Tag Archives: Featured

Featured posts.

9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers

By Sears Eldredge

Walker, a member of the 9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, was on the “Warwick Castle,” a luxury liner turned troopship in the 18th Div. convoy. He had been an entertainer in his unit’s concert parties during their training back in England. As they zigzagged across the Atlantic to thwart German submarines on the first leg of its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Walker was asked by their Padre “to arrange a night of entertainment” to relieve the boredom. He approached his friend, Tommy Craggie, to play his “buxom daughter.” Though he had never been on stage before, Craggie jumped at the chance. From his love of the old time British Music Hall and Variety shows, Walker devised a two-part comedy sketch for performance in their main Mess Hall on 5 November. 

The scene, as he described it, took place in a poor household where the father is laboring over his “Football Pools Coupon.”[1] While he is trying to figure his odds, in bounces his “darling daughter, Genevieve (Tommy), who announces that she is going hiking with her boy-friend and will be sleeping at Youth Hostels.” The father, quite concerned that the boyfriend might take advantage of his innocent daughter, warns her not to let him kiss her or let him into her room “as your mother will be worrying.” The daughter promises not to let either of these things happen and she then leaves with her father’s blessing: “Off you go then and be a good girl!”

Time passes. The father is still enthralled with betting options when Genevieve returns with the news that she had had a wonderful time on her hike. When the father inquires whether she had let her boyfriend kiss her, Genevieve replies that she hadn’t. When he asks whether the boyfriend had tried to get into her room, she replied,

“Yes, he did Daddy but I knew my mother would be worrying, so I stopped him.”

“Good girl!”

“So I went to HIS room and let HIS mother do the worrying!”

After “that corny joke,” Walker wrote, “we descend into Victorian Melodrama.” 

In high dudgeon over the shame his daughter has brought on the family, he sends her out into the snow “never to darken my door again!” But before she goes, he asks her if she has any money.  

Daughter plucks a wad of paper money out of her stocking cap.

Dtr. I have L500 Daddy.

Pa: Genevieve! Wherever have you been?

Dtr. On the Barrack Road, Daddy.

Pa: On the Barrack Road! With those Northumberland Fusiliers!?[2]

Daughter, have you been a good girl?

Dtr: Daddy, to get L500 out of those Fusiliers — Yuh GOTTA be good!

This punch line was followed by a quick curtain. And then the scene changed to one year later. Pa is still trying to forecast football results but agonizes over his daughter out there in the cruel world. He goes to the door and opens it to find a raging snowstorm and delivers his important cue line, “Not a fit night for man nor beast!”

Silence!  And then louder: NOT A FIT NIGHT FOR MAN NOR BEAST!  Whereupon a mass of newspaper ‘snowflakes’ smack him in the puss! 

This was a take-off on an old melodrama scenic device of having a Property Man offstage throw shredded newspaper in the door to simulate “snowflakes.” At this point Walker drops out of character and speaks directly to his audience,

“You take these guys out of Skid Row, give them a career in Special Effects, and this is the thanks you get . . .  Ah, Newcastle playing Sunderland. A cert draw . . . but back to the drama. . . List, oh list to the wind howling around the housetops, like a dead body being dragged along the floor (I’ll get an Oscar for this lot) And to think that it is one-year ago this very night that I cast my darling daughter, Genevieve, out into that cruel world. Will she ever come back to me, ever forgive me?”

The father repeats his actions at the door, but this time he suddenly hears footsteps approaching through the snow. The Daughter appears “clutching a bundle to her breast.” 

“Daddy, I have come home and brought you a little grandson!”

Pa and daughter embrace in tearful scene.

“But daughter, where did this little baby come from?”

“His name is Benny, Daddy, and he came from Heaven.”

“From Heaven?”

“Yes Daddy, ‘Benny’s from Heaven’” (Sings last three words)

Pa (sings) “I’ve been to all the neighbours,

                       called all over town,

                      but none remember Benny,

                      coming down.”

Dtr (sings): “The only thing that I can say is, ‘Benny’s from Heaven”’. [3]

Pa: You’re lying. Give that poor little innocent child to me. Let me gaze upon the face of my grandson. (He holds the babe and uncovers its face. The face is black.)

