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‘We trust our letters are reaching you’: The Experiences of a Prisoner of War from Aberystwyth in Japanese Labour Camps

We are delighted to present another guest blog by Dr. Lucy Smith.

Dr. Lucy Smith has degrees in English Literature and Archive Administration and her doctorate was on Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography. She is particularly interested in creative archives, and in the representation of Victorian art in literature. In her spare time, she loves painting, exploring historic places, and discovering new bookshops.

Although many of the headline collections found in local archives focus on wealthy families and famous residents of the county, it’s often the hundreds of small collections from ordinary people that provide the most touching and personal stories.

Returning to volunteer at Ceredigion Archives, I was given a fascinating small collection to work with – the papers of Ivor Tegwyn James (ref. ADX/1712), a young railway worker from Aberystwyth who enjoyed writing and photography and who became caught up in the terrifying history of Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the Second World War.

Faced with an unsorted box of Ivor’s official documents, personal letters and photographs, it was my job to reconstruct the history behind the collection and make sense of Ivor’s story. Using documents and letters from the collection, I found that Ivor Tegwyn James was born in 1918, the youngest son of Hugh Owen James, an ironmonger, and his wife Elizabeth. Ivor began working for the Great Western Railway at the age of 15 in 1934, and lived in nearby Greenfield Street with his family. The earliest items in the collection are photographs of Ivor’s late teenage years in the 1930s, where he is often to be found spending time with friends and swimming in the sea. These photographs are all heavily damaged because Ivor must have had them when he was captured by the Japanese and taken them from camp to camp. It’s difficult to imagine how much these mementos of carefree times must have meant to Ivor in the camps, which he later described as ‘a living hell’.

Ivor and friend on wall

ADX/1712/3/2: Damaged photograph of Ivor James (left) and a friend sitting on a wall c.1930s.

The military documents in the collection show that Ivor had joined up very early, before the War had even begun. He later explains this was because in 1939, all twenty and twenty-one year old men were preemptively called up for six months of military service. Ivor would have been 20 when he was called up. After six months of training in North Wales, Ivor was sent to Singapore in 1940 as a Lance Bombardier in the Royal Artillery. Being from Aberystwyth, he seems to have lost no time in going for a swim in Singapore.

Singapore beach

ADX/1712/3/20: Ivor James (bottom left) and friends whilst stationed in Singapore.

However, disaster struck when Japanese forces invaded Singapore in February 1942, forcing the British to surrender. Along with UK and Australian troops and British civilians, Ivor was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and was sent to Changi Prisoner of War camp on Singapore Island, a converted British military base and the same place that he had been previously stationed as a soldier. Amazingly for us, Ivor seems to have coped with these events by writing about them, and the collection contains a piece of rhymed prose about the Battle of Singapore, as well as Ivor’s Prisoner of War diary which runs between 1942 and 1943.

HM Transport Nevasa

ADX/1712/3/11: H.M. Transport “Nevasa”, the ship that took Ivor to Singapore. Jan 1940.

In this fascinating diary, written in very small writing on a few pieces of card, Ivor marked his daily life in the camps. He regularly marks the food rations he was given that must have been so important, often a meal consisted of a cup of rice and some pineapple. The prisoners were forced to carry out heavy work and he records being sent into Singapore on a ‘working party’ and staying in ‘the Chinese school’. He also records frequent bouts of illness, including that he ‘went into Roberts hospital with dysentery’. At other times, he attended the funerals of fellow Prisoners and acted as stretcher bearer. Even whilst he recorded the bleak reality of life in the camp, Ivor also clung on to reminders of home life. He regularly records the birthdays of his parents and siblings, and on 1 Mar 1943, he remembers St David’s Day, writing that he ‘met Roy Fisher at night in the Changi Palladium’, which was the POW prison theatre that ran inside the camp, where Ivor attended a production of a play called ‘The Dover Road’. He also notes in 1943, that some prisoners have been sent ‘up country’. After March 1943, the diary comes to an end.

