Sunday, 25 November 2018

Mildred Elizabeth Constance Dibden

Mildred Dibden, was one of nine missionaries on the British Army Aid Group list of ‘Free Europeans’ (people, mainly British, who were not interned at Stanley) drawn up in late 1942.[1]
Miss Dibden was born to George Dibden and Mary Elizabeth Payne in 1905, one of nine children, although one of her sisters was the child of her mother’s previous marriage.[2] The family house near Birmingham burnt down,[3] and she was brought up by a family friend,[4] and attended a boarding school in Ramsgate.[5] Her father emigrated to Canada, and eventually her mother joined him with five of the children, leaving Mildred and three others behind.[6] I’m not a fan of psychoanalytic explanations in historical writing, but it’s very hard indeed not to see the origins of her later devoted commitment to providing a family for abandoned children in these early experiences of loss, disruption and abandonment.

She was an artistic young woman, and planned to be an art teacher, but she seems to have undergone a religious experience while listening to an evangelical preacher,[7] and decided to become a missionary instead. In 1929 she began two years of missionary training at the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society Bristol college. The Society was an Anglican organization, had been set up in 1922 after the Church Missionary Society split, and it represented the ‘evangelical’ grouping that believed the parent organization was drifting towards ‘theological liberalism’.[8]
The BCMS sent her to Hong Kong in 1931, but she was forced to return home after contracting malaria, which almost killed her.[9] Nevertheless, this first visit to the Colony was important, as Miss Dibden was struck by the plight of the hundreds of abandoned babies, and she decided to return to care for them. In the 1920s the Hong Kong Government, after much debate, banned the system of ‘mui tsai’, whereby, for a small fee, middle class and wealthy families acquired young girls as domestic servants.[10] Hong Kong from the start was committed to interfering as little as possible with Chinese customs, and the supporters of mui tsai claimed that it was a good way to make sure that young female children from impoverished families were guaranteed food and the possibility of later marriage, but its opponents, who claimed it was selling girls into slavery, prevailed. Whatever the merits of the ban, it meant that even more female babies were abandoned, and Miss Dibden’s work was all the more desperately needed.[11]

She returned to Hong Kong in 1936 and was given encouragement and initial financial support by Dr. Harry Lechmere Clift and his wife Winifred, who operated a medical mission in Kowloon. She started to take in abandoned babies, sheltering them in a number of different locations, including Kowloon’s Nathan Road and the small island of Cheung Chau, 10 km to the southwest of Hong Kong. On November 11, 1936, without organization or guaranteed income, she established her first major operation, the Fanling Babies Home. Most of her income came from charitable donations from Hong Kong evangelicals and supporters abroad, mainly in England and Canada.[12]

The official website of the (now defunct) Fanling Babies Home gives a picture of the Estate they moved to in 1940:

The estate, on Main Street in Fanling, was originally rented from an elderly Chinese landlord who had built {it} to accommodate his family and relatives. Thus in addition to the main house, there were two other smaller houses. Each small house had eight rooms and a kitchen. Lovely gardens surrounded the estate which also had a large yard that the kids could play in as well as many fruit trees.
The ground floor on the main house consisted of five large rooms and three smaller rooms. The upstairs contained seven bedrooms, adjoining dressing rooms and several verandas with a view of the lights of Hong Kong.
Miss Dibden moved 49 children under the age of three from Cheun{g} Chau to Fanling Babies Home in the NewTerritories. Toddlers were housed downstairs while infants were upstairs. The size of the main house easily accommodated a nursery school, dispensary, bedrooms, etc.[13]

We get a glimpse of life at the home in a memoir written by American missionary, Beth Nance:
The staff rescued abandoned babies, primarily baby girls who had been left outside somewhere to die. The organization had not been going very long, so there were no children older than four or five years old. The home was associated with our Evangelical Fraternity Mission and we sometimes visited there. (I remember going on the bus after Ancil was born. Winifred was walking by that time and she was as large as some of the three-year-olds. Winifred was always eager to have new experiences so she was a great explorer. She aroused the astonishment of these rescued little girls, who were so well-disciplined. There were some places where they did not dare to go, and some things they did not touch; but Winifred went anywhere with those little girls behind her. It reminded me of a chicken yard, where one chicken has found something and all the rest of them follow after, squawking loudly. It was fun to watch.)[14]

