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In spite of failing sight Phillis Harding, my late mother-in-law,
lived independently until she died, and in her last years tape-recorded
these and earlier memories of her life in England and Malaya, and her
first years in New Zealand. This is an edited version of the transcript
of the months between September 1939 and March 1942.
Phillis Beatrice Lowder-Lees went out from England to Malaya in 1934,
to marry Ian Imrie Jeffries, who worked in the Colonial Customs Service.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, they were on leave
Preparing for war in England
I think we knew the war was coming, because everybody started to talk
about gas masks and things. Ian and my father built a dugout in the garden,
and the first air raid siren sounded a quarter of an hour after war was
declared - a false alarm, but it still shook us.
We didn't know what was going to happen to us. Being government servants
you had to do what you were told, so we waited to find out whether we
were to go back to Malaya, or somewhere else, or to stay in England and
help the war effort, or whether Ian would be called up. However finally
he got his order papers, to go to Port Swettenham on the west coast of
Malaya after Christmas. We packed up, and said goodbye to my parents.
It was the last time I saw my dear daddy. We felt rather awful going away
because they were facing the war in Europe and we were going to what we
thought was perfect safety in Malaya. We felt as if we were running away.
Lord Haw-Haw and leaving England
We were told that we would receive our tickets and instructions only on
the day that we sailed, for safety reasons of course. We were waiting
for them when on the wireless we heard Lord Hawhaw (an Irishman who broadcast
propaganda for Germany) say "We know that the Strathair is sailing
from Southampton tomorrow. We'll get you!" We didn't yet know that
ourselves, then the instructions came through, which of course worried
We met quite a lot of our friends on the ship, all going back from leave,
and as the ship sailed down Southampton Water we were sitting with a jolly
party in the bar - all wearing our lifebelts, as we had to all the time
- and suddenly there was a terrific crash and the ship shuddered and stopped
and everything tipped over. I had a glass of brandy, because I was always
a bit frightened of being sea sick at the beginning of a voyage, and didn't
spill a drop. Most other people's glasses fell off the table, people fell
about, and nobody knew what this crash had been. We waited for a call
to man the lifeboats but nothing happened and presently the ship started
again and we went on. Years later I heard that a German submarine had
been lying in wait for us, but for some reason the torpedo missed and
the submarine itself was struck by the liner, and sank. The liner was
able to go on, but we went all the way to Capetown on a serpentine course,
zigzagged all the way. The liner rolled on every zig and every zag and
it was rather nerve-racking
Port Swettenham, January 1940
And so we came to the beginning of our last tour of duty in Malaya. My
husband had risen in seniority until he was now Superintendent of Customs
in Port Swettenham. There were very few people there: the harbourmaster,
the railway man, and I think a policeman, and their wives. It was a largish
port but a little town, with no shops, no club, just the houses of officials
and a very small native village of a few odd little provision shops, rather
shocking sorts of cafes and the usual brothels and things that go with
A great friend was Thomas Cubitt, the resident controller of drainage
and irrigation, who lived in a house in the ruins of the old palace in
Kuala Selangor. Splendidly picturesque ruins, with great stone staircases,
but regarded with awe by the local natives, who wouldn't go there at night.
He afterwards became godfather to our little son. Unfortunately in the
war he was lost, and I never saw or heard of him again.
A contribution to the war effort
We thought I should do something for the war, so it was suggested that
as I had been quite busy with the Customs and Excise work before, I should
work in the office, thereby releasing one of the young cadets for service
in the army; I hope he was grateful. I used to go every day with my husband
and sit checking ship's cargo manifests to see if they had called in at
any port where there could have been adulteration of substances, or illicit
additions to cargo or anything like that; sort of detective work, but
really quite easy.
July 1940: holiday in Labuan
In about July 1940 we had a fortnight's leave and decided to visit our
friend Jakeman, who was the British Resident of Labuan, an island off
the north coast of Borneo. He had an immense and splendid residency, built
out of wonderful exotic woods, now extinct, and lived in quite considerable
splendour. We had a lovely time, and when we were about to go back to
Port Swettenham he said that he had quite a sum of money to spend on the
residency, to have all the curtains and hangings and covers for the furniture
renewed, and would I please go to Singapore to shop for him. So I had
an open card to buy what I wanted, and I had a wonderful time in Singapore,
getting it all. But alas I don't know what happened to it, and we never
knew what happened to Jakeman. He was just another of those friends who
were lost forever to us.
Kuala Lumpur. Worrying news from England. Pregnancy.
Ordinary life in Port Swettenham was rather dull, and if you wanted any
entertainment, the pictures or a dinner party or a dance or a ball, you
had to go to Kuala Lumpur, so we used to go at least once a week, if not
twice. Sometimes Mat the syce drove me in the Lagonda, or I went by train;
it was about thirty miles. I mostly enjoyed my garden, or did work with
the customs. Then we decided to have a baby, having had seven years of
matrimony enjoying ourselves.
