Category Archives: Featured

RFHG Speakers

We’re getting close to our June conference! If you’re joining us, here is who from RFHG you can expect to see speak!

Missed out on our other announcements? Click here to see all the latest conference news.

Geoff Gill

Geoff Gill is Emeritus Professor of International Medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) and the University of Liverpool, and a retired NHS Consultant Physician.

At LSTM he has been involved in the medical care of ex-Far East Prisoners of War (POWs), as well as extensive clinical research into their ongoing health problems – notably persisting malaria and amoebic dysentery, chronic worm infestations, hepatitis B infection, long-term effects of vitamin deficiency, and the extensive psychological aftermath. He has published extensively on these and other POW-related health issues. More recent research has involved the medical history of the Far East POW experience, in particular on the Thai-Burma Railway.

Meg Parkes

Meg trained as a State Registered Nurse in Manchester in the 1970s. Her father, Captain (later Dr) Atholl Duncan, was a survivor of captivity in Java and Japan. Following his death in 1997 Meg self-published his POW diaries.

In 2007 she joined the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) to undertake an oral history study interviewing Far East prisoners of war.  The resulting 67 interviews formed the basis of her dissertation MPhil.

Recent research has focused on the war art of previously “unrecognised” FEPOW artists. Most of the 69 British military artists uncovered were unknown to researchers. A Lottery Heritage Fund grant helped to stage the “Secret Art of Survival” exhibition in Liverpool, 2019-2020 (

Meg was lead author on, Captive Artists, the unseen artwork of British Far East prisoners of war, written with Geoff Gill and Jenny Wood. Meg was awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship by LSTM in 2014.

Michiel Schwartzenberg

Michiel Schwartzenberg has now become an independent and evening historian. He worked at the WW2 Netherlands Red Cross Archive up to 2020 and now is employed at the The Hague Municipal Archive.

He has just completed a book (in Dutch) about lesser known aspects of the Birma Siam Railway. One chapters will be presented at the RFHG Conference. The next book is going to move away from World War 2, but not the region. It will be on AFNEI, Allied Forces Netherlands East Indies, and the British occupation of Netherlands East Indies / Indonesia between October 1945 and November 1946. Told from British perspective and based on British archives. For the English a no-brainer, for the Dutch a novelty.

Emily Sharp

Emily joined the University of Leeds in October 2016 to study for her Master by Research in History degree, which focussed on how the Second World War in Singapore has been differently memorialised in Australia, Great Britain, and Singapore. She successfully completed her MA thesis in July 2018.

She is currently completing her PhD in History, also at the University of Leeds. This project aims to examine the cultural backgrounds of the men who were sent to fight in Singapore, and subsequently ended up in captivity as Prisoners of War of the Japanese, as part of the Australian and British forces. It will then compare these backgrounds and the actions/experiences of the soldiers during the battle and in captivity to see if the pre-war experiences had an impact on how each army behaved during the Second World War in Singapore.

Even More Speakers Confirmed!

We can excitingly now announce the next six speakers for our June conference! Remember, to be the first to hear this news, make sure you are signed up for our newsletter. There are extremely limited spaces for the conference still available, so register now to avoid disappointment. Missed out on our other announcements? Click here to see all the latest conference news.

Sears Eldredge

M.F.A., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Theater and Dance Department, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN

Besides Macalester College Eldredge has taught and directed theatre in colleges and professional schools including Justin Morrill College (the Experimental Liberal Arts College at Michigan State University); Earlham College; The Drama Studio, London and Berkeley, CA. He is the author of two books, Mask Improvisation for Acting Training and Performance (Northwestern Univ. Press, 1996), and the multi-media, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945 (Digital Commons, Macalester College, 2014).

With his presentation, Eldredge will complete the “Changi by the sea: Rice and Shine” blog he has been writing for the RFHG website. It will detail the final year and a half the FEPOWs spent in Changi Gaol, and the extraordinary music and theatre they produced for the incarcerated POWs when the need was most great.

Gen-Ling Chang

Gen-Ling Chang is the former associate director of Toronto District School Board and currently the deputy executive director with ALPHA Education. As an active education leader and volunteer, she has an unwavering focus on equity and humanity issues and education. Making a difference for young people and their families who experience bias, discrimination, and stigmatization characterizes her years of service leadership in education and not-for-profit sectors.

