From The Dark World’s Fire: Thomas’s Cards From Stanley Camp

Introduction

On August 18, 1946 Thomas and Evelina began the journey by air – usually taking about ten days – to the United Kingdom.[1] It was Thomas’s first visit home since 1938 and Evelina’s first time outside the bustling and sometimes dangerous world of south China that she’d always known. Having lived in Macao, Fuzhou and then Hong Kong, she must have found the quiet streets  quite a shock. And she probably wasn’t ready for the rationing and continuing deprivation of post-war Britain either. Hong Kong was not quite back on even keel that summer, but it had come a lot further than Britain, which had, of course, spent and suffered far more during the life-and-death struggle in whose aftermath they were still living. In turn, she was something of a surprise to Thomas’s family – a sophisticated Eurasian woman who smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes – only Lucky Strike, and sometimes from a holder – and wore her hair in ways not then thought possible.

At some point, after the no doubt tearful reunions and slightly nervous ‘catching up’ – everyone was meant to be ‘putting the war behind them’, but how do you ignore the fact that your son and his new wife had been prisoners of the Japanese for almost four years? – Thomas would have been presented with a plain brown envelope.

Inside were the cards that he and Evelina had sent back to Windsor from Stanley Camp. He undoubtedly sent some that didn’t get through, but those that did had been preserved religiously. Alice Edgar was a strong-minded woman and she must have known that there was a good chance she’d never see her eldest son again, and that these short messages would be the final mementoes she’d have of him.

Sometime after July 5, 1945, she’d put them in that envelope and written ‘Ooke’s cards from Stanley’ on the front. Ooke or Ookie was Thomas’s family nickname, and I know that they were put in the envelope after the election of the Labour Government, because ‘J. P’ is visible in the address, and Alice, who’d long been active in the party, was appointed one of the first Labour magistrates in Windsor. She was expected to bring working class sympathies and life experience to a Bench that, like the town, was overwhelmingly middle class and Conservative. In a development that reflected, was determined by and helped to create the course of the country as a whole, she ended up the much respected senior J. P., often working alongside her daughter Joyce, who became Clerk of the Court. Edgar Tradition has it that she cast her last vote in a General Election for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. But all that history of family achievement – and class disillusion –  lay in the future in the summer of 1946.

It can be strange reading your old letters and cards in any circumstances, but in this case, doubly so, as they were written in a different world. And the demands of the censorship and the desire not to worry unnecessarily loved ones at home meant that the cards from the camps never told anything like the truth. At one point during my career as a teacher of literature the phrase ‘the text says what it does not say’ became almost a cliché, and an unhelpful one at that, licensing critics to read all kinds of recondite and implausible meanings into the works they were discussing; but it’s true in a very simple and obvious sense about these cards, at least when read by the original writers, who knew exactly what they’d have written if they’d been allowed to. The more inaccurate they were, the more the truth that was being kept out must have forced itself into the minds of the two people who’d written them.

The first one I sometimes find hard to read;. apparently bland and reassuring, it was written during a time of great upheaval and fear

Letter 1

The first word Herbert and Alice Edgar had that their son had survived the fighting was a letter from American repatriate Charles Winter. Mr. Winter wrote from the Swedish ship the Gripsholm on August 18, 1942 and the letter – which also carried news of Thomas’s imminent marriage, probably arrived about November – at least that was when the Windsor and Eton Express got to hear about it, judging from the fragments of news that surround the clipping of the page that carried the article.[2]But they had to wait longer for a letter from Thomas himself, probably until some time in spring 1944, as letters of this kind seem to have taken up to a year to arrive.

The letter is deliberately misdated. This passage is from shipyard worker George Gerrard’s diary[3] (the diary is written in the form of letters to his wife):

We have been told {some time in the first week of May) that we can write a 200 word letter which will be dated 30 April and it is expected that we will be able to write monthly and by backdating the letter we’ll be able to send one for May.

