In November 2020, children from Blackburn Children’s University took part in a Sharing Stories Remembrance Event with students and staff from Blackburn University Centre.
During the event, the children learned about the gas masks worn during WWII and then designed their own face masks with a WWII theme using a mask template designed by undergraduates on the Fashion and Textiles programme at Blackburn University Centre.
The mask designs were collected from the children’s schools by Sara Burton, Blackburn Children’s University Manager, and delivered to the University Centre.
This is where they were made into face masks by the undergraduates as part of their work-based learning module. Sara then recollected the masks and distributed them to the children who were delighted to see their designs made into a real face mask.
Val Jessop and Sandra Nichol, Joint Project Leads on the WWII project East Lancashire Childhoods: Sharing Stories, Making Memories, said: “We are always amazed by the creativity of the children who attend our events and the face mask designs were imaginative and colourful.
“It was fantastic to see photos of the children wearing them! We’d like to thank the staff and students for all their work in making the children’s designs a reality.”
Sara Burton, Blackburn Children’s University Manager, said: “During the Sharing Stories, Making Memories activity, the children were given the challenge of designing their very own face mask. They were told that this would be made into an actual face mask for them to wear.
“I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but when I received the finished masks I was amazed, they were fantastic. I have received so many positive comments from parents and carers, as well as from the class teachers who handed them out.
“They were just perfect and what a lovely item for the children to keep. I cannot thank the staff and students enough from Blackburn University Centre.”
On Saturday 8th December 2020, children took part in festive craft activities with residents of Eachstep Care Home.
Both sets of participants made Christmas cards for each other which were exchanged with the help of Sara Burton, Blackburn Children’s University Manager, and Joanie Gleeson, Activities Co-Ordinator at Eachstep.
Sara also ran several additional sessions for the children during the day. This is Sara’s evaluation of the sessions, including those with the care home residents and the children’s feedback.
Project Leads Sandra Nichol and Val Jessop said: “It was lovely to hear the children and residents chatting as they took part in the activities and asked each other questions about their plans for Christmas.
“The children designed their own cards and wrote messages for the residents. The residents coloured in their own holiday cards which were then passed on to the children. It definitely cheered us all up and made everyone feel very Christmassy!”
Joanie said: “It was an amazing event and the residents loved interacting with the children online and making Christmas cards. They can’t wait for the next event!”
On Saturday 12th November, children from Blackburn Children’s University took part in festive craft activities and recorded messages for the residents of EACHSTEP Care Home.
They also made Christmas cards for the residents and, in the afternoon, some of the children took part in a Zoom meeting where they ‘met’ five of the residents and asked and answered questions about Christmas, hobbies and experiences during the pandemic.
In what is the fifth and final blog in this series of posts I want to bring a sense of completion to my review of my late father, Arthur Tate’s ‘archive’ of material associated with his time as a prisoner of war in the Far East during World War Two.
Throughout these posts I have touched on a theme of missed opportunities on my part to fully engage with my father regarding the full meaning and context of the material he had saved for posterity – often against the odds and at great difficulty. There are gaps in my understanding that cannot now be filled, and I have consistently urged readers to take whatever opportunity presents itself to open a dialogue with older generations. They often have a wealth of knowledge and experience about the past which risks being lost to the record unless we go to the trouble of talking, listening and storing their reminiscences and insights.
Many have stories to tell of significant episodes in the history of this country that they experienced close up or from afar. But even the everyday and the apparently mundane aspects of daily life can illuminate the past in ways that ‘big history’, the narrative of conflict, of the movers and shakers of society, of institutions and organisations cannot.
With that in mind, I turn to one of the photographs at the end of this piece that features three items – two postcards and a greetings card. One of them is a postcard of the British aircraft carrier, HMS Implacable, which was refitted at the end of hostilities in World War II in order to play a part in the repatriation of British, Canadian and American prisoners of war. The ship’s hangars had been converted in Sydney in order to accommodate the extra passengers. My father and many hundreds of fellow camp survivors from across Asia were transported on Implacable across the Pacific, from Manila to Vancouver in late September, early October, 1945, with a stop off at Pearl Harbour, Honolulu, to allow the American servicemen to disembark before their final, separate, sea leg home. The photo-card bears a ‘Good Luck’ message and I presume copies were handed to the servicemen as they disembarked. The British survivors then journeyed across Canada by rail, with a variety of stop-offs en route. There is a picture postcard of the Red Cross Reception Centre in Calgary, Alberta, and a small printed card welcoming the ‘Gallant defenders of Hong Kong. Manitoba Salutes You’, which seems to have been distributed in Winnipeg. Once again, I presume they were small mementoes my father felt worthy of preservation.
A more surprising series of mementos, to my mind, at least, is featured on a further photograph at the end of this blog. The photograph contains three unwritten postcards and some Japanese currency. I suppose we would call them souvenirs, and that is why I find their presence in my father’s ‘archive’ a little unexpected. Other items speak of captivity, camaraderie, endurance and strength, whereas these – well, I’m not sure what they represent . . . One of the cards is an artist’s depiction of a bustling open air market, somewhere in the Tropics. Clearly, something my father acquired during the weeks awaiting repatriation from the Pacific. One is an image, again the work of an artist, showing a small, intimate Christian religious service, and the third, the most puzzling of all, is a card depicting a stylised image of, perhaps, a Samurai-type figure. All three cards, are, despite the passage of time, brightly colourful compared to so many of the items in dad’s collection. But their significance is lost to me now. There is also a little Japanese currency. A handful of tiny, highly decorated notes. I recall being allowed to hold them when I was a small child! I might have even been allowed to use similar notes as ‘swaps’ with schoolmates when I was a little older and exhibited a month or two’s interest in coin collecting! My memory is not clear on that. I noticed only recently that one note had a faint message written on it to my dad from one of his comrades during the years of captivity.
An item not featured among the photographs shown in the blog is a post-war ‘Port Record Book’ issued in Grimsby in May, 1947. The war ended in the Far East in August, 1945. My father was officially demobbed – released from the armed services – in May, 1946, after a lengthy, recuperative, return journey back to Britain. The Grimsby document lists the two trawlers my father worked on during a brief spell as a trainee deckhand on the North Sea fishing fleet. He had no previous links with the East Coast or the deep-sea fishing industry. I recall the odd conversation with him about that and he seemed as nonplussed by his own decision to have given it a try as I was. If there was an industry designed to test ones nerve and fortitude at the time, it was certainly life on the trawlers. It took him up to the Icelandic fishing grounds and he recalled the job of ridding the deck and rigging of any build-up of ice that could capsize the vessels. It was a dangerous environment. The experiment lasted a few weeks. I often wonder if the captivity and frustration of the war years had prompted him to test himself in such an unforgiving environment?
And finally, I’ll comment on another aspect of the ‘archive’ that I have a little more knowledge of than some other items. There’s a photograph included in those below featuring scenes of a war cemetery and headstones. In the 1980s my father contacted the authorities in Hong Kong in an attempt to reach some resolution with a matter that had clearly weighed on his mind since his war service. Seemingly, either in the final, confused days and hours of the defence of the colony in December, 1941, or after the official surrender, my dad and some comrades hastily buried two men who had fallen by their side in the fighting around Stanley Village. I think that although he had no idea of the combatants’ identities, he might have been aware of their military units, as men became separated and units became mixed. He provided the authorities with as much detail as he possessed, including hand-drawn maps and plans of the graves’ whereabouts. He was relieved later to receive the photographs illustrating the care and attention that had been taken in the intervening years to rebury the fallen and mark their roadside graves.
I thought I knew the nature of the material my father held close for all those years after the war. Not its full significance and context, but at least what it consisted of. But in examining the items again for this blog I was surprised to find ‘hidden’ in a small, fragile Service and Pay Book, that he had carried with him throughout captivity, a poem . . .