Ivor's Diary

ADX/1712/4/5 Page from Ivor James’s Prisoner of War Diary, 1942-1943

Whilst these events were going on, on the other side of the world in Aberystwyth, Ivor’s parents were desperate to hear news of him. I found that the heart of the collection was a series of letters written weekly to Ivor by his parents via Prisoner of War post. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, his parents had been told that Ivor was ‘missing presumed dead’ but they seem to have begun writing to him weekly in 1943 in the vague hope that the letters would reach him. They make for heart-breaking reading, and give an insight into what it was like for families unable to do anything but wait for news. In a typical letter written on 9 March 1943, Ivor’s father writes ‘We are still without any news of you and we trust that our letters are reaching you […] and have placed our confidence in your safe keeping in the one that rules all’. Ivor’s parents often exhort him to ‘keep smiling’ and often invoke God’s protection of him. It’s extremely affecting to read these letters, especially when the parents include the news that Ivor’s elder brother Hubert, who they have previously written is very anxious about his welfare, has died in a road traffic accident whilst serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Lincolnshire in May 1943. As the letters go on, information about Prisoners of War in the Far East begins filtering through, and Hugh James writes that ‘we are very nervy and excited as news came through last night that Roy Fisher from the GPO was a prisoner in Malaya’. This was the same man that Ivor met at the Changi Palladium on St David’s Day only two months previously. However, they continue to wait for news, writing in May 1943 that ‘the suspense of not having any news regarding you is a heavy burden […] we have no special news to tell and if we had we would not be allowed to put it down’.

Parents Letters

ADX/1712/2 (part): Letters sent by Ivor’s parents via Prisoner of War Post, 1943. Note that each one has been opened by a British ‘Examiner’

Meanwhile, presumably soon after the diary ends, Ivor James was sent away from Singapore to build the railway from Burma to Thailand known as the ‘Death Railway’, which thousands of Allied prisoners and civilian labourers died constructing. Ivor was moved from camp to camp, and received only one cup of rice a day. Ill with malnutrition, he was unable to work, even when beaten by the Japanese Prison guards, and only after the defence of a Captain Diver, he was able to trek through the jungle to a hospital camp. After some horrific experiences, he then met a man from Aberystwyth who worked in the hospital canteen and gave him extra rations. Even in the worst circumstances, it seems it has always been true that wherever you go in the world, you will meet people from Aberystwyth!

In September 1943, Ivor’s parents finally write that they have ‘Received your card. How happy we are after the good news’. This ‘card’ may be the message that Ivor refers to in the diary sent in February 1943, which was only allowed to be 24 words long. Japanese forces were very slow both in sending out Prisoner of War messages and in giving them their mail from home. Most of the letters from Aberystwyth were received by Ivor over a year after they were sent, the dates of which he meticulously recorded on the envelopes. It must have been hard reading about his brother’s death over a year after it happened. Ivor was transferred back to Changi POW camp after the building of the railway, where he must have received the letters in 1944.

The correspondence ends in a volley of telegrams sent by Ivor’s parents and friends on the news that he is returning home. After the war was over, and the camps had been liberated, Ivor was shipped by stretcher to a hospital in Bangalore, India. There he sent a letter to his parents who sent back a telegram to London saying ‘Happy to hear that you are alright anxiously waiting your arrival love – parents’. In his article for the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, Ivor writes that when he arrived back in Aberystwyth in November 1945, a massive welcome party was waiting at Aberystwyth Station and his home street was decked in decorations.

However, it was not an easy return as the records show that Ivor had been partially disabled by his experiences and received a pension allowance for disablement until 1953. He tried to claim for possessions lost at the time of the surrender in Singapore, including a gold watch given to him by his parents and a photograph album bought in Singapore. He returned to working on the railway as a Guard at Aberystwyth Station which he did until he retired. He also remained a member of The Japanese Labour Camp Survivors’ Association of Great Britain all his life.

One of the most wonderful items in the collection is this photograph of Ivor and his wife Olwen on their wedding day in 1950. The photographs takes on so much meaning because of what has come before. Although it shows the physical effects of Ivor’s experiences as Prisoner of War, this undamaged post-War photograph also really captures the joy of the day and a new start.

Wedding day

ADX/1712/3/24 Ivor Tegwyn James and Olwen Roberts on their wedding day, summer 1950


Posted in Aberystwyth, Guest blog, Second World War | Leave a comment

A Battered Suitcase in the Attic: Explore Your Own Archive

The name of this year’s Ceredigion campaign is ‘A Battered Suitcase in the Attic’. It is about getting people to value their own personal archives. The title reflects the half-forgotten treasures that many people have hidden in the attic or under the bed in their homes.

