Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Brown, wife of Captain E. A. Brown OBE ,VD, JP, of Singapore. He was interned in Changi. She was evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke [sunk 15.2.42] with her daughter Shelagh [see below]. They occupied the same garage in Irenelaan, Palembang, as Phyllis Briggs [Hut No. 9]. Mary died in captivity 17 January 1945, aged 67, at Muntok. Her grave is shown below.
Ms. Dorothy Shelagh Brown b.1916 in Singapore. Educated in UK returning to Singapore in 1936. Worked at the Ministry of War Economy. Evacuated with her mother [see above] on the Vyner Brooke Held at Palembang from March 1942 to November 1944, then Muntok from November 1944 to April 1945, and finally Loebek Linggau from April 1945 to September 1945. She was a keen singer. She married the Rev. Arthur B Lea in June 1946 and lived in Canada 1946 – 1952 and then the UK. Arthur died in 1988. Shelagh died on 30 November 2005 aged 89. Papers donated to Imperial War Museum.
Obituary of Shelagh Lea:
Vicar’s wife who survived shipwreck and
incarceration as a PoW in the Far East
The Daily Telegraph [London] 07 Dec 2005.
SHELAGH LEA, who has died aged 89, survived shipwreck, then near- starvation and numerous bouts of malaria during a three-and-a-half year internment in Japanese prisoner of war camps after the fall of Singapore; her diaries of the period were later among the accounts used as the basis for the television series Tenko and the film Paradise Road.
She was born Dorothy Shelagh Brown in Singapore on March 23 1916, the daughter of Major Edwin Brown, a former Army officer who had gone into the import-export business and was, for more than three decades, choirmaster of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in the centre of the city, where he was known as “the man who put the ‘sing’ in Singapore”.
Shelagh and her siblings were sent to school in England, but by 1939 she was back in Singapore and living with her parents. On the outbreak of war she took a job in the city’s Ministry of War Economy.
At the beginning of 1942, with Singapore under attack from the Japanese, the British were being advised to evacuate. On February 10, with just a few possesions, Shelagh and her mother left their home. “We took our dogs to the vets,” she later recalled, “and told him if we were not back in three days then you know what to do.”
Her father had elected to stay in the city, so the two women were sent to the Raffles hotel to await details of the evacuation. There, looking out on to burning buildings and streets strewn with the dead and dying, amid the fumes of the smashed bottles of spirits which the hotel staff had destroyed to prevent the enemy getting drunk, Shelagh Brown watched Singapore crumble. “A city dying,” she later recalled, “is a revolting sight.”
Mother and daughter were sent to the docks where they were given a place in the Vyner Brooke, a freighter equipped for 12 passengers into which were crammed 250 evacuees, mostly women and children. They set sail at night and anchored during the day. But on February 14 they were spotted by six Japanese bombers which proceeded to attack, firing continuously until a bomb smashed through the vessel’s forward hatch and exploded inside, blowing a hole in the keel and injuring many of those on board.
Almost immediately the Vyner Brooke started to list and the evacuees began to abandon ship. Mrs Brown, despite weighing 15 stone and having a heart condition, climbed down a rope ladder, but Shelagh was thrown into the water. They would probably have lost each other for ever if a sailor who had helped them into their life- jackets the previous evening had not swum over and told her: “Your mother’s over there and she’s calling for you.” She found Mrs Brown holding on to an injured nurse whom she had promised not to leave. She was finally persuaded to let go when it became apparent that the nurse had died.
Shelagh and her mother clung to a raft in the open sea for the next 18 hours. Numb with cold, at one point Shelagh found a large lump of seaweed which she used to keep warm. But at daybreak the following morning they found themselves surrounded by nine Japanese ships. They were hauled aboard and taken to Bangka island, from where they were transported to the first of several PoW camps.
It was from this moment on that Shelagh began to record her experiences in diary form, describing with measured understatement the squalor that was to become a part of their everyday life. “Find water in stream. Wash a bit… ” she recorded from the pigsty on Bangka island where the shipwrecked women were first housed. “All smelly with crude oil – seaweed etc in hair.”
During their internment Shelagh and Mrs Brown, along with the other women with whom they were incarcerated, were moved from camps on Bangka to Sumatra and back to Bangka again. The women proved themselves to be resourceful and selfless in the face of many horrors. From designing lavatories to cope with the endless dysentery to devising sun hats out of old umbrellas and fashioning outfits from old pyjamas, the women coped with their situation manfully, forming a community and supporting each other when they were ill and unable to work.
Mrs Brown overcame terrible injuries to her feet after a long march early on in their incarceration, and when Shelagh was suffering several bouts of malaria, her mother became the camp entrepreneur, making and selling mattresses stuffed with grass. “Mother,” Shelagh recorded in her diary with pride, “is now the breadwinner.”
Mother and daughter also took part in camp entertainments, and Mrs Brown delighted in dressing up for these occasions, adorned with chillis for earrings and a necklace of pumpkin seeds. When their tiny rations reduced even the stately Mrs Brown to skin and bone, her daughter recorded her delight at being able to fit into a pair of trousers, later noting: “Mother has lost 1 ft round waist and 1 ft round hips in the last year.”
Nevertheless, conditions were intolerable: “Rats, rats, rats,” wrote Shelagh in late 1943. “They eat our clothes, bananas etc on shelves and lay their young in our luggage. There are bugs in our dorm. Mrs Colley finds them in her net. Bugs, rats, the trots – life is not such fun. When we go to the lav the mossies bite our bottoms. It is all very ghastly… ”
Three years into their imprisonment, shortly after their seventh camp move, Mrs Brown died, succumbing to beri-beri and malaria. The other women managed to get hold of a coffin, and they buried her on Bangka island, placing the earth over her grave with their bare hands. More than 50 years later, Shelagh Lea was able to look back on her memories of her last years with her mother with remarkable equanimity. “We had fun together,” she said in 1999, “had little giggles and things… She was always busy with her hands. Doing things, making things. One thing I was always thankful for was that she was spared the last awful journey and the last camp. At least she was out of her miseries before that.”
On August 14 1945 the Japanese agreed to an unconditional surrender. “It didn’t register at first,” she said later. “All I could think about was it was my turn to cook lunch. When I went back to our room, that is when I realised we were going home and the tears started to fall.”
She was reunited with her father, to whom she had to break the news of his wife’s death. He had spent three years interned at Changi, the notorious men’s camp in Singapore, but after their reunion he never mentioned his own experiences of captivity, nor asked about hers. None of their possessions had survived the occupation and so they returned to Britain, via India, to live with her sister Barbara in Northern Ireland.
During her time in captivity, Shelagh Brown and her fellow internees would keep up morale by writing endless lists; one of them, which she kept until her death, was a description of her ideal wardrobe, which included brogues, skirts from Jaeger and a shooting stick. She would also list the people she had known in her old life, always beginning with Arthur Lea, a young man with whom she had corresponded after meeting him three times when he had umpired at her brother’s rugby matches.
During her internment, Lea kept in touch with Shelagh’s sister and resumed his correspondence with Shelagh after the war. Within a month of her return to Britain he had proposed, inviting her to move to Canada where he had recently been ordained. Undaunted by the prospect of yet more travel, she sailed across the Atlantic then took a train to North Saskatchewan. They married in June 1946 and a year later their son was born.
In 1952, following the birth of their daughter, the family returned to England where Shelagh Lea embraced her role as the wife of a country parson. She also indulged her passion for singing, joining choral societies wherever her husband’s ministry took her; thus she was able to say that she had sung at Singapore Cathedral, in the prison camp choir and the Three Choirs Festival. Following Arthur Lea’s death in 1988, she moved into sheltered accomodation provided by the Church of England.
Shelagh Lea’s diaries, which record with restrained but meticulous detail many of the privations, triumphs and tragedies of camp life, are now part of an archive held at the Imperial War Museum and are regarded as some of the most important records of that time. She was at pains to point out, however, that film and television representations of the period contained inaccuracies, not least in their portrayal of some of the women as imperious and difficult. All the internees, she said, looked out for each other and, in particular, for each other’s children. Although half the women with whom she was interned did not survive captivity, none of the children died.
In 1999, whilst recording further recollections of the period, she revealed that much of the impetus for noting down the events that took place had been to honour her mother. The diaries were written, she explained, “really with her in mind. So if I popped out of this world, something would be on paper about mother.”
Shelagh Lea’s strength of spirit was not confined to her experiences during the war. In later life she survived two brushes with cancer and bore her final illness with stoicism and good humour. Whilst staying in an insalubrious hospital ward during the last year of her life, she kept herself going by reciting flower names in alphabetical order. She died on November 30, after listening to evensong on the radio, as she did each Wednesday.
She is survived by her son and daughter.
In the camp Margaret Dryburgh wrote this poem:
To Mrs [Mary] Brown A Birthday card poem by Margaret Dryburgh 1/1/1943
When in due time we freedom taste
And from Sumatra make great haste,
Some campers will remembered be
For striking personality.
Among these one’s of high renown
Her name is Mrs. E. A. Brown,
She thrilling tales of perils great
And strange adventures can relate.
Of household tasks she takes her share
She picks the cereal with great care,
With strength and patience grinds the rice
For cakes and puddings specially nice.
With Mr Wilson’s shoes on feet
She often walks along the street
Her lampshade hat’s a well-known sight-
It keeps of rain as well as light
Both young and old come for advice
To one so affable and wise,
To keep the boys from devilries
She plays at “Happy families”.
She helps to entertain sad hearts
And in charades takes many parts,
Though not so young as once she was,
As Prima Donna wins applause.
As English teacher to two Dutch
Her services are valued much
Her lessons are so popular
That others try to overhear.
Examples of economy
She scatters round most generously-
She tells her friends and kindred dear
To keep her Birthday at New Year!
So now we greet her heartily,
We hope her years will many be,
And trust that nineteen forty-three
Will bring her great felicity.
Footnote on the boots that Mary is wearing in the image above. We have recently found out that Ernest Wilson who gave them to her was on the SS Siang Wo with Rohan Rivett. Wilson was held for a while at Muntok but was assigned by the Japanese to be a part of the crew that took HMS Tapah back to Singapore where he was held prisoner. He survived.
Rohan Rivett was an Australian journalist, grandson of past Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. Rivett escaped from Muntok ahead of the Japanese only to be captured in Java. He was then taken to Changi and the Burma Railway. His story is written in his book ‘Behind Bamboo’.