Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (5): Grayburn’s Story (4): Death

On August 15, 1943 Sir Vandeleur and Edward Streatfield celebrated the completion of half of their sentence. Grayburn was in good health that day, but on the next he complained about a slight fever and a loss of appetite. His condition deteriorated, and on August 18 he was moved to the Prison hospital.1 Khader Bux,2 an Indian warder who was made to act as ‘medical officer’, applied to the Japanese authorities four times3 for a doctor, but none was sent. On his own initiative, and at risk to himself, he took Dr Harry Talbot (who’d been tried and sentenced alongside the two bankers) to see Sir Vandeleur. Talbot saw him in the evening (probably of August 20) and again the following morning.4 On that first occasion, the patient had a high fever and was slightly delirious, and the doctor advised Mr Bux to get sulphonamide tablets; the courageous warder got some smuggled in, but too late to save Sir Vandeleur, who was comatose when Talbot visited him the next day.5

According to Dr Talbot, there were no medicines in the Prison hospital, and Dr. Saito, who was theoretically responsible for the health of the patients, was rarely to be seen. While the Chinese prisoners were allowed to have vitamins sent in from outside, British prisoners weren’t until the last few days of his sentence (which ended on September 30) when a few boxes of vitamin pills were allowed in from Stanley Camp. Rations in the Prison were so low, that malnutrition and eventual death were inevitable if they weren’t supplemented from outside, but according to Mr Streatfield, hospital portions were set at about 2/3 of the general ration so as to make sure that only those who were really sick entered (Dr. Talbot specifies 8 oz of rice and a little marrow as the daily ration).6 It seems that many prisoners went there just to die, making the atmosphere even grimmer.

On Friday morning (August 20) Grayburn felt better. After the evening meal he talked to fellow patient Police Sergeant Victor Morrison (an escaper who’d been quickly recaptured) about his travels in Norway and his brother’s time as a tea planter in India. He interrupted the conversation to try and urinate into a tin, but failed twice to do so. He dropped the tin and collapsed. Sergeant Morrison, himself weak, helped him to bed as best he could. Grayburn apologised – ‘That was very remiss of me’ – and sank into a coma.7

Sir Vandeleur died at about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday, August 21. He was 62 years old. Edward Streatfield wrote:

At no time had he ever been seen by a Japanese doctor. There was no doubt whatever of the great regret of the bulk of the Indian warders and several of them expressed their resentment at the attitude of the Japanese in not affording him qualified medical aid. The ‘M.O.’, in particular, had done everything his limited power and ability enabled him to do.8

Lady Grayburn was not at any time called to see her husband even though she was in Stanley camp which was next to the prison. It seems that the authorities held onto his body all the next day (August 22) and the morning of August 23, perhaps to make it harder to establish the cause of death. Prison officer R. E. Jones wrote in his diary:

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn died in goal am. 21st. Japs made sure his body decomposed enough to prevent investigation & then let C. S. {Colonial/Camp Secretary Franklin Gimson} know this afternoon. He was buried 6.30 pm.

George Wright-Nooth describes the handover of the corpse in some detail:

The body was to be released at 3 pm. A party of police were detailed to receive it. They brought the dead box {the camp’s constantly re-used coffin} along and waited some while outside the prison gates. The gates were opened and the box taken inside….Chinese convicts brought the naked body in a blanket and placed it face down in the box – all very grim and sad. Our men then placed a sheet over the body and took it to the mortuary, an improvised construction made by us in the camp. The body was in a decomposed state and emaciated; death had obviously occurred about two days ago.9

We learn a little more from a notice Franklin Gimson posted on a camp board sometime on August 23. It also contained the first of what was to become a long line of errors about the circumstances of Grayburn’s death:

It is with the umost (sic) regret that I have to report that the death of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.30 a.m. On the 22nd instant in the Stanley Prison Hospital. The funeral procession will leave the mortuary at the Tweed Bay Hospital at 6.15 p.m. and the funeral will take place at the Stanley Cemetery at 6.30 p.m.

It seems that Gimson was following misinformation provided, perhaps deliberately, by the Japanese, but he soon found out the truth and posted a second notice on the same day:

From later information received, the death of the late Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.15 p.m. On the 21 instant, and not at 7.30 a.m. on the 22nd instant.10

According to Frank King ‘practically the whole internment camp turned out and followed the cortège from the camp mortuary to the graveyard’.11

So much is, to the best of my belief, fact. The question as to what exactly brought about Sir Vandeleur’s death cannot be answered with any great certainty. On September 15, 1943 the Colonial Office wrote to the HSBC in London with news of the death and, basing itself on Red Cross reports, gave the cause as ‘avitaminosis’.12 Emily Hahn, who presumably heard the news a month or so before she left Hong Kong on the Canadian repatriation ship, said that the Gendarmes said ‘with amazing candor that he had died of beriberi’13 (a disease of malnutrition). According to Geoffrey Emerson, there was a medical examination and the verdict was also death from ‘malnutrition’.14 However, a letter from Camp Medical Officer Dr. D. J. Valentine to Chief Justice Atholl MacGregor clearly states that the doctors assigned to the task refused to come to a conclusion as to cause of death because of the advanced state of decomposition (Hong Kong Public Records Office, HKRS 163 1-303).

Hahn refused to believed the gendarmes for two reasons. Firstly, ‘they said it was beriberi, so it couldn’t have been’ and secondly Lady Mary had been ‘sending her husband food in large quantities every week and we have reason to believe he got it’.15 Hahn was ‘inclined to believe’ an opinion she attributes to the Chinese: Grayburn died ‘as an accident after too enthusiastic an “investigation”’ – perhaps under the infamous ‘water torture’. I think this passage is the origin of the myth that Grayburn was tortured to death,16 and somehow an even grislier version of the story reached wartime Shanghai.17 One of the reports submitted to the British Army Aid Group also said that ‘third degree’ was being used on the bankers while they were at Happy Valley Gendarme Station, but, as we’ve seen,18 apart from one occasion when Grayburn was forced to hang by his hands after a chair was kicked away, the two men were never tortured, and the accounts of Streatfield and Morrison establish that ‘the water treatment’ had nothing to do with Grayburn’s death. And, in response to Hahn’s second point, it seems that most of the vitamin tablets Lady Mary sent her husband were returned after his death19, and it’s possible that he didn’t receive most of her food parcels either -many reports tell us that their delivery was a matter of Japanese whim. Further, it seems from George Wright-Nooth’s description of the practicalities of smuggling he was only able to get a small amount of food into Sir Vandeleur.20

I think that the ultimate cause of death was undoubtedly malnutrition/avitaminosis/beriberi, but that the proximate cause of his death was given more precisely by the last doctor to see him alive, his fellow prisoner Dr. Harry Talbot. Talbot told a war crimes trial that Sir Vandeleur had been admitted to hospital suffering from boils (Wright-Nooth specifies on his right leg21), and that because of insufficient dressing he was squeezing the boils out himself and the result of this failure to provide proper care was septicaemia (bacterial infection of the blood). There was a second instance of medical neglect when no sulphonamide (anti-bacterial) drugs were administered before the warder’s smuggled ones, as these would have saved him.22 Talbot mentioned ‘about three’ hospital admissions in all for Grayburn, one with dysentery and another with severe boils and claimed that the only treatment he ever received was a little ointment. He told the court ‘I believe he died of septicaemia’.23

In summary, I’d say that it would be reasonable to conclude that Grayburn’s death was caused by septicaemia, brought about by the failure to provide dressing for boils, caused by long-term malnutrition, perhaps aggravated by a weakening of the heart due to beriberi, and only fatal because of further medical neglect.

