'Fascinating' diaries of wartime internment in 1940s to be sold at auction
PUBLISHED: 13:00 18 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:51 21 August 2015
The diaries, written by Lewis Mills Burfitt from Ilfracombe, give a comprehensive insight into the life of internees at an internment camp in Weihsien in the province of Shandong from 1943 to 1945.
In the 70th anniversary year of VJ Day, a pair of handwritten diaries describing the experience of internment in China in the 1940s is to be auctioned by a Honiton auctioneers.
The diaries, written by Lewis Mills Burfitt from Ilfracombe, give a comprehensive insight into the life of internees at the internment camp in Weihsien in the province of Shandong from 1943 to 1945.
They will be put under the hammer at Chilcotts in Honiton, based in Silver Street.
“These diaries make a fascinating read and, bearing in mind the Japanese’ strict regime, it’s amazing to think that they were able to be written at all,” said auctioneer Duncan Chilcott.
“What Mr Burfitt has written really evokes the reality of imprisonment in an internment camp during the war. It seems the prisoners attempted to continue life as normally as possible within the constraints of their situation, with a sense of humour showing through even in adversity.”
Mr Burfitt, who was born in 1894, was a wharf manager in Tientsin with the firm Butterfield & Swire, a business that still continues today as Swire, owners of Cathay Pacific and the China Navigation Company, when he, along with many others, was interned by the Japanese.
The first diary details how the ‘enemy nationals’ were marched to the internment camp: ‘It was like going to a funeral hardly a word was spoken marching in Captivity for an indefinite period’.
Mr Burfitt was a stickler for detail, taking many notes about treatment of internees and the conditions in the camp, seemingly intended to be passed on to the authorities monitoring standards of humanitarian treatment of wartime prisoners in the earlier manifestation of the Geneva Convention.
Committees were elected to deal with day-to-day tasks, such as engineering, finance, medical, discipline and, of course, kitchens. Food was a major issue as rations were low, and Mr Burfitt recorded his weight decreasing from 208lbs on arrival down to 178lbs on July 26, 1944.
The diaries also contain intriguing records of infighting in the camp, births, deaths, illness and black market operations. It transpires that the local Chinese population tried to help, passing supplies – chickens, eggs and even brandy ‒ into the camp, risking terrible physical punishment if they were caught.
The Chinese also smuggled news into the camp, counteracting the Japanese propaganda fed to the internees.
Despite his experiences, it appears that Mr Burfitt stayed on in China for several years after the war finished, a fact unearthed by Saleroom Administrator Jenny Bell when she found a newspaper article from an edition of the Strait Times in 1951, detailing his return to Devon.
The diaries will be auctioned along with a number of Chinese artefacts brought back from China by Mr Burfitt, including an intriguing gold and blue cabinet containing what is thought to be an incense burner, which was presented to him by Butterfield & Swire.
Also in the collection are a Hu-Shaped vase with Qianlong markings and some fascinating books including The Nanking Cookbook, distributed by the American Red Cross, which offers advice on cooking Chinese ingredients.
“We think these items will be of interest to a wide number of buyers,” said Duncan, “from historians and researchers to people who themselves had relatives interned in this or similar camps during the war. But, being unique and quite academic, they are difficult to value.
“We have put them in to the auction with an estimate of £100 to £150 and the market will ensure that they will find their own level.”
The Fine Art Sale takes place on Saturday, September 12 at Chilcotts Silver Street saleroom, next to the Honiton Livestock Market. Viewing is on Thursday and Friday from 9am to 7pm, and the sale starts at 10.30am.