Duncan Sloss

Apart from my parents of course, the only former Stanley internee I can remember meeting while a child is Tommy Waller[1], an engineer on the Peak Tram and probably my parents’ closest friend in camp. So you could say that Duncan Sloss was the second ex-Stanleyite I encountered, although in this case not in person. Growing up in the sixties and immersed in literature, it was almost inevitable that I should be fascinated by William Blake (1757-1827), whose ideas – sexual freedom, political radicalism and a life lived beyond the limitations of reason – seemed an uncanny anticipation of some of the favourite themes of the Baby Boomers. At some stage I became aware of what everybody called ‘Sloss and Wallis’: this was an edition, first published in 1926, of Blake’s so-called ‘Prophetic Writings’, probably the most obscure and difficult works in the literary canon before the later writings of James Joyce.

I used it again when, in the 1980s, I wrote a thesis on Blake’s attitude to emotion, although I still had no idea of any connection to my own past: in fact, not only was Sloss an inmate of Stanley Camp, in 1949 he married a woman who lived in the same Bungalow as my parents (D) and I like to think of him as a regular visitor to their part of camp, although I have absolutely no evidence that the relationship went back that far!

Duncan John Sloss was born in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool on June 19, 1881.[2] On an 1891 census list of Liverpool teachers we find:

SLOSS, Mary A Daughter Single F 23 school teacher Liverpool 297 Mill St, ToxtethPark Both parents born Scotland. Taught Ashfield St

This would seem to be an older sister, and if so, we learn that he was of Scottish origin and that he wasn’t the first member of his family to become a teacher. Another source describes her as an ‘infants’ mistress’,[3] so her younger brother went to the other end of the educational scale.

He attended Oulton School, which seems to have been a secondary school for intending teachers,[4] and studied at Liverpool University under the distinguished scholar Oliver Elton. He acquired an M. A., presumably also at this university. The two Blake editors state they began their work on the poet in 1906 at the suggestion of John Sampson, himself an editor, and Professor Elton,[5] and, this might have been the final year of Sloss’s M. A., although it’s of course possible he’d kept in touch with the Department after leaving. When he did depart, he didn’t go far.

One source claims Sloss had considerable experience teaching in English schools.[6] In 1907 he became a founder member of a Rugby Football Club known as The Aliens. At the time membership was restricted to schoolteachers (many not from Liverpool, hence the name) so this suggests Sloss was a schoolmaster at this time.[7] He was a regular player thereafter, occasionally being singled out by the local press for his performance: on January 25, 1909 he was commended for his play in the forward line, while on January 31, 1910 he scored a ‘smart try’, although sadly it was not converted.[8]

At some point he returned to his old university as a lecturer: in the 1911 Census he’s listed as a 29 year old university tutor at the University of Liverpool.[9] In 1913 Sloss was thanked for helping a German lecturer at Liverpool University improve the English of a dissertation on Gerhart Hauptman,[10] but according to one source he’d already left to begin a career in the Indian Educational Service by that time: a ‘tribute’ (by B. R. P.) after his death claims he taught at the Maharajah’s College, Travancore from 1912 onwards.[11] However, there is a clash of sources. ‘D. J. Sloss’ is minuted as attending an Aliens meeting on December 6, 1912.  My guess is that he attended this meeting, said goodbye, and soon after set sail for India.

On September 3, 1914, so many members had volunteered for active service in the war that the club suspended its operations.

The Blake editors tell us that they sent their manuscript to the press in late 1912, but ‘when the first proofs were expected, the war came’. They continue:

(A)nd subsequently the prohibitive cost of printing and the remoteness of the editors from the centre of things and from each other in widely sundered parts of the Dominions made it seem as if further progress with the work would be difficult if not impossible.[12]

J. P. R. Wallis was an assistant lecturer at Liverpool University[13] and there’s a photograph of him in army uniform in the Liverpool archives.[14]South Africa was given as his location when the book was published in 1926. In any case, the preface seems to confirm Sloss’s presence in India, but I think the evidence of the minutes suggests he went there at the end of 1912. The College began teaching honours English in 1914 and my guess is that Sloss was one of the teachers in that first year. He might even have been appointed before the outbreak of war and told by the authorities to take up his post – there was no conscription at the time in any case. It’s even possible given the wording ‘subsequently’ that he didn’t go to India until 1918, but I can find no mention of any wartime activity, and, as we shall see, further evidence from the Aliens minutes narrows his post-war service in India to such an extent as to make it unlikely he could have advanced to such a high position in Burma by 1923 if he’d stayed in England during the war.

But the post-war sources again clash. The tribute by B. R. P. has him move directly from India to Burma shortly after the end of WW11,[15] but according to a 1937 article in The Straits Times, in 1919-1920 he held a William Noble Fellowship (English Literature) in the University of Liverpool.[16]  The Aliens minutes record that Sloss attended a general meeting on September 12, 1919. This was his only post-war appearance. [17] As leave from India or Burma would be unlikely to have been granted after only one year,  I think the fellowship came between his Indian and Burmese service. Today it’s tenable for one year but potentially renewable.[18] However, if he was still in Liverpool in 1919-1920, he couldn’t have begun teaching in Burma before late 1920.