It seems that some of the Nance family’s congregation helped at the home:

For the young people who were newly saved, and those who were renewing their Christian experience, including the British servicemen, my husband and I wanted to have an outreach program. The young people took an interest in this place for abandoned children. In fact, at our first Christmas in China, that was one of the places we visited. Instead of having a gift-giving party for each other, the youth group gave gifts to the children. I remember a gallon jar of cod liver oil they purchased.
Mrs. Koeppen[15] helped me prepare a meal for the young people. It was a happy Christmas.[16]

They were also helped by non-religious organizations: at Christmas 1940 the St. Andrews Society of exiled Scots threw a party, ‘complete with decorated tree and Santa Claus’, for the babies.[17]
There are a number of photos of Miss Dibden that can be viewed online.[18] My favourite is one showing her with one of the girls she cared for; taken at Christmas, 1939; it speaks volumes for the quality of the relationship between her and her charges.

In the summer of 1940, Miss Dibden decided she needed help to run the Home, perhaps because of the move to the Fanling Estate. Unfortunately the Evacuation Order of June, 1940 not only decreed that ‘white’ women and children should be sent to Australia, but also forbade ‘new’ women to take up residence in the Colony. Miss Dibden applied to be allowed to bring in a young helper, Ruth Little. Perhaps this was because of that move to the Estate on Main Street, rented by the China Children’s Fund.[19]

At her tribunal, Miss Dibden explained that the Home cared for about 65 orphans or abandoned children between the ages of two days and four years. There was no committee, no council, no board and all funds were provided by sympathetic friends within the Colony. She had to take all the decisions. If war came, it would bring an increase in abandoned children. There was nobody to take her place if she fell ill, so Miss Little’s assistance was urgently needed.

The Chairman, E. H. Williams, replied that Miss Dibden should not assume her case had not been considered carefully. She had admitted Miss Little had never been resident in Hong Kong. Miss Dibden came back with:

If you think it is not advisable for Miss Little to come to Hong Kong, would you find someone for me?

Not surprisingly Mr Williams told her she shouldn’t ask such questions, and after consulting other committee members, turned down her application, saying she should be able to find someone locally to carry out the duties she’d described.[20] We need to be fair to both sides: Miss Dibden would have been well aware that the Evacuation Order was widely flouted, and that the wives of some influential men were walking around Hong Kong having got themselves registered as ‘essential’ personnel, sometimes after taking a short nursing course. On the other hand, Mr. Williams and his panel were tasked with judging on the basis of the theory and not the practice of the legislation, and could hardly say, ‘The whole thing’s a farce, do what you want’. But it’s an interesting fact that the same tribunal also turned down Helen Kennedy-Skipton’s request to be allowed to stay in Hong Kong, probably because although she claimed to be American she admitted travelling on a British passport. She stayed anyway, just as Miss Little later entered – a sympathetic official at the Colonial Secretariat allowed her in (she was a partly-trained nurse) and disposed of any talk of Miss Dibden’s own evacuation.[21]

The war began in nightmare fashion for Mildred Dibden and her staff. The Fanling Babies Home was closer than most ‘European’ institutions to the border, and Miss Dibden received an early telephone call on December 8, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack. It was another missionary, Iris Critchell who ran a girls' home next door. The police had told her that war had broken out and that they were to be ready for evacuation to Hong Kong Island.[22] She got the 35 older children and a nurse into a lorry that was sent for them,[23] but the lorry hadn’t returned for the remaining 54 infants when Japanese soldiers arrived. They were told they’d be shot if they left the premises, precious stores of milk were looted, but at first the women were unharmed. eventually groups bent on rape arrived. Miss Dibden courageously saved Ruth Little from molestation, but she was unable to do the same for the Chinese nurses and amahs. Not for want of trying. A Japanese soldier struck her across the face with a rifle butt when she tried to stop the rape of a young amah. Cots were overturned and a baby was trampled to death. [24]