“The Northumberland Fusiliers??? She’s been out with the King’s African Rifles!!!”

END.[i]

At Halifax, they were secretly transferred to transport ships of the U.S. Navy which would carry them as far as India. The original intention had been to send the 18th Division to the Middle East—they had been training in Britain for months for desert warfare. But when the Japanese attacked Malaya on 7/8 December 1941, the 18th Division was diverted to Singapore, which meant another long voyage across the Indian Ocean.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 4TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Walker commented on this betting practice: “A great British pastime giving millions of working men a hope of getting out of poverty . . . to forecast 8 draws was to win a fortune.”

[2] His own unit in the audience.

[3] Parody of lyrics from the 1936 popular song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, “Pennies from Heaven.”


[i] Walker, Script reconstructed from several Emails: 17 August, 27 August, 28 August, 2000.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Outbound Shipboard Concerts

Sears Eldredge introduces our next section on British Pre-War Concert Parties; Shipboard Concerts.

In order to alleviate the potential morale problems where thousands of men were packed together on-board transport ships with little to occupy their time or minds during their long months as sea, “boredom was combated by boat drill, bingo, and amateur theatricals,”[i] wrote Jimmy Walker.


[i] Walker, Of Rice, 4.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

“The Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party, part 2

By Sears Eldredge

For the next year and a half, “The Optimists” Concert Party would tour to the 18th Division’s training facilities in the British Isles.

We were a bit like a circus [wrote Fergus Anckorn] in that we all lived together, travelled together and each had a job to do in erecting the stage, proscenium etc. We were entirely self-sufficient, with props, scenes, stage, lighting and sound. We travelled all over the country with the 18th Division, performing somewhere every night. We would arrive at about 5 pm and the show would start at 7:30 p.m. and finish about 10 p.m. If we were lucky, as in Edinburgh, Scotland, we would perform in one of the big theatres or cinemas.[i]

Like scavengers, the concert party “lived off the land,” Anckorn explained, supplementing their minimal equipment and furnishing when opportunities presented themselves.

And sometimes we would be performing in theaters and we would “accidentally” take some of their lighting home with us when we went. So we built up quite a stock of decent lighting and stuff like that . . . 

And I remember in one place we went to an RAF establishment where they had their own theater. And they had electric curtains, you know, beautifully done that had been made by one of the fellows there. And the electric curtains were done with windscreen wiper motor from the car. So we borrowed that that night and went away with it.  And this was a great thing, you know, after we’d left you’d get people looking for us, “Do you know where the concert party went?”[ii]

Anckorn had an endless fund of stories about their adventures on tour. One was the story of their stay at the Abbotsford Hotel in Melrose, Scotland, during the winter of 1940-1941, where it was so cold, they took up all the floorboards and burned them for warmth. 

And one Old Dear saw us poor soldiers in the freezing cold—because you couldn’t turn the tap on and get water or anything, there was nothing, it was frozen solid—and she sent us a grand piano to amuse ourselves with. And that burned better than the normal floorboards. [Laughter] Disgusting, because it was a beautiful piano, and she gave it to us with no strings attached. We thought, good, let’s get warm tonight. All the keys, you know—ivory—it all burned beautifully. And that beautiful piano went the way of all the other things in that hotel.[iii]   

Because the concert party was excused from daily fatigues and training exercises due to their rehearsals and nightly performances, they were resented by some of the troops for receiving preferential treatment. In order not to exacerbate the situation, they were billeted out of the way of the regular troops and slept in the top floor garret of the hotel. As Anckorn tells the story, one day General Beckwith-Smith held an inspection of the hotel and when he got to the garret, the Sergeant Major tried to prevent him from entering by telling him there was nothing to see in there.

And so the General said, “Well, what do you do in there, what is the room for?”  “It’s the concert party.” “Oh, well, [let’s] see that.” So he opened it. And there we were, lying on the floor. And the Sergeant Major blew his top. [Anckorn mumbles words in an angry Sergeant Major’s voice, before returning to his own voice.]  And the General said, “No, no, don’t wake them up. You know, that’s my concert party.” (He loved us.) And he wouldn’t let us be disturbed. So once again, there’s a Sergeant Major we had to look out on after that, because he’d been told off because of us.[iv]

Gunner Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn.

