September 17, page 1.

[21] China Mail, Tuesday, September 18, page 4.

[22] Page 4.

[23] China Mail, October 3, 1945,

[24] Page 6.

[25] Sunday Herald, October 7, 1945, page 6.

[26] Page 1.

[27] Post War Letter, 2, below.

[29] Page 2. This is confirmed by a story on page 2 of the October 31 edition.

[30] I think this is Colonel J. P. Fehilly, pre-war head of Kowloon Hospital.

[31] Chronology, 1985.

[32] Introduction to British Baker article, viewable at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/; as this gets his initial wrong, it might not be accurate.

[33] Paul Gillingham, At The Peak, 1983, 143. Thirty five and ten days are pre-war figures that probably give a good idea of the relative post-war durations.

4 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

4 responses to “Thomas’s Work (7): Post-war Reconstruction

  1. Pingback: Some notes on the BAAG ‘Uninterned Lists’ (1) | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Leslie William Robert Macey | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  3. Barbara Ratcliffe

    James stuart Buchanan bang Stuart was my father. I was interested to read about the wedding. I was trying to follow the link to China Mail but was unable to.i would love to know if you gave any more information about my parents.
    Barbara Ratcliffe

    • Hi, Barbara. I’m afraid that’s all I know. I can’t post a link to the China Mail article using this computer, but I’ll try later on my iPad. I’ll watch out for any references to your father in the future and post any updates here. Can you add anything about your parents’ experiences during the war?

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