Category Archives: Vandeleur Grayburn

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



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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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 ( 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.

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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 –
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

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (2): Grayburn’s Story, Part 1 – Loss, Relief and Resistance

A version of this post with public image illustrations can be read at:

Those who called Sir Vandeleur Grayburn ‘the King’ of Hong Kong weren’t far wrong. As well as head of the Colony’s most important business, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, he was (or had recently been) a member of the University Court1 The Exchange Fund Advisory committee, 2The Taxation Committee,3 and the War Revenue committee,4 a JP5 and from July 1941 an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council.6 Probably of much else as well.

In spite of his position at the centre of Hong Kong life, Sir Vandeleur showed no particular foresight in the immediate run up to the war. On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the HKVDC (Volunteers) were mobilised along with the rest of the garrison amid compelling evidence that an attack was imminent. When HSBC employee M. G. Carruthers informed his boss he’d been called up, Sir Vandeleur looked at him in horror and told him he couldn’t go – ‘this is going to blow over’.

He shouldn’t be blamed too much for this: at the start of the month Governor Mark Young and the garrison’s commanding officer Major-General Maltby had joined forces to convince him that if the Japanese started any trouble a naval force would sail up from Singapore ‘and everything would be hunky-dory’.7 On December 2 plans for Grayburn to go with other senior staff to Singapore and set up head office there had been approved, and the Governor appealed to Sir Vandeleur not to leave the Colony as he feared it would have a serious effect on morale.8 He agreed to stay at his post fro a second time – he should really have stepped down in 1940, when it had been planned to replace him with David Charles Edmondston, who’d been appointed Hong Kong Manager in 1936. Because of the serious situation in the Far East, Sir Vandeleur had agreed to stay.9 A minute of the HSBC Board of Directors (meeting in Stanley Camp soon after Grayburn’s death) recorded that he could have retired after a successful term as head of the bank ‘but he chose to remain at his post and see the war through’.10By the time the Pacific War began, some colleagues considered he was ‘rundown with overwork’.11

During the hostilities he was either in the Essential Services Group– someone who was tasked with working at their normal job12 – or perhaps because of his age and eminence simply exempted in order to provide advice and leadership. We know he was at ”the Bank’ (as the HSBC was often called) on day one of the attack (December 8) as Colonel Harry Hughes reported that he went there that day and even Sir Vandeleur couldn’t get him Chinese currency13 On December 11, focusing on the bank’s future in case of defeat, Grayburn requested that the Governor seek an Order in Council to transfer the HSBC head office not to Singapore but London. Governor Young forwarded the request, but pointed out that ‘the contingency is not contemplated’. Frank King implies he still had hopes of holding the Colony at this stage.14

Like everyone else whose house was in a place deemed (sometimes wrongly) to be relatively safe, the Grayburns had their house on the Peak (‘The Cliffs’, no. 355) designated a billet for evacuees from more dangerous or exposed areas. One of his HSBC employees, Doris Woods, alongside her two sisters was amongst them, and Miss Woods tells us that by December 14, in the midst of continuous shelling and regular aerial bombardment, the electricity had failed, they couldn’t listen to the world news, food was running short, and the strain on everyone’s nerves was leading to frequent quarrels. Lady Grayburn was probably still in the house – I can see no reason for her to have been moved – but her husband was likely to have been sleeping in the bank.15 In any case, on that December 14, another air raid started and Doris and her twin sister (and partner in a popular singing duet) ran to take shelter in the pantry, where they sat for hours repeating the 91st Psalm. When the shelling stopped, they emerged and inspected the effects: the front of the house had been damaged and the Grayburns’ private sitting-room was in ruins.16 In a letter dated May 31, 1942 (see below) Sir Vandeleur told his daughter that Cliffs was ‘badly damaged’ and their ‘possessions all gone’.17

The Bank shut at noon on Christmas Day and the staff went up to the mess on the seventh floor for a simple meal; they learnt shortly after of the Colony’s surrender18 (which took place at about 3.15 p.m.). On December 26, the Japanese, under the orders of the former manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank, entered the HSBC building and assembled the staff. Grayburn was questioned at length, and all the banks keys were surrendered and the safes and treasuries sealed.19 The Building itself, ‘Grayburn’s Folly’, became the seat of the Japanese administration.

What happened next is perhaps controversial. Grayburn almost certainly played a leading role in the decision of some bankers, include himself, to stay uninterned and help the Japanese ‘liquidate’ their banks. It’s sometimes said that this decision was made under ‘duress’ but in fact threats to the bankers and their families came later -in spring1942– to force them to sign unissued HSBC banknotes (see below). The initial agreement to stay out was partly to help the Chinese and other uninterned nationals but I think mainly to look after the interests of the HSBC and the other banks whose staff were involved. In any case, refusal to help wouldn’t have stopped the Japanese plundering the banks, and a number of sources testify that, as well as making records of, or at least keeping an eye on, what was happening, the bankers dragged their feet as much as possible.

Both during and after the war, it was Dr Selwyn-Clarke and the team of public health workers he led that bore the brunt of criticism on the grounds of collaboration. This was partly because Selwyn-Clarke, although he did co-operate with the resistance, had an uneasy relationship with it, while, as we shall see, the British Army Aid Group received enthusiastic help from the HSBC staff (although they were disappointed that some of the younger bankers refused to escape and were even unsure about being repatriated because of pressure from ‘seniors’ to remain in Hong Kong, presumably to re-open the Bank quickly after liberation20). After the war, the deaths of the two most prominent HSBC staff, and of one other, executed for resistance activities, and the imprisonment of another HSBC employee and three members of the Chartered Bank, left the bankers effectively beyond criticism. Nevertheless, George Endacott, a distinguished historian, who is clearly sympathetic to those experiencing the dilemmas of the occupation, has written that these people ‘were presumably collaborators and could, and perhaps should, have refused to assist in the handing over of the banks, and gone into Stanley internment earlier than they did’. But he goes on:

But their remaining out enabled them to see that records were preserved and information about accounts and notes in circulation were up-to-date, and this materially assisted the British take-over in 1945.21

We should also note that the Chartered Bank people consulted the Financial Secretary (probably R. R. Todd, who was acting FS on October 9, 194 22) and the bankers of other nationalities (American, Dutch and Belgium) who agreed to stay out did so after consulting their consular staff.23 Our source for this, Chartered Bank employee Andrew Leiper, doesn’t tell us what Grayburn did, but there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have got the same advice if he thought it necessary to consult anyone. Accounts both by bankers themselves and those who used their services make it clear how important their work was to the ordinary people of Hong Kong during the chaotic first months of the occupation,24 and, in my opinion, this would have justified the decision even without the contributions made by the bankers to the ongoing relief efforts that will be discussed in the rest of this post. One of the Chinese who benefited from their services noted:

The Japanese cannot do anything in the banks without (British) help. If the British are asked to do something contrary to their sense of justice, honesty and honor, their answer is ‘Send us to Stanley Internment Camp’. Since their help is absolutely necessary, the Japanese have to treat them honourably.25

We know from both Chartered Bank and HSBC sources that their staff bent or broke all the rules of banking to help out, for example, unquestioningly paying to spouses from the accounts of those who’d died.

On January 5 the HSBC bankers joined the rest of the Allied civilian community at the Murray Parade Ground. Those destined for Stanley, 126 of them, were marched to the Nam Ping Hotel, those needed for the liquidation to the Sun Wah. At first the two groups were allowed to mingle, but then the Sun Wah people had their movements tightly controlled (until July, when their situation eased – see below)26

Now the scene was set for the drama that was to play itself out ‘in town’ for the next 18 months. There were under 100 men who met the criteria for internment (healthy ‘white’ Allied civilians) but who were kept out of Stanley, usually with their families, to do essential work, and these men, in some case their wives and in at least one case their children, were going to provide the spearhead of the non-Chinese relief and resistance movements.

The most important of these in this respect was the former Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, who was almost the only Briton in the Colony who had a clear vision of his role in the occupation. With the help of a senior Japanese military medical officer who’d been impressed by his racially egalitarian courtesy when he’d visited Hong Kong in the past, he was allowed to stay out and carry on his work – in the short term, the dead bodies scattered around Hong Kong posed serious risks of epidemic disease that would hit the Japanese as hard as any other group, so action was urgently needed. In addition to organising public health measures, Selwyn-Clarke quickly realised that the conditions in Stanley and the POW Camps (primarily Shamshuipo, Argyle Street, Ma Tau-Chung and Bowen Road Military Hospital) were such that a massive relief effort was necessary to prevent large-scale suffering and death.

In the dreadful financial conditions of the occupation, raising the money to pay for food and medicine was a major problem. Some better-off people of all the uninterned nationalities started to give the doctor money directly or to take other personal actions, at great risk to themselves.27 Even sending a food parcel to a friend ran the risk of attracting the attention of the Gendarmes, who were always on the look out for evidence of Allied sympathies. But individual acts of charity were not enough to meet the huge need; what was required was a systematic money-raising campaign, and it was a huge stroke of luck for the beneficiaries that a swathe of Hong Kong’s bankers were out in town to organise it. It didn’t prove to be lucky for the bankers themselves, though, and this group (at its maximum 80, including women and children) suffered more than any other in terms of members arrested, tortured, died or executed.

Sir Vandeleur was almost certainly the leader in the effort to raise money to give to Selwyn-Clarke to buy desperately needed food and medicines for the camps. Like Selwyn-Clarke, the bankers probably started by receiving spontaneous charity – depositors would come into the bank to make a withdrawal and whisper to the cashier to hold back some of the cash for Stanley – but it doesn’t seem to have been long before they started working more systematically to raise funds.

