Nursing Detachment, Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, 1941 | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Nursing Detachment, Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, 1941

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Nursing Detachment, Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, 1941

Photo courtesy of Jane Herasimenko.

I've annotated the photo, so if you recognise anyone (click "zoom" above for a better view) please could you let us know in the comments below? So far we have:

Front row

Second row

Third row

Fourth row

Fifth row

You can read more about these nurses at:

Regards, David

Date picture taken (may be approximate): 
Wednesday, January 1, 1941


So we'd only identified one person, HBL Dowbiggin at 1j, so I was excited to see an annotated copy of this photo that Barbara Anslow has in her scrapbook. It looks to have been included in a typed newsletter. It has this note at the bottom:

Year 1940? (Photo courtesy of Mrs Joan (Seath) Wood
Names by kindness of Mrs Cynthia (Sanh) Tyler & 
VADs and friends.

And this key to names (as written, including spelling mistakes):


FRONT ROW L-R 1. --- 2. Mrs M.J. Cassidy 3. Mrs Daisy Booker
4. ---  5. Mrs Violet Simon-White 6. Mrs Adis Martin  7. Mrs Irene
D.S. Braude 8. ---  9. ---  10. ---  11. --- 12. Mrs Andrew
Levinge  13. Mrs Margery Begdon 14.  ---  15. ---  16. Mrs B. de C. 

SECOND ROW L-R 1. ---  2. Tamara Jex (now Young)  3. Virginia
Beaumont 4. ---  5. ---  6. Edith Holloway (now Paul)  7. Katherine
Thomson (now Ross-Thomson) 8. Dorothy V. Holloway (now Ferrier)
9. ---  10. ---  11. Mrs Tootie Begg 12. ---   13. ---  14. --- 15. ---
16. ---    17. ---  18. Mrs M. Budden 19 Mrs Patti Mace 20. Miss
Judah or Ellis?

THIRD ROW L—R 1. Alison Black  2. Betty Mills  3. Mrs Beryl Church
4. Mrs F.P. Newman  5. ---   6. ---  7. Mrs Barbara C. Carter  8. Mrs
Dorothy Cautherley  9. Peggie Scotcher (now Hunter) 10 Miss Ellis?
11. Rosaleen Grant (now Kjellegard)  12. ---    13. ---    14. ---
15. ---  16. Phyllis E. Baldwin (now Smith) 17. Miss Ellis or
Ezra?  18. Mary Parkes  19. Greta Eardley  20. Shelilah Jefferies
Mackinlay (now Searle)  21. Kathie D. Hume  22. ---   23. Barbara
Budden (now Stewart).

FOURTH ROW L-R 1. ---   2. ---   3. ---   4. ---  5. ---   6. ---
7. Gertie White (now Pennington)  8. Mrs M.K. Sanh  9. ---  10. ---
11. ---  12. Nan Grady (now Vanthall) 13. Mrs Seath  14. Mrs
Longbottom  15 Muriel McCaw (now Channing)  16. Joan Seath (now
Wood) 17 Mrs Olive Billrt.  18. ---  19. ---

FIFTH ROW L-R 1. ---   2. Pam Pritchard  3. ---  4. ---  5. ---  6. 
Nina Quin (now Pierce)  7. Cynthia M. Sanh (now Tyler)  8. Joan C.
Sanh (now Lee)  9. Dorothy Deakin (now Kennard)  10. ---  11. Pat
Hamblin  12. Maureen Booker (now Carruthers)  13. June Booker (now
Smith) 14. Betty Longbottom (now Hood) 15. ---  16. --- 17. ---
18  Miss Ezra? 19 Ray Mabb.

Note that the first row only lists 16 people, but there are 19 people in the front row of the photo. I think they left out the three men.

If you can fill in any of the gaps please leave a comment below.

The lady referenced is Florence Maude Deacon, wife of Stuart Deacon and mother of Irene M S Braude (Commandant VAD). Both Florence and Stuart were interned at Stanley as were my mother Irene and sister Patricia. Stuart was the second person to pass away in camp on 24/4/1942 and Florence survived returning to England passing away on 15/12/1962. My mother and sister also survived but the ashes of both and those of my father, Major Arthur N Braude are in the family grave in Stanley cemetery.