“The Optimists”’ program for their show was the standard mixture of musical numbers, specialty acts, and comic sketches.

But our show would always start off with an Opening Chorus, with the band and everything, and us singing. Appleton was on the piano; Tonsley was on the drums, and . . . so we would start off with a rousing Chorus to introduce ourselves . . . 

Hello everybody, how do you do?

We are here to please you, and you, and you.[v]

And then would be some sort of an introductory speech given by Oliver Thomas . . . and he would say, “Introducing Dennis East,” who would give a rousing couple of bars on the fiddle. “And Gus Anckorn (they called me Gus).” And then I would get up and produce four aces from someone’s head, you know—on the stage—we were sort of seated round tables as if we were in a cafe.

So that was how each one of us was introduced, so they knew who they were gonna get then, and they would be looking forward to one or the other of us. 

And then the show proper would start.  Someone would come and do a specialty act . . . one of us, me, the violinist, or Oliver Thomas . . .  interspersed with blackout sketches . . . most of sketches were blackout sketches.

“Blackouts” were a type of comic sketch where the punch line was delivered as the last line of the sketch and was immediately followed by the lights being doused. The punch line anticipated a delayed response in the audience, so their laughter on “getting it” would take place in the blackout which only reinforced the humor.

Another sketch—this one devised by Anckorn—involved Anckorn being a PT Instructor in the Army. (Knowing that he would be inducted if war broke out, Anckorn had prepared himself for dealing with all the “beastly men” he was going encounter in the Army by learning jujitsu.) The setup for the sketch involved the audience being told that they were going to see a jujitsu demonstration that been captured on film, but since the projector had broken down, it could only be shown it in slow-motion. And then Anckorn and Rich Goodman performed all of the jujitsu moves, including the throws over the head, in slow-motion which required tremendous strength and balance.    

So these shows were a mishmash of specialty acts . . . singing . . . sketches, and plays. And I think most of us had two spots. I used to do a slight of hand spot and then a bigger thing, you know, bigger magic. Oliver Thomas would do a different lot of impression of people than he did the first act. Dennis would play some more tunes. So I think we all had an encore in the second half of the show.

Concert parties always tried to end with a rousing finish.

We’d get up in the front and sing our song, you know, “Goodbye to you, you, you, you, you, and you, and you”—that sort of thing. And then away we would go. 

And, as we had an officer with us, of course, he would always be invited to the Officer’s Mess, or wherever we were, for drinks in the evening. And he would say, “Well, what about my lads?”  And they’d say, “Well bring them in as well.”[vi]

About nine months into their tour, the civilian Producer left the show and was replaced by Lt. John J. Mackwood: “a sort of actor, very show-bizzy sort of little man, and he brought his wife into the show.” Mackwood had been granted special permission to bring his wife, Marianne, and another actress (“some sort of soubrette” whose name Anckorn couldn’t remember) into the concert party. These two brought the Optimists what it had been missing and had always been an essential component of military concert parties—the presence of female figures and “glamour.” In most military concert parties, the feminine presence was provided by female impersonators.[vii]

After a year of performing the same show night after night for a year, the concert party decided to develop a new totally production.  

So we did another one—got that ready. And there was a song called “Sad Sunday,” or some such song. . . . And people used to commit suicide with a copy of that in their hand–“ Gloomy Sunday” . . . if they were going to commit suicide for some reason or the other they’d be playing that record or a copy in their hand. 

And we put this in our show. And the officer [Mackwood] said, “Look, we don’t want this.” (Our officer was a very superstitious man.) “No, that’s a jinx, don’t—there’s a jinx in that. If we do that, the show will close down.” We said, “Ridiculous!” So that went in. And opening night was in the north of England . . . and it was the closing night. Word came through, “Everyone back to your Units.”  We had to go. And our officer said, “I told you.”[viii]

With the recall to their units, they soon found themselves in late October embarking with the rest of the 18th Division at Liverpool for their voyage to the Middle East. Before they sailed, Anckorn was summoned by a Colonel and told, “We want you to bring all your conjuring stuff, ‘cause you’re going to entertain us when we’re in the desert.” Anckorn explained that he hadn’t any with him and was given a considerable sum of money to acquire some before they sailed.  Placing an emergency call to the Magic Shop in London he had always dealt with, Anckorn told the clerk that he needed some magic tricks in a hurry and it was impossible for him to get to London. When the clerk learned that Anckorn was in Liverpool, he guessed why he was there and told Anckorn he would see what he could do. 

