The 7th International FEPOW History Conference
Liverpool, UK 5 – 7 June 2020
What you need to know:
Co-hosted by the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), our next conference will take place during the 75th anniversary year of liberation in conjunction with LSTM’s Art of Survival exhibition.
An exciting line-up of speakers already confirmed, including acclaimed history writers, historians, novelists, photographers, museums, libraries and archives.
Places will be limited — be ready for booking to open in Spring 2019!
Ashley George Old was born in 1913 and grew up in Northamptonshire. He studied at the Northampton School of Art and later worked pre-war as a commercial artist in the men’s fashion industry. During WWII he served as a Gunner in the 5th Sherwood Foresters. Captured in Singapore following the capitulation on 15 February 1942, he was first held at Changi POW camp before being moved to Thailand.
Throughout captivity, Old used his artistic talent to create watercolour portraits of fellow POWs in exchange for a fill of tobacco. Many examples, like the one above, are to be found in private ownership and museum collections. He used the local laterite clay, which when dried, ground and mixed with water created his signature rusty reddish hues, so familiar in much of his work.
Old’s medical artwork is remarkable. Along with a handful of other British servicemen who were trained artists, in particular Gunners Chalker, Searle and Meninsky, Old worked secretly for the POW medical staff in the hospital camps of the Thai-Burma railway (the Japanese had banned the keeping of any records, written, drawn or painted). Working often when they too were sick, these courageous men documented the scenes before them, recording for future reference the realities of the herculean battle to keep desperately sick men alive.
Old’s detailed and graphic depictions add greatly to our understanding of the conditions that prevailed, including the extraordinary medical ingenuity employed by Allied POW in the base hospital camp at Chungkai in Thailand. Following liberation, Old and Meninsky stayed on at the request of Australian POW surgeon Major Arthur Moon, working in Rangoon for a few weeks recording medical cases in hospital.
Throughout his post-war life Ashley Old struggled with the after-effects of his captivity. He was one of the most talented and yet remains perhaps the least well-known of the British FEPOW medical artists. He died, aged 88, in 2001.
Eric Lomax’s book, ‘The Railway Man’, records his terrible experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. The book inspired the film of the same name starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine. Charmaine McMeekin is Eric’s daughter and she will speak movingly about living with the painful legacy of her father’s experiences and her own journey to find peace and reconciliation with him. Charmaine was a nurse and midwife, she is now a counsellor and psychotherapist in Edinburgh.
Captain Clarkson Blackater was also captured by the Japanese in 1942 and sent to work on the notorious Burma -Thai Railway. The secret diary he kept during his ordeal became the basis of his book ‘Gods Without Reason’. His daughter, Phyllida, and grandson, Piers Bowser, will use extracts from his book, along with private letters and poems to reveal how his faith and his love for his family sustained him through his dark days in captivity.
Captivity and internment across the Far East during the Second World War
Institute of Historical Research, London
Monday 10 June 2019
Following on from the success of our workshop in Leeds earlier this year, our next one day event will take place on Monday 10 June, 2019.
We are now inviting proposals for ANY 15-minute papers that fall within the broad subject of captivity, internment and forced labour across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War. All geographies, topics and approaches will be considered.
Proposals are welcome from relatives of former prisoners/internees, undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, cultural institutions and museums, as well as members of the wider public.
Please submit abstracts of a maximum 200 words, plus a 50-word biography to RFHG (email@example.com) by 25 January 2019.
Spaces for the workshop will be limited. Full delegate rates will be £25 including light refreshments – speakers will be offered a reduced delegate rate of £15.
Registration for the workshop will open later in the year. For all enquiries, please contact Dr Lizzie Oliver: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us.
You can also download the Call for Papers here. Please share it widely!
10 October 2018, would have been Jack Bridger Chalker’s 100th birthday. Widely known as the “Burma railway artist”, he is famed and remembered for his remarkable depictions of captivity under the Japanese during the Second World War: a vivid and uncompromising documentary of disease, death and survival thanks to remarkable ingenuity, in camps along the Thai-Burma Railway. Meg Parkes and Geoff Gill write for RFHG about a remarkable man and his enduring legacy.
Jack Bridger Chalker: 10 October 1918 – 15 November 2014
Born in 1918 in London, Jack was educated at Dulwich College and later Goldsmith’s where he studied graphics and art. Awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, this was deferred due to the outbreak of war in 1939. He volunteered, joining the Territorials’ 260 Battery 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. In October 1941 Jack’s unit was posted to Singapore, sailing from Liverpool on the Orcades. Stopping briefly in India, his ship docked in Singapore on 29 January, just 17 days before the garrison faced a humiliating surrender to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.
After initial imprisonment at the vast Changi POW camp, he moved first to Havelock Road camp to work on the docks, before being sent north to Thailand arriving at Ban Pong on 19 October. Marched 160 kilometres north through raw jungle to Konyu River camp, Jack worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Here the combination of disease, malnutrition and working like slaves meant mortality was high. A near-fatal bout of sickness had Jack moved south, first to Tarsau and then on to the larger POW “hospital” camp at Chungkai at the southern end of the railway.
During an interview in 2007, Jack recalled that early on in Changi he had drawn pictures of sexy ladies for his comrades for whatever the going currency was. But soon he was producing depictions of imprisonment in and around Singapore, including examples of Japanese brutality. On the railway he expanded this work to include the beautiful things that surrounded them – breath-taking scenery, exotic flora and abundant wildlife – as well as details of camp life. Later, at the base hospital camps, he concentrated on recording the medical problems and the improvised equipment used for treatments. In addition he also filled notebooks with anatomical studies. All this work was done at great risk as any form of record-keeping was strictly forbidden by the Japanese.
It was at Chungkai that Jack worked closely with the Australian surgeon Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop and, after the Japanese official surrender in September 1945, he was invited by Dunlop to remain for a while in Bangkok, acting as war artist for the Australian Army HQ. There he completed and added to his collection of drawings and paintings, some of which were used in subsequent war crime tribunals as well as in medical journals in Australia.
On return to England Jack took up his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. There followed a highly successful career, including posts as Director of Art at Cheltenham Ladies College, Principal of Falmouth College of Art, and later a similar position at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. He retired in 1974.
After the war, Jack did not involve himself with the Far East POW community and for many years his artwork from captivity was largely unknown in Britain. In the early 1980s, Dr Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) noticed some of Jack’s drawings illustrating a 1946 paper, published by Dunlop in the Australian Medical Journal. These were attributed to “Gunner Chalker” and for some time it was assumed that the works were by an Australian. However, eventually Jack was tracked down to his studio in rural Somerset.
Jack visited LSTM where he underwent tropical disease screening. He brought photographic copies of his railway art collection, which he presented to the School. His links and friendships with staff in Liverpool continued throughout the rest of his life.
Jack’s reputation as a POW artist grew and he published his epic book, Burma Railway Artist, in 1994 with a revised and expanded edition in 2007 (Burma Railway – Images of War). Though remembered mainly for the illustrations, Jack’s text in both books was a perceptive and detailed reflection of POW life and conditions. Tim Mercer, who published the 2007 volume, said: “Jack was one of the most special people I have ever met. No bitterness, no regrets and he even said he would not have missed his time as a prisoner of war for anything…Cheers Jack..!”
Jack was married twice and had three children. Those who knew him remember a delightfully modest and unassuming man. He held no bitterness for what he had experienced, and even said that he had benefitted enormously because of “all the wonderful people I met”.
Jack Chalker died on 15 November 2014, aged 96. Previously unseen examples of his artwork from captivity will be included in next year’s Far East POW Secret Art of Survival exhibition organised by LSTM and held at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, opening on 19 October 2019.
A brand-new play has been written by Ann Warr based on the books by Meg Parkes describing her father’s adventures during three and a half years of captivity in Southeast Asia during the Second World War.
Based on the diaries that he managed to keep in that time, you will be amazed by this true-life story of Dr Duncan from Moreton, portrayed by our young actors during Wirral’s own premiere production.
The play is being performed on four dates as part of Wirral Arts Festival.
Dates and Venues:
October 3rd, 7.30pm: Church of the Good Shepherd , Wirral
Chair of RFHG, Dr Lizzie Oliver, reflects on a year in which the lessons of history have offered a humbling reminder…
October 1945, Bangalore, India. Patrick Thomas Rorke sat writing an extended version of the words that he had spoken to his fellow POWs for the past three and a half years. They were words of patience and love from a man who had seen his compatriots severely beaten and killed before him. They were words of stoicism and forgiveness penned by a chaplain who had sold his vestments in order to buy fruit for the starving, sick men around him. Most humbling of all, they were words of hope and optimism, and of lessons learned during the bleakest of times.
‘Not many could live in the bad days, unless he had the support of friends…We learnt to give and to share and to lend without stint…What generosity and unselfishness was to be found in captivity; what patient and dogged care for those who were sick; what loyalty and comradeship and support for those whose circumstances were broken and bad’.
– Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.
Less than one month before his writing, Rorke had been liberated from Pakanbaroe, the base camp of the Sumatra Railway on which he had been held captive alongside nearly 5,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 romusha.
‘To have to wait, sustained by no real news, disappointed by the deceitfulness of rumours, on and on, week after week, month after month, for the great day. No one ever doubted that it would arrive; but when?’
– Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.
The anniversary of the Japanese surrender is always a poignant day for the communities of people who follow the work of RFHG. Many of us are the family members of those held captive. Many have undertaken painstaking research to find out the smallest details of a relative’s captivity, and have followed fascinating archival threads that help us to understand the why, who or how of this difficult history. As a result, we carry with us the stories that we have heard and read, and we hold fast to our aim of sharing them where we can, and as widely as we can.
After spending the last seven years reading and writing about the Sumatra Railway, and as the granddaughter of a man held captive on the line, perhaps it is inevitable that I look from time to time to the histories of the camps not just to tell a story to others, but for a source of my own strength.
‘When one has lived so, for three and half years, and kept one’s soul and retained the ability to joke and smile, one feels that life holds no terrors any more. We’ve managed to survive this: we’ll cope with anything now’.
– Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.
Many of you know that at the start of 2018 I found myself in hospital, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, having broken my spine. The months since have been painful and frustrating, and there has been a lot of waiting to feel stronger and to be able to move easier. Plans have been put on hold as the precarity of life was brought starkly into focus.
And yet, I was lucky too. Exceptionally so. And all that waiting meant that I was forced to stop, completely, and appreciate what Rorke would call ‘the preciousness of tiny things’ – the memory of which he and his campmates came to treasure so much.
‘When a man has lost all that makes our life pleasant…he discovers for the first time, probably, the preciousness of tiny things… to sit on a chair and eat at a table from a plate; to walk in real shoes…to have paper to write on and a book to read…
We learnt the secret of contentment not merely by what we lost, but also by what was left to us: real and profound and lasting things that once we took for granted’.