It had been written in pencil in tiny letters on a blank page of the Army-issue pocket book. But either time had rendered the script almost invisible, or it had been written so lightly as to deliberately escape detection at first glance. The paper is not torn or rough, and so I don’t think there was an attempt to rub out the text at some later date. The fact the book had accompanied my father on his Far East journey, and was not a later replacement provided as part of the demob process, is attested to by further handwritten notes, much clearer, at the start and end of the record book noting his stay in prison camps and the declaration, ‘War Over August 15th’, on the last page. The official details written in the book do not show the signs of intense fading exhibited by the poem.
It proved immensely difficult to decipher the writing even after I had spotted its presence, with only a few words here and there clear enough to make out. But with the aid of internet searches I discovered the poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna. It is a eulogy to military sacrifice, camaraderie and honour. Of unity in the face of defeat. It speaks of British militarism. Of stirring fortitude designed to capture a boy’s imagination. Its author was Charles Wolfe. Occasional words of the eight-verse epic can be made out.
Remember, my father was just 15 when he lied about his age to join up in Blackburn in 1937 when he would have first been issued with the pay book. His ‘false’ date of birth is written clearly. He was a product of elementary schooling for the working classes where learning by rote and recitation was a central element of the mass education curriculum, especially of poetry which extolled Britain’s perceived place in the world order and which gloried in tales of Empire.
The poem, penned in 1817, resonates with an air of triumphalism over a ‘defensive victory’ at the Battle of Corunna in Spain, part of the Napoleonic Wars, as British forces retreated to the coast and evacuated under fire, with the commanding general Sir John Moore killed in action and buried by the port’s ramparts. I had never come across the poem before and I doubt it features much these days in any review of nineteenth-century poetry, although it was a staple of earlier popular anthologies. To modern ears it will jar with militaristic and colonial-era rhetoric and imagery. The honouring of an elite soldier while the rank and file dead were thrown in pits, with commemoration of the masses awaiting later conflicts. Its style, too, will appear laboured and formatted. But to impose our own world view or standards on what earlier generations thought appropriate, acceptable, worthwhile or entertaining is to do a great injustice to the past. We may not approve, but we should at least try to understand.
Memorisation and recitation were the main points of popular poetry engagement for millions during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a belief that the system helped store up a treasure of ‘worthy’ literary ideas to be drawn upon in later life as comfort and guidance. Writing of the power of memorisation, John Henry Newman, theologian and poet, suggested in 1870: ‘Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine … at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never know them before, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness.’
I can only speculate here. But perhaps as a boy dad had been thrilled by the imagery in the poem. Perhaps the tone of sacrifice and camaraderie had made such an impression that he chose to keep it close during the challenging years of captivity. I like to think so. I like to think that it might have provided some sense of escape, perhaps some sense of meaning or context to what he was enduring. But that, as I say, is mere speculation. It is an idea no clearer than my puzzlement as to the manner of its composition – barely legible but, to a young man who had perhaps learned it by heart, easily read and safe from the risk of forgetting.
I have finished previous blogs with quotes on the nature of history. I end this final blog with The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna, by Charles Wolfe. The poem is designed to be read as to the rhythm of a drumbeat . . . a replacement for the missing military drum tattoo at the hasty burial.
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, As his corpse to the rampart we hurried; Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot O’er the grave where our hero was buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night, The sods with our bayonets turning, By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light And the lantern dimly burning.
No useless coffin enclosed his breast, Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him; But he lay like a warrior taking his rest With his martial cloak around him.
Few and short were the prayers we said, And we spoke not a word of sorrow; But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead, And we bitterly thought of the morrow.
We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed And smoothed down his lonely pillow, That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head, And we far away on the billow!
Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone, And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him — But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on In the grave where a Briton has laid him.