The cashier for these efforts, Samuel Perry-Aldworth28 tells us:

…(David) Edmondston and Grayburn and Hugo Foy….arranged with some of the Indian and Chinese constituents, who were paying in every day to pay off their overdrafts and all that, to divert a bit of it…29

These ‘diversions, proved inadequate, but to explain what happened next I need to remind the reader that on January 9, 1942 Lindsay Ride of the HKVDC Ambulance Unit escaped from Shamshuipo POW Camp with the help of his Chinese employee Francis ‘Chicken’ Lee. Ride and Lee were aided in their escape by communist guerillas. After reaching the war-time Chinese capital Chunking (Chongqing), Ride was able to set up the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a multi-faceted organisation that carried out a wide variety of resistance tasks in southern China and occupied Hong Kong. The organisation worked closely with the guerillas (who are best known under the name of the East River Column) and depended for the most part on Chinese agents who could move relatively freely in and out of the former colony. In June 1942 the first BAAG agents arrived in Hong Kong. The earliest contacts of which I’ve seen evidence were with men known to Colonel Ride at the University and the French Hospital, but it wasn’t long before agents reached the Sun Wah – the initial contact seems to have been David Edmondston, who also had known Ride pre-war.30

It’s hard to know how much of a risk Grayburn thought he was taking in his ongoing relief work. He might have felt that the Japanese would turn a blind eye to the attempts of the most prominent financier in the Far East to raise money for purely humanitarian purposes, and, as we shall see, the Gendarmes did treat him in a relatively lenient way when they found out (the Japanese liquidators had known for a long time, but, like most Japanese civilians in Hong Kong, they were decent people and did no more than warn the bankers they would not be able to help them if the Kempeitai found out31).But when the agents of the Hong Kong resistance made contact with the bankers at the Sun Wah, he can have been in doubt as to the consequences of getting involved. Nevertheless, in his early 60s and not in particularly good health, Sir Vandeleur became a BAAG agent, code named Night. Now he must have understood that all the prestige in Asia wouldn’t save him from torture and execution if he was caught. And the conditions they were working under were difficult; Leiper says they identified at least one Chinese as having been sent so spy on them,32 and, although they probably weren’t watched as carefully as Selwyn-Clarke’s team, there are likely to have been many more clandestine observers.

It wasn’t long before Grayburn was deeply involved with the BAAG. It seems messages were soon passing back and forth from the Sun Wah on a routine basis. On July 31, 1942 Grayburn sent a message to a Chunking banker through BAAG agent 36 (Lau Teng Ke) asking, ‘Is it possible to draw on you’? Obviously he was hoping to be able to use Chunking funds to supplement those raised locally for the relief work. What seems to have been the same communication asked the British Embassy in that city to ensure the honouring of financial instruments (‘Rupee and Sterling drafts on paper dated 23/12/41’) that the bankers were selling secretly to raise money. After a period of confusion – the authorities in London were aware that the bankers had been signing ‘duress’ notes since the spring (see below) so felt that not all their financial transactions should be accepted – the Rupee and Sterling drafts were indeed honoured.33 Interestingly Grayburn added that the scheme had the approval of Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, which suggests that he was able to get messages into and out of Stanley, unless the idea went back to the period before March 13 when Gimson had been interned.34

The full story of the bankers’ work will probably never be known, as neither Grayburn nor Edmondston survived (Hugo Foy kept a diary but so far this has not been made generally available). One thing that’s worth adding, though, is that it wasn’t just the bankers who raised money, as we know that two BAAG agents, the American Chester Bennett and the Portuguese Marcus da Silva arranged loans, guaranteed by wealthy citizens interned in Stanley.35 But I think it’s clear that it was the bankers, under Grayburn’s leadership, who raised most of the cash for Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s work. Another thing we’ll never have much idea of is how many lives were saved and how much suffering was eased.

The bankers kept some of the money for their own relief efforts in the city itself. Conditions in occupied Hong Kong were bad enough at the start, but they began to deteriorate as early as June 1942, and soaring prices soon meant that only the very wealthiest had no worries about feeding themselves and their children. With Edmondston and perhaps others, Grayburn administered a fund to provide illegal loans to distressed Allied nationals who’d not been interned: when Edmondston refused to lend money to American writer Emily Hahn, in protest at her adulterous affair with Charles Boxer, Grayburn lent her the money from his private account.36

While all this was going on, the bankers were liquidating their own banks. In the spring the Japanese discovered a stock of unsigned banknotes, and they set Grayburn and his colleagues to work signing them for their use – ‘unbacked, unlawful, distinguishable only by their serial numbers from the genuine ones’.37 According to Oliver Lindsay, who provides no source for the claim, they were made to sign only 500 a day, half an hour’s work.38

We have a few glimpses of the conditions in which Sir Vandeleur and Lady Mary were living during the occupation. In late May 1942 Grayburn learnt he’d be able send out a letter through a soon to be repatriated American, and on May 31 he wrote one in which he tried to tell the unadorned truth, or a little of it at least, to his daughter Elizabeth:

(W)eight dropped from 200 to 160 lbs. Mary is somewhat thinner. Our cubicle is tiny, we sleep on a single mattress. Had no proper bath since December.

These words were blacked out by the Japanese censor.

A domestic detail did get through:

Mary cooks every Thursday for whole community of 80. Some soup maker!!39

One of the repatriated American bankers, Theodore Lindabury, wrote to Elizabeth himself:

During that time (the Grayburns) were working every day in the liquidation of the Bank and were able, by various means, to secure a sufficient supply of food, other than the rice given by the Japanese.40

The ‘various means’ probably meant buying extra food on either the open or the black market, and Lindabury stressed how lucky they were not to be in Stanley. In spite of this understandably upbeat picture, Sir Vandeleur was seen ‘looking as gaunt and grey as a timber wolf’.41

Other repatriated bankers gave a general account of conditions at the Hotel to journalist Vaughn Meisling, himself a Stanley repatriate. They described the Sun Wah as ‘a fire trap well-stocked with vermin’ and said that many of their number had needed treatment for dysentery, malnutrition and insect bites. They were marched a mile and a half to and from their work every day – the notorious ‘chain gang’ – escorted by soldiers, although after the Americans had left the remaining bankers were spared this indignity. They were often slapped and humiliated by their captors, the worst of whom they called ‘Slaphappy Joe’ because he was never happy except when hitting someone. At afternoon roll call he would box their ears until they learnt to answer in Japanese. My guess is that this was the guard who subjected the bankers to ‘additional indignities’ who Grayburn got transferred by complaining to the Finance Department in March.42 The American bankers often felt they were being sniped at as bullets hit or entered the hotel.43

According to Andrew Leiper, who was in the Sun Wah with two of his colleagues from the Chartered Bank, there was no electricity until March, but when it came it greatly cheered the residents44 – this restoration had been requested by Grayburn at the same time he complained about the guard.45 Before the July easing of conditions, the bankers suffered badly from boredom – it was worse for the women and children who seemed to have been confined to the Sun Wah. The women (all British, Dutch and Belgian as there were no American wives) spent the early weeks cleaning and disinfecting46 what had once been a squalid boarding house which, if it was like most of the hotels used to house Allied nationals before they were sent to Stanley, had doubled as brothel after the pre-war Government had launched a futile drive against prostitution. At first the residents had nothing to read except banking reference books and the Japanese-produced Hong Kong News. The highlights of the week were ‘bath night’ – 6 inches of hot water, so you can see why Sir Vandeleur complained he’d not had a proper bath and ‘rations night’ when Leiper and the Dutch banker Hugo Bakkeren handed out weevil-ridden rice and flour, peanut oil, salt and wong tong47 to representatives of each ‘mess’.48

Emily Hahn tells us that to get away from the Sun Wah, Sir Vandeleur and his wife sometimes visited French banker Paul de Roux, who had arranged a flat for himself at the top of the Bank d’Indochine building. They were also able to take a bath there.49 De Roux was also (or later became) a resistance agent, and on February 19, 1944, he jumped from that flat in order to escape arrest by the Kempeitai.50

More about the lives of the Sun Wah bankers, and about Grayburn’s leadership role, is shown by a development of late 1942. On December 10 he received a note from one of the Japanese Liquidators:

I have to advise you sincerely that all Foreign Officer (sic) of the Bank at present working under the liquidation and their families should refrain from moving about freely on Saturday afternoons, Sundays or any other holidays, especially during the evenings and nights.
Should there be any necessity to go out, permission must first be obtained from the Liquidators.
I wish to emphasize that this is a matter of serious importance and that should one single person get involved in trouble, all the others will suffer the consequences as a result.

The Japanese were often anxious to prevent ‘contamination’ of the Chinese by Allied nationals, and Leiper and others were once ejected from a cinema, but my guess is that this tightening of the rules was a response to the October escape of two HSBC staff, which I’ll discuss in the next post. Grayburn got all the bankers at the Sun Wah to initial the document, having first written on it:

This ruling refers to all times, we are only allowed out for shopping and exercise. French Hospital may only be visited for real necessity not for softball.

