Going astern with Richard Dunn

I often receive mail from readers and on May 19, an email from Richard Dunn in London started us corresponding because he planned to visit Johor Baru in June.

Portrait of Richard's grandmother,
Florence May Still (nee Drysdale)
holding one of her children
Richard wrote:

Hi Peggy

I have been reading your fantastic blog which has been of great interest to me.

I am from a British family who, through my Great-Great Grandfather, first came out to the Far East.  Dr Wall set foot in Labuan in 1873 and died there circa 1879.

However his two daughters and son were shipped to Singapore in 1877 aged 9, 7 and 4. They never saw their father or mother again and started life in Singapore living at St Mary's Home in Tank Road and all attended Raffles School in Bras Basah Road.

And there began nearly 80 years of association with Singapore and Johore.

My Grandmother, born Singapore 1893, wrote extensive diaries of her time in the Far East and my Grandfather was very close to Sultan Ibrahim up until 15 February 1942.

Maybe there is something interesting in them for you?

I will be in Singapore from 9 June for a few weeks.

Below I have included the profiles of some of my family in the Far East.

Best regards
Richard Dunn

Richard’s message was rather lengthy as it listed details about his family members who were in this part of the world since his great-great grandfather arrived in Labuan in 1873.  It looked like he did some serious research and came up with a long list that included a section where his maternal grandfather and grandmother were in JB.

After his great-great grandfather passed away in Labuan, his three children were shipped to Singapore as “Orphans of the Empire” and they grew up in St Mary’s Home.  One of these three children was Alice Frances Wall, his maternal great-grandmother.  In 1889, she married James Henderson Drysdale.

From this couple (his great-grandparents), his grandmother, Florence May Drysdale, was born in Singapore in 1893.  She married his grandfather, Frank Mogford Still, at St Andrews Cathedral in 1918.

While the portion about his family in Labuan and Singapore listed some familiar places, the part where his grandfather and grandmother lived in JB, was of particular interest to me. 

As Richard discussed the names and places in JB, I highlighted them [in bold] and I assured him that I would show him these places – wherever possible – when he was here.  It was especially intriguing where he pointed out that his grandfather was, “Right hand man to Sultan Ibrahim,” and I made a mental note to find out more.

Maternal Grandfather - Frank Mogford Still
1891 - born London 24 December
1916 - arrived Far East circa - Lamag Rubber Estate, British North Borneo
1918 - married St Andrews Cathedral, 17 October
1928 - joined the Johore Public Works Department and became Chief Accountant
1934 - moved to Bukit Jepun, Johore
Inspector of Prisons, Johore
Major Johore Military Forces
Honorary Secretary Royal Johore International Club
Honorary Secretary Johore Civil Service Club
President of the Johore Football Association
President of the Johore Badminton Association
Honorary Secretary of the Royal Selangor Club
Right hand man to Sultan Ibrahim
1942, 16 February - incarcerated Changi Concentration Camp
1945, 15 September - released Changi Concentration Camp
1948 to1950 - Custodian of Enemy Property, Seremban
1950 - Officer Commanding Auxiliary Police for the Mukim of Seremban
1951 to 1954 - Singapore Government, War Damage Commission Assessor, Penang and Malacca
1957 - Died England

Maternal Grandmother - Florence May Still (nee Drysdale)
1893, 2 May - born Singapore
1916 circa - Headmistress of the Chinese Girls' High School, Singapore
1917 circa - Head Maths Mistress at St Andrew's School, Singapore
1934/1937/1941 - Headmistress of Ngee Heng Primary School
1941 circa - Volunteer nurse Kandang Kerbau Hospital
1942, 31 January - sailed from Singapore on the Empress of Japan with three daughters
1949 - Teacher Deans School
1977 - Died England

Richard Dunn at Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru
Richard revealed that he gleaned most of the information from his grandmother’ memoirs which she entitled, Jalan Astern.  I asked him to repeat that title because I thought it was such a charming phrase with two words: one in Malay and the other, so typically English!