Gerrard himself gave in his letter to the Camp Secretary’s Office on May 4; Thomas and Evelina almost certainly arrived from the French Hospital, alongside 16 others, on May 7. I imagine that someone told Thomas about the possibility mentioned by Gerard, so he and Evelina made sure they wrote something in time to be sent off with the batch of ‘April 30’ letters. Letters home from Stanley[4] in 1942 are known to have been sent, and the bankers of the Sun Wah Hotel are also believed to have been allowed to send more than one postcard,[5] and Sir Vandeleur Grayburn sent a letter, dated May 31 and postmarked June 27, with an American repatriate on the Gripsholm.[6] All this probably means that the ‘stay outs’ in the French Hospital were too, but nothing of Thomas’s has survived.

This letter doesn’t begin as if Thomas thought it would be the first his parents had heard from him; it sounds much more like a continuation. It is written on a lined sheet of camp headed note paper, folded many times to fit the envelope. According to David Tett, a cover was also provided but this has been lost (Tett also notes the same paper and cover were issued on July 24, but if Thomas wrote a letter at this time it too got lost[7]).The message is typed, probably by Evelina, who had secretarial training. The Japanese had confiscated all typewriterss but at some point they provided two typewriters for the internees’ use,[8] perhaps in the camp office. The letter is 75 words long, which raises the question: why didn’t Thomas use the full 200 words?

I think the most likely explanation is simple: he had only just arrived in camp, and didn’t have very much to say about it, and he knew that almost anything he said about his life in the town would risk being cut by the censor. And given that he’d spent his last five days there locked inside the Hospital while the Japanese searched it for evidence of spying, both he and Evelina living in fear that at any moment they’d be dragged off to join Drs. Selwyn-Clarke, Bunje and Nicholson and Sanitation Department worker Alexander Sinton in a Kempeitai Prison, he probably wasn’t very keen to write about that time anyway. He might have used extra words to express his love for his parents , brothers and sisters, or to say something about Evelina – at this stage he probably didn’t know that Charles Winter’s letter had reached its destination – but my guess is that would have been too painful, as I don’t think he excepted to see his family again. It was obvious that Selwyn-Clarke and the others would be interrogated about the activities of those who’d been living there, and everyone had something to hide.  Who would have guessed that the middle-aged doctor would prove unbreakable under prolonged torture?

So all Thomas, who probably never expected to see his parents again and had more pressing things on his mind anyway, does is assure them he’s ‘keeping fit’ – a constant refrain in these cards – and give a brief picture of camp life that was not completely inaccurate yet certain to be passed by the censor. In fact, his comments are rather similar to those of Andrew Leiper who made the same journey from town toc amp a couple of months later:

(W)hen the banking contingent arrived at Stanley in the middle of 1943, we found a highly-organised community whose morale was high. We were told that, apart from a state of perpetual hunger and some anxiety regarding what might happen should the Americans or British mount a counter-attack on Hong Kong, life was at least bearable as long as one was sustained by the firm belief that liberation would come one day.[9]

 But my guess is that when Thomas and Evelina read the card in the peace and quiet of a post-war suburban street what came back to them was the horror of the spring and summer of 1943, the most terrifying period of their time in the dark world’s fire. Certainly when, 70 years later I read those first words – ‘We have at last been interned in Stanley…’ – my heart seems to congeal and I can feel sweat on the palms of my hands as I think about the five days that led up to that internment, the sudden panic of  the dawn raid of May 2, the agonised wait while the hospital was being searched and those arrested were undergoing interrogation, the relief when they were told they would be sent to Stanley, the continuing anxiety about what Selwyn-Clarke in particular would reveal under torture…. Yes, indeed – in this case and for this reader, the text says what it does not say.

Card 2

The next card to have arrived in Vansittart Rd. is dated May, 1943, but might have been written towards the end of June. George Gerrard’s diary for Saturday, June 26:

We have been allowed to write a 75 word postcard which I wrote on Thursday and handed it in to the C.S.[10] Office. This postcard is dated 31st May and we have been told we will be able to write a 200 word letter next month for June.

This is the only card not to give the exact date, I’ve seen one sent by fellow Bungalow D dweller Lesley Macey that also says simply ‘May 1943’, and David Tett reproduces a card sent by Lady Grayburn with the same dating.[11] Perhaps some internees thought the card should be dated ‘May 31’, others simply ‘May’. Alternatively, this might not be the misdated June card that Gerrard is referring to; but I can find no mention in either the Jones or Gerrard diaries of a card actually sent in May, so I think it’s most likely this is the June posting.

