Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hong Kong Naturalist: A journal and an original subscriber - R.A.C. North

A few years ago I was pleased to buy a complete bound set of Hong Kong Naturalist. Founded by G.A.C. Herklots, it was published from 1930 until the Japanese invasion of 1941. I was pleased to find that the colour plates were intact except, strangely, in the last two volumes (bound differently and of a larger page size than the others) where they had been crudely torn out. They were bought on eBay from a bookseller in the south of England for much less than the price of postage. Each volume is signed inside the cover and I was surprised when I recognised the owner from the signature, R.A.C. North.

Roland Arthur Charles North CMG was Secretary of Chinese Affairs in the Hong Kong Government from 1936 until the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese invaders on Christmas Day 1941. He was a key figure in a controversy that occupied the Government of Hong Kong and the British Government after Japan unconditionally surrendered on 14 August 1945 and the re-establishment of British administration by the brilliant Colonial Secretary (two higher than North in the civil service hierarchy), Franklin Gimson, who had only arrived in Hong Kong a couple of days before the Japanese invasion. After the arrival of Admiral Harcourt with ships from the Pacific Fleet, British sovereignty was re-established in September 1945.

The controversy centred on the role of leading figures in the Chinese community during the Japanese occupation. Collaboration beyond the point of necessity was the charge. Some gave a dinner for the departing Japanese Governor after the surrender. Badly-nourished internees emerging from Stanley were enraged by seeing individuals who “had shouted ‘Banzai!’ yesterday singing ‘God Save the King’ today”1. North, operating from the old French Mission Building [now housing the Orwellian-titled Court of Final Appeal], put out a press statement on 2 October to counter the public outrage at the acceptance of these leaders back into the fold of the new  administration saying that he had asked these individuals in January 1942, ‘to take upon themselves what should have been my duty in working with the Japanese’. The new Government crushed the view that one or more individuals should be put on trial and the leaders moved back into a position of influence with the government. The feeling though persisted amongst both the wartime Chinese residents who had been extremely badly treated by the Japanese and the British. I remember driving along a road in Hong Kong with a policeman friend in 1967. He suddenly exploded with ‘That road [named after one of the Chinese gentry involved] should be re-named. We don’t want collaborators like that being commemorated.’ But they were.

North, with the rest of the internees, was repatriated to UK after issuing his statement in October 1945; he arrived in Southampton on 9 November on the Royal Mail Lines ship Highland Monarch. He was appointed CMG (Supplement to London Gazette, 13 June 1946).

Thanks to a family website on and websites centred on his father, the artist John William North ARA (1842-1924), I have pieced the following account together.

J.W. North was a member of the Idyllic School of painters of Victorian England. A website which records his activities is maintained by his great-grandson by ‘his mistress, muse and model Maria Milton’2. R.A.C. North was born to Selina Weetch, J.W. North’s wife, on 28 January 1989 at Beggearnhuish House, Nettlecombe, Somerset. Educated at Oxford, he joined the colonial service in 1912 as a Cadet 2nd Class. He married Leo Catherine Greening, a New Zealander, in 1928 in Hong Kong. According to one report, he offered to return to Hong Kong after his recovery from Hong Kong but was considered too old and retired in 1947 after working for a short time in the ‘Empire’ Office, presumably the Colonial Office. He was then 58. I seem to remember that normal retirement age from the colonial service was 55. He did return to Hong Kong, with his wife and daughter, in 1947 on his way to live in Australia; they left Southampton on P&O's Strathmore on 4 March 1947. From then until he died in 1961, aged 72, he lived with his family at Katoomba, New South Wales. After his death, his widow Leo (died 1976) and daughter, Philippa, returned to live in Somerset. Philippa died in 2005.

My guess is that what are now my copies of Hong Kong Naturalist were sold after Philippa’s death. But what had happened to them during the war. Had they been sent by North to safe keeping along with his family as the threat of war in the Far East grew? Had they been kept by him at Stanley during internment? The possibility of their being left in a ‘safe’ place in Hong Kong can be discounted since there was no such thing. From their appearance and binding (the last two non-matching volumes were bound by the Bookbinding Department, St Louis Ind. School, Hong Kong) they do not seem to have been stored in Hong Kong for long. The cockroaches then rife in houses and offices made short work of the glue in the bindings. The last two volumes are varnished to prevent attack and there are only slight signs of cockroach damage to the first eight. My guess is that the last two volumes were bound and then sent away from Hong Kong after the final part of volume X was published in February 1941.

Why is North interesting in terms of the biological sciences in Hong Kong. I think he is an illustration of the all-round civil administrator, now disappeared, with wide interests. The Hong Kong Naturalist represents the phenomenon, characteristic of a its age, of a journal that interested professional biologists, geologists, meteorologists and archaeologists as well as amateur natural historians and those interested in the natural world.

My volumes are in my bookshelf. However, other would-be purchasers of the Hong Kong Naturalist need no longer look for the uncommon printed and bound volumes. It can be viewed online at the website, Hong Kong Journals Online in its entirety:

R.A.C. North's volumes of The Hong Kong Naturalist
on my bookshelves

Snow, Philip. 2003. The Fall of Hong Kong. New Haven and London: Yale

Modified on 21 September 2015