95th anniversary – George and Hilda’s wedding, July 24th 1926

Earlier this month I posted a blog marking the 81st anniversary of the first ship to leave Hong Kong during the evacuation crisis of July 1940.

Today is another anniversary to mark – but this time remembering a happier original event than the departure of the Empress of Japan from Hong Kong in 1940.

Back then, on July 1st 1940, the wife and two sons of George Bearman were among 1,500 women and children to board the Empress of Japan, headed for the Philippines. George and fellow husbands and fathers remained in Hong Kong, with neither they nor the evacuees aware that their separation would be for far longer than anyone imagined.

A Weekend to Pack tells the Bearmans’ story and those of family, friends and colleagues, along with that of the wider community in Hong Kong following the July 1940 evacuation, ordered by the British government due to threats of invasion from the Japanese. While most in the colony believed the evacuation unnecessary and virtually all that it would be short-lived, the evacuees were soon sailing again. They were bound not for return to Hong Kong, however, but journeying on to Australia. The days of separation stretched into months as the tension in the Far East rose.

So, this blog – remembering back to July 24th 1926 – tells a ‘what happened before’ story.

Because on Saturday July 24th 1926, the wedding took place at Jesus Chapel, St Mary Extra – Peartree Church – in Southampton between George Henry Bearman (bachelor, electrical engineer, and resident of Portsmouth) – and writer of the letters that tell the story in A Weekend to Pack – and Hilda Grace Payne (spinster, music teacher, and Southampton, Itchen, her home).

George and Hilda’s wedding, Jesus Chapel, St Mary Extra – Peartree Church – Southampton, July 24th 1926

Both George and Hilda were 25, and went on to buy a home at 37 Randolph Road, in Portsmouth, and have two sons, David and Edward. In the autumn of 1938, George sailed for Hong Kong to begin a three-year posting at the naval dockyard (on secondment from the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth), with Hilda and the boys joining him six months later.

On July 3rd 1941, a year on from the 1940 evacuation, George writes to Hilda,“Well dear, if this letter isn’t too long on the way, it ought to arrive in time for me to wish you Many Happy Returns of your Wedding Day. Fifteen years, dear, or should I only say fourteen because I don’t think we should really count this last one – still we’ll make up for that, with the only trouble being when are we going to start? Anyway Hilda, I am glad of that day, fifteen years ago, and thank you for it, and for all it brought to us.”

Six months later the Japanese invaded, with Hong Kong surrendering on Christmas Day 1941. The years of separation continued, George with so many of his colleagues and friends, a prisoner of war.

Reverend Miles Newton, Priest-in-charge at Peartree Church – and the world’s oldest Anglican church, with the first church building dating from 1618 – says, “I am delighted that Peartree Church was the place where this devoted couple’s marriage took place.

“It seems it was also the place that George looked back to at a poignant moment when he and Hilda were separated.

“It is a pleasure and privilege to have become aware of their moving and emotional story.”

81 years since the first evacuation ship left Hong Kong

Eighty-one years ago today – on July 1st 1940 – 1,500 British women and children were boarding the Empress of Japan, the first of the evacuation ships to leave Hong Kong following threats of attack from Japan.

Image: The Empress of Japan – The late Allan Green collection

The word ‘evacuee’ usually evokes pictures of young children trailing in crocodile from inner-city school yards – names printed on luggage tags, pinned to coats – and tear-stained faces peering from train windows trying for a last glance at the faces of equally tear-stained mothers, left on the platform.

Pictures of the evacuees leaving Hong Kong – and of the husbands and fathers left on the dockside – are different, but no less poignant, as captured by the newsreel from British Pathé news Hong Kong and the Burma Road.

George Bearman’s wife, Hilda, and two sons – David and Edward – were among the passengers aboard the Empress of Japan that Monday morning.

The order for evacuation had been given three days before, on Friday June 28th, and left those leaving that Monday morning only the weekend to pack.

George writes in his first letter to Hilda, dated July 3rd 1940, “Oh, my dear, what a Monday that was. In fact what a weekend! But perhaps the rush was all for the best as it didn’t leave us a lot of time to think of ourselves.”

As the British Pathé newsreel said, “There are families being torn asunder – and who knows when they will meet again.”

Or where.

A Weekend to Pack is out on 28 April 2021!

I’m excited to announce that A Weekend to Pack, while having been available to pre-order for a while, is out on 28 April 2021!

You can order through Sabrestorm Publishing or any of the usual book outlets. And I’d love it if you could join me for my talk, organised by Sabrestorm on Friday 7 May 2021, 7-8pm. You can order tickets (priced £3.00) through Eventbrite.

Everybody safe so far, and No. “37” still going strong – George, January 1941

In 1939, prior to sailing with the boys to join George in Hong Kong, and who had begun his posting to the colony six months earlier, Hilda put their furniture into storage and arranged for their home – 37, Randolph Road, Portsmouth – to be rented.

The family also left behind in Portsmouth friends, relatives, and colleagues to face the bombs that would rain down on the city during the Blitz, heavily targeted as a navy port.

And contributing to the anxiety, worry, and concern for those back home, was the delay in receiving personal news.

The city’s first air raid took place on 11 July 1940, and in all Portsmouth would suffer 67 attacks between 1940 and 1944.

