Tag Archives: Singapore

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 2

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

But as the months of waiting for the war to start dragged on, the value of a show like the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s “Diggers’ Revue” for entertaining the bored Australian troops in their isolated camps in Malaya had not been lost on A.I.F. H.Q. in Johore Bahru. In September, Major Jacobs was asked to form an official A.I.F. Divisional Concert Party, but this time it “would function as a separate Unit and not be regarded as a temporary detached body.”[1][i] Jacobs again requested Lt. Val Mack as his second in command, but Mack’s CO refused to let him go, saying that he couldn’t be spared.[ii] This decision was overruled by someone higher up and Mack was transferred to the Divisional concert party. 

Auditions notices were sent out to all the units and one hundred and fifty men responded. Of these, four musicians and eleven entertainers were initially selected for the concert party,[2][iii] including John Wood, Eric Beattie, and Harry Smith, who had been in the previous show at Kuala Lumpur. Newcomers were Bob Picken, vocalist, from the 2/20th Brigade Concert Party; C. Wiggins, dancer and female impersonator; George Oliver, illusionist and fire-eater; Ted Skene, female impersonator (ingénue-type); Bernard McCaffrey, Irish baritone; Ken Wylde, actor; Tom Hussey, ventriloquist, with “Joey,” his dummy; Slim De Grey, yodeling and cowboy singer; and Les Bennet, actor.

Tom Hussey and Joey. AWM 116036

Besides Beattie on the violin, their quartet of musicians included Fred Stringer, piano and piano-accordion, Ray Tullipan, saxophone and cornet,[3] and Fred Brightfield, a former pit drummer for J. C. Williamson’s Tivoli vaudeville circuit in Australia.

Once chosen, the cast immediately gathered in Singapore to begin intense rehearsals at the Victoria Theatre.”[iv] Their official name would be “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” but in advertisements, the word, “Malayan,” was frequently dropped.

In late October, a preview of their show, “Pot Pourri” under the banner, “By the troops, For the troops,” was staged in the 2/12 Company lines at Johore Bahru, and attended by Maj. General Bennett, the A.I.F. General in Command [G.O.C.]. 

Both halves of the show opened with community singing and were followed by a series of comic sketches interspersed with solo specialty acts. The sketches contained an old military concert party favorite—a farcical ballet—“The Breath of Spring,” with a solo dance by Wiggins; “Hotel Swift” where Picken was the Waiter who “dispenses drinks in double time”; “Remembrance,” in which a solider with a “sympathetic Nurse” (Skene) were prevented from renewing their liaison by two Guards; “Eastern Interlude,” where “2 Diggers” inadvertently find themselves in the “Sultan’s” harem with “Fatima,” (Wood), “Hasheesh” (Skene) and a “Slave” played by Smith; a political satire, “Mexican Presidente”; and a repeat of the old “The Hole in the Road” vaudeville sketch with Jacobs and Mack. (From his penchant for repeating this comic routine in every show, and because he was a field engineer, Jacobs would be given the nickname, “Hole-in-the Road.”)[v]  

The preview performance was a success and permission was granted to take the show on tour. “Just as everything was functioning to a nicety,” Stewart wrote, “pressure of army duties forced Major Jacobs to momentarily relinquish his active part, and Lieut. B. Mack (2/10 Fd Regt) immediately took up the cue.”[vi] (What Jacobs’ other Army duties were we’re not told.)   

With the absence of Jacobs, the show had to be recast and reworked. A comedian, Harry McGovern, was brought in to replace Jacobs, but all the “Pot Pourri” sketches and routines were kept intact. The revised show was given the new title, “The Hit of the Show.” 

Before they could take their show on the tour to remote sites in Malaya, a portable canvas tent stage with lighting and other necessary equipment had to be procured. It was designed by Mack based on the tent stages he had employed in his traveling shows in Australia in the 1930’s.[vii] As it was the tail end of the monsoon season the tent had to be waterproofed.

Waterproofing the tent theatre. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

By 8 November their tent stage was ready. Now each member of the cast had to learn his assigned duties in setting up and tearing down the tent stage, as well as the loading and unloading procedures so that the stage, settings, and lighting equipment could all fit into three large trucks for transportation.[viii] Since they would be doing this on tour, practice sessions of these procedures took place.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party’s portable stage. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

This photograph of the A.I.F. Concert Party’s portable stage shows a large canvas tent-like structure held up by guy wires attached to a tall pole off to the Audience Right side of the proscenium opening. On stage, footlights sit before the front curtain which, like an old Music Hall olio drop, has advertisements painted on it.[4] It had been purchased from the income provided by the advertisers who also bought space in the program. Canvas wings flair out from either side of the stage to provide off-stage spaces for entrances, and an extension of the tent is visible behind the stage which allowed space for dressing and makeup rooms. Folding chairs are set up in front of the stage for officers attending the show.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in May 1941. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party was now ready to roll; their first stop, Jemaluang, on the East Coast of Malaya. According to Boardman, the show opened with the full company singing a traditional concert party introductory song, “The Hit Of The Show”:

It started off (singing):

“I’m the hit of the show . . .

(Speaking.) Different ones would pop out on stage.

(Singing.) “I’m the hit of the show,

I’m the hit of the show.

McCaffrey’s good, but you ought to see Wood.

I’m the hit of the show . . . .”[ix]   

Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, Mack’s elaborate tent stage lasted only two performances before it was abandoned for dryer indoor spaces that could be converted into a theatre.[x]

After touring the Australian camps in Malaya for two weeks, three performers, Bennet, Wiggins, and Wylde, left the show to return to their units and a new performer, Dick Bradfield, was brought into the company. A new show, “The Diggers Show,” was put together containing a mixture of old and new numbers. “The W.A.N.S.” sketch which had proven popular in Kuala Lumpur was put back into the show and the “Mexican Presidente” and “Eastern Interlude” sketches were removed so that Slim De Grey’s tap dance number and Harry Smith’s appearance in his “tit and bum” act could be introduced. The show would end with all the entertainers onstage performing an old Variety theatre farce, “Schoolroom,” which featured John Wood as the schoolmarm forced to expel one of the troublesome children in her class “after the teacher drops the chalk and reveals knees, thighs, etc., accidentally.”[xi]

It was in this show that Herschel Henbre’s patriotic song, “Aussieland,” was sung for the first time.  

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s the place for me,

Where the girls are beautiful girls,

And the boys are wonderful boys.

Aussieland, Aussieland,

That’s where I want to be.

It’s the homeland of the free,

And the place for you and me,

That’s where they shout coo-ee!

In Aussieland.[xii] 

            In early December, 1941, the A.I.F. Concert Party was touring in the Mersing District. On Monday, 8 December, Mack received a letter from Dan Hopkins written on stationary from the Raffles Hotel back in Singapore which read,

                                                                                                            Dec. 7th. 1941.

