Bitterne Library Talk Tuesday 4 April 2023, 7pm

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at Bitterne Library on Tuesday 4 April 2023, 7pm, and helping to celebrate the library’s 60 years!

As a writer and avid reader – of fiction and non-fiction – I’ve been a member of a library ‘for ever’. The weekly Saturday treat as a child was the visit to the local library in Camberley, although Surrey County Council refused to stock Enid Blyton in those days, much to my disappointment…

But I know what a wonderful resource libraries are and so it’s very exciting to be speaking at Bitterne’s 60th anniversary about A Weekend to Pack and the story of Bitterne’s Bearman family in the Far East during the second World War.

Bitterne Library opened in 1963, and according to Sotonopedia, was the first to be built after the end of the Second World War in 1945, and was originally called Eastern Library. Prior to that there’d been a part-time service 1922-1939 run from St Martin Church Hall in Brook Road, Bitterne, and in 1939 a ‘Bitterne Library’ opened in Cobbett Road. This was subsequently renamed Cobbett Road Library, and today’s Bitterne Library at Bitterne Road East, took over the name.

Eighty-two years ago in April, George Bearman when writing to his wife Hilda, was reflecting on the nine months since the threats of invasion from Japan had seen 3,500 women and children sail from Hong Kong. All had thought that this evacuation would be short-lived, but there they were, in April 1941, George with his fellow ‘bachelors’ in Hong Kong, Hilda and the boys now down in Sydney Australia.

And in April 1941, George was certainly feeling un-optimistic about the return of the evacuees:

“The Balkan news is bad again tonight and it looks as though we shall be right out of Greece by the time you read this. No, I certainly think you can wash out April as a travelling month, May too for that matter – I’ve reached that state of mind when I think it’s hopeless to attempt to forecast any date, but keep on smiling dear, it’s bound to come one day.”

And, of course, Hong Kong and the Far East was sliding towards war, and there were a few months and years to come before any hope of reuniting families.  

I’m looking forward to sharing the Bearman family’s wartime story on Tuesday 4 April 2023. The event is free and starts at 7pm, at Bitterne Library, Bitterne Road East, SO18 5EG.

Bitterne Local History Society Talk – Saturday 12 November 2022

A Weekend to Pack: The Fall of Hong Kong (1940 – 1945) – A Bitterne family caught up in the Second World War in the Far East
Saturday 12 November 2022, 7pm
Bitterne United Reformed Church, 446 Bitterne Road, Southampton, SO18 5EF

The house in the photograph is the Bearman family home. It’s in Redlands Drive, Bitterne – and I’m delighted to have been invited by Bitterne Local History Society to talk about the Bearman family’s wartime story.

George and Hilda Bearman were married at Jesus Chapel, St Mary Extra – now Peartree Church – in Southampton on Saturday 24 July 1926. Hilda had grown up in the city, and although George and Hilda began married life in Portsmouth where George was an electrical engineer at the Royal Dockyard, they maintained strong links with Southampton. Hilda’s parents’ home was in the city and the family returned to the UK and Bitterne in 1945.

It was in the late 1930s, that the family sailed for the Far East and Hong Kong.

The Second World War did not come officially to the Far East until December 1941, when the Japanese attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor, and the British colonies Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore, Burma (Myanmar) and on 8 December, Hong Kong.

But the Bearman family wartime story along with that of many of those in Hong Kong began 18 months earlier, and the week of 1 July 1940 which, following threats of invasion from the Japanese, saw the shock evacuation – after only a weekend to pack – of almost 3,500 women and children.

We followed you down the harbour to Lyemoon and then you disappeared in sheets of rain. We all stood up and got nicely wet trying to peer through the rain to see the last of the ship and then we gave it all up and turned back.

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.

Few believed the evacuation to be necessary, virtually all that it would be short-lived, but when George wrote to Hilda of watching the Empress of Japan sail from harbour with Hilda, David and Edward on board on that Monday 1 July, it was the first of many letters he would write stretching down the years – with the home country at war in Europe, and tension with Japan growing.

In my talk I’ll be covering the story of the evacuees as they travelled from billet to billet, at first in the Philippines and then in Australia, and that of George and his fellow colleagues remaining in Hong Kong – both before the eventual attack by Japan, and in the years following Britain’s surrender on 25 December 1941.

Tickets are £3 (£1 of you’re a Society member) and you can find more information about the evening on the Bitterne Local History Society website.

1 July 2022 – 25 years since the return of Hong Kong to China, 82 years since the first evacuation ship sailed in 1940

Today, 1 July 2022, marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China after 156 years as a British colony.

