My grandmother was a lady who as a child always seemed to me just a little bit fragile. She laughed but I don’t remember it being a real jolly belly laugh. She was slim and beautiful. I remember thinking she was very elegant.
I remember her taking me to buy a watch when I was aged ten. She was visiting with my grandfather from Sydney and she told me that she wanted me ‘to have something nice to remember her with’. I know the watch was silver with a blue face. It’s not important. I remember her. I remember that day. Amongst other things she also saved my life.
A day or so after I was born in Queanbeyan – I contracted golden staph. This was not picked up by the hospital staff . But it was picked up by her. She had been a Nurse in Malaya and Singapore as I understood it. The story goes, that she marched up to the young nursing staff and told them what was wrong. They didn’t believe her and she insisted on them getting the Matron and a Doctor. Quite forcibly as I understand.
Well, she was right. The Doctor sat up all night with myself and another new born boy and apparently it was pretty touch and go there for awhile. (Seems to be a bit of a thing with those of us with London blood).
She bought me a pretty pink layette as a welcome gift and a white sateen cot set. The bigger gift I think is fairly obvious. I’m sure my mother who told me this story many times agreed. I didn’t know her as well as my other grandparents. The tyranny of distance and the fact that we were moving all around Australia and overseas. She died when I was thirteen.
However, I think now I know her well enough. Having searched out her story I found out that underneath that stoic face she’d had her fair share of losses. I think she was a strong woman and I think she learned early that she had to be.
Neva Irene Helmrich was born in Mt Morgan, Queensland on the 5th April 1918.
She was the third child of Priscilla London and Arthur (Dick) Helmrich. Her siblings were her older sister and brother, Audrey Florence Helmrich b 1912 and Edward (Ned) Burnett Helmrich b 1914. Two younger brothers, twins George and Sydney would be born but die in 1922.
Aged 1, Neva was living with her family in Darcy Street Mount Morgan. At this time her father had the house up for sale.
17th May 1919. Mount Morgan Auction Sales – Messrs Hempenstall Brothers will sell by Auction at the exchange of notes today on account of A. E. Helmrich his property at Darcy Street comprising a five roomed wooden cottage with front and side verandahs and allotment of land on account of the owner will offer a building site in the centre of the main street adjoining the National Hotel. very easy terms of payment.
In 1925 at the age of seven the family were still living in Mt Morgan. Neva’s father was employed as a Miner. Mt Morgan was a mining town pulling out copper, gold and silver.A huge and exciting change comes to the Helmrich family in 1929 when they move to Malim Nawar in far off Malaya. They leave aboard the SS Marella. For eleven year old Neva this must have seemed like the most wonderful adventure.
Fortunately for us Neva was quite the contributor to a children’s section of the Courier Newspaper in Rockhampon (The Corner). Because of this we have a photograph of Neva as a child in Malim Nawar in her garden. A photo of her parents aboard “Jumbo” and a photograph she took of a Pagoda in Penang whilst on a family holiday.
Neva also wrote into the papers about an exciting event that occurred in the ‘native huts’ nearby where a robbery occurred and that the Police had come. The native huts Neva was referring to were the homes nearby the colonial homes where the staff lived. I wonder how Neva’s mother, Priscilla went having a servant in the home. Something she had never known before and certainly not growing up. It must have seemed very strange.During the time that the family are living in Malaya, Arthur gives his occupation as Engineer. He is working for the Yukon Gold tin mine in Kampar.
It is in this locale that Neva meets her future husband. The colonials as they are known all socialise together and the newspapers are full of reports of events such as dances, tennis events, cricket matches and all manner of fundraisers and school events that are well attended by the Australians and Europeans. Women met in the afternoon for tiffin (afternoon tea) and gossiping. The place was considered ‘colourful’ and ‘exciting’.
At this time in history Singapore was given the moniker Sin-galore due to the behaviour of those who passed through her ports. The Colonials did not always act as well as they should have toward the local people. These included Chinese Indians and the indigenous Malays.This was the time of Empire and they were often considered to be secondary citizens. Rising tin and rubber prices and a greater worldwide demand made the area ripe for the Europeans to make quick money and quite a lot of it.
