Although Colin Reeves is not thought to have particularly known Bottesford, his name appears on the war memorial in St Mary’s Church because his parents lived in Easthorpe when the plaque was being designed and installed in 1950.
Those parents were Frank Reeves and his wife Minnie, nee Boyers, the daughter of a Cleethorpes fish merchant. Frank had been born in Bermondsey in 1884 and grew up at Gordleton Mill in Hordle, Hampshire where his father was a miller. By 1901, Frank was a domestic gardener in Hordle and must have shown strong aptitude as by 1911, aged 26, he was an assistant gardener in the team at the Royal Gardens in Windsor. It is unclear whether Frank served in the Great War, but it seems likely that he did as he is next found in North Lincolnshire, marrying Minnie Boyers in Cleethorpes in the summer of 1920. Their only son, Colin, was born there on the 30 March 1921.
The 1921 census, taken on the 19 June, records that Frank was employed as a gardener for the Marquess of Exeter at Burghley Park, Stamford, living with his wife and young son in a cottage on the estate called The Gas House. This may be a clue to how Minnie and Frank met, as it could be that they were both on the servant staff at Burghley House, it being about 70 miles south of Minnie’s home town.
In 1925 the Reeves relocated to the village of Deene near Corby, which indicates that Frank took a new post in the gardens team at Deene Park and was there until at least 1931. In the 19th century Deene Park was the home of James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, and the estate is still in the Brudenell family today.
Colin Reeves’ education was somewhat peripatetic due to his father’s work, with the boy attending schools in Kettering in 1932 and in Oakham in 1933-34. On the 12 November 1934 he registered at The King’s School, Peterborough, when the family’s address was at Church Hill, Castor. It is likely that Frank Reeves had taken a job at nearby Milton Hall, the seat of the Fitzwilliam family and supposedly the inspiration for Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca. There is another possibility in the village of Castor itself, though, as Castor House, built in the 17th century for the Bishops of Peterborough, also had extensive gardens.
Frank took a new job at The Gardens, Blake Hall, Ongar in the summer of 1935 and consequently Colin moved to Wanstead High School on the 7 June. However, they decided to send him back to The King’s School as a boarder to complete his education from the 23 September 1935.
The King’s School conducted a project from 2012 to 2014 to investigate the lives of past-pupils who had died serving in the two World Wars. A memorial document produced from the project observes of Colin that “He took an active part in school life at The King’s School. He was cast as Bertrand de Poulengey in the 1936 School production of Saint Joan (see photograph). On 3 April 1936 the Peterborough Standard printed a review of the play, in which it stated that Colin’s performance had been that of “a quiet, convinced character”. The following year he was cast as Albert in the one-act thriller A Night at an Inn. He was on the rugby team as a wing three-quarter in 1936-37. He passed his Oxford School Certificate, in July 1936, with credits in English, Religious Knowledge, English and European History, French, Mathematics and Art. In 1937 he was a prefect and became Head of School House. He left on 3 April 1937 to take up a position of insurance broker’s clerk for The Century Insurance Company of London.”
When the Second World War started, the 1939 National Register shows that Frank was a gardener at a private estate, Headley Grove, which lay between Dorking and Epsom in Surrey and was occupied by a director of a London accountancy firm. The speed record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell owned the neighbouring Headley Hall. Given his prior experience and the fact he was living in the Gardener’s Cottage it may be assumed that Frank was by then the head gardener.
On the 30 May 1941 Colin joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as an Aircraftman 2nd Class, service number 1441963. After training as an armourer he was assigned to Number 3 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit (later becoming Number 5 COTU) to work on Bristol Beauforts and Avro Wellingtons at RAF Chivenor. 3 COTU also occasionally used various other airfields including RAF Bottesford, but as ground crew it is only a slim chance that Colin visited there.