Again it’s short – 52 words in all when 75 were allowed – and written on a typewriter, the last to be so. It seems that Thomas had received no letter from home since one sent in May, 1941. I get the impression he wasn’t an assiduous letter writer, and he’d probably not replied very quickly, and the reply to the reply didn’t get though before the December 7 attack. But it must have been an additional pain to him to have to worry about the fate of his parents and siblings in the European war. Nothing, by the way, is known about any cards sent by Evelina during the war, or what communications, if any, she received from friends and relatives in Macao and Hong Kong.

But whether  the card was written in late May or towards the end of June, the situation in Thomas’s and Evelina’s minds must have been the same: continual worry about what Selwyn-Clarke might say, although probably easing somewhat if the June date is correct. Before the next surviving card was written, they were in  for a huge shock.

Card 3

The following card, dated 30/9/43 is the first to specify ‘Bungalow D, Room 1’, as the address within Stanley. It’s 70 words, counting everything, this time only a fraction short of the permitted limit. George Gerrard’s diary again:

Saturday 2nd October 1943 – Today I handed in to the C.S.O. another 75 word postcard to you. There is so little that one is allowed to say that you’ll wonder at the dearth of news in it when you receive it. However the day will come and we all hope soon, when free communication can be made.

Thomas says he’s just received a letter from his brother Wilfred, the first he’d got for two years – presumably from his brother, as he noted the arrival of a letter from his mother in his previous card. He’d obviously been told in one or both letters that he’d been sent parcels through the Red Cross. They hadn’t arrived, so he tries to stop the despatch of more, as whoever was eating the contents it wasn’t him. Sadly, this experience led to a lifetime’s prejudice against the Red Cross, in spite of the magnificent work they did in Stanley and the other Hong Kong Camps.

Either the typewriters have gone, or Thomas and Evelina couldn’t get access to one. But he does have use of a pen; things are going to get worse.

R. E. Jones also records posted a card on September 30, in his case to his wife. His diary entry gives us a sense of a normal day’s activities in Stanley, of the life out of which the cards came, as well as taking us close to a tragedy that Thomas and Evelina must have felt in some way involved in:

Thurs 30th

Painted initials for Rita. Rations by lorry again. Choir practice in Quarry 1PM. Allowance arrived. Dr Mrs Carnaval to town. Dr Talbot from gaol to Camp Hosp. Good news re food in Teia-Maru.[12] Talk with Steve[13] pm. E there too. Posted card to Marj. Read a couple of good books this month.

 Dr. Talbot had been caught smuggling money into camp after a time spent in the French Hospital for medical treatment. This led to the arrest of two senior bankers, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and Edward Streatfield, both, like Thomas, amongst the 100 or so Allied nationals living outside camp in 1942 and early 1943. Grayburn had died of malnutrition and medical neglect in Stanley Prison (next to the Camp) on August 7, 1943. Lady Grayburn was living in Bungalow D with Thomas and Evelina. Like other released prisoners, Talbot went straight to the camp hospital, probably for general check ups and treatment for malnutrition.

And in between this card and the last the Kempeitai have come to Stanley camp and arrested 11 internees. Everyone knows they’ve been tortured, but at this stage no-one knows what’s become of them. Like almost everyone else, Thomas has personal knowledge of at least one of those internees now in Kempeitai hands: Ivan Hall, a fellow Lane, Crawford employee who, like him, played for the company bowls team.[14] He’d been arrested for his role in sending and receiving messages through the drivers of the ration truck; as Thomas was baking with rice and flour from that truck, this arrest (and that of Frederick Bradley for the same offence) must have revived the terror that would have been slowly subsiding as the weeks went by and Selwyn-Clarke was obviously refusing to incriminate anyone.

Card 4

The next card is dated 27/11/43. It seems that no October card was sent. George Gerrard:

We haven’t been able to write you since 30/9/43 but when the next repatriates go[15], we are hopeful of being allowed to write again.

Gerrard doesn’t record sending a card at the end of November, nor does Jones.

November 27 was an ordinary day in Stanley. R. E. Jones records nothing but a fine day, with a cold north east wind, the setting for the usual round of work, conversation with friends and worry about rising prices – although he was able to make use of Stanley’s well-organised social educational and cultural programme by going to choir practice.