But half of our heavy task was done When the clock struck the hour for retiring; And we heard the distant and random gun That the foe was sullenly firing.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down, From the field of his fame fresh and gory; We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory!
To commemorate Remembrance Day 2020, children from Blackburn Children’s University took part in online craft making activities delivered by students from Blackburn University Centre’s School of Art and Society.
The event was introduced by Steve Irwin of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery who talked about the importance of listening to the memories and stories of those who were children during the WWII.
This was followed by a Treasure Hunt, with the children solving clues to find household items that evacuee children would have taken with them to their foster homes. They also learned about the Dickin Medal awarded to brave animals in times of conflict and made medals and purple poppies for an animal of their choice.
In another activity, the children were invited to make the connection between the gas masks worn during WWII and the face masks we are required to wear during the pandemic, before designing their own unique face masks.
The children’s designs will be printed and made into face masks by Blackburn University Centre Fashion and Textiles undergraduates and sent back to the children via Blackburn Children’s University Manager, Sara Burton.
Following the event, Project Leads Sandra Nichol and Val Jessop said: “The items produced by the children were wonderful! They were thoughtful, creative and very imaginative.
“We were very impressed with their polite behaviour and the enthusiasm with which they asked and answered questions about WWII. Our students have worked very hard to plan these activities and this was a very enjoyable event.”
Sara Burton from Blackburn Children’s University said: “What a fantastic event! This was a little different to meeting face-to-face, however, the quality and content did not suffer at all.
“The planning before the event from the staff and students at Blackburn University Centre was second to none and the feedback from both parents and carers and children has been brilliant. The children did so much in the two hours and many continued with their designing after the event was finished. I cannot wait for the next one!”
To celebrate National Poetry Day on 1st October 2020, staff, students, alumni and children from Blackburn Children’s University were recorded reading poems in an online Poetry Slam.
The poems were on the theme of war and/or childhood and some poems were written specially for the occasion. They have been compiled in a commemorative booklet which you can read here.
Participants were joined by Janey Colbourne, who is a performance poet, freelance non-fiction writer and the curator of Rise! Spoken Word at The Bureau Centre for The Arts, Blackburn. For more information about Janey Colbourne’s work, you can email Janey herself at email@example.com or contact her via social media:
Special thanks to Steve Irwin from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, retired staff member Jenny Billingsley and Mary Lee-Slade, former student of BA (Hons) English Language and Literary Studies. Thank you to the children of Blackburn Children’s University and to Sara Burton for organising the children’s recordings.
Many thanks to Liesl Burkhardt for producing the booklet and to everyone who took part in our virtual Poetry Slam. We hope you enjoy the readings!
Val and Sandra
Poetry Slam October 2020
Listen here to our alumni, Mary Lee-Slade, who is one of the co-founders of the Poetry Slam events at Blackburn University Centre. Mary talks about her undergraduate degree in English Language and Literary Studies, her progression to a higher degree at Lancaster University and her future career.
Welcome to the latest instalment of the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog has been attempting to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generation associated with World War Two. If you recall, I explained in the opening blog how my late father, Arthur, served in the Royal Artillery as a teenager. He was taken captive when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese Army on Christmas Day, 1941, and endured almost four years as a prisoner of war in the Far East, he and his comrades used as slave labour in Japan’s heavy industries. He had joined up in Blackburn in late 1937 claiming to have turned 18, the minimum age for recruitment, when, in fact, he was still 15 and six weeks short of his 16th birthday.
Since the last blog was posted online the country marked the ending of hostilities in the Far East – VJ Day – on August 15 with a number of 75th anniversary commemorative ceremonies. The one at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire attended by Prince Charles was particularly moving, with the service of remembrance broadcast live on TV. The 150-acre site is home to 25,000 trees among which sit 400 memorials highlighting, in dignified solemnity, a wide variety of organisations and events of national significance, among them a number recording the suffering and fortitude of Far East Prisoners of War.
I think it is important to make the point here that this is not the appropriate forum within which to develop the issue of the ill treatment of captives in the Far East in the Second World War, nor the devastating atomic bombing of Japanese cities which forced Emperor Hirohito and his military leaders to accept defeat in 1945. That is not the purpose of this blog series. But it is important to at least acknowledge its presence.
The inhuman treatment of prisoners of war and, indeed, civilians, was a sub text to the conversations illustrated in the series of correspondence I touch on below. It was the context around which parents and son spoke to each other in print, of what was left unsaid but which, for son was the grim reality of every day, and for parents was the subject of a growing awareness as the war developed and the long years dragged.
Neither is this the platform to discuss the issue of empire and colonialism – Britain’s presence, and the presence of its troops, in the far-flung corners of the world, and of the growing appetite for empire within Japan at the time. This country’s colonial past has rarely been more open to debate, and the place of Hong Kong in the great sweep of international relations is before our eyes seemingly nightly as the former colony faces up to Chinese government attempts to integrate it more fully within its own political order. They are debates for another time, another place . . .
This project provided a welcome opportunity to discuss how memory, oral history and family artefacts can combine to provide a powerful image of the past, foregrounding the ordinary and the everyday elements of life that, together with the grand narratives of national sacrifice, help tell Britain’s World War Two story. In addition, it was a means by which I could share, in a small way, my late father’s experience of conflict and its impact on his parents, through examining some of the fragile official documents, correspondence and personal ephemera that have survived the passing of the years and that stand testament to a time of crisis in their lives – a crisis mirrored the length and breadth of the country in family narratives of war.
With this in mind, I turn to material that forms the bulk of my father’s ‘archive’ of imprisonment – very brief letters sent by his parents to their son in captivity and those they received from him. I have no way of knowing how complete the correspondence is. I never asked my father that question. But the messages are disjointed, not always a sense of one letter responding to another. Perhaps some are missing. It would be incredible, really, if they had all survived. And, no doubt, some never reached their intended recipient – lost, diverted, destroyed in the chaos of global warfare. There are more than a dozen items of correspondence – postcards, letters, telegrams – all showing signs of their age but surviving through a balance of serendipity and careful management. With each passing year the more I consider these fragile artefacts and the fact of their survival through warfare, the upheaval of freedom and then repatriation, together with the later bustle of civilian life . . . their presence seems ever more incredible . . . ever more precious.
The correspondence dates between spring 1943, to September, 1945. After the surrender of the colony at Christmas, 1941, my father had endured a prison camp on the Hong Kong mainland until being part of the first draft of Allied prisoners to be shipped out to the Japanese home islands in September, 1942. He survived transportation on what became known as “hellships”, merchant vessels requisitioned by the Japanese navy and overloaded with prisoners who faced dreadful conditions at sea. In Japan he had been held in three different prison camps, originally near Tokyo and later, I understand, in the far north of the country.
In one letter posted from a prison camp near Tokyo and received in East Lancs, I think, in May, 1943, my late father writes of not having had a letter from home yet – a year-and-a-half since captivity had begun for him. The anxiety created by that silence, for all concerned, dad in Japan, his parents in Burnley, must have been oppressive. Official lines of communication had only gradually been opened, and there’s a typewritten letter from the military authorities to my grandparents drawing attention to a Post Office leaflet explaining the means of sending letters to prisoners of war held in Japan. In all the correspondence sent by my father he makes the point that he is well, in good health, and being treated well. All patently untrue but included so as to increase the chances of the letters being forwarded from Japan and, importantly, to ease the distress he surely knew his captivity had created for family and friends. That May, 1943, letter appears to have been the first received by my grandparents. Their letter, in response, postmarked June that year – “The happiest day of all to know you were still alive . . . hope your pals are still with you to make things easier” – was not received by my father until March the following year, more than two years into his captivity! Clearly, others would have been sent but had not been handed on. The relief in my father’s letter home in response is clear – “. . . I cannot tell you how happy I was to find you all safe and well . . . am looking forward to seeing you all again hoping it will be soon . . . “.
