Tag Archives: Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke

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 – http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw233947/Samuel-William-Prittie-Perry-Aldworth?LinkID=mp140738&role=sit&rNo=0

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. http://gwulo.com/node/9924


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

Conditions at the French Hospital: More Evidence From The Ride Papers

Not much is known about conditions at the French Hospital between the escape of Staff-Sergeant Sheridan on June 4, 1942 and the arrest of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke on May 2, 1943.[1] However, there’s a little information to be gleaned from some BAAG reports kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride (the Ride Papers are held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project.) At about the same time as S-S. Sheridan was making his way to Kwong Chow Yan and onwards into Free China an earlier escaper, Colonel Lindsay Ride, now head of the resistance organisation going under the name of the British Army Aid Group, was sending the first agents into occupied Hong Kong. The FrenchHospital, after the Sun Wah Hotel where the bankers were quartered, contained the second largest group of Allied civilians outside Stanley, so it was naturally one of the first places to be contacted. The main source of knowledge about the Hospital, however,  comes from an interview Colonel Ride conducted with Dr. Fehilly, an Irish national who had been living independently with his wife until they both escaped on October 25, 1942.

The leader of the 15-20 non-patient Hong Kong and British citizens living at the Hospital was Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, and the BAAG sources show that there was some suspicion as to the motives of this strong-minded man – but that complex matter, which is too often misunderstood as a contrast between Ride’s focus on victory whatever the cost and Selwyn-Clarke’s humanitarian scruples requires a post of its own. In this one I’ll write mainly about other matters.

According to Emily Hahn, most of the pre-war Health Department were allowed to stay out of Stanley at first and continue their work, but then a doctor broke parole and escaped so most of these workers were interned; a small number, selected by the Japanese not Selwyn-Clarke, were allowed to stay out but forced to live together at the French Hospital.[2] The only escape I know of by a doctor at this time was Gordon King’s; this began on February 10, 1942, although the Japanese didn’t learn about it until three days later.[3] King was a professor at Hong KongUniversity, where he was living at the time, and not directly connected with the Medical Department, but I don’t know of any other medical escape at this early stage. It should also be mentioned that at least one detail of Hahn’s account is not accurate: she says that the truck drivers were sent into Stanley at this time, whereas both teams – one in the French Hospital and the other in May Road – remained uninterned.

Dr. Fehilly told Colonel Ride that in the earliest days the doctors had one main role:

Except for Mackie all doctors at first used as scavengers.[4]

In other words, they were working to arrange the clearance and burial of the many dead bodies left on the hills after the fighting. This is not surprising as the situation was dire. This is the description given by leading surgeon Li Shu-Fan of conditions just before the surrender:

Malignant malaria, cholera, and other diseases were breaking out, and the hospital was getting its first quota of these. One had only to glance at the Hong Kong streets to see the reason for the epidemics. Stagnant pools of water, filthy tin cans, broken vessels and cesspools – all these, everywhere, were excellent breeding places for mosquitoes. The Sanitary Department had ceased to function and the coolies refused to work since the streets were unsafe during battle; so, too, anti-malarial squads stopped work and the scavenging coolies abandoned their rounds. Garbage and filth, accumulated in heaps everywhere, bred an unprecedented number of flies; and the thousands of decaying bodies scattered on the hillsides were additional breeding grounds….The swarms {of flies} brought on a wave of the four major bowel complaints – cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and diarrhoea.[5]

Some members of the pre-war Sanitary Department were also kept uninterned to help deal with these health hazards; half a dozen of them were still outside Stanley in May 1943, and I’m fairly sure that at some point they came to live in the French Hospital, but the evidence suggests that they weren’t there at first – they are, for example, not mentioned in Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s detailed account of life there between February and June 1942.

Fehilly also discussed the situation of doctors Court,[6] Griffiths[7] and Nicholson:

These are all in the French Hospital, where there is very bad feeling. Griffiths had beri-beri and hates Selwyn-Clarke.[8]

I discussed Dr. Griffith’s 1943 escape in a previous post. But in 1942 it was Dr. Court who was though most likely to leave Hong Kong; Ride had written to him earlier inviting him to ‘come out’ and was clearly disappointed at his failure to do so:

Court’s refusal to come out may have been due to the very bad reaction over Stott’s escape[9]It was said that… the Japanese clamped down on communication with Stanley and stopped the inflow of goods. Dr. Fehilly did not think that Court had given any parole…. Dr. Fehilly said that Sloss[10] approved of Court going. In Macao Levcovitch (sic) told Dr. Fehilly exactly how Court was proposing to escape.[11]

R. B. Levkovich was a naturalized Briton of Russian origin who acted as a driver and agent for Dr. Selwyn-Clarke until his escape sometime around September 1942. Dr. Court never escaped and ended up in Stanley Camp. Soon after arriving in Chungking, Dr. Griffiths wrote to Court’s wife Judy assuring her that her husband continued ‘to tick over ok’.[12]

As for Dr. Murdo Nicholson:

Nicholson was sore that he did not get away with the Americans.[13]

Dr. Fehilly himself had also tried and failed to get out of Hong Kong as the medical officer on the June 29/30 repatriation. He eventually escaped with his wife on October 25, 1942. Dr. Nicholson was one of those who was probably arrested alongside Selwyn-Clarke on May 2, 1943, but he was soon released and sent into Stanley Camp.[14]

Fehilly also provided information about Dr. Frederick Bunje,[15] who was a Eurasian and therefore allowed some freedom while living at the French Hospital, but who was treated brutally when an escape plan was revealed to the Japanese by a disgruntled employee.[16]

Dr. Mackie was said by Fehilly to be the most free of all the doctors, and he’d done good anti-malarial work, including at Stanley. He planned to ‘come out’ if there was a threat to intern him.[17] Dr. Mackie was living in Robinson Rd. in late 1942, not the French Hospital, but my guess is that he was sent into Stanley alongside the other doctors on May 7, 1943.

Interestingly Dr. Fehilly doesn’t mention Dr. Graham-Cumming (https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/dr-george-graham-cumming/) and nor does S-S. Sheridan – this makes me think that perhaps he was sent to the French Hospital later than the other doctors, although this is of course only  only one possibility.  Dr. Fehilly gave an account of the leader of this increasingly embattled group:

Selwyn-Clarke is surrounded by puppets and traitors and is expected to be interned at any moment. He is not allowed to speak on the phone, has to go straight from the French Hospital to his office, and is watched all the time. He is suspected by the Japanese of being the head of the British Service and everybody taken by the gendarmes is closely questioned about him. He retains his freedom through his friendship with Colonel Uguchi.[18]

Amazingly Selwyn-Clarke stayed out of the hands of the Gendarmes for more than 6 months after Dr. Fehilly’s late October escape.[19]

[2] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed. (1944), 356-358.

[4] RideInterview with Fehilly, 18 December  1942, page 3

[5] Li Shu-Fan, Hong Kong Surgeon,  1964, 103-104.

[8] Ride Interview with Fehilly, 18 December  1942, page 3.

[10] Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University and the subject of a forthcoming post.

[11] Ride Interview with Fehilly.

[12] Letter from Griffiths to Ride, page 1, Ride Papers.

[13] Ride Interview with Fehilly, 18 December  1942, page 3.

[16] Ride Interview with Fehilly, 18 December 1942, page 3.

[17] Waichow Intelligence Summary No. 10, October 23, 1942, Free Europeans, Page 6.

[18] Ride Interview with Fehilly, 18 December  1942, page 3

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke

Levkovich As Driver, Selwyn-Clarke As Boss

Note: The full name is Robert Basil Levkovich.

A report by a young escaper, a Russian of naturalised British nationality, throws interesting light on some of the matters with which this blog is concerned.[1] This document was kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride, it’s from the Ride Papers, which are held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project:


Note: I’ve kept the initial discussion (below) as a way of providing some information about Mr. Levkovich, but the identification is now certain not tentative.

Elizabeth Ride has tentatively identified the writer of the letter as R. Levkovich. This is plausible: the details in the report match, with one easily explained exception discussed below, those mentioned in a letter from Inspector Goring of the Indian Police that explicitly names Levkovich. Another source tells us that Levkovich, like the author of the report, was a naturalised Britain.[2] The only two things I’ve been able to find about Mr. Levkovich on the internet also fit with what the author tells us about himself. He’s listed by Tony Banham as interned at the Kowloon Hotel after the fighting, and there’s a record of a Vasily Ivanovich Levkovich who died in 1944. The link with the Kowloon Hotel is in the report, and the writer has both parents alive at the time of writing.

The BAAG document is dated December 18, 1942,[3] and it seems that the author went to work for Selwyn-Clarke in March, escaping later that year, perhaps in September or October.

I shall refer to the author of the report as Levkovich; it makes no difference to anything I say if this is incorrect.

Levkovich begins by saying that he was originally in the police reserve, but moved to working for Food Control. He provides some interesting details about pre-war happenings there that I shall use in another post. He moves on to various hair-raising events during the fighting, which include an encounter with Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

The end of hostilities finds him imprisoned with many others in the Kowloon Hotel. Levkovich was not sent to Stanley in the third week of January, as were most British nationals at the Hotel – this was probably because he had lost his passport and 1937 naturalisation papers during the fighting. In March, the Japanese began to release ‘third nationals’ (neutrals) but he was held because he’d been working for the British Government. He was freed later that month by a stroke of luck: Dr. Yamasaki, who’d known him since childhood and been the family dentist, turned out to be a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Japanese army – this is not the only illustration of the thoroughness with which the invasion of Hong Kong was prepared over many years– and ordered his release. The Japanese, he said, did not recognise naturalisation.

Now a ‘third national’, he had the same problem as the rest of this group: how to make a living at even the subsistence level to which most citizens of occupied Hong Kong were reduced. He stayed at home for two weeks, and then went to see Selwyn-Clarke, as he’d heard the doctor was free and working for the Medical Department:

I was enrolled by him, in the Ambulance Volunteer Corps, with Mr. Evans, and two Americans, Mr. Winter and Dr. Henry.

This team was assigned to bread delivery as one of its major tasks. Both Thomas and his fellow baker Sheridan use the word ‘volunteer’ in describing the unit, and Levkovich’s description suggests that they might have come together as ambulance drivers during the fighting. Donald Bowie, who during the occupation was left in charge of Bowen Road Hospital, tells us:

Readers will recall that early in the hostilities the Chinese ambulance drivers deserted, understandably enough especially to those familiar with the Japanese treatment of captured Chinese opponents. Thereafter ambulance cars were driven by Field Ambulance personnel usually drawn from the medical services.[4]

Owen Evans had been driving for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in south China before getting caught up in the Hong Kong war[5]. Charles Winter was connected with the pre-war Medical Department, while Robert Henry is invariably referred to as ‘Dr.’.

We know that the team Levkovich joined was the one that delivered the bread baked by Thomas, Serge Peacock, and RASC men (in disguise) Sheridan and Hammond at the Qing Loong bakery.[6]

Levkovich adds something to our picture of the work of this unit:

 We had two trucks which we drove, and got food, and supplies, (Medical) for the Chinese hospitals, and the French Hospital.

 We received no pay, and ate the same meals as the internees (sick) in the French Hospital.

First of all, that ‘(sick)’ is correct. I comment on it in a note below.

Secondly, Levkovich states outright something that I’d assumed but up to now had lacked confirmation of: most of the bread was delivered to Chinese hospitals. This might seem obvious given its amount – 500 pounds rising to 3,000 per day[7] – but Thomas mentions only the temporary hospital in the Hong Kong Hotel, and Sheridan the Bowen Rd. Military Hospital,[8] while Charles Winter just says ‘the civilian hospitals’. The Hong Kong Hotel was used by the Japanese, and I doubt the patients stayed there long, while Bowen Road developed its own baking services,[9] so the bulk of the bread couldn’t have gone there. He also tells us that food was delivered to the French Hospital itself, a point I’ve commented on elsewhere.[10]

As Levkovich knows a few words of Japanese, and has the advantage of still being considered Russian, he goes with Selwyn-Clarke or alone  to  ‘various offices’ in order to get  petrol for the trucks by ‘wangling or begging’ it from the Japanese.  Later Selwyn-Clarke decides he can be more useful as a kind of roving investigator, so tells him to try to find unlooted Government offices and safes, and also to locate stores that haven’t yet been discovered by the Japanese and bring the contents to the French Hospital. He’s also given money to buy up any American currency he can, and tasked with discovering which Indians are reliable, and which not – Mrs. Rutonjee helps him greatly with this. Selwyn-Clarke records the arrest later in the war of the philanthropist J. H. Rutttonjee, his son Dhun, and the ‘latter’s very beautiful Chinese wife, Anne’[11]  but as this lady is described at one point as Dr. Ruttonjee this was probably Miss Parrin Ruttonjee, who was accepted on to the Register of those qualified to practise medicine and surgery in 1930.

Levkovich continues:

I beg to say that some of these tasks were getting exceedingly dangerous for my safety, and my friends….

For example, there was an unopened NAAFI safe, but it was located in the building where the Rutonjees live, so following Selwyn-Clarke’s instructions to ‘crack’ it would put them in danger as well as Levkovich himself.  Selwyn-Clarke obviously knew that he himself, and two volunteer helpers, had come close to execution during a raid on a godown to acquire a dentist’s chair for Stanley,[12] but he continued to run huge risks himself, and expected others to do so too. He told Levkovich to call Mrs. Ruttonjee and informed her that she must help in every way in getting the safe open as he urgently needed money for the camps! Selwyn-Clarke delegated this affair to Dr. Mackie, but rumours about the safe’s existence got around, and the Japanese removed it. This, by the way, is further indication that everyone in the French Hospital was involved in one or another of his illegal and highly risky activities. Mackie was probably one of those arrested on May 2, 1943, although he was soon released.[13]

Next Levkovich recounts an incident in which he commandeered a food store. The owner, whom he knew, asked to be taken to Selwyn-Clarke to get some kind of official recognition of the debt owed him. The upshot of the meeting was that, Selwyn-Clarke told Levkovich that he was personally responsible for a huge sum as he hadn’t been told to appropriate private stocks. Nevertheless, the Medical Department continued to make use of the food, which lasted two months.

Levkovich continued to carry out his assigned tasks to the best of his ability until Selwyn-Clarke told him that he was being sent into the interior: he ordered him to find the shortest and safest route and get the information back to Hong Kong, as he wanted to send nurses and medical supplies to Gordon King (who’d escaped on February 10 and remained active in various ways in south China). He was also to give ‘safe conduct’ (presumably just to escort and try to keep safe) a 31 year old masseuse from Kowloon Hospital called Maria da Roza, who had letters for Gordon King and Dr Lim.[14]  Levkovich says that he’ll do the job if necessary, but would prefer not to escape from Hong Kong in the company of a young woman carrying incriminating papers. Selwyn-Clarke replies that she’ll be less conspicuous than him, and, in any case, as he’s the only head of a government department not interned, Levkovich should obey his orders.

It seems that this is one of a number of occasions on which Selwyn-Clarke over-rode Levkovich’s sense that a mission was too dangerous. We should remember that Selwyn-Clarke was putting himself in almost as much danger as the escapees, – it’s unlikely the letters would not have been recognisable as from him, even their bearers resisted torture – and that he did so continually, fully expecting to be arrested and one day, and probably executed after a interrogation during which the well-being and lives of many people would depend on his ability to hold out. This, to put it very, very mildly, must have been a huge strain on his nerves, and it’s not surprising he comes across as unreasonable in Levkovich’s account (we don’t, of course, have his own for comparison).

This whole narrative gives us an idea of what Selwyn-Clarke expected from the drivers. After June 29, 1942 the only one left of the original two teams was Owen Evans,[15] as the two other bread delivery drivers were American, as were all the others delivering medical supplies (one or both groups also ran an ambulance service). I don’t know who replaced the Americans, but my guess is that it was employees of the Kowloon Bus Company, which at some point got the contract for driving rations into Stanley.[16] In any case, Selwyn-Clarke couldn’t handle Owen Evans in the same was as he handled Levkovich, as Evans wasn’t a pre-war government employee and he had an alternative source of rations – going into Stanley. In fact, it’s possible that it was something that Selwyn-Clarke did that led to his entering the camp, perhaps in September or October 1942, although the details of this are unclear.[17]

Maria da Roza seems to have revealed details of the plan to a former boyfriend, an Indian who had thrown in his lot with the Japanese. Mrs. Ruttonjee warns Levkovich, who passes on the message to Miss da Roza, who does nothing. It’s too late anyway, and she either flees or is arrested. Levkovich decides that he must tear up his pass – presumably because it carries incriminating evidence and go to the Supreme Court Gendarmerie to get a new one. When he arrives, the Gendarmes take him into custody, slap him around and hold him overnight in a stinking cell.

The next day he was questioned closely about da Roza and Sewlyn-Clarke. He denied that he knew anything about the latter, except in his capacity as boss. During the interrogation, he states that he delivered milk as well as bread, a new detail. ‘Is that all?’ snaps back the Gendarme, and there unfortunately Levkovich’s statement ends, at least until 2021, when the British Ministry of Defence’s restriction of the final page or pages comes to an end! Presumably he said something considered woundingly critical about someone.

Mr. Levkovich impressed his BAAG contact as someone worth more than an ordinary job with the Indian police, and he comes across to me as a principled, intelligent man and a reliable witness.

In any case, as well as providing some new information for those of us iinterested in the rather narrow topic of bread delivery from the Qing Loong Bakery, this report offers a valuable insight into the personality and methods of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke and another tantalising glimpse of the resistance activities of the people living in the French Hospital.


It’s possible that ‘sick’ for ‘sic’ was a slip of the typewriter brought about by the hospital context, or that it was a deliberately meant comment by Captain Jack. Some people in the BAAG – including Colonel Ride – believed that Selwyn-Clarke was motivated, in part at least, by the desire to avoid internment, and BAAG documents sometimes speak off him and those working for him in a similar position (like the bankers) as ‘uninterned’. At other times they’re called ‘Free Europeans’. In fact, there is no label that’s completely accurate: the women and children at the Sun Wah Hotel were, at first much less ‘free’ that their counterparts at Stanley, and at no time were the ‘stay outs’ all at liberty to do anything they wanted, although it is probable that they generally enjoyed better conditions that those in Stanley. This included more freedom, although it would be wrong to think of them as in any way able to do more or less what they wanted: one BAAG documents suggests that Dr. Mackie, who lived at Robinson Rd. rather than the FrenchHospital, was left to do more or less as he pleased, but he was an exception.

As to ‘internees’: Charles Winter, in his letter from the Gripsholm (August 18, 1942) assures Thomas’s family that he’s unlikely to be ‘interned’, describing only his initial period of imprisonment in the Exchange Building as internment, while Thomas himself describes being ‘interned’ in the French Hospital There is no obviously correct term for this group, which is why I often use Tony Banham’s ‘stay-outs’

[1] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/about/

[2] Ride Papers, Ride Interview with Fehilly, 18 December 1942, page 3.

[3] Except where another source is given all references are to this report: Ride Papers, 13/9.

[9] Bowie, passim.

[11] Footprints, 102.

[12] Footprints, 75.

[14] Presumably Robert Kho-seng Lim, who was providing medical services and training for the Chinese armies: ‘Dr. R. K. S. Lim does his best, does all he can…but there are no medical supplies and no food; the soldiers die like flies’ ( Han Suyin, Birdless Summer, 1982 ed., 39)

[16] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994,  149, 152.


Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke