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  • Andrew Hillier

Singapore – Family memories, then and now

In 1951, Squadron-Leader John Hillier (Harold Hillier’s eldest son) was posted to Singapore with the RAF. He flew out whilst his wife and daughter, Daphne and Penny, followed by ship. Shortly afterwards, they were joined by John’s younger sister Libby. It was 120 years since the family had first set foot in this out-post of empire, founded by Stamford Raffles just over ten years before. The story can be traced through Harold Hillier’s grand-father, Charles Batten Hillier, Chief Magistrate of Hong Kong and, briefly, British Consul to Siam, who was married to Eliza, daughter of Walter Medhurst, of the London Missionary Society, and his wife, Betty.

In 1830, Betty’s sister (Eliza’s aunt), Sophia Martin, arrived in Singapore, where she set up a missionary school and married a surveyor/engineer, Thomas Whittle, by whom she had one daughter, also called Sophia. From the 1830s, the Whittles’ home, and, later, that of their daughter, would be an important staging post for the Medhursts and the Hilliers as they travelled to and from Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In November 1846, Eliza's brother, Walter Medhurst, who had suffered recurring illness during his early years as an Interpreter in the Consular Service, was on his way to England for a spell of convalescent leave and stayed with his Aunt in Singapore. He later described the visit in a letter to his sister, Martha, who was living with her parents in Shanghai

'How pretty Singapore is. Every House is surrounded with a garden, large or small, filled with flowers and beautiful creepers seem to overrun everything. Aunt Whittle’s House is adorned very prettily in this way.' [1]

Sophia married Dr Robert Little, a leading doctor in the colony and brother of the founder of the famous department store, and she would go on to have six children before dying in 1869 at the age of 36. They had a large house, called Bonnygrass, with extensive gardens on Institution Hill. Eliza and Martha met there on a number of occasions, the last time in 1855, when Eliza was returning from England and Martha came up from Batavia, where she was living with her husband, Powell Saul. However, the port-city would have sad memories for them. Dr Little tended Walter Medhurst’s second wife, Ann, when she was ill, following the loss of her child at birth, but, without success, and she died in 1855 and was buried in the precincts of what became Singapore Cathedral. That same year, Martha stayed there following the death of her husband Powell Saul, shortly after she had given birth to her fourth child- she was twenty-four. One year later, Eliza stayed there, following the death of her husband, Charles Hillier, in Bangkok, where he had recently been appointed British consul. She was aged twenty-eight and had four children with one more on the way. Writing to Martha, she told her,

'Sophia and Dr Little have been so kind that I feel quite grateful to them both. S. in particular has been so sympathising and tender in her care of and for me. I have been very poorly and suffered a good deal since I came. Robert Little has been attending me all the time and he thinks now I shall do well if I am quiet and careful'.

The following day, she left for England, where she lived for the rest of her life but, no doubt, keeping up her correspondence with Sophia and her family and hearing news of Singapore as it became an increasingly prosperous port-city.

Colonial Setting - Masonic Lodge and Church, Singapore, 1865.

Photograph attributed to John Thomson. DM2887

(Historical Photographs of China ref Fr01-132)

Three of Eliza’s sons, Walter, Harry and Guy, would go on to make their careers in China and the last record we have of a visit to the Littles is when Guy was on his way to Hong Kong, for the first time, and spent over a month staying with Dr Little and his family. Following Sophia’s death, he had re-married and, by the time of Guy’ arrival, his wife, Mary, had probably already had at least three of the five children she would produce before dying in 1884. This was Guy’s first experience of this sort of bustling cosmopolitan world and it would instil in him a life-long love of China and the Chinese language. Soon afterwards, the preferred journey home from Shanghai would change to the Pacific route via Yokohama to California and, with that, the family's visits ceased and the connection seems to have ended.

When John and Daphne arrived in the early 1950s, the Malayan Federation, which had been established in 1948 and included Singapore, was still effectively under British colonial rule or ‘protection’. However, the communist-led War of Independence (‘the Emergency’ as it was called) had already begun and would continue until 1960, although independence would be achieved in 1957. As part of the RAF, John Hillier would have been involved in anti-guerrilla operations.

British troops escorting British families to the Cameron Highlands during the Emergency, photographed by John Hillier, 1952.