There are other mysteries: the Straits Times article mentions a spell at the University of Leeds, while one of the tributes refers to his ‘Oxford background’.[19] I think that the Oxford connection is probably an error, but the article reads like it’s all taken from an official press release, so I guess that he did fit in a year or two in Leeds at some point. The Aliens minutes don’t begin until 1912, so they’re no help here; I think 1909-1910, before the Census record of Sloss at Liverpool is plausible.

Once in the East things moved faster, and, if all these sources are accurate, he had achieved enough in three years to become a University Principal, and two years after that to be thought worthy of a British honour. He helped to establish and organise University College, Rangoon, and was Principal from 1923 to 1937.[20] He obviously made his mark quickly in the latter post, as his CBE – in the King’s birthday honours list – was gazetted on June 3, 1925.[21]

He’s recorded as having travelled from Rangoon to Southampton, arriving in January 1925.[22] In their preface the two Blake editors say that ‘means were found’ in the first half of 1925 to revise a work that was then over ten years out-of-date.[23] My guess is that either Sloss’s itinerary included a lengthy stop-over in South Africa or that Wallis was in the UK at the same time. In any case, the edition came out in 1926, and it represents the only academic publication credited to Sloss that I’ve been able to trace. It’s a distinguished piece of work – far more than  just a text – but this is not the place for a review.

Sloss built up the University at Rangoon from fewer than 500 students to well over 2000 in the 1930s, fighting both the distrust of Europeans who didn’t want the Burmese to be too well educated, and of Burmans who opposed on nationalist grounds a university based on the English model. As part of this expansion, he guided the University into a 400 acre campus to the north of Rangoon, and helped it survive the difficult economic conditions of the early 1930s.[24]

From the limited sources at my disposal, it would seem that Sloss began his tenure as Principal as a liberal colonial administrator. An attempt was made to provide a firm basis for the study of Burma’s past by archaeological research and collocation.[25] Further, having already helped set up the University itself, Sloss formed the Students’ Union hoping to influence it, although it later became his greatest opponent.[26] Such manoeuvres are typical of the kind of imperialist regime that gives limited recognition to nationalist feeling, while training its best minds to form a well-educated ‘local’ elite which identifies its interests with those of the colonizers. The motives of the functionaries of such a regime are not necessarily cynical, of course, and the evidence from his time in Hong Kong points to a genuine interest in Asian history and culture.

However, after a dozen or so years he ran into serious trouble:

(S)tudent discontent had been building up gradually over a number of years due to the arbitrary actions of Professor D. J. Sloss, principal of the University College from 1923 to 1937.[27]

According to this source, Sloss had the power to expel students without ‘recourse’, to determine the subject of their degree course, and to decide if on graduation they sat for the Indian or Burmese Civil Service exams. He was, moreover, the most important member of the Civil Service selection board, and the other board members were senior civil servants whose careers depended on him.

In short, Sloss had become the most crucial person in any student’s future.[28]

In a debate on January 30, 1936 a student named Ko Nu made a speech encouraging students to fight for both their own rights and national independence.[29] He criticised Sloss for his unfair interference in the personal affairs of students and claimed that some of them had an ‘inferiority complex’ because of his arbitrary actions. After the Rangoon Gazette demanded action, Ko Nu was expelled and soon he was followed by another student who’d published an article entitled The Hell-Hound At Large – the ‘hell hound’ appears to have been a senior member of the university staff, and in another part of the article Principal Sloss was criticised for doing nothing to curb his immoral activities.[30] It’s not clear from my sources if this expulsion contributed to the strike that began in February 1936 or inflamed it still further after it had already started.[31]

The strike spread all over the country and lasted until May 11, 1936, (Another source says until June.[32]).  It was called off after a negotiated settlement, which included the replacement of Sloss by a Burman[33] – a source  sympathetic to the students says that Sloss was ‘prevailed upon to resign’,[34] while a tribute written after his death by the Professor of Geology and Geography implies he felt compelled to go, probably unnecessary, due to his strong sense of honour![35]  The same tribute also claims that one of the student grievances were that the exams were too hard.[36] In any case, the strike seems to be widely regarded as ‘a milestone in Burma’s march to independence’.[37] If this judgment is correct, then Sloss provoked a movement that played a major role in the modern history of Burma. Nevertheless, lest it be thought that Sloss was too simply on the wrong side of history, we should remember that the expelled editor, Aung San, was part of a Japanese puppet government after 1942.[38] The Burmese nationalist movement switched to an anti-Japanese position in March 1945, and independence came in 1948.

Sloss, now unemployed, wasted little time in returning to England:

Departure: Rangoon, Burma Arrival: 21 Jul 1936 – London, England[39]

It was presumably from there that he applied for and was awarded his next appointment: Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, succeeding Sir William Hornell.

Soon after his arrival in November 1937, a function was held to welcome him as Vice-Chancellor and Governor Northcote as Chancellor, while bidding farewell to Sir William.[40] The new Vice-Chancellor also became the Honorary Vice-President of the University Union, something that might well have stirred uneasy memories. Mrs. Sloss was not at first with him, being expected early in 1938 (she obviously arrived – see below). He described the university as ‘an outpost of western culture at the gates of the shrine of the most humane wisdom, and the most perfect art of the East’ and praised Hong Kong as ‘the most beautiful place that I have ever lived in’. He anticipated, ‘The most interesting work I have ever had the good fortune to face’.[41]

I only have the space to give the briefest of accounts of his achievements, before and after the war, as the Vice-Chancellor.

