Before, During and after

In the Museum at Freemasons’ Hall, Edinburgh. there is a remarkable document, being a Roll of Founder Members of the River Valley P.O.W. Masonic Club [I]. The Roll is remarkable for several reasons but in order to set it in context some brief historical notes are perhaps appropriate.

War in Europe was declared on 3rd September 1939. British military activity initially therefore was concentrated there, in the Middle East and North Africa. When the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands on 8th December 1941, the Second World War had been underway for over two years. This attack on Pearl Harbour is often thought to be the first aggressive act by the Japanese armed forces but in fact one hour before [2], a force of 5,500 Japanese soldiers had landed at Kota Bharu, Malaya [3].

Their intention was to capture Malay in 100 days. This aim was achieved in 70 days. On 10th December 1941, the British Battleships `Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’, flying the flag of Admiral Phillips, were sunk attempting to stem the Japanese landings. With little air support and no tanks the Empire forces were pushed south by elite Japanese troops who had been specially trained for jungle warfare [4]. The Empire troops fell back to Singapore Island and on 8th February 1942 the Japanese invaded the island. General Percival commanding the Empire forces surrendered on 15th February 1942. That surrender was, in part, forced on him because water supplies had been cut. More than 95,000 military personnel became Prisoners of War [5].

Civilians were incarcerated in the infamous Changi Gaol and military personnel in the sprawling prison camp which surrounded it. Much has been written regarding the experiences of Freemasons in this camp [6] details of which I need not here repeat.

As Brother Hewitt stated in 1967. “River Valley Road P.O.W. Masonic Club [7] is another small body about which little is known” [8].

In time the Japanese military forces began to organise P.O.W.’s into camps outside Changi Gaol and Camp. Most were loosely selected on the basis of their local knowledge, occupation or fitness [9]. River Valley Road P.O.W. Camp was to the west of Singapore City. Generally small groups of prisoners [50-75] were initially selected to work from such camps [10]. Most were put to work repairing bomb damage etc. in the docks area. After several weeks some prisoners were diverted to tasks more suited to their occupations such as making louvre windows for P.O.W. camp huts etc. [11].

The Roll of Founder Members of the River Valley Road P.O.W. Masonic Club is dated 10th July 1942. It lists 25 Brethren. Six of the Scottish Constitution, five Australian, one Irish and Thirteen English. Each of the Brethren was given his own personal copy of the Roll [12], all twenty five of which had been prepared by Brother C. D. Pickersgill [13].

The decision to prepare such a Roll [let alone twenty five copies] is remarkable because the Japanese had accepted, totally, Nazi propaganda against Freemasonry. The Brethren’s names, Mother Lodge, Masonic Rank and even signatures are recorded. Had any of the twenty five copies been discovered by the Japanese all twenty five almost certainly would have been executed [14].

Of the original twenty five copies of the Roll, two are known to still exist. One is in the Museum of Freemasons’ Hall, Edinburgh, and the other is in the possession of a surviving Brother. A third copy is thought to possibly be in the Singapore Masonic Museum. The fact that any have survived is all the more remarkable as each were hand drawn [and coloured] on delicate rice paper.

The activities of the Brethren in the camp were limited. The only time that they were allowed to themselves was on Thursday afternoons when all prisoners were allowed to ‘debug’ their clothing and bedding by putting it into an oven. The clothing etc., was put in an oven and the heat turned up sufficiently to kill the bugs without burning the clothing. As the Brethren slowly made themselves known to each other [15] they arranged to meet together each Thursday afternoon. Once sufficient numbers attended on a regular basis they were able to convince their Japanese guards (and other non-Masons] that they were holding a religious service. The only item used was the Volume of the Sacred Law. All the Degrees were worked [16] and with the diversity of Constitutions present the Brethren were also treated to lectures by Past Masters [17] on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, the different workings in each Constitution and in-depth discussions as to the different rituals etc.

The Japanese Guards were ever present, especially when ‘large’ groups of prisoners moved around. How then were the Brethren able to meet every Thursday afternoon and hold Masonic discussions for an hour or two? Who was the Tyler? The fact that these ‘gatherings’ (whilst doing the necessary ‘debugging’) were thought to be religious in nature means that the Japanese guards unwittingly ‘volunteered’ to keep off all `Cowans and Evesdroppers’. One stood outside the door and the other stood inside. Both had a rifle with fixed bayonet. Needless to say neither could speak nor understand English!

The Japanese forces were anxious to consolidate their position and planned also to invade India through Burma. Once the work in Singapore was completed therefore, most of the P.O.W.’s were transferred to the infamous Burma/Siam Railway. I have been unable to trace any organised Masonic activity in the various camps there which hardly surprising given the conditions and the constant movement of P.O.W.’s. Even in these circumstances individuals remembered the Masonic precepts of Faith, Hope and Charity, assisting each other where possible, even if only to hold hands whilst a Brother passed to the Grand Lodge above [18]. On one occasion a Brother [19] was asked to stay in a camp to look after six P.O.W.’s who were near death [20]. He recalls rolling hand-made cigarettes [21] when an Australian Padre [22] arrived and seeing that he was using pages from the V.S.L. to make the cigarettes he told him that this was alright as long as the pages were not used for ‘anything else’ [23].