Gen Ling’s service leadership then, and volunteer work now, are grounded in understanding education as an important institution of democracy, at the same time, its role in contributing to peace education. Working with ALPHA Education team, in building programs on critical understanding of WW2 in Asia, often overlooked in school curriculum, has further her work on youth engagement and leadership. ALPHA Education’s bold and necessary project to establish a peace museum dedicated to remembering, education, and world peace has been profoundly meaningful experiences for Gen Ling.

Arlene Bennett

In 1974 Arlene read Betty Jeffrey’s biography, White Coolies, the diary of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II in Indonesia. She was profoundly moved by the story of the Australian nurses.

She began her training at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1978. Following her training, she completed a Staff Year and then commenced a Coronary Care Course also at the RMH. She followed on and did her midwifery training at the Royal Women’s Hospital,
Melbourne. She returned to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where she held the positions of Charge Nurse (Nurse Unit Manager) and Nurse Educator. She completed a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education at the University of Melbourne.

She is the Treasurer of the Lemnos – Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, which commemorates the Australian Nurses who served in Greece during World War I, a member of the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Heritage Advisory Committee and is also an active member of Friends of Banka Island who assists the local community with aid as well as conducting the annual commemorative service for the nurses lost in the massacre on Banka Island. She was the immediate past president of the Australian Nurses Memorial Centre and remains on the History and Heritage Committee. She is an active participant in the commemoration of all nurses who have served from before Federation and, in particular, those nurses who lost their lives in Indonesia or were imprisoned during World War II and was recently interviewed by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federations ANMJ journal for their ANZAC Day remembrance of Vivian Bullwinkel. She has a close relationship with many of the families who had relatives in the camps or who had been massacred on Banka Island.

She has travelled to all of the sites in Indonesia where the camps were during World War II and has recently returned from Java, Banka Island and Sumatra.

Terry Smyth

Dr Terry Smyth was awarded a PhD in Sociology from the University of Essex in 2017; since then, he has been a Community Fellow in their Department of History (an honorary role). From his earliest days, he wondered how his own childhood had compared with those of other children of FEPOWs. After careers in the NHS and in further and higher education, this curiosity led to a PhD based on in-depth interviews. Terry has spoken about his research at conferences in the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands and has also written two chapters for edited volumes.

His single-authored book, ‘Captive Fathers, Captive Children: Legacies of the War in the Far East’, was published in November 2022 in hardback; the paperback edition is due in July 2023.

Terry’s father, Edwin, was captured in Java and then spent three years in Japan in Hiroshima 6B camp, slaving as a coal miner, where he felt the rumble of the first atomic bomb.

Jackie Sutherland

With a life-long interest in geography and environmental issues, Jackie Sutherland graduated with a degree from Aberdeen University. Her professional career has been varied. She has worked for a major conservation charity, lectured on environmental studies, and, most recently, was head of a large secondary school geography department.

She developed a broad interest in military history after she met her husband, a military historian and author. Together they have visited and studied several sites ranging from the Somme to Gallipoli and the Crimea, from Singapore to the Falkland Islands.

In Singapore, her increasing awareness of the broader historical context led her to see her late father’s POW diaries in a different light and to understand better the magnitude of her parents’ wartime experiences.

It was this new insight that led to the decision to publish

James Reynolds

James Reynolds is the grandson of the late Eric Cordingly, and the son of FEPOW speaker Louise Cordingly Reynolds. James has worked as a BBC journalist since 1997. He was posted as a foreign correspondent to Santiago de Chile, Jerusalem, Beijing, Washington, Istanbul, and Rome. He is now a presenter on the World Service.

Keynote Speaker Announced

We are delighted to announce the first keynote speaker for our June conference! Remember, to be the first to hear this news, make sure you are signed up for our newsletter. There are extremely limited spaces for the conference still available, so register now to avoid disappointment. Missed out on our other announcements? Click here to see all the latest conference news.