The bankers had been allowed very little freedom at first, but in July 1942, as a reward for ‘good behaviour – ironically this was about the time that some of them were making contact with the BAAG – they were allowed passes that gave them some right to move about the town, for example, to shop in Central or to go to the French Hospital ‘in case of need’ or to visit relatives and colleagues there.51 They were also given an allowance of $300 a month for food, probably at this time.52 Weekend ‘excursions’ to the Hospital to visit or take food to any Sun Wah resident there became popular as they provided the chance to get away from the hotel and enjoy a walk in the fresh air,53 and it would seem from Sir Vandeleur’s comment that some bankers also went to take part in the softball games started by one of the American Health Department drivers before his repatriation.

According to postal historian David Tett, whose source was undoubtedly Grayburn’s family Sir Vandeleur ‘took no heed’ of the risk himself, so presumably he ignored his own instructions and continued to visit the French Hospital.54 Andrew Leiper tells us that it was the health workers who kept the bankers ‘in touch with what was happening at Stanley’,55 and, although he’s discussing an earlier period, my guess is that the soft ball and the visits enabled those bankers working for the BAAG to pick up useful information.

Given the hunger and squalor of his daily life and the dangers that he faced, why didn’t Grayburn try to escape from the unguarded hotel? Lindsay Ride, indeed, devised plans for a mass escape of the bankers, but these were over-ruled on political grounds: it was felt that it would be embarrassing to get the bankers out while leaving almost everyone else under Japanese rule.56 But what of Grayburn’s personal attitude to remaining in Hong Kong? In the message of July 31 previously referred to, he wrote:

Staff requests make every endeavour repatriate self as only person who can clarify present situation.57

That, however, referred to an authorised repatriation, and it seems that Grayburn never wanted to try his luck in an illicit escape. This might have been because, as T. J. J. Fenwick and David Edmondston believed, the chances of a tired, 61 year old with gout and general debility getting out of Hong Kong were low. One source claims that his health was so poor at this time meant he never appeared at the bank unless required.58 However, King suggests that his illness might have been part diplomatic – to keep him out of his office where he could do little and might annoy the Japanese.59 Others have suggested he was afraid of reprisals against Lady Mary, which would have been a perfectly reasonable attitude to have taken – one Portuguese escaper had his ex-wife arrested! But it seems that an important, perhaps the main, reason for his remaining was he believed that it was in Hong Kong that he could do most good. Lady Mary later testified:

(W)hile we were prisoners (Sir Vandeleur Grayburn) was repeatedly asked to make his getaway and all plans were made and organized by people in Free China to this end, but he always refused because his argument was that he was doing more good in Hong Kong than he would do if he were away from it.60

Once again Grayburn – now sick, tired, hungry and facing the gravest dangers imaginable – stayed at his post.


1GA 1939, no.. 320 .

2GA 1938, no. 807.

3Report of the Taxation committee, SP 1939.

4Report of the War Revenue committee, SP1940.

5GA 1941, no. 521.

6GA 1941, no. 885.

7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 47.

8 King, 568.

9King, 1988, 403.

10David Tett, Captives In Cathay, 2007, 302.

11Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.

12See Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 8.


14King, 1988, 572.

15See King, 1988, 572.

16John Luff, The Hidden Years, 1967, 136-137.

17Tett, 2007, 291.

18King, 1988, 572.

19 King, 1988, 572-573

20Waichow Intelligence Summary, No. 25, 27 March 1943, Ride Papers.

21G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 240.

22Minutes of the Finance committee meeting for that date.

23Leiper, 1982, 102-103.

24Leiper, 1982, passim; Alice Y. Lan and Betty M. Hu, We Flee From Hong Kong, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

25Lan and Hu, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

26King, 1988, 573.

27Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 73.

28There seems to be a photo of him taken in 1961 in the National Portrait Gallery –

29Cited King, 1988, 612-613.

30King, 1988, 614.

31 King, 1988, 613.

32 Leiper, 1982, 169.

33King, 1988, 613-614.

34Some sources give March 11.


36Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 392-393.

37Snow, 2003, 152.

38Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 112.

39Tett, 2007, 291-292.

40Tett, 2007, 294.

41Snow, 2003, 141.

42King, 1988, 574.

43 Billings Gazette, August 26, 1942, page 2.

44Leiper, 1982, 134.

45King, 1988, 574.

46Leiper, 1982, 117.

47Similar words mean both brown sugar and dumplings. My sense is that in Hong Kong WW11 sources it usually means sugar.

48Leiper, 1982, 141.

49Hahn, 1986 ed, 376.


Another account has him die on February 19 in a Kempeitai prison as a result of mistreatment.

51Leiper, 1982, 147-148.

52King, 1988, 574.

53Leiper, 1982, 150.

54Tett, 2007, 295.

55Leiper, 1982, 143. Leiper says that they heard reports about the Kowloon POW Camps ‘from the same source’ .

56King, 1988, 616.

57King, 198, 617.

58King, 1988, 613-614.

59King, 1988, 617.

60King, 1988, 616-617.

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Emily Hahn, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp, Vandeleur Grayburn

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Vandeleur Grayburn (1) ‘Just the natives fighting’

For a version of this post with public domain illustrations, see

This is the first of several posts detailing the remarkable story of HKSBC chief Vandeleur Grayburn, who died in Stanley Prison almost exactly 70 years ago.

In January 1938 two of the best-known (and best) British writers were in Hong Kong. Wystan Hugh Auden was the most distinguished poet of the generation that followed on T. S. Eliot’s modernist revolution (roughly 1910-1925), while Christopher Isherwood, his friend and intermittent lover, was a talented novelist.

Auden had already written the poem (‘Stop All the Clocks’) that was to be so successfully used in Four Weddings and a Funeral (it’s far from being one of his best though) and Isherwood had gone through significant experiences in late Weimar Berlin, which he was in the process of turning into novels that would later  be adapted into the Oscar winning film Cabaret (1972).

They were, self-consciously, radical intellectuals, and they were looked to for a lead by many members of a generation driven to the left by the mass slaughter of WW1, the apparent promise of better things held out by the Russian Revolution, and the disillusion with capitalist economics brought about by the Wall Street Crash (1929) and the ‘great depression’ that ensued.

Auden had started his poetic career in the late 1920s, often writing in traditional forms, or recognisable adaptations of them, but taking full advantage of Eliot’s demonstration that a poetry adequate to the complexities of the modern world needed to be difficult. But, like Eliot, he liked to spring surprises on his audience, and in the late summer of 1932 he sent a poem to Isherwood called ‘A Communist To Others’, which offered overt political commitment and an appropriate new style. The poem started with an address to the workers – ‘Comrades who when the sirens roar’1- and continued in a way which, although by no means simple throughout, was to give most contemporary readers good reason to believe he was trying to reach a much wider than audience than the tiny elite who’d appreciated his earlier work. His poems thereafter varied in style and register, but some of the best known were written in the same ‘accessible’ style – for example, the favourite anthology piece ‘O What is that sound which so thrills the ear’, and the still controversial poem about cancer, ‘Miss Gee’). His poem ‘Spain 1937’ was not only a politically ‘committed’ work itself, it was also about the inevitability of poetic commitment, arguing that everything but ‘the struggle’ needed to be put off until the outcome of the battle for Spain had been decided. Auden himself went to help the Spanish Republic, albeit putting in no more than a short spell (leaving London on January 12, 1937 and returning about March 42) as a propagandist.

Isherwood came out of the same privileged middle class strata as Auden. In 1929 he’d followed Auden to Berlin – his friend had been promised a parental allowance until his twenty third birthday, and had broken with the tradition of taking a ‘gap year’ a year in Paris. The German capital in the last years of the culturally vigorous Weimar Republic and during the first stage of the Nazi takeover was the perfect place for a writer of Isherwood’s particular talents – he had a gift for rendering ordinary events in lucid prose and for an apparently non-judgemental objectivity, which of course made his actual judgements (which no writer can avoid) seem compelling. In 1935 he had published his first attempt at ‘mining’ the Berlin experience, a daring novel for the time, Mr Norris Changes Trains, whose engaging anti-hero is a gay masochist, a petty crook, and an eventually treacherous communist. If the book has a real hero, it’s the communist leader Bayer, who’s tortured and murdered by the Nazis towards the close of the novel.3 The narrator, William Bradshaw, describes his own involvement with the Party, and few readers would have doubted this reflected Isherwood’s own experiences, or at least his sympathies; the more perspicacious ones would have noted with what distance his communist activities are described, and perhaps foreseen the coming apostasy.