The campaign wants to make people in the county consider and start to really value the documents that they’ve stashed away, and to get a conversation going about how it’s a very good idea not to throw everything when moving house or clearing a former home.

There are emotional and ethical issues to be addressed. Why do we keep what we keep as individuals? Under what circumstances is it appropriate for personal and ‘private’ family archives be placed in an archives repository?

Ceredigion Archives intends to use collections which originated from the ‘battered suitcases’ of the title to explore the rich potential of family archives not only for the family itself but for the wider community.

Explore Your Archive is a UK and Ireland wide campaign delivered by the Archives and Records Association. It aims to showcase the best of archives and archive services to a wide range of existing and potential users.

Check out the week’s timetable (still a work in progress), then join us again at the Aberystwyth Bandstand and Explore Your Own Archive!

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A Strange Case of Arsenic, Expert Evidence and Promiscuity

We present another exclusive guest blog by Richard Ireland.

Richard W. Ireland is a legal historian who taught for many years at Aberystwyth University. He is the author of many articles and his books include ‘A Want of Order and Good Discipline’: Rules and Discretion in the Victorian Prison and ‘Land of White Gloves’?: A History of Crime and Punishment in Wales. He is a founding Committee Member of the Welsh Legal History Society and has made a number of appearances on television and radio.

I love a miscellaneous file. Even though court records contain huge variation in content they are, in layout, often very similar. Variety can be a joy. When the County Archivist drew my attention to RE/PS/5/1, a modest looking grey file, I was intrigued by the contents. There were a number of legal documents, jury lists, receipts, transfers of prisoners etc., but I was particularly drawn to a letter of January 19th 1851 concerning the examination of a teapot and the discovery of traces of arsenic in its spout. The letter concludes “I have therefore no doubt that great care was taken to clean the pot and throw out all the contents and it is only from the ignorance of the person as to the properties of Arsenic that my discovery is owing”. It was signed by William Herapath of Bristol.

I knew, in a manner of speaking, Herapath (whose name appears incorrectly as “Herepath” in some sources). In my research into the prisoners in Carmarthen gaol I had come across him being consulted in the case of Elizabeth Rees in 1864 for the murder of her child and also in that of the eccentric Ann Matthews, who had stolen letters from the Post Office and was sentenced to transportation in 1849. The former case involved poisoning by phosphorus, and it was as an expert in poisoning that Herapath, in his own description in one case a “philosophical chemist”, made his name. His expertise in this area had led to a seemingly regular transmission of boxes containing excised stomachs and their contents to his Bristol address. He gave evidence at the most famous of all Victorian poisoning cases, that of William Palmer, “The Rugeley Poisoner”, in 1856, but he also proffered opinions on handwriting and strangulation in Welsh cases. Indeed a number of cases from Wales include reference to his investigations, either as a witness in court or by documentary reports. There were, for example, murders in Newport in 1845, Crickhowell in 1849, a second one in Cardiganshire (the case of Jane Davies in 1861), another infanticide in Monmouth in 1855, even a case of potential poisoning of pigs in Bridgend in 1847. Such was his celebrity that when the cause of the recent death of the Tsar was raised at a meeting in Bristol in 1855 to discuss the prosecution of the Crimean War someone from the floor shouted “Send his stomach to Herepath and he will tell you”!


The Agatha Christie qualities of “The Case of the Poisoned Teapot” made me interested in the case itself, so I turned to newspaper records of the trial of Elizabeth Jones, who was accused of the murder by poisoning of her mother-in-law near Pontrhydfendigaid. The case proved to be both unusual and fascinating. The selection of the jury saw many challenges being made, in order that a jury which understood English as well as Welsh could determine the case. This in itself is remarkable admission, for Assize trials were, of course, invariably conducted in English. I have argued elsewhere that the inability of all rural Welsh juries to understand that language was in part responsible for their reputation for delivering verdicts against the evidence. In those cases where the defendant or witnesses spoke only Welsh an interpreter was often employed to assist the court. I have never, however, come across another case where a bilingual jury was ensured and overtly selected at the outset.

The sight that struck the jury, and the packed courtroom (poisoning cases seem generally to have pulled in a large crowd), was also remarkable. The defendant, of “pallid and debilitated appearance”, was allowed to sit in the dock, with her husband standing in front of it and two doctors in close attendance. Her mother-in-law, Anne Jones, had died and signs of poisoning were evident in the body after examination by Herapath. Two crucial witnesses, John Jones and Jane Davies, testified that they had been asked by the defendant to purchase poison and that she had uttered her intention to kill Anne, out of fear that she would sell the farm and render her homeless. The teapot had been retrieved from a hedge by John Jones, but he had mentioned it only, it was claimed, after having been attacked by a group of men. Jane Davies for her part testified that she had had a dream which warned her against going to fetch poison. The case against Elizabeth depended on the credibility of these two witnesses.

John Jones’s evidence was vulnerable because he had failed to reveal initially matters to which he now testified at trial. Jane Davies’s credibility was challenged along rather different lines. I reproduce the concluding lines of an exchange, as reported by The Welshman newspaper, with John Evans QC, MP, counsel for the defence, which had revealed that the witness had not seen her husband for some time. Perhaps I should point out that the questions eliciting the replies, save for the first, are not given in the newspaper, but may be easily deduced from the answers.

“By Mr Evans: ‘Do you remember going away from him with David Lloyd of Tregaron?’ (Question repeated.) I did go with David Lloyd. I did not go away with an Englishman named Benjamin. I might have gone away with another man. I do not remember his name. I went with a third man, his name was John Kemp. I did not go with another. Kemp was the last I went from home with. Now I am at home I receive visitors if they have messages for me. David Jones, the miner, has been with me many times. I never asked him to sleep with me. I do not remember whether he did or not. I never wrote down those conversations.” [Witness then left the box, exclaiming sotto voce , “I think I have had enough of it.”]”.

What was this all about? Why was the sexual history of a witness in a trial for murder in any way relevant? The answer is that counsel was bringing it up to discredit her reliability in general: morality, it is tacitly assumed, is a seamless web, and a woman who admits to promiscuity, who has lost her “good name”, cannot be trusted in anything. The same tactic was used against Mrs Dyson, principal witness in one of the most famous of all Victorian trials, that of the burglar and murderer Charles Peace in 1879.

After John Jones had given his evidence, inconsistent as it was with earlier statements he had made, counsel for the Crown gave up entirely, saying that “he did not think he should further the ends of justice by carrying this prosecution on any longer”. The judge agreed, as did the jury, who stated that they had “for some time past been of the opinion that the two principal witnesses were not to be relied on”. Elizabeth Jones, who had fainted and vomited during her trial, was acquitted and left the court.

And there it is. Anne Jones was still dead. Her inflamed internal organs still suggested that her death was unnatural.. The teapot with the arsenical spout sat in the courtroom. It had a story to tell, but it was not this story.

Richard W. Ireland

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The Morgan Runabout

We present another guest blog by John Wiles.

This photograph of Miss Ena Parry of Plas Llidiardau (a gentry house near Llanilar), one of the county’s first woman motorists and cigarette smokers, and friend seated in her Morgan three-wheeler 8hp Runabout (EJ 219) is one of the most iconic images of Cardiganshire at the beginning of the 20th century held by Ceredigion Archives. Ena purchased the car in May 1915 and sold it to Mr Leslie Watkins of Caradoc Road, Aberystwyth, the following April.

A letter from Leslie’s older brother Jack, sent from a YMCA in British East Africa, where he was serving with the Cardiganshire Battery, Royal Field Artillery, comments that ‘Les’ had ‘got his longed for Morgan’. It is possible that Jack, who was a gunner, met Ena’s officer brothers, George and Rufus, through the Territorials, whose barracks (now Gogerddan Place), at the bottom of Penglais Hill lay just behind Stoneleigh, the Watkins’ house.

A later postcard of one of the Elan Valley dams recalls, ‘Jack, Lel [Leslie] & I went here in the first War when he was home on leave, he went on his motor byke & we the little Morgan run about.’ The writer could have been the woman seen in the first photograph below. The man in uniform in the second picture is Jack, with Leslie at the wheel.

The Morgan was not the only Llidiardau vehicle that found its way to the solidly middle class Caradoc Road, Rufus’ 4hp Triumph motorcycle, purchased in February 1914, being sold to John Paith Morgan of The Elms five months later.

John Wiles

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My Time at Ceredigion Archives

We present a guest blog by Hollie who recently spent two happy weeks with us on a work placement!

