I’ve been in Singapore for the week and couldn’t resist doing some research. John Sjovald Hoseason Cunyngham Brown was a grandson of John Joseph Johnstone. He was the youngest son of Arabella Halyburton Johnstone, John Joseph’s youngest child with his second wife Amelia Barnfather nee Halyburton. Sjovald (as he was apparently known) had a very interesting life most of which from 1930 onwards was spent in Asia.
I visited the National Archives of Singapore first to see if they had any information on him. He was a colonial civil servant and they have the colonial blue books on microfilm. The British kept a record of everything to do with running the colonies. They begin with information about taxes but list everyone holding a civil or military position. I didn’t have any luck searching for Sjovald though.
The National Archives of Singapore have a large collection of oral history interviews, many transcripts available online. Also available to view online are photographs, maps, videos and newspapers. The microfilm I looked at were accessed for me in moments and there was only one other person using the viewers. The girl assisting me suggested I go to the National Library where they had the Strait’s Settlements directories for the years I was interested in – pre and post WWII.
The National Library of Singapore is a lovely building, all glass and steel. They South East Asian reference library is on the 11th floor. Again the microfilms were easy to access. I chose them (up to 8 at a time), completed a form and was assigned a microfilm reader. They were in their own room. I was the only one using them. They are the old style that we had in the newspaper room at the State Library of Victoria. They were more than adequate for viewing printed directories. I did copy a few pages in their copy room, 20 cents a copy either printed or on to a USB. But if you wanted a print from a microfilm it was $1.00 then the 20 cents if you wanted to scan.
I found Sjovald in a number of the directories. Following is a list of his posts and the years:
1931 – Federal Secretariat Kuala Lumpur
1932 – Labour department, Seremban
1934 – Labour department, S.S. & F.H.S. Negapatam
1936 – District & Police Courts, Singapore
1937 – Labour department, S.S. & F.M.S. Klang
1938 – Labour department, Johore Bahru
1939 – Controller, Labour department, Johore Bahru
His brother Robert Cheyne Cunyngham Brown was the assistant registrar at the Supreme Court, Ipoh, Perak
1940 -Magistrate, Seremban court
His brother as in 1939
The next entry for Sjovald is not until 1950. He was the Hon. J. S. Cunyngham-Brown and was the Johore Commissioner of Lands and Mines in 1950 and 1951. In 1952 he had been awarded an O.B.E. and was the District Officer at Perak. In 1953 he was both the District Officer at Perak and Deputy Commissioner in the Labour department of the Federal Government.
He published two books:
Crowded Hour in 1974
The Traders – A Story of Britain’s South-East Asian Commercial Adventure in 1971
I have a copy of Crowded Hour which is an autobiography with, unfortunately for me, only one chapter on his childhood and background. The rest concentrates on the rest of his life. He dropped out of university and joined the last full rig merchant ship, the William Mitchell, as a third mate. What I find really interesting is that the ship was in Melbourne for a few months while the ship was having work done and he had to borrow money of a stranger but he had cousins sprinkled throughout Victoria. Admittedly his mother was born long after her half brother Andrew had migrated to Victoria but the family had been in touch while her father was alive. I have to wonder though.
Sjovald was in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. He initially escaped but ended up a POW in Indonesia for the duration of the war. His brother Robert Cheyne was not so lucky and died in Thailand. He is buried in Kanchanaburi war cemetery there. Their time during the war is for another post as is some more detail of Sjovald’s life in South East Asia.