In Captain Belton's hand written war diary for Sunday 7th December, he writes:
The brigade staff moved to Temporary Battle HQ at Jubilee Buildings, Sham Shui Po Barracks.
"Major E J Curran and two Staff Sgts of RAMC together with 14 Chinese ORs of the Hong Kong Field Hygiene Section reported at the hospital and were accommodated. The Chinese personnel were more of an encumbrance than anything else, spending most of their time in the air raid shelters, until their final desertion on 24th December." (3)
Who I wondered was Vera. A search of the list of internees of Stanley Internment Camp, held at the Imperial War Museum in London, revealed that she was Mrs Vera Murrell. She had been allocated Camp No. 2223. She was born 20th November 1906 making her 35 years-old at the time she was incacerated in a Japanese concentration camp. Her occupation was described as a Teacher and her billet was Block 10 room T5. This block was situated near St Stephens College and away from the Prison Wardens Quarters where many of the other internees were billeted. She shared a room with Miss Elma Kelly an Australian journalist and Mrs Maud Minhinnick the wife of a Naval Officer.
I had seen a reference to Vera in Barbara Anslow's (nee Redwood's) diary of her experiences in Stanley Camp for 24th Dec 1943.
"Draw for two 10 lb iced cakes made by Father B. Meyer. Won by Mrs. V. Murrell and Mrs. B. Doering. Air raid during proceedings" (6)
A further reference to Vera was found in the Colonial Secretary's (Franklin Gimson's) diary.
"I saw Mrs Murrell and asked her to take responsibility for life saving on Tweed Bay Beach" (7)
Another reference was to the effect that she had signed off on a Life Saving Certificate issued to Herbert William Johnston in July 1943 at Tweed Bay Beach. Tweed Bay Beach was once a popular swimming beach, now deserted and difficult to access, but during internment the Japanese allowed internees to swim there during the summer months.
|Tweed Bay Beach used by the internees|
|The Prison walls behind the beach|
In the photograph below Vera is third from the left in the front row.
|Vera Olympic Games Swimmer (Courtesy Marianne Sanderson)|
Vera lived in South Africa from 1929 until 1939. Kobus Scheepers who is researching swimming history in South Africa informed me that she was employed as the swimming teacher at St Andrew's Prep School in Grahamstown during this period (1929-1939) and was remembered as such in the school newsletter ("Old Preppies") in April 2013. George Dupre Murrell was a master at St Andrews School. He had been a competitive swimmer before WW1 and had taught at St Andrews since the end of WW1. The marriage was not to last, they separated and later divorced. Vera travelled out alone to Hong Kong where she was employed as a teacher with the Hong Kong Government Education Dept. (8) I subsequently learnt from Tony Banham (Author and Military Historian) that she had been a Mistress at King's College, established in 1926, teaching English. She was appointed to this role in 1939.
|Kings College (Source: Wikipedia)|
Emaciated internees at Tweed Bay Hospital Stanley Camp
|Dundee Evening Post courtesy William Long|
|Liberation - hoisting the flag|
|Brigadier Ned Curran presenting his son Bruce to Montgomery of Alamein in 1959 (Source: Bruce Curran)|
|Vera's swimming medals lost to the Japanese or other looters during WW2 in Hong Kong (Bruce Curran)|
11. Courtesy Bruce Curran
Message from Historian & Author Geoff Emerson to Marianne Sanderson:
'"Philip mentioned that Vera was in the same room as Elma Kelly. That rang a bell with me. I interviewed Elma twice way back in 1970 ! I searched my files and found the transcripts, and I think you'll enjoy reading what Elma said about Vera. Sadly, way back then I didn't take photos of the people I interviewed, but I recall that Elma was a very outspoken, opinionated business-woman, great fun to talk with.
Interview 26 June 1970 - Elma said that Vera was an Englishwoman married to a man in South Africa. She'd fallen out of love with him and came here (HK) for a holiday. One man said she came looking for romance. She got it, with a medical officer in the army, medical corps, who fell for her. They married after the war.
There was insufficent water to run lavatories in St Stephen's Block 10, so a trench was dug outside...bad because everyone could see. Vera and Elma got up at 5 a.m. to "spend a large penny in this trench".
Vera was friendly with Gimson (Colonial Secretary) and played bridge with Elma and Gimson.
Interview 28 May 1970 - According to Elma, Vera Murrell used to sit on a little camp wood box, very uncomfortable without a cushion, so she put Elma's cushion on it. Vera felt lumps and put her hand in the cushion and discovered money. Elma said "shhhh" and told her how she'd got this money from selling jewellery. They used the money (Japanese yen) for buying food."
Message from Marianne Sanderson to Geoff Emerson & Philip Cracknell
Hi Geoff and Philip,
Again, you have both added so much to the story of Vera - it really is coming together slowly but surely. Thank you both very, very much!
To add more information - Vera was employed as a teacher at Farnborough Convent (now called Farnborough Hill - address: Farnborough Hill, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 8AT) until 1969 (I am unsure when she started there as a teacher). She lived at Fairway Cottage, Blighton Lane, Seale, Surrey GU101PT which is 13 miles away. So these facts correspond with what Elma told you way back in 1970. It sounds as if Vera and Elma may have kept in touch well after the war ended or heard about each other through the grapevine. In 1951 Vera and Ned Curran moved to Singapore from Scotland with their 2 young children. I only found this information yesterday on a ship's passenger list.
Vera's daughter, Julia, has told me the story of Vera selling her own jewelry for peanuts which Vera told her kept her alive. This may have been related to the jewelry that Elma sold.
The following information came from Vera's son, Bruce:
Vera apparently had a date with with Johnny Wiessmuller (Tarzan) during the 1924 Olympics, who himself got one world record there in Paris and two Olympic records also in swimming. Vera may have also gotten a Bronze medal in the freestyle individual event in 1924. Vera may have been 1 of 3 pacers in the first swim across the English Channel in 1926 by an American swimmer (referring to Gertrude Ederle who just two years later, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay and a bronze in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle races so she likely knew of Vera). I believe she had a world record for a woman swimming 1 kilometre and 1 mile but have never been able to authenticate these. At aged 3 she swam a quarter of a mile in the sea in Eastbourne and won a big box of chocolates - while running home she ran round a corner into a fat man and the chocolates were scattered all over the road.
While in Stanley Camp the Americans bombed the camp unwittingly and 3 of her friends were killed by an American bomb. She is also in the HK history books, as you probably know, as she and a Police Sergeant swam out to meet the first warship that entered HK after the 2nd WW to relieve it from the Japanese occupation. The warship stopped and picked them up out of the shark infested waters.
My husband remembers that Vera came to South Africa (once alone and then again with Ned) around 1967 and then 1970".