George’s words, “Everybody is safe so far,” and, that No. 37 was “still going strong,” were written in a letter to Hilda in January 1941, but commenting on news received in a letter from home dated 11 November 1940. In his letter to Hilda, George also refers to Portsmouth having “just had another bad raid,” and that was the raid of 10-11 January 1941.

Portsmouth’s most devastating air raid, Portsmouth City Council has recently marked the 80th anniversary of the night of 10-11 January 1941. The raid killed 172 people, and hundreds were injured. Damage to buildings across the city was extensive, and hundreds of citizens also found themselves homeless.    

In a later letter to Hilda, George writes on seeing pictures of Portsmouth following the raid. “It’s terrible – I can’t say just how it makes you feel to see pictures of places you know so well treated like this, but I tell you some of the fellows were coming in to see the pictures and then walking out without speaking.

“One picture shows the Guildhall with the tower afire – there are only four walls left now, and I believe that applies to all the buildings of any size in Commercial Road.

“There were pictures also of the mass burial.”

Due to Covid restrictions, Portsmouth City Council’s activities commemorating the raid were virtual, and included postings on social media of details taken from the Air Raid Controller’s log book, made at the same time as they were entered on the night of 10-11 January in 1941. The Council also released a video of The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Rob Wood, reciting the message delivered shortly after the raid in 1941 by the then mayor, Sir Denis Daley. 

Also published, is an interactive map showing the extent of the bombing of the city 1940-1944, based on a map created by Air Raid Precautions staff towards the end of the war, and marking the site of where each individual bomb fell.  

The death toll in Portsmouth from air raids between 1940 and 1944 was 930. A further 2,837 people were injured, and more than 6,000 properties destroyed.

In January 1941, when George writes to Hilda about the air raid of 10-11 January, he is commenting on general news. He has no idea whether letters arriving in the weeks to come will have anything more personal to report, or what the months ahead may bring.  

Worries for home as Britain suffers during the Blitz

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, life in Hong Kong remained little altered. Six thousand miles from Britain – and two years before war would come to the Far East – day-to-day living continued very much the same.

But, whereas work, sport and socialising carried on pretty much as usual, thoughts were very much with those more directly affected by events in Europe.

For the naval dockyard and community, the news of the loss of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939, had hit particularly hard. The ship having only recently left port in Hong Kong, many of the more than 1,200 on board were known personally to those in the colony, and 835 lost their lives.

There were the events in France leading up to and the eventual evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and allied troops from the beaches at Dunkirk 27 May-4 June 1940, while the Battle of Britain took place in the skies July to October 1940.

And the Blitz in Britain began in September 1940, with German bombing raids targeting London at first, before moving on to drop their bombs on other cities across Britain. The naval community in Hong Kong was drawn from dockyards across the home country, and in cities, such as Portsmouth and Plymouth, that would subsequently suffer heavily during the Blitz.

Their Portsmouth home rented out for the duration of George’s three-year posting to Hong Kong, George and Hilda also had friends and family living in the city, while Hilda’s parents were in Southampton.

As with Portsmouth, Southampton was also targeted heavily by the Luftwaffe. A port city as well, and on the south coast and therefore easy to reach from the German airfields based in France as was Portsmouth, Southampton was in addition home to the Supermarine factory, building Spitfires.

Southampton had already suffered a number of raids, the first on 19 June 1940. But 80 years ago today, on 30 November 1940, the city suffered one of the heaviest, with 120 German planes dropping 800 bombs, and killing 137 Southampton citizens. The raid that Saturday, along with the raid that had taken place the previous Saturday, 23 November, and the one that would rain down bombs the following night, Sunday 1 December 1940, became known as ‘The Southampton Blitz’.

The Southern Daily Echo has just produced an 80th anniversary publication, The Blitz of Southampton Remembered (£2.95). A testament to the resilience and resolution of the people of wartime Southampton the book gives individual accounts from those living through Southampton’s ‘darkest hours’ and the November and December 1940 raids.  

Back in 1940, while newsreel details and media pictures of raids reached Hong Kong reasonably quickly, there was often an agonising wait for the individual, personal messages to arrive by letter, and reports of the safety – or otherwise – of homes, family and friends. And the wait could feel even more tortuous for those separated by the evacuation, and the 4,500 miles between Hong Kong and Australia.

80 years ago …

On 1 July 1940 the first of the evacuation ships left Hong Kong harbour. On board were 1,500 of the 3,500 women and children that would leave the colony that week, due to threats of invasion by the Japanese.

Among those on board were George’s family – his wife, Hilda, and two young sons, David (11) and Edward (nine).

Electrical engineer at the naval dockyard in Hong Kong, George was half-way through a three-year posting, on secondment from the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth. Hilda and the boys had joined him the previous year and thrown themselves quickly into the social life in Hong Kong.

By July 1940, Britain had been at war with Germany for ten months, and much of Europe had fallen to Germany invasion. But until that summer, life in Hong Kong had remained very much the same. There was anxiety for family, friends and colleagues back home and in the services, but Britain and Europe were thousands of miles away.

And so, until the end of June 1940, George, Hilda, and the boys, had been looking forward to the next year and a half they would spend in Hong Kong. They had no idea what was around the corner.