Where Neva and her family were living was called British Malaya. This was at odds in the 1930’s with the rest of the world which was in the grips of financial depression. Malaya did not escape this but did not suffer the same hardships as was being seen back in Australia.
The Straits Times reports on the 2nd January 1934, Mr. Brian Miles who has recently arrived in Malaysia from Australia, is staying with his brother, Mr Stanley Miles, of Southern Kampar Tin Dredging
- Mr. B.D. Miles and Miss N.I. Helmeich
- (from our own correspondent) Ipoh, April 1.
- The wedding took place at the Presbyterian Church yesterday of Mr. Brian Daniel Miles. Son of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Miles of Australia to Miss Neva Irene Helmeich, daughter of Mr. E.A Helmeich of Yukon Gold, Kampar who gave her away.
- The Rev. Hamilton Aikin took the service. Mr. H.G. Oates was the best man, and Mrs Stanley Miles the matron of honoour. The father of the bridegroom who was on his way to Siam, broke journey to attend his son’s wedding. Following the service at the Church, a reception was held at Chez Luthy, where the customary toasts were appropriately honoured. The reception was attended by Australian mining (friends in the district). The bridegroom is employed by Jelapang Tin.
- Appeared in the Singapore Free Press, Friday April 2nd 1937
- The same article appeared the following day in The Straits Times.
The couple settle in Ipoh and in 1939 their only child Roy Edward Miles is born.
Getting concrete details of Neva’s life in Malaya as an adult has been somewhat difficult. I know that her husband was a member of the Malaya Volunteers. Most men were at this time. My father recalls stories of Neva’s where she would go to Raffles Hotel for entertainment with other friends.
This carefree life came to a very short and abrupt ending in the December of 1941. The expats were caught completely by surprise with the rapid and aggressive advance of the Japanese army across the straits into Malay and Singapore.
Neva told my father and mother, how she and Roy had escaped Ipoh in Perak and had been on one of the last boats out of Singapore and managed to escape. Many did not. Women and children were among the many casualties of the war and the Japanese army were indiscriminate in their dealings.
Given that she lost her entire home and a life she had built along with many friends and family I guess you would have to understand her circumstances. I’m sure this also went towards forming her personality and coping skills for the remainder of her life. She was only twenty three.
I have searched extensively for shipping records for this period and so far have been unsuccessful. What I have learned from my research is that towards the end of the evacuation of Singapore, people were getting on any boat they could. In some cases this was even Chinese Junks.
As the bombs fell around Singapore and the Japanese were breaching the outskirts of the city the panic in the city had turned to pandemonium and not a lot of records were being taken.
Many of the ships were bombed and sunk in the water before they could even get out of the harbour. Many more were bombed by the long range flying Japanese Zeroes at sea and sunk. The loss of life was substantial. In situations such as the SS Viner Brooke she was not only sunk but those aboard were shot in the water or as they clambered onto the beaches. Many of these killed were Australian Army Nurses who had been stationed in Singapore.
Neva’s husband had signed up to repel the Japanese but was captured and marched to the infamous Changi and the Burma Railway in nearby Thailand.
MILES B.D. [Brian Daniel] b.23.9.1915 NSW Australia. Engineer, Jelapang Tin, Perak. Married Neva Alma Helmrich 3.37 Ipoh. He enlisted VF 1940. Pte 13952 1FMSVF POW Singapore [Changi & Havelock Rd] to Thailand with D Battalion 12.10.42 [Wampo, Tarsao, Chungkai, Linson]. Living in Beverly Hills NSW post war.
to the Thailand-Burma Railway.
How he survived is anyone’s guess. But he did and later returned after the war to Australia. Neva had been told that he was almost certainly dead.
In 1945 Brian was repatriated to Australia and he and Neva divorced. Given their experiences I wouldn’t like to comment on the reasons and am sure that both were greatly damaged by their experience of the war.
In 1952 Neva’s mother, Priscilla had a modest win in the lottery and took her and my father to England for a holiday to visit Neva’s sister Audrey. At this point I would like to heartily thank my English (Welch) cousins who have made contact and provided me with a treasure trove of photos and information on my grandmother and her family. You have my eternal thanks!