Leonard STARBUCK [1911-1953] | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Leonard STARBUCK [1911-1953]

c.1911-01-01 (Month, Day are approximate)

Starbuck and Heywood are believed to be the first Prisoners of War captured by the Japanese. 

Henry Ching is interested to hear more about Starbuck, writing:

G.S.P. Heywood and L. Starbuck, both of the Royal Observatory, were probably the first two prisoners taken by the Japanese on 8th December, 1941.  Heywood was a private in the HKVDC and eventually became a POW in Sham Shui Po Camp. He was later sent to Japan.  But Starbuck remains a mystery.  Both were moved from the Combatant Group to the Key-posts Group in the Defence Reserve as recently as September, 1941.  Apparently, Heywood remained in the HKVDC notwithstanding this, and was presumably in uniform when he was captured.  But I have been unable to find out anything about Starbuck, who seems to have been neither a POW nor an internee. 

Starbuck’s name does not seem to appear on any list as a Volunteer, as a POW or as an internee. So I am wondering what happened to him after his capture?  There are “passing” references to his being in Sham Shui Po Camp, eg:

  • C M Shun's blog entry, and
  • Norman Mackenzie’s article in “Dispersal and Renewal” (Hong Kong University Press, 1998) – there Starbuck is referred to as “Lieut.L.Starbuck” in Sham Shui Po Camp in April, 1942.

I am unable to ascertain if he was there as a member of the HKVDC or of some other unit, or indeed if he was actually there at all.  Whatever happened to him must have been acceptable as he continued to work for the Observatory after the war.  I wonder, for example, if at an early stage he was released from Sham Shui Po to keep the Observatory in operation.



Mr Starbuck's obituary appears on page 1 of The China Mail, 1953-09-17:

Death Of Mr Leonard Starbuck

Prominent, Popular H.K. Resident

News was received this morning by cable of the death in London of Mr Leonard Starbuck, Assistant Director of the Royal Observatory and a popular resident here for many years.

The late Mr Starbuck died the day before yesterday after a long illness which necessitated him being flown back to England on August 15.

He leaves a wife and three sons all of whom are in England.

Known to his many friends here ns “Len”, Mr Starbuck took a great interest in Radio Hongkong and was a well-known announcer. He was one of the broadcasting commentators at various functions held in honour of the Duchess of Kent when she visited Hongkong last October.

He was a keen Freemason and at the time of his death was Junior Warden, University Lodge, E.C., a member of University Chapter and Concordia Mark as well as being Ark Mariner and Knight Templar.

Mr Starbuck was Vice Chairman of the Y.M.C.A.

Mr Starbuck prominently identified himself with the European YMCA from the time of his arrival in Hongkong 17 years ago, serving on a variety of committees. Since the war he has served on the Association’s Board and has also been its vice-chairman.

Mr Starbuck was born in 1911. He obtained a physics degree at the Nottingham University and worked as a scientist under the War Office for a short while before being appointed professional assistant of the Royal Observatory here.

He first arrived in Hongkong in 1936.

During the Pacific War, Mr Starbuck spent the years from 1941 to 1945 as a prisoner-of-war in Shamshuipo Camp. He returned to Hongkong in 1946 after recuperation leave and the following year was promoted to Assistant Director of the Royal Observatory. He has acted as Director on more than one occasion since then.

Upon receipt of the news of Mr Starbuck's death, flags at the Royal Observatory and the European YMCA were flown today at half-mast.

Update from Henry Ching:

I think I have finally found Starbuck on a list.  In Tse Dickuan’s POW List, Leo Starbuck appears as no.3372 on page 22 in a small section headed “Civilians”.  He is described as a civil servant.  It looks as though he had the misfortune to be captured with Heywood who was in the HKVDC and perhaps in uniform, and was thus treated as a POW instead of being interned in Stanley.

According to Ancestry.com he married Olive Mary Kitson shortly before departing for Hong Kong on the Carthage in February, 1936.  The passenger list strangely records them as “Lt.Starbuck” and “Mrs Starbuck”.  This was presumably their first trip to HK as, according to the Blue Book, his first appointment in HK was from April, 1936. So if he was a “Lt.” it was presumably not in the HKVDC.  Anything to do with his being a freemason, I wonder?  More likely it was a misreading of his initial “L”.

The following is an extract from the hand written diary.


"Ben Evans told me of a horrid business - I hope it is not a tragedy. I think it was foolish of him but I don't criticise - he sent Heywood and Starbuck, his two assistants, out to Autan [?] on the Monday morning to bring in very valuable - but what is the value of anything these days - instruments from the magnetic observations out there which is really my child. They have never returned. I don't know Heywood but Starbuck is an awfully wee cheery soul who broadcasts a "Personal [?] Corner" and things like that. Poor lads - I hope they are only captives but even at that they'll have a miserable time".