When he arrived he was confronted with a difficult situation:

(A) dismayed Senate, outraged Faculty Boards, and a constitution whose provisions he found obsolete, unworkable and distasteful.[42]

These constitutional problems included the excessive influence of the Governor and the colony hierarchy on university decision making, symbolised by the fact that the monthly meetings were held in the Legislative Council chambers. In his first two years Sloss was able to simplify this situation and create a smaller governing body – all the officials were dumped except the Colonial Secretary – which he, as Vice-Chancellor, chaired.[43]

The dismay and outrage referred to above seem to have stemmed largely from a report into the University that was released in 1937 before Sloss’s tenure but whose potentially disastrous effects he had to head off. In essence, the report stated that it was too expensive to fulfil the University’s original mission as a link between colonial Hong Kong and China and as a progressive factor in the latter’s history. Instead in order to save money it should seek merely to meet the – obviously limited – needs of Hong Kong for trained personnel.[44]

There was another official report that tackled this dilemma in 1939, but no resolution until after Sloss had stood down as Vice-Chancellor. As we’ll see, his own hopes were expressed in some public speeches he made at this time, but, although he had some success in getting a revised report – he chaired the committee himself – more favourable to his broader vision, he was doomed to fight for the funding this required times when money was tight, first because of the preparations for war, and later because of the war’s effects.

In the pre-war period, he was known as a ‘progressive force’ on campus,[45] and one way in which this manifested itself was in his support for the development of science teaching, which he saw as ‘the University’s most urgent need’. A Science Faculty with its own degrees was established in January 1939.[46]

He was soon faced with one of the consequences of the war on the mainland: Lingnan University, which had long had links with HKU, found that its position in Canton was precarious due to the Japanese occupation of the city. In 1938 Sloss engaged in ‘long and secret negotiations’ with the Lingnan authorities that enabled them to move their operations to Hong Kong and teach in HKU premises in the evenings.[47] The move was completed by the start of 1939, and the arrangement continued until the war arrived at Hong Kong. The presence of Lingnan placed a real burden on the university, so Sloss’s action should be seen as one of generous academic solidarity.

As in Burma, he was to become an important public figure, playing a role outside the life of the University, although my sources suggest that until a war in the Far East began to seem inevitable his main activities were not surprisingly connected with education. He was appointed to a two year stint on the Board of Education with effect from December 9, 1937.[48] This was extended for another two years in 1939.[49] In 1938 he was one of the signatories (alongside Lancelot Forster, who was to be head of education in Stanley) of a report that recommended significant changes to the system of teacher training in Hong Kong.[50]

In early July 1938 he presented the prizes at St. Stephen’s College in Stanley, the buildings of which were to form a part of Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. If he remembered the Warden’s words, they must have struck him as ironic, although not necessarily inaccurate:

At Stanley there exists a healthy site with sea breezes, sea-bathing and healthy sports fields to build up healthy bodies. All around are the beauties of nature, of mountain and sea, that cannot fail to fill a student’s mind and spirit with imperishable riches that nothing can ever take away.[51]

Vice-Chancellor Sloss’s own speech was also significant. It was made almost exactly a year after the ‘incident at Marco Polo Bridge’, which began the Sino-Japanese War:

China in these last months has attained a moral stature among the nations that cannot be paralleled in her recent history: in fact it is difficult to find a parallel in human records.

He went on to praise various qualities of the Chinese resistance, including the ‘willing submission of a whole people to a great leader’, but also the ‘dumb heroism’ of the Chinese peasants and poor who made up the bulk of the armies and experienced most of the suffering. He foretold a role for St. Stephen’s in the reconstruction after the failure of Japanese’s quest for the ‘subjugation’ of China, and hoped that it would ‘keep alive the memory of the Chinese common soldier who is I think the real hero of this war’.

In other words, he expressed outright support for the Chinese cause, and an admiration for the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek which clearly distanced him from the Colony’s tiny circle of Leftists who looked primarily to Mao’s communists in the anti-Japanese struggle.[52]

At the end of the evening, there were the usual gifts:

Mr. Sloss was presented with a framed view of the School’s site at Stanley and Mrs. Sloss with a Chinese porcelain vase.[53]

This is the only direct reference to Mrs. Sloss I’ve been able to find apart from notices of her initial absence from Hong Kong and of her death. Sadly I don’t even know her name (see Comments below.) Judging from the ages of their two children, I’d say the Slosses were married at the end of WW1, but the date could be any time from about 1902 onwards.

In March 1939, visiting Wah Yan Jesuit College to present prizes, he told the pupils that, while exam results were important they could easily be achieved by focused teaching, and that other aspects of a school’s work were also important – for example, the ‘liveliness and sprit’ of one of the Jesuits in a Latin grammar class he’d observed. He praised the role of fathers Ryan, Kennedy and Donnelly in the ‘war relief’ effort and went on to laud the efforts of the boys inspired by their example. Once again, he praised the greatness of Chiang Kai Shek (sic) in welding China into a unity and the courage of ill-armed peasant soldiers. He spoke of the importance of sport – ‘the physical and moral training flowing whole-hearted participation in the game’ – and made the common point that the Colony needed more playing fields. He spoke approvingly of the Society of Jesus, calling them ‘highly educated, cultured men’, devoted to teaching for the young for the ‘highest reason of conscience’, and he mentioned by name some Fathers connected with the university.[54]

On May 16, 1939 Professor Sloss was in Chungking representing the University at a meeting of the Sino—British Cultural Association. He spoke of his vision of a China-orientatedUniversity:

The only justification for the University is to co-operate, sharing, giving and receiving from our fellows in the universities in China.