During the early part of the war Frank and Minnie moved to The Lilies, at Weedon in Buckinghamshire, where Frank had new gardening employment. That was the address recorded for Colin’s next-of-kin on his military records. The Lillies was a farm and country house with extensive grounds that had for many years been owned by a Miss Isobel Heap, who died whilst in London on the 29 June 1940. The property was sold that autumn to The Distillers Company, the well known whisky and spirits manufacturer, though it is unclear as to their planned use. However, as there had been several SRN registered nurses living there in 1939 and the house was sold on to the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital in 1946 for use in patient care and nurse training, it is likely that Distillers bought the house to serve as a medical facility either for their own staff who were serving in the War, or perhaps as a contribution to the wider national need. Isobel Heap already had her own gardening team led by a Mr Stubbs at the time of the sale, so it must be that Frank Reeves was brought in to take over at The Lilies by Distillers Company some time in 1941.
On the 4 December 1941, Colin Reeves was posted to the Far East, and worked at RAF Seletar on Singapore. The base was one of the main Air Ammunition Parks for the Far East and home to 151 Maintenance Unit, along with 205 Squadron (PBY Catalina flying boats), plus the torpedo bombers of 36 (Fairey Albacores) and 100 (obsolete Vickers Vildebeest) Squadrons. At the end of 1941 a handful of Australian built Bristol Beauforts were delivered to 100 Squadron, so Colin Reeves may well have arrived to work on them (although ironically they were returned to Australia a month later due to technical issues). He was one of the ground crew evacuated from Singapore to Java in the face of the Japanese advance in early 1942. He became a Prisoner of War in March 1942 when the Japanese overran Java, one of about 2,000 RAF personnel among the 8,000 Allied men captured.
Frank and Minnie Reeves would have heard that their son was missing and then that he had been notified to be a Prisoner of War thanks to Red Cross messages conveyed via the Ministry of War, but they would have received little other information until after the war ended. Japanese administrative cards held details for each man and have recently become available to researchers.
The record card for Colin Reeves tells that he was captured on the 8 March 1942 on Java and initially held in a PoW camp there, his captors noting his prior occupation as “clerical worker”. Most of the RAF men had spent the fortnight prior to capture travelling in a road convoy from Batavia (present day Jakarta) in West Java to Surabya, a port 1,000 miles to the east, to keep ahead of the invaders and out of the way of the defending Dutch/American/British combined army force. When it was clear Surabya was a target for attack, they were put on trains towards the south coast for expected evacuation, but on the 5-6 March told to disembark, issued with rifles and instructed they would have to fight the Japanese in the hills. On the 7 March the Dutch government of Java capitulated without warning their allies, leaving the RAF men and other allied troops no option but to surrender. The capture date of 8 March suggests Colin Reeves had reached somewhere on the south coast of Java, near to the port of Tjilatjap.
He would first have been taken to an assembly point, probably Garoet, before being put into a group and sent to one of many PoW camps that the Japanese established in what had previously been army camps, schools, farms and other compounds. Over the following months the men would be moved between various camps across the island, organised into work parties to perform repairs to cratered airfields and damaged dockyards, or to work in ship loading and farm production. Relations with the Japanese guards started reasonably well, but deteriorated over time, not helped by the PoWs’ efforts to sabotage many tasks they were given to do. Colin Reeves’ card shows that by the 15 August 1942 he was held at Java Camp III, which appears to be the camp where the card was created, so was probably a large camp with an administration function though it is unclear exactly which one. By the end of the year he had been moved to a camp named Jaarmarket in Surabaya which also served as a sorting centre to pick groups of prisoners to be despatched away from Java.
In April 1943 Reeves was in a large PoW workforce shipped on the Amagi Maru 1,500 km to the Island of Haroekoe (a.k.a. Haruku) in the Molucca Islands near Ambon, Indonesia. The prisoners were assigned to a work detail (possibly called “Tomoe” or “Circle”) that was to build an airfield for the Japanese air force. Colin Reeves must surely have followed the same route and experiences recounted by one of his RAF colleagues, Harold “Bill” Evans, who wrote some notes after the war. Evans’ son compiled them into an online article, well worth reading at this link “Prisoner Under the Rising Sun“. It tells of the journey from the camp at Yogyakarta by train to Surabaya, then by ship to Ambon and Ceram, and finally to Haruku (Haroekoe). The Japanese provided a card for each man to send a message home after they had been captive for some weeks, but apparently the cards took a long time to reach the families keenly awaiting news back in England. Evans’ own card is shown in the article, having reached his family not long before he returned home himself.
The prisoners’ task at Haroekoe was to level large rock hills to clear a surface to make a runway, ostensibly in preparation for Japanese attacks on Australia (described by a fellow PoW in an audio clip). Conditions at Haroekoe were dreadful and Colin fell ill on the 11 July 1943 suffering from shigellosis (a form of bacillary dysentery) and beriberi. He died on the 9 September 1943 and was buried at the Batoe Doeah POW Cemetery on Haroekoe island.
After the War, investigations gathered many reports from surviving prisoners and a report by a Dutch military doctor, Rudi Springer, about the Haroekoe captives can be read at this link – it makes harrowing reading.
Formal notification confirming Colin’s death finally reached his parents and they placed a notice in The Times on the 9 September 1946: “Reeves: In sacred remembrance of our dearly beloved and only child, Colin, reported to have died on Sept 9 1943, whilst a prisoner in Japanese hands; late of Oakham and Peterborough (King’s) Schools, and of The Century Insurance Co., London, aged 22 years. ‘But O! for the touch of a vanish’d hand, and the sound of a voice that is still!’. From his brokenhearted Dad and Mum”.
By 1949 when the Bottesford war memorial was being finalised to be installed in St Mary’s Church, Frank and Minnie had moved to Easthorpe, living in the cottage that is now named The Old Bakery. Frank was employed as gardener at Easthorpe Lodge, the home of retired army Captain Frederick Henry Le Gendre Horton who had married Kathleen Player, daughter of the Nottingham cigarette magnate, in 1919. Hence, at his parents’ request, Colin’s name came to be included on the Second World War memorial in the south transept at St Mary’s – photographs are at this link.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission conducted a grave relocation exercise following the end of the War and Colin was re-interred in a new plot at Ambon CWGC cemetery. Colin Reeves is not listed among the 1939-45 names on the Weedon war memorial, indicating confirmation that his parents had moved away from there by the time names were being added to the existing WW1 memorial. As well as being named on the Bottesford memorial in St Mary’s Church, his name has been added in 2014 to the memorial at The King’s School, Peterborough, thanks to the research project that they conducted. The researcher Jane King, who advised the school project, reports that they also arranged via the Royal British Legion service for a wreath to be laid on Colin’s grave at Ambon War Cemetery. They felt that, as he was an only child, and his parents almost certainly never had chance to visit his grave, it was an appropriate gesture to honour him in a tangible way.
Frank and Minnie Reeves later moved to Knighton in Powys, Wales and finally settled at Hatcliffe, close to Minnie’s home town of Cleethorpes. Frank died there in 1964 and Minnie in 1978.
Incidentally, Frank’s older sibling Alfred Reeves was in the same profession, for many years being the head gardener at Upton Manor in the Wirral, home of a Liverpool cotton merchant named Maurice Stern. The two boys from the back streets of Bermondsey had gone a long way from their origins.
Thanks to Jane King, Trevor Elliott and Jane Kennedy for research assistance and to Jesse Kirkwood for Japanese-English translation. And to Jane King and The King’s School, Peterborough for kind permission to use images.
Research and text by Bill Pinfold
RAF Training – http://www.rafweb.org/Organsation/OTU_1.htm
RAF in Far east – https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/raf-in-se-asia
RAF Seletar, Singapore – https://www.rafseletar.co.uk/history/short-history/
Captive Memories represents a distillation of the range of Far East POW historical research undertaken at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. It includes oral histories including men who survived Haruku camp. Some of the recordings are also available via the Imperial War Museum. There is also a 360-degree view of a 2019 exhibition about PoW Medicine.
LJ Audus, RAF – https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80032083
AJ Burrows, RAF – https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80027118
EH Lock, RN – https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80032109