The note taker

August 30, 2009

No doubt my father’s note taking at Changi and Krangi became a survival strategy; a way to ward off both the boredom of captivity and an apprehension, that seemed to increase as time dragged on, about what the future would hold.  If there was to be a future, that is.  But I doubt if this is how he thought of it.  He arrived in Singapore with his notebooks, after all, and had filled up one of them in the weeks before his capture.  In fact, he had already been an inveterate note taker for many years.

The pages shown here are from his 1931 notebook; he would have been nearly 17 at the time.  As can be seen, he was an avid bird watcher, though his notes were essentially ecological in nature.  A bird’s nest might be described in detail, but this might lead to other observations about the surrounding plant life, soil composition, or of the droppings found (and, yes, studied) at a nearby rabbit warren.  It was all connected.

As indeed was his work and leisure.  By this time, he had already joined his close friend Eric Basden as a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology in Farnham Royal near Slough.  The pay was not very good, but for the moment this was of little or no concern.  It would have been hard to imagine a job that so completely mirrored his natural interests.  And then when the day was done they would cycle down to Burnham Beeches, Egypt Woods, Temple, or Hurley for a little field work.

Extract from 1931 notebook

Leaving for camp along the

Thames near Henley, 1930

Oaken Grove

August 21, 2009

In my first post Where to begin? I wrote that I expected to go down all sorts of byways before I completed this journey.  Oaken Grove is the first of these byways.  It is also the longest of them for it was my father’s life’s work.

Oaken Grove is a small wood just off the Henley to Marlow road near the River Thames at Fawley.  My father often cycled to this area with friends before the War, frequently camping by the river at nearby Temple or Hurley.  It was an almost idyllic Three Men in a Boat sort of existence — indeed this stretch of the Thames wouldn’t have changed since Jerome Jerome wrote about  not that many years before.  I am quite sure these were the happiest days of my father’s life.

As teenager he had come across a large heronry at Oaken Grove and had gained permission from the local landowner to count and ring the herons each spring.  To make a very long story short, he was still counting the herons at Oaken Grove well into his eighties when he finally wrote a monograph on what was no longer simply an annual bird census but a sixty year natural history of the wood.

I will come back to this is future posts.  The main point for the moment is that there are frequent references to Oaken Grove in the notes.  Indeed, they contain several drafts of the monograph that would not be completed for another fifty years.  No doubt these were exercises in mental discipline.  But they were also, surely, an attempt to hang on to a world that meant so much to him.

Jack Spittle and friend camping near Hurley

on the River Thames during the early 1930s.

Cover of Oaken Grove, Fawley Buckinghamshire:

An Account of Part of its Natural History,

Particularly its Heronry, 1997

Malay house

August 18, 2009

This drawing was done soon after arrival at Changi, probably in March 1942.  In the early weeks of captivity the prisoners were permitted to move quite freely about the Changi promontory.  Given this and the detailed measurements included, it seems likely that the drawing was done then rather than from memory.


Malay house

Book C page 80

Government offices

August 15, 2009

According to my father’s notes on the reverse, this postcard includes the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall with the the Supreme Court and Cricket Club to the right — a delightful juxtaposition if ever there was one — and the Anderson Bridge in the foreground.  The picture was taken from the Fullerton Building, Singapore’s first ten-story skyscraper completed in 1928.

Singapore Government offices and Town Hall

Indian and Chinese houses

August 15, 2009

My father brought back several dozen postcards of Singapore as he would have known it, as well as from Colombo and Cape Town which were both ports of call on his return voyage in 1945.  Here are a couple of photographs of Indian and Chinese dwellings both of which were cut out from a larger postcard.  His notebooks also contain a number of drawings of typical living arrangements, mostly from Tekong and Pengerang.  On the reverse of the photographs he noted that Indian houses tended to be distinguished by their ‘rectangular’ plan and verandahs.

Indian houses



Chinese houses