He admitted to previous shortcomings with regard to students from the mainland, but said that plans would now go into effect to give Chinese scholarship students free tuition, board and lodging at Hong Kong University.[55]

We get a picture of the private side of Vice-Chancellor Sloss in an article by Norman Mackenzie who came to teach English at Hong Kong University in August 1940. He reports that Sloss had the ‘generous’ custom of allowing new staff to stay with him for a few days, and, because MacKenzie got on so well with Sloss’s sons Geoffrey and John, this became an extended arrangement. It seems that Sloss was a polymathic conversationalist at the dinner table, and when the Professor of Physiology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Lindsay Ride came to stay Mackenzie soon found himself out of his depth. When exhibitions of oriental art visited Hong Kong, his host would unroll specimens of Chinese and Japanese art and discourse learnedly about them. He was a music lover, and it’s possible that in the past he’d given Bach music recitals. It seems that Sloss still had time to sail his yacht across the harbour at weekends.[56]

In private, he seems to have been an outgoing and friendly man. One lecturer from this period praises Sloss’s ‘warmth and accessibility’,[57] and these qualities are also suggested by his involvement in the visit to Hong Kong of two of the best British writers of the 1930s. In February 1938 the poet W. H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood were on their way to the mainland to write a book on the Sino-Japanese War. At first they lived in a luxurious bathing cabin at Repulse Bay, but then they moved in with Sloss, and Isherwood reported in a letter to his mother of February 25 that he was ‘extraordinarily kind’ and that he’d agreed to acts as a poste restante service for future letters.. I’ll post about this interesting episode in the future.[58]

But the outbreak of war in Europe and the increasing likelihood that it would spread to the Far East, returned him to a broader role in public life. A notice dated November 20, 1939 appointed him censor, assisted by physics professor William Faid[59]. It was noted that he’d resumed duty on April 25, [60] 1940 and again on February 26, 1941.[61] It was reported in the press that he’d returned from leave on the first of these days,[62] so this probably relates to his (and Professor Faid’s) absence from Hong Kong during university vacations. From May 31, 1941 he was appointed an official additional member of the Executive Council for so long as held the post of Censor.[63] He was now a part of the Colony’s governing body, and his work as censor, although unglamorous, was important: Hong Kong was full of Japanese spies and one of his tasks was to disrupt their lines of communication and try to limit the amount of useful information falling into their hands.

Not long after his initial appointment as censor, private tragedy struck, although the exact circumstances are unknown: on February 20, 1940, The Hong Kong Daily Press reported the death – ‘suddenly…. after a brief illness’ – of Mrs. Sloss in Oxford.[64]

In October 1940 he was a delegate to an Eastern Group Supply Conference held to discuss the supply of munitions and other goods. This conference led to the setting up of the Eastern Group Supply Council, permanently in session at New Delhi.[65] He still had time to intervene in education debates, though, and in July 1941 he argued for the creation of a practical school to supplement the work of Northcote Training College.[66]

I can find no record of his role during the fighting.

In my opinion, Sloss’s greatest achievement was not his work  in establishing the University of Rangoon, nor anything he did as Vice-Chancellor in Hong Kong before or after the war. It was his role after the surrender, when he held the university together, kept it functioning, and insisted on planning for a future beyond the occupation. It is an inspiring story: today Hong Kong University is one of the best in the world and vies with Tokyo University for the title of ‘best in Asia’.[67] In 1942 its students found that their courses no longer existed while the staff was scattered: those teachers who had fought with the Volunteers were mostly in Shamshuipo, from where Lindsay Ride, assisted by one of his students, Francis Lee, escaped to Free China and founded the British Army Aid Group, an important resistance organisation. Sloss was to enter Stanley camp alongside 16 of his staff, and it’s from that small nucleus that the current university was eventually to emerge into the post-war years.

Soon after the surrender, he persuaded the Japanese to allow non-combatant university staff to remain on campus.[68] He used this period to build morale, to signal his intention to keep some form of university going throughout whatever was to flow, and to carry out some useful measures on behalf of the students.[69] On December 31 1941 an emergency meeting of the Senate was held with Sloss presiding. It was decided to award degrees to those medical students sitting their final exams when war broke out; in January 1942 more medical degrees were awarded to final year students.[70]

Most of the university people were sent to Stanley at the end of January.[71] Sloss went with his son John, listed as ‘16, Schoolboy’. [72] Geoffrey Sloss, two years older, fought with the Volunteers and was wounded. He spent the war in Shamshuipo. Later he moved to Vancouver and married the cousin of another Hong Kong man.[73]

Sloss’s early planning was made easier by the fact that like most of his fellow internees he believed that the British would retake Hong Kong in about three months.[74]  This useful illusion not only kept up morale but also led to all kinds of planning, and it seems that in 1942 Sloss played a part in general preparations for the liberated Hong Kong that was believed to be just round the corner: Fehilly reported that in the opinion of Olsen and Sloss, Perdue was the man who should be in charge of the police when liberation arrives.