But that was still in the future in 1938, as was the majority of the second book based on his Berlin life, one that was to earn Isherwood huge post-war fame when it became the film Cabaret in 1972. He’d published one important chunk of this in 1937, a novella called Sally Bowles, which he republished in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the rest of which was written in the period after his return from China. The material in this fine novel was to wind its way through a complex set of adaptations to the 1972 Oscar triumph – it won eight, and might have got Best Picture and Best Screenplay, for which it was also nominated, if it hadn’t also been the year of The Godfather.4

Neither Auden or Isherwood ever joined the British Communist Party, but this probably made it easier for a broad swathe of left wing opinion to see them as leaders, in literature at least. They were in Hong Kong with a contract from Faber and Faber (T. S. Eliot was a director and the poetry editor) to write a book, combining their complementary talents, on the Sino-Japanese War. They boarded the boat-train on January 19, 1938, heading first for Paris, and then south to Marseilles, where they boarded the Aramis for the long sea journey to Hong Kong,5 where they arrived on February 16.6

It’s not surprising the two young radicals didn’t like Hong Kong. It’s easy to exaggerate the racism, the status snobbery and the smugness of what was then a British Crown Colony, but you could go to the other extreme and significantly underplay it all and it would still be appalling. Philip Snow, author of the magnificent The Fall of Hong Kong, quotes an official of the London Colonial Office who called it ‘the most self-satisfied of all the colonies, except Malaya’ and Snow’s own verdict is that ‘everyone did their best, seemingly, to look down upon anyone different’.7

At first the two writers lived in a luxurious bathing cabin at fashionable Repulse Bay, and then they moved in with University Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Sloss. Isherwood reported in a letter to his mother of February 25 that he was ‘extraordinarily kind’ and that he’d agreed to acts as a poste restante service for future letters.8 Sloss was a polymathic dinner-table conversationalist,9 and he was the distinguished editor of William Blake one of the radical thinkers who’d influenced Auden, but this amiable and interesting host doesn’t seem to have softened their disapproval of the Hong Kong British. Perhaps it’s rather strange that rather than living in comfortable surroundings and mixing with government officials and millionaires at ‘formal dinner parties’,10 the two revolutionaries didn’t get into the streets and tenements and meet the Chinese, who made up about 98% of the Colony’s population. That’s what another left-wing writer in Hong Kong at about the same time did; New Zealander Robin Hyde’s book The Dragon Rampant (1939) describes some of the scenes of majority life that Auden and Isherwood seem to have ignored.

In the course of what seems to have been a rather undemanding 12 days in the colony (they left on February 28) they met the third character in this story, someone who might well have seemed to them to sum up British Hong Kong, with its many weaknesses and few strengths.

In his autobiographical memoir, Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood, to illustrate to his readers the narrow-minded and short-sighted racism that permeated the expat community, offered this anecdote (Isherwood refers to himself as Christopher throughout the book):

‘Speaking of the Japanese invasion of China, a businessman said to Christopher: ‘Of course, from our point of view, both sides are just natives’.11

Who was this ‘businessman’? The answer lies in a letter written by another distinguished English writer, William Empson, in Hong Kong for a break from the demanding task of teaching English in a Chinese university on the run from the Japanese. Empson bumped into Auden and Isherwood by chance, not knowing they were there at the same time. He thought Auden had ‘the glamour of Oscar Wilde’ and in a letter to his mother of March 15, recounted that the two fledgling war correspondents had told him they’d visited the Governor of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (who, Empson, also a kind of socialist, called ‘the Governor of the Governor’ of Hong Kong) and that they’d asked him his opinion of the war:

‘Well, it’s just the natives fighting’.12

The ‘Governor’, Sir Vandeleur Molyneux Grayburn – in the words of a colleague, ‘A strong, vigorous, I should say reckless personality’13 – was born in England on July 28, 1881 and educated in Jersey and Staffordshire. After an apprenticeship at a bank in Goole (Yorkshire), he joined the HKSBC at the age of twenty, remaining in the London office until December 1904, when he was posted to Shanghai.14 He was sent to Hong Kong in 1920 and appointed head of the Bank in 1930 at the age of 48; he’d been in the East for 26 years, and some felt he lacked the broad geographical experience needed for the job.15 As a result of the events I’ll describe in my next post, Grayburn is sometimes cited as an inspiration to today’s bankers, who should also note that in his first year, Grayburn declined the full salary package he was offered, accepting payment of £6,000 for the year’s work16 – that’s a little short of £300,000 in today’s values, which most bankers today would probably consider not quite what the senior financier in the Far East should be expecting.

In 1935 he’d seen opened the end product of one of his favourite projects, the new HKSBC headquarters at 1, Queen’s Road Central, the first fully air-conditioned building in the Colony, and controversially modernist in design. Later, it was to play an important role in the Japanese occupation, and, as we shall see, before that it had been spotted as a useful symbol by the disapproving eye of W. H. Auden.

He was knighted in 1937 for his assistance to the Hong Kong government during the currency crisis of the mid 1930s. In the same year Grayburn’s position as Chief manager was confirmed, and the hope was expressed he would stay in post for another three years. So there he was in February 1938, available to provide a sound-bite that would suitably shock another radical writer during a chance encounter and would eventually end up standing in for the racism of colonial Hong Kong in a book that would be published almost thirty years later.

It’s possible that Grayburn was just trying to wind up the young radicals; I doubt that Auden made much of a secret of his dislike of Hong Kong life in general and bankers in particular, and Grayburn might have just been getting his own back or mockingly living up to the role he realised he’d been cast in.But there’s no doubt that he could well have meant what he said, as he felt a sense, not uncommon in the Colony before the war, of the deep superiority of ‘Europeans’ to Asians, and of the English to all other ‘white’ nationalities. In a 1937 letter about bankers wives he wrote, ‘Foreign, native, half caste are definitely taboo’17 and he operated a ‘no Chinese wives’ policy for his staff – he was hardly unique in doing so, of course, but I’ve not seen any evidence that it went against the grain. In fact, he’s said to have commented that even the Bank’s one American employee was ‘one too many’18 It’s easy to write this off as ‘the beliefs’ of the time, but not everyone in Hong Kong then was racist. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, for example, was packing for the journey out at about the time the two writers left the Colony for Canton, as he’d been appointed Director of Medical Services, giving him cachet almost equal to Grayburn’s. The doctor was sublimely indifferent to racial judgements, as was his wife, the soon to be notorious ‘Red Hilda’. Besides, Grayburn was quite capable of defying convention when he wanted to, and it was said that his third wife enjoyed the dignities of that situation before they were strictly married. His second wife filed for a UK divorce on the grounds of desertion (under then recent legislation) and this was uncontested.19 I doubt that divorce was any less of a stigma in polite society in pre-war Hong Kong than it was in Britain and this doesn’t seem to have bothered Sir Vandeleur.

What about his general attitude to China, a nation undergoing financial turmoil and Japanese attack during his tenure of the supreme post at the bank? Well, one contemporary source hinted1988, that Sir Vandeleur and other senior businessmen would have welcomed a Japanese victory as most conducive to the stability required for their operations, and implies he’d been trying to undermine Chinese standing in western opinion.20 I don’t think there’s any evidence for this (the same source claims that Grayburn was known at the time as ‘the King’, which is probably more solidly grounded). But the picture painted by the Bank’s painstaking historian Frank King is very different. He tells us that Grayburn – and his colleague Henchmann in Shanghai – tended to advocate, against the Bank’s committee in London, decisions that were in China’s long-term interests.21 Although the Chinese Government didn’t like the extraterritoriality system, which gave great privileges to foreigners in China, it worked in its favour after the Japanese attack (beginning in December 1937) as far as banking went as it enabled Grayburn and the HKSBC to protect China’s interests and sometimes the security of its bankers, as the Chinese banks in Shanghai came under pressure from the Japanese, from gangsters and sometimes from their own officials.22

In summary, King believes that Grayburn, in spite of his complaints and his doubts about the political situation, remained “committed to ‘Free China’”23 So it seems that it was with some justification at least that Sir Vandeleur claimed in 1940, ‘I have done my utmost to do what I consider is the principal duty of the Hongkong Bank – to help Hong Kong and China and the Government of both places – and I think I have done it.’24 Frank King tells us he received the Chinese Republic’s Order of the Brilliant Jade for defending the currency of the Republic of China,25 and it would greatly support this claim if this is true, but, if Wikipedia is to trusted, this is a one-rank decoration awarded only to foreign heads of a nation.26 My guess is that he was awarded an honour by the Chinese Republic, but perhaps not this one.

When the product of the visit to Hong Kong and China, Journey To A War, appeared in 1939 Isherwood’s prose narrative contained no mention of Hong Kong, but Auden’s sequence Sonnets From China did have a sonnet on the Colony,27 and, although he’s not mentioned by name, ‘Hong Kong’ bears rather strongly on the work and symbolism of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn:

The leading characters are wise and witty,
Substantial men of birth and education
With wide experience of administration,
They know the manners of a modern city.28

In spite of the fact that these lines seem to focus on government (‘administration’), given that Hong Kong was a society in which senior businessmen ranked at least equal to colonial civil servants (some say they outranked them), and that bankers were the most ‘senior’ of them all, I have no doubt that Grayburn was one of the stylishly amoral ‘leading characters that Auden had in mind. When he came to revise the poem (for the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems), he removed the narrow focus on ‘administration’ and made it clear he was referring to the whole of Hong Kong’s ‘white’ elite:

Their suits well tailored, and they wear them well.

The revised third and fourth lines characterise Hong Kong and its elite better than the original draft:

Have many a polished parable to tell
About the mores of a trading city.

In other words: ‘the leading British people here are all show, albeit stylish show, and their morality is what you’d expect of capitalists who began by trading in opium and continue to make a fat living by selling the products of others’ labour’. Some later lines, which take substantially the same form in both versions, take us even closer to the banking chief:

Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

Throughout the poem, Auden represents Hong Kong life as a comedy – meaning something like ‘lacking in seriousness, funny to outsiders and based on the naive assumption that, in spite of the war raging close by, all would end happily’ – throughout the poem, and he turned what saw as the rather unprepossessing Bank building into a symbol of that kind of life. The building, as we’ve seen, was the product of Grayburn’s vision, and locally it was sometimes known as ‘Grayburn’s Folly’.29

In its original 1938 version the poem ends:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Some commentators have seen the rejection of Rousseau’s idea of a ‘General Will’, a collective desire that individuals should if necessary be forced to submit to, as a sign that Auden was on his way to the abandonment of Marxism. But in context they are rather a rejection of the capitalist idea that if you live in a place like Hong Kong you should act accordingly and not bother about rigorous ethical standards. No-one, Auden suggests, should claim that their actions are the result of the ‘manners of a modern city’ or of some entity like ‘the British in Hong Kong’.