Richard’s grandmother, a former headmistress of Ngee Heng Primary School, was clearly conversant in Malay and I was totally charmed by how apt it was to name her personal journal, Jalan Astern!  Locals, by the way, have long corrupted the word, astern, and choose to say, “gostan” which is accepted to mean ‘reverse or go backwards,’ instead of the proper word, astern!

I didn’t know it then but Richard did extensive preparation and groundwork before starting on his trip out to the Far East.  From his grandmother’s memoirs, he looked up names and addresses, and wrote to them informing about his impending trip and how he would like to see the places which his forebears lived or went to school in Singapore.

Envelope with letter to the Johor Sultan, addressed
to The Secretary to HH Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor
In Johor, Richard also wrote to the Johor Military Forces, Yayasan Warisan Johor (Johor Heritage Foundation) and Johor Civil Service Club as well as to Ngee Heng Primary School.  He, however, did not receive any replies except a rather impolite line from the Heritage Foundation – which occupies the site of the house at Bukit Jepun where his grandparents used to live in 1934.

He even wrote a letter to the Johor Sultan and posted it by airmail to Istana Serene.  He thought that it was more appropriate to address it to the Sultan’s secretary as the Sultan would probably have someone to check his mail for him.  Richard also felt that it was more polite to write to the Sultan in his own handwriting (instead of a typed page) and took the time and effort to do so.  [He showed me a copy of his handwritten letter!]

I must admit that I was rather skeptical if his letter would even reach the Sultan because the address was not quite complete and addressed His Royal Highness as HH Ibrahim Ismail of Johor while his name is Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Sultan Iskandar.  Privately, I hoped that the postman would just do his job and proof to our English friends that we know who our Sultan is and where His Highness lives!

Richard on his laptop, in my car!
In his grandmother’s memoirs, she often referred to the first Sultan Ibrahim as “HH,” as they were close friends and she was friendly with his sister, Tengku Ampuan Meriam.

Richard was clearly on a quest to see and do as much as he possibly could on a trail where his family members once lived, worked or died.  He was travelling with his wife, Lindsay, and when they first reached Singapore, they had appointments to meet with people in the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and the Raffles Institution. 

Later, I learnt that they also visited the Changi Prison where his grandfather was incarcerated as a Prisoner of War during the Japanese Occupation.  And at the Kranji War Memorial, they found the tomb of his maternal great-uncle Francis (Frank) Stewart Drysdale.  In 1915, he was a private in the Singapore Volunteer Forces and perished, aged 17, as the youngest volunteer to lose his life in the Singapore Mutiny.

While Richard was already in Singapore, I received his email saying that they have planned a few days in JB before leaving for Seremban and onward to Labuan and other towns in East Malaysia.  He did his research on hotels in JB and asked for my opinion before deciding on his choice.  He was clearly internet savvy and was booking hotels and air tickets online – on the go!

At the hotel porch with Richard and Lindsay
It was Thursday, when we arranged to meet in the hotel lobby.  When I arrived, it was not difficult to spot an Englishman talking animated to the concierge, and that was how I finally met with Richard and Lindsay.

Over lunch, we discussed an itinerary that should show him as much of what he wished to see during his stay here.  I realized that it was rather short notice for much of what we wanted to do, especially so because this visit coincided with a weekend during Ramadan.  But I had the opportunity to share with them, some local culture and traditions that interested and fascinated them.

In the next two days, I got to know Richard and his wife – just as he got to know me better – over and above what he already knows from reading My Johor Stories.  It turned out to be quite an extraordinary experience, not just for the visitors but also for me.  But more about that later.

Richard’s quest to discover his links here is in the next exciting episode of his journey to sites in JB based on Jalan Astern, his grandmother’s meticulously recorded memoirs.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting tale of a man's personal odyssey to discover his roots! Disappointing to hear of the lack of responses from some but, thank goodness, we can always count on Peggy to showcase some true Malaysian hospitality! Well done!