It seems that he was an important figure in Stanley at this time, working alongside the Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson. This is what the escaped Irish doctor J. P. Fehilly told Lindsay Ride:

Without him {Gimson} and Sloss things would be very different in Hong Kong.[75]

Fehilly quoted his views as worth taking seriously, whether or not he agreed with them:

Sloss and Selwyn-Clarke maintain that the Japanese are not inflicting cruelties deliberately.[76]

Fehilly told Sloss in ‘August’ that ‘Richards in the French Hospital’[77] was a Japanese agent:[78] I think that this was probably when Sloss himself was in the French Hospital (see below).

In addition, Sloss was still in charge of a university that intended to carry on operating, however difficult the circumstances, and to carry out, to the best of its ability, the function of teaching, examining and planning.[79]

There was a vigorous teaching programme which Sloss himself took part in –  Franklin Gimson records a talk late in 1943 on Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.[80] There’s no doubt that for a year or two this enhanced the life of the camp, although interest in the classes seemed to wane in the last year or so – one source puts this down to the fact that in mid-1944 a new rationing system was introduced which allocated more food to those who had a job. Sloss made another contribution to the cultural life of Stanley: he donated his collection of classical literature and a recent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to the library.[81]

It was agreed in January 1943 that matriculation exams would take place, and they began on May 5, 1943,[82] John Sloss was a candidate in the first batch; eventually the results were to be accepted by universities in other parts of the Commonwealth.

A special sub-committee of the senate was set up to carry out post-war planning, and this found itself once again considering the question as to whether the University should be focused on meeting the ends of Hong Kong or should set seek to play a role in the regeneration of China. Not surprisingly, the committee and then the senate endorsed the broader vision, and called for a ‘new start’ on a big scale, taking advantage of the ‘unique opportunity’ created by the circumstances of the war and occupation.[83]

At some point Sloss managed to smuggle a message to another university escape, Professor Gordon King, at that time in Chungking. On 4 September 1944 King sent a memo to the British Colonial Office stating that in the view of Vice-Chancellor Sloss, ‘who is still under Japanese confinement in Stanley Camp’, it is necessary to choose between a ‘local’ function for the University and one in which it was ‘an expression of British policy towards China and the Far East’.

One commentator – Anthony Sweeting – argues that the ‘Stanley talks’ were mainly significant for the boost they probably gave to the psychology of those taking part in them, as in 1945 the incoming Military Administration brushed aside most of the proposals of the then newly liberated internees. However, Sweeting goes on:

The fact that the Stanley talks enabled Duncan Sloss to draw up a set of recommendations lends them a special significance, however, beyond the merely psychological,, because Sloss’s message to the Colonial Office in late 1944 influenced developments in London even before the end of the War and when Sloss himself returned to Britain in the winter of 1945, he played a very instrumental role in the tortuous negations in Britain that eventually led to the re-opening of the University.[84]

The planning, too, proved useful: ‘the Stanley discussions’ envisaged a complete break with the past, particularly in the form of buildings, and the historian of the university Bernard Mellor has written that it was a remarkable ‘prospectus…of the developments which have actually taken place’, even though the actual course of events in China made some of the perspectives in which the thinking took place obsolete,[85] and, we might add, the financial restraints of the immediate post-war period meant that the most ambitious aspects of the plan had to be delayed.  The interned senate clearly committed itself to a vision of HKU as an institution that would promote British ideals and academic methods in the Far East, while fostering Anglo-Chinese friendship and playing a role in ‘moulding China’s destiny’,[86] and such aid was not wanted after the communist victory in 1949.

While he was involved in all these institutional activities, Sloss was faced with another challenge. On July 2, 1942 Colonel Lindsay Ride, now head of the BAAG, sent a message to Sloss, his old boss and occasional dinner companion:

This is an attempt to set up a regular news service between us. Relatives all over the world are very anxious to hear of you all and I trust this will be the quickest and safest method of getting news in and out. The Priestwood-Thompson party brought the British list but not the American or Dutch; at any rate that list is no doubt out of date and it was not altogether accurate. An up-to-date list…is very badly needed and also a report on the treatment, conditions and casualties in the camp. I am trying to arrange on the quiet the ‘escape’ or liberation of all children…

I understand you need money badly. Here is $100 from me as a trial; if it gets through you will know that the route is trustworthy, in which case I suggest those who want money from home should send me written authority to get money from their banks at home and I shall do my best to get it in.[87]

Sloss can’t have been in very good health at the time: earlier in the year he’d spent a number of months being treated in town (almost certainly at the French Hospital) for stomach problems.[88] Yet he accepted Ride’s proposal of regular communication.[89]

This was an act of great courage – there were few more dangerous ‘jobs’ in Camp than link with the resistance.

Ride’s reply shows that Sloss had also indicated his willingness to escape:

My Dear Sloss,

I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear that you are willing to come out….It is with great diffidence that I proceed to give my master in all things orders….

