Westward Independent

Historic Tales, From Locals and Their Families

by Westward Independent
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The book “The Clutch of Circumstances – Reminiscence of Members of the Canadian National Prisoners of War Association”, published in 1985 was shared with staff by a local surviving family member of Gwen Dopson whose story of her family’s captivity was included.  

In the book, we can read of one family’s journey through the tumultuous era of World War II. Set against the backdrop of the vibrant Orient, the narrative unfolds with the tale of Gwen Dopson, a woman whose life was abruptly altered by the winds of war.

“In the Clutch Of Circumstance”

Born Gwen Lakeman in London, England, Gwen’s early years were steeped in the maritime ambiance of her father’s naval architect profession. A relocation to Hong Kong when she was 14 ushered her into the captivating embrace of the Orient. Imbued with a keen acumen for commerce, Gwen swiftly immersed herself in the bustling trade milieu of Hong Kong, securing employment with an importer and exporter. Her days were animated by the ascent to The Peak, where her employer’s abode overlooked the bustling city below, a vista that etched indelible memories of enchantment in Gwen’s heart.

Amidst this vibrant backdrop, Gwen’s path intertwined with Leslie Dopson, a dashing Englishman affiliated with the renowned travel firm of Thomas Cook & Co. Their romance blossomed amidst the cosmopolitan allure of Shanghai, where they exchanged vows in the serene confines of the British Consulate. The subsequent years unfurled with a semblance of idyllic tranquillity, punctuated by the birth of their daughter, Vivien, and the harmonious blend of family life against the backdrop of pre-war Eastern opulence.

However, the spectre of conflict loomed ominously on the horizon, shattering the semblance of peace and propelling the Dopson family into the throes of adversity. In the chilling hours of dawn, Japanese officials, wielding swords that ominously clanked against each step, descended upon the Dopson household, shattering the tranquillity of their existence. In a swift and merciless sweep, Leslie Dopson was forcibly apprehended, leaving Gwen and her children ensnared in a web of uncertainty and fear. 

“In the Clutch of Circumstance”

In one fell swoop all British, Canadian and American residents were being rounded up. It was taken for granted that all the bigger businessmen, including the Cook’s representative, must be secret agents for Britain. Dopson was ordered to dress immediately and was taken away. The family had an extensive library, which was at once locked up and sealed, later searched for “subversive literature.” Then began the uneasy, frustrating period of supervised, restricted, partial freedom that all allied families, caught in the Orient, suffered before their ultimate incarceration. Gwen, like the rest, must wear an armband and a number. She must queue outside commandeered buildings to hand in such things as radios, record players and cameras.

After six months of partial freedom, Gwen received 24 hours’ notice to pack for relocation. She cleverly packed essentials into an overturned daybed and moved to Ash Camp, designated for women with young children. The conditions were dire, with rat-infested huts and scarce provisions. Gwen worked in the kitchens, cooking for 420 prisoners and improvising with soya beans to provide sustenance. The rainy season exacerbated their plight, flooding the camp and forcing everyone to wear clogs.

The camp commandant posed another threat with his drunken, full moon-induced roll calls. Food supplies dwindled as Red Cross packages were intercepted, leaving prisoners to survive on contaminated grain. Visits to husbands were rare and fraught with delays. Gwen discovered Leslie had been moved to a prison hospital, gravely ill. Despite subsequent medical treatments in Australia and Canada, Leslie’s health never fully recovered.

Liberation brought its own challenges. The Dopsons avoided returning to their wartime home, fearing what they might find, and eventually moved to Canada, settling in Williams Lake. Adapting to rural Canadian life was tough, but Gwen and Leslie faced it with determination. Gwen opened an office for hospital insurance, while Leslie worked for the motor vehicles branch, creating the digit system for car licenses used in British Columbia.

In the aftermath of war’s tumult, the scars of captivity lingered as Leslie Dopson, once a stalwart beacon of strength, succumbed to the ravages of illness, his health irreparably compromised by the trials of imprisonment. Leslie passed away in 1959, leaving Gwen to continue her journey alone. She joined the Montreal Trust Company and found solace in her apartment with a harbor view in Victoria B.C, reflecting on the incredible resilience that had brought her to this point.

Gwen Dopson’s story is a powerful testament to the endurance and adaptability of those who lived through the turmoil of war, and whose descendants live to keep their stories alive.

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