Ghosts of a Colonial Past
I have shared elements of my early life and time spent with my grandparents in an earlier post. I described the farmhouse and its rooms that held such fascination for me as a child. “Junk Rooms” they were referred to at the time by the grown-ups, but to me they were veritable treasure hordes, housing flapper dresses from the 20’s, ball gowns from the 40’s, fur coats, gentlemen’s tail coats, starched collars and hats, in an old cedar lined wardrobe to keep out the moths. Discarded pieces of furniture, pictures, rugs you name it, it would be there. “Junk” was not confined to disused bedrooms either, it was everywhere!
When the time came for my grandfather to retire and hand the reins of the farm to my father we swapped houses and the issue of the “junk” needed to be addressed. A lot of it went the distance, including I remember, an army uniform belonging to my gt grandfather, still in its tin box complete with mess books etc., long forgotten and found under a bed! Another curio was a colonial pith helmet and a lightweight khaki jacket. These, I later discovered had belonged to my grandfather during his brief period as a rubber planter in Sumatra.
Jump forward 30 years or so to 2012 and another sort out ensued of the junk that hadn’t been sold or discarded and that had once again accumulated in my parents outhouse. Amongst this was an old mahogany writing box that I recognised as the very same that used to sit on the mantelpiece in my grandparents bedroom, and as such had been spared during ‘clear out round one’. On initial inspection the contents seemed rather meagre, an old wallet containing a couple of letters and a few scraps of paper.
They contained ghosts from the past and no, I am not talking about pink ladies, headless horsemen or apparitions that walk through walls and scare small children. I am referring to the essence of being, a type of latent energy that lingers on in places, objects, pictures, letters clothes etc., long after the owner has departed this life, often referred to by the uninitiated as junk.
But just how much information could I glean from this little collection and what stories would it contain?
From the date of the postage mark on the first envelope Grandfather must have made the journey to Sumatra before 27th November 1929. Not relishing the task of looking for a “John Smith” in the passenger lists, off I went in the hope that he had used his other Christian name “Aynsley”. Alas, he had not, but I did strike lucky and found him on the P&O steam ship ”Rajputana” which left London on 1st November 1929, bound for Yokohama in Japan. His drop of point is listed as Belawan, Sumatra.
This envelope (no contents survive) had been posted to him c/o Messrs Harrison and Crosfield Ltd, in Medan and then redirected to the Namoe Ramei Estate, Bangoen Poerba on the 21st December. With a bit of digging it would appear that Aynsley was employed by United Serdang (SUMATRA) Rubber Plantations Ltd, a subsidiary of Harrison and Crosfield set up for the acquisition of rubber plantations which included, amongst others, the Namoe Rambei Estate.
A close look at the stamps on the second letter shows it to have originated in Siam. This is also addressed to the “Namoe Rambei Estate”. It was written by a lady by the name of Annie E Brandle, who affectionately refers to herself as “Auntie” and addresses Grandpa as “My dear Nephew”. Well, to my certain knowledge there is no-one in the family by that name! Evidence that the acquaintance was perhaps more recent than familial is borne out by the misspelling of his name, not once but twice. However, from the cadence of her letter Auntie doesn’t appear to be romantically inclined towards her “dear Nephew”, and that her affections seem to be directed instead toward a fellow bearing the rather unfortunate name of “Rastus”!
Annie Brandle’s letter is dated February 1930, and is written from the Neilson Hays Library in Bangkok and although it is obviously in reply to a letter sent by Aynsley, I felt sure it was linked to the people who sat down together for dinner at the “Eastern & Oriental Hotel” Penang on the night of 29th November 1929. The answer was contained in the letter where Auntie refers to a young “bride to be” by the name of Miss Carruthers who had shared her cabin. Sure enough all four diners had made the voyage to Sumatra together from London on the SS Rajputana.
Storm Clouds Brewing and Dark Days Ahead
As they supped champagne and munched their way through what appears to be 11 courses of food, (12 when you add the coffee), I wonder if “Auntie”, “Peggy Carruthers”, “Rastus” and “Old Smudger” were catching up with the events that had broken in America just two days before their departure from the UK.
The Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age was about to come to an abrupt end. High volatility and unease within the financial markets led to panic selling on the American stock markets commonly known as the “Wall Street Crash”.
Over the course of the next few years a recession followed that left no western industrialised country unaffected. As to whether this was caused by the “crash” or symptomatic of the meteoric rise it had witnessed over the previous 10 years , now known as a “boom or bust cycle” is open to much speculation and debate, but by 1933 unemployment rates in Europe were soaring, touching 28% in Denmark alone. Countries began to look increasingly inward for the remedy and the stability of European politics was beginning to fragment.
Back to our intrepid travellers and the menu that was signed by all four “To commemorate a very Happy Evening and Delightful Company”. But what of the names that appear on a third envelope and the torn scrap of paper? They undoubtedly date from the same period as they were all together in the wallet, which I dare say has lain unopened in the writing box whence it was deposited soon after my grandfather’s return to England, until its recent rediscovery.
Being unable to find Aynsley’s passage back to the UK, I had hoped that the third envelope might hold some clues. This was not to be however, as Harold Gill, the name underscored twice at the top, was also a passenger aboard the Rajputana on the outward journey. He was policeman en route to Shanghai. Henry Pantlin to whom the letter is addressed does not appear on the passenger list but from various other record sources I ascertained he was the manager of the Serdang Central Plantation. Of Mrs Bates I can find no trace! As the writing on the envelope is all the same hand, and the crest to the rear appears to be P&O Line it must have been written at some point during the journey. I am drawn to the conclusion therefore they were names given to Aynsley, by Harold Gill as potentially useful contacts.
