Evelyn Cheesman

September 1, 2012

While about a third of my father’s time as a POW in Singapore was spent at Kranji, the notes from that period are a very small fraction of the total.  A lack of paper would have helped to account for this but so would a general lack of reading material.  There was no shortage of books at Changi and as previous posts have indicated he read very widely, probably more so than at any other time in his life.  To say that his notes on these books were copious would be to understate what in some cases was essentially an exercise in transcription.

Another point that I have neglected to make much of so far, largely because I’m not quite sure what to make of it, is that he rarely wrote about his primary interest, that is, insects.  During the years leading up to the war he had been a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham House in Farnham Royal near Slough.  During this time he had worked with some of the leading entomologists of the day and had illustrated a number of scholarly articles.  He was not only fairly knowledgeable about insects; entomology had become something of a passion and remained so for the rest of his life.  It is curious then that he wrote so little about it either at Changi or Kranji.  There would have been no shortage of bugs after all.

Perhaps part of an answer can be found in his note from one of the few books he was able to read at Kranji: Evelyn Cheesman’s Land of the Red Bird.  You don’t hear much about Cheesman now but in her day she had been a very visible figure in the world of natural history and a prolific author.  Many of her books were based on her remarkable expeditions to the south seas where she hacked her way through remote jungles, bantering with everyone she met and getting herself into the most extraordinary scrapes in the breezy and yet indomitable way only a certain sort of English lady of that period could do.  Her accounts were of serious entomological and botanical interest yet they often read as page-turning adventure stories, as indeed they were.  You get the idea from just three of the titles: Hunting Insects in the South Seas, Backwaters in the Savage South Seas and Camping Adventures in Cannibal Islands.

But my father just had Land of the Red Bird an account of her insect-collecting expedition to New Guinea.  I’ve read it and suspect that he enjoyed it very much.  He made a couple of pages of jottings on it but the ones below are representative.  He would no doubt have agreed with her on the topic of eating half-dried fish and found her advice on leeches to be most useful.  Her humorous perspective on stings and bites would have appealed to him greatly.  But her observation about the difficulty of doing entomology in the tropics must have been of special interest.  And of course he had no access to a microscope, test tubes or preserving fluid, the essential tools of the trade.  He would simply have to content himself with reading about entomology rather than doing it.  But at least it would have been a darned good read.

Kranji Notes, page 1.

Half-dried fish:  “Chinese and Malays eat it.  I noticed that they always mix it with quantities of pepper, chillies and other hot condiments, and can well believe that it is only by cauterizing the palate first that any human being could take such food.” (p.21)

Leeches:  “It is said that salt will make them leave their hold, but salt is dissolved almost as soon as it is exposed to the air and does not remain long enough to have any lasting effect.  Strong tobacco juice is supposed to discourage them.  (p.79)

Stings & bites: “ There is never any respite from things that bite and sting.  Some attack because it is going to rain, or because it is raining, or has rained, or won’t rain.  Some because it is dark, others because it is light.  So they succeed one another regularly in shifts and there are no interludes. (p.123)

Collecting insects in the Tropics. It is extremely important to send off specimens, particularly the insects, as soon as possible, to get them away from that climate.  When once the insects are dried and packed between layers of special wadding, in many layers in special boxes, with insecticides to keep out beetles and carbolic to keep out mould, it is better not even to open the boxes again to see whether they are alright (pp. 249-250) 


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

Anti malarial drains

June 13, 2009


Latrines, incinerators, Otway pits and anti-malarial drains; besides food and disease, these were the main notebook topics (and presumably preoccupations) during the first few weeks and months at Changi. Such was the prevailing necessity. But the notes also reflected my father’s interest and training. He had developed a passion for natural history as a teenager and had already published a few notes in the The Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine and elsewhere. As far as I can tell, his drawing skills were largely self taught though he had done a number of technical illustrations for the Bulletin of Entomological Research while working at Farnham House Laboratory. He had also qualified as a sanitary inspector before the war and had been trained to do anti-malarial work with the RAMC.  In any case, he returned to the topics again and again in his notes.

In later life, the fascination with drains became almost obsessive. We moved house several times when I was a child and in almost every instance it wasn’t long before my father was excavating a patchwork of ditches in the garden. So deep were these that when digging them he would sometimes disappear completely from view save for the occasional shovel-full of earth tossed into the air.

There weren’t many mosquitoes in our part of Devon but then of course that wasn’t the point. The reasons for the obsessiveness lay elsewhere.

Jack Spittle

Jack Spittle

According to his birth certificate my father was born on March 30, 1914 in Ascot though he dismissed the location as an administrative fiction.  In fact, he maintained stoutly, he had been born just down the road in the village of Eton Wick.  Why the distinction was so important to him I never thought to ask but it may have to do with the fact that Ascot was in Berkshire and Eton Wick, in those days at least, was just across the county boundary in Buckinghamshire.  My father was a Buckinghamshire lad through and through.

As a teenager he developed a strong interest in natural history embarking on a project that was to occupy (not to say preoccupy) him until well into his eighties; a census of herons nesting at Oaken Grove, a small wood near the Thames between Henley and Marlow.  After leaving school he went to work  at the Farnham House Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham Royal near Slough.  Though only a lab assistant he worked closely with some of the leading entomologists of the day and illustrated a number of the Institute’s publications.  He was probably at his happiest working (and learning) at Farnham House but the job did not pay well and in 1938 he qualified as a sanitary inspector and quickly got a position working for Slough Council.

He was called up in 1940 and initially joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.  This wasn’t what he had in mind at all, however, and he was eventually transferred to the RAMC.   Trained for anti-malarial work, he was sent to Singapore in November 1941 and after a chaotic first few weeks posted to Palau Tekong island in the Jahore Straits as sanitary assistant.  It was from here that he got a “grandstand view” of the invasion of Singapore.  He was a prisoner first at Changi (where he worked at Roberts Hospital) and then at Krangi, for the remainder of the war.

Returning to England he settled again in Slough marrying my mother, Jean, in 1947.  He had been reappointed as sanitary inspector but within three or four years became deputy river pollution prevention officer for the Severn River Authority, another position that allowed him to pursue his entomological interests.  In 1950 he published an article on the ‘Nesting Habits of Singapore Birds’ in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, based on his observations and hundreds of pages of notes while at Changi and Krangi. In 1961 he was appointed to a more senior position at the Devon River Authority where he remained for the rest of his career.

After retirement he got down to serious work.  This involved the completion of a thirty or so year study of insect life in Devon streams,  now housed at Plymouth Museum,  and the writing up of his Oaken Grove project which by this time had mushroomed from a heron census to a full-blown ecological study of the wood.  He was still making the three or four hour drive from Devon to Oaken Grove into his eighties; except for the war years he had visited the heronry at least annually since 1928.

While he rarely talked about his experience as a prisoner of war, he finally started to sketch out some notes about it a year or two before he died.  Clearly, he was planning to write up his memories and reflections in some way and had come up with a working title: Changi Years Recollections: An Education in Frugal Living. He died in 2004.