Thanks Peter, I've added Mrs Deacon to the list above.

Regards, David

Fifth row - annotated 5g - currently identified as 7. Cynthia M. Sanh (now Tyler) - I am fairly sure this is actually Nurse E.Tonoff (Elizabeth). My father was a close friend of her husband, Anatole Nicholas Tonoff. Both were graduates of HKU in 1939 and in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps from 1940. In November 1945, she was living in Shanghai; Anatole Nicholas Tonoff was in Sydney, Australia. 

Thanks for the extra information. I've added a note above that 5g may be Elizabeth Tonoff.

I haven't seen her name on the list of internees. Please do you know if she had left Hong Kong before the fighting started, or was still here but remained uninterned?

Regards, David

I have a list of all VAD typed by my mother - Mrs E Tonoff is listed under "Neutral members of Detachment believed to be in Hong Kong"

Another list shows "E. Tonoff (No Grankau) - 9.12.41 Bowen Road Hosp. - 10.8.42". I believe the latter date indicates "released from duty" as there are many members with the same date.

I'll try to locate a list of interned VAD's which would clarify the question.

In 1942, Anatole Townley (changed from Tonoff in 1940/41), who was a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force, was as POW. By November 1945, Anatole applied for release (in Australia) from the British armed forces noting at this time his wife, Elizabeth, was living in Shanghai. It is possible Elizabeth was one of the people who managed to leave Hong Kong in 1942 and returned to the expat white Russian community in northern China?

Peter, I would really like to get in contact with you.  Stuart was my great uncle, brother of my paternal grandfather Herbert Deacon.  I am visiting HK in January and hope to visit the family's grave.  Are you in the UK?  My email is


Your email doesn't connect. Could you please check to see if it is correct? Thanks.


Yes it is correct,  Sometimes AOL can be a bit awkward and reject emails, so try another one and then I can respond from my personal one and that might clear it!

Bowie's introduction to "Captive Surgeon" gives more clues to the identity of the two nurses who weren't interned:

The story will be almost entirely about men for, though I served in the hospital from April 1939, the period of which I write is only that covered by my diaries which began in August 1942. It was then that I took charge of the hospital after the women nurses were removed by the Japanese and except for two, interned thereafter in Stanley. The two exceptions were Latvian and Russian women, lately medical students in Hongkong University who were released in Hong Kong and sent later to North China. The two Canadian nurses were repatriated to Canada from Stanley in November, 1943. 

I cannot comment on whether 5g is indeed Elizabeth, but I can shed a little light on her story.

My father was born Anatole Nicholas Zavadsky in Omsk. His parents separated shortly after arriving in Harbin in 1921. His father changed their family name to Tonoff, so Anatole became known as Anatole Nicholas Tonoff throughout his years at high school in Hong Kong (from about 1930 onwards), at the University of Hong Kong from 1935-39, as an employee of Government, when naturalised in October 1940 (I have seen his naturalisation papers today for the first time, on this site.. thanks), and as a member of the HKVDC.

It's my understanding that Anatole was mobilised when the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, but during the week between the first attack and surrender, he married Elizabeth Gramkau, who became Elizabeth Tonoff. I believe they hoped that since he had been naturalised, they would both receive more favourable treatment if or when Hong Kong fell.

Elizabeth did indeed return to Shanghai in 1942, earlier than many others. This is explained under the heading Education : War : Marriage at  It is suggested there that she was ill in the first months of internment, and the fact that her father was Latvian enabled her to move to Shanghai to continue her medical studies.

I spoke with Elizabeth's twin sister once, early in 1996, and it was through that chance conversation that I was able to meet Anatole's half-sister Galina Tonoff in Milano in August 1996. I later spoke once with Elizabeth in Ottawa. I can only suspect that their marriage was a marriage of convenience, or of hope, but that their efforts backfired. Being married may have made things harder for Elizabeth, rather than easier.