Ride goes on to explain that ‘a daring plan of escape for about 50 of you has been worked out’.  He stresses that the choice of men to escape must depend on their value to the Empire, and Sloss must put aside any reluctance to deprive Stanley of the talents of someone needed elsewhere. The letter ends:

And lastly, if you can’t get anyone to come with you, come yourself. I’ll be here to meet you.[90]

No escape took place. The mass escape plan was considered by George Wright-Nooth, one of those who would probably have taken part, completely impractical.[91] We don’t know why Sloss didn’t attempt to go on his own, but other senior figures decided to stay after considering the reprisals that the camp would suffer if they escaped.[92]

On June 28, 1943 the Kempeitai – the dreaded military police – came to Stanley and arrested 6 men, including the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Walter Scott.[93] The camp was in turmoil, with everybody worried about the fate of those arrested and many with good reason to fear their turn would come soon. Scott could well have known about Sloss’s role as BAAG contact, but even if he didn’t the former Defence Secretary John Fraser, one of those arrested when the Kempeitai returned on July 7 to take 4 more people, certainly did. Sloss must have been terrified for a long time, until it became obvious that the arrests had, for the moment at least, come to an end. At his trial on October 19, Scott was accused of having received ‘the Waichow letter’,[94] which he vigorously denied: Waichow was the BAAG Field Headquarters, and, as we’ve seen Sloss had received at least two letters from the BAAG, but Scott, like Fraser, refused to name anyone else, and Sloss was saved.

At the end of the war the internees were instructed to remain in Stanley Camp for their own safety, but there was a transport service into town, and many internees were desperate to get back to the city. One of these was Jean Gittins, a former university employee, who wanted to visit her family. As Professor Sloss had been appointed adjudicator on questions of priority, she felt certain of a sympathetic hearing:

Mr. Sloss insisted that priority had to be given to business people whose future livelihood might depend on their making an early visit: much as he wanted to help me, he could not allow personal reasons to influence his judgment.  Could see that he was sorry and I should have known that he could not have done otherwise, and yet I felt terribly let down.[95]

Sloss himself left camp to take part in forming a new administration on August 21:

Messrs. F. Gimson, H. R. Butters, D. Sloss, RR. Minitt  have gone to town today to confab. in Mr. Zindel’s office (Red Cross official).[96]

In those chaotic early days of freedom Sloss was re-instated as Censor-in-Chief, with an office in the former Gloucester Hotel. He also seems to have been appointed Publicity Officer for the new administration.[97] He gave a number of press conferences, presumably in the government’s rehabilitation plans[98].

Sloss had heard that Jean Gittins’ husband Billy had not survived as a POW in Japan but couldn’t tell her as he had no official confirmation of this. With Selwyn-Clarke he engineered a plan to stop her waiting in Hong Kong for news that would never come. The medical Department declared, without examination, that after years of internment she was not fit to work in Hong Kong, and as a result she went to join her children in Australia. Sloss took her on board and made sure that she had s a single-berth officer’s cabin when most were sharing six or eight berth cabins:

‘Good luck Jean’ he said. ‘Whatever happens don’t lose your courage. And remember, my dear, there are many in Hong Kong who will be thinking of you.’[99]

While Sloss was carrying out his public duties and finding the time for such acts of personal friendship, he was also working on behalf of the University. Soon after his release he inspected their buildings at Pokfulam and began to make estimates of how much it would cost to repair the damage and replace the looted equipment.[100] In mid September he convened and chaired a meeting at the Gloucester Hotel to decide the future of Lindsay Ride and five other professors now returned to Hong Kong.[101]

On September 18 he left Ride in charge and went to London. In a farewell to his students he said:

I should like to express for myself and for the University the satisfaction we feel at the achievements of past and present students of the University during these years of horrors….Those who stayed behind have helped us who were interned or prisoners of war in a way that meant the difference between survival and extinction, and this at great risks to themselves.

He added that his only reason for leaving Hong Kong was to try to assure the re-establishment of the university on ‘ampler, more generous lines’. Again, he spoke of his vision of university ‘turned towards a new China’ acting as a two way channel of communication between China and Britain.[102]

London responded by setting up a committee under Christopher Cox to examine the way the University should develop. This reported in July 1946, but a row ensued, which seems to have been over whether or not to make references to a possible Chinese take-over of Hong Kong, and by the time agreement was reached, Sloss decided the report had been overtaken by events so it was never published.[103] There ensued a long debate, which overlapped Sloss’s period as Vice-Chancellor as to whether the university should not be restored at all, be restored at its pre-war level of funding, or be restored at a more generously financed level.[104] Some teaching began in October 1946, but full-scale restoration did not take place until 1948.

In December Sloss returned to Hong Kong. He chaired numerous committees devoted to the difficult task of getting the university back into some kind of operational fitness. His last major act before he retired in March 1948 was to secure the largest private donation ever made to the university: one million dollars from Sir Robert Ho-tung to build a womens’ hall of residence.[105]

Some time in 1946 – probably around September – he wrote to the President of the Board of Trade Sir Stafford Cripps:

It must be recognised that in a hundred years, we have done almost nothing by education, social services or political education to foster a Hong Kong patriotism among the Chinese.

He suggested that the prevailing mood was one of disillusion, and this was being exploited by anti-British elements among the Kuomindang.[106] This letter reached the Colonial Office, who claimed that Dr. Sloss was out of touch!

