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All unattributed quotations are from the statement of made by Raoul de Sercey on June 2, 1944 to the British Army Aid Group. This statement is part of the Ride Papers (held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project) and it was kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.
The relief work of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, financed by money raised by the uninterned bankers under the leadership of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, is well-known. But less is known about some of the efforts that supplemented this, and which continued after his arrest on May 2, 1943. In today’s post I tell a pleasingly multi-cultural story of humanitarian co-operation involving one Australian woman, two Swiss, a Frenchman, several Portuguese families, a Chinese man and woman and three British. It should be remembered that almost every act described in this post carried the risk of imprisonment, torture or even death, and that no-one but the three British (assuming they were in fact English) could have been confident they faced no ethnic or national prejudice in pre-war Hong Kong.
Doris Mabel Cuthbertson was born on August 27, 1897 in South Australia. She worked as a secretary until after her mother died in 1930, then took a job in England. From there she moved to Shanghai, working for the shipping company Jardine Mattheson. Ironically she went to Hong Kong seeking refuge from war.
On August 15, 1937 the British Government took the decision to evacuate women and children living in Shanghai to Hong Kong because of the outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China in the previous month. Miss Cuthbertson is documented as one of the trained nurses who helped the doctor in charge at a clinic for the evacuees.  She stayed in Hong Kong as private secretary to Jardine’s managing director, J. J. Paterson.
During the hostilities she worked for the Food Control Unit. After the surrender she was held in the Nam King Hotel before being sent to Stanley Camp. Most of what we know about what happened thereafter is contained in a statement made to the British Army Aid Group on June 2, 1944 by the French national Raoul de Sercey, who escaped from Hong Kong on April 23.
Soon after the surrender, Mr. de Sercey managed to send some parcels to his friend J. J. Paterson, Jardine’s managing director and now a POW, and to Jardine’s staff in Stanley, such as D. L. Newbigging and Doris Cuthbertson herself. In the early months his efforts were focused on Stanley, as ‘the situation was reported as appalling’. The Jardine company history mentions Henry Lo and other Chinese staff as also having taken part in courageous relief efforts.
What seems like harmless humanitarian work was in fact highly dangerous: parcels could only be sent in through the Japanese, and the sender’s name and address had to be supplied. Any Chinese, Indian or ‘third national’ (European neutral) who sent too many was likely to be suspected of pro-Allied sympathies and questioned by the Kempeitai. This could lead to torture, imprisonment and death.
Mr. de Sercey realised he couldn’t give the required assistance to Jardine Matheson’s former employees: he was already looking after over 40 members of the Chinese Maritime Customs, and others; he did not, moreover, as someone who wasn’t a company member, have the authority to raise funds in its name. To better meet the needs of Jardine’s staff, he decided to ‘guarantee out’ Miss Cuthbertson. ‘Guaranteeing out’ was the system whereby people were allowed out of Stanley (and much more rarely Shamshuipo) if a neutral would promise to support them financially and guarantee that they would not act against Japanese interests (but see below).
Mr. de Sercey explained why he’d chosen her:
As Private Secretary to MR PATERSON I had had opportunity to know of her excellent qualities as an organiser, and knew that she had probably the most complete knowledge of the staff in the firm.
Guaranteeing her out wasn’t a smooth process:
The story of MISS CUTHBERTSON’S release was, as usually with the Japanese, a mixture of dramatic and grotesque events…but she finally came out of Stanley on the 12 September, 1942 with the last batch of internees allowed out.
It seems she was released along with the members of the Maryknoll religious order: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/guaranteeing-out-the-evidence-of-the-maryknoll-diary/
I may point out here that MISS CUTHBERTSON has not had to sign any undertaking towards the Japanese authorities besides signing on her pass which is exactly the same as that delivered to neutrals in HONG KONG. The only difference is that below the stamp indicating her Australian nationality is added in Japanese the rather surprising remark ‘Semi-Enemy’.
As soon as she was out, she began making plans for her work. Through Charles Hyde, who seems never to have been far away when works of relief or resistance were taking place, she got back in touch with Mr. Newbigging in Stanley, and presumably through his authorisation she was given $7,000 in instalments. At the same time, Mr. de Sercey got in touch with Selwyn-Clarke, who agreed to let him send in as many parcels as he wanted under the auspices of the Informal Welfare Committee – as far as de Sercey could work out, this seemed to consist solely of Selwyn-Clarke!
Miss Cuthbertson also carried out relief work for Jardine Mattheson employees in Shamshuipo. She asked the company’s Portuguese staff for help, and every one responded unreservedly, sending in a parcel for a ‘foreigner’ alongside each one they sent to a family member:
The effort was thus made less conspicuous, a very important point, since, the money being obtained through forbidden channels, had the Japanese become wise to it, serious consequences for all concerned would have certainly taken place.
Dr. Selwyn-Clarke was arrested on May 2, 1943. Mr. de Sercey’s statement adds to our knowledge of what happened to relief efforts after that date.
Miss CUTHBERTSON had to stop sending parcels in large number into Stanley but continued with the funds at her disposal to send the SHAMSHUIPO fortnightly ones until September, 1943, when a new wave of terror and the lack of funds forced her to stop temporarily.