Lieut. Val Mack

A.I.F. Concert Party

Mersing.

Hello Val:

Last week a member of your concert party called on me and borrowed a violin belonging to my bass player. Said your fiddler’s instrument had come adrift and you had to get one while it was being repaired. Now the bass man’s instrument is used in the band here on occasions & tonight we want it for a broadcasting session. That of course is now out of the question but I wouldn’t have included the number in the program had it not been for the fact that your bloke promised to return it without fail before Friday last. As it is I can’t raise a god-damn fiddle for love nor money for tonight so would you please stick the aforesaid lamb-chop on any truck coming this way?

We need it in the band and your fiddler’s instrument ought to be fixed by now. O.K.?

                                                                                          All the best Val,

Bang-bang.[xiii]

Whether “Bang-bang” ever got his fiddle back is anyone’s guess as 8 December was the day the Japanese launched their all-out attack in the Far East,[5] including an invasion of Malaya at Kota Bharu on the northeast coast, and the first bombing of the Naval Base at Keppel Harbour in Singapore.

For the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party, “the war made the abandoning of the party essential and each man was returned to his respective Unit to lend a hand against the invader.”[xiv]  

Elsewhere in Malaya on 8 December, George McNeilly’s 22nd Brigade Concert Party was performing in a 2/30th Battalion hall at Batu Pahat on the West Coast. As Jack Boardman remembers,

In the middle of a performance by Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood, the Sergeant-Major interrupted and ordered several troops to battle stations as news had arrived of the Jap invasion at Kota Bharu. We finished the show to half the audience and were driven home by George to our different units.[xv]


With the Japanese coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor, The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya on 7/8 December, the long-expected War in the Pacific had begun.

To learn about the quick reorganization of the A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, read “In The Bag” (Chapter 1) in my free online book, Captive Audiences / Captive Performers http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/.



[1]An official report of this organization and its activities, from which much of the information for this blog has been taken, was written by Cpl. Leonard Stewart sometime after June, 1945 in Changi Gaol. This report must have been dictated by Val Mack.

[2]Stewart writes that twenty-five men were selected for the Concert Party, but programs of these tour shows do not bear this out, so Stewart/Mack must have been thinking of a much later time in the concert party’s history.

[3]Stringer and Tullipan had both been in the 2/18th Battalion’s Concert Party [Frey, 20].

[4]An “olio drop” is one that can be rolled up and down on a batten as needed.

[5]It was the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked (December 7th) on the other side of the international dateline. 



[i] Stewart, Report, 1.

[ii] Mack, Letter to his wife, 2 Oct. 1941.

[iv] Stewart, Report, 1-2.

[v] Morris, Interview, 7.

[vi] Stewart, Report, 1.

[vii] Frey, 18.

[viii] Frey, 19.

[ix] J. Boardman, Interview, 21.

[x] Frey, 19.

[xi] J. Boardman, “Notes on Mack’s Production Logs.”

[xii] Lyrics and score provided by Jack Boardman.

[xiii] Dan Hoskins, Letter, courtesy of Kerrin Frey, Val Mack’s daughter.

[xiv] Stewart, Report, 2.

[xv] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.



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

Coming Soon: The Australian Malayan Concert Party in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, May 1942-May 1944.

My Father’s Experiences as a POW

By Paul Murray

I have recently published a book, “From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale”, which includes, as one of its main themes, my father’s experiences as a POW in Changi between February 1942 and May 1943, his transfer on the prison ship Wales Maru to mainland Japan, and his onward journey to the northern island of Hokkaido where he was imprisoned in six further camps until September 1945. My book follows on from the setting up of a website by my brother Carl in August 2020 called thebelfastdoctor.info where he published the secret diaries in the form of love letters from our Dad to the woman who was to become our Mum.

Paul’s parents on Newcastle Beach in N. Ireland with Slieve Donard in the background (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

Using the diaries in which, apart from one month, there is an entry every day for 42 months, I travelled to Singapore in October 2017 and on to Japan to follow in his footsteps. This special pilgrimage proved to be an emotional roller coaster but I was so glad that I went as, with the help of a guide and an interpreter, I met numerous historians and museum curators who were able to piece together the story of some of the British, Dutch and American POWs in the ten camps on the island. I even met an elderly Japanese man who claimed to have met my father when he was imprisoned in what proved to be the worst of the camps, Muroran.

My father’s name was Major Francis J. Murray and he was the chief MO as well as the senior CO in two of the six camps on Hokkaido where he was in charge of 350 British prisoners. He was awarded the military MBE when he returned to N Ireland after the war to set up a practice as a GP in a working class area of north Belfast.

Major Francis J. Murray at Chitose Aerodrome near Sapporo, Hokkaido, on 13th September 1945. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

During my visit to Singapore, I met up with one of my sisters who flew in from her home in Canada and, together with the son of the country’s former first chief minister in 1955, David Marshall, we re-enacted our dads’ walk from the Padang beside St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral along the route of the 14 mile march into captivity at Changi.

On Hokkaido, Dad was incarcerated for one week in Hakodate, four months in Yakumo, 19 months in Muroran, five weeks in Raijo (all the POW accounts I have read including my Dad’s know this camp as Nishi Ashibetsu), two weeks in Utashinai, and two months in Akabira. The only building still standing on its original site on the island is now a café in what was once the compound of the camp at Hakodate on the outskirts of the town. A television crew from Japan’s national station NHK together with a reporter from a local newspaper covered my visit to Hakodate and Yakumo. Later on my first day at Hakodate, I was taken to a temple which used to be the camp hospital and which has been reconstructed in another part of the town. There is a small plaque in the temple with the names of some of the British and Dutch POWs who died during captivity. Included on it are some of the thirteen men who died on my father’s watch and who are all buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Yokohama. On my visit to Tokyo a few days earlier, I had laid poppy crosses at the graves of each of the men. Our guide at the camp at Hakodate and the Eizenji Temple was Masatoshi Asari, an elderly local historian, who was responsible for erecting the symbolic plaque of reconciliation and for bringing the story of the foreign prisoners to the attention of school children on the island.

My visits to Yakumo where the men constructed an air strip in the summer and autumn of 1943, and Muroran where they provided slave labour in the Wanishi Iron and Steel Works, proved to be equally fascinating though tinged with great emotion when I learnt more details about the tragic deaths of Signalman Stan Faunch at the former, and Private Raymond Suttle among the twelve at the latter.

An extract of Major Francis J. Murray’s secret diary. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

My book has a special focus on two Japanese officers whose treatment of the POWs was markedly different. Lieutenant Kaichi Hirate was camp commandant at Muroran and Raijo. Lieutenant Colonel Shigeo Emoto had overall responsibility for all the camps on Hokkaido between March 1944 and May 1945.