The Mrs Bloomfield Douglas
One name however, which stood out above all the others, was that of Mrs J Bloomfield Douglas, Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Was it the name that struck a chord? or the Hotel, another luxury establishment belonging to the Sarkies and possibly even more famous that the E&O? Whatever the reason I was compelled to investigate. It transpired her maiden name was Ethel Doris Makepeace and she was born in Melbourne Australia in 1888 to parents Alfred Makepeace and his wife Margaret Colyer Burgess his wife. She married John Bloomfield Douglas on the 13th July 1913 at St John’s Parish Church, Hampstead. At 25 years of age she was his junior by some 20 years.
Her husband John had been born in Australia in 1868, one of the youngest of a large family, with a rather colourful character for a father in Captain William Bloomfield Douglas. The antics of this pirate chasing, money squandering, bad tempered, and heavy drinking gentleman tell their own “boom or bust” story. They are readily available with a simple Google search and do not belong here. No, it is not him but rather his wife Ellen Atkinson, John's mother, who is the “ghost in the machine” and who is rather casually brushed aside in the various biographies about her husband that I have read. They seem to insinuate that he married the daughter of a penniless peasant farmer, which is simply not the case at all!
Ellen was born at Ewart, Northumberland in 1828 to parents Christopher Atkinson and Eleanor Simpson. Her father was a yeoman in the historical sense of the word, i.e. a farmer of a small landed estate. He was by no means a farmer of little consequence either, as in addition to his freehold land he farmed a large skelp amounting to in excess of 2,000 acres as a tenant, largely of Earl Grey of the Howick Estate. Christopher died in 1847 at Embleton and the following year 3rd daughter Ellen married William Bloomfield Douglas, then in temporary command of the Coastguard Station “Eagle” at Alnmouth, Northumberland. Their first child William Alexander was born in Lesbury in March 1849. In the 1851 census he is staying with his unmarried aunts & uncles at Roseden Farm while his parents are living in Fraserburgh with 4 month old daughter Harriet Willas. By 1853 the family are living in Southampton where William Snr is granted his Master Mariner’s certificate, and there is a third addition to the family in the form of baby Eleanor. Within 12 months this little family are off to Australia and the rest as they say is history.
The farming families of Atkinson and Smith would have almost certainly known each other. In a bizarre twist of fate Ellen’s brother, Joseph and wife Elizabeth James take the tenancy of West Chevington Farm in 1879. The very same West Chevington Farm that was the birth place of Aynsley’s father in 1864, and where the Smith family farmed before taking the tenancy of Longhoughton in 1872. A small world indeed! I wonder if Aynsley had been on the look-out for members of the Bloomfield Douglas family or if he just happened across Mrs Bloomfield Douglas junior?, whose husband John incidentally, died a few years later on 10th November 1938 in Stone House Mental Asylum London. His widow wasted no time and was married before the year was out to Hugh John Fraser of Yokohama Japan!
What became of the remainder of the cast featured in this brief snapshot of Colonial life?
Miss Margaret Carruthers “Peggy” we know was married by the time of Auntie’s letter in 1930, but alas I am unable to locate a record of her marriage, and as such I know nothing beyond this date.
The Company, Harrison & Crosfield continues to this day and is listed on the FTSE 250 under the name of “Elementis”. In the region of 40 employees of the company appear on the list of Sumatra Internees, Civilian POW’s during the Japanese occupation in WW2. They generously donated the staff lists and other records of the old company to the London Metropolitan Archives in 1990's.
The Ship, Rajputana, after carrying such illustrious passengers as Lawrence of Arabia and Mahatma Ghandi was sunk by an enemy torpedo off Iceland in April 1941 whilst returning from acting as an armed escort to a North Atlantic Convoy of merchant ships.
The Neilson Hay Library was used by the Japanese as billeting accommodation for troops from 1941. Over 1,000 rare volumes were shipped to Japan, many were subsequently returned but some of the rarest are still missing.
“Raffles” and the “Eastern & Oriental” Hotels
During WW2 both were occupied by the Japanese, but these “granddames” of luxury hospitality have stood the test of time and remain today at the top of the tree when it comes to lavish accommodation in the old colonial style.
Raffles is famous not only for the invention of the Singapore Sling but for the “tiger who came to tea” in 1902 and hid under a billiard table! Raffles was also used briefly as a transit camp for POW’s at the end of WW2 as featured in the 1980’s TV series Tenko. It was declared a National Monument in 1987.
The Eastern & Oriental too has witnessed much change in her time, which can be read about in the book “E&O Hotel – The Pearl of Penang”.
Of course there are rumours of ghosts at both hotels, and with such a rich history it would be hard to imagine them without their shadows from the past. But shadows, like all the players in this piece is what they have become.
London Metropolitan Archives re Harrison & Crosfield
UNITED SERDANG (SUMATRA) RUBBER PLANTATIONS LIMITED
Neilson Hays Library, Bangkok now an Historic Monument
Stone House Mental Asylum Records
History of the E & O Hotels
Singapore Newspaper Archives
P&O Lists courtesy of Bjorn Larsson