But about a month before Thomas had undergone one of the worst days of his life: he’d been with Mrs. Florence Hyde on October 29 while her husband Charles was being beheaded on StanleyBeach – along with 32 others – for his role in the Hong Kong resistance. This is the last card from 1943, a year that changed Thomas forever.

Card 5

This is dated 15/2/44. ‘Stanley’ was crossed out on front and ‘Military ‘substituted. The Camp was renamed the Military Internment Camp on January 19, 1944, although the military didn’t take over day-to-day control until August 1.[16] This is the first card to be written in pencil, probably a sign of the deteriorating conditions in camp; when objects broke or wore out, it was hard to replace them.

‘Also getting enough food’ seems another way of saying ‘don’t waste money on sending Red Cross parcels’. The claim is particularly ironic in view of what Thomas wrote in a manuscript that was probably composed in the summer of 1946:

We produced bread until 29 January 1944. Then all flour, meat and fish to the camp finished.[17]

He repeats this claim in a letter written soon after liberation, but it’s not true. Meat did disappear (making an occasional re-appearance for unknown reasons towards the end of internment) but fish kept going for another year or so. Still, the food supply was meagre enough in 1944 and 1945, and perhaps Thomas had in mind a grim equivocation ‘enough food to just about stay alive’. Reading these words in an England that still had rationing, but in which everyone got enough food to maintain health and not go to hungry must have brought back to both Thomas and Evelina the deprivations of Stanley, and the constant fear that malnutrition would lead to illness.[18]

Thomas also writes that ‘Weather has been ideal’ : according to the Jones diary the weather that day was ‘fine, colder, cloudy’; it’d been fine but cold earlier that February, but the cloudier days were there to stay for a time. So either Thomas liked relatively cold weather or he was just filling up the space with mildly reassuring but not necessarily accurate chit-chat of a kind certain to get past the censor; probably the latter. He wasn’t the only one finding using the 25 words not quite as easy as you might expect to use up; on Feb 27 Gerrard wrote:

I wrote my February postcard of 25 words to you last week, but there is very little that we are allowed to say but I hope you receive them all right tho’ with the blockade of Hong Kong I hae my doots.

 And in the period that produced this card and the following one the old fear of the Gendarmes must have been revived. In January and February 1944 three bankers, probably living in the nearby Bungalow E, were arrested for ‘crimes’ committed during the fighting of December 1941 and the period in 1942 and early 1943 when, like Thomas and Evelina, they’d been outside camp. At least one banker and two wives were living in Bungalow D, so they would have known exactly what was happening.

Card 6

This card is dated 18/3/44. By this time the Red Cross have printed new cards with the ‘Military Internment Camp’ address. Only 25 words were allowed. Monica and Joyce were two of Thomas’s three sisters.

Gerrard wrote on March 25

I wrote my 25 word postcard to you on Thursday {March 23} and on it I said I had received your two Red Cross messages dated 8th March 1942 and 22nd March 1942 both of which have taken over two years in delivery. I received them on 23/3/44.

There’s not one word about Thomas and Evelina themselves in this card. As 1944 wore on, life was becoming a grim battle for survival, and there was very little that the censor would have allowed them to say.

Card 7

 

The card of 12/4/ 44 contains another warning against parcels – something of an obsession with Thomas, and a way of using up the words. The assurance that he’s ‘keeping fit’ is another standby of these cards; it was, in fact, true, in that neither Thomas nor Evelina is known to have had any serious illness by this time. Evelina needed an operation in January 1945, but that was after the last surviving card was sent.

Alexander Meredith was the Food Controller. Thomas mentions him in his British Baker article. He’s listed as a banker by profession in the CampRoll made up in early summer 1942. Presumably he sent a similar message in his own card.

R. E. Jones was practising his German, and wrote on April 14:

Ich schrieb postkarte zu die Mutter des Mariens.

(‘I wrote a postcard to Marie’s mother’.)

He seems to suggest it went on April 17. George Gerrard makes another complaint about the censorship:

Sunday 23rd April 1944 – Wrote my monthly 25 word postcard to you today. Wish we were allowed to write a proper letter and say exactly what we would like to say but of course as ‘dogs bodies’ we must conform to the Jap Military regulations.