The trial Talbot was giving evidence to was of Saito Chuichi, the medical officer whose responsibilities included Stanley Prison. The court heard evidence that when C. F. Miles came to Hong Kong in 1945 he still found plenty of drugs in the Colony, a position supported by Hugo Foy, another imprisoned HSBC banker who’d been active in raising relief funds. Mr Foy said he found medicines including thiamine chloride – a treatment for beriberi- in the HSBC Bank Building, which had been taken over and used as Japanese headquarters. Speaking in Dr. Saito’s defence, Kazuo Kogi said that when he heard of Grayburn’s condition, the Medical Officer rushed to the prison and tried to save him, but this isn’t mentioned in any other account. Dr Saito was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to 20 years, partly as a result of a plea from Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

Sir Vandeleur’s story is a remarkable one. From his position at or close to the top of Hong Kong society he fell to the same low level as almost every other British citizen: stripped of home and possessions, trying to subsist on inadequate rations in cramped conditions, Although he understandably regretted his losses and the squalid conditions of his new life, this didn’t stop him from throwing himself into the work of raising illegal funds for the relief of his fellow sufferers. When the chance came, he joined the resistance, although he must have known that exposure would mean torture and death.

And what of the undoubted racism I discussed in my first post?24 Well, we know that he shared his wife’s food parcels with Mr. Harry Ching, a Eurasian fellow prisoner,25 and that he was liked by most of the Indian warders in Stanley Prison, one of whom risked severe punishment to try and save him. Edward Streatfield’s evidence suggests he was respected by almost all the warders and prisoners, which tells us something about his demeanour while incarcerated. It also strikes me as relevant that, as an agent of the BAAG, he entrusted his life to its Chinese agents on a regular basis . Pre-war Hong Kong was noted for its class snobbery as well as it’s racism, so I’m struck that Sir Vandeleur’s last conversation was with a Police Sergeant, close to the bottom of that rigid social hierarchy, and that it ranged over personal material.

This is not enough evidence to come to any firm conclusion, but who would have guessed that ‘the King’ of old Hong Kong was capable of so much? And of his commitment to the welfare of others and of his firmness of character and courage there is a mountain of evidence. If we could have been present at that 1938 meeting with Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden with which I began,26 how many of us would have had the slightest idea that it would not be the radical and socially concerned young writers but the supercilious old colonialist who would stay at his post and act with consistent heroism when war came? The less than edifying story of how the other two conducted themselves when fascism and militarism engulfed the world in flames I’ll detail in my next post.

I’ll leave the last word on Grayburn with those who knew him. Emily Hahn, who benefitted personally from his generosity during the occupation, wrote:

Grayburn was brave, stubborn, and dignified. As I had reason to know, he was kindly too, although many people would not admit that before the war. I am grateful, and I grieve for him.28

And his fellow HSBC board members, meeting in Stanley Camp after his death, recorded:

In the troubled sea of depression, tension and panic he stood as solid as a rock, and his personal courage and unfailing optimism were an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.


1 Frank King, History of the HSBC, Volume 3, 1988, 623.

2 I take the name from the evidence of Kazuo Kogi at Dr Saito’s war crimes trial – China Mail, April 3, 1946, page 3. George Wright-Nooth gives the name as Gholum Mohammed – Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 175. It’s also possible that the kind and courageous warder was called Rhemet Khan, who was described at the trial as the chief Indian warder.

3Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

4King, 1988, 623.

5Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

6Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

7Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175. This source wrongly dates these events to August 6 and the death to August 7.

8Cited King, 1988, 623.

9Wright-Nooth,, 1994, 175-176.

10Both notices are reproduced in David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 299. Jan Morris’s book on Hong Kong continues the tradition of misinformation by quoting only the first notice with the wrong date of death. I’ve contributed to this myself by following Wright-Nooth’s inexplicably inaccurate diary entries in an online chronology.

11King, 1988, 623.

12Tett, 2007, 300.

13Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 394.

14Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 1749.

15Hahn, 1986 ed, 394.

16Both Tett and Morris imply that this was the case, and see also https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/how-did-the-kempeitai-treat-british-civilians-in-hong-kong/


18 https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/wystan-auden-christopher-isherwood-and-vandeleur-grayburn-4-grayburns-story-3-in-the-hands-of-the-kempeitai/

19Tett, 2007, 297.

20Wright-Nooth, 1994, 149; 158

21Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175.

22Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

23Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.




28Hahn, 1986 ed., 395.


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

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