The next day there was a box of magic in Liverpool. There was no way you could . . . there were no trains. I don’t know how it got there, but there it was: “Gunner Anckorn.”  And it was all this beautiful stuff. 

And I thought, well, I’m not going to open it; we’re just going to get on that ship. It might get torpedoed, anything. . . . I know once we’re on that tub, you know, 3,000 of us, I’ll die. So I’m not opening this box, and I’ll open it up when we get to the desert and perhaps start doing shows. 

And then, off we went, through the north Atlantic with three little corvettes to take a whole convey with [German] submarines and dive bombers all over the place.[ix]  

NEXT POST IN SERIES: 21st JULY 2021, 10AM


[i] Anckorn, Letter, 2 May 00.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 18.

[iii] Anckorn, Interview, 7.

[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 7-8.

[v] Anckorn, Email, 19 Jan. 04.

[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 14-18 passim

[vii] Anckorn, Email, 8 August 06.

[viii] Anckorn, Interview, 19.

[ix] Anckorn, Interview, 20.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

“The Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In the fall of 1940, once the fear of a German invasion of Britain had lessened, Brigadier General Beckwith-Smith, the Commander of the Territorial 18th Army, ordered that an official Divisional concert party be established that would tour the Division’s installations in Britain to entertain his troops during their long and difficult training exercises for their next deployment. As a young officer in the Coldstream Guards during W.W.I in France, Beckwith-Smith had undoubtedly witnessed concert parties operating behind the lines during the conflict and been impressed with their effectiveness in keeping up the morale of the troops. Because of his superb leadership skills (demonstrated during the retreat at Dunkirk during May and June, 1940), he had been promoted and given command of the Territorial 18th (East Anglian) Infantry Division with the responsibility of preparing his troops for desert warfare in the Middle East. 

To underscore its purpose in raising and keeping morale high, this troupe would be known as “The Optimists.” The inspiration for its title may have come from a professional civilian concert party, “The Co-Optimists” which had been enormously successful in the London theatre since its debut in 1921, although the troupe had disbanded in 1935.  

To find performers for the new concert party, notices were sent to all the military units within the Division requesting that they send forward any known performers in their midst. Two men sent forward from the same Regiment were the recent inductees, Fergus Anckorn and Denis East.

Fergus Anckorn had been a professional magician whose stage name was “Wizardus.” He had been performing magic since he was fourteen and was the youngest person ever accepted into The Magic Circle, an association of professional magicians in England.

The Young Magician Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn

Denis East had been a professional violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. It was East who recalled the details of their auditions for the concert party:

And we were called into Norwich first of all to give a performance without knowing what it would lead to, on the stage of just a small theatre. And it was attended by a lot of people who weren’t in the Army at all but, in fact, they [were] part of the 18th Division Headquarters. And the General, he sat at the front. And we always knew whether he approved or not of what we were performing because [imitates loud laughter], and you’d hear this I think all over Norwich, you know. . . .

Anyway, we had this concert. And the outcome of it was that “Old Becky,” as we called him—General Beckwith-Smith—immediately demanded the release of [those selected for the concert party] straight away to come to Norwich and live in Norwich with him because he was forming the Divisional concert party. And so, we [he and Anckorn] were both sent in my lorry because we were actually drivers.[i]

At its start, the 18th Div. concert party was headed by a civilian producer from E.N.S.A.[1] named Holland, a professional theatre person chosen to train the ensemble, develop the show, and organize the tour. According to Anckorn, the cast consisted of ten men drawn from the ranks. 

Well, there was myself, a magician. There was Oliver Thomas, he was an imitator. And there was Dennis East, a violinist. Fred Coles was a wonderful piano accordionist. Then we had a pianist called [Jack] Appleton, a brilliant pianist. 

And, sometimes, as a sort of guest, when we were in the area where his regiment was—we had a little chap [Cyril Wycherly] who was a bit of a rake, he was always out with the women, and he could sometimes never be found; he’d be gone for a couple [of days] and was sleeping around. But he was the most superb accompanist that you’ve ever heard. Also, a [graduate] of one of the music academies. Well, he looked like a tramp, and acted like one . . . little hands – and if he was in the area, would accompany Dennis East on the violin.[2] But otherwise the accompanist for Dennis East was the accordionist Fred Coles, and he could do anything.   

And a fellow called Downey. John Downey had been a vocalist in a dance band somewhere, so he was our vocalist. And Richard Goodman was a spare character in there. He was one of the actors when we put on sketches. Normally when we put on sketches, we all threw our lot in. But he was there as that; that’s all he could do. And, he could play the piano. 

And then we had a chap called [Reginald]Tonsley (funny how these names are coming back to me). He was a comedian from show business, and he played the drums in the band.

And I can just give you the name of another man that’s come to mind, Larry Croisette. And he was a Western cowboy-type guitarist, and he was also, by trade, a carpenter. So, he was a very big member of the concert party because he used to build stages for us like that. And we used to carry with us our proscenium, our lighting, everything.[ii]

Oliver Thomas had excellent skills as a mimic:

All over London in the late 30’s there were News Theatres – programmes consisting of Movietone News and often including an American ‘comment’ programme called, “Time Marches On.” I imitated the voice of the commentator & introduced the ‘voices’ of King Edward VIII (from abdication speech), Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Hitler, & President Roosvelt [sic].[iii]

Their Stage Manager, and all-round problem-solver, was Chris Buckingham.

Versatility was a key factor in being chosen for the concert party. Besides their own specialty, and their parts in the comic sketches, Anckorn recalled that each member had an assigned role in setting up the stage before a performance and striking it afterwards.

[We’d] get there in the afternoon, put up the proscenium, lightings—there again, every one of us had a job when we arrived. This person would be threading the [curtains], someone else was joining the bits—all the timber we had was [held together by] butterfly screws so that you could slot it together and do it all up. And Larry Croisette, the carpenter—if anything didn’t fit anywhere—he would make something on the spot that would fit in. And we had an electrician with us who could see to any electric—you see, quite often, there wasn’t the electricity supply. And sometimes there was but you needed fifty yards of cable to get to it. And someone would see to that.[iv]   

The costumes for “The Optimists” performers were modeled on the traditional Pierrot Show costumes as used by “The Co-Optimists.” Anckorn: “Black pyjama-type top with yellow bobbles down the front—four, I think. Yellow silk wide trousers and yellow rough [ruff] round the necks. Our divisional flash[3] was a yellow [windmill] on a black background. It was a stylized windmill—I suppose, because being an East Anglian Division it represented all the windmills on the Norfolk Broads.”[v] Following the seaside Pierrot tradition, the performers would change into individual costumes for their solo turns in the second act. For sleight-of-hand magician, Anckorn, this meant white tie, top hat and tails.

Anckorn remembered one night when he had donned his Pierrot silks before he left his billet instead of in the cramped space at the performance hall to save time. So he walked through the dark night to the hall in his silks wearing his greatcoat that came down to his ankles over them. After the show, some local girls were in the dressing room being chatted up by the performers when one remarked that their costumes badly needed washing and pressing—and she volunteered to do it. So they handed over their costumes expecting their return the next day.

That left me in my underpants. And I didn’t mind because it was midnight now and by the time I walked back, no one will see me. 

And then, an air raid. Now it was the first air raid that place had ever heard. They weren’t bombing us, they were going to Glasgow or somewhere, but they came over, hundreds of them. And sirens went off. And so I thought, well, we’d better get back to the billet, because we were still soldiers. (In any action we’d have to do our stuff.) So I went back down the main street, with my greatcoat and underpants. And I could see the headlines in the paper: “Soldier killed in air raid with no clothes.” [Laughter] It didn’t happen; I got them back the next day.[vi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 7TH JULY 2021, 10AM.


