Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (3): Grayburn’s Story (2): Towards Disaster

The Story So Far
In the previous post I described the way in which HSBC head Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, having lost everything in the 18 day hostilities, remained out of internment after the surrender and threw himself into the work of raising funds for the relief of the Allied community. When agents of the BAAG arrived in town in June 1942 he joined the resistance (code name: Night), later declining offers to arrange his escape, mainly because he felt he was doing essential work in Hong Kong.

In the Autumn of 1942 Sir Vandeleur declined a ‘specific offer’ of an aided escape, and two fellow bankers were taken out instead, with Grayburn’s approval and possibly encouragement.1 At 7.30 p.m. on October 18, 1942 T. J. J. Fenwick and J. A. D. Morrison left the Sun Wah Hotel ‘with a Hong Kong basket containing socks, shaving gear, a spare shirt and a quarter of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of Napoleon brandy’. With the help of two skilled Chinese resistance agents and the communist guerillas they arrived at the BAAG advanced headquarters in Waichow on October 22,2 providing there much valuable information on financial developments in occupied Hong Kong.3

These escapes were a triumph for the BAAG, but they left Grayburn having to deal with the tricky situation that resulted. After an initial period of relative leniency, the Japanese reacted strongly to escapes, and one thing that gave pause to those thinking of trying was possible retaliation on the ones who stayed behind.

On November 4 Grayburn sent a message to Arthur Morse, the head of the HSBC in London. I don’t know what he said to Morse, but he included a short optimistic message for his daughter: ‘All more or less well here …tell Elizabeth not to worry’.4 That ‘more or less’ is telling but, on the evidence available to me, it seems that the response to the Fenwick and Moriison escapes wasn’t too unpleasant. On November 7 he sent a message to Douglas Clague,5 a major in the BAAG:

‘Trouble is brewing’ are his first words, and they suggest that either nothing much had yet been done in retaliation for the escapes or that any initial burst of punitive activity had died down. The Kempeitai, he contiued, wanted to pack them all off to Stanley – which would probably have saved the lives of Grayburn and two of his colleagues – but the Foreign Affairs Department and the Finance Department were resisting, because the bankers’ help was still needed. Grayburn estimates that the signing would take another three months and stated that the ‘liquidation’ of the Bank’s assets was nowhere near finished. In my previous post I discussed a message Grayburn received from one of the Japanese ‘liquidators’ on December 10? in the context of the light it throws on the bankers’ conditions during their time outside Stanley. My guess is that the tightening of the rules governing their movements that was conveyed to Grayburn in that message was a necessary concession to the Kempeitai on the part of those Japanese who wanted the bankers to continue to live outside Stanley. In any case, Grayburn had to give his word that no future escapes would take place (‘Have promised no others will leave’) and it seems that each banker was also required to give his personal ‘parole’, which in at least one instance acted as a deterrent to escaping.6

Interestingly Grayburn mentions something that happened in Stanley Camp only the day before – the young men were sent to sleep in the prison for fear of escapes during the an American air raid. I don’t know if he had a system for getting speedy information from Stanley, or if he just learnt about this so quickly through chance. He ends by assuring Clague that ‘otherwise all well with us’.

On the day before that message (November 6) Lieutenant-Colonel Lindsay Ride, the BAAG’s commander, had been in Chunking, where he was asked by the authorities for details of Grayburn’s signing of ‘duress notes’ (see previous post). The British announced several times during the war that these would not be honoured, an impression that was further strengthened after liberation, so much so that some people had dumped theirs in the garbage before the Bank announced a change of heart!7 The notes are now sought after by collectors. In the same document Ride notes that he’d asked Douglas Clague to find out if Grayburn would be willing to escape ‘alone if necessary’.8 This suggests that there were still moves afoot to get Grayburn out, and gives some support to the theory that he was unwilling to leave because this would have left Lady Mary to face Japanese reprisals.

