The Fall of Singapore: The story of the Pether family

The Fall of Singapore: The story of the Pether family

On 23 September an exciting new exhibition opened at the National Museum of Singapore called Witness to War: Remembering 1942. Ten objects from Te Papa were sent to Singapore to be featured in the exhibition.

In this blog history curator Katie Cooper shares the story of the Pether family, and explains how they witnessed the war.

On Christmas Eve, 1941, Kathleen Pether left Singapore with her baby daughter Maureen, and began her long journey back to New Zealand. Less than three weeks earlier Japan had launched simultaneous attacks against British and American territories across Asia and the Pacific, and enemy planes were bombing the city regularly.

Kathleen was born in Port Chalmers, just out of Dunedin, in 1920, the eldest child of Norman and Annie Clark. In the early years of the Depression Norman, a ship’s engineer, moved to Shanghai for work, and in 1932 the rest of the family joined him. It was in Shanghai that Kathleen met her future husband Harold Pether, and the couple married in 1940. Harold was born in Maidenhead, England, in 1912, and from the early 1930s he worked for Castrol Oil in Asia.

During the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 the Chinese-controlled areas of Shanghai were occupied by Japanese forces. Although the foreign concessions remained unoccupied they were surrounded by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, and thus formed a “solitary island” in a city divided and dangerous. Harold and Kathleen left Shanghai in early 1941 and moved to the relative safety of Singapore, but their respite was brief. As the fighting crept closer and closer, Harold convinced his wife to take their daughter and return to New Zealand.

It was only supposed to be a temporary break, but in fact Kathleen was not to see her husband again for almost four years. She also left behind her parents and her 19-year-old brother Jack.

Studio portrait of Kathleen and Maureen
Kathleen and Maureen photographed in Wellington, 24 January 1945. Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.059308)

On 15 February 1942 the British surrendered Singapore, and more than 130,000 troops laid down their arms. Japanese forces quickly occupied the city, renaming it Syonan-to (Light of the South). For three and a half years Singapore’s one million civilians lived in fear and hunger; perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of the island.

Annie Clark managed to escape Singapore on 12 February but Harold and Norman were interned: first at Changi Prison, then at Sime Road Camp. Although civilian internees were generally treated better than prisoners of war and were not made to labour on construction projects, they nevertheless experienced malnutrition and disease, and in some cases were subject to brutality.

Kathleen’s brother Jack, meanwhile, had joined the Selangor Battalion of the Malay States Volunteer Forces in 1940. His unit was last seen on 16 February 1942, having spent weeks defending Singapore from nearby Blakan Mati (now known as Sentosa Island). His name is listed on the war memorial at Kranji – Killed in Action.

After the Japanese surrendered in September 1945 Allied forces returned to Singapore and an interim military government was established. Kathleen and Harold were reunited later that year in England, where Harold was recovering from illnesses sustained during his years as an internee. The following year they returned to Singapore, as did Kathleen’s parents Norman and Annie, so they could start their lives anew.

Kathleen and Harold Pether standing on a neighbour’s balcony
Kathleen and Harold Pether standing on a neighbour’s balcony, Singapore, 1947–1948. Their home on Bukit Timah Road is in the background. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Pether family

Two sons arrived in quick succession – John in 1946 and Michael in 1947 – while their second daughter Louise was born in 1950.

Kathleen Pether with children John and Maureen
Kathleen Pether with children John and Maureen, Singapore, 1947. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Pether family

In addition to raising their four children the couple enjoyed an active social life, attending balls and parties and entertaining New Zealand visitors. Louise remembers watching her mother getting ready for nights out in Singapore with the Goons playing on the green Bakelite radio, the scents of face powder, lipstick, and perfume wafting through the air-conditioned room.

Kathleen had this beautiful organza dress tailor-made for one of those parties in the mid-1950s, and it is the only one she brought back to New Zealand when the family returned in 1957. It was donated to Te Papa in 2014, and is currently on display in Witness to War.

Kathleen Pether's dress
Kathleen Pether’s dress (Te Papa collection, GH017828), on display in Witness to War: Remembering 1942. Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore

The dress is used in the exhibition as evidence of post-war reconstruction: a return to some semblance of normality after years of disruption. The story of Kathleen and Harold Pether is one of reunification and reconstruction, but nevertheless the life they lived in Singapore after the war was still very much shaped by their experiences during it.

The photograph below, for example, shows Harold and Kathleen enjoying a party with a group of close friends on a warm Singapore evening in the mid-1950s. There is more to it than that, though, for many of these men had been interned together at Changi Prison, and as Harold and Kathleen’s children pointed out to me, they shared a friendship forged in the arena of war.

Kathleen Pether and Harold Pether with a group of friends.
Kathleen Pether (standing in centre) and Harold Pether (standing at left) with a group of friends. Singapore, about 1950s. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Pether family.

Kathleen’s granddaughters Jacqueline and Elisabeth, and her great-granddaughter Coco, were able to attend the exhibition opening in Singapore and see an aspect of their family history on display. I am very grateful to the Pether family for their assistance and generosity throughout the project, and for allowing us to reproduce precious photos from their private collection.

Jaqueline, Coco, and Elisabeth in front of Kathleen’s dress
Jaqueline, Coco, and Elisabeth in front of Kathleen’s dress. Photograph courtesy of the Pether family

If you are visiting Singapore over the next few months do take the time to go and see Kathleen’s dress on display at the National Museum of Singapore.

Witness to War: Remembering 1942 is open until 25 March, 2018.



  1. Hi Kate, I really enjoyed reading all about the Pether family. Thank you for sharing all the information.

    1. Author

      Thanks Nicki. I’m very grateful to the Pether family for allowing me to tell their story. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.

  2. How wonderful to see this story pop up on my newsfeed. Kathleen was my father, George Goodyear’s cousin and we were often told the family stories when we were growing up.

    1. Author

      Thank you Elizabeth. I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog.
      Very best,

  3. Hi Katie
    Wonderful to be able to feature this story and dress in the exhibition. I love how the fabric pattern has been used so beautifully as the overall graphic in the display.

    1. Author

      Hi Kirstie
      It does look beautiful, doesn’t it?
      Thank you so much for reading.

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