In the late nineteen twenties my father was considering a career in boxing: he’d had over 100 fights – first as a juvenile and then as an amateur – and won them all. This changed dramatically the night he went to Old Windsor – a few miles from Windsor itself – to take on Battling Alfred, a Swindon man. Fully living up to his sobriquet, Albert knocked him out, and on the way back home Thomas told his brother (who was also his second) that he’d had a rethink of his career plans. Soon after, he started an apprenticeship with Denny’s, a Windsor baker.
When he’d completed this, he moved around the country, taking a variety of jobs to get experience.
Thomas in what looks like his baker’s coat outside the family home in Windsor
One day, probably in 1937, he saw an advert in his trade paper The British Baker for a job as bakery manager in Hong Kong – this suited him as he’d recently been made bankrupt by his partner, the cyclist and salesman in a ‘stop me and buy one’ comestibles business. His mother, Alice, a woman of huge determination, had helped him pay off his debts and now he was ready to start again in another country and leave the bad memories behind. He altered his birth certificate to make himself two years older and arranged his references to give himself more experience. Lane, Crawford were suitably impressed and gave him the job – he was also offered a post in South Africa, but chose Hong Kong because it was further away from scenes he now wanted to forget.
On April 7th or 8th, 1938 he said goodbye to his sisters and his mother in London…
and headed for The Carthage.
It would be fair to say that he wasn’t a man given to excessive and embarrassing displays of emotion – Alice had to indicate that, under the circumstance of a parting likely to be for at least three years, a modest kiss might be in order.
Thomas had chosen to sail with P. and O., slightly more expensive and commodious than its rival, Blue Funnel. He was travelling second class, of course, but, as the letter below tells us, this didn’t mean as much as on most voyages. I guess bookings were down because of the outbreak of war between China and Japan in the summer of 1937, and the possibility of its spreading to Hong Kong: Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the Director of Medical Services, with whose fate Thomas’s was to be intertwined, tells us that the gloomy headlines made him and his wife Hilda think twice as they were packing for the same voyage in January 1938.
One fellow-passenger on the Carthage who was definitely travelling first class (unless there was a higher category) was Lady Northcote, the Governor’s wife, who’d flown back to Britain to visit her sick mother. During the occupation Thomas was to find himself living at even closer quarters to some of the Colony’s most important women, including Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and Lady Mary Grayburn, the wife of the Chief Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Sir Vandeleur was the ‘Governor’s Governor’ according to some people). Thomas (and his wife Evelina) shared Bungalow D in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp with them and over 20 others.
Thomas stepped off the boat on May 11, 1938. What he found was not the sleepy colonial backwater of legend but one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the world.
But that’s a theme for another day. Here’s the letter he wrote on his first or second day aboard ship. In the transcription below it I’ve kept his idiosyncratic capitalisation, telegraphic style and some of his punctuation:
We arrived Southampton at 7 this morning. As soon as we dock (sic) the G. P. O. came on board & fit (sic) the phone up so might ring the girls up when we dock again. there is a good band on board & plenty to do plenty of food 5 course Breakfast 7 course Dinner. Bovril & soup mid mornings sea water baths & shower. everything is heated by hot air. we start Deck games on Sunday. There’s not many people on board about 60 so they do not keep us strictly 2nd. Class only for meals. As soon as we left the docks on Friday there was a dickens of a noise on the bells we had to go on the top deck for life boat drill.
‘plenty of food 5 course Breakfast 7 course Dinner’
‘there is a good band on board’
Thomas was never a smoker, so not many visits here
Also not needed