The war hadn't really touched us. We used to get letters from home which
worried us a lot, about people who had been killed or were missing. Mike
Ardizzone and other friends were imprisoned; another had a terrible time
at Dunkirk then later was imprisoned in Germany, and I never heard from
him again. I often think of people and wonder where they are, whether
they're still alive or whatever happened to them.
The war in England: giving money, getting news
For a long time we had been doing our best for the war effort. We gave
money - we didn't know what else to do - we were there in what seemed
peaceful Malaya, and so a lot of us did without most of our salaries,
and gave everything we could save up to the war effort. The big Singapore
newspaper acted as a receiving office for these sums of money, and they
would print in the paper how much had been given all the time. That was
the only thing we could do. People used to ring up and tell you the news.
We didn't have a wireless, practically nobody did because the reception
was so awful you could never hear anything. Some did however, and my friend
Mary Hodgkin who lived in Kuala Lumpur (her husband Ernest was an entomologist)
rang me up one day and said 'France has collapsed, it's surrendered.'
I was so upset I sat on the staircase and wept
A concert in Kuala Lumpur. Germans
Everybody loved music but the banging and crashing of static made listening
to the wireless impossible; there was too much electricity in the air.
We had gramophones, but you got awfully tired of the few records you could
get hold of. In 1940 a Jewish gentleman called Rosenberg thought he could
start an orchestra, based in the club in Kuala Lumpur. He collected up
about 20 players - planters who could play the violin a bit, Malays who
could play the trumpet, mostly from the army, and some people who could
play the flute. Rosenberg himself played a cello. They gave a concert,
the first that had ever been given in the club. They played a programme
of fairly light classical music, and he finished with the Knightsbridge
Suite, by Eric Coates - the London Suite with the Knightsbridge March
in it. He played that and everybody wept. Not only was it a piece of music
which always lifts your heart, but everybody was awfully homesick and
worried about England and they hadn't heard it before. It was a wonderful
feeling and they all wept. Then they applauded and applauded and applauded,
and the orchestra played the whole thing through again. I shall always
remember that concert.
Rosenberg changed his name because of the war, to Redhill. Rosenberg means
Redhill. He and his wife were very nice people and I stayed with them
a lot. I don't know what happened to them either. And another friend I
lost - dear Marlies from my school days in France. She came to Kuala Lumpur
with her German husband and lived there. I knew her quite a lot, and he
was a brute and I hated him. When the war came I heard that he was interned
as a Nazi because it was discovered that he had been spying, and sending
information about troop and air movements. I don't know what happened
to her. It's extraordinary to lose a great part of your life and never
find it again.
Birth of Peter, 14 April, 1941
After the birth I stayed in Bungsar Hospital in Kuala Lumpur for two weeks,
as one did in those days. Everybody came to see me and the baby did well.
Presently I went home, but I remember that the Greek campaign was finished
in that particular fortnight. When I went into hospital we had started
the campaign in Greece and when I came out it was finished. The Germans
had conquered, in Crete.
It was a nice time really, with my new little son, except of course that
the war was getting on worse and worse. I took a course of first aid,
to learn how to deal with wounds and things. We began to prepare for air
raids, the odd Japanese aeroplane came along, on reconnaissance I suppose,
and we were given little tin hats by the VAD authorities; I remember thinking
I needed two hats, one for my head and one for my behind when I was lying
in the ditch. I always thought my behind was very vulnerable.
Troops in Malaya
We also turned into an Officers' Mess. Troops were stationed nearby, the
Royal Engineers, laying mines in case of invasion. We were so close to
the camp that they asked us if we would organise a mess, so three or four
officers used to come to our house every day for lunch and for dinner.
We didn't really get to know them much because they used to come in for
meals and then go back again to do their work, but we did get to know
some of the rank and file because I used to go to Kuala Lumpur and help
in the canteens. There were a lot of Australian troops there too. I remember
on one occasion I was pouring tea for a whole lot of them, and I had two
big teapots to deal with and a long queue. I said to one of them "How
do you like your tea?" and he said "Black," and I thought,
goodness, he must like strong tea. How can I possibly get it black? So
I got both the tea pots and shook them up, stirred them up, and poured
out a cup of the strongest tea I could possibly make, and handed it to
him rather doubtfully and said "I hope it's black enough, I've tried
my best." And he looked at me as if I was crazy and said "I
only meant I didn't want any milk!" I'd never heard that expression
for tea before. But the funny thing about the Australians was that they
didn't stand up to the climate very well and they started to faint on
parade. They just dropped down in swathes, until it was discovered that
if you gave them a spoonful of salt in a glass of water they would soon
recover; they found that the sweating deprived their bodies of necessary
In an extraordinary way we still went on living quite a normal life, although
things seemed to be collapsing around us. I remember we took a very quick
weekend up Frazer's Hill with the baby. We thought he would benefit by
a bit of cool air, so we took him and the amah, and had a pleasant weekend
playing tennis and dancing up there. Right in the middle of all the excitement
about the war, must have been about September. I've got a little photograph
somewhere of me in a pink tennis outfit, pink shorts and shirt, with Tony
Axe, who was a sergeant major in the camp and came up with us.
One day when my husband was at his office, the senior officer arrived
at my lovely big house and its lovely big garden, and said "You have
to move out of here, this has been commandeered for military headquarters."
I had to move out within twenty-four hours, lock stock and barrel, to
a small house which they'd also commandeered, on the other side of the
village. (Everybody travelled with their own packing cases in those days.
When you arrived at your government house you stored them ready for the
next move.) We just unpacked enough stuff to live with, and carried on,
my husband going to work of course, with everything sort of disintegrating
Club in Port Swettenham
I must digress now. When we came to Port Swettenham I thought that the
plight of English and foreign seamen was very bad. Their ships would be
in port for three or four days, and these men used to be told to go ashore
and amuse themselves. Well there was nothing for them to do, no places
they could go to except some very nasty little cafes and brothels, and
they were thirty miles away from the town, with no transport. I thought
this was something I could do for my war effort, so I found an abandoned
house, very close to the port, got it cleaned, borrowed chairs and tables
and a lot of magazines and books and then I told the harbourmaster to
advertise the fact that there was a club for seamen where they could go,
free, and drink beer and coffee and tea, and my cook and I made pies and
cakes and buns and sandwiches for them, every day. I used to open it at
ten o'clock in the morning, and shut it at about eight or nine at night.
Sometimes I used to take in young friends and we would play a gramophone
and the men would be able to dance with someone, or just talk to a girl.
That little club lasted for a number of months, and of course I wrote
to my parents about it, and when my father mentioned to a ship owner at
his club in London that I was in Port Swettenham he said "'Oh, there's
some very good work being done there to keep the seamen from getting into
trouble - a club opened by some woman. We were very grateful for it."
And my father said '"That's my daughter." He was very proud
The sinking of 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse'
Then suddenly the war seemed to come very close to us. We heard that the
battleships 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' had been sunk
by Japanese torpedo bombers. That seemed extraordinary. It left Malaya
practically defenceless because they had been protecting us and suddenly
we found ourselves vulnerable to invasion from the Japanese. (10 December,1941.)
The bombing of Singapore
Straight after that the Japanese bombed Singapore, and started to invade
us from the north, and there was no air cover at all. The bombing of the
two ships had deprived us of aeroplanes, and we just had a few very slow
old Brewster Buffaloes, absolutely no use at all. The Japanese had a tremendous
number of aeroplanes, and suddenly the skies were full of them, and they
were bombing everybody, coming down through the north of Malaya, very
quickly decimating the few troops we had, cutting them up. There were
regiments which were absolutely cut to pieces. And the Japanese came down
the coasts, not in ships, but in small boats and they would infiltrate
some creek or other, and suddenly turn up, further south again. We began
to realise that the war was on top of us.
Bombing of Port Swettenham (20 December, 1941)
One day I was in the house, and the baby was in the nursery and we heard
the air raid alarm going off, so immediately I went into the nursery and
brought the baby out. (We'd tried to make a dugout but a foot or so into
the ground you just came to water so it was impossible. Instead we put
our three blanket boxes - carved from aromatic sandalwood which protected
woollen materials from moths and so on - into a corner of the concrete
core of the house, and piled mattresses on top.) I put the baby in there
then I heard these bombers coming, they were bombing the oil installation
on the other side of the little town and I looked up and I saw a bomb
fall from the plane, coming across the mangrove flats, so I immediately
lay flat. Then I thought, where's the amah and I called out and she didn't
answer, so I got up to run to look for her, and a bomb fell very close,
just a few yards up the drive of the house, and everything seemed to come
down. The veranda blew in, the bedroom walls seemed to come down and I
was flattened. It was only a blast, it didn't land on the house, but a
piece of wood fell on my head and I had concussion and I didn't really
know what was going on for ages. The only thing I can remember is walking
about with a bowl full of jelly in my hand saying 'It won't gel, it won't
gel!' It must have been near Christmas time because it was what we called
a Christmas Pudding Jelly.
Ten minutes to pack up and leave
Anyway, the amah was all right. She'd been down in the sunken bathroom,
and the baby was quite all right, but it was very unpleasant. We had a
lot of wreckage around, and then, shortly after that, I don't know how
long, there was a really bad raid, and that was when I had to leave the
house. I was prowling around one morning, doing household chores, and
an air raid started and I was worrying whether it was coming close or
not. They were all fairly small planes, but they used to strafe the town,
to use machine guns, and I was of course worrying about my husband too,
at the port. It seemed to be a lot of bombs falling and I was lying on
my stomach feeling very frightened, when a lorry drove up to the front
door. A big lorry, and there were two men on it. One had his head cut
open and was bleeding all down the side of his face and he said "I've
come to fetch you. Your husband says you're to leave now, and there's
a ship just going. It'll take you to Singapore and your husband says you've
got to leave on that because the whole port is being bombed and it won't
be safe for you to stay here any more." So he said, "You've
got ten minutes. Get your things, you've got ten minutes." So I thought
- oh God - one does flap a bit when one has ten minutes in which to leave
one's life behind. So the first thing of course was the baby. I collected
the amah and said to change the baby - by that time he was weaned - and
I went and mixed a thermos flask of his milk powder and gave that to the
amah and then I had kept a small case of his clothing and stuff ready
packed so I gave her that too, and said "Get on the lorry."
Then I shot around the place, gave the cook and the boy all the money
I had on me, and said, "I don't know what you should do - you'd better
look after yourselves. Do you want to come with me?" and they said
no. Then I went into the sitting room and I thought, I'm damned if the
Japs are going to have my piece of embroidery that I'd been working on
for seven years. I hadn't got any scissors out, I rushed into the dining
room and there on the dining room table were the knives and forks we'd
used for the previous meal, so I took a table knife and cut the threads
that held the embroidery, and I went back to the table and picked up the
knives and forks and spoons and wrapped them up in the embroidery and
put them into the hands of my amah in the lorry. And then I said "All
right, I'll come now," and the man said "Are you ready now?"
and I said yes. He said "Have you got any clothes?" and I said
no, and he said "If I let you go into your bedroom you'll never come
out I suppose. So sit there and I'll go and get your things." So
he went up into the bedroom and presently came out with a suitcase of
clothes and said "There, that's your lot". By that time I had
got a rug out of one of the sandalwood boxes, because I didn't feel the
baby was safe until he had something around him. I got a big rug that
had been a wedding present to me from my godfather, ready to wrap him
He shoved the suitcase into the lorry and we drove off. Now when I opened
that suitcase later on, I found that it contained several evening dresses,
including the beautiful garnet red one that I'd been given by Jantzen
Couturier, two afternoon dresses, my riding breeches and riding boots,
a pale pink silk sun suit, a powder blue moiré house coat, and
no nightgowns, no underclothes, no handkerchiefs. Absolutely nothing else.
So I was rather badly prepared to go into the world
We drove towards the port, and the bombs were coming down all the time.
There were flocks of Japanese aeroplanes in the air and they were machine-gunning
the port. Presently one flew in our direction and the men stopped the
lorry and said "Get down and get under a railway wagon. It's the
best place to be." So I got down with the baby and wrapped him up
in the rug and we huddled under a railway wagon, and the bullets whanged
in all directions, and little splinters flew in all directions. We didn't
get hurt, but the rug got cut in one place by a bullet or a splinter or
something. The cut is still on the rug.
The Japanese planes one by one flew away, when they'd dropped their bombs
and finished all their ammunition presumably. There were four of them.
We had a bit of breathing space and crawled out from underneath the wagon.
I asked the man who was with us if anybody knew where the Japs were now.
He said it was thought that they were at the Gemas Crossroads, about 8
miles away, but they expected another body of Japanese to arrive in the
port from the sea any moment. That was why my husband and other men were
clearing out all the warehouses of food and liquor, giving the food away,
and pouring the liquor down the gutters, so that the people wouldn't be
able to get drunk and crazy and go around looting and that sort of thing.
Then the lorry wouldn't start because something had damaged it, so we
went carrying all our things, walking down the wharf on the railway tracks
to where there was a little ship. I couldn't see my husband anywhere,
and I was being urged along by these two men who wanted to get back to
their work. The amah was carrying the baby, and I was carrying a lot of
The rescue ship
There was a little ship tied up to the wharf with a couple of lighters
by her, full of rubber. We were handed up on to the ship and I was put
into the one spare cabin, on the top deck. It just had a couple of bunks,
one above the other, and there was a carafe of water and a glass on the
shelf above the door. I put the baby, still wrapped in his rug, on the
bunk, and I went to see where the amah could go, because I thought if
we could find another place for her I could have one bunk and the baby
could have the other.
There was another air raid warning, and before I could find the amah the
Jap planes arrived back. They came roaring over the wharves, and started
to drop bombs again, so I rushed back to the baby and sat with him cuddled
in my arms. Bombs were falling on the wharf. They were hundred pound bombs,
what they called anti-personnel bombs. They exploded immediately as they
touched the ground, so they didn't make big craters, but they did a lot
of damage, lateral damage. They were also machine-gunning.
As I sat in the little cabin a bomb fell on the wharf very close to the
ship. Another one fell in the lighter full of rubber just beside the ship,
and it went on fire, and made black smoke. The concussion from the bombs
was so severe that the cabin rocked madly from side to side. The ship
rocked madly from side to side, and I was flung on the floor and the baby
was flung on the floor too. He rolled under the bunk. I clung to everything
to stop being tossed about and a bullet or a splinter hit the carafe of
water, which broke into bits and the water came down all over me, and
there were shards of glass, splinters going everywhere. It was really
And then it all stopped and the planes flew away and I crawled out from
under the bunk, and fished the baby out from under the bunk too. He was
screaming his head off, very naturally, and I thought he had been hit;
there seemed to be some blood on him. So I hastily unwrapped him and tried
to find out where he was bleeding, and suddenly realised it was me that
was bleeding, not the baby. He was all right. I had a splinter through
my wrist, through my right wrist. It didn't hurt much. I think it was
sort of deadened with shock, but it made it very difficult to move my
wrist properly. Of course I wanted to get the splinter out, it was all
very awful, so I thought I'd go and see if they had any first aid stuff.
I wrapped the baby up again and put him very carefully back under the
bunk, which seemed to be the safest place, and crawled through bits of
glass and splinters and things along back to the captain's bridge.
There I found absolute chaos. One of the sailors was lying dead with half
his face blown off. The captain was lying on the deck with half his knee
torn away. There were only two white officers on board, the captain and
the chief engineer; all the rest were Malay or Indian lascars. The chief
engineer came and caught me by the scruff of the neck and said "You
done any first aid?" and I said "Oh yes, a bit" and he
said "Well do something about the captain's knee will you?"
And he thrust a first aid box at me. I held up my poor wrist with the
splinter hanging out of it and cried "I can't do anything with this"
and so he said "Oh I'll soon fix that." And he got a pair of
pliers off the bench and took hold of my wrist very roughly and hauled
the splinter out with the pliers. Of course it hurt like hell, and I burst
into tears, and he said "Now get on with it". So I stopped my
tears, as far as I could, opened up the first aid box and didn't know
what on earth I was supposed to do with a knee in pieces, cut in half.
The poor man was groaning, but I did find some morphia which I was able
to give him, I'd learnt how to give morphia, and then I put pads on it
soaked in Mercurochrome, and then I bandaged it up with a splint, so that
it stayed straight. The chief engineer got a long chair from somewhere
and put him in it and wrapped him up in blankets. They immediately started
to undo the ropes and push off from the wharf to get out of the port as
soon as possible.
To Singapore by sea
I went back to the baby, and the amah crawled out from where she had been
down below and I found a little nook for her to stay. I didn't want to
go down below because I was really upset and I thought that I'd rather
be on deck and see what was coming than not. By that time it had become
evening, and then night came, and I stayed up on the deck with the baby
all night while the little ship limped down the coast to Singapore. I
didn't want to move, I just listened for Japanese planes all night. They
had a particular pulsating hum when they were coming. I stayed up all
night listening for that hum. Of course I heard it dozens of times, and
it wasn't the right hum every time, but it was a nerve-racking night.
The baby was as good as gold. He just slept in my arms bless his sweet
We got down to Singapore in the early morning, and as the light was broadening
we limped into the harbour, so full of shot holes and splinter holes that
we looked like a colander. The harbour hadn't been bombed much since the
first raids, and on all the ships the men lined up along the rails and
pointed to us and discussed I suppose where we could have got so shot
Anyway, we arrived in Singapore and I was unloaded, and the poor captain
was taken to the hospital. Nobody bothered about me. I just put a bandage
around my wrist myself and that was that. It took a long time to heal
and it was very weak afterwards, and I had to wear a wrist support for
some years afterwards. Evidently dragging the splinter out so roughly
from my wrist had damaged the muscles in some way and it's been rather
funny shaped ever since.
A refugee in Singapore
I didn't know where to go. I hadn't got any money because I'd given it
all to the servants, and I couldn't go to a hotel, even if the hotels
had been open. There were only one or two in those days. So I got a taxi
to drive us to the house of one of the Customs Officers we knew, who was
married but had no children. He had a big house up a hill in the middle
of Singapore. I telephoned him, asked him if we could stay, and he said
yes. He was working in his office, and his wife who was a nurse was working
at the hospital, so they were both away. So rather to the surprise of
his servants I installed myself with the amah in their house, taking one
of the rooms, and all three of us slept in that room.
A refugee household
When the Customs Officer and his wife came home, the servants apparently
went to them in a body and most of them said they weren't staying. The
cook said he wasn't going to cook for a house full of refugees so he and
other servants departed, but the boy stayed. So I took over the cooking
and my amah helped in the house, and presently after a day or so another
Customs family arrived, again a mother, with two small children, and they
were added to the household. I didn't know her, I don't remember what
her name was. I used to go to the market every day, on the native bus,
what we called the 'mosquito' bus, and buy food for the household, and
come back and cook it, and have dinner ready, not lunch thank goodness,
but have dinner ready on the table for whoever happened to be there when
it was evening.
Sometimes one or other of the owners of the house came back. Of course
we'd always been told Singapore was impregnable, so well defended with
guns and things it could never be taken from the sea. We imagined it would
be besieged by ships and had no idea that it would ever really be taken
from the land, but the Japanese were coming down the peninsula, conquering
as they came, until they arrived in Johore, which was joined to Singapore
by a causeway, carrying road and railway, and of course water pipes as
well. All the water came from outside Singapore, so all the Japs had to
do eventually was to cut the water pipes and then Singapore would die
of thirst. But they didn't do that at first. They just bombed us. Bombing
would start most nights, and we would go down under the stairs which was
considered the safest place in the house. The sort of little triangular
space under the stairs. All the children would stay there until the night
bombing had stopped.
Preparing for a siege
By day nothing much happened. I had to look after the household. I was
pretty busy. I also laid in some stocks in case we were besieged. I bought
sacks of rice. The people who owned the house gave me the money; they
quite agreed. They had a magnificent tennis court with wire netting all
around it, and over the top as well, so I bought a lot of ducks which
I let run in the tennis court, so that we could have ducks if we were
besieged and couldn't get any meat. It wasn't much use buying vegetables,
but I started to dig the garden and plant cuttings of various spinaches
and things which would grow from cuttings, so that we should begin to
have vegetables. And I got great big jars, and put fresh water into them,
and covered the tops of them with muslin, so the mosquitoes wouldn't breed
in them, and stored them in a shed at the back. I was preparing for a
siege which of course we never got. Oh, wonderful preparations.
Dancing at the Raffles Hotel
I'd been feeling very low because it's depressing to lose all that you
have, and not know where your husband is or any of your friends, and I
suppose I had been a bit shocked. Anyway one day in the street when I
was doing the shopping I ran up against another friend who was called
George Gordon Greatorex Richies, and he was an officer in the New Zealand
Navy. He said "I've never seen you looking like that before. What
on earth's the matter?" And I said "Oh, you know, things aren't
very good," and he said "Chin up, chin up! Come to dinner with
me at the Raffles tonight." So I looked at him a bit aghast, and
he said "Chin up" and he took my chin and pushed it up and said
"Don't forget, seven o'clock tonight." I thought I might as
well! So I changed into one of my evening dresses - as you remember I
had two or three - got a taxi, left the baby under the stairs, and very
boldly went to the Raffles Hotel, where I found him, and we had a lovely
dinner and a wonderful dance, dancing as if I would never dance again,
feeling absolutely galvanised with the music and that sort of thing. I
do remember finding it very uncomfortable dancing with a man who was wearing
a revolver because it stuck into the side of my stomach. I shall never
forget that night at the Raffles Hotel, dancing in the middle of the war.
Crazy, but it was rather nice.
Ian arrives from Port Swettenham
And then people started to arrive from up country. Men who had escaped
from the Japs, or had commandeered a lorry and driven down. One amongst
them was our dear friend Thomas George Duncan Anthony Ashley Cooper. He'd
been wounded in the throat, but he was still as wonderful and jolly as
ever. I just saw him for a few minutes one day, and then he went off to
offer his services to the army. As they all did of course, they all became
part of the army as they lost their jobs up country, as their positions
were overrun by the Japanese. Then my husband arrived, and he brought
with him a very strange present: a laundry bag in which he'd put some
of my favourite books, which he'd found in the empty house. So that's
why I still have some of my books from Malaya.
It was good to see Ian again. He didn't stay at the house but in an army
camp, but I stayed on, doing the cooking, and looking after everybody.
Other people arrived, some men as well as women, so that we were quite
a big party in the end. I used to cook just about all the morning, after
I'd been to the market. I remember being dumbfounded at the lovely fish
they had at the Singapore market, so beautiful to look at, some turquoise
blue and pink, mauvey pink, in latticework over their bodies. Exquisitely
beautiful, but they tasted very good too. I kept a big stock pot, and
used to push the stock through a sieve every day, and make lovely soup.
Escape from Singapore
Well, it soon became obvious that Singapore was going to fall, and they
were very anxious to get all the women and children away - they were a
liability for one thing - and so I was sent by my husband to an office
up the hill, for refugees, to register that I wanted passage for myself
and the baby. I couldn't take the amah of course. That was very terrible
because she was such a good nice sweet amah. We loved her very much.
So I joined a long queue which went through the garden of this house and
down the road, right down the hill. After about two and a half hours I
finally got to a table where they said "What's your name? How many
dependants?" and that sort of thing. I was told to go in a night
or two from then to a certain boat, which was going to try to get out
of Singapore. It was very iffy because the Sunda Strait was being bombed
We were allowed to take one suitcase and that was all. I went back to
the house and chose the biggest suitcase I had, and put all the things
that I really needed in it, and the baby's things. Then I thought, if
I've got to earn my own living when I get to wherever I'm going, I'll
need something. I knew I was a good seamstress. I'd been making all my
own clothes for years, and made costumes for plays and other things. I
had a little Singer sewing machine in a carrying case with a handle on
the top, and I thought if I packed the baby's food and spare bottles inside
it, I could say that I had the baby's food in it, and they might let me
get away with two things. So that's what I did.
When the night came I went to the ship with my big suitcase, and my little
sewing machine, carrying both of them, with the baby tied on my back.
It was a hell of a job going up the gangway carrying all that, but I managed
it. I must have been very tough in those days. I suppose I was. I had
said goodbye to my husband, and to Lieutenant Richies, who also came to
see me off. The ship was crammed full of women and children. We were told
to go down to the bowels of the ship, which had obviously been carrying
troops because it was very rough, and there were notices on all the lavatory
doors warning of VD and other unpleasantnesses. I had one berth in a huge
cabin where there must have been fifty women and children. It was pandemonium,
the electric lights on all the time, frightfully noisy and frightfully
hot, resounding with shrieking children. ('SS Narkunda', 21 January
A nightmare voyage
Then the engine started and my poor little Peter was terrified. He was
used to a quiet house, quiet peaceful surroundings. He just screamed.
He couldn't stand the noise and the brilliant light and I couldn't pacify
him. Of course the more he screamed the more angry people got with us.
I just sat and held him all night. I was nearly dropping with tiredness
myself. It was pretty awful. However the next day we - I don't quite remember
what happened. I suppose we limped down through the islands at the bottom
of Singapore. Or perhaps we hid somewhere. It seemed to be fairly peaceful.
Peter thank goodness fell into some sort of sleep, and so did I, but the
next night was the same thing. This cabin with all the lights on and all
the people screaming and all the noise, and Peter screamed again. He screamed
and screamed and everybody got so anti, and said "Take that child
away!" Finally, I took him, there was a doctor on board and I found
his cabin and went in with Peter in my arms and said "Can you give
this baby something to make him stop screaming?" and the doctor said
"No I can't." I said "Can't you chloroform him or something?"
He said "No, go away!" So I went.
I thought, I can't face all those people in that cabin again. I went up
on deck. We were creeping along in the darkness, with all the lights off
upstairs. There were blackout curtains everywhere and there was a sea
breeze, so it was cool. Peter immediately quietened down, and I thought
if only they'd let us stay out here he'd sleep, and so could I. I found
a corner on the deck where there was a sort of angle where I put him down,
wrapped in a little bit of a blanket I had. I was just going back down
the steps to fetch another blanket or something when there was a terrific
flash and an enormous explosion. I think a plane had dropped a bomb and
it had hit either a boat or a ship or a piece of wreckage, very close,
because I was blown off the deck, down on to a lower deck, and somehow
or other on the passage, my leg got twisted, so that I arrived on the
lower deck with a totally dislocated knee, so dislocated it was back to
front. In absolute agony of course. There were more sounds of gunfire
and explosions and people started to rush about. I said "Help help"
in a very small voice, and somebody said "Shhh" to me, and I
thought that was very cruel! After a bit I couldn't bear the pain anymore
and I said "Help help" more loudly and somebody heard me and
came looking for me, and scooped me up, my knee dangling of course, and
it was so agonising I howled like a wolf.
They took me into the ship, and I kept on saying "Peter, Peter, baby
baby!" because I was worried that he had been blown off the deck
too. I really was in agony. I finally persuaded someone to go and look
for Peter and he was found sleeping peacefully in the angle of the deck,
which had protected him from the blast. So they brought Peter to me, and
that was all right.
I was taken to the doctor and this time he came up trumps. He jerked my
leg back out of dislocation, which of course was appallingly painful.
Didn't get any anaesthetic or anything. I was just howling like a demented
wolf. It wouldn't stay in place because it was so completely dislocated
so he plastered it up from the ankle to above the knee. And there I was
with a leg in plaster, stumbling about.
The crew were very sorry for me, because I was the only bad casualty.
Of course it was my own fault, I shouldn't have been out on the deck.
I was given the purser's cabin, which was rather nice. I think it was
the purser. He was so sorry for me he came and said "Oh they couldn't
put the poor little thing into
" Somebody took Peter for the
night but of course the next day the purser needed his cabin back so I
was put in with some other women, a mother and two grown-up daughters.
They had a four-berth cabin, and there were only three of them, and these
women were very angry to be intruded on by a peculiar little woman with
a prattling baby. I didn't find it at all easy to climb in and out of
the berth so I put Peter on the berth and wrapped him in, and he slept
there and I slept on the floor which was easier for me with my leg. That
annoyed them too, to have anybody sleeping on the floor. They didn't like
somebody intruding into their cabin, and they were very uncomfortable
people to be with.
For the rest of the voyage we limped down the coast, keeping out of the
way, and hoping not to meet a Japanese ship, or be spotted by a Japanese
aircraft. The food of course was terrible, but I managed to get along.
Then my poor little Peter became ill. I didn't know what was the matter
with him but he got terrible diarrhoea, he started to be sick, and he
looked awful. I didn't know what to do, I just did the best I could for
him. There was quite a lot of illness on the ship. It was not a pleasant
Arrival in Fremantle
However we got to Australia, to Fremantle, and we were told we would be
shipped off there into lorries. I managed to get up to the deck with my
suitcase and my Singer sewing machine and my baby. I was still in plaster
right up to the thigh. It was still very painful, my leg. So was the wrist
actually. In fact I had a lot of pain. I sat on a seat on the deck, thinking
I simply couldn't cope with all that burden and get down a gangplank.
An Australian wharfie came along and looked at me and I said to him "Could
you please help me carry my stuff to the lorry?" and he said "Oh,
you, you -" I forget what he said - "You something or other
women, you think everybody's going to jump when you clap your hands like
they used to when you were in Malaya and a boy will come along and do
your work for you. Well it's different in Australia. You do your own work
here." And he walked off and left me. So I thought "Be damned
to you, you horrid great oaf, I'll manage on my own." So I did. I
just struggled along, foot by foot, dragging things until I got on to
the gangplank, and then I struggled down to the lorry. And then there
were some troops guarding the lorry with bayonets, set bayonets if you
please. Set bayonets. However one of them did get my stuff on to the lorry,
and me and Peter.
We were driven to a boys' school, empty because it was the school holidays,
set in big grounds, not far from the Swan River. It was surrounded by
high brick walls and you went down a drive from a gate guarded by sentries,
again with fixed bayonets. We were decanted at this place, and given a
bed each in the dormitory. It was just an iron bedstead, and I didn't
see Peter being able to sleep on that, so I emptied my suitcase and made
it into a little cradle for him. He was so ill he was sort of blue by
this time, and he couldn't keep anything down. He was leaking at both
ends. I was very worried about him. They told us to come for a meal, and
afterwards I went to the management - there was a sort of brigade of Australian
women managing it. I suppose they thought I was a bit peculiar because
I hadn't proper clothes or anything. I was wearing a white silk dress,
which was one of the only dresses I had. I said could they please get
a doctor for my little boy who's ill. And they said "Oh don't worry,
you people always make a fuss about nothing. Just look after him yourself.
We can't get a doctor for every sick child that's here. The place is full
of sick children." I was really so very worried about Peter. He was
a sort of bluish colour and I thought he was going to die. I went down
to the gate and tried to get through and the sentry stopped me. He said
I was to go back, and if I wanted anything, to ask the management. I went
back to the management and they took no notice of me, they said "Go
away, we're busy. Go and sit in the sun."
Over the wall
So I thought, what am I to do? I went towards the gate and then I went
into the trees, and saw a place on the wall where somebody had taken out
a brick, probably one of the boys, and I could get up a bit, on to the
wall, then there was a tree which had a fairly solid branch which went
out across the wall. So finally I got myself and my leg up on to the branch
of the tree, and edged along until I was over the road that passed the
school grounds. And then I held onto the tree and very carefully dropped
down, hoping that I wouldn't damage my leg all over again. However I did
land reasonably comfortably, and I picked myself up, and walked along
the road until I saw a passer-by and asked him if he could direct me to
the nearest doctor's house. And he did. I got to the doctor's and I told
him all about my troubles, and he immediately put me into his car, and
drove me up to the school. He looked at Peter and said that he had very
bad dysentery and must go to hospital straight away. So he told the management,
and took Peter to the hospital, where he stayed for two weeks. At first
I stayed with a vet who was a friend of the doctor, and then the doctor
managed to find my friend Mary Hodgkin.
Finding Mary Hodgkin
Mary Hodgkin had been in Fremantle for some time apparently. I had told
him they were Quakers, and he had found her through the Quaker Society,
who had found a little house for her and her four children in a nearby
village called Gosnells, some miles outside Perth, near the Darling Range.
She offered to share the house with me. It belonged to a couple who were
holidaymaking in a seaside place in Western Australia. It was a tiny house;
I had to sleep in the passage and when Peter came out of hospital he slept
on the veranda. It was about half a mile out of Gosnells, along a field
I was very busy because I had to cater for five children. Peter's digestion
was in a pretty bad state. The dysentery had torn up his little tummy
so much that he couldn't eat normal baby food. He had to be fed on a special
powder, and colloidal iron, so he had bottles and nothing else, but the
other children ate like little wolves. The eldest was a boy, I think his
name was Graham, then there was Patricia, and then there was another one
and then little Jonathan I think was about two, perhaps less. Mary and
I worked very hard, but we managed to battle along. We neither of us knew
where our husbands were. I managed to get a telegram back to my parents
in England so they did know where I was after a time.
Leaving for New Zealand
So gradually time went on. We couldn't stay there forever, because people
would be coming back to the house at the end of the summer, and it was
then February, or early March. I managed to get in to Perth to the Bank
of New South Wales, where I had an account with still a bit of money in
it, and to the British High Commission, or whatever it was, to try to
find out what I could do. They said nobody was being allowed to go to
England, and that there was a choice between South Africa and India and
I didn't think I could cope with either. The doctor had warned that the
Western Australian climate was too harsh for Peter, so I thought of getting
to New Zealand, where my father's youngest sister lived with her husband,
so I wrote to my aunt, and she replied that she would take me in.
In March 1942 Phillis and Peter flew from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide,
then by flying boat to Auckland, and by overnight train to Wellington,
and there they stayed.
Ian Jeffries survived Changi, and the Burma Railroad, and returned
to England. He re-married, but died of stomach cancer in 1969, aged sixty-one.
Phillis married Robert Harding in Wellington in 1955, and was widowed
in 1980. The Singer sewing machine was indeed put to good use but she
eventually found a position as librarian in the New Zealand Patent Office.
She led a full and active life, tutoring young Malays studying in NZ under
the Colombo Plan, belonging to painting and walking groups, the Repertory
Theatre, the Shakespeare Society and above all the Alliance Française:
in 1999 she was awarded the Légion d'Honneur for services to French
language and culture. She died in September 2003, in her ninety-third
Peter Lees-Jeffries made a successful career as a teacher and theatrical
designer in New Zealand but died in 1992 aged fifty-one, certainly partly
as a consequence of childhood illnesses.
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