‘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

 

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