Apart from being the headquarters of the British and other Commonwealth forces, everyday life in Singapore remained largely unaffected and peaceful. Both Penny and Libs have fond, if very different, memories of this time and have told their story elsewhere. Penny was aged six and recalled the boat journey out with her mother and leaving behind her elder brother, Mick. He would be sent to boarding school and spend the holidays with his grandfather, Harold and his wife, Angela, a happy time but one in which he would not see his parents for the best part of two years. It was a situation very similar to Harold’s in the early 1900s, when his parents remained in China, where his father was Commissioner of Customs, and he and his brother Geoff were sent to school in England.

Daphne and Penny travelled out on the SS Austurias, which called into Singapore, before proceeding to Australia.

Having arrived, they lived mainly in the RAF camp, outside the city at Changi where they had, Penny recalls, ‘a comfortable bungalow surrounded by grass, a few sad flowers in beds and paths leading to the bungalows. My memories of the grass was that it was so rough, it was uncomfortable to fall over on it.’

'Going to school was not easy. I was a shy child and had never been to school in England. So apart from the strangenesss of it, I was also in another country. Our days at school were shorter than in U.K. and for the next 2 and a half years, I swam every single day.

'We would go to the large Olympic size pool, salt water, as fed from the sea, every day. My mother, who never learnt to swim, strangely, would sit by pool with friends. We would later have lunch there, a curry usually. Malayan curries are very mild and I absolutely loved them. The other place we went to swim, was the Pagar. This was a fenced- in area of the sea. The fencing was to protect us from whatever large and dangerous creatures tried to get in. It didn’t prevent the lethal water snakes from getting in, and as a result a cry would go up and we had to evacuate until they were dealt with. This never worried me at all, just an inconvenience although now I doubt I would have returned! During the monsoon we would stand under the gutters of the clubhouse there as the rain crashed down and it was almost hot when it hit you. We would go to the sea at weekends with friends of my parents, again water snakes were a problem, and I can remember Daddy beating them to death with a stick as they came near the shore.

'We had a succession of “servants” who either lived in or out at our home. The one I remember most was Armoy. She always gave the impression of tolerating us, rather than actually liking us. She had a room at the back of our bungalow with a shower and a squat toilet, which I experimented on..

We travelled to Hong Kong and stayed for a few days. All I can remember is going up The Peak by Funicular train and my mother closing her eyes for the entire journey. I of course loved it. We stayed at the Harbour View Hotel.

We also went on the Star Ferry to Kowloon.

'My mother was never one to be squeamish over cockroaches, extremely large spiders,non poisonous ones of course. They were regular visitors to our house there. I too grew up with no fear of them either. I am exactly the same now. I used to love going into Singapore to watch the snake charmers with their baskets of cobras. Funerals were always a jolly and very noisy occasion. I can still conjure up the unique smell of the place.

I never wore shoes while I was there. My only footwear consisted of a pair of green wooden clogs with a red band across: typically Chinese. Mummy would warn me that hookworm could get into my feet and travel up into my body, but I never listened. I was so brown, (suntan lotion was not really used in the 50’s), that people thought I was Malayan. Never wore a hat either.

Coming home from a party, wearing shoes for once!

For Libby, it was an opportunity to give notice to her eventual husband, Peter Bindon Blood, that he had better make up his mind or she would look elsewhere, and for that purpose, nowhere was better than Singapore . Her father, Harold, was decidedly luke-warm about the idea and bought her the cheapest ticket and she set off on her own in the SS Oranje.

Staying with John and Daphne, she got a job with the Civil Aviation Commission, acting as PA to its chief executive. But work was not too hard and there was plenty of time to enjoy Singapore’s vibrant social life and climate.

A friend, Daphne, Penny and Libby

After a glorious eighteen months, she returned to England, flying to Northolt. After a little prompting, Peter finally made up his mind and he and Libs were married on 20 June 1953. Shortly afterwards, John’s assignment terminated and he, Daphne and Penny returned to England. And with that, the Hillier family’s empire connection with Singapore ended. Twelve years later, it broke away from what had been re-named the Malaysian Federation and became an independent state.

30 May 2020

[1] Letter, Walter to Martha Medhurst, 6 November 1846, SOAS, CWM/LMS, MS 381124/01, Correspondence of Eliza Hillier.

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