Life after internment | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Life after internment

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Date(s) of events described: 
Mon, 29 Oct 1945 to Mon, 27 Aug 2012

Barbara Anslow has previously shared her wartime diaries with us [1], documenting Hong Kong life during the fighting in 1941, and on through three years eight months of internment at Stanley. When we left the diary, she had just finished the long journey back to England, arriving at her Aunt's house in Kent. Here she rounds off the story, taking us through the years 1945-1948, her unexpected decision to return to Hong Kong, and a look at how the time in camp has affected her life since. Over to Barbara:

Getting used to life in England, out of camp

Imagine the enormous feeling of relief and delight in being safe back in UK! At first we stayed with my Aunt and Uncle in their neat little semi-detached house in Gillingham, Kent, as we had no home of our own.
We had visited the Gillingham house before going to Hong Kong: now its opulence compared with Stanley was awe-inspiring: the lovely thick carpeting throughout and on the stairs, the charming little 'best room', the running hot water, the kitchen equipment; the lovely soft beds with patterned eiderdowns - everything seemed too good to be true. Never mind that we were really homeless and practically penniless (apart from small balances in HK$ in Hong Kong); our penury and paucity of belongings didn't worry us at all then: we had survived, we were free, we were Home, and heart-warming love and affection was lavished on us by our relations.
Aunt Lily took us to the local shops to introduce us - the assistants had been hearing about us for years! In Pearks Stores, the girl produced a little packet of Smith's crisps she had been keeping for me. We had to visit various offices to get ration books, medical cards etc. Aunt Lily had advised us that many things in the shops were 'in short supply', but to us the counters of Woolworths looked like an Aladdin's cave.
It was quite a confusing time. Although I was aged 26, I was not used to traffic, so even crossing a road took time and care. I was also very apprehensive making my first train journey alone to visit a school friend in Bromley: would I manage to recognise the station name in time to get up and leave the train, or would I be borne off to central London?

Nor were we used to the quietness that descended around 6pm every night. In Stanley, apart from the compulsory rest hour between 1 and 2pm, it was always noisy (except perhaps in the more isolated bungalows.) People were always coming and going, we led a very outdoor life. In the evenings there was intermittent conversation between the occupants of every room, and in the corridors and the queues for the bathroom. During mealtimes in the Married Quarters, some 600 people queued in the courtyard beneath our room, so there was a continuous buzz of chatter.

It seemed strange now to walk in the quiet early evening through streets lined with look-alike houses, all in darkness except for the skylight above the front door lit by a beam of light from the kitchen or back room (most houses bereft of the iron railings at front gardens which had been given for conversion to war use.)

Setting up house
My sister Olive arrived in England in November on the 'Highland Monarch' and joined Mum and I at Gillingham - she and Mum and I had to share a double bed. Soon after, my young sister Mabel, her husband Clifton and Clifton's parents, arrived on the 'Athlone Castle'; all 4 of them, together with many other ex-internees who had nowhere else to stay, were installed in a hostel at Baginton Fields near Coventry.

Feeling we were overcrowding the Gillingham house (another Aunt lived there too), we rented an even smaller house in nearby Sheerness (where we'd lived from 1929-1935 and still had several friends.)

Mum was so happy to be running a home again, while Olive and I, chores done, crouched over the fire, reading our many letters. We three took it in turns to be first up in the morning, making tea to take to the others in bed. One then pulled up mats from both downstairs rooms and shook them out in the tiny back yard; raked out the cinders from the fireplace and kitchen range, then sieving the cinders to conserve the meagre coal ration; swept up and dusted, then put the porridge on for breakfast. Some cold mornings when it was either my turn or Olive's, Mum used to call plaintively from her room 'Aren't you girls ever going to get up?'

Mum was asked to give talks on internment at various venues in the area; everywhere she went she took her exhibits: the teapot, made out of a Cowbell dried milk tin,complete with handle and spout; the tea cosy made from offcuts of khaki from our issue jerkins, and the top of a large thermos flask in which she used to collect her meals.

We spent Christmas Day with the family at Gillingham, the table graced with a rare turkey supplied (for 39/3d) by the butcher for whom Olive had worked as cashier in 1932-5.