Professor Edgar Jones

Edgar Jones is professor of the history of medicine and psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

He originally trained as a social and economic historian at Nuffield College Oxford before completing a doctorate in clinical psychopathology at Guy’s Hospital and training as a psychodynamic psychotherapist. He is the programme leader for the MSc in War and Psychiatry at King’s College London, and works in the field of military psychiatry exploring how both soldiers and civilians cope with the stress of war and enduring its effects on their mental state. He is the co-author of Shell Shock to PTSD, Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf, Hove: Psychology Press, Maudsley Monograph (2005). His research into the Second World War includes papers on the epidemic of gastrointestinal illnesses suffered by members of the armed forces and the treatment of psychiatric battle casualties.

Conference Confirmed

We are looking forward to the 2023 conference this June, which is going ahead, barring any unforeseen last-minute restrictions. 

As currently there are no restrictions on space at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), we are pleased to announce that we can now expand capacity. Those on the waiting list have been informed, and if you haven’t booked already, now is the time to do so, as there are a few places still available. Please fill out this form to secure your spot!

As a reminder, the dates are 10th -11th June. We expect the times of the conference to be 09:00-16:30 on both days for our core schedule. If you need accommodation, we recommend The Liner Hotel (with discount booking code: 0623LIVE. Please note to use this code you need to make your booking by ringing 0151 709 7050 or online The hotel is conveniently located next to Liverpool Lime Street Station and a short walking distance from the LSTM. Some optional evening sessions will also take place in The Liner too. But of course, there are many other options to choose from.

We will be announcing further conference news, including more speakers, in the lead-up to June. To be the first to hear any announcements make sure you are signed up for our newsletters. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. All conference information can be found in our dedicated website section too.

We look forward to seeing you at the conference!

All the best,
The RFHG Team

Further Shows at Sime Road

By Sears Eldredge

Next on The Barn’s Spring Season was Rag Bag Revue produced by Horner, Roberts, and W. Hogg-Fergusson. This is the first show in which the Dutch/Indonesian female impersonator, Henri Ecoma, appeared—dancing and singing “La Conga.” Beckerley, who liked to sing as well as act, became part of the “Barn Quartet.”

I liked singing. So did Joe Bernstein, a professional tenor, Ken Luke, headmaster of a Malayan public school, bass, George Sprod, Australian Smith’s Weekly artist and cartoonist alto, and me . . . somewhere between Joe and George; I quote Joe In short, the Barn Quartet. Under Bernstein we were really good. We sang in every show except plays.[i]

. . . .

Joe wrote music and made sure we learned the score. A hard master Joe! When he put his hands on his hips with that pained look and the shake of his head, we three knew we [were] for it . . . not infrequently. We were good because Joe was a professional.[ii]

Beckerley also appeared in a number of skits, and even Searle appeared in two offerings.

When not working on the sets I did quite a few of standing in as understudy for the young female roles: Man of Destiny and Bird in Hand were two at Sime Road. . .. Actors were often unable to rehearse being out on working parties. . .. I could invariably fiddle my stay in camp to fit with a rehearsal when needed. Searle did not favour my, I quote, ‘stage struck desire to appear in plays’. I reminded him of that when he and I were cast in “Hamlet goes Hollywood,”[1] I was Ophelia. . . Ron, Laertes cum American reporter. I come on stage with straw in my hair, nursing a bunch of flowers. As I cross the stage, I offer each flower to the audience: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel that’s for you.”  (NOW HOLDING OUT A CHINA JAR) And [there’s] sulpher, that’s for scabies!” Audience loved it. Ron was good as the American reporter. He too loved it. His American accent was almost a Southern drawl, quite in keeping with the comedy. Stage struck.[iii]

The next show of the Spring Season was an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s “Masterpiece of the Macabre,” Rope, produced by Jon Mackwood and W. Hogg Fergusson, which played between March 28 and April 1. The Dutch performer, Fritz Scholer, appears again in the cast. Then, on 4 April, Music Thru the Years, opened. The show was a cavalcade of music compiled by the pianist Bill Williams with songs, sketches, and dances. Beckerley took the part of a female character:

In “Music through the Years” Alan at five feet two. Alan is the black whiskered villain to my five feet nine damsel in distress. I sing, “No, no, a thousand times No, you cannot buy my caress. No, no a thousand times no, I’d rather die than say yes.” Alan, “Marry me or your father will die!” Me, “Oh, poor father!” Alan, “Into the water with him!”  Me, “Oh, but he can’t swim!” Alan, “Well, now’s his time to bloody learn.”[iv]

The Barn Quartet sang a number of times in the show: “One song, ‘Comrades in Arms’ was a sort of best seller; the audiences not allowing us to retire before a repeat of it. Stirring stuff! I liked it so no chore for me.”[v]

This show was followed on 11 April by Nuts and Wine: A Gourmet’s Revue, which contained “Bolero” and “Lady of Spain,” danced by Henri Ecoma.