When I originally asked to be placed at the Archives I had no idea what I was getting into; the closest I had come to working in an archive was through Ancestry and a trip to Manchester Archives when I was 18. I didn’t know what to expect as it is not exactly a job that many people have, but after my two weeks here I must admit I am going to miss it.

I was welcomed here with open arms (something I was incredibly worried about as I’m a very shy and nervous individual) and I immediately felt like part of the team. The first task I was assigned was to go through and check the WI [Women’s Institute] collection to make sure it was all there and to make a note of anything that had not been catalogued. It took me around 3 days to get through it all and a lot of heavy lifting (I commend anyone who is able to lift these heavy boxes round all day because without my trolley it probably would’ve killed me in the end). The WI collection was interesting, especially the scrap books – I’m a pretty nosey person so I spent probably half my time reading them to see what these women had been up to for the past 100+ years.

After the WI collection had been sorted (I think I should be an honorary member at this point since I’ve gone through all their history!) I was able to go forth and work on family history enquires, something that I enjoy doing in my own time and it was probably my favourite part of the whole experience. I loved being able help people piece together their family history and trying to piece together why X family member was there for one census and then an entire new family joining the household by the next census. It feels almost like you’re trying to piece together the story of an individual’s life and when it’s completed you feel a great wave of satisfaction.

As well as doing family history I was also doing the history of people’s houses (which has now caused my mum to want me to find the history of our house). It is so interesting to see how many families live in these houses before we occupy them and makes you wish the walls could talk.

In my final two days I was sorting through memorabilia surrounding the Second World War as well as compiling a list of evacuees that came to Aberystwyth from Liverpool (particularly interesting as my I’m from Liverpool so it felt like I was doing the history of my own city rather than just trying to type up information from lists). I loved going through the memorabilia (again cause I’m very nosey) my favourite piece from that collection had to be the propaganda posters warning people not to talk of the war efforts in case spies were about, pretty ironic considering almost every piece of technology listens in to our conversations now.

Overall I’ve really enjoyed my two weeks here and I’m going to miss everyone dearly. I never knew what being an archivist was about before I came here but now I do, it’s not just knowing the county’s history but being willing and open to listen to peoples stories about their lives, helping people try and solve the mysteries that are our family trees and trying to preserve the past in the hopes that we can learn from it to not make the same mistakes our ancestors have. I’d like to thank Helen and all the other staff here for being so welcoming and kind to me for these past two weeks.


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‘Rock beds’ in North Parade, Aberystwyth: No. 1 of an occasional series on the Lost Civic Gardens of Ceredigion

We are delighted to present another guest blog by John Wiles.

22 03 2019 030

North Parade in 2019. Photograph by John Wiles.

ADX1652 North Parade with rock beds

Valentine’s postcard, 1934 (part of collection ref. ADX/1652)

At first glance this postcard, registered in 1934, appears to show labourers at work on rubble piles between the trees along the northern side of North Parade. On closer inspection low fences can be seen and the ‘piles’ can be recognised as rockeries, the ‘labourers’ being council gardeners engaged in planting them up.

ADX1652 North Parade with rock beds crop

The rockeries were also recorded in the Ordnance Survey resurvey of 1937.

OS 1938 2

Cardiganshire VI.9, revision of 1937

There was fierce competition between resort towns in the interwar years, each seeking to attract visitors by providing up-to-the-minute attractions. Lunar Park on Constitution Hill had been one such and Elysian Grove, at the bottom of Penglais Hill, another. The North Parade rockeries were a humbler expression of the same keen competition, rock gardens being all the rage at the beginning of the 1930s (The Alpine Garden Society was founded in 1929 and its first collecting tour, in 1933, was to Snowdonia). The rock-terraced area above the drive in the grounds of the National Library of Wales had been established by 1932 and may have been contemporary.

ADX1652 North Parade without rock beds

Valentine’s postcard, 1948 (part of collection ref. ADX/1652)


North Parade, 2019. Photograph by John Wiles.

The rockeries may have been removed during the Second World War and are absent from a second postcard, registered in 1948. The message on the back of the earlier card states that it was ‘taken some time ago when the rock beds were there’.

To be continued – maybe…

[John Wiles]

22 03 2019 032

North Parade in 2019. Photograph by John Wiles.

22 03 2019 034

North Parade in 2019. Photograph by John Wiles.

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