Missing Stanley
After the first excitement of our return, we began to miss our fellow-internees and the communal life, and exchanged letters with many of them who also felt a bit lost in their new environment. We looked forward so eagerly to the arrival of the postman twice a day.
There was a joyful reunion of Stanleyites at Covent Garden, preceded by a crowded thanksgiving service at St. Martins-in-the-Fields. Among others, we met up with Kay Rosselet, the Joffes, Miss Davies (who'd been Matron of Tweed Bay Hospital), Charlie Whitfield, Dr. Herklots, Joan and Cynthia Sanh and Fred Kelly.
Another day I visited a friend, Arthur Alsey of the Royal Scots, who had been with hundreds of other soldiers from Shamshuipo Camp en route to Japan on the 'Lisbon Maru' when it was torpedoed. He said little about the horrors of the shipwreck, but was still alight with delight at having been brought back from Japan to UK via Canada; he showed me a map of his train route across Canada; he'd scribbled round the margins the wonderful meals he had had in different places - a vivid ex-pow reaction which almost brought tears to my eyes.

Another ex-p.o.w. army friend Harry Chalcraft got in touch, and couldn't wait to visit us in Sheerness and introduce us to his recently-acquired wife. They came from London, and had to change trains at Chatham, but missed their connection; to save time they came the rest of the way by taxi; this expensive gesture illustrates so well the great bond between ex-pows and internees: we were so touched.

In the New Year we made numerous train journeys round England to visit other relatives and friends. On several occasion in London we bumped into other ex-internees; some of them we hadn't known very well in camp, but all fell on each other like long-lost friends, and risked losing train connections by prolonged chats.
At a school reunion in Sittingbourne, there were still 3 staff members of my days although I'd left 10 years before; one took my hands and said 'I KNOW YOU!' In fact, every one we Redwoods met, even strangers to us, treated us with such overwhelming kindness and awe that even now, after 67 years, I still feel teary when I remember it.

The time came to think of our future

Olive, whose fiancée had died a p.o.w. in Japan, longed to get back to her Govt. job in Hong Kong.  As Clifton's job with the HK Govt. was still open, he and Mabel would also be returning there after recuperation. But I didn't intend to return; I'd always yearned to be a school teacher; it was too late for that now, so I planned to get a job as a secretary in a girls' boarding school.
Before Christmas, Olive and I were summoned to the Colonial Office in London and asked to work there temporarily as stenographers were badly needed. We were prepared to do so, but this would have meant getting hostel accommodation in London; all the hostels the Office recommended were fully booked, so we had to give up the idea.
Instead, Olive and I were called to have medicals in London to see if we were fit to think about returning to work in Hong Kong. I passed but Olive failed.

Olive was still not in good health. In camp when my Mother was seriously ill, she had assumed the position of head of the family, and still did so - so much so that when we set off on a visit to Suffolk, she took charge of our tickets. The train from King's Cross was just about to leave as we ran on to the platform. I was ahead and scrambled on first. Olive pushed her luggage on board, then bundled Mum on but before she could board herself the train began to move. She fell forward on her knees and was left behind on the platform trying to get her balance. Some one in the carriage closed the door, and we watched in horror lest she should fall between the carriages. Luckily others on the platform managed to pull her backwards - but there were Mum and I speeding off to Suffolk with no tickets. The last we saw of Olive, she was standing up and waving to us . The station master phoned the next stop to expect 2 passengers without tickets, saying Olive was OK and would follow by the next train.
Soon after, she had spent 3 weeks in Scotland with Nan Grady, our camp friend, and returned in much better health, so insisted on returning to the Colonial Office to try again to get back to Hong Kong. On hearing that the Fisheries Dept. there urgently needed a secretary, she begged to be sent there immediately, by air if possible. Off we went to Harley Street for her to have another medical - to her huge disappointment, she failed again.
In between our visits out of Kent, life now inclined to monotony relieved by the prodigious letters. The only heating in the house was the kitchen range, and coal fires in both downstairs rooms - never both at once as coal was severely rationed. Maybe it was the monthly pay cheques from the HK Govt., maybe I missed the Hong Kong life and climate more than I'd ever expected... somehow I never got round to seeking a secretarial job in UK.
Olive had yet another medical, which she passed this time. We both received letters saying we should hold ourselves in readiness to return to Hong Kong.

Passage to Hong Kong is confirmed

Olive and I were quite well off now, we'd each received about £400 back pay covering internment. Mum on the other hand had only the widow's pension of ten shillings a week. In any case, we enjoyed the coming of Spring as never before, loving the snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils and tulips not seen in Hong Kong, and the trees bursting into leaf, and lambs leaping in the fields.