 And  he shows us why Thomas doesn’t mention the weather:

The weather this month has been horribly wet and damp and last night there must have been a cloudburst, the rain falling in buckets.

Card 8

The final card is dated 6/8/1944 and contains 23 words, making it obvious the limit was still 25. R. E. Jones diary tells us that this card was written on a fine, hot day, one of optimism about an imminent German collapse. Thomas notes again that he’s received no letters, from his family. In a letter of October 1, 1945 he says he didn’t receive any family letters since September 1943, although one arrived in September 1945.

The next day, September 7, 1944, Florence Hyde died of bowel cancer in the camp hospital.[19] Some internees thought the real cause of death was what had happened to her husband in the previous year. Lady Mary Grayburn, in Bungalow D, Room 5, adopted her young son Michael.

That was it. No more cards arrived in Windsor, although some were undoubtedly sent. On June 2, 1945, Gerrard wrote:

I wrote another postcard to you last week the previous one being February last, but I hae me doots as to whether you’ll ever get it.

By 1945 the American submarine blockade made delivery of overseas mail unlikely. We know from Barbara Anslow’s diary that, whether or not they ever left Hong Kong, some of these postcards, written after the German surrender, got their writers into trouble:

7th JUNE

Some people had to go up hill {to explain themselves to the Japanese authorities} for putting ‘reunion soon’ or something like that on their postcards.

On August 14, 1945 news of the Japanese surrender was reported in the English papers. As the September issue of the Red Cross journal The Far East, to which Alice and Herbert subscribed, put it:

The long night is ended. The grim silence is broken. Cables are streaming in to their parents and wives from prisoners and internees announcing their release after years of captivity. Soon they themselves will follow.

But, as everyone understood, not all of them. If – and this is far from certain – the card of September 6, 1944 arrived before the end of the war, then Thomas’s family knew that he and the wife they’d never met were alive on that date, eleven long months earlier. And the anxiety that mingled with the joy must have been heightened if they got to learn of reports that the navy thought it might have to shoot its way into Hong Kong,[20] Like families all over the world, Alice, Herbert, Wilfred, Monica, Gwen, Joyce and Ivan held their breath.

The Edgar family was among the lucky ones. Some had the heartbreak of learning their loved ones had died since the last communication they’d received. The Foreign Office telegram announcing Thomas’s release has been lost, as has his first letter home; the two telegrams below merely confirmed the joyous news:

Knowing what I do – which is of course just the smallest fraction of what happened to Thomas and Evelina in those years – I can never pick up these cards without emotion – like so much else in my life, a pale reflection of the feelings experienced by Thomas and Evelina when they remembered, as readers of their own writing, the years spent in an internment camp on a southern peninsula of Hong Kong, the place the English call Stanley.


[1] Thanks to Barbara Anslow for this information: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/2210

[2]Both the letter and the article based  on it can be read at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/

[3] This and the diaries of R. E. Jones and Barbara Anslow can be read by members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp Group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/messages

[5] David Tett, Prisoners in Cathay, 2007, 321.

[6] Tett, 290. Tett believes that the bankers were given the same postal rights as the Stanley internees; I think the evidence points in that direction, but isn’t yet conclusive.

[7] Tett,147.

[8] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973,  298.

[9] G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1983, 178.

[10] By this the internees understood Colonial Secretary and the Japanese Camp Secretary!

[11] Tett, 297.

[12] A repatriation ship that was also expected to bring Red Cross food parcels.

[13] Mr. E. Stevens, a fellow prison officer.

[14] Hongkong Daily Press, August 6, 1941, page 7.

[15] A group consisting largely of Canadians left Stanley on September 23, 1943. There were no further repatriations.

[16] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 201, 207.

[18] Franklin Gimson, Internment in Hong-Kong (sic), Ms. Ind. Ocn, S222, held at Rhodes House, Oxford, entry for Tuesday, September 21, 1943.

[20] Daily Express, August 23, 1945, page 1.

2 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

2 responses to “From The Dark World’s Fire: Thomas’s Cards From Stanley Camp

  1. Pingback: Thomas’s Business Card and the Pains of Occupation | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: A Document of August 1945: Thomas, Ng Yiu-cheung and the Sheridan Escape | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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