During the frequent forced marches of one group of P.O.W.’s ‘leap-frogging’ each other, many P.O.W.’s recall that even in these dire circumstances a Scot had managed to keep his bagpipes and played them continuously during several of the forced marches from one camp to another [24].

Most of the Brethren named on the Roll apparently perished whilst working on the railway. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to confirm all the details of the Brethren named on the Roll [25].

The ‘Unconditional Surrender’ of the Axis forces in Europe on 7th May 1943 and many regard this as the end of the War. It was not until 14th August 1945 that the Emperor of Japan ordered his forces to lay down their arms.

Even after the cessation of hostilities the tribulations of the P.O.W.’s were not over. Many were left in camps all over Malaya waiting for to be released. Some very small scale Masonic activity took place, even if only on a one to one basis. It was important at this very last moment to maintain spirits. It is worthy of note that the last St Andrew’s day service held before relief by Empire Forces was held in a small native hut. It is specifically remembered that towards the end of this service [26] two Brethren who were not of the Scottish Constitution [27] knowing what the occasion was, approached from a distance, singing; “there is a voice calling, calling” As they approached the ‘kirk’ their voices grew more powerful. The men present wept.

The veterans of the Far East War often consider themselves to have been part of the ‘Forgotten Army’. Let us never forget these Brethren who kept the Light of Freemasonry alive in the most unimaginable of circumstances.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The Roll was presented to the Grand lodge of Scotland in 1985 by Mrs Banner. Brother Banner who is second on the Roll, died on the infamous Burma/Siam railway in 1943. How the Roll came into the possession of his widow is a mystery.
  2. Times adjusted to GMT.
  3. At the extreme North East of Malaya.
  4. Including the Imperial Guards (5th and 18th), some of the best trained in the Japanese Army.
  5. Including the 2nd Battalions of the Gordon Highlanders and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
  6. Craftsmen in Captivity Part III`, by Brother A. Hewitt. The Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book 1967.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The conditions were bad, “As for the British and Australian P.O.W.’s. they were marched off to Changi Barracks where they were herded into overcrowded prison pens. They were even worse accommodated at the River Valley Camp, to which working parties were sent” The Hill of Singapore, by Frank Owen.
  9. Many of the Brethren recorded on the Roll were resident in Singapore.
  10. Other similar camps were located at: Sime Road, Outram Road and Havelock Road, details of which are also slight.
  11. Brother Ovens was a Cabinetmaker in civilian life.
  12. The only possessions allowed were: wooden sandals, a ‘G’ string and a cotton bag to hold the rice ration. One member of the Masonic Club [Brother Hugh Ovens] kept his copy or the Roll in a length of bamboo with a piece of string tied through it. Apparently this convinced the guards that there was hollow am it as the bamboo ‘lithe’ was never searched. To quote: “I kept this certificate inside my hollow bamboo pole on which I hung my rice bag and I put a rope through it, so that when the guards searched us, they never thought to look inside the bamboo pole. I have the certificate to this day and it is something that is very special to me and brings back memories of one or the few good experiences of my time in the Far East.”
  13. Brother Pickersgill was an architect in Singapore. An eyewitness has confirmed that he died on working on the Burma/Siam Railway. There is another reference to Brother Pickersgill in the article referred to at [6] opposite. ‘The death of Brother Pickersgill is not recorded by the War Graves Commission.
  14. Searches were frequent. The guards were particularly looking for razor blades, mirrors and wireless sets.
  15. Brother C.S.M. George Barbour carefully sought out members of the Craft using signs, tokens and words in that camp, particularly among the Scots.
  16. Demonstrations only.
  17. Although Brother Leonard Banner is described on the Roll as a P.M. he was actually a Right Worshipful Master at this time having been Installed in June 1941. No other Master was Installed until after the war and therefore Brother Banner died as the Master. of Lodge Tullibardine- in-the-East. No.1118.
  18. Brother Ovens recalled several such instances of Masonic kindness but with the passage of time cannot recall the names of the Brethren concerned.
  19. Brother Hugh Ovens.
  20. Including one Mason.
  21. Made from Thai grass which was washed and dried in the sun and “blew your head off”.
  22. Padre Harry Thorpe, Brother Ovens explained to him, what he was doing -“making Holy Smoke!”
    Padre Thorpe survived the war and visited Brother Ovens in Glasgow in 1946.
  23. All along the railway the trees had been stripped bare from ground to just above head height.
  24. I have not as yet been able to confirm who this P.O.W. was, but I take the opportunity to quote another P.O.W.’s recollection; (26th May 1943), “That night after night, hour after hour, heading the column, a piper from Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders played a dirge, inexplicably tender, infinitely sad. The thin, slow sound often waned, drowned out by the beat of the downpour, but always came back like a distant beacon in a storm.” From; To the River Kwai, by John Stewart.
  25. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission attempted to record all those servicemen who died during the war. The difficulty in tracing those on the Roll is due to the fact that no regiments/units are recorded. There is therefore, no Regimental records that can be accessed. This problem is further compounded by the fact that many of the Brethren recorded on the Roll were members of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force which were recruited locally and the records held in Singapore. Such records were destroyed as the Japanese advanced.
  26. The Australian Padre. Harry Thorpe, was very active and never forgot St Andrew’s, St Patrick’s or St George’s Days, holding a service every year on each of the patron Saints’ days.
  27. Two Australians with Welsh names. Ivor Jones and Jack Rourke. I have been unable to confirm if they were Masons.

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