The stunning autumn colours of the interior were in stark contrast to the bleakness of the port at Muroran and it was so very special to gather in a clearing in the middle of the woods at Dad’s fourth camp, Raijo, to picture what he called his proudest moment when, on 5 September 1945, he was presented with a giant scroll of tribute by the British and American POWs.

I am indebted to two women from the POW Research Network Japan, Taeko Sasamoto and Yoshiko Tamura, who gave me so much assistance throughout my special pilgrimage to their country. They are among a number of volunteers who are continuing to bring the stories of the Allied POWs in all the camps in Japan to the attention of its people and, ultimately, to a far wider audience with the future publication of a book.

Cover of From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale by Paul Murray

As for my own book, it is available for purchase in paperback form at thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk  Any money I make from it will go to the arthritis charity NASS.

“I’m The Hit Of The Show” – Part 1

The Pre-war A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

The first units of the 8th Division Australian Imperial Force arrived in Singapore on 18 February, 1941. With the likelihood of war with Japan becoming more imminent, further units of the A.I.F. 8th Division would be sent to Malaya in August. Their Headquarters would be at Johore Bahru across from Singapore Island.

In late spring, Major J. W. Jacobs of the 8th Division Signals was asked to form a concert party as a charity fund raiser for the Malaya Patriotic Fund in Kuala Lumpur. Jacobs requested Warrant Officer Val Mack, a former professional vaudeville comedian who had toured Australia with his own troupe, “Mack’s Comedy Players,” as his assistant. Jacobs would take care of “arranging for the men to be released from other duties and generally being responsible for the administration” while Mack would develop and rehearse the shows.[1]

Major James William (Jim) Jacobs. VX40983.

Some A.I.F. Battalions and Brigades had already established concert parties, so Jacobs and Mack scouted out these groups to borrow the best entertainers for their important fund raiser. Besides Jacobs and Mack, the cast for the charity show would consist of Gunner Eric Beatty (a violinist well-known from Australian radio broadcasts), Signalman John Wood, “who was already well known as a young juvenile lead in both radio and the movies, having made some films at Elstree Studios in England,”[ii] and Pte. Harry Smith (an old circus performer and vaudevillian known professionally as “Toto”).

Harry Smith as the circus clown “Toto.” Courtesy of the Smith Family.

Two of Smith’s specialties included walking on “the highest stilts ever seen in the southern hemisphere” and playing tunes on his “aboriginal instrument”—a eucalyptus leaf!).

Harry Smith on his stilts in Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Smith Family.

Also, among the performers would be Pte. Stan “Judy” Garland (tap dancer and female impersonator), Cpl. Val Ballantyne (singer-bass/baritone), the Englishman, Capt. Scott-Fox (baritone), and Signalman West (piano-accordion).

Variety Show concert parties were fairly easy to produce. According to Jack Boardman, Mack would determine the final running order of the show, but each artist would choose the content of his own solo moments so that the only rehearsals necessary were for any jointly performed pieces, such as the opening and closing choruses and comic sketches.  

So Val would get it all together: “What are you going to do next show, Harry?” And Harry’d say . . . well, on one occasion he said, “Uh, ‘scuse me for saying this, but I’m doing my tit and bum act.”  “Oh, ah.”  And then, “What are you going to sing for us?” And he’d tell him what songs he was going to sing.  And they’d cobble it all together and a dress rehearsal before the final thing.[iii]

In “A Soldier and an Entertainer,” Kerrin Frey’s unpublished monograph about her father, Val Mack, she wrote, 

He had rules he expected to be followed at all performances. One was that there should be no smut, blue jokes, and dirt on stage. He insisted that a show must be fit for one to share with one’s daughter, aunt, or mother, if they could have been there. Another of his decisions was that there should be no microphones on stage. Not that such were lying about ready for use, but offers were made to find one or more mikes which offers Val refused. He said if a singer or actor could not be heard without the aid of a mike he should not be on stage. And of course, electrical gadgets have a habit of going wrong in the middle of a performance.[iv]   

After several rehearsals, their show, “The Digger Revue,” opened at the Town Hall in Kuala Lumpur on Empire Day, 25 May 1941, with the Sultan and Sultana of Selangor,[1] Major Kidd, the British Resident, and Major General Gordon Bennett, Commanding Officer of the 8th A.I.F. Division, in attendance. As the curtains parted, the full company was seen onstage singing around a campfire. What followed were solo turns and comic sketches performed by various members of the company, the more unique items being Smith’s stilt dance and playing tunes on his rubber leaf, and Beatty playing his violin on his head accompanied on the piano by Jack Boardman, who was on loan from the 2/20th Battalion for the occasion. 

Their comic sketches included “The Quartermaster’s Store,” a satire on the military red tape written by Major Jacobs, as well as the old vaudeville routine, “The Hole in the Road.” John Wood proved his versatility by playing a variety of male characters in the earlier sketches, but then “gave the audience quite a shock” when he appeared as a female character in “Baby” (but definitely not a child) in “The Baby Photographer,” and later in the second half as “Miss Montmorency,” a Captain in the Women’s Australian National Service causing trouble for a befuddled Colonel and his men, in a sketch entitled, “The W.A.N.S.”  The show closed with the full company singing “Waltzing Matilda” and “There’ll Always Be An England,” followed, of course, by “God Save The King.”  

According to the reviews that appeared in the local newspapers the next day, the show had been an enormous success. “Never a dull moment was there in the two and a half hours of non-stop entertainment, the quality of which bespoke careful preparation,” wrote one reviewer.[v]  The other reviewer agreed, singling out Warrant Officer Mack as “one of the finest comedians Kuala Lumpur had ever seen, either professional or amateur, and a great deal of the success of the show was due to him.” At the same time, though, the reviewer had to admit that “the Australians did shock the staid Kuala Lumpur audience with their ‘rich’ humour which nevertheless was very much enjoyed.”[vi] Both reviewers hoped the “The Diggers” would return in the near future with another edition of their show.

In July, Val Mack was promoted to officer ranks as a Lieutenant in recognition of his service.

Val Mack. Courtesy of Kerrin Frey.