So there you have it: two highly intelligent and principled writers spend a fortnight in a British Colony stuck in the ‘Late Victorian’30 age and, their antennae made even more sensitive because of their mission to report a brutal war of aggression going on over the border, they see through the racism, smugness and naiveté of the ex-pat community, and sum up it all up by reference to the words, deeds and lifestyle of one its most prominent representatives, the real ruler of Hong Kong, ‘The Governor’s Governor’.

What happened next was as remarkable as it was unpredictable and still gives plenty of matter for reflection.

1I’m simplifying but I hope not falsifying a more complex textual history – see Edward Mendelson, The English Auden, 1977, 421-422.
2Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography, 1981,209-215.
3Mr Norris Changes Trains, Vintage 1999 (1935), 217.
5Carpenter, 1981, 233.
6Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, 1977, 223.
7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 2.
10Isherwood, 1977, 223.
11Isherwood, 1977, 223.
12John Haffenden, William Empson: Among the Mandarins, 2005, 483, 659
13Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1998, 228.
14King, 1988, 290.
15King, 1988, 202, 204.
16King, 1988, 204.
18King, 1988, 266.
20Edgar A. Mowrer, The Dragon Wakes, 1939, 20-24, 217.
21 King, 1988, 166.
22 King, 1988, 442.
23 King, 1988, 403.
24King, 1988, 541.
25 King, 1988, 291.
27This poem wasn’t part of the manuscript sent to the publisher – Auden and Isherwood planned to write ‘Hongkong-Macao: A Dialogue’, but then rejected the idea and Auden added a sonnet on each place instead – Mendelson, 1977, 425.
28Text from Mendelson, 1977, 235 – dated December 1938.
29Paul Gillingham, At the Peak, 1983, 162-167 – a good discussion of the whole project.
30See line 10 of Auden’s sonnet, Journey to a War, (1939), 1973 ed. page 13.


Filed under Uncategorized, Vandeleur Grayburn

Leslie William Robert Macey

Note: This is another post that deals with those men and women kept outside Stanley camp to work on public health issues with Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke. It deals with public health official Leslie Macey. Except where otherwise indicated, this post is based on material from Mr. Macey’s daughter, Ruth Sale, who very kindly sent me scanned copies of her father’s archive and supplied me with information from family tradition. There is another interesting and moving story to be told in a separate post: the determined efforts made by Mr. Macey’s widowed mother to find out what had happened to her son.

Leslie William Robert Macey was born in Frimley on September 19, 1905,[1] the eldest of 6 children. He grew up in the seaside town of Minehead in Somerset. His mother, Beatrice Anne, was widowed in 1925. When her husband, William Henry, died she was left in a difficult situation with her two youngest children still of school age. During the war she worked as a companion to elderly people in the Home Counties and London, and her son lost her latest address during the hectic seventeen days of fighting, which made communication even harder than for most of the other internees.

Much of Mr. Macey’s early working life was spent in the army, for whom he boxed. He first appears in the Hong Kong press in 1930 as a hockey player and  features regularly in the next year or so and occasionally thereafter in that capacity.  At some point he became a health inspector – his daughter considers this a rather surprising choice: when he married in 1948 he listed his job as Colonial Transport Officer and on returning to Britain he worked with figures, and public health officer  doesn’t seem an obvious station on such a career trajectory! However, he’s documented as having sat and passed an exam (‘Inspectors of Meat and Other Foods’) at Leeds University in 1937.[2] The Hong Kong health authorities obviously had an arrangement with Leeds, as Mr. Macey was one of four residents who passed that exam: the others were Stanley Poole, Arthur Foster, who was interned in Stanley, and Alexander Christie Sinton, who probably also lived in the French Hospital, and who was executed for his resistance activity on October 29, 1943.[3]

Mr. Macey was one of the Essential Workers, ‘reserved’ from fighting, during the 17 day Japanese assault:

(I) had quite an exciting time and one or two close shaves, but apart from losing all I possessed I managed to weather the storm alright.[4]

According to Tony Banham, there were 23 health inspectors in Hong Kong at about that time[5] and only five people recorded as probably[6] from the Sanitation Department on the December 1942 BAAG list of people living in the French Hospital.[7]

Leslie Macey’s letter to his mother of September 3, 1945 gives a good overview of the experience of all of the twenty or so adults in the French Hospital:

During the first eighteen months of the Japanese occupation about a dozen of us were not interned but were engaged in Public Health work under our M.O.H., Dr Selwyn Clarke who has now been awarded the C.M.G. During this time we were allowed to work in our offices during the daytime but had to return to our billets at night. This eighteen months was not very pleasant. We had difficulty in obtaining food and the Japs, who have a very strong spy complex, had us under suspicion the whole time, which was not very good for our nerves, as we were always expecting to be arrested by the local Gestapo at any moment.

I’ve written about fear of the Kempeitai (‘the local Gestapo’) in a number of posts,[8] and I’ll discuss the deteriorating food supply in occupied Hong Kong in the future. The two fears – of arrest and starvation – seem to have been widely, perhaps universally, felt amongst the ‘Stanley Stay-outs’.[9] The fear of arrest and subsequent torture was probably the stronger. The public brutality meted out to the Chinese from the start was a reminder of what might happen, but at first the Japanese treated the British civilians with caution, even respect.[10] To the best of my knowledge, the only ones arrested by the Kempeitai in 1942 were four escapers from Stanley Camp, and, although these experienced rough treatment in appalling conditions it’s probable (although not certain) that they weren’t actually tortured.[11] Even when Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and E. P. Streatfield were arrested in March 1943 for trying to send money into Stanley they weren’t tortured. It was only with the arrests of suspected spies in April and May 1943 that the brutality began, but, of course, none of the health workers in the French Hospital or the bankers in the Sun Wah Hotel knew that this was how things were going to work out, and they were, I’m sure, terrified right from the start, experiencing an intensification of fear as 1943 went on and the Kempeitai ‘strike back’ against ‘illegal’ activities got into its stride. We know from a number of sources that Selwyn-Clarke expected to be arrested from a relatively early stage in his operations and the same expectation must have been widespread in the French Hospital.

Unfortunately I’ve so far been able to find out nothing about the nature of the work carried out by Mr. Macey or any individual sanitation officer. Something is known, however, about the general Japanese public health measures introduced in 1942, and these too I’ll write about in the future, but as to Mr. Macey’s exact role in implementing them, only speculation is possible. Given the certificate in the inspection of ‘meat and other foods’ it’s possible that he helped oversee the attempt to move meat and fish sales from street hawking into markets, and then to set up a meat importing consortium.[12] But it’s highly likely he had other areas of expertise and, as by all accounts Selwyn-Clarke was allowed to keep out only a ‘skeleton staff’, it’s probable that all of the four inspectors carried out a number of different tasks.

It soon became clear to the uninterned British citizens that only a great effort on their part could avoid large scale deaths in Stanley and the POW camps – even with their help many POWS died in Shamshuipo in 1942, the worst year in that camp. The bankers, under the leadership of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the Chief Manager of the HKSBC, and the health workers in the French Hospital responded with great courage and resourcefulness. The bankers raised large sums of money which was spent by Selwyn-Clarke on medical supplies and essential foods which were then smuggled into the camps. It should be noted that much of this money came, at great personal risk, from wealthy Chinese and Indian residents, who helped out in spite of the fact that they had been the victims of the endemic racism of pre-war Hong Kong. Some of the money they contributed came as loans to be repaid after the war, and were a reasonable investment as they were made in Japanese Military Yen, which might well be worthless when the British returned, but would be repaid in Hong Kong dollars.  Much of it, however, was simply offered out of charity, slipped to the banker surreptitiously during a legitimate transaction.

Family tradition states that Leslie Macey was one of those who smuggled drugs into the camps, and although there is no documentary evidence that this is correct I think it almost certain that he acted in this way, courageously helping others in spite of the fearful consequences of being caught and never expecting any reward or even acknowledgment. One of the reasons for believing this tradition to be true is simple: the fact of the smuggling of medical drugs by the small group in the French Hospital is now well documented, but it’s not something that anyone unfamiliar with the literature of the war in Hong Kong would be likely to invent.

Both bankers and health workers paid a heavy price for their courage: the accountant Charles Hyde was executed (he was also a leading British spy), Grayburn and his deputy Edmondston died in prison, while five other bankers served sentences in hideous conditions; Selwyn-Clarke was tortured for months but refused to incriminate himself or anyone else, while doctors Bunje and Nicholson were arrested (Bunje ended up in prison, but Nicholson probably released – I’ll provide the evidence in a future post). An unknown number of Chinese doctors from the French Hospital and elsewhere were also taken by the Kempeitai.

Family information suggests that Mr. Macey’s boss was beheaded in front of him. One possibility is that this was his Chinese boss in the Sanitation Department – I am aware of a number of cases of summary execution of a Chinese national, and it was not unknown for the Japanese to execute even their own officials for spectacular failure. Another is that the ‘boss’ was Alexander Christie Sinton: many sources say that the executions on (or very close to) Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943 were at a spot visible from the camp, and some add that a number of internees actually witnessed them, and  it’s certainly possible that Mr. Macey was among them.