In 1946 Sloss’s son John was studying at Pembroke College, Oxford.[107] Apart from the death of his wife in that city, this is the first link I’ve been able to find with the place where he was to spend his last years.

In 1947 Sloss made an interesting speech to the 130th Annual meeting of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. In it he  praised the Bank for the honouring of ‘duress’ notes, saying it had done much to impress the Chinese; he believed that China should enjoy a just peace described himself as ‘one of those whose work aims at social betterment in Hong Kong’, He argued for the setting up by the Bank of  an ‘economic enquiries branch’ for the collection of agricultural and other statistics, and the terms in which he did so are significant: the purpose of the branch would be to provide statistics that would guide ‘the vast social experiments that the next generation would see’. He said that the Bank could erect a ‘lighthouse guiding men to the shores of social and economic sanity’. As for the university, he wanted it to promote a friendly British attitude towards China. ‘a really worthy British university for China here in Hong Kong’. He echoes Sir Arthur Morse’s support for an income tax – a hugely controversial issue in Hong Kong at the time – stating that direct taxation was fairer than indirect and the income tax the fairest from of all.[108] In 1938/39 Sloss had sat, alongside Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, on a committee examining methods of taxation in the Colony which had spent a lot of its time deliberating on the advisability of introducing an income tax to the Colony, which was one of only three important territories without it (the others being the Gold Coast and Malaya). They too had concluded that such a tax was the most ‘logical, equitable and remunerative’ possible, but they recommended that it not be introduced until the opinion that it could be fairly and efficiently administered in the particular circumstances of Hong Kong had won general acceptance.[109] He’d returned to the subject when, again alongside Grayburn, he’d sat on a committee examining the possibility of an income tax to raise money fro the Imperial war effort.[110] The committee decided against it but proposed taxes of about equivalent severity; the fear was always that too much taxation, particularly on personal income, would impede the flow of capital into the Colony.

All this suggest that he was man of the democratic left, although probably not nearly so radical as Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, close friend of the woman who was soon to become his wife.

In 1947 he was made an honorary graduate of his old University, Liverpool[111] and on November 21 his return to the Hong Kong Executive Council as an unofficial member was gazetted.[112] He’s recorded as chairing two committees for the Executive Council on 1948.[113]

1949 saw the end of his distinguished academic career; the departing Vice-Chancellor told the University Alumni Association that the 12 years in Hong Kong had been ‘the most pleasant period of (my) professional life’.[114] He said that in this time the University had performed its ‘supreme function’ of acting as instrument of good will and fellowship to China. Lindsay Ride presented him with a bronze plaque of himself.

On April 4, 1949 he remarried.[115] His wife, Margaret Watson, close friend of the Selwyn-Clarke’s and a dweller in Stanley’s Bungalow D, needs a post to herself. The new couple quickly moved to Oxford. Norman Mackenzie would visit them on research trips to the Bodleian and lively and wide-ranging discussions with Sloss would be renewed. In 1950 they had a very different visitor, the radical American journalist Agnes Smedley, a friend of Margaret’s from Hong Kong days who sought refuge after falling out with Hilda Sewyn-Clarke.[116] Smedley was in poor health, distrusted by the communist movement and facing moves to get her back to America to arraign her as a spy. She died in a nearby nursing home on May 5, As Duncan Sloss wrote to the US Consul-General on May 7, knowing the tabloid interest in Smedley, they asked the surgeon to carry out a post-mortem before notifying the press.[117] On May 8, 1950 ‘Mrs. D. J. Sloss’ announced Smedley’s death, but refused to say what she’d died of and claimed that no funeral arrangements had been made.

In a report dated June 13, the ‘author’s friend’ D. J. Sloss is said to have described as ridiculous allegations she was killed by the Cominform to stop her testifying about soviet espionage.[118]

Duncan Sloss died on July 29, 1964 in Oxford. His death certificate records he was living at 313, Woodstock Road.[119]

Lives like his had become impossible by the time he died. His university career had led him to a significant role in the administration of the British Empire. Instead of the endless grind of ‘research’ which is the lot of literary academics today, he’d faced (some would say partly summoned up) the force of anti-imperialist nationalism in Burma and then played a role in fighting the brutal rival imperialism of Japan.

Woodstock Road is one of the two routes out of Oxford to the North. It’s busy, but the life in north Oxford is quiet; the large Victorian houses are full of dons – it’s an easy bicycle or bus ride to the Bodleian Library or the central Oxford colleges and bookshops.  It’s a good place to reflect on the lessons one has learnt. Duncan Sloss experienced a life which the great themes of the twentieth century – nationalism, anti-colonialism and war – made rich and challenging. History took him from an engagement with the complex and obscure writings of William Blake to the anxious scanning of notes from the Hong Kong resistance that were crystal clear in their meaning but whose possession meant torture and death. He had a lot to reflect on.

Copyright Imperial War Museum

[5] D. J. Sloss and J. P. R. Wallis, The Prophetic Writings of William Blake, Volume 1, 1926, V11.

[11] The Times, August 21, 1964, page 10.

[12] Sloss and Wallis, 1926, V11.

[15] The Times, August 21, 1964, page 10.

[16] Article in The Straits Times, August 19, 1937, page 8:  http://newspapers.nl.sg/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19370810.2.22.aspx

[19] Tribute by L. Dudley Stamp, The Times, August 12, 1964, page 10.

