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26 May 2021

Bobbie Spong (191? - 1944) performer, WWII Prisoner of War

Spong was the son of the licencee of the Six Bells, Kings Road, Chelsea. On 7-8th December 1941 he was a private in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps stationed in Singapore. On that day Japanese forces attacked Thailand, Dutch East Indies, the UK colonies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya. and the US colonies of the Philippines and Hawai’i.

The 60,000 British empire forces in Singapore and Malaya finally surrendered 15 February 1942, what Churchill called "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". Most UK and Australian troops, and later Dutch civilians, were imprisoned in the Selarang Barracks, near to Changi, an existing prison at the east end of Singapore. The Barracks also became referred to as Changi. 850 died in captivity, others were transported to work as forced labour in Japan or on the Thai-Burma railway (which included a bridge over the river Kwai).

Morale was inevitably bad, and the officers encouraged sports and theatricals. One of the first were The Mumming Bees concert parties, and it was at these that Bobbie Spong, who had already made somewhat of a name as a performer, first became well-known. Bobbie impersonated comedienne Beatrice Lillie, film star Marlene Dietrich and female impersonator Douglas Byng. From there Spong branched out into comedy sketches and revues, almost always in female parts. Even the Japanese and Korean guards came to watch. One night her appearance was greeