By Steve Smith
Time after time, when Neville Minas’ name appears in one of the Toc H groups on facebook, a flurry of posts appear from people who knew him saying what a wonderful man he was, a perfect gentleman. Certainly, whenever Neville was at Talbot House on one his wardening stints, the queue of local people waiting to see him stretched out the huge front door of the Old House. He was a dear friend of mine, if only for a few short years before his death, and I thought it was time his story was told. The later years, indeed the better part of his life, was quite simple because Neville was a devout and dedicated man. Dedicated to his work, his church, and Toc H. It was a simple life by many standards but then the life he had had before he was even 25 would have been enough for most people.
Neville Stephen Minas was born in Burma (Now Myanmar) on the 23rd August 1921 to Armenian parents who travelled to Burma in the 1880s. Neville’s father, John Isaac Minas, was a Civil Engineer working for the Burmese government which was still then under British rule. Neville was the youngest of seven children. Independence was on the horizon for Burma and although there was rioting in Rangoon by the Green Army, this had quieted somewhat by the thirties and Burma became a separately administered colony in 1937, with its own Prime Minister and Premier.
This road to independence stalled in the 1940s when the Second World War broke out. After the attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th of December 1941 the Japanese fully entered the war and on the 23rd December bombed Rangoon for the first time. Burma quickly became a major front-line in the Southeast Asian Theatre. Singapore fell and the British administration in Burma collapsed. The army retreated as the Japanese troops advanced. Only the Indians and Anglo-Burmese remained in their civic posts. Neville told me he remembered seeing the flashes of Japanese planes reflected on the golden dome of the Great Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon as they flew over whilst he was fire-watching.
As a 20 year old young man, with aspirations to be an Anglican priest, Neville was moved by the firm he was working for to Mandalay. For the first time, he was separated from his family and with all that was happening around them, this must have been terrifying. Every day Neville went down to the docks to see if his family were amongst the refugees arriving from Rangoon. And for weeks he was disappointed daily. Finally they arrived on a boat and the family was reunited. It wasn’t for long though, on the 3rd April 1942, Good Friday, the Japanese bombed Mandalay. The Minas family sheltered in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Mission School but finally loaded a bullock cart with all their possessions and moved out.
At Myingyan, one of Neville’s brothers who worked for the railways, found them room on a train, and they were transported to Myitkyina in the north of country. This journey would have been slow as one person’s account of a similar journey said the train stopped at every pool it passed to take on board fresh water. The trains were overcrowded and the steam engine must have been working hard. At Myitkyina Neville and his family awaited a flight to India. However, they were massively oversubscribed and Europeans and Eurasians were given priority so Neville offered to walk to Calcutta with thirty customs officers, and meet his family there. In fact Neville and the customs officers were just part of 300,000-400,000 mostly Indian evacuees fleeing through the jungle to India. One report suggests his brother Eric was with them but I believe Eric actually travelled separately of Neville.
The exodus, which became known as The Trek was, on the surface, an organised evacuation. Permits were required for the different paths to be taken and for any item not on the prescribed list. It was supposed to be a fair migration too but was anything but. Colonial racism was at the fore and as Indians, Burmese and other people of colour, trudged on foot or with a bullock cart, the white émigrés rode by in motor cars.
And the journey was not an easy one. Neville said later that the early days were like a picnic. They had fresh food and water and were given hospitality at all the villages they passed through on route south to Indaw. This wasn’t to last. They needed to aim west now but trying to avoid the interior of the jungle, they waded through the Chindwin River for three days attracting leeches which sucked their blood and left them covered in sores. This was the longer route – several hundred miles – but was considered safer than heading directly west over the mountains. However their food ran low and they had to cross the Naga Hills where both head-hunting tribesmen (The Konyak) and tigers roamed.
One day Neville picked up a charred stick, only to find it was the burnt arm of a child. He said:
We slept and walked among the dead. There was always a stench of death. We had never seen so many dead bodies – and I never want to see a vulture again.
According to the records I have seen, Neville finally arrived at the Evacuee Camp in Almora on the 17th May 1942 after a 400 mile hike. Although he could not find his family at first, he did eventually find his mother and an aunt alive. The rest of the family had been split up and it was years before the whole story could be pieced together.
His father and three of his brothers Haikki, George and Oscar had travelled together. Haikki died on the way and their father, John Isaac died on the 5th July 1942 in a British camp at Panitola fifty miles over the Indian border. George and Oscar survived and died in Australia in 1991 and 2008 respectively. Eric, also survived and died in Eltham in 1990.
In Calcutta, Neville joined the RAF as a Base Accountant with the rank of Corporal. This later entitled him to the Burma Star which he always wore proudly. After the war he returned to Rangoon; Burma was reclaimed by the British in 1945 but gained independence in 1947. However, Neville left there on a ship called the Pegu and arrived in Liverpool on the 5th October 1949. His profession was listed as an accountant and the address for where he was to be staying was in Morden in Surrey. The ship’s manifest did say that he intended future residence was to be Burma, but this didn’t seem to be the case as Neville appeared to settle in London.
He was soon living at the Brothers’ House in Kennington – Toc H Mark XIII. A staunch Christian, Neville began working in the Finance Department of The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (From 1965 the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) HQ in Westminster but Neville also became an honorary warden of the Mark. This house was of course presented to Toc H by Mrs Dilberoglue in memory of her sons Richard and Augustus killed in World War 1. Amongst other things Neville taught English to many young Belgian lads who came to stay in London. He lived – at least for a time – in the Poperinge Room and had a pair of black cats known as Sooty and Sweep.
He was much loved by all who knew him and that included Tubby. Neville was one of the walk on guests at the end of Tubby’s This Is Your Life in February 1958. I first met him at a North of the River Rally in Kempston in the early 2000s and visited him several times in Cambridge. He also joined us at Ely when Gualter de Mello’s Hackney Crew gathered each year for a celebratory weekend. Gualter was another of Neville’s many good friends in Toc H. They met when Gualter came to stay at the Brothers’ House for a short while.
Retiring in 1983, Neville moved to Cambridge living in the community housing project at Langdon House. He became a member and secretary of Cambridge branch remaining with it until his death. Neville was a member of the Burma Star Association and was very involved with St George’s Church in Chesterton, Cambridge.
However, he was perhaps best loved for his regular stints as a warden – he spent a month there once a year – at Talbot House, Poperinge where he made many friends – both Belgian and British.
He moved to own flat in Union Lane not far from Langdon House, Chesterton but returned to Langdon House – now a residential home – for his final few years and was very happy there. He liked nothing better than to receive visits and phone calls from his many friends and far flung family members. People were important to Neville and he was very important to a great many people.
Neville passed peacefully away at Addenbrooke’s Hospital on Sunday, October 17th, 2010, aged 89. Though he never married or had children, he had nieces, great nieces, and even a great, great niece. Of course, he also had his church and Toc H families all of whom speak fondly of this lovely gentle man.