The same family source also says that the Japanese “pretended” they were about to chop off Mr. Macey’s  head too. From his own account (see below) he was not suspected of spying by the Japanese Gendarmes and military who searched the French Hospital after Selwyn-Clarke’s arrest – except no doubt in the general sense that the Gendarmes believed the Hospital was a ‘hotbed of espionage’[13] – so this terrifying threat was probably made at some point during the 16 or so months he was working in occupied Hong Kong. The reference to the ‘mental strain’ of the war years (see below) was obviously understated.

My guess is that the worst of that tension, almost unimaginable at the best of times, came in early May, 1943, when the Gendarmes arrived at the French Hospital to arrest Selwyn-Clarke, who they’d long believed to be the British spymaster in Hong Kong. They were wrong, he was only involved in non-military ‘illegal’ activities, but on May 2, 1943, the Japanese thought they were cutting off the head of the Allied resistance. This is Mr. Macey’s account, in a letter of September 3, 1945, of the dramatic events of that day:

(O)ne Sunday morning early in May 1943, the Gendarmes swooped down on us, arrested several and the remainder were sent to the internment camp at Stanley where the other H.K. civilians had been interned since the occupation. We felt much happier in the Camp, because there seemed to be safety in numbers and it was more pleasant to be living amongst British people rather than amongst hostile Japs and Chinese. Several of our party who had been arrested were eventually executed by the Japs and others received 15 years imprisonment. I was very lucky and, as far as I know was not suspected by the Japs and, apart from being placed in internment that was all that happened to me.

This is of great interest, as the only other eye-witness description of these events I’ve ever come across is that given by Selwyn-Clarke himself in his autobiography.[14] Mr. Macey shows a sensitive concern for his family by not describing the terror he and his colleagues must have felt at the early morning arrival of the Gendarmes, and the arrest of three of the small band of British citizens and an unknown number of their Chinese colleagues. I think that it was the same desire not to dwell on the most unpleasant parts of his wartime experiences that led to his telescoping of events by leaving out the five days locked in the Hospital while the Japanese searched for evidence of spying.[15] The documentary evidence as to this period, which ended on May 7, 1943 when 18 people were sent into Stanley, is solid, and there can be almost no doubt that Mr. Macey went though this dreadful ordeal. His relief on getting into Camp no doubt had a special quality because of the grim alternative possibility – counter-balanced by the continuing concern as to the outcome of the investigation of those arrested – but it seems to have been shared by most others who began the war outside Stanley:  from Gwen Dew, who was only in town for a short time, to Andrew Leiper, who was sent in a couple of months after the French Hospital people.[16]

In Stanley his camp number was 2441 and he lived alongside Thomas and Evelina in Bungalow D; he was in Room D3, they were in D1. Mrs. Eileen Hyde was in D5, Lady Mary Grayburn in D4, and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke in D6; all of these women had husbands in the hands of the Kempeitai during the first months in Stanley, only one of whom was to survive. Most of the bankers ended up in Bungalow E, but at least one of them, Alistair Mack, was in the same room as Mr. Macey.[17]

Mr. Macey’s first postcard (as far as I know it’s the only one to survive) is dated May, 1943. My guess is that he wasn’t lucky enough to be told immediately on arrival, as Thomas must have been, that the authorities were allowing a card pre-dated April 30 to be sent out so that another one could go out later in the month[18] – the May card sounds as if it’s the first written since internment. Mr. Macey informs his mother that he’s ‘very well’, which, in view of the post-war letter quoted below, might not have been too much of an exaggeration. Intriguingly part of the letter’s been blacked-out by the censor; I was always aware of the possibility of erasure by either the Japanese or British censor, but this is the first actual example I’ve seen. My guess, from the context, is that the forbidden words referred to the time before being sent into camp.

In the letter of September 3, 1945 Mr. Macey gives an excellent brief account of the 28 months that followed the journey, probably on the back of a truck,[19] down the Stanley Peninsula:

The life in the Camp was rather monotonous. The days seemed like weeks and the weeks seemed like years. Food was always very meagre and not the least bit nourishing. There were many cases of malnutritional disease, but apart from getting a little thin and a few minor sores and boils I managed to keep fairly fit. Actually in my own case the mental strain has been worse than the physical.

That last comment is very interesting; just a hint of the growing fear of those left in the occupied city, the terror of the five day lockdown in May 1943, and then the anxiety of the closing stages of the war when the internees were aware of the possibility they’d all be gunned down by the Japanese rather than allowed freedom.[20]

Perhaps to reassure his Roman Catholic mother he wrote:

We had two American priests in the Camp. They were both splendid fellows. We had daily mass and the usual Sunday Services the whole time.

Whether or not he actually attended these services, the tribute to Father Hessler and Father Meyer was well deserved – I’ll write about these men, who turned down both the chance of repatriation and of leaving the camp with the other Maryknoll Fathers, in a future post.

Conditions generally in Stanley Camp were better than in the other H.K. Camps. Having the women and children with us did much to keep up morale. We heard rumours of the finish of Japan about the 14th August but as we had heard the same sort of rumour for about two years , we were afraid to believe it at first, but within one or two days friendly planes flew over the Camp and then we realised that the news was true.

Rumours of a dreadful new bomb having been dropped on Japan, a story treated with some scepticism, are recorded by other internees on August 14.[21] This first letter he wrote on liberation gives a glimpse of what was going on in his mind at this joyful but still uncertain and unsettling time:

Released from Stanley Camp 31/8/45. I am in good health but very tired. I don’t think that I will be able to come home for some time. Have already started work and we are all busy trying to clear up the mess made by the Japs. Hope you and all the family are well. You have always been in my thoughts during these past three years and I am very anxious to see you all again as quickly as possible, but shortage of shipping and lack of fit men have made that difficult for the time being. (Letter to mother of September 2, 1945).

Naturally his first thought was as to how quickly he could get back to home and family, but, just as he’d been in Essential Services during the fighting, his public health expertise was required in the frantic efforts to make Hong Kong ready for something like normal life. The letter continues:

I will try and write a longer letter to you soon, but just for the moment the Postal System is disorganised because the Japs only cleared out from the main parts of the City last night, there are no stamps for sale and no proper money in circulation at the moment.

After liberation, he was in the ‘second wave’ of essential personnel to leave Stanley. Some brave pioneers – nurses and colonial staff, for example – went out into an anarchic and dangeerous Hong Kong to begin to restore some kind of normality before the arrival of Admiral Harcourt’s fleet on August 30. Mr. Macey left Stanley on 31st August – a time when Hong Kong was still far from safe and orderly – to help with the clear-up operation:

Working conditions are very hard and we are all finding it very difficult to start work again. The Japs are still in control of Kowloon but I think they will hand over to our Navy soon. (Letter of September 3).

That note of anxiety was justified: Harcourt had about 550 armed men to start with, and there were almost 20,000 Japanese just over the harbour in Kowloon!

We worked for three weeks trying to clear things up and get the Colony going again. It was a terrific strain and we were glad to see our relief arrive from home so that we could get away.

The letter was written from the Hong Kong Hotel, where Thomas and other essential workers were also billeted – I give some idea of the conditions for these personnel in

Mr. Macey left by aircraft carrier on 21st September 1945 but had an unexpected stop-over of a few weeks in Colombo as he was suffering badly from malaria:

Most of us are short of clothes and are rather ragged, but we hope that the Red Cross will fix us up with Winter clothes before we arrive. Otherwise do not be surprised if you see a scarecrow arrive.

He eventually left Colombo on 19th October 1945 on the Highland Monarch. He soon returned to Hong Kong – he’s documented there in August 1947, giving his address as c/o The Urban Council, Post Office Building, Hong Kong. The Urban Council worked with the Legislative Council to provide the legal framework for the activities of the health and sanitation departments.  He married in 1948 whilst on leave in the UK and returned to live in Kowloon. He left Hong Kong in 1950, and his daughter Ruth was born in 1956.

On return to the UK he continued in Local Government,  but now in a clerical  capacity and dealing with figures not foodstuffs. He eventually worked in the Treasurers Department of the District Council in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.

Like so many of those who passed through the dark world’s fire of occupied Hong Kong he didn’t speak about the war.


Ruth Sale has told me that recent family information suggests that Mr. Macey was also involved in the smuggling operations that enabled a number of radios to be set up in Stanley. Like all the other ‘traditions’ this is plausible because such activity is documented elsewhere. The same source claims that immediately after the war he still looked behind him as if he feared being followed – another reminder of the high price paid for such courage. For  interesting light on such a habit, see my forthcoming post on Marcus da Silva (and those with access to Emily Hahn’s No Hurry To Get Home might also look at her account of her final meeting with Mrs. Weston).


[2] Royal Sanitary Institute List, recording the results of an exam that took place on June 4/5, 1937.

[4] Letter to his mother, September 3, 1945.

[5] Information given to Ruth Sale.

[6] It seems that the names on the list were provided either by Dr. Court, or, more probably Dr. Selwyn-Clarke and that whoever typed them up for the BAAG added ‘thought to be SD’ after the names of five workers (one with a wife). A. C. Sinton is listed just below these names but without this annotation.

[7] BAAG documents kindly supplied by Elizabeth Ride and Tony Banham.

[9] See for example Andrew Leiper, A Yen for My Thoughts, 1982, 169-170.

[10] See Phillip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 140-141; 186.

[11] This was the opinion of a British doctor who eaxmined them in prison.

[12] Robert S. Ward, Asia for the Asiatics?, 1945, 104-106.

[13] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986, ed., 405.

[14] Footprints, 1975, 83.

[17] Imperial War Museum Stanley Camp List.


Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Vandeleur Grayburn

The Reign of Terror: Conclusion on the Stanley Peninsula

Thomas would never have claimed to be a master of words. Back in England after 1951 his main reading matter was a daily paper, at first The Daily Mirror  – later, as he grew more right-wing and the Mirror was dragged down by competition with the Sun, he switched to the Daily Mail. Otherwise, he contented himself with occasional copies of the Reader’s Digest bought at jumble sales, never opening a book.

 But he also knew it was not his grasp of language that was the reason for his inability to express his thoughts and feelings about October 29, 1943. On that day he was with Mrs. Florence Hyde while her husband was being beheaded on Stanley Beach, and the way he told his son about it, some time in the first half of the 1960s, conveyed both his continuing anger and his sense that some human experiences are beyond words.

Given the vast  gap between bankers and bakers in Hong Kong’s hierarchy-obsessed social order, it’s not likely that he knew the Hydes personally before the war. It’s just possible that Thomas and Mr. and Mrs. Hyde got to know each other during the period (January 1942–April 1943) when they were all part of the small contingent of Allied nationals left in Hong Kong– just over 100 men and a relatively tiny  number of women and children. Although they weren’t by any means able to move around as they wished, they were allowed some freedom: Emile Landau, owner of the Parisian Grill, saw Mr. Hyde regularly at Sunday lunch, for example.[1] However, it’s more likely that Thomas’s acquaintance with the family began when he and Evelina, Mrs Hyde and her five year old son Michael were all assigned to Bungalow D (in the Edgars’ case on May 7).[2]  They were there because Charles Hyde had been arrested.

 ‘Ginger’ Hyde was one of those bankers kept outside Stanley to help liquidate their own banks, and he’d had been taken by the Kempeitai on suspicion of a whole raft of ‘crimes’. He was, to his immense credit, guilty of them all: he’d been raising money to provide extra food and medical supplies to be smuggled into Stanley to help meet the desperate needs of the internees. He’d been listening to an illegal radio with another banker, Mr. L.  Souza, and probably passing the news around the community of uninterned Allied civilians. He’d been ‘running’ Chester Bennett and the Portuguese solicitor Marcus Da Silva, two of the most effective of the British Army Aid Group’s[3] agents in occupied Hong Kong. And he himself had been in contact with the resistance.[4]

According to John Stericker, Hyde was arrested on May 3[5], although other sources givean unspecified date  in April.  Marcus da Silva and Chester Bennett followed him into custody on May 14.[6]  During this brutal interrogation, Mr. Hyde became so weakened that the Kempeitai called in a doctor to examine him.[8]  It seems that he never named his two agents, as Marcus da Silva managed to convince the gendarmes of his innocence and was released, while Chester Bennett, according to da Silva, was executed purely on suspicion in the absence of either a confession or the kind of hard evidence that Hyde could have provided.[9]

While the grim process of interrogation and the gathering of evidence was going on, life continued more or less as normal for the other internees – except, as Jean Gittins later wrote, a Camp that had been stagnating under the twin curses of confinement and malnutrition, now found that it was pervaded by an ‘intense and nameless fear’.[10]

In August Thomas began collaborating with his old ‘boss’ Doctor Geoffrey Herklots;[11] together they managed to grow yeast cultures and hold up the rise of cases of beri beri, caused by lack of the B vitamins, in Stanley. Ironically, while this battle was being won, the husband of one of the other women in Bungalow D was dying of vitamin deficiency in the prison just outside Camp.

A Stanley internee Dr. Harry Talbot had been caught – probably about March 3 – trying to smuggle money back into Camp after being allowed out for treatment at the French Hospital (where Thomas and Evelina had been living at the time). After a few days of pressure from the gendarmes, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the most senior banker in Hong Kong, perhaps in the whole of Asia, confessed that he had been the one who provided the cash, claiming that he had wanted it divided amongst some of the Camp nurses. After a two week delay – probably to ask for permission from Tokyo to arrest such an important man – on March 17[12] the Gendarmes took Sir Vandeleur to Happy Valley Police Station.

 C. M. Faure – a former member of the editorial staff of the Japanese-run Hong Kong News, who some believe had used his position to signal to the prisoners as much of the truth about the course of the war as he could – had been arrested on February 18 and was in the Happy Valley station when Grayburn was brought in. He testified that Sir Vandeleur was detained in a dirty ‘cage’: you had to crawl on all fours to get into it, there were sacks on the floor – presumably as bedding – and each prisoner was given just one bowl and one blanket. There were ten people to a cell, and the stench was so bad the warders had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses when they entered. There was not enough light to catch the lice that infested every individual. Washing facilities were always inadequate and at times there was no water at all. The food provided was so scanty that Faure estimated he lost half a pound in weight every day. Grayburn and his assistant E. P. Streatfield (who had also confessed) were held in a ‘similar’ cage: the only difference was that at this stage the two bankers were allowed to receive food from outside.[13]

Grayburn was badly beaten, but he obviously managed to convince his interrogators that he wasn’t involved in anything like spying, as there is no record of him having been given the ‘water treatment’, which was generally used on people suspected of espionage, and he was eventually sentenced to 100 days in prison, about as light a penalty as the Japanese ever gave.

Stanley internee George Wright-Nooth saw him, being brought into Stanley Prison on April 13, handcuffed to E. P. Streatfield, and other internees sometimes saw him taking exercise in the yard. Lady Grayburn either went to Stanley voluntarily or was sent there soon after her husband’s arrest and she too was assigned to Bungalow D, from which she conducted a vigorous campaign on her husband’s behalf, and sent him in extra food and vitamin tablets. George Wright-Nooth, working with a Chinese agent, smuggled both letters and vitaminized chocolate into the prison for the banker.[14]

The food given to prisoners was not enough to live on: those Chinese who had no families able to support them died slowly of starvation. Survival depended on two things: having people outside with the money to provide extra rations, and the willingness of the prison authorities to allow the prisoner to receive them. The smuggled rations, and whatever food sent in openly that the Japanese actually passed on, were not enough to maintain Sir Vandeleur’s health. He was admitted to the prison hospital, a hideous place where many people were sent simply to die unattended, where there was no attempt to maintain even the lowest standards of hygiene, and where the rations were still smaller – Streatfield later estimated they were about two thirds of the ‘normal’ prison ration[15] – to discourage ‘malingering’.

An Indian warder, Kader Bux,[16] made repeated requests for medical attention for the prisoner, but was always refused. Eventually Bux – who understood better than anyone what he was risking – took Dr. Talbot (the man whose arrest had started the whole chain of events and himself serving a hundred days for his role in the affair) to examine the patient. Talbot saw him twice. The first time he had a high fever and was slightly delirious: the courageous Bux smuggled sulphonamide drugs into the prison. The next day Grayburn was comatose and seemed beyond help. He’d been admitted to hospital suffering from boils and because of insufficient dressing he was squeezing them out himself, which, in Dr. Talbot’s view, had given him septicaemia. Without drugs Talbot could do nothing.

On Friday, August 6, one week before the end of his sentence, Sir Vandeleur died. He felt much better in the morning, and his appetite returned. After his evening ‘meal’ he spoke to Police Sergeant Morrison – who was in prison for attempting to escape – of his travels in Norway  and of his brother in India. But, according to Morrison’s account, as he was speaking, he seemed to age suddenly. He made two unsuccessful attempts to urinate, finally dropping the tin provided for this purpose and collapsing. The weakened Morrison helped him into bed as best he could. Grayburn’s last words – before falling into a coma – were, ‘That was very remiss of me’. [17]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

His wife was never told of his illness or brought to see her dying husband. His body was sent into Stanley Camp, where doctors performed the best post-mortem they could under the circumstances and decided that the cause of death was malnutrition.

Meanwhile the ordeal of those arrested earlier in the year was continuing, in Stanley Prison and elsewhere. Throughout the spring rumours appeared and disappeared  in Stanley Camp about the fate of these prisoners, but the full truth was not known until after the war.

Brutal torture, probably of all those arrested, began at once. A few names were given: George Wright-Nooth, one of those with most to fear, stressed no-one ever blamed those who were unable to resist, not even the people they implicated. All the more wonder that a man like John Fraser, a senior government official, who was singled out for continual violent interrogation because the Japanese rightly suspected he knew more or less everyone involved in ‘illegal’ activities, never gave away a single name. It’s a tribute to all these men that nobody named everybody: for example, the Japanese were eager to find evidence incriminating Franklin Gimson, the leader of the internees, but he was never implicated, even though he was the one who authorised most important ‘illegal’ operations.

On August 19 the Japanese prosecutor, Major  Kogi, decided that he had enough evidence to secure convictions of all concerned.[18] The torture that the unfortunate prisoners had been undergoing probably stopped, and Pennefather-Evans and Whant, two police officers against whom no evidence had been secured, were released. The remaining prisoners were kept in ’B’ block of Stanley Prison awaiting trial.

The trial took place on October 19. Those who were going to be given prison sentences had had their fingerprints taken two weeks before; this procedure was not carried out on those whose deaths had already been decided on.[19]

The trial itself was a farce, with a dozing and inattentive senior judge[20] and a guard who saw it as an opportunity for more brutality: the prisoners were forced to stand in a line throughout the proceedings and beaten if they made the slightest movement. Charles Hyde and the Canadian T. C. Monaghan were beaten with a sword scabbard for daring to talk.[21]

Fraser was a physical wreck by this time, but, according to the eye witness William Anderson, this is how he conducted himself in court:

Fraser replied boldly and clearly, his voice ringing resonantly through the courtroom, that he alone was responsible, that he acted solely on his own judgement.[22]

There was one session in the morning, another in the afternoon, and at the end the pre-decided sentences were read out: death for the majority, including Fraser, and long prison sentences for the four others.

There’s another amazing thing about John Fraser. Anyone who, as a very young man, had fought for two years and more in WW1 – he was awarded a Military Cross in 1916 and added a bar the next year[23] –  had later been singled out for repeated torture by the Japanese, and had just heard a sentence of death being passed, might well be forgiven for feeling that they’d had rather a raw deal in life. But, as the prisoners sat down to eat their midday ‘meal’ together, Fraser seemed unconcerned by all that had happened, chatting in a relaxed fashion, looking on the bright side, and showing not one ounce of self-pity.[24]

File:John Alexander Fraser.jpg

John Fraser: Image from Chinese Wikimedia

After the war, he was awarded a posthumous G.C. for his almost unbelievable fortitude. So was Captain Ansari, although the full story of this courageous soldier cannot be told here. I suspect that if all had been known about the conduct of the other prisoners, more  awards would have been made.

On October 29 a van was seen driving towards Stanley Beach by a group of British children.[25] A voice came from the van; the simple ‘Goodbye, boys’ was the final message from this group to their fellow internees.

There is some disagreement as to what happened next. A number of sources claim the victims were shot, but what I think are the two best published sources claim they were beheaded. Hal Boyle, the American war reporter, writing in 1946, claims the beheadings were competently carried out and soon over, while George Wright-Nooth provides a graphic description of a process that, apart from in the case of the first three victims, was bungled and bloody.

Interned policeman Norman Gunning adds that some internees could hear the shouts with which the Japanese soldiers greeted each beheading.[26] Many sources claim that a number internees witnessed the scene – from Bungalow C,[27] from the cemetery, from close to the cemetery[28] –  but I have never come across the account of anyone who claimed to have done so themselves.[29]

Official confirmation didn’t come until November 22.[30] A short notice given to the Camp Secretary Franklin Gimson noted the punishments meted out with scrupulous ‘correctness’: there was not surprisingly no mention of the Chinese prisoners,  of the military man Captain Ansari, or of the civilians arrested in Hong Kong (the American Chester Bennett, the Canadian T. C. Monaghan and the – probable – Englishman Alexander Sinton) for whom Gimson had technically speaking no responsibility. Details were provided of the fates, whether prison or death, of all those arrested in Stanley Camp. It named those executed as John Fraser, Douglas Waterton,[31] Stanley Rees, Walter Scott, F. W. Bradley, and Thomas’s fellow Lane Crawford employee Frederick Ivan Hall. The notice also mentioned the fifteen year sentences given to the two (unrelated) telephone engineers James and William Anderson, and to the policeman Frank Roberts. The execution of Charles Hyde was also recorded, as was the ten year sentence handed out to D. C. Edmonston, as, although arrested in the city, their wives were in  Stanley.

No appeal was allowed in respect of those serving prison sentences, and the internees were forbidden any collective response to the tragedies, and no appeals on behalf of the prisoners were allowed. A few days later diarist George Gerrard summed up the general reaction to the news:

It was a terrific shock to everyone and the whole camp was depressed….[32]

Of course, diarists had to be careful: they would have been in enough trouble already if their records were discovered, without making things worse by expressing anti-Japanese feelings. Writing after the war, Professor Lancelot Forster, one of those behind Stanley’s sophisticated educational services, described the other side to the feelings in the Camp when the news was announced:

(W)e felt very deeply our utter inability, a that moment, to do anything about it. We had a sense not of defeat but of bitterness and anger….We felt that the Camp was a menagerie with wild animals as guards.[33]

Those same feelings of impotence and anger radiated from Thomas, who was more closely involved than most with the day’s events, when he spoke about them years later.

Marcus Da Silva, one of those who could easily have been amongst the victims on Stanley Beach, claimed the Japanese probably wouldn’t have executed Chester Bennett just for financial ‘crimes’, but did so because of the arrival in September of Japanese ‘thought police’ from Tokyo ‘who put the harshest kind of penalties into effect’.[34] I’m not sure who these men were, but da Silva’s theory seems plausible, as this group of prisoners seems to have been treated particularly harshly. Most of the messages smuggled in and out of Stanley involved health not military matters,[35] Grayburn, Talbot and Streatfield had previously escaped with 100 days in jail for their share in the ‘illegal’ activities, and the Japanese had radio experts who could have told them that the sets in Stanley were not capable of sending out messages, so that any contact with the resistance through such means could have been, at most, one way only. Seven civilians were beheaded, whereas only three soldiers were to lose their lives for offences similar in kind but much more threatening to Japanese interests.[36]

In less than a year Mrs. Hyde too was dead. She was killed not by a Japanese sword but by cancer of the bowel. Many internees would have agreed with Jean Mather, who wrote that she died of a broken heart.[37] Her son, Michael, was adopted by the widowed Lady Grayburn, so he stayed in Bungalow D.

Thomas remembered the events of October, 29, 1943 for the rest of his life. In their unspeakable awfulness they seemed to crystallise his experience of the Hong Kong war. It wasn’t, of course, that it was all as bad as that or even that there was nothing good about it. After the war had ended, Thomas’s feelings about this time were far more complex than that, as were those of most internees. But October 29, 1943 was the day on which Thomas most painfully experienced the dark world’s fire. He had  thrust on him yet again the fact of his own vulnerability and that of  those he cared about. He understood that some situations are beyond redress, and that it is not in human nature to be able to respond adequately to those undergoing extreme trauma. And he knew that he had been changed forever by the experience.

Living with him in Bungalow D were now two women whose husbands had died in dreadful circumstances, and Hilda Sewlyn-Clarke, whose husband, whether or not she knew it, was matching John Fraser in his heroic refusal, whatever was done to him, to give away the names (and they almost certainly included Thomas’s) of those who had helped him in his humanitarian smuggling. The reign of terror was to claim the lives of three more British men, this time soldiers, who were shot on another of  Hong Kong’s beaches on December 18, and three more bankers were to be taken from a Bungalow close to D in January and February 1944. They were to come close to death through starvation and mistreatment in prison, but they survived, unlike their fellow D. C. Edmonston, sentenced to 10 years in the October 19 trial, who was to die in similar circumstances to Grayburn on August 29, 1944 (this time the wife was summoned, but arrived after her husband had fallen into a coma).

Although no-one could have known it at the time, the Kempeitai violence against the British civilians was  in fact diminishing after October 29, as it had achieved its aim of breaking the anti-Japanese resistance. But, as the months of  internment wore on two new fears became stronger and stronger: death from malnutrition as the food supply worsened, and the prospect of a final massacre which would wipe out the inhabitants of Stanley Camp completely.

[1] Emile Landau, the owner of a popular pre-war restaurant was one of those loaning money to the British through Hyde, and suffered greatly for it. George Wright-Nooth was, hopefully, not aware of this when he wrote the unpleasant section on him in Prisoners of the Turnip Heads.

[2] The Camp Log (IWM MISC 932) gives the Camp numbers as follows: Thomas 2430, Evelina 2431, Mrs. Hyde 2438, Michael 2439.

[4] Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down Of The Sun, 121. See also

[5] Stericker, 181.

[8] Evidence of Frederick Tyndall at trial of Noma Kennusoke, reported in  China Mail, January 1947, page 2; see also the evidence of Rudy Choy.

[10] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 134.

[11] For the August dating of this collaboration see Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 2526; for their pre-war work see 

[12] Evidence of Edward Streatfield at the trial of Sato Choici, reported in the China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.

[13] China Mail, January 3, 1947.

[14] Wright-Nooth, 46-147.

[15] China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.

[16] Evidence of Dr. Harry Talbot at the trial of Sato Choici, reported in the China Mail, April 4, 1947, page 2. Wright-Nooth states that a warder named Gholum Mohammed did his best to comfort Grayburn; I don’t know if this is the same man.

[17]Morrison’s account is quoted in Wright-Nooth, 175.

[18] Wright-Nooth, 177.

[19] Wright-Nooth, 179.

[20] Lindsay, 126-127.

[21] Wright-Nooth, 183.

[22] Cited Wright-Nooth, 181.

[24] Wright-Nooth, 173.

[25] Stericker, 181. Some accounts just say ‘internees’.

[26] Norman Gunning, A Passage to Hong Kong, 111.

[27] Sewell, 122.

[28] Gittins, 144.

[29] During my childhood I believed that Thomas had watched the executions with Mrs. Hyde. I now regard this as most unlikely. I’ve noticed that later memory seems to recreate ‘big’ events much more than ‘small’ ones, and particularly those involving horrific scenes. I believe that in this case it was my memory at fault, not my father’s.

[30] Given in full in Stericker, 182.

[32] Entry for November 4, 1943. Gerrard’s diary is viewable by members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp discussion Group.

[33]Tragedies in Stanley’, 2/44. Part of: Lancelot Forster, Five Folders of notes, essays, documents, held at Rhodes House, (Oxford), Mss. Ind. Ocn. S. 177, 1/2/3/4/5. This essay is in folder 5.

[35]  Lindsay, 125.

[36] Ralph Goodwin, Passport to Eternity, 190-191.

[37] Jean Mather, Twisting The Tail of the Dragon, 72.


Filed under Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, John A. Fraser, Stanley Camp, Vandeleur Grayburn