[20] Article in The Straits Times, August 19, 1937, page 8:  http://newspapers.nl.sg/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19370810.2.22.aspx

[23] Sloss and Wallis, 1926, VII.

[24] The Times, August, 21, 1964, page 10.

[35] The Times, August 12, 1964, page 10.

[36] L. Dudley Stamp, writing in The Times, August 12, 1964, page 10.

[40] Hong Kong Daily Press, November 19, 1937, page 1.

[41] Hong Kong Daily Press, November 19, 1937, page 8.

[42] Clifford Matthews and Oswald Cheung, Dispersal and Renewal: Hong Kong University During The War Years, 1998, 62. Source says he arrived in 1935, which is probably a misprint.

[43] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 65.

[44] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 63-64.

[45] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 442.

[46] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 67.

[47] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 13.

[51] Hong Kong Daily Press, July 7, 1938, page 7.

[52] See, for example, James Bertram’s The Shadow of A War, 1947, passim.

[53] Hong Kong Daily Press, July 7, 1938, page 8.

[54] Sloss’s speech is recorded on page 2 of a special Hong Kong Daily Press supplement,  issued on March  13, 1939.

[55] Hong Kong Daily Press, May 31, 1939, page 7.

[56] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 27-29.

[57] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 227.

[62] Hong Kong Daily Press, April 25, 1940, page 5.

[63] GA 19441, no. 716.

[64] Page 5.

 [66] Hong Kong Daily Press, July 18, 1941, page 5.

[68] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 72.

[69] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 72.

[73] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 223-4.

[74] Ride Papers, Fehilly Conversation With Ride, page 1.

[75] Ride Papers, Fehilly Conversation with Ride, page 1.

[76] Ride Papers, Fehilly Conversation with Ride, page 4.

[78] Ride Papers, Fehilly Conversation With Ride, page 4.

[79] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 78.

[80] Franklin Gimson, Internment in Hong-Kong, 40b. (Held at Rhodes House, Oxford).

[81] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 1982, 86.

[82].Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 18.

[83]Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 401.

[84] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 402.

[85] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 79.

[86] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 80.

[87] The full message can be read in Edwin Ride, British Army Aid Group, 1981, 134-5.

[88] Gittins, 1982, 126.

[89] George-Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 114.

[90] Ride, 136-137.

[91] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 115.

[92] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 182.

[93] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 162.

[94] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 181.

[95] Gittins, 1982, 153.

[98] Gittins, 1982, 154, 156, 157.

[99] Gittins, 1982,, 160.

[100] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 425.

[101] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 427.

[102] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 108.

[103]Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 429.

[104] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 429-430.

[105] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 34.

[107] Matthews and Cheung, 1998, 223-224.

[108] China Mail, March 29, 1947, page 3.

[114] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, April 3, 1949, page 4.

10 Comments

Filed under British Army Aid Group, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

10 responses to “Duncan Sloss

  1. Duncan Sloss

    Thankyou for this very interesting article about my grandfather. I am the eldest son of the John Sloss you mention several times, and remember my visits to 313 Woodstock Rd as a child (Grandfather died on my 7th birthday). I remember him always in the library with his pipe, and he once organised a trip to London Zoo where somehow he arranged for me and my sister to ride the giant Galapagos Tortoise!
    My grandmother’s name was Leila Burrows, and the family story goes that she returned from Hong Kong to spend some time with her sons, who were at school in Oxford. She then got a telegram from her husband requiring her to return to Hong Kong immediately, as he needed her help with his work. The boys came home from school to find her dead by the gas oven.
    They then left Oxford to join their father, as Europe was at war.
    My step-grandmother, Margaret, does indeed warrant another chapter (I believe she was a communications channel between Hong Kong and Mao’s forces), and they entertained many McCarthist refugees in their North Oxford home.
    Duncan Sloss
    Christchurch
    New Zealand

    • Thank you so much for this.
      Such a tragic story about your grandmother.
      I’d be very interested in anything more you have to share about your grandparents and step-grandmother. I’d not heard the story about being a link between Mao and Hong Kong, but it doesn’t surprise me!
      I’m so glad you got in touch. Thanks again.

      P.S. And I have many happy memories of a trip to Christchurch, including the man who runs the punting station putting me right about the real reason for Oxford and Cambridge punting from different ends (absolutely none – pure tradition, all else is myth.).

    • Leila Paul

      Duncan,
      I agree (nana)Margaret does warrant another chapter.
      I hope this finds you well.

      Leila Sloss-Paul
      Victoria
      British Columbia
      Canada

  2. Nick Arnold

    I live in Oxford, and regret to inform you that Sloss’ house at 313 Woodstock Road has just been demolished. It was a beautiful Arts and Crafts house, quite unlike the modern, quick-profit houses that are being erected in its place.

  3. Just to clear up the D.J.Sloss and D.Sloss conflicts in our Club Minutes, they were two different people, the other being Douglas Sloss (no relation).
    Glad my webpage on Duncan was of help to people.
    Dave Bohl
    Club Historian
    Sefton RUFC
    Liverpool

  4. Pingback: Emily Hahn As Source (3): The Art Of Vendetta (Hilda Selwyn-Clarke) | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  5. Pingback: Pre-war Hong Kong- the Myth of Mediocrity (2) – Tenth Rate Men | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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