The sequence of correspondence ended with the letter my father sent home to his parents in September, 1945, celebrating the war in the Far East ending and his release from the prison camps, which I mentioned in the second of these blogs.
Overall, the letters do not fit together seamlessly. They are disjointed, as are their contents. They reflect the time and conditions. There is no sign of censorship. I imagine the POWs were advised by senior officers as to what would be acceptable for the Japanese military to pass on, and those writing from Britain to the Far East would be equally circumspect over what they wrote.
In addition to the letters mentioned above, there are two pocket-sized prayer books among my late father’s POW ‘archive’. Both are imbued with a tremendous sense of poignancy . . . One is a brown leather ‘Pocket Prayerbook’ with an inscription on the opening page – presented in boyhood to my father on his First Communion Day. It had stayed with him throughout his ordeal. Within it, in a neat hand, written in pencil are the names of 21 fellow prisoners of war with their home addresses – 17 British, three American and one Australian. Perhaps the intention had been to keep in touch after release. I don’t know if they did. But they had shared a harrowing experience. There is also a small blue leather New Testament. On the opening page my father had written in ink, ‘Dropped on this POW camp August 28th 1945 by an American Transport plane’, and he had signed it. The war had ended a fortnight earlier and the business of finding the camps and the Allied prisoners, of getting urgent food and medical supplies to them, often by air, and then preparing to send them home had begun. What emotions had gone through my father’s head as he wrote that short inscription?
In the fifth and final of these blogs I intend to examine the material my father saved relating to his end of captivity and journey back home to Lancashire, together with a remarkable discovery I made when looking at that material to refresh my memory in advance of writing these posts.
For those who want to know more about the plight of Far Eastern prisoners of war in World War Two, this link takes you to Captive Memories, a website containing research, and source material, conducted and gathered by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The material is based on the School’s 70-plus years of engagement with service veterans, their families and their histories. The School’s initial involvement centred on the veterans’ health problems associated with the effects of tropical infections together with the psychological impact of incarceration. There is a fascinating section on artwork by prisoners of war, done in secret at great risk. The exhibition – ‘Secret Art of Survival – Creativity and Ingenuity of British Far East Prisoners of War, 1942-1945’ – was staged at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, and is now online.
I have ended previous blogs with a quote from the writings of historians that, I think, have a resonance and worth in this current context, and which offer up insight surrounding the very idea of what History is. Today is no different, and the following is from an article by Dr Anna Whitlock, BBC History Magazine, October, 2015 –“The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant. History is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. History is more than looking backwards and studying the past – it is about critically engaging with the present and the future. It is about individuals, families, nations and the global community.”
Olive Laurie was a young child during the Second World War and here she shares her memories and stories on life with her older sister and parents in the family home, being evacuated, getting her teeth knocked out, watching barrage balloons and removing a ‘sizzling incendiary bomb in an eiderdown’ from her Auntie’s bedroom. We hope you enjoy listening to Olive’s memories and stories as much as we have done. Olive has also provided us with some photographs that capture memories of her wartime childhood.
Olive said: “The first time we had an air raid during the day, we were in the park with my mother and the baby. I was very anxious because my chair was in the house and it could get bombed. Now this chair had been a present to me off Father Christmas before the war, Christmas 1938. And this chair was the joy of my life and my teddy used to sit on it when I went out to play. When we got back home, we used to pass my Auntie’s house, and Nor went to tell Auntie Belle we were coming. My mum got the chair and my teddy bear for me. We raced back to the house and we got into the shelter and mum suddenly realised we’d left the baby outside.”
“Every time we had our bedroom painted, the chair would be painted to match so the chair has been white and pink and lemon. And then years later, after we got married, my husband had the chair, had the paint scraped off it, you know, had it done properly, and it’s been re-stained, and I’ve still got that chair.”