As mentioned previously, Battalion and Brigade level concert parties had already been performing for A.I.F. units in Malaya that were protecting the strategically valuable rubber plantations and tin mines. One of these was the 2/20th Battalion, where L/Cpl. Bob Mutton produced weekly shows which starred the stilt walker, Harry “Toto” Smith and pianist, Jack Boardman (both of whom Jacobs “borrowed” for the charity show), as well as vocalist, Bob Picken; and, whenever her duties permitted, Sister Ogilvie from “the house on the hill,” a term which refers either to the off-limits Nurses’ living quarters or to the hospital.[vii] Another performer in this company was the “prima donna” female impersonator, Claude Edmonds, who “sang a clever duet with herself.”[viii]

He was a masculine type [wrote Boardman], big and muscular with lots of black hair on his chest, back and shoulders. He could sing like a woman and used to appear in a gown that revealed his chest and shoulders and he was a natural comic. One of his songs was “The Ferryboat Serenade” (“To serenade your lady, just take a spot that’s shady”). The audience really enjoyed his act.[ix]

Jack (“Boardie”) Boardman. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

But it was George McNeilly, the YMCA Representative attached to the 22nd Brigade HQ who, given honorary officer rank, pulled together Aussie soldier-performers from various Battalion groups, and created the 22nd Brigade Concert Party which toured entertainments to all the A.I.F. troops stationed in the area. Jack Boardman, who was seconded to this troupe, described its beginnings: 

George McNeilly . . . was an ordained clergyman. He had rather an effeminate voice but was well liked. When he came to Malaya from Australia he was attached to my Brigade while we were camped in Mersing. In no time he acquired a truck, piano, pierrot costumes, etc., and formed a small concert party comprising [Jack] Geoghegan and [Frank] Wood[2], a drummer from one of our battalions, myself and others—all seconded from our various units when required.[x]  

Like Boardman, Claude Edmonds had also been drafted from the 2/20th Battalion for this new Brigade Concert Party.

Their Pierrot costumes were the traditional ones: “white with red pom-poms on them where buttons are normally placed on shirts and blouses, with a pointed cap plus pom-poms.”[xi] 

During the following weeks, the 22nd Brigade Concert Party toured the A.I.F.’s Mersing and Batu Pahat District camps performing their shows.

Part 2 of this post will be available to read on this website on 27th October.



[1]One of the Federated Malay States, Selangor surrounds the capital of Kuala Lumpur. 

[2]Geoghegan and Wood were actually in the 27th Brigade the 22nd, so this is Frank Wood, a singer-actor, not John Wood who was the female impersonator.



[1] Jacobs, 16.

[ii] Jacobs, 16.

[iii] J. Boardman, Interview, 10.

[iv] Frey, 25.

[v] “The Malay Maul,” Kuala Lumpur, 26 May 1941.

[vi] Unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d.

[vii] Wilson, J., “Our Concert,” 2/20th Battalion Newspaper, 4 June 1941.

[viii] Pte. F “Joe” Wilson, Editor, “Siftings from Souvenir Seekers,” Weekly Bulletin of the 2/20th Bn., A.I.F.

[ix] J. Boardman, Letter, 25 June 04.

[x] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.

[xi] J. Boardman, Letter, 31 May 04.



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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party Part 3

By Sears Eldredge

27 November, was spent getting word through to Penang about the “Stand Easy” Concert Party’s arrival there on the 28th.  At Sungei Patani, as time for the evening show approached, the women were late for their call, claiming that their transport had broken down: “a coincidence,” Thorpe wryly observed, “which seemed to occur with monotonous regularity.”[i] But the two shows that evening played to packed houses: “Everything worked like clockwork, and we had a wonderful reception.”[ii]

The next day the company arrived at Penang, located on an island off the coast, having taken the ferry there from Butterworth. (The East Surrey Regimental Band did not accompany them to Penang but had returned to their base at Alor Star.) Their show the following night, 29 November, was to be performed in the theatre at the Gulgor Institute.  Here, again, there was confusion regarding their accommodations. In spite of arrangements having already been made, Lt. Morison telephoned the luxury Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and booked rooms for himself, Thorpe, and the ladies. 

Publicity flyer for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party. Courtesy of Leofric Thorpe.

When they woke up the next morning, they discovered that all troops in Penang had suddenly been recalled to barracks. The international situation in the Far East had seriously worsened overnight but all that the public was told was that the recall was a “purely normal precaution taken in view of the present situation.”[iii] So instead of performing for the troops as intended, “Stand Easy” would be performed for the civilian populace in Penang.

That night Thorpe and Gwillim had everything ready for the show, but when “Beginners” was called (the Stage Manager’s call notifying actors that they should be on stage for the opening number) all the O.R.s were present, but not Morison and the two women: “Lt. Morison and the ladies had not arrived when there were only five minutes to go before the show. I was in a real panic, and knew nothing about them. I could not get through on the telephone, and I was worried that taxies had been impressed by the Government and had not been available.”[iv]  

In desperation Thorpe quickly started revising the program putting himself in as Compere. At the very last minute, the others arrived complaining that the taxi promised by Gwillim had not arrived as scheduled, even though everyone had been told earlier to arrange their own transportation. In spite of these difficulties, the show went quite well—with two exceptions. Just as the curtain closed after Pearson’s solo number, he collapsed from exhaustion. He later revived and was able to accompany Arthur Butler later in the show when the second problem occurred. 

The audience were enjoying the show very much, but were much more boisterous than usual. During Butler’s female impersonations, they gave a lot of laughter and cackling from one section of the audience. Later I found that it was the cook sergeant who was drunk. Butler eventually walked off the stage and refused to continue work that evening. We put the next turn on almost at once, and not much damage was done. Butler was the most temperamental as well as one of the best artists in the cast.[v]

The next day, 30 November, a review of “Stand Easy” appeared in the Penang Gazette which said, among other laudatory comments,

Nothing more appropriate, breezy and elevating could have been devised and presented for the amusement of the lads in the Service. Definitely, it is an antidote for the “bloody-mindedness” among troops who see nothing but rubber trees for weeks and months. . .. No words of praise are too high for these artists. They are devoting their talents and energy for the benefit of the troops, but they can derive gratification from the knowledge that it is a jolly and topping show.[vi]    

Since all the troops had been confined to barracks, the concert party would not have an audience that evening for their second set of performances. Instead Gwillim was asked if they might put on a show for non-commissioned officers that night in the Sergeant’s Mess. Unable to speak to Morison and the ladies because they had gone off for the day to visit a local tourist attraction, Thorpe spoke to the rest of the cast and they agreed to do this special show. He arranged the program and they had their first chance to rehearse an Opening Chorus since they had been on tour. The show in the Sergeant’s Mess that night was very successful and Butler in a forgiving mood went over to the Canteen and performed his act for the lower rank O.R.s.

