The Royal Commonwealth Society Collection at Cambridge University Library has digitized the archives of two Second World War civilian internment camps established by the Japanese at Singapore, generously funded by a Research Resources Award from the Wellcome Trust. The records are of immense interest to the families of internees and a wide range of researchers, since few survivors ever spoke of their traumatic ordeal. The survival of this unique archive is largely due to the vision of Hugh Bryson, a career member of the Malayan Civil Service, who himself was interned. While Secretary of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore from 1952 to 1967, he collected original documents, diaries and correspondence of historical interest from members, and encouraged them to write their memoirs. When the association disbanded in 1977, its archive was deposited with the Royal Commonwealth Society, and it came to Cambridge in 1993 when the University acquired its library.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, British colonial civil servants remained at their posts and civilians running businesses overseas stayed to support the war effort. In this respect Malaya’s rubber and tin industries were particularly important. There were plans to evacuate women and children from Malaya, but the speed of the Japanese invasion in December 1941 caught many by surprise. There was an exodus of refugees to Singapore as the Japanese advance continued. Memoirs in the collection record the final battle for Singapore: aerial bombardment, shelling, blazing petrol stores in the harbour and the acrid smoke of burning fuel.