My guess is that this new ‘wave’ involved a crackdown on the Portuguese community, possibly in the wake of the discovery of incriminating documents at the Portuguese social centre, the Club Lusitano.
At a time Mr. de Sercey was unable to remember exactly, but was probably in late 1942 or the first part of 1943, funds were sent from Shanghai to the International Red Cross for Jardine employees. After consultations between Miss Cuthbertson and the Red Cross, most of it was delivered in cash to internees and POWs. Miss Cuthbertson at all times acted with Mr. Zindel, the Red Cross representative in Hong Kong and received unreserved support from him.
The situation for Jardine’s staff appeared gloomy in autumn 1943. Funds were exhausted, the man sending the funds from Shanghai had been interned, and the authorities were tightening their control over all activities of any sort. The Japanese, wrote de Sercey, made monetary transactions difficult to increase their control over individuals; their first question in an interrogation was ‘How much money have you got?’ and they always wanted to know where it had come from. Fortunately Miss Cuthbertson got to hear that arrangements had been made in Shanghai for a Swiss firm, presumably the chemical company CIBA, to supply money to Mr. Newbigging through their Hong Kong representative Walter Naef. She got in touch with Mr. Naef and these two, together with Rudolf Zindel and Newbigging, seem to have negotiated division of the cash, Miss Cuthbertson obtaining funds for the Argyle Street Camp and the Bowen Road Military Hospital.
Thanks to Mr. Naef, who’d provided about 10,000 Military Yuan by the time Raoul de Sercey escaped, and the help of Mr. Zindel, Miss Cuthbertson was able to continue to provide cash regularly to Shamshuipo and Stanley and parcels to Argyle Street and Bowen Road. Mr. de Sercey went on to point out that the arrangement involving Walter Naef was most dangerous for all parties; it breached Japanese exchange regulations and if found out would have lead to ‘serious if not fatal trouble’. In other words, all those who got involved in this humanitarian activity were risking death.
Mr. de Sercey went on to make some suggestions, arrived at after consultations with Miss Cuthbertson, for further Jardine’s relief efforts. He says that he’d left some money with her for personal needs, but with the sky-rocketing cost of living this wouldn’t be enough and he suggested adding 800 Military Yuan to each remittance for her own use. If this wasn’t possible, he thought that Miss Cuthberston, who was now guaranteed out by another French national, would be allowed to return to Stanley. This is significant. Miss Cuthbertson had already gone through two waves of Kempeitai terror. after the first one – February-July 1943 – there were very few Allied citizens left uninterned in Hong Kong, and one of those helping her, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, was experiencing months of brutal treatment in a Kempeitai cell. The second (in the final months of 1943) would also have come close to her: it hit the Portuguese community, and we’ve seen that she was working with Portuguese families to get parcels into Shamshuipo, and, as we shall see, her links were even closer than that suggests. Just after Mr. de Sercey’s escaped, another ‘wave’ of arrests began, as the Japanese, who’d previously not cared if people knew about events of Europe, were panicked by the D-Day landings (June 6, 1944) and started hunting for radios. Miss Cuthbertson certainly stayed out of Stanley during the first two periods, in spite of the obvious huge danger she was in. In a moment I’ll present evidence that she stayed out through the third wave of arrests and remained at her post until the end. She was an astonishingly brave woman.
Photo of Miss Cuthbertson courtesy of Christobel Botten
Mr. de Sercey ended with a tribute to Miss Cuthberston’s efforts: some Jardine’s POWs released from Shamshuipo said that company members there were the best cared for in the Camp.
Not long after liberation, Miss Cuthbertson met an Australian reporter, and her story was featured in the Melbourne Argus on November 6, 1945 (page 8). The report identified her as the sister of Mr M. R. Cuthbertson of Malvern. The paper tells us that after leaving Stanley she’d lived with a Portuguese family in their flat and that her ‘parcel service’ went on for three years, which suggests she did remain out of Stanley until the end of the war. The reporter says that Miss Cuthbeertson told her she was helped by Helen Ho, who she considered ‘the heroine of Hong Kong’. Miss Ho was getting parcels into ‘the Military Hospital’ – Bowen Rd.
Miss Cuthbertson also paid tribute to her house boy, Ma Ba Sun, who went everywhere with her for three years and slept outside of her door every night. On April 15, 1947 a ceremony was held at Government House to present various forms of honour to a small number of the people who had rendered courageous service to others during the occupation. Ma Ba Sun was awarded the British Empire medal. The citation reads in part ‘in recognition of your loyal and devoted conduct in the period of the enemy occupation… when you, like many others who had been in domestic service, ran the greatest risks and performed services of incalculable value in aiding those who had been interned by the enemy’. (China Mail, April 16, 1947, page 2).
I presume that at some point after the war Miss Cuthbertson emigrated to Canada, as she died in 1968 in British Columbia. This must have been after February 13, 1949, as she’s recorded playing in a Fanling Golf tournament on that date (China Mail, February 15, 1949, page 12).
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