Caricature of Henri Ecoma. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at:

P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy, Good Morning, Bill, was scheduled for 18 April, but for some reason it was replaced by John Drinkwater’s comedy, Bird in Hand. And the four original one act plays by Lt. W. H. Ferguson that were next on the schedule were also canceled. Scotch Broth, a hastily cobbled together Variety Show, went on instead, opening on 25 April. The Highland costumes are credited to Besser & Burn. And here again, was Henri Ecoma. This time he was playing the native seductress, “Tondeleyo” [sic] from the 1923 London hit play, White Cargo. Beckerley had distinct memories of Ecoma:

. . . Henri on stage was a girl, he didn’t have to convince anybody. Anybody can put on a wig, tart himself up etc., etc., but strip him and confront an audience in a dance designed to arouse sexual desires is something that made Henri unique . . . he moved like a girl anyway. He also had a disconcerting way of switching to Dutch when he got excited, which was not infrequently and expecting us to keep up, as it were.[vi]

In early May, The Barn Entertainment Committee announced their Summer Season, which would contain the usual variety shows, plays, etc.—even a Dutch show—a night of Shakespeare, and an A.I.F. Concert. But their plans for a Summer Season were scuttled when the Japanese announced that they were all moving to Changi Gaol to replace the European civilian men, women, and children who had been interned there since the fall of Singapore and were now to take up residence at Sime Road.

Rice and Shine will be taking a short break in the New Year, but will return to continue the Changi story, plus cover a few other locations, soon!

[1] A comic sketch in Rag Bag Revue.

[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[ii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iv] Beckerley. J. Ibid.

[v] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean

By Sears Eldredge

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean, opened The Barn Theatre on 22 February and ran for four performances with packed houses.[1] The “burlesque pantomime” was written by Alan Roberts, who took over as sole producer because Horner was suffering with septic sores on his legs and feet.[i] Searle designed the costumes and settings; the wigs were made by Dick Trouvat. Given the cast of characters, the panto seems to have been a mashup of characters from different traditional pantos with additional fictional and film personalities, as there are characters in it called Widow Twankey, Dick Whittington, The Genii, Groucho Marx, Prince Yesume,[2] Gestapo Chief, and Sherlock Holmes. The British and Australian cast numbered 15 with “Cinderella” played by Jon Mackwood and Jack Horner as the “King of Khanburi.”[3]

Costume designs for Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean. Ronald Searle. ©1944 Reproduced by kind permission of The Ronald Searle Cultural Estate Ltd and The Sayle Literary Agency

Searle’s whimsical designs for the costumes (see above) contain detailed identifying the character, the actor playing the role, and on what fabrics or sources to use in their construction. Beckerley played “The Court Magician” second from left in the bottom row. The originals are in full color.

According to Reginald Burton, Searle even designed a coach for Cinderella’s trip to the ball: “They had a sort of mock-up of a coach which was really a cardboard cutout that they pulled across. And I think Cinderella walked behind it looking out of a window.”[ii] After the last performance, Horner crowed that ‘“Cinderella etc.’ has been a howling success.”[iii]

[1] The soya bean in the title is a reference to the soya beans the POWs were given with every issue of rice, which were not to everyone’s liking. Burton, R. 134.

[2] Yasume – Japanese word for “rest.”

[3] Kanburi. The Hospital Rehabilitation Camp at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Their last camp in Thailand.

[i] Horner, R. 118.

