Friday 21 February 2020

Robert Grindley Southerton - Stanley Internment Camp

This is the poignant story of a family who lived in Shanghai before the war. A husband, wife, and two children who became separated from each other by the outbreak of war. The husband, Robert Grindley Southerton, was interned in Hong Kong, the wife and son were incarcerated in Manila, and the eldest daughter was alone at the family home in Shanghai. For several months none of them knew where the others were, or even whether they were still alive. Reading their private letters I can see that they were a very loving and close family. At the time Robert Southerton was fifty-years-old, he had been a teacher most of his adult life. After graduating from Chester College, he came out to Hong Kong in 1912 at the age of twenty-one. He taught at the Diocesan Boys School (DBS) in Kowloon. He married Edith Ethel (known as Edie) nee Witchell in 1917. In the wedding photo below, he is in uniform and so I assume during WW1 he joined the HKVDC (the Volunteers).

Robert Southerton (Sr) and Edie at their wedding in 1917  (Lorna Loveland)
The wedding took place on 6 November at St John's Cathedral in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Telegraph for 6 November reports on the well-attended wedding. The bride's father, Samuel Job Witchell, (known as Job), was the Manager of the well-known King Edward Hotel. Job Witchell had first come to Hong Kong in 1882 and had served with the Hong Kong Police Force. In 1897 he was an Inspector and at that time institutional corruption was widespread in the police force. An investigation was carried out and Job Witchell was sentenced to 6-month's imprisonment. I suspect he may have been something of a 'fall guy' as there were many others who got away lightly, or entirely, because of insufficient evidence. After release, Job became Manager of the brick and tile works at Deep Water Bay  (Brick Hill). In 1915 he took up his role at the King Edward Hotel, considered to be one of the best hotels in Hong Kong. Job died in 1925, in Hong Kong, at the age of sixty-seven, after having suffered from cancer. Despite the earlier stain on his character, he was always well regarded and his funeral was very well-attended. In 1929, the King Edward Hotel was destroyed by a fire. Nine of the hotel guests lost their lives, two were killed by the fire and seven by jumping from the upper floors. Two of the hotel's employees were killed.

Job Witchell  (Source: Lorna Loveland)

Robert gave up teaching at DBS and briefly worked for British American Tobacco (BAT). The couple's first child, a daughter Muriel (known as Mully), was born in Hong Kong in 1919. In 1922, a second daughter Lilian May died in infancy aged three months. Robert went back to teaching, firstly in Tsingtao, and then in Shanghai. A son, also named Robert Grindley Southerton, was born in Shanghai in 1926. Robert Southerton (Snr) taught  English, Maths and Sports and co-authored a book on maths. By 1941 he was the headmaster of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) Polytechnic School (shown in the photograph below).

SMC Polytechnic Public School 
In July 1941, he and his his wife Edie, and their fifteen-year-old son Robert (known as Bob)  took a long vacation in Australia. They returned from Australia on the MV Neptuna which arrived at Hong Kong in November 1941. The family sailed from Hong Kong on the SS Yu Sang expecting to be back in Shanghai and to be reunited with their twenty-two-year-old daughter Muriel (Mully) by early December. Muriel worked as a stenographer for Confederation Life, a Canadian insurance company.

In a letter to his family written in August 1945, Southerton wrote that they arrived on the Yu Sang at Woosung, Shanghai and anchored offshore. It was December 1941, it was the eve of battle and tensions were running high. The next morning, before they could disembark, the ship was ordered to return to Hong Kong without docking in Shanghai. The ship anchored in Hong Kong harbour, but Edie and Bob, and another female passenger, Mrs McCready, were not allowed to leave the ship and go ashore. Armed police were put aboard to ensure they did not disembark. I can only assume that the reason for such harsh treatment was that Hong Kong had been subject to a compulsory evacuation order in July 1940. A large number of women and children had been allowed to stay because the women were in essential services, like nursing or working as stenographers for the government. However many had avoided the evacuation by being absent during registration, or simply failing to show up, and some had falsely claimed they were in roles for which there was an exemption, for example, being a business proprietor. Some had illegally returned after evacuation.   There was no restriction on men leaving the ship. Robert Southerton (Snr) went ashore and stayed with his wife's family members (the Witchell family) in Hong Kong. Robert planned to get ashore and then get help from the authorities for his wife and son to be allowed off the ship. Robert and his brother-in-law, George Witchell, sought help from Duncan Sloss, the Vice-Chancellor of HK University, he appealed to the Governor, Sir Mark Young on Southerton's behalf. George's niece, May Witchell, worked for Duncan Sloss at HKU. The intervention was successful, and it was arranged that the police would bring certain papers to the ship on Sunday 7 December. Once the papers were signed, Edie and Bob would be allowed to disembark. On that Saturday night (6 December) Robert came aboard with George Witchell, his wife, Dolly, and their daughter Norah. They had dinner with Edie and Bob and then left the ship at around 11:30 p.m. thinking everything would be sorted the next day.

At about midnight Edie heard a commotion in the saloon. It transpired that the ship had received emergency orders to sail to Singapore early the following morning. Edie was still not allowed off the ship to contact her husband. It was only when she threatened to jump off the ship that the police became a bit more accommodating. They allowed Bob, accompanied by a  policeman,  to go ashore and to inform his father who was staying at George Witchell's house. However, nothing could be done in time, and so it was decided that there was no point in Robert staying on the Yu Sang and going to Singapore. He, therefore, disembarked with the intention of getting a passage to Shanghai as soon as possible. That morning, Sunday 7 December, the day before the war began, the Yu Sang, along with many other ships that had been anchored in Hong Kong Harbour sailed under orders for Singapore. 

The Yu Sang stopped at Manila in the Philippines and anchored in Manila Bay on 9 December, the day after the war began. The Philippines, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong were all under attack. The Yu Sang was bombed by Japanese aircraft, and a ship anchored close-by was hit and set ablaze. After the air raid, the crew mutinied and insisted that the Captain take the ship to a safer location.  The ship moved away from Manila and anchored off Mariveles. She remained there for eleven days before returning to Manila to replenish food supplies. The passengers were taken off and moved by the Red Cross to Caloocan Golf Club in Manila. Edie and Bob were subsequently interned at Santo Tomas University. The campus became the largest civilian Internment Camp in Manila. The internees were mostly American (3,200) but there were a large number (900) of British and Commonwealth (mainly Canadian and Australian) internees. 

Santo Tomas University Internment Camp. (Source: Wikipedia)
Back in Hong Kong, after the Japanese captured Kowloon, Robert Southerton (Snr) was initially held at the Kowloon YMCA together other European civilians and the staff from the Kowloon Hospital.   He was later moved to the Kowloon Hotel Temporary Internment Centre. In late January, he was moved to Stanley Internment Camp. Those, like Robert, who lived in Shanghai were later repatriated back to Japanese controlled Shanghai. There were two repatriations, one in July and one in  December 1942. Robert returned to Shanghai in July 1942. On his ship, there were around twenty other internees. However, they were accommodated in cabins albeit sharing with five others. Robert Southerton (Snr) was reunited with his daughter Muriel in late September.

It was at about that time that he discovered his wife and son had not reached Singapore and instead had been interned in the Philippines. Edie and Bob were repatriated from Manila to Shanghai in September 1942. They were put aboard the Maya Maru, a former cargo ship which had been put to use as a trooper. Edie and Bob, together with about thirty other internees, were accommodated on platforms in the hold. The hold was also carrying army horses. The internees were allowed out on the deck during the day but at night they were confined to the hold which was infested with rats, cockroaches and other vermin. Edie had the unpleasant experience of being bitten by a rat. The ship took ten days to reach Shanghai and during that time some of the horses died from the heat and were left to rot in the hold.

The family were at last reunited. At first, British, American and Dutch civilians living in Shanghai were not interned. However, in February 1943, the Japanese decided to intern civilians from these countries. There were several different internment camps in and around Shanghai. The family were interned at Yu Yuen Road Camp from February 1943 until April 1945. In April 1945 they were moved to Yangtzepoo Camp until liberation in August/September 1945. Yu Yuen Road Camp held a large number of Shanghai Municipal Council employees. At Yangtzepoo Camp, Robert Southerton (Snr) was elected as Deputy Head of the internment camp. The family were repatriated to the UK after the war. Robert (Snr) weighed 190 pounds when he left Australia on the Neptuna in 1941, but by release in August 1945, he weighed only 138 pounds. The privations of life in Japanese internment camps, the diseases, the shortage of medicines and the lack of adequate food took its toll on their health. Robert Southerton died in February 1948 aged only fifty-six after suffering a heart attack. Edith died the following year in November 1949, having suffered a stroke,  she was only fifty-three.

The MV Neptuna on which the Robert, Edie and Bob took passage from Australia to Hong Kong was sunk during the Japanese air raid on Darwin in February 1942. She was unloading armaments when she was hit by bombs in the engine room and in the main saloon. Some of the ordnance ignited causing a massive explosion. Forty-five men were killed. The Maya Maru was sunk by an American submarine in July 1944. The Yu Sang was requisitioned by the US Navy, but was bombed and exploded in Manila Bay. Shanghai, once known as 'the Paris of the East', did not regain its former opulence in the immediate post-war period. After the Japanese capitulation, civil war returned to  China eventually leading to the defeat of the KMT by the communist forces.

After first writing this blog, with very little information other than a letter written by RGS (Snr) held at the Imperial War Museum, I was contacted by Lorna Loveland, the daughter of Robert (Bob) Grindley Southerton (Jnr). She had come across my blog whilst researching on the internet and I am indebted to her for the photographs and updated information on the family. Edie's niece, May Witchell, was in Stanley Camp with her married sister Maude and her Aunt (Dolly), her Uncle (George) and her cousin (Norah). May Witchell later married Colonel Lindsay Ride who set up the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) in Free China after having escaped from Sham Shui Po prisoner of war camp.

Photo Gallery:

RGS (Snr) (Source Lorna Loveland)

Edie (Source: Lorna)

Robert Grindley Southerton (Jnr) (Source: Lorna)

Muriel (Mully) Southerton (Source: Lorna)
The sinking of the MV Neptuna (Source: Wikipedia)

King Edward Hotel (1904-1929) (Source: Wikipedia) 

Lorna Loveland for photographs and private letters
Log Book of Internees Stanley Camp (Imperial War Museum)
Frank Fisher's diary (Imperial War Museum)
Captives of Empire by Greg Leck
Letter from R. G. Southerton (Snr) dated 26 Aug 1945 (IWM Docs. 13452) (for information about Job Mitchell's trial and the hotel fire)




  1. An excellent micro history that adds colour and humanity to the bigger picture.

  2. An excellent article, Phil. Very moving. It reminds me of a chap I met many years ago, who was serving (is that the correct term?) with the Salvation Army in Shanghai just before the outbreak of the Pacific war.
    He was sent to Hong Kong (with his wife) to run the rice kitchens here, leaving their children in Shanghai.

    The parents were interned in Stanley whilst their children were put in a camp in Shanghai. Eventually the family was reunited.

  3. And people think we are facing difficult times right now ...

  4. A worthwhile article with an interesting post script. These histories need to be researched and saved.