Happily, the horrors of the first day were never repeated, which is not to say there was not much looting and some brutality. At one point Misses Dibden and Little and an American sent to help them (Lula Bell Hough) were tied up, led away and expected execution. At another Miss Dibden and some of the Chinese staff were brutally beaten by a Japanese sergeant, whose men had just shot the Home's dog. Everyone, English and Chinese, child, adult and baby, must have lived in constant fear, even on the relatively 'quiet' days when they weren't subjected to insult or injury.

But just before the Christmas Day surrender they found a protector in Colonel Kanamuru, who’d been put in charge of Fanling, who asked to be informed of bad behaviour by his soldiers and sent the Home rice, vegetables and cod liver oil.[25] Later he gave the women some of his own money – it turned out that his sister had received help from a missionary in Japan. Unfortunately he was transferred to the front on January 15, 1942.[26]

Miss Dibden and Miss Little were not interned and managed to keep the orphanage open throughout the war. It’s fair to point out that the Japanese usually respected the work of both protestant and catholic religious personnel, especially when they were providing material aid to the poor. But occupied Hong Kong was a dreadful place, and for Miss Dibden and her staff this meant almost four years of violence, starvation, dysentery and recurrent malaria. They refused to abandon the babies in their care, but it must have occurred to both of the Englishwomen that their lives would be easier and safer inside Stanley Camp. That Miss Dibden and Miss Little should have stayed at their post after the initial violence and continuing hardship of Japanese rule speaks unequivocally of their personal qualities; it seems they only thought about going into Stanley when it seemed it would have been in the interests of the babies for them to do so.[27]

Eventually, after a period in which she herself endured a severe beating and it seemed as if the babies in her care might starve, Miss Dibden was given a food allocation for the Home by the new Japanese civilian administration. But to get it Miss Dibden had to go once a month in person to the government offices in the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building – she couldn’t send a delegate as that would have been disrespectful.[28]

The journey was about twenty miles each way; every month she walked to the Star Ferry in Kowloon and once across the Harbour, on to the Bank, Iris Critchell and Ruth Little taking turns to accompany her, as the only alternative was lorry transport, and that was too unreliable. They return journey was mentally less anxious – they had supplies for another month – but physically more demanding as those supplies had to be carried. Eventually Miss Dibden fixed an old pram and lubricated it with peanut oil so they’d have something to bear the loads.[29]

All this took a toll on the health of the three women in charge. On July 11, 1942 they were admitted to the English ward of the French Hospital in Causeway Bay. Mildred Dibden has to be carried out of the Home on a stretcher. At the Hospital she met great kindness and the 'reassurance of being with {her} own people':

To add to the pleasure of that first night in hospital, came a tea tray from {Dr. Selwyn-Clarke}. With his wife and daughter, he was interned in the French hospital on the floor above. Tea with toast and butter. What could be more delicious? was it possible that within six short months such luxury would bring tears to the eyes?[30]

Iris returned to Fanling after about two months, Ruth in the middle of September, Mildred not until November 1.

Later in the war, at a time when once again the babies faced starvation, they were helped by Dr. Arthur Woo, who gave them rice and a letter of introduction to Aw boon-haw, who’d made a fortune from the Tiger balm salve. He gave them the money to start a pig-rearing business which kept them in funds until the end of the war.[31]

After liberation in August 1945, Miss Dibden sailed to England for repatriation leave, and then returned to continue her mission in Hong Kong. However, things started to go wrong. The Estate was bought in 1946 by the Children’s Christian Fund, which took over full sponsorship and operation in 1951.[32] This gave financial stability, but it meant working in a committee structure, with some decisions taken out of her hands - she’d been used to doing everything her way. In 1952, after a trip back to England and an attempt to work things out, weakened by recurrent illness and distressed in mind, she resigned.[33] Nevertheless, in the same year, after starting again in a small way in a couple of bungalows in Ping Shan,[34] she founded a second home, Shatin Babies’ Home, run on the same principles, including an emphasis on ‘family’:

Miss Dibden ran the Home on a disciplined daily schedule which included prayers, play time and schooling. Miss Dibden maintained Shatin Babies Home through mostly local community contributions and giving from abroad. The Hong Kong government also helped by charging a nominal rent on the property.At one point, the staff consisted of a cook, gardener, several nurse girls, eight amahs and four women teachers.[35]

In 1966 Miss Dibden decided to bring her work in the Shatin Babies Home to an end; the Cultural Revolution had spread to Hong Kong and there had been rioting against proposed Star Ferry fare increases; she rightly feared that there was worse to come, and dreaded a replay of her hideous experiences of the war if Chinese troops crossed the border.[36] After some 50 children had been adopted abroad, she returned to England on August 23, bringing with her 25 Chinese people with her: 21 girl, two boys and a married woman and her husband who was to be cook and handyman.[37] They went to live in Southsea, close to Portsmouth. She continued to raise funds for Hong Kong’s abandoned children.

The Supplement to the London Gazette for June 14, 1966 announced she’d been awarded the MBE for her services to Hong Kong’s deprived children.Mildred Dibden retired to Tunbridge Wells in 1975, and she died in a care home there in 1987.[38] There are a number of testimonies on the internet to the continuing value of the work she and her successors carried out.[39]

The work of Christian missionaries in China has always been controversial: there was already a debate about its value in late Victorian Britain,[40] and historian Jason Wordie, in an otherwise valuable article,[41] is wrong to dismiss criticism by the tired manoeuvre of putting it down to ‘political correctness’ or to simplistic anti-religious prejudice. My own view is that the good done by the missionaries, who in the nineteenth century and beyond provided China with much of what was available there in the way of western medicine, far outweighed the harm. At their best, they showed a self-sacrificial commitment to helping the poorest members of a generally impoverished population in practical and important ways.

That best is shown by Mildred Dibden.
[3] Jill Doggett, The Yip Family of Amah Rock, (1969), 1982, 8. This biography was obviously written with Miss Dibden’s help and with access to her diary, which includes the war years.
[5] Doggett, 1982, 10
[6] Doggett, 1982, 18.
[7] Doggett, 1982, 20.
[10] My mother’s tea-merchant father in Macao bought one such girl. ‘We treated her well,’ she told me, not necessarily correctly.
[15] ‘A German refugee from Ukraine, by way of Manchuria and Shanghai’ – She moved to Australia in 1950 –
[17] Hong Kong Daily Press, January 1, 1941, page 6.
[20] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, October 27, 1940, page 4.
[21] Doggett, 1982, 134-135.
[22] Doggett, 1982, 139.
[23] Doggett, 1982, 140.
[24] Doggett, 1982, 143-144.
[25] Doggett, 1982, 159-160.
[26] Doggett, 1982, 165-166.
[27] E.g. Doggett, 1982, 172-173.
[28] Doggett, 1982, 175.
[29] Doggett, 1982, 175-176.
[30] Doggett, 1982, 178.
[31] Doggett, 1982, 182-184.
[33] Doggett, 1982, 209-216.
[34] Doggett, 182, 218.
[36] Doggett, 1982, 234.
[37] Doggett, 1982, 236.
[38] London Gazette, March 10, 1988.
[39]; For a touching attempt at reunion, see
[40] See Susan Schoenbauer Thurin’s essay on Alicia Little in Douglas Kerr and Julia Koehn, A Century of Travels In China, 2007, (e.g. Kindle Edition, Location 2788). Christopher Isherwood’s often negative attitude to missionaries in the account he and W. H. Auden wrote of their 1938 visit to China, Journey to a War, takes the debate into the period we’re under discussion, and it’s evident in the sometimes polarised accounts of missionaries and priests in Stanley to be found in the internee memoirs.

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