The next day, 1 December, Nella Wingfiled, left the concert party claiming that she was worn out. Capt. Horsfield, their volunteer helper from Alor Star, was recalled to his unit. And instead of checking on their own status with their HQ back in Singapore, the remaining members of the “Stand Easy” company moved on, as scheduled, to their next stop, Ipoh. On 2 December, the scenery was unloaded and set up in the auditorium at the Chinese High School in Ipoh. But as the crisis in the Far East deepened, they decided they had better “check up on the future of the Show” with their Headquarters in Singapore. Thorpe: “Lt Morison spoke to Colonel Hill, who said that we had been called back some time ago. Where the message went, I do not know.”[vii] Cables were immediately sent notifying the other scheduled sites of the tour’s cancellation. Then, as it was too late to catch the afternoon train, it was decided that they would leave early the next morning, 3 December, at 0212. In the meantime, Gwillim saw to having the settings and equipment crated up and sent back to Singapore. That night the concert party gave their final show in the O.R.’s Mess to the Malay Volunteers who had also been called to active duty. After the show, all the members of the concert party left on the train for Kuala Lumpur, except for Morison and the sisters who traveled by car, arriving there at 0700 hrs. the next morning. At Kuala Lumpur, the “Stand Easy” Concert Party disbanded: some to their units near Kuala Lumpur; others to Singapore. But Morison and the two Tennen sisters stayed over night in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore, claiming they were too tired to travel any further.[viii] Upon his return to Singapore, Thorpe immediately started to write his exhaustive Official Report of the concert party tour.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 29TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[i] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[iii] Sunday Gazette, No. 48, Vol. 16, Sunday, November 30, 1941, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 17.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 18.

[vi] Penang Gazette, n.d.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 19.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 19-20.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party, Part 2

By Sears Eldredge

Lt. Morison himself would Compère the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Partyshow. Counting Morison, Thorpe, and Gwillim, the concert party numbered thirteen. All members of the concert party, except Gwillim, were expected to participate in the comic sketches as needed. Their troupe would be officially known as “The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party.”

There was little time for rehearsal before they were due to leave Singapore and Morison had made no plans for the Opening Chorus and Finale—those parts of the show in which all the members of the company traditionally participated—so Thorpe suggested that that these be selected and rehearsed on the train to Kuala Lumpur.

I also suggested that we had a Coffee Stall[1] constructed, and had a Finale with the cast round it, in various attires. Buskers to come on, give short turns, and get sent off by a policeman. Finally, the policeman to be carried off by the cast, and return dancing the Lambeth Walk with the Proprietress of the Stall, and the whole Company—accompaniment from several accordions and a piano.[i]  

Morison agreed to these suggestions, and then blithely announced, “You can leave Singapore on Friday 21 Nov when you like, I am going by road with the ladies.”[ii] With Morison and “the ladies” traveling by automobile, any rehearsal of the full cast on the train to Kuala Lumpur was now out of the question.

Their show was called, “Stand Easy: A Military Cocktail.” (“Stand Easy” is the British Army command for “At ease.”) Leaving Singapore at 1900 hrs on 21 November, they arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Malayan Federation, the next morning. That day was spent getting travel documents in order. Here L/Bdrs Pearson and Butler joined the group but Quinton and Rackstraw had not been notified about the departure, and their Commanding Officer proved quite intransigent about releasing them from their units. It finally took a personal call from Thorpe to their G.O.C., Major General Keith Simmons back in Singapore, to do the trick.  Simmons insisted that he “wanted all the necessary artists to accompany us, and that he would arrange for both.”[iii] That night they were off by train from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Star [Alor Setar], the northern most encampment in Malaya. During the journey, the performers entertained the occupants of the buffet car till close to midnight. Then Thorpe persuaded Morison that they should “work out a suitable running order for a show of this nature, and it was not until 0300 hrs that I had written the final draft ready to give it to Sgt. Gwillim next morning to have printed at Alor Star by the evening.”[iv]  

The schedule called for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party to begin its tour with performances at Alor Star on 1 & 2 December, 1941, and then work its way back down the west coast of the Malay Peninsula concluding with a show at Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 December. The company arrived at Pari Station—the nearest train station to Alor Star—at 0610 on 1 December, and then had to be transported by lorry to the town of Alor Star that was more than seventy miles away. When the lorries with their equipment arrived at the Alor Star Cinema where they were to perform that night, Thorpe immediately started to unpack and set up the stage. He was helped by Capt. Horsfield and his crew from the military base. At one point, Thorpe went off to talk with a Mr. Hanley, the Bandmaster of the East Surrey Regimental Band, who agreed to provide the Overture and Interval music for their show. 

Plans had been made for a rehearsal late that afternoon before the first show, but Morison and the “girls” showed up late, so this “rehearsal was really rather a farce, but those who were uncertain what parts they were taking were informed and as no one has to say more than a line or two in any black-out, they were able to memorize these.”[v]   

Having worked all day to get the stage ready for performance, Thorpe only had fifteen minutes to wash his face and put on makeup before the overture began. Because no Opening Chorus by the full company had been rehearsed, the show opened with “Two Hits And A Miss” with Nella, Frankie, and George. There followed a typical concert party playbill of solo turns and comic sketches, such as “The Letter” with Ken Morison as “The Soldier,” and Babs Tenner as “The Temptress”; “Seeing Stars” with “Gloria d’Earie” impersonating famous female performers; and “Accordeonly Yours,” with Nella Wingfield.  Babs did her Hula Dance after the Interval.  And for the Finale, the full company, without any prior rehearsal, performed the “Coffee Stall” number, “At The Dolly Varden.”  

Without the necessary rehearsals, their first show did not go well. Thankfully, the house was only half full, as the troops had just returned from a military exercise and none of the posters sent from Singapore had been put up. And, as this was the troupe’s first real runthrough of the show, the volunteer stage hands were totally in the dark about their duties backstage.

The show ended at 2115 hrs., and Thorpe, Gwillim, and their novice crew had forty-five minutes to strike the “Coffee Stall” set and reset the stage for the opening of their second show which would begin at 2200 hrs. By this time word of mouth about the show had spread and the house for the second show was full of entertainment-hungry troops. When the second show ended shortly after midnight, it had been deemed a “tremendous success.”

But this was not the end of the bungling for the day. Morison had again fouled up Thorpe’s accommodation arrangements for the company, so there was one final round of incompetence for Thorpe and Gwillim to endure and straighten out. 

The second day at Alor Star went much better: “During the morning, the dhobie [wash] was collected, and dresses were pressed ready for the evening show. The Sergt in the Band had arranged to borrow a piano from Chinese School, and the men went off to collect it.”  By the time the cast was due at the cinema, it had started to rain heavily but that didn’t dampen the attendance or the success of the two shows that night: “Two more excellent performances were given, and the audiences were hysterical in their appreciation. They were not only packing the hall and sitting tightly in the gangways, but also were standing outside in the rain eight deep, sheltered only by their groundsheets.”[vi] The Brigadier General in charge at Alor Star gave a speech of appreciation after the show and invited everyone in the cast to the Officers’ Mess. But only Morison, the ladies, Sgt. Gwillim, Rackstraw, Quinton, and Thorpe went so as not to offend the General as they needed his approval to take the Regimental Band with them to their next stop. Rackstraw and Quinton performed at the party which broke up about 0330 hrs.[vii]

The most gratifying thing the following morning was finding out how the show had been enjoyed. One could stand and listen in any direction, and everywhere our songs were being sung and whistled, and our jokes repeated.  It was obvious that the Concert Party had fulfilled the sponsors’ object.[viii]

Their next stop was Sungei Patani—again for two shows a night on two successive days, 26, 27 November. Here, again, there was a mix-up in their accommodations and the O.R.’s were assigned to huts, with no beds, mosquito nets, or lights. When Gwillim returned to the huts, he “found the men in a very disconsolate state, and saying that they would prefer to find what accommodation they could in the town, and return to Singapore the following day.” Gwillim informed Morison and Thorpe of the crisis and they went to talk to the men. L/Cpl Laurie Allison, an Australian who had joined the British Army before the war, came to the rescue. He was a member of Thorpe’s own Fortress Signals Company on detached service in Sungei Patani. He and Peter Gwillim were good friends.  

When the concert party arrived, they were scheduled to billet with the Leicesters but did not like the setup there and asked to billet at the Volunteer Drill Hall. Because I could speak Malay, the RSM asked me to arrange and supervise their bedding, etc., aided by the Malay soldiers. 

They seemed to be in a bit of a mess, so I arranged staggered meals so that they could all be fed in between their various tasks. I ran the Volunteer’s Officer’s mess and also had appointed times for officers and the rest of the concert party.[ix]

The next day Allison saw to it that their costumes were washed and pressed on time, though “Butler had spent the day ironing clothes, until the iron fused, and then he dashed into town to get it repaired.”[x] At 1630 the East Surry Regimental Band arrived from Alor Star as requested, but Gwillim had been so busy that “they were not well catered for” and the musicians grumbled about their treatment. Capt. Horsfield, who had provided skilled labor for the concert party at Alor Star, recognized that the group was seriously understaffed, so he obtained a leave and arrived to help out. Allison arranged a buffet for the crew in an attap shed back of the stage, as they had spent all day getting the stage put up in the drill hall, but this was mistakenly consumed by members of the audience during the Interval, who thought the refreshments had been arranged for them. The first show at Sungei Patani went well even though there had been a lighting emergency: “Early in the show the main fuse put in by the electric coy[2] blew, leaving the stage in darkness. Van der Creusen was working at the time, and continued with his vocal act in the dark, and as I was prepared for this emergency, the lights were on inside a minute.”[xi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 15TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] The “Coffee Stall” Scene was a famous routine written for “The Co-Optimists” Concert Party’s first show in 1921. It probably had earlier roots in the Music Halls.

[2] Military term for “company.”


[i] Thorpe, Report, 5.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 11.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[ix] Allison, Email, 17 August 2004.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 15.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 15.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In November, 1941, Major Leofric Thorpe of Singapore Fortress Signals became involved with a concert party which toured the forward British bases in the more remote areas of Malaya. Afterwards he wrote an extensive Official Report of his experiences on this tour from which the following is taken.[1] The report was written not only to detail what happened during the tour for its sponsors and the Entertainment Committee, but to educate the readers about the proper makeup of a military concert party and the need for someone to be designated as Officer in Charge/Producer of any future parties who could provide the proper organization and leadership—which had clearly been lacking on this first tour.

For anyone who has ever toured a show, Thorpe’s report is very familiar and extremely humorous, filled, as it is, with stories of incompetence, turf wars, unforeseen mishaps, mishandling of funds, and miscommunications. But given the context of the terrible events about to engulf East and Southeast Asia in a war with the Japanese, it reads like a commentary on the unreadiness of the British forces in Malaya just before hostilities broke out. At the same time, though, it reveals the ability of Thorpe and the concert party performers to triumph over administrative bungling and put on a series of successful shows for the entertainment-hungry troops.

Even though Thorpe’s report was an official one, it is not without bias. Thorpe takes every opportunity to point out to his readers (the sponsors and the Entertainment Committee) the incompetence of the man they had put in place as Producer—the position Thorpe thought he should have had.

Major Leofric Thorpe had been posted from India to Singapore in September 1939. Soon after his arrival, he became involved with a local amateur theatre group called “The Island Committee,” comprised of rubber brokers, tin miners, solicitors, and other British colonials—and also military personnel from the units stationed in and around Singapore, especially the huge military garrison at Changi. During the next two years, Thorpe became firmly entrenched at The Island Committee as Honorary Secretary & Treasurer as well as the Stage Manager for their productions. In early 1941, in addition to their regular season of comedies and revues, Thorpe instigated the development of a series of concert parties under the title, “Fun Fare: A Roundabout of Mirthful Entertainment,” to tour the local military installations. One item on the bill was Thorpe performing a solo piece called, “Saving the Petrol Ration”: “I did my after-dinner night act of riding a one-wheel cycle, and juggling either with three Indian clubs or with five billiard balls.”[i]

Leofric Thorpe (on the right) at an Island Committee cocktail party in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Colonel Thorpe.

Towards the end of October, 1941, Thorpe heard about plans by a new group, the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee, to form a concert party to “entertain the troops in the rubber” – those troops guarding the isolated rubber plantations run by British colonials in Northern Malaya. It was to be funded by a local Singaporean brewery and the Singapore Cold Storage Company. Thorpe believed his two-year involvement with The Island Committee made him an ideal choice as Officer in Charge for such a touring company. But that was not to be:

“At the production of ‘Fun Fare’ at the Alexandra Hospital on 30 October, Lieut. Morison, who was working as compère in the show, announced that he had been selected by Command to be Officer i/c Concert Party, and was shortly to make a tour of the units to whom it was intended to give the show.”[ii]

The rationale given for denying Thorpe the leadership position was that his rank of Major was too high for an Entertainment Officer. He thought there might be other reasons as well.   

It was probably assumed that as Lieut. Morison had worked on the Stage in England as compère in a number of Concert Parties, that he was a suitable man for the position. Actually this was not necessarily the case, for only a few of the qualifications have anything to do with actual work as an actor.[iii]

Because of his work with The Island Committee, Thorpe was well-connected with the civilian authorities in Singapore, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t complain vociferously to those he knew who were members of the Services Entertainment Committee. All he admits in his report is that he “accompanied the Touring Party as a result of a conversation with Inspector Blake, at the Victoria Theatre on 16 Nov.”[iv] (Inspector Blake was a member of the Singapore Straits Police and an important member of the Entertainment Committee.) As compensation, Thorpe was given the multiple roles of Stage Director, Stage Manager, and Accountant, and L/Cpl. Peter Gwillim, who had worked with Thorpe at The Island Committee, would be his indispensable clerical assistant. 

As a portent of troubles ahead, Thorpe and Gwillim learned that Morison, who had supposedly made a preliminary reconnaissance of the tour sites, had not filed any report on his return concerning vital technical information about the theatres and/or halls in which they would perform. He had, in fact, not visited all the prospective sites.

Absolute measurements of stages, prosceniums, etc were essential as the equipment to be taken from Singapore depended on these facts. Unfortunately, I had nothing to go on . . . Gwillim and I later had to arrange everything, even down to commodes and toilet paper, with very little time in which to do it. In the end I took the equipment of the Island Committee, which took up about 31 crates and boxes. Lt Morison could not even tell me where there were mains or the voltages. [v]

Nor, they would discover, had Morison made any arrangements with the local base commanders in Malaya regarding the concert party’s needs for housing, additional manpower to help setup and work backstage during the show, or additional equipment. 

And then there was the matter of the staff needed to produce a successful tour show. From his years of experience in the military and in amateur theatre, Thorpe had firm views on how a concert party should be conceived and operated if it was going to be successful: “Just as a Signal Unit is composed of a suitable number of Operators, Fitters, Linemen, Clerks, etc., so must a Concert Party have an Advance Business Manager, who goes round one stage ahead of the Company, a Stage Manager, a Producer, an Electrician, and a Carpenter.”[vi] Thorpe goes on to insist,

Here I should explain that the Mechanics of a Concert Party is equally important as the production of the show itself. It is only the method of presentation of a show which can raise it from the “entertaining the troops”, which is one of the horrors of modern war, to Theatre. It is absolutely necessary to create the atmosphere of the theatre. The audiences must feel that it is in a theatre, not in the dining room or some other place that it is very tired of seeing.[vii]  

But Morison had not allowed for any Stage Staff to be included in the composition of the concert party. When Thorpe learned of this omission, it was too late to do anything about it, so it would be up to him (along with members of the cast and any untrained troops detailed to crew work at each site) to get the staging set up. Though Thorpe knew that L/Cpl Gwillim would have enough to do with the administrative side of the tour, Thorpe was forced to ask him to take on the additional responsibilities of Property Master and Assistant Stage Manager.[viii]  

In order to have more authority in working with the other O.R’s [Other Ranks] and function at the sites in the Sergeant’s Mess,Gwillim requested that he be temporarily made a Sergeant. This was originally denied by the Committee on the grounds, “that it was not necessary to have anyone in disciplinary charge of the party, as it would be a ‘happy family’.” Thorpe knew otherwise.

This I knew to be a mistake because the ‘happy family’ was to be faced with some extremely long hours of very hard and monotonous work, and being in many cases temperamental, I realized that occasions would arise when a leader would be required, though his strongest weapon would be tack rather than the Army Act.[ix]   

With Thorpe’s persistent urgings, Gwillim eventually did receive his temporary promotion to Sergeant.

Thorpe also had strong convictions on the range of talents needed to cast a successful touring concert party: “The Cast must contain a Low Comedian, and a Comedienne, an Ingénue, a Compère, at least one Dancer, several singers and instrumentalists, suitable people to play light and heavy parts in Sketches. Two Pianists are needed.”[x] But to Thorpe dismay, Lt. Morison had already chosen the members of the cast before Major Thorpe had been assigned to the company—some by audition and others he simply appointed—with little regard to the need for balance and variety among the limited number of performers permitted on the tour. 

Morison had selected a group of seven Other Ranks along with three civilian women: “To my horror I found that two untrained girls were to accompany the party, Babs and Hilda Tennen, who had never worked on any Stage in their lives, and who were, as far as I could see, merely going to have a holiday at the expense of the sponsors.”[xi] Thorpe got Morison to promise that Babs, who had once done an “after dinner” Hula Dance, would take lessons at a local dance studio before they left on tour. The other woman in the cast was (Mrs.) Nella Wingfield, an actress and accordion player. 

Frankie Quinton (on the left) and friends in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Mrs. Frankie Quinton.

Among the O. R.s were Frankie Quinton, an accomplished accordion player; Fred Rackstraw, who did tongue twisters and “character studies;” Van de Creusen, another accordion player; Harry Pearson, who did impersonations; the pianist, George Rushby; Johnnie Thomas, a singer; and the female impersonator, Arthur Butler, “who was already well-known on the concert states of Malaya as Miss Gloria d’Earie.”[xii]   

Pre-war photograph of Glorie d’Earie [Arthur Butler] standing outside his barracks in Singapore. Courtesy of R. T. Knight & Pamela Knight.

On 23 July 1941, had Butler appeared as an item with photograph in Vera Adrmore’s gossip column, “People & Places,” in the Malayan Morning Star. He was scheduled to perform “her impersonations act” at a birthday party for two women. Wray Gibson would also be present with his accordion.[xiii]   

According to Tom Wade, Bombardier Arthur Butler “was slim and gracious, with small features and ardent brown eyes. He was always known as Gloria and the jokes about him were almost as numerous as they once use to be about Mae West. It was said that when he gave an order to the gunmen in his battery, they would always reply, “Yes, darling’.”[2][xiv] Stories about his escapades as “Gloria d’Earie” in Singapore abound. One anonymous source wrote that Butler, “undertook, on one occasion, to spend, dressed as a woman, an afternoon and evening in the city visiting Raffles Hotel and meeting people without being recognised as a man. And he got away with it.”[xv] Another, by “Tiny” Knight, was that Butler, who was an amateur boxing champion, flattened some sailor who tried to pick him up on one of his “drag” forays into Singapore.[3]

TO BE CONTINUED, 1ST SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] A copy of the report was given by Thorpe to this writer.

[2] This has got to be misremembered. The reply was surely, “Yes, dearie.”

[3]Told to this writer by “Tiny” Knight during a meeting at Tamarkan, Thailand, in 1998.


[i] Thorpe, Letter, 26 Sept. 2002.

[ii] Thorpe, “Stand Easy” Report, 1.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[ix] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xii] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xiii] Malayan Morning Star, Tuesday, July 23, 1941, 4. Clipping courtesy of Stephanie Hess.

[xiv] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xv] Anonymous, 43.

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

Remembering Len Gibson, BEM

Len Gibson, BEM
3 January 1920—31 July 2021

Image and obituary courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Len was a proud Sunderland man through and through. Born in one of the world’s great industrial cities, he had a lifelong passion for the power of education to improve one’s circumstances. He also had a passion for music, which was to help save him and others in his time of greatest trial. And he was a born story-teller all his adult life, to his friends and comrades, to the generations of children he taught, and to the historians and researchers who increasingly beat a path to the door of his bungalow in the Wearside village of West Herrington which he loved and in which he ended his days.

Born to hardworking god-fearing parents, he had three sisters and attended West Park Central School. He already loved music and was a chorister at Bishopwearmouth Church, becoming the senior boy and soloist. Leaving school during the Great Depression, he found work alongside his father in a timber factory. But he above all wanted to be a teacher, and took evening classes studying Science, Maths, English and French.  When years later this writer asked him what other than music he mostly taught in his later career, he smiled and said “just about everything, really.” He also found the Empire Theatre had cheap tickets for operas. He attended “Madam Butterfly”, and cried. Whenever he heard it again in later life, it still brought him to tears.

With war looming, in early 1939 he joined a new Territorial Regiment of Artillery and trained as a signaller. On 1 September 1939 the Regiment was called to active service, and in 1940 reconstituted as an Anti Tank Regiment and moved to home defence duties in Norfolk. There followed over a year of moving around the UK, until finally on 28 October 1941 the regiment embarked at Avonmouth to cross to Halifax in Canada, and then again headed round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay. En route Len entertained with his proudest possession, his banjo. And en route they also heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.

On 4 February 1942 Len’s convoy was attacked eight miles from Singapore by Japanese aircraft and all were forced to abandon ship. Len, a non-swimmer, floated in his cork lifebelt towards a boat which hauled him and others aboard and took them into the chaos of the last days of the defence of Singapore. On 15 February Len and his unit learned of the garrison’s unconditional surrender, and Len entered 41 months of Japanese captivity.

The details of that harrowing time are recounted in Len’s memoir “A Wearside Lad in World War II.” He was moved first to Changi, then to the River Valley Camp to work clearing debris from the city. He had lost his precious banjo when his ship sank, but now built a new one from scrap materials, and later built a guitar which he taught himself to play. He also began to compose music.

Len playing the guitar on VJ Day 2020. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

On 24 October 1942 began the long rail journey to a series of camps in western Thailand, where Len and his work battalion were to construct the Burma-Siam railway. Len would later recount the daily horrors in his typical understated way—stifling heat, forced labour with few tools, a poor and highly inadequate diet of rice, tea, and “gippo” (basically hot water with added scraps), sickness, voracious insects, vermin, and beatings by the guards. Len like his comrades contracted typhus. He also had his appendix removed, without anaesthetic, by the legendary surgeon “Weary” Dunlop. Len kept himself going, and his comrades entertained, with his guitar music. He was by nature a forgiving man, but he said later to this writer “I cannot put in my book everything that happened, because it’s meant for my family. And I cannot forgive the Japanese what I saw them do to my friends.”

In April 1945, when Japan was clearly losing the war, Len and those of his comrades who had not died on the railway were moved to Khiri Khan in the Gulf of Siam, and thence into the interior, to work on completing the cross-isthmus Mergui Road. He said he found conditions much worse there than on the railway—poorer food and much more sickness. But he survived. On 15 August Japan surrendered, the guards were seen busily burning records, and Len and other survivors were marched back to Khiri Khan. At the end of the month a British officer arrived at the camp and began the long process of getting Len and others home. He travelled via Rangoon (where the day his ship left local radio played “Monsoon”, a piece he had composed during imprisonment) and the long sea voyage back to Liverpool, and recuperated in Ryhope General Hospital in Sunderland. There he met a lovely nurse called Ruby Pounder, and married her.

After the war Len achieved his ambition of becoming a schoolmaster, and for 17 years was Headmaster of Hasting Hill School in Sunderland. He and Ruby, who was to pre-decease him, had a son David and a daughter Jennifer. He always retained his love of music. He loved family gatherings: Jennifer described to this writer a gathering of over 90 in the extended family, where Len appeared as a sort of Pied Piper, entertaining everyone. He also remained committed to Far East POW organisations like COFEPOW, visiting the sick and needy and appearing at regular veteran gatherings throughout the North-east.

As he grew older interest seemed to grow in the experiences of so many young men who had fought in the Far East War 1941-45. Len was tireless in addressing groups in his factual understated way, “telling it how it was”. He had an endless fund of tales from the time in the camps which brought the story home to listeners young and old; of course he was never without his guitar, and some music to play. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2009, and as a proud Sunderland man opted to be invested by the Lord Lieutenant at Sunderland City Hall.

Len at his 100th Birthday Party. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Finally he was amazed by the historians who came to see him to record his experiences. He gave his last interview, shortly before his final illness, just three months ago. The historian wrote afterwards that he was struck by Len’s power of recall, his sharpness, and his positive attitude, to which along with his love of music the historian attributed Len’s survival when so many others had perished in the camps. Len said to him:

“I’ve had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”

88th & 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 11th Indian Division

By Sears Eldredge

On 25/26 November, members of the 88th and 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Support Units for the 11th Indian Division) aboard the “Dominion Monarch” in an earlier convoy, produced an elaborate concert party as they sailed across the Indian Ocean towards Singapore. Its aim was not only to help the men pass the time, but bolster their patriotism. An Entertainments Committee had been formed chaired by Padre Hosklin with Major Cary Owtram, 2nd Lt. Morley Jenkins, and several other officers and men, along with a civilian, Mr. Raymond, and Sister McGuire, as representative of the Nursing Sisters on board.

Programme cover for I Remember. Courtesy of Eve Allum.

Their show was a revue with the evocative title, I Remember. It was a first-class production with scenery, costumes—even wigs—and a cast of more than twenty-five singers, musicians, and other entertainers, featuring “Ace” Connolly and his Band, the “Kings of Swing.” Besides soldiers (and the lone civilian, Mr. Raymond), the cast included four female nurses[1] in a series of songs and comic sketches, one of the latter involving two Sisters and two Lieutenants, in “Temptation.” (With thousands of soldiers and a small group of Nurses confined together on a ship for months at a time, this sketch probably had very pointed topical allusions.)  

One soldier, who took the stage name “Akki” (but was really Bombardier Ackhurst), did a series of imitations in “Faces I Remember.” Two Indian soldiers—perhaps brothers[2]–performed in a large-cast number entitled, “Capetown,” which had been their last port of call. Major Owtram, himself, sang “Rose of England.” And Lance Bombardier Bob Gale, a member of “The Kings of Swing” Band, wrote three original songs for the show, one of which, “Distance Makes No Difference,” underscored another “message” of the revue. Gale also appeared onstage with his trio, “The Rhythm Breakers.”[3]

The next to last number on the bill was a rousing patriotic number, “Dominion’s Parade,” which included representatives of the British Commonwealth on stage promoting the theme of the show—the preservation of the Empire. Following the Finale, the audience, as the custom was, stood and joined the entertainers in singing “The King.”

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 18TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Sisters Ingham, Adams, Woodman, and Hill.

[2] Sergeants. J. & A. Bhumgara.

[3] Including Gunners Goodwin and Winchester. 

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, 5510

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

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

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.