[ii] Burton, R. “Interview.” 35-36.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here:

The Barn Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Expecting Singapore would soon be subject to Allied long-range bombing attacks, the Japanese ordered a permanent “black-out,” so no shows could be given outdoors in the evening. In response, the concert party moved into “a large barn-like shed”[i] they would call “The Barn Theatre” [Hut #16]. And the concert party changed its name to “The Barnstormers.”[ii]

Ronald Searle designed the décor for the new theatre, including the logo of a cow jumping over the moon in the center of the proscenium arch with stars scattered on the front curtains. When Searle was finished, Horner wrote, “The Barn Theatre looks very good and is able to create a very intimate atmosphere.”[iii] Unfortunately, “intimate atmosphere” meant the size of the audience would be limited.

Searle’s “Sketchbook” has a list of “The Barnstormers” participants and their various responsibilities. The Entertainments Officer is now Capt. R. L. Homes and not Ronald Horner, who is listed as part of the Acting Company. Their Scenic Artist is Ronald Searle, and there are different Producers for different types of shows: Lt. J. Mackwood for Drama and Capt. Homes and Pte. B “Professor” Roberts for Variety. Bill Williams is listed as responsible for Musical Direction; Wardrobe Masters are Lt. Archer and Lt. Haynes; Electrician, Peter Pearce; Clerk, Jim Whitely; and Stage Manager, Jack Wood. There are now twenty-one actors in the company, including two Dutch POWs, Dick Trouvat and Henri Ecoma, a backstage staff of twelve, Scenic Artists, Script Writers, and five members of the Front of House staff.[iv] The concert party had big plans: they would be a repertory theatre and announce a “Spring Season” of productions.

John Beckerley recalled that one of the acting company, Capt. Robin Welbury, . . .

. . . wrote his own material and did a series in front tabs comedy sketches. They were very popular. One I remember very well. Browbeaten husband is told by bitch of a wife to put away the row of wine bottles before she gets home or else. She leaves. Robin details to the audience every action he takes putting the wine away. . . drinking it, from pulling the cork and filling his glass to staggering around the room drinking the cork, throwing the wine away, counting the same bottle lovingly over and over, now dead drunk etc. (Reading this it doesn’t sound funny at all: in fact, he had the audience in the palm of his hand and they loved it.)[v]

Searle designed most of the sets for the Barnstormers’ shows, and he selected Beckerley to become his assistant.

Ron Searle designed the sets, sometimes a large ‘backdrop’ with plain side flats. Guess who was detailed to paint those. Ron would draw outlines on his cartoon-like backdrop with precise directives re block colour with shading and fading in and out to produce ‘our now’ finished background. He understood my limitations, was always considerate and encouraged rather than criticized. I learned fast: it was in his interest that I did.[vi]

Royal Airforce O.R. John Beckerley.
Courtesy of John Beckerley.

As with other concert parties, one of their major concerns was how to obtain costumes. This dilemma was partially solved by the Japanese.

Costumes at Sime Road: load of clothes from Singapore (JAPS COULD NOT USE THEM SO ‘HELP YOUR SELF’) As with Music 78s, Books, Etc. We would have preferred medicines and food. Costumes cutting made by two professional tailors (POW SOLDIERS). Two gnome-like characters who actually sat cross-legged like Disney characters when working. Believe me, it’s true.  No conversations . . . never! Not even when fitting us.[vii]

[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 2004.

[ii] Horner, 118; Searle, “Sketchbook,” n.p.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

[iv] Searle, R. “Sketchbook,” p. 27.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vii] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here:

The Artwork of James Harston Pennock

James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class in the RAF Marine Services was captured at sea off the coast of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp in Palembang, Sumatra.

Photo of James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class.
Courtesy of Anita Toscani.

Whilst a prisoner he drew (alongside fellow captured artists Rex Spencer and Bill Bourke) as well as carved pipes. James and Rex would also carve the names of those that passed away in the camp onto crosses. In a letter long after the war, and in a reference to carving onto the crosses, Rex wrote the “we just couldn’t keep up with the number dying”.

Although he rarely talked about his experiences in the camp, in a brief note he wrote years later he stated that “drawing saved his sanity”. His daughter, Anita Toscani, has kindly shared some of these drawings that he created whilst a POW with us so that more people may be able to see his artwork.

Anita would love to find out more about her father’s story, if anyone has any resources that could help, or recognises anyone in the Jame’s drawings below, please let us know.

All drawings by James Harston Pennock and kindly used with the permission of Anita Toscani.

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at:

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at:

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.

[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here:

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge


It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.

[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.

[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: