Sunday 17 January 2016

A Fresh Start, Interrupted by War

The photograph below is of the wedding of George Woods Giffen and Erma Evelyn Hadley at St. Andrew's Church, Kowloon on 27th June 1938.

 Courtesy: Giffen family
George Giffen arrived in Hong Kong, from Britain, in 1933, to work as a reporter for the Hong Kong Telegraph (HKT). The HKT was owned by the company that produced the South China Morning Post (SCMP). At that time, there were four English language daily newspapers, the other two being the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press. The SCMP and HKT were sister newspapers, run from the same office but managed as independent newspapers under the stewardship of General Manager  Ben Wylie. It was Wylie who had interviewed George Giffen in London and offered him the job as a reporter in Hong Kong.

Erma Hadley, a pretty twenty-five-year-old Canadian girl from British Columbia, had saved up, together with her friend Betty Elder, for the trip of a life time to Hong Kong where they hoped to find work.  They arrived in 1934 and Erma got a job as a secretary. She and George met at a beach party held in a mat-shed bathing hut at one of popular beaches along Castle Peak Road. They married four years later. The wedding marked a high point of one of the happiest periods of their young lives. They had arrived separately in Hong Kong to make a fresh start after, what had been for both of them, difficult periods in their early lives.

The wedding took place against the backdrop of war in China and impending conflict in Europe and Asia. It took place just a year after the so-called Marco Polo Bridge incident (1937) which was widely seen as a pretext, engineered by Japanese militarists in Manchuria, to wage war on the rest of China. The wedding took place six months after the 'Rape of Nanking' and in the same year that Japanese troops captured Canton and arrived menacingly on the border of Hong Kong. It would be another year before Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939 and, two years later in December 1941, Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Philippines and the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, widening hostilities on a global scale.

George was in Hong Kong when war began. At the time, he was the Editor of the Hong Kong Telegraph. Erma had returned to Canada in November 1939. George took long leave in February 1940 to join Erma in Canada. George had joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp (HKVDC) in 1934 and was under military obligation to return to Hong Kong as well as having responsibilities towards his employer. He returned to Hong Kong in June 1940 on the Empress of Asia after his long leave but without seeing his daughter Dianne, who was born in Canada in October 1940.

In July 1940, at a time of increased tension when war with Japan was considered imminent, the Hong Kong Government issued a Compulsory Evacuation Order, under which British women and children were required to evacuate Hong Kong. Only those women in essential services were allowed to remain.   Some 3,500 women and children were hurriedly evacuated to Manila with most going on to Australia. After the state of tension reduced and nothing happened, there was considerable protest from the wives who wanted to return and from the so-called bachelor husbands who held vociferous meetings demanding that their wives be allowed to come back. The new military commander, Major-General Christopher Maltby, and the new Governor, Sir Mark Young, both arrived in 1941 to take up their duties, and, in order to set an example, they came without their wives and children. When war broke out in Hong Kong, George was relieved  that Erma and Dianne were safe in Canada.

Historian Brian Edgar, whose own parents were caught up in the war in Hong Kong and incarcerated at Stanley Internment Camp, found a reference to the wedding of George and Erma in the Hong Kong Daily Press for 28th June 1938 which I have summarized below. 

"A pretty wedding took place at St Andrew's Church yesterday afternoon when Miss Erma Evelyn Hadley, formerly of British Columbia, became the bride of Mr George Woods Giffen, a member of the editorial staff of the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Telegraph. The ceremony was conducted by the Very Rev. John Leonard Wilson, Dean of St John's Cathedral. The organ was played by Mr Rupert Baldwin. The King of Love was sung by soloist Mr A. J. Gwyther

The bride entered the church on the arm of Mr T. Parkinson, by whom she was 'given away.' The bridesmaid was Miss Winifred Lawson and little Ann Wilson acted as flower girl. Miss M. Clarke acted as Matron of Honour and wore a dress of white lace. Mr L. S. Le Gay Brereton was best man. Following the church ceremony, a reception was held at Kingsville (Hotel) in Carnavon Road, Kowloon."

The Hong Kong Telegraph for 2nd July 1938 shows the same photograph but with a wider angle and names all the people in the wedding group.

Courtesy: Giffen family
Reading left to right are Miss M. Clark, the Matron of Honour;  Mr T. M. Parkinson, who gave away the bride; Mrs Mackechnie;  George, the groom; Erma, the bride; Mr Mackechnie;  Miss Anne Wilson, the flower girl; Miss Winifred Lawson, the bridesmaid; and Mr L. S. Le Gay Brereton, the best man. 

In the photograph below, we can see bride and groom emerging from the church, followed by the best man and the bridesmaid and, in the background, we can just about make out Miss Clark and Mr Parkinson.  

Courtesy: Giffen family
Let's turn our attention to the people who make up the wedding group, both those in the main photograph and those referred to in the newspaper article. The main photograph is so clear, we could almost be there like spectators, hidden only by the ether of time. I want to invite you to join me, as we journey through time to discover something more about the people at this wedding, their lives and times.

The Groom -  George Giffen (4/3/1911 - 23/12/2006)

George Woods Giffen was born on 4th March 1911 in the market town of Dorking in the county of Surrey. He was born to Constance ('Connie') Nellie Giffen, who was in domestic service. His father was Charles Woods, a footman in the household where Constance had worked. Constance had to labour long hours and had limited means and, as a result, George had a difficult childhood during which he spent much of his early years being fostered out.  He was bright, however, and won a scholarship to the Ernest Bailey Grammar School in Matlock, Derbyshire. After leaving school, he became a journalist, starting with the Matlocks Weekly and moving up later to the Derbyshire Times. He then moved to East London where he worked for the East Ham Mail and the Barking Gazette.

He had responded to an advert to work as a reporter in Hong Kong and, shortly after joining the Barking Gazette, he was interviewed at the Strand Palace Hotel by Ben Wylie, the General Manager of the SCMP/HKT Group. The opportunity to travel to the Far East was irresistible and at the age of twenty-two, George sailed for Hong Kong  from the Port of London on 21st April 1933 on the Japanese liner the Suwa Maru. The ship was sunk some ten years later by an American submarine at Wake Island during the Pacific War.

SS Suwa Maru (Courtesy:
I can see George's name on the handwritten passenger manifest. His address is given as 79 Cecil Avenue, Barking. He met his mother briefly before embarking on his adventure of traveling to the other side of the world. Neither knew that they would never meet again as he never returned to England and Constance died in 1941.

When George arrived in Hong Kong, he found reasonably-priced accommodation at the YMCA and, like many other young men at that time, he joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC). He served in the ANZAC Coy which was made up principally from Australians and New Zealanders based in Hong Kong. Although British, George joined the ANZAC Coy to be with friends and colleagues, many of whom were Australian. The Editor of SCMP, Henry Ching was an Australian Chinese. George's best man at the wedding, Lionel Le Gay Brereton, was Australian, as were several other colleagues from SCMP and HKT, including Norman Stockton, Richard Cloake, Stewart Gray and Arthur Scholes. The photographs below show George training with the Vickers Medium Machine Gun and wearing an Australian style slouch hat that would have been worn by members of the ANZAC Coy.

George in the foreground acting as No. 2 on the Vickers Gun (Courtesy: Giffen family)

After the ANZAC Coy was disbanded in 1935, George transferred to a Machine Gun Coy, most likely No. 1 Coy.

George Giffen at work (Courtesy:  Giffen family)
George and Erma married at St Andrew's Church in Kowloon. The reception was held at the Kingsville Hotel in Carnarvon Road. They initially lived in an apartment near the Lower Terminus of the Peak Tram. George continued his military training in the HKVDC. However he was transferred from the 'combatant group' to the 'key post group'  late in 1941. He was an editor  on the Hong Kong Telegraph and replaced Stewart Gray as the Editor when Gray departed on leave for Australia on one of the last ships to leave Hong Kong on 7th December 1941. As a member of the 'key-post' group, George was required to stay at his civil post as such roles were considered essential for the functioning of the commercial life of the Colony.

The Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8th December 1941. After a week of fighting on the Mainland, the British withdrew to the Island fortress and by Saturday 13th December the last British troops had been evacuated from the Mainland in an operation that was tantamount to a mini-Dunkirk. Thereafter, the Island was heavily bombed and shelled as a prelude to the Japanese landings on the north shore of the Island between North Point and Shau Kei Wan on the night of 18th/19th December. During the period of hostilities, one bomb struck the Wyndham Street offices of the SCMP/HK Telegraph and another landed in On Lan Street almost opposite. The editorial staff and management continued to produce a daily newspaper throughout the fighting up until the Christmas Day surrender of British forces. The battle for Hong Kong had been short, bloody and brutal.

George and other members of the editorial staff of the SCMP and HK Telegraph had been 'camping out' at the Wyndham Street office for much of the period of fighting. After the British surrender, the Japanese took over the Wyndham Street offices and printed the Japanese-owned Hong Kong News. A few days, later British, American and Dutch civilians were rounded up for internment. George Baxter from United Press recalls in his memoirs that on 4th January they were notified to report to Murray Parade Ground for internment.
"The Editor of the Hong Kong Telegraph George Giffen had been at my apartment (in Duddell Street) most of the afternoon, and had been gone only a few minutes when he returned with a proof copy of an order which was to appear in the next morning's Hong Kong News, the Japanese sheet which supplanted all the English language newspapers I returned to the office with him and secured some snatch copies as well as verified the fact with the Japanese Editor."  
George and the other editorial staff turned up at Murray Parade Ground and were marched to the western area of town where they were locked up in cheap boarding houses, many of which had been brothels or short-time hotels. George was incarcerated with his colleagues in the Tong Fong Boarding House. On George's floor they had 142 people including men, women and children with only two squat-type toilets. The cubicles were crowded with four or five internees in a cubicle suited at best for two. The cubicles were dirty and vermin-infested. The internees were given very little food. After a few weeks, they were moved by ferry to Stanley Internment Camp where George remained until liberation.

In August 1945, George Giffen and Ben Wylie were among the first to leave Stanley Camp to try and take the newspaper back from the Japanese and re-start production of their newspaper. This was an uncertain and dangerous period between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of British forces. They proceeded to their old offices in Wyndham Street where they were joined by Henry Ching, physically weakened from the hardship he had endured. As a Eurasian with a Chinese father and Australian mother, he had not been interned but had struggled to survive in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong by selling personal items and household items to buy food. The three of them set about relaunching their newspaper. The first edition on 30th August 1945 was a one-page news-sheet with the headline "Fleet Entering."

In Stanley Camp, George was billeted in Block 8 which was the main building of St Stephen's College.    He became good friends with Louise Mary Gill, known as 'Billie,' whom he had met before the war through the writer Emily Hahn.

Billie, born in 1916, was ethnically Chinese and had been raised in Shanghai in a Eurasian family with an English father, a Postal Commissioner, and a Chinese mother. After being educated in English schools in Shanghai, Billie worked for Reuters and a literary magazine called T'ien Hsia and was seconded to the Mayor  of Shanghai after the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937. When Shanghai fell, Billie fled to Hong Kong with her colleagues and they worked for the Chinese Government Information Office in Hong Kong.

Billie Gill (Courtesy: Ian Gill)
In January 1940, she married Arthur Robert Hurst Gill (known as 'Paddy'), an Irish Warrant Officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corp and they had a son, Brian, born later that year. In early March/April  1940,  Paddy Gill was posted to Britain while Billie remained with her son in Hong Kong.

In Stanley Internment Camp, Billie and Brian, now eighteen-months-old, were billeted in Bungalow B, a former teacher's bungalow close to the main school building. In May 1944, friends of Billie took Brian to Tweed Bay, where, in a tragic mishap, he drowned in a fresh water pool behind the beach. He was just short of his fourth birthday.

During the grief-stricken months that followed for Billie, George proved a stalwart friend, supporting her when she fainted and writing a poem in memory of Brian.

George's poem offered solace to Billie. (Courtesy: Ian Gill)

Their relationship deepened and, when Billie found out in mid-1945 that she was pregnant, it was a happy event. George wrote a poem to the "unborn baby of my unwed wife" for Billie's 29th birthday on June 14th. He also scrounged around for wood to make a cradle.

The war's end in August 1945, however, saw George moving to town while Billie waited in Camp. He wrote to say he was sorry he couldn't get away. On September 17th, Billie boarded the SS Empress of Australia for UK. However, the doctor told her she would need a Caesarian and, in Manila harbour, she was transferred by a small craft to the SS Mount Maunganui, a converted New Zealand hospital ship. Her son Ian was born in Lower Hutt hospital, near Wellington, New Zealand, on 25th October, 1945. George sent a telegram of congratulations.

After six months helping to get the newspaper up and running, George returned to Canada in 1946. He met his daughter Dianne, now nearly six-years-old, for the first time. In December 1947, Erma gave birth to their second daughter, Linda.

The Bride  -  Erma Evelyn Hadley (11/9/1909 - 15/4/1998)

Erma was born in Alert Bay, British Columbia on 11th September 1909. She lived with her family at Lasqueti Island on the east coast of Vancouver Island until she was eleven-years-old when she and her mother Emma moved to Victoria. Erma took a course to acquire secretarial skills and continued to live and work in Victoria. She and her friend Betty Elder saved money to buy a passage to Hong Kong. They sailed from Vancouver to San Francisco and then across the Pacific  to Hong Kong via Shanghai. The two adventurous young Canadian women arrived in Hong Kong in 1934, one year after George.

Erma was initially employed as a stenographer/secretary by Mr Henry Buxton, a merchant. Henry Buxton served in the HKVDC and was killed when Japanese troops over-ran his battery. In a double tragedy, his wife Alberta was raped and killed by Japanese soldiers when they broke into the hospital at St Stephen's College, Stanley where she worked as a nurse. After Henry Buxton's business experienced a slowdown, Erma left and was employed by the Hong Kong Government, working for Commander G.F. Hole, RN (Rtd) who at the time was Harbour Master. He was also a Member of LEGCO. Erma's friend Betty was employed as a secretary by Thorneycroft Co. Ltd.

After the War

George, Erma and their two daughters settled down in Vancouver where George worked as a journalist on various newspapers. In 1958, George and Erma moved to the Canadian capital, Ottawa in Ontario, for George to take up a job with the Department of Agriculture in the Information division (what would today be called Public Relations). He retired in 1971 at the age of sixty and they moved back to British Columbia. George built a house on Denman Island where, in unspoiled countryside, he and Erma lived during their retirement.

Billie Gill joined the United Nations in Shanghai, starting a long career that ended with her being Assistant to the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General at the long-running disarmament conference in Geneva, Switzerland. After her retirement in 1976, Billie was awarded the M.B.E. for services to the United Nations.

In 1985, Ian, who was working in Singapore as a journalist, took his first trip to Canada and made friends with a man in Montreal who helped him find his father on Denman Island.

After a warm phone call to his father, Ian returned to Canada soon afterwards to meet George and Erma on Denman and Dianne and Linda at Victoria. Ian describes how he felt on finding the other side of his family.
"I discovered the missing pieces of my genetic puzzle and acquired another family, including two sisters. Dianne told me I was the son George had always wanted while she and Linda gained a brother." 
Remarkably, it was found that George and Ian had not only pursued the same career path but had worked in newspapers close to each other in England and had both wound up on newspapers in Hong Kong.

George Giffen & Erma with their daughters,  Dianne and Linda and Ian on Denman Island in 1997
 (Source: Giffen family)
George and Erma continued their long marriage until Erma died aged eighty-eight in 1998. George passed away aged ninety-five on 23rd December, 2006. Ian helped produce the obituary that appeared in the South China Morning Post following George's  death.
"I attended the memorial service for George in Vancouver on 6th January, 2007, where I had been invited to give a eulogy. I handed out copies of the SCMP obituary and  George’s family, who knew little of his pre-Canadian life, was amazed and proud to learn of his exciting life on the other side of the world over 60 years earlier."

The Wedding Group

The Best Man  -  Lionel Schnachner Le Gay Brereton (9/9/1914 - 25/4/1979)
He was best man at the wedding. In the photographs, he looks slim, earnest and even a little glum.  He was the son of John Le Gay Brereton (1871-1933) a well-known and distinguished Australian professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney as well as being a writer and poet of some acclaim. Lionel became a well known reporter in later life and I imagine he was on the staff of SCMP or one of the other newspapers in Hong Kong when he attended George's wedding. As an Australian, he might also have served with George in the ANZAC Coy, HKVDC.  He was married at the time of the wedding to Elaine Moffitt and they had a son, Christopher, born in November 1938. He appears to have left Hong Kong before war broke out. He and Elaine had two more children Diane and Jeremy.

The Bridesmaid  -  Winifred ('Winnie') Lawson
She was a close friend of Erma in Hong Kong but other than that we know little about her. Her family were long term residents of Hong Kong. Her father William Lawson was a Master Mariner. The family appears to have left Hong Kong before war started. There is a record of her sailing from London to Shanghai in January 1940. She gives her address as 14, Clarence Road, Dundee and her occupation as stenographer. She was born in 1909 and was twenty-nine-years old at the time of the wedding. George's daughter Dianne recalls visiting Winnie with her mother during a trip to Scotland in the 1960s. Apparently, she had been jilted at the altar and never recovered. She never married and when Erma and Dianne visited her in Dundee, she was living alone in an old stone cottage.

The Flower Girl  -  Anne Wilson
She was the flower girl. Nothing else is known about her. She does not appear to have been in Hong Kong at the outbreak of war in December 1941. She might have been evacuated in July 1940.

Giving away the Bride  -  Mr Tom Parkinson 
The bride was given away by Mr Tom M. Parkinson. There was a Thomas Parkinson born in 1889 who was interned in Stanley Camp 1942-1945 and this could well be the same person. He would have been aged around fifty at the time of the wedding. The person depicted in the wedding photo looks to be in the fifty-years-old range. The Thomas Parkinson in Stanley Camp was a retired Accountant. George recalls that Tom Parkinson was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the HKVDC.

Tom Parkinson (centre) with Erma Hadley (Courtesy: Giffen family)
Matron of Honour  -  Miss M Clark
The wedding report describes her as 'Miss'. I note there was a Margaret Clark in Stanley Camp though    she was denoted as 'Mrs' on the Stanley Camp Log. This could be an error and since the age fits, it could be the same person. 

The Organist  -  Rupert Baldwin
In 1927, he is described as the  Organist and Choir Master for St Andrew's Church.  The choir achieved a good reputation under his guidance. He wrote the school song in 1938 for the London Missionary Society-founded Ying Wa School. I assume he might have been music teacher at the school. He does not appear to have been in Hong Kong in WW2 and his name does not appear on the Stanley Camp list.

The Soloist  -  Mr A. J. Gwyther
He was the soloist who sung The King of Heaven at the wedding. As far as I can tell, he was not in Hong Kong when war started in December 1941 and I have not been able to find any information about him.

The Officiating Priest  -  Rev. John Leonard Wilson
He was known by his middle name of Leonard. Leonard Wilson and his wife Mary and infant daughter Susan arrived in Hong Kong in late 1934. He became  Dean of St John's Cathedral. In 1940 he travelled with the evacuated women and children from Hong Kong via Manila to Australia. In 1941, he was appointed Bishop of Singapore and was there when the Japanese captured Malaya and the once-thought impregnable fortress of Singapore. His wife and three children managed to get away to Australia in an overcrowded ship.  Initially, he was allowed to continue his ministry but after a while was interned at Changi Camp. In 1943 he was arrested by the Kempei-tai. He was accused of being a spy, interrogated and tortured. After the war he became Dean of Manchester and later Bishop of Birmingham. He passed away aged seventy-two in August 1970.

Mr & Mrs MacKechnie
We know very little about about Mr and Mrs Mackechnie. Neither was wearing carnations, and so they were not officiating guests. Perhaps they had a role as witnesses. We don't know, but presumably they were important guests since they were included in the wedding group photograph. Dianne, George's eldest daughter says Erma met them on the ship to Hong Kong and they might have been American  as they boarded at San Francisco. They travelled on the  MV Jutlandia, a Danish vessel, built in 1912 for the East Asiatic Company, which sailed from San Francisco on 7th February 1934.

MV Jutlandia (Source:
Dianne also believes they may have been Erma's friends from church. Erma was a devout Christian Scientist.  Perhaps the Mackechnies were returning Hong Kong residents. There were a number of people with the Mackechnie name in pre-war Hong Kong. There was a John Campbell Mackechnie (1/8/1871 - 30/11/1940). He would have been sixty-seven at the time of the wedding - but there is nothing definite to link  him to the Mr and Mrs  Mackechnie in the wedding photograph.

The Gill and Giffen families today

George and Erma's daughters Dianne and Linda both became teachers and have several children and grandchildren. After some twenty years as a journalist, Ian had a twenty-year career with the Asian Development Bank in Manila. He and his wife Jean have two children, whose middle names include Giffen. Ian has visited his Canadian family several times, the latest occasion in April 2014.

Ian Gill's family with his younger sister Linda Sverdrup (centre)  - 17th April 2014

The families of Ian Gill and his sister Dianne Fowler in Vancouver - 10th April 2014


My thanks to George's children Ian Gill, Dianne Fowler and Linda Sverdrup for the photographs and family information and to Ian for helping me put this story together. Thanks are also due to Brian Edgar for locating the press article describing the wedding and for helping me with information and queries over the years. 

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