Then on 11th May a telegram arrived addressed to 'Redwood', offering passage to Hong Kong per 'Otranto' sailing from Tilbury 23rd May: an immediate reply was awaited by the telegraph boy. Not knowing if this applied to both of us, or just one, and if so which one, we both replied accepting passages; then went out to the Post Office and phoned the Colonial Office... the passage was for me only. Olive was devastated, her earlier medical reports had counted against her early return.
She came with me to Tilbury, where I linked up with my dearest camp friend Peggy Barton who was also a passenger. Then off I sailed to Hong Kong to resume my career as a stenographer, with the prospect of Home leave with pay and free passage every 4 years, and a pension at retirement, never dreaming of the future that was to become mine.

Sailing to Hong Kong

'Otranto' had about 400 passengers, a number of which were ex-Stanley; those I knew included Rene Razavette, Mrs Ida Ormiston, Quentin MacFadyen, Sheila Searle, George Saunders, Edith Johnson (Stuart), and Mrs Eager and her 4 young children Joan, Cynthia, Lesley and Cyril. Also aboard were 5 R.C. priests; I asked if there would be Mass the next day. 'There will be 5 Masses tomorrow,' one replied.
Another passenger was John Braga, a gifted violinist whom I knew from childhood piano lessons in Kowloon from his elder sister Maud. Being Portuguese, John had spent the war in Macao; he had a wife and 2 young daughters Rosemary and Joan; to get enough money to buy food in Macau he told us he resorted to playing his violin in the streets.
I shared a cabin with 2 ladies I didn't know, plus Mrs Eager and her children, one of whom announced 'When we get back to Hong Kong, I'm going to the Ration Dump.' (Presumably to see if any bits of vegetable had dropped off the Ration Lorry!)
Apart from somewhat crowded accommodation, life on board was very luxurious after the restrictions in UK. The only sign of austerity in food was at breakfast: on alternate days, we had dried egg with our bacon instead of the real thing. Peggy Barton and I spent our time sun-bathing, playing deck games, and daily sessions of shorthand speed practice to prepare for our return to office work.
Ashore at Port Said, we bumped into other internees - Dr K. Uttley, and Mr. R. Lederhofer; they were travelling to Hong Kong on the 'Glenstrae'. At Colombo we enjoyed shopping for dress materials - no coupons needed here, but I was strapped for money as one was only allowed to take a very limited amount (I forget how much) of sterling out of the country. Luckily Peggy had had the forethought to bring travellers' cheques, so I borrowed from her.

Arrival at Hong Kong – feeling homesick
I was officially met in Hong Kong by a young Government clerical officer, Ray Lawrence (ex Stanley who 2 years later was Best Man at my wedding) and billeted at the Repulse Bay Hotel, freshly decorated and painted after being used by our Forces for Rest and Recreation. I shared a room with another internee, Agnes Berzin.
After the noisy streets of the city, which seemed to be buzzing again as much as pre-war, Repulse Bay was almost too peaceful in the evenings. I knew very few of the hotel inmates and was very, very homesick, even though during the day at work in the Secretariat I was among ex-Stanleyites I knew.

Happier times
It was a great relief after a week to be transferred to the French Mission in town which was in use as a hostel for Government employees - women on the top floor, men on the first, dining-room and lounge on the ground floor. I knew this dignified red-brick building opposite the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank well, having stayed and worked there for some weeks between leaving Stanley and sailing for UK in 1945.

This time I shared a room with Dorothy Cavill, a school teacher whom I'd known before she was evacuated to Australia in 1940. Most of the other residents were fellow-internees, among them Edward Hopkinson, Jimmy Barnes, T. Carr, Francis (Golly) Anslow, Bob Bates, Bunny Bickford, Eric Kennard, C. Roe, Barbara Budden and Mrs Lisa Jones.

Happy in the hostel with friends, I soon got over the homesickness. I was secretary to Major Williams at the Secretariat - by coincidence his office was the very same room occupied by my pre-war boss the Director of Air Raid Precautions up to 1940.

One of Major Williams' remits was quartering for Government folk. When he and a small committee had to travel round Hong Kong and Kowloon inspecting damaged Government quarters to decide if they were worth renovating, I was taken along to take notes - a lovely few days out in the open, especially when I got to ride in Major Williams' jeep.