The handover ceremony – attended by Prince Charles, the UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin – began on 30 June 1997. At midnight Chris Patten as the 28th and last Governor of Hong Kong sent the telegram confirming, “I have relinquished the administration of this government.” He then joined Prince Charles on HMY Britannia to slip away out of Victoria Harbour and away from Hong Kong.

For many, 1 July is another anniversary, marking the day on which another ship sailed from Victoria Harbour, and away from Hong Kong.

Because, 57 years before that handover date in 1997 – 82 years ago today – on 1 July 1940 the Empress of Japan sailed with 1,500 British women and children on board, evacuated from the colony following threats of attack from Japan. That week beginning 1 July 1940 would see almost 3,500 women and children become evacuees.

Few in the colony believed the evacuation to be necessary, most that it would be short-lived. But after an initial stay in the Philippines, the evacuees were on their way again, bound for Australia, and the weeks of separation were about to stretch into months and years.

Among those on that first ship to leave Hong Kong on 1 July 1940 were Hilda, David (11) and Edward (9) – the wife and sons of naval dockyard electrical engineer, George Bearman.

In the months and years to follow, George’s letters capture what life was like for the husbands and fathers left in Hong Kong: abruptly returned to ‘bachelorhood’ and uniquely ‘keeping the home fires burning’; trying to keep up morale, while coping with the loneliness of separation and against the backdrop of the home country at war, and slide to war in the Far East; through the long dark years following the Japanese invasion, December 1941.  

For many of the evacuees, 1 July 1940 came to be not only the day on which they boarded ship and sailed away from Hong Kong, but the last day on which they saw their husband and father.  

“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself”

On 19 April 1941, George begins his letter to Hilda: 

“It’s 6 o’clock Saturday evening, and I’m writing in the office while waiting for my lads to come back – yes, I’ve been working this afternoon and now it’s nearly time to pack up.

“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself – I pictured my going home presently, spotting you as the ferry neared the pier and then the walk home together, some supper and then off to the pictures somewhere – well, I probably will do those things except the seeing and meeting you.”

In 1941, letters were the only source of communication between the men in Hong Kong and their families evacuated to Australia.

The separation caused by the July 1940 ‘evacuation crisis’ following the threat of invasion from Japan had not turned out to be ‘short-lived’ as most in the colony had envisaged. By April 1941, the evacuees had been away for nine months.  

There was no texting, or instant messaging back then – not even phone calls possible across the distance in 1941. Pen and paper were the only option.

And for the men left behind in Hong Kong, separation was growing ever more poignant, surrounded as they were with the constant reminder of places and the memories of when shared with wives and children.

There was a fine balance to achieve in letters. There was the need to support wives thousands of miles from home, suddenly thrown into having to bring up children on their own, and against a backdrop of the home country at war and tension in the Far East rising. But there was also the need to give vent to their own feelings at times – albeit, aware of the constant presence of the censor looking over their shoulder.

And once written, sealed in the envelope, stamped, and posted – that was it. There was no going back on or changing what was written. And it could take weeks for letters to reach Australia, weeks for a reply to come back. Weeks and weeks in which to worry whether the right tone had been achieved, the right words said.

George’s letters are an extraordinary eyewitness account of an extraordinary period, describing Hong Kong in the 1940s and its mixture of cultures, and the 18 months as the colony was sliding towards war. But they were also the lifeline between him and Hilda, and his children. They capture his thoughts, his fears, his hopes – his dreams.

In his letter of 19 April, George follows up his opening of imagining Hilda waiting at the ferry terminal for his return from work, and the evening at the cinema:

“Yes, I know that’s a most unprofitable game, but we must indulge in dreams sometimes, even if the coming to earth is hard afterwards and, Oh! my dear, how I want it to be true.”

“How I value those things now, just our usual Saturday night trips, and the Lord knows they were sober enough as a rule, and yet looking back they were lovely evenings – did we know then?

“Yes, I think we did, on most occasions at any rate and I know we will on all those evenings in the future that await us round that corner.”

Signing copies of ‘A Weekend to Pack’ at the Imperial War Museum

It was really exciting to have been asked to sign copies of A Weekend to Pack in the shop at the Imperial War Museum in London.

It was inspiring, too, to see the other books on the shelves and all the amazing titles. 

I also took the opportunity to visit the museum’s newly opened Second World War Galleries.

What an experience.

They are superbly done. There is just the right balance between explaining the wider historical context and describing the stories of individual people and families to really bring home the reality of events and the truly global reach of the war.

Included among the more than 1,500 exhibits are all sorts of items – from uniforms, to weapons, letters, photos, toys, – personal items displayed in amongst historical artefacts, such as the pen used to sign France’s surrender in June 1940, and a piece of the wreckage of the USS Arizona, sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The gallery also hosts plenty of interactive experiences, and the recreation of a bombed 1940s house with its Anderson shelter is particularly evocative of the experiences of civilians.

If you’re going, allow plenty of time for your visit. We took over three hours to go round, and could have spent even longer in each of the galleries.

80 years ago today, the Japanese launched their attack on Hong Kong

On Sunday 14 December 1941, Hilda wrote from Australia – 18 months since the evacuation crisis had seen the 3,500 British women and children evacuated from Hong Kong, and 18 months since she’d last seen her husband George – “Weeks and weeks of waiting and hoping – and then on Monday morning last my landlady knocked on my door and told me the dreaded thing had happened.”

The evacuation crisis had been triggered back in June 1940 by the Japanese threatening an invasion of the British colony. Few in Hong Kong believed the evacuation to be necessary – all that it would be short-lived. But the following 18 months had seen a see-saw of tension in the Far East – and with it the rise and fall of hopes for the return of the evacuees.

On Tuesday 2 December 1941, George wrote to Hilda, “Certainly things look a bit black at the moment and precautions are being taken here that have never been done before.” But in the next sentence he says, “Still, once more, I expect that by the time you read this, another crisis will be a thing of the past, and we shall be grumbling for your return again,” and reporting on Friday 5 December that an evacuee ship had been cancelled through lack of takers.

But on Monday 8 December 1941, the Japanese attack – the dreaded thing – began early morning, Japan having also launched attacks on the Americans at Pearl Harbor, against the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.

In Hong Kong, the Japanese had crossed the border from China and marched into the New Territories.

Hilda continues her letter – “Oh!! what a week! The watching of the clock for news time, the nerve-racking blather that they put in to fill up time and then just the barest mention of Hong Kong. The chief reaction of all of us was anger – and still is – that with all these months and months of waiting the Japs could have caught us napping so… and Churchill and Roosevelt make speeches that make me want to hurl something at the wireless.”

The overall military strategy for Hong Kong was that a long-term defence of the mainland wasn’t practical as once inside the New Territories Japan would soon have the densely-populated Kowloon within shelling range. Nevertheless, British forces were told to defend the colony for as long as possible, but for at least six months, in particular to gain time for other British held territories in the Far East to organise and strengthen defences.

Hilda finishes her letter of 14 December, “Oh, God, send these anxious days don’t last long. We can only hope and pray.”

The colony had also been told to hold the first line of defence, the Gin Drinkers’ Line – a network of paths and trenches linking a series of bunkers, machine gun posts and artillery batteries stretching across mainland Hong Kong from Tide Cove to Gin Drinkers’ Bay (famous for its parties, and hence its name) – for at least three weeks.

But by the Tuesday, 9 December, the Japanese would reach – and by the 10th breach – the Gin Drinkers’ Line.

FEPOW75 Southampton Commemoration 18 November 2021

In 2020, Roger Townsend set up the FEPOW75 website to mark the 75th anniversary of the repatriation through Southampton of prisoners of war from the Far East following the end of the Second World War (1939-1945).

The Commemoration event Roger Townsend had planned for 2020 was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic and restrictions, but is taking place this year on Thursday 18 November at 11am in Southampton’s Town Quay Park, French Street.

Town Quay Park  is home to a memorial plaque which “commemorates the repatriation of men, women, and children who survived Far East captivity,” and were brought back to the UK on ships arriving in Southampton between October and December 1945.

In the Far East, the Japanese took prisoner almost 140,000 Allied servicemen, including 50,000 British and of whom 12,500 died in captivity. Of the 40,000 prisoners of war and civilians repatriated following the end of the war, almost 22,000 came through Southampton.

And the FEPOW75 website was set up to “pay tribute to the courage and fortitude of those survivors and to honour the memory of all those who never returned home and still remain somewhere in South East Asia.”

Rev. Pauline Simpson, National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association (NFFWRA) Chaplain and daughter of a Far East prisoner of war, will officiate at the Commemoration on 18 November, and which will be attended by the Mayor of Southampton, Councillor Alex Houghton. Bert Warne, a Far East prisoner of war and now 102, will read the FEPOW prayer.

At the end of the formal Commemoration service, a cherry tree donated by NFFWRA will be planted in memory of their former President, Bob Hucklesby, who died in February 2021. Bob Hucklesby served in the Royal Engineers, was taken prisoner in Singapore, and arrived back in the UK at Southampton on 18 November 1945 on board the Italian hospital ship, Principessa Giovanna – and was responsible for the erection of the repatriation memorial in Town Quay Park in 2013.

Anyone attending the ceremony on 18 November will also have the opportunity to lay a wreath or plant a wooden cross close to the memorial, in memory of a FEPOW relative or friend.

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.