As 1942 slowly gave way to the new year, there wasn’t much rejoicing in the Sun Wah. Banker Andrew Leiper was there:

In our community there was little heart to celebrate Christmas and the advent of 1943 was marked only by a party given for the half dozen children in the boarding-house. They were each presented with a small packet of home-made toffee, for which we had all contributed a part of our sugar ration.9

Grayburn continued the job of maintaining communication with the BAAG and with Consul John Reeves in Macao.10T he Waichow Intelligence Summary of February 12, 1943 notes a message had been received from him estimating that the bankers would be out of Stanley for another 6 months as the signing of the duress notes was very slow. Using the light code common in BAAG communications, he reported ‘No serious damage to our shop so far’ – presumably the Bank building. He notes that the news was good and predicted that Germany would give up before ‘many months’ were over.11 Two HSBC bankers, Charles Hyde and Luis da Souza, were listening to a short-wave radio hidden on the premises of the Indian company Abdoolally Ebrahim12 and this might have been the source of the over-optimistic news.

Emily Hahn believes the start of the Kempeitai ‘strike back’ – the so-called ‘reign of terror’13 – in February 1943 was connected to Chinese puppet ruler Wang Chi Wei’s declaration of war against the Allies.14 In any case, as Philip Snow,15 points out it was systematic, comprehensive and successful, and Grayburn was one of the first trio of British victims.

Grayburn had smuggled funds into Stanley Camp directly twice before: in November 1942 the wife of J. T. Dupuy was sent into Stanley and at some point in 1942 or early 1943 G. H. Cautherley had been allowed to leave camp to be x-rayed at the French Hospital.16 In February 1943 Dr Harry Talbot, a prominent local doctor who’s also worked for the Soong family,17 came to the Hospital for the same purpose. Grayburn, his deputy Edward Streatfield, and their colleague Charles Hyde – probably the most active British resistance worker – all gave him money to smuggle back into the camp; in Grayburn’s case it was 800 Yen for the former nursing staff of the Matilda Hospital,18 an institution he’d financed and now served as a trustee.

The arrest of Talbot was a disaster for Grayburn, but I’ve never seen a source that gives the exact date it happened– I think it was probably on or close to February 20.19 Further, every version of what led to the arrest is a little different,20 but what they all have in common is that Talbot was searched on his way back to the camp and the money was found. He refused to name the people who’d given it to him – Frank King claims he was tortured, but other accounts say he wasn’t – and, on February 23,21 after a few tense days during which the French Hospital was searched by the Navy, Grayburn and Streatfield went to Mr. Oda, the sympathetic head of the Foreign Affairs Office, and confessed, claiming that all the money had been provided by them (I think they must have been anxious to keep Hyde out of the hands of the Gendarmes). They said the money was for bank staff and nurses in the camp. Streatfield denied all knowledge of the source of the funds, while Grayburn claimed it came from the repatriated Americans22 – it seems like this was a common explanation for surreptitiously acquired funds after June 1942!23

The meeting took place on February 23; Oda lectured them on the seriousness of their offence,24 and then let them return to the Sun Wah. He had no choice but to tell the Kempeitai and Emily Hahn believes that before taking action the Japanese in Hong Kong needed to get advice from Tokyo – it was no small thing to arrest the best-known financier in the Far East, and, when the blow fell on March 19, Hahn records that even Japanese civilians were surprised.25

The pre-war ‘King’ of Hong Kong, ‘the Governor’s Governor’, had lost almost everything during the hostilities – his house, his possessions and his job. His health, already undermined by overwork, deteriorated still further under the harsh conditions of the occupation. But he still had what seems to have been a strong marriage, and above all he retained the determination of character that had taken him to to the top of his profession. With deeply impressive courage and resourcefulness, he reinvented himself as a raiser of illicit funds for the relief of suffering and an agent of the Hong Kong resistance.

Now he was entering a brutal prison system, and he can have had no illusions as to the consequences if his interrogators ever discovered the identity of ‘Night’.


1Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.
2King, 1988, 618-621.
3George Wright- Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 153.
4David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 298.
8 L. T. Ride, Memo of 6 November 1942 – Ride Papers, kindly sent me by Elizabeth Ride.
9Leiper, 1982, 164.
10King, 1988, 621.
11WIS 18, 12 February 1943, Ride Papers.
14Emiily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 386.
15Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.
16King, 1988, 621.
17 Hahn, 1986 ed, 389.
18King, 1988, 622.
20Recently a Memoir written by Dr Talbot has emerged, so hopefully a definitive account will one day be possible – http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/
21King, 1988, 622.
22King, 1988, 622.
23Hahn, 1986, ed, 390.
24King, 1988, 622.
25Hahn, 1986 ed., 389-390.


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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Emily Hahn, Hong Kong WW11, Vandeleur Grayburn

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