Clement Attlee and his postwar government remain one of Britain’s most praised, both by the general public and in academia. Indeed, British academics judged Attlee Britain’s most successful Prime Minister to date in a 2004 study. This enduring popularity has obscured a dark chapter of Britain’s history and of the lauded Attlee government, which has received no more than cursory mention in the historiography.
At least 8,000 Chinese seafarers were based in Liverpool at the height of the Second World War, mostly working as crew on merchant vessels ferrying vital supplies across the Atlantic. What is shocking is that these men were denied the war risk bonus that was paid out to white seafarers.
This poor treatment continued following the Allies’ victory.
As a major port city, Liverpool was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and housing was in short supply. Local authorities regarded the Chinese seamen as a nuisance particularly because they took up precious housing. A meeting at the Home Office in October 1945 recorded that the Liverpool authorities were ‘anxious’ to regain housing used by Chinese seafarers.
Official records on the deportations of Chinese seafarers in 1946 are sparse, with a handful of meeting minutes and correspondence on the subject in the National Archive’s Home Office file on the subject. They do, however, suggest that many of the 1,362 Chinese deported did not wish to return to China, mentioning that many left Liverpool when they got wind of the deportation scheme. But this did not save them from expulsion, with the aid of all Chief Constables throughout Britain in tracking down the Chinese who had tried to avoid deportation.
The Home Office decided to allow those Chinese who had married British women to remain in Liverpool, but the records indicate that this was not communicated to the Chinese. Indeed, one Immigration Officer’s report in November 1945 suggested that it would be ‘unwise’ to alert the Chinese to the fact that they had a right to remain in Britain if married to a British woman. The authors of several such reports appear to believe that the Chinese would marry Liverpudlian women simply in order to remain in the country.
This deliberate withholding of information meant that some of the men deported left behind their wives and children, even though they were actually entitled to stay in Britain. Official records in the National Archives deny outright that this happened - but the personal stories of those left behind indicate otherwise.
One particularly poignant story is that of Keith Cocklin, who was interviewed during the Cruel Sea Reminiscence Project in 2005. Keith’s father, Soong Kwai Sing, served in the engine rooms of ships throughout the war. Sing was deported in 1946, suddenly rounded up by the authorities without the opportunity to say goodbye to Keith and his mother. No one bothered to explain to them what had happened.
Keith believed for years that his father had died. But Sing did not accept their separation without a fight, attempting unsuccessfully to bring his son to China in 1950. In the 1990s, Keith managed to trace Sing, discovering two sisters and a brother in China. Unfortunately his father had already passed away.
Similarly, Peter Foo’s father only managed to reach out to the son he had been forced to leave behind several decades later. In an August 2023 interview with the Liverpool Echo, Peter recalled that he rebuffed his father’s attempt, believing that his father had chosen to abandon him. He did not come to know the truth about the deportations until after his father’s death.
The wives, partners and children of Chinese seafarers who were left behind in Liverpool received no help from the authorities. An article published in the 19th August 1946 issue of the Liberal-leaning News Chronicle, featured an interview with Marion Lee, one of the wives left behind. She created a ‘defence association’ for the women to campaign for their rights after they were ‘left destitute’. She told the reporter ‘We are left to live on public aid, charity and the help of our families'.
Yvonne Foley, another Anglo-Chinese child whose father was deported in 1946, recalled in 2021: ‘A lot of our mothers really suffered terribly’. Some were even forced to place their children into orphanages after being disowned by their families. Many died believing they had been abandoned by their Chinese husbands, without ever discovering the truth.
Efforts to find answers are ongoing. A very recent episode of BBC2’s DNA Family Secrets featured Judy Kinnin, whose father Chang Au Chiang disappeared in 1946 when Judy was eighteen months old. Judy recounted that those who knew Chiang remember how he adored her. While showing a photograph of her and her parents to the camera, Judy read a note her mother wrote on the back: ‘Miss Mooring and baby darling, you have now leave me, it’s ten months about’.
Judy was not able to discover any DNA matches. However, she did find proof that her father made it back to China safely, and that she is of Shanghainese descent. Judy is soon due to speak about the deportations at the Houses of Parliament.
It can only be hoped that historians reassess the Attlee government and postwar Britain, as the surviving children of Anglo-Chinese couples torn apart by this draconian government policy grow older and step up their search for answers and for justice.