Finding Cousin Fred

Every year, in October, forty or so people gather in London for lunch. They travel from all across the United Kingdom. On the face of it they would seem to have nothing in common. Indeed, save the very reason they are there, they probably don't. And yet it is a gathering which they anticipate and treasure and which they would hate to miss. Because this is the annual luncheon of the Malayan Volunteers Group. No, they are not Malayan. Some have never even visited that country. But they, and indeed we, are all connected through Malaysia.  We all have a family member who lived and worked in what was then known as Malaya and who, when faced with the probability of invading Japanese forces during World War Two, joined one of the many volunteer groups to defend Malaya and Singapore. Many of them, of course, were killed or wounded, many more were captured and suffered the deprivations of a POW camp.

The Malayan Volunteers Group was formed in 2005. It developed from the regular informal gatherings of a few British Malayans who were Volunteer veterans, who relished the opportunity to talk about days gone by. Of course, over the years, as time has marched on, their numbers decreased and the tradition was carried on by their children and families.  The MVG does, of course, have a serious purpose. It aims to increase awareness of the important, and unique, role of those involved in the Malayan Campaign and to revive friendships, help with research and to raise money to restore memorials and build new ones. But for most, I suspect, the chance to catch up, to trade information and simply mark the lives of those family members is the reason that, rather than dwindle as one might expect, membership is growing. And, by all accounts, growing fast.

My family's connection to the group is through my Nana's cousin, Fred Densham. Born in Wandsworth in 1890, he joined the 5th Royal Irish Lancers at the outbreak of the First World War but spent most of the war in a POW camp in Germany, having been captured at Mons in the autumn of 1914. After the Great War, Fred moved to Malaya to manage a rubber plantation. He visited England, and his Aunt Jane – my Great Grandmother – many times  in Derby, and my Nana remembered Fred, a very talented artist, sitting in the back garden there, sketching and painting.

Cousin Fred sitting in his planter's bungalow before the war 

But come the outbreak of the Second World War our family lost contact with Fred. My granddad Rippon had found work in Hull and had moved there, taking my Nana and Great Grandmother with him. After the war, with my family back in Derby, no word came of Cousin Fred. And it was assumed that he had perished. But the stories about him were passed down to my father and then to me. And when we began researching our family tree we became determined to find out just what had happened to Fred. And this was how we came upon the MVG.

Fred, on the left, with friends from the rubber planting community 

And through them we've learned a great deal. Firstly, we learned that Fred had not perished during the invasion. In fact he had joined the Johore Volunteer Engineers who had fought the invading forces right back to Singapore. And then, after the surrender, he had been captured and imprisoned at Changi, where he spent the rest of the war. We all know about the deprivations suffered there but what surprised, and delighted, us was the revelation that Fred had survived it all. After the war he had returned to the rubber plantations, taking charge of a business in Penang where he had become the doyen of the local rubber planting community.  

He was quite a character too. He had a common-law marriage with a Malay woman and adopted two Chinese daughters (one of whom married another planter, while the other married a member of the Malay aristocracy). He liked to socialise and could drink men half his age under the table. And only passed away in the 1970s.  Spurred on by this information, and thanks to genealogical websites we made contact with the descendants of one of his siblings, and learned that he had returned to the UK several times after the war. Ironically, we now we believe that Fred had assumed his Derby family had perished during the war, as they had he.

Of course we never had the chance to talk with Fred about his wartime experiences and, understandably, it's rare that surviving former prisoners speak of it at all. But through the MVG we have a little more idea of what life was like for him during the war, of course, but in particular in the years before and afterwards. And we've come to know several ex-veterans and their offspring. As well as men and women who, as children, were evacuated to escape the invasion. And the families of other Malayan Volunteers some of whom survived to old age, others who perished in the camps. And that annual lunch must echo dozens more up and down the country, where people go to learn, to honour and to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.

Fred, on the right, in his later years, enjoying life 

And our involvement with the Malayan Volunteers Group has enabled us to honour those men, and women, like Fred, who were caught up in that terrible conflict. On the 65th Anniversary of VJ Day we all attended a memorial service at the National Memorial Arboretum and the unveiling of a special monument there. And, in a way, it has been a vow by all of us to tell their stories so that that particular part of our wartime history will never be forgotten. This is part of that vow.