Olga escaped to Shanghai with my grandfather Nicholas Alexander Tonoff-Zavadsky and Nicholas' mother Claudia Gruzin, during that week when Anatole and Elizabeth married. I don't know how the families knew each other, but both had come from Harbin.

Elizabeth's biography makes no mention of this marriage. In the same way, Anatole hid the marriage in Australia, although just today I have requested a copy of a formal divorce granted in NSW Australia on 4 May1949. The legal formalities required to end a marriage in Hong Kong were formidable.

Would you be able to expand on the legal formalities required for divorce in Hong Kong in the 1940s and why they were particularly dificult? One of our family members whose history I'm trying to piece together was divorced in January 1942, but her divorce went through in Macao. Would that have been easier? All the more mysterious is the fact that the person concerned was baptised (late) into the Catholic faith, having been educated at the Italian Convent. Her husband seemingly took holy orders after the break up of the marriage, as he is referred to as "Reverend" at the time of the divorce. 

I think I have read elsewhere that religious practices were taken much more seriously in Hong Kong than in Macao, which would of course include the bonds of marriage, whether Protestant or Catholic. 



I will try to answer your question more fully later, after I work through the 400 or so letters that I am currently working through, and also after I see the final divorce papers. From what I've seen already, there was a requirement to wait three years, but I'm not sure what defined the start date. My father changed his name by deed poll when he arrived in Australia late in 1945, and it seems that from a legal point of view, that caused his wife's name to change, even through they were out of contact at the time.  That may have reset the clock. Otherwise the issues involved interactions between English and perhaps Chinese law, and the fact that by the time the divorce was arranged, my father was in Sydney, Australia, and his wife (who he never saw after the week when they married) was in Tel Aviv, Israel,

In fact they saw each other at least once.  I have my father's diary from his time as a POW. The prisoners at Sham Shui Po worked each day creating landfill for what was to become the (old) Hong Kong Airport, bucket by bucket. There's a reference one day to him having seen her in a line of people on the side of the road as the work gang walked past.

Thanks for replying so promptly. There's no rush. Your parents' case is quite different to that of my relative. I was just wondering if Macao law was different to that of Hong Kong when it came to divorce. In my family's case the marriage may have been "forced" in that there was a child who had been conceived out of wedlock. It seems that the marriage broke up as soon as the child was born in 1934. It must have been a tricky situation for both wife and husband in the social atmosphere of the time.

1h is Col Rose, C/O HKVDC.

Unfortunately I am unable to identify any of the women in the photo, frustratingly, as I suspect my great-aunt Marjorie Smith is one of them.

I was hoping this would be a good platform to connect with other families of the nurses. Marjorie was one of the three nurses murdered by the Japanese at St Stephens on 25/12/1941. Her husband, then Lt. Walter John Lindley Smith was captured on the same day and remained a POW in Hong Kong for over three and a half years. They had no children so my line of the family are their only living relatives. I am very eager to learn more about the nurses in Hong Kong and particularly love to make contact with the families of the two others killed that day; Eileen Begg and Alberta Buxton. 

If anybody can help me or has any stories, photos etc please get in touch. It would be greatly appreciated.


Cian Rea

We have a page for your great aunt at

I've made you the owner of that page so you can add in any extra information you'd like to.

It's not a lot, but there are a couple of other pages that link to it:

Just to say her husband was a Lt-Colonel (not Lt) RAOC and was based at HQ China Command (Battlebox). 

Hi there I'm Richard Mabb, Ray's son. I've looked as hard as I can at this pic and I don't think she's at 5S. The face at 4L looks exactly like my Grandmother so I think it could be Ray. Was Betty Mills a VAD? I can't remember what my mother said. If she were then the face at 2Q looks very much like Betty.

Thanks Richard, I've added your feedback to the index above.

Betty Mills was a VAD. She's currently identified as the lady at 3B.

Hi there, I noticed at least four women are wearing WW1 medals. One of these must have been Edith Attwater Hills, ARRC, nee Faber, a Staff Nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service in the First World War.