[1] [1] E.N.S.A. stands for the Entertainments National Service Association, a civilian organization which sent performing troupes out to the troops. For the troops, the letters came to mean “Every Night Something Awful.”

[2] Anckorn would later write about Wycherly, “He was a brilliant accompanist. Although Appleton was a terrific pianist, Wycherly was there only to accompany Denis East. You could place any music in front of him and he would sight-read it at once. It always made me marvel, as he had tiny hands, and as I say was completely non-descript. He was hopeless as a soldier—always untidy, and several times in trouble, AWOL, etc. I think he must have been sent to us just to get rid of him. But put him in front of a keyboard and he was transformed. [Anckorn, Email, 8 August 2006] The singer, John Foster-Haigh, would later call Wycherly, “A gift from the Gods. [McNeilly, “Changi Celebrity Artists,” 2-3]

[3] A “flash” was the unit’s badge or insignia.


[i] East, Interview, 5.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 2-4; 6.

[iii] Thomas, Letter, 31 March 01.

[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 18.

[v] Anckorn, Email, 22 January 04.

[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 13.

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

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Introduction to British Pre-War Concert Parties

Our first series of blog posts will focus on British Pre-War Concert Parties. Introduction by Sears Eldredge:

During 1940, and later in 1941, concert parties were established by British military commands as part of comprehensive welfare schemes for troops soon to be engaged in battle. They needed some sort of organized leisure time activity to relieve the boredom that set in after arduous training exercises, aboard transport ships taking them overseas, and in isolated postings.[1]



[1]We are concerned here only with Concert Parties that will end up as POWs in Singapore and Malaya.

‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties Posts

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

About Rice and Shine

Unpublished Treasures from the FEPOW Concert Party Archive

By Sears A. Eldredge, Emeritus Professor of Theater and Dance, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 2000 I started out on a research journey into the musical and theatrical entertainment produced by POWs in their camps in the Far East during World War II. I had no idea how much material I would find so I collected everything. Actually, there proved to be such an abundance of material that I realized I had to narrow down the focus of my search if I wanted to produce a more in-depth study than a summarizing compendium.

Happy Harry Smith – walking on stilts in Kuala Lumpar 1941

Because most of the diaries and memoirs of former FEPOWs I read, as well as those I interviewed or corresponded with, had been involved in constructing the Thailand-Burma railway, that became my focus. The content of this material seemed to epitomize both the worst and the best of the FEPOW experience in captivity. The resultant 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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22 .  

Book Chapters

My plan is to post a series of blogs based on the unpublished material in my archive at the Macalester College library. The title for the series will be “Rice and Shine,” which is the name of the first show performed in captivity by the British 18th Divisional Concert Party. British pre-war concert parties will be the focus of the initial blog. Future blogs will include the full story of the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force) Malayan Concert Party, the final concert parties in Changi Gaol, concert parties in Borneo (including Kuching), Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, The Philippines, and The Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Some of these might be quite lengthy, others quite brief. There might even be a blog about what new material regarding entertainment on the Thailand-Burma railway has come to light since the publication of my book. What is important to me is that these FEPOW entertainers finally get recognized for what they did to maintain morale during those terrible times.

If readers have any materials pertaining to FEPOW theatricals in captivity during WWII, then please share what you have through the Sharing Research blog.


Posts on British Pre-War Concert Parties:

Posts on Australian Pre-War Concert Parties

End of Sharing Research Series 1

We have now come to the end of the first of our Sharing Research blog series and we hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as we have!

A massive thank you to all the authors that have contributed to the series for their work, and to everyone who has read, commented, liked and shared the posts. We hope that there will be a Series 2 and so if you have any ideas for a contribution please do get in touch with us, you don’t have to be a professional researcher, you just need an interesting story to tell. In the meantime, you can find all of the Series 1 posts here.

So what’s next for the blog?

We have some very exciting things coming up soon so make sure to keep an eye on the website and our social media to stay up to date. If you want to be notified in advance, and get early sneak peeks to what is coming up make sure that you are subscribed to our mailing list.

Doctor Behind the Wire

Jackie Sutherland, author of Doctor Behind the Wire: The Diaries if POW, Captain Jack Ennis, Singapore, 1942-1945, writes about how she uncovered the identity of who sketched her father as a POW in Singapore.

The answer was there all the time!

The search began in an attempt to find out more about the artist who sketched my late father, Captain Jack Ennis, while a POW in Singapore. No more was known other than the signature ‘F.J. White’.

Sketch of Captain Jack Ennis, image courtesy of Jackie Sutherland

Reading through lists of FEPOW gave several possible identities but then, quite by chance, as I leafed through papers on my desk, the sunlight caught a tiny reflection on the back of the sketch.  Graphite – pencil – on the dull brown paper, a page from a photograph album.

There, in my father’s small spidery writing, he had noted ‘Drawn by “Willie” White in January 1944 at Selerang after a hockey match’.

This was a name I had come across while transcribing my father’s diaries – but it had never occurred to me that ‘Willie’ might be a nickname. Sadly, my father had also recorded Willie’s death (from illness) in May later that same year.

Following the trail from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision website, I was able to find out more about this remarkable artist. F. John White (nickname ‘Willie’), a trained commercial artist, had enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment) and with the 1/5th Battalion, was captured in Singapore. During his time as a POW he was very involved in theatre productions, designing posters and scenery as well as acting.

To quote from my father’s diary (on a production of Aladdin) ‘Young (John) Willie White of our Mess made up as a wonderful princess, very, very pretty girl. Steve Campbell sent up a bouquet of flowers after.’

‘Willie’ John White must have drawn many portraits. As  Capt G K Marshall wrote in his Changi Diaries.’

‘25th January 1944. Had a sunbathe on the roof and later sat for Willie while he did a portrait of me. He finished it by lunchtime and made a very good job of it, the best I have seen him do.’

Willie White’s portrait of my father was only recognized 75 years after VJ Day, which makes me think how many more portraits and sketches of our relatives are waiting to be discovered?


Doctor Behind the Wire, by Jackie Sutherland

Although other books have featured Jack and Elizabeth Ennis, this is the first complete account of their story – from meeting in up-country Malaya (the rain forest, the orchids) – to their marriage in Singapore just days before it fell to the Japanese, and then through the long separation of internment.

Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.

The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.

Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.

The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.

You can pre-order Jackie’s book through the Pen and Sword website here.

Australian and British National Memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore

By Emily Sharp, PGR at the University of Leeds

For my Masters by Research degree at the University of Leeds I examined, in part, how the national perceptions of Australia and Britain of both the prisoner of war and civilian internee camps at Changi differ. The project found that they are all individually and deliberatively selective in their portrayal of the Japanese occupation which works to reinforce the desired national image of each country.

Singapore, Straits Settlements. 1945-09-15. The Main Gates of Changi Gaol Looking North. AWM 117642

In Australia, news articles during 1942 and 1943 focused on reporting basic facts that relatives at home would need to know about the internment of Australians in Singapore, such as the number of people captured and where they were being held. The lack of detail in these reports was mostly due to the fact that little information was actually coming out of Singapore as the Japanese were censoring the news and those who had been interned were restricted from being able to send mail often.

Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. AWM.P03651.005

In 1944 a change in the reports on Changi can begin to be seen as some men had managed to escape during transportation to Japan and return to Australia. This escape allowed the Australian press to begin to report their first detailed stories of what their citizens were experiencing with the Imperial Japanese Army in control. The Australian press chose to focus on the atrocities carried out against the Chinese during the Sook Ching massacre and how the Australians had been made to dig mass graves for the victims. This allowed the Japanese to be portrayed as being a barbaric enemy whilst simultaneously letting the Australian public feel like there was no particular threat against their citizens that were still interned as the Chinese were bearing the brunt of the brutality.

Following the war, the press in Australia began to unveil the true conditions that those interned had been exposed to. This was utilised to instil a nationalistic sense of pride in the troops by portraying them as those whose spirit, patriotism and endurance had allowed them to emerge from their internment victorious and alive. It is this theme of being proud of the Australian spirit which got the POWs through their ordeal and which the Australian press still focuses on today. Unlike Britain, the Second World War in the Pacific was the major theatre for action for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and this is therefore the main point of focus for Second World War history within Australia. By centring the Second World War story around Changi and the other atrocities which have been connected to it as one single narrative for the history of the nation, the war can be presented in a proud and patriotic way. In general, the story follows this pattern: Singapore’s fall was mainly the fault of the British and, as a result, Australian forces were interned at Changi before being shipped to work on the Burma-Thai railway. Many died, but those men who survived did so because of their Australian spirit and returned home battered but victorious. This pattern allows the negative aspects of history, such as the defeat, to be glossed over by blaming another nation. This then stacks the odds against their own citizens who, through no fault of their own, now need to do anything to survive. The reason they survive is because they are Australian (they contain and use the spirit that all Australians as a nation perceive themselves to have). Therefore, the POW story can now be perceived as a period in which Australians survived and had the upper hand because they were Australian.

Britain reported near identical stories as Australia did in 1942 and 1943 and for much the same reasons (Japanese censorship and limited information flow). Britain did not however, have anyone escape and return during the occupation and so the lack of specific news also continued throughout 1944. The minor exceptions to this were the small pieces of information here and there in the local press when a loved one from the community had received a letter from a POW or civilian internees in Changi informing them that they were alright. This was used to reassure the public that their men and women were holding up in internment just fine and there was not much to be worried about. This also allowed the public to remain focused on the war in Europe which was of greater concern and scale and involved more manpower than that in the Pacific.

In 1945, with the war in the West now over, the British press too began to report about the dreadful conditions experienced by those who were now returning home after their internment. In a similar way to the idea of the Australian spirit, Britain used this to perpetuate its underdog style self-image. These prisoners who had everything going against them managed to survive and return home despite the odds and therefore emerge victorious. Again, it can be seen that this is being utilised to allow the public to feel a nationalistic pride for their men and to hold them up as heroes as the fact that Singapore originally capitulated is glossed over, almost forgotten, in favour of this portrayal.

Changi, Singapore, 1945-09-19. Members of 8 Division, Ex Prisoners of War of the Japanese, demonstrating conditions in their cell at Changi Jail. Four men occupied a two-man cell. Identified personnel are: PTE D.A. Meldrum (1); PTE L. Coulson (2); PTE W. Oakley (3); CPL L.W. Whisker (4). AWM 116463.

It is this post-war reporting that has carried over into the modern day and led to the British perception of Changi as a brutal place that was difficult to survive in, despite both prisoners of war and civilian internees returning home. Thus, the British underdogs win again. It allows the defeat of the British to be pushed back in favour of their stories of survival and small victories of misbehaviour against the Imperial Japanese Army during captivity. Again, this is then used to fuel a portrayal of heroism in the image of those who had been interned and to give the nation something to take pride in.

Overall, Australia and Britain present similar perceptions of Changi but place different amounts of significance on events that took place there due to their differing levels of involvement in the Second World War. It would seem that in summary, Australia and Britain’s perceptions are focused on pride of the past actions of their citizens.


Text adapted from: Sharp, E.J.M.S 2018. National memories of the Second World War in Changi, Singapore: Australian, British, and Singaporean perspectives. Master of Arts by Research thesis, University of Leeds

Urgent Appeal for the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum

RFHG has been made aware that the pandemic has caused financial hardship for the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC), and despite reopening six months ago the lack of international travel and few local visitors unfortunately means that the museum’s reserves funds are running out.

I am sure that all those involved with the FEPOW story, whether for personal, academic, or a combination of reasons, are aware of the incredible work that TBRC and all its staff achieve. Rod Beattie has spoken at all our conferences to date, and the knowledge that TBRC shares, and their work on preserving the railway and its story, is truly remarkable – a testament to all those who work there. We understand that such financial hardship could result in the Centre losing staff and possibly even closure.

RFHG supports the appeal from the Malayan Volunteers Group in partnership with COFEPOW, Java Club, and other FEPOW organisations, to support the TBRC. To make a donation please contact rosemaryfell11@gmail.com for details.

Any support will be much appreciated.


Cover image adapted from: Gasson nz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons