Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Vandeleur Grayburn (4): Grayburn’s Story: (3): In The Hands of the Kempeitai

On March 17, 1943 Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and E. P. Streatfield were arrested at the Liquidation Office1 and driven by car to Kempeitai headquarters 2 where they were put in a room upstairs.

Grayburn must have been deeply worried about the forthcoming interrogations. He had been arrested on a relatively minor charge – after talking to Oda the two bankers had been heartened to learn that it wasn’t even clear that sending money into the Camp was in itself illegal,3 so during the two weeks before their arrest they must have hoped that the authorities would overlook the clandestine method they’d adopted. However, as well s the issue of smuggling, the Gendarmes were suspicious as to the source of funds – as we’ll see, they suspected they’d come from John Reeves, a man they had every reason to hate, and Grayburn certainly didn’t want to reveal their real source, which was probably mainly from loans raised by the bankers on the strength of ‘instruments’ that would pay well after an Allied victory. An even bigger secret that needed to be kept was the fact that Grayburn (although not Streatfield) had acted as an agent for the resistance – his BAAG code name was ‘Night’ and he’d been regularly supplying intelligence and smuggling out messages. He’d also been involved, at least as far as giving his approval, in the arrangements for the escape of Fenwick and Morrison (October 18, 1942). If the gendarmes found any of this out, the inevitable consequence would have been prolonged torture and execution.

During the afternoon Grayburn was taken downstairs for questioning; on his return, he told Mr Streatfield that he’d been accused of worstving the money from John Reeves, the British Consul in Macao, a courageous promoter of all kinds of resistance activity. Presumably Grayburn stuck to the agreed story that the money had been provided by conveniently repatriated Americans – some of them had been bankers living at the Sun Wah, so this was plausible.

From the HQ they were taken to a Chinese house and locked in rooms on the opposite side of a landing patrolled by a Chinese guard. Next morning the interrogations began again. At one stage Grayburn was questioned about relations with the BAAG.4 Once again, his denials were obviously convincing.

In a previous post (https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/how-did-the-kempeitai-treat-british-civilians-in-hong-kong/) I’ve argued that the Kempeitai acted with often scrupulous procedural correctness in the treatment of British civilians, and what happened to the two bankers is a good example of this. They were in prison on suspicion of illegal acts, but with a humanitarian not a military purpose, so, in accordance with general Kempeitai policy with regard to ‘white’ British civilians, torture was not used. This does not, of course, mean that the interrogators did not try to put psychological pressure on them, but the worse that either man had to suffer physically was an occasion when Sir Vandeleur was made to stand on a stool, which was then kicked away from under him, forcing him to hang by his arms.5

They were kept in the boarding house six days and allowed to receive two baskets of food, cigarettes, clothes and toilet articles sent by the other bankers in the Sun Wah Hotel.6 This was relatively easy imprisonment, and it must have been a consequence of Grayburn’s status, because I’ve never read of any other British prisoners being held outside a penal institution.

On March 24 things got dramatically worse. Grayburn and Streatfield were taken to the Happy Valley Gendarmerie,7 a Kempeitai station which had once been a French convent school – both the school and the Gendarme Station are sometimes called ‘Le Calvaire’8 The two men were separated and Grayburn was put into Cell 4; as he entered and looked for a space in the crowded cell, one of the inmates moved up to make room for him; this was Henry Ching, the Australian editor of the Colony’s most important English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. A courageous anti-Japanese advocate before the war, Mr. Ching had not been interned because he was Eurasian. In 1943 he and other men connected with the SCMP had been suspected of spying, and he was arrested on February 17.9 His account of his arrival in the Gendarmerie gives us a good idea of what Grayburn must have experienced:

On both sides (of the corridor) heavy wooden bars four inches wide by one and a half inches. Have feeling of being in ship’s hold. Much noise of chattering but can’t see the people. Also terrific smell. Realise people are behind those bars. Small door on one side opened and I stoop in. Smell is terrible, but I am relieved. I am not going to be alone…Cell 4 in which I was put has verandah on north side – cloisters……..Only half cell inhabitable. Sanitary arrangements. Half dozen wooden buckets. Store room at end.

Another note from Mr. Ching tells us more about the place where Grayburn began his imprisonment:

Cell 4…(was) a large cell along the western side of the building, separated from the other three cells by a corridor. It held over 30 men and women. On the outside of Cell 4, and separated from it by a wall, was an enclosed verandah. But grills in the upper part of the wall enabled sunlight to enter the cell, and it was possible to look out towards the Yeung Wo Hospital on the other side of the Valley10.

In a smaller cell close by, holding about 10 people, was another British citizen, Cyril Faure.11 He’d not been sent to Stanley, for reasons unknown, and had ended up working on the Japanese-run Hongkong News; he’d been arrested the day after Henry Ching, also on suspicion of spying. In his evidence to a War Crimes Trial in early 1947 he described conditions in his ‘filthy cage’; he too noted the dreadful smell – the Indian warders had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses when they entered – and states that prisoners were given only one bowl and one blanket. 12Mr Ching’s son Henry give a slightly different picture of the bedding provision. Basing himself on his father’s notes, he tells us that the prisoners were not supplied with beds but slept on the floor, on loose palliases; as i13nmates left, their palliases would be taken over by those remaining who thereby managed to accumulate several and were thus in relative comfort. Newcomers had to sleep on the bare concrete floor as no new palliases were issued.14

At least Grayburn’s cell had some light; in Mr Faure’s there wasn’t enough to catch the lice which infected everyone. He also mentions the inadequate washing facilities – at times there was no water at all – and tells us he lost about half a pound per day.15 Innumerable accounts confirm that the food provided in Kempeitai prisons was extremely scanty in amount and totally inadequate in nutrition, but the people at the Sun Wah were able to find out where the bankers had been sent and, according to Maurice Collis, to send them ‘daily supplies of food and from time to time a change of clothing’.16

It seems that some or all of Sir Vandeleur’s food parcels and clothing came from Lady Mary: the BAAG’s Waichow Information Summary correctly stated that he was at Le Calvaire, though, wrongly as we have seen, claimed he was taken there on March 17, and added:

No visitors are allowed and a boy, sent by LADY GRAYBURN with clothes for her husband, was not allowed to hand them to him personally.

This ‘boy’ turns up on other reports (see below) so the story is probably accurate. Cyril Faure also noted that Grayburn and Streatfield were allowed to receive food from outside, although he himself wasn’t17 while Henry Ching’s son tells us that Grayburn generously shared these parcels with his father.18.

The two men’s next move was for the better, although it was still into conditions that were, by any normal standards, grim. On April 13, they were driven by car to Stanley Prison,19 where policeman George Wright-Nooth, watching from the internment camp, saw them being brought in – Grayburn chained to Streatfield.20 Here for the first time they were taken before a Japanese officer – previously all the questioning had been carried out by NCOs. They each had a cell to themselves, baths were provided and food parcels delivered.21 Short exercise periods were also allowed, and on the day after their arrival they were again seen by Wright-Nooth, who recorded in his diary that he’d watched the prisoners being exercised – ‘walking round in a circle with hands behind the back’ – and he’d seen Streatfield (‘a tall European dressed in a lounge suit’) and perhaps Grayburn (‘dressed in jacket and shorts’). On April 27 they were joined by Dr Harry Talbot,22 the bank’s doctor and the man who’d tried to smuggle money for them into Stanley. He’d been released, but was re-arrested in Camp.

On June 30 Dr Talbot and the two bankers were taken for trial. Streatfield wrote:

(T)he three of us were taken out of our cells at 8 a.m. and, having been given a bowl of rice to eat, were handcuffed together and taken under an escort of Japanese and Indian warders in a small covered truck into Hong Kong to the Supreme Court.23

In accordance with Japanese procedure, the court did not attempt to establish guilt – they had confessed, the Kempeitai had accepted the confessions, and that was that. The only thing at issue was the sentence . Although no charges were specified, the proceedings obviously related to smuggling money into Stanley.

Their judges were five Japanese officers, and, after some interrogation, the two men were asked if they had anything to say for themselves – an opportunity not granted to the British civilians who were to be tried on much graver charges later in the year. They denied attempting to cheat the Imperial Japanese Army and pleaded they saw no harm in trying to alleviate the situation of Bank and other dependants.24 They were sentenced to three months in prison – time already served not to count, a point that was to cost Grayburn his life.

The sentence was also to be served in Stanley Prison, but now they were convicted the regime was in some ways harsher and food parcels were stopped.25 They were put to work as gardeners which was something most prisoners welcomed the chance to have something to do, get out of their cells, and interact with others. Collis tells us that the work was not heavy nor performed at great speed, but that the hours were long: 7.30 a.m to a 10.30 a.m. meal break, and then from 11.30 through to the second meal at 5.0 p.m.

E. P. Streatfield testifies to Sir Vandeleur’s bearing while in prison:

Grayburn from the start commanded the respect of the prisoners and most of the warders, not only on account of his age, but because of the cheerfulness and dignity with which he bore the unpleasantness of his position.26

But how had those left behind in the Sun Wah been reacting to these events? On April 25 the BAAG noted reports of a Sun Wah petition on the two bankers behalf:

The rest of Bankers sent petition to Governor requesting investigation and proper trial. This petition motivated by news that he was at one time put among other criminals and petty thieves.27

Another agent’s report in the same document gives a slightly different account of the petition and provides many more details:

After GRAYBURN’s arrest, he was visited by his boy who was eventually allowed to see him and who reported that he was in with all the other Chinese criminals and thieves and getting rice only to eat.

The boy immediately reported this to EDMONSON {David Edmondston, the HSBC number 2, who was himself arrested on May 24} and a petition was sent to the International Red Cross by the other bank staff. The International Red Cross intervened through the Foreign Office and the Gendarmes were highly annoyed that news of GRAYBURN’s conditions should have got out.

Lady GRAYBURN was then allowed to see her husband and was accompanied by the “boy”. On the way to the prison, Lady GRAYBURN asked the accompanying Gendarme, “Couldn’t something be done for GRAYBURN’s comfort?” He immediately turned round and said, “How do you know how he is being treated?” The boy who was acting as interpreter replied direct saying that he had given the information.

GRAYBURN was given new clothes and it is said that the old ones were lice infested. GRAYBURN was asked one question only by his boy, i.e. “then will you be getting out?”, to which he is reported to have replied, “Me, never.”

GRAYBURN is now getting cold food supplied by the Bankers and clean clothes once a week.

He was reported to be quite cheerful, but STREATFIELD was said to be pretty depressed.

The above story came from a source in very close touch with the Bankers and is believed to be substantially correct. There is no evidence yet of third degree being used….28

Grayburn’s wife, Lady Mary, was obviously a determined woman. The BAAG received contradictory reports about her visiting the Gendarmes: in one, she was summoned on April 5 and grilled for two hours, in another she cancelled a meeting she’d scheduled for April 8 for fear she’d give away too much if subjected to fierce questioning.29 If the second claim is true, it seems obviously sensible, as I think she must have known about her husband’s role as ‘Night’ – the BAAG referred to her as ‘Night Nurse’ because she’d been a matron before her marriage,30 but I don’t think she was herself an agent.

As we’ve seen, she was sending in parcels to her husband while he was in Le Calvaire Gendarmerie (March 24-April 13). Andrew Leiper, a Chartered Bank man living at the Sun Wah, reported that the people there heard by ‘bamboo wireless’ that Grayburn, Streatfield and Charles Hyde (arrested probably on April 21) arrested for arranging finance to send stuff into Stanley. This brought ‘relief and hope’, especially to the two wives (Streatfield was either unmarried or had no wife in Hong Kong), as it was thought this wouldn’t be considered too serious.31. This was true of Grayburn and Streatfield, but not of Hyde, whose resistance activities were numerous and varied, and who had been caught plotting to free an Indian POW from Ma Tau Chung Camp (he was executed on October 29, 1943). In any case, this relief proved shortly lived as no further news of the men was received, although some Chinese said they’d been seen in precincts of the former Supreme Court -32 as we’ve seen this was almost certainly where they had indeed been held.

Emily Hahn reports that Lady Mary went straight to Stanley to work on behalf of her husband after his arrest, but that’s not true – she herself gave the date of May 17 in a letter to her daughter,33 and that’s confirmed by the fact that she was in Bungalow D, which wasn’t opened until May 7, when my parents and 15 others were sent there from the French Hospital.34 She also says she was ‘sent’ to the Camp, but this proved useful as her husband had been in the adjacent prison for five weeks, and she was able to get police officer George Wright-Nooth to smuggle letters and a little food into him.35 Since some time in 1942, Wright-Nooth had been operating a smuggling system with a Chinese man who used the false name Wong for security purposes. Dr Selwyn-Clarke, living and working in town, would smuggle in food to internee leader Franklin Gimson through the daily ration truck, usually in the form of vitaminised chocolate or small biscuits. This food was given to Wright-Nooth, who would then pas s on small amounts to’ ‘Wong’ who take it into the Prison, at first for four captured escapers, but eventually Sir Vandeleur and others also benefitted.36 According to Wright-Nooth, Wong was able to smuggle out Sir Vandeleur’s last letter – to Lady Mary – written a week before his death.37 However, as he’s already told us that Wong was replaced by the unsatisfactory ‘Lee’ in early summer,38 he might be misremembering. I’ll take up the story of Lady Mary’s food provision in the next post, a sit bears on the controversial question of the cause of Sir Vandeleur’s death.

We have a few glimpses of Sir Vandeleur during his last summer. Some time around on July 1, his former cell mate Harry Ching, who’d been released on, recorded some news from another SCMP employee in his diary:

{A. M.} Omar {an Indian journalist who’d been in a cell close to Grayburn in Le Calvaire} skinny and health bad…. Was in {prison} again, sent Stanley. Scamp {Dr Selwyn-Clarke} there looking bad. Grayburn and Streatfield bearing up. Grayburn sent regards.

The same entry gives a picture of the prisoners’ day (presumably when they weren’t gardening):

Routine up at 7 a.m. and wash. Sit with arms and legs folded and not move. Breakfast at 9. Six ounces rice and sung. Squat39 until 11 when one hour exercise and can speak to each other. Then squat until 3 p.m. More exercise. Squat. Supper. Bed 9 p.m.40

This cross-legged sitting was something imposed on most prisoners, in theory at least, who were expected face the wall and contemplate the crimes that had brought them to that pass.

On July 24 he had a boil on his thigh and had to enter the prison ‘hospital’ – the reason for the scare quotes will become clear in my next post. He seemed better on leaving, but he returned three weeks later in the grip of the illness that was to kill him.


1 Frank King places the arrests on March 19. I’m following Streatfield’s evidence at a War Crimes trial – China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.
2 Thus my source – Maurice Collis, Wayfoong, 1965, 226; presumably the former Supreme Court Building, which was in use as the Kempeitai HQ.
3Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 111, 1988, 622.
4 King, 1988, 622.
5 King, 1988, 622.
6Collis, 1965, 226. See also the evidence of E. P. Streatfield at trial of Sato Choichi, reported in the China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.
7 Collis, 1965, 226.
8 Collis (226) wrongly claims the convent was formerly Italian.
12China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
13Straw-filled mattresses.
15China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
16Collis, 1965, 226.
17China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
19Collis, 1965, 227.
20George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 157
21Collis, 1965, 227.
22King, 1988, 622.
23Collis, 1965, 227.
24King, 1988, 623.
25Collis, 1965, 227.
26Cited King, 1988, 623.
27WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
28WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
29WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
30Edwin Ride, BAAG: Hong Kong Resistance, 1981, 223.
31 Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1983, 170.
32 Leiper, 1983, 170.
33David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 297.
35Wright-Nooth, 1994, 158.
36Wright-Nooth, 1994, 149-150.
37Wright-Nooth, 1994, 176.
38Wright-Nooth, 1994, 150..
39 i.e. return to the ‘arms and legs folded’ position.


1 Comment

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

One response to “Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Vandeleur Grayburn (4): Grayburn’s Story: (3): In The Hands of the Kempeitai

  1. Pingback: Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (5): Grayburn’s Story (4): Death | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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