Post-war Hong Kong
Our room in the French Mission was stark compared to the one at Repulse Bay, the only furniture being chairs, high white hospital beds with calico sheets, a chest of drawers and one large shelved cupboard. There being no wardrobe we hung our dresses on the mosquito net rails round our beds; later, we turned the cupboard on its side so that the shelves were vertical, screwed in hooks and hung our clothes there. We bought cheap bright chintz from Cloth Street to drape over our trunks.
One night I heard a strange sound: it turned out to be a rat nibbling through the cardboard of the box of sugared almonds I'd bought at Suez. In the men's rooms, rats devoured the buttons on their jackets and trousers until traps put a stop to their feasts.
The wives of some of the married men among us had not yet returned to Hong Kong; they joined us unattached men and women in the communal lounge in the evenings; when some one could borrow a Government car, we would drive to Shek O or Repulse Bay at weekends; it was strange to see groups of servicemen driving their jeeps right up on to the beaches.

Trams were running, but there weren't many taxis or private cars and only a few buses. My friend Peggy and I travelled in Kowloon on the double seat at the front of a tricycle. Sometimes she travelled on the back of a single bicycle - much cheaper than on a tricycle; many professional cyclists were doing good trade, providing comfortable little seats.

The Catholic Centre, which Father Meyer had planned when in Stanley. was already up and running on an upper floor of a large building on the sea front. It had a tiny chapel, a small bookshop, a library and restaurant for snacks. He had set it up, together with a centre for servicemen on another floor, before returning to USA.
There was a ferry strike. The Royal Navy took over operating the ferries, one day managing to damage one pier and put two ferries out of action, so the Govt. had to run a launch at rush hours for their employees; some people had to cross the harbour in walla wallas - fortunately only for one day.

Most of the houses and flats we saw with Major Williams had to be written off; many had war damage and then been thoroughly looted; in one we saw just the steel bones of a piano. (All that remained of our pre-war flat in Gap Road was the lavatory cistern and an empty plant pot; all woodwork - floor, cupboards, doors etc. had been looted for firewood. Mrs. K. Grant of Stanley was luckier:  she discovered that her flat was in almost the same condition as she had left it, as some Third Nationals had lived there during the occupation.)
My salary was HK$320 a month, less $40 for accommodation. Some examples of the cost of living at that time:

  • meals at the French Mission cost $165 a month, laundry $35
  • cinema tickets cost $2.50
  • the Star Ferry 20 cents (against 10 cents pre-war)
  • imported fruit was very expensive -an orange cost 70 cents, an apple 50 cents
  • nylon stockings $22
  • cables to UK cost $1.00 per word (transmission time 17 hours), or 50 cents per word (transmission 1 and a half days.)

We celebrated VJ Day 15th August with champagne in the office and a party in the evening. The 30th August was a public holiday to celebrate the first anniversary of the arrival of the British Fleet and our Liberation.
More evacuees and internees return to Hong Kong

In August 1946, the Government brought the 1940 evacuees in Australia back to Hong Kong on the 'Duntroon'. When I met the ship I was struck by how overdressed most of the ladies were, most sporting white hats. Goodness knows where they were all accommodated, despite the speed with which damaged flats etc. were being repaired. The Peninsula Hotel charged $8 a day but you had to pay for your meals.
Most male internees returned to Hong Kong with their families because their jobs were there, and you couldn't compare life in UK with the climate, beaches, servants and relaxed living that made even immediate post-war Hong Kong so attractive. Many families had been living with relatives in UK but couldn't expect to stay there indefinitely; relocating in UK and finding another job didn't appeal
My elder sister Olive returned to Hong Kong in early September and joined me in the French Mission. She became secretary to Mr C. Followes, who was then Financial Secretary. I transferred to the Dept. of Supplies, Trade & Industry and worked for Mr. J.J. Cowperthwaite, then Director.

When we learned that the HK Govt. would give ex-internees in UK free passages back to Hong Kong, we got Mum to apply; we both thought she should come here as soon as possible to avoid another winter in UK on poor rations, and get a job here. Our camp friends Mr and Mrs Kopeczky rented a flat in Kowloon, and offered to have Mum as a lodger. To our great delight, Mum was allotted passage on the aircraft carrier 'Victorious', as was Mabel, then 4 months pregnant. (Mabel's husband Clifton had returned earlier by air.)
At the beginning of December 'Victorious' sailed into Hong Kong. By an amazing circustance, a few days earlier Olive had bumped into Ah Ding, our family amah at the time of the Japanese attack, so we took her to the wharf to meet Mum. We were all so relieved that she and her husband and two young children had survived the Occupation; now Ah Ding was working as housekeeper to an Army family, at a wage far above what we could afford to employ her - even if we had a home of our own. She spoke very good English, having been brought up in an English household where her mother was an amah. In later years she often visited us; one of her daughters when grown up came to England to work (not as an amah though!)

Looking to the future, Stanley fades into the past

So now our family was back together again. The Government opened more hostels, and Mum became the manager of one in Macdonnell Road (with accommodation.) Mabel and Clifton, and baby Jane when she arrived, lived in the Peninsula Hotel until they were allotted a flat.

Both Olive and I married inmates of the French Mission - Olive in 1949 to Bill Darby, who had spent the war in the Army in China, I in 1948 to Francis (Golly) Anslow whom I'd first met in Stanley.

By then, Stanley seemed to belong to the past. This was probably because we were all now so occupied with our present lives, and many of us raising children; also, we were in the company with internees' wives who had been away in Australia, others had post-war married girls they'd met in England or Australia, so you couldn't be continually harking back to an existence they could not share. Nor did Frank or I ever feel the need to take a look at Stanley before our retirement in 1959; in 2008 my 5 children took me on a memorable visit to Hong Kong (including Stanley) for my 90th birthday. Amazingly, the Married Quarters building where we Redwoods had been billeted was still there, still occupied by Prison Officer families, and looking exactly the same as in 1945 when we'd left camp 63 years earlier!
As over the years new expatriates filtered into the colony, the Stanley experience was less and less mentioned. I didn't think post-war Hong Kong very different from pre-war, except that the Japanese menace was no longer hanging over us. One of the most noticeable changes which crept up during the ensuing years was that more Chinese and Eurasian nationals were being employed in posts which pre-war would only have been filled by Europeans; people were now being judged by their abilities instead of by their colour.
In the 1960's my Mother wrote her memoirs, mainly about the war and internment in Hong Kong, but could not find any publisher who was interested in them; perhaps it was too soon after the end of the war. Some 40 years later my sisters and I published them at our own expense, then the book was published in large print by Isis of Oxford, and earned us over £1,000.
Re-awakened interest

Perhaps the BBC 'Tenko' series awakened the interest of the country in war-time and internment in the Far East. There was a happy and highly successful Stanley Reunion at Leamington Spa in 1997, with many of us meeting up with people we hadn't seen since 1945, and a few years later another reunion in Warwick attended by people from Stanley and other internment camps in the Far East.

My children were brought up to know all about the camp: how could they not, with both parents, grandmother, 2 aunts, and my husband's parents all being ex-internees. However, they did not show any real interest until they were much older, when their children began to ask us questions in connection with history projects they were doing at school.

Up to about 10 years ago, I used to give talks on the subject to various local clubs which were well received.
Now, of course, the Stanley Group on line [2] has stirred up much more interest in the camp. I am so grateful to the originator, as emails from members have brought me into contact with so many relatives of internees I knew; also, through the tireless investigations of some members, I have learned things about the camp that I didn't know when I was there.

How did the time in camp affect my life?

It altered my outlook on racism and religion.

Pre-war I had no Chinese or Portuguese or Eurasian friends or acquaintances; our ways didn’t cross. In Stanley I had close connections, mainly through R.C. church activities, with all three races and made many friends among them, especially one, Peggy McMahon (nee Barton) who is still my best friend.

Pre-war I was a weekly Mass goer, but my only religious reading was the 'penny catechism'. In Stanley, Father Meyer and Father Hessler organised study clubs for their flock and encouraged discussion. I had never heard of 'Apologetics.'! Of course there were many other men of the cloth in Stanley who similarly tended their flocks - we were a captive congregation.
I like to think camp made me more tolerant... something you have to be when sharing a room at close quarters with at least four other people, with their irritating habits, their snores and burps. I can feel special compassion for crowds of refugees on TV, and for starving African babies with all their bones showing.
Above all, if I hadn't been in Stanley, I would not have met my dear husband, although I didn't know at the time that he would be my husband 6 years later.

As we finish Barbara's diaries, it's time to thank Barbara for generously sharing her personal thoughts and diaries with us, for the time she spent typing them up, and for her patience in answering my many follow-up questions. Thank you!

Regards, David


  1. You can view the full contents of Barbara's diary online. You can also subscribe to daily email updates from Barbara's diary and several other contemporary diaries on the "Seventy years ago" page.
  2. The Stanley Camp discussion group brings together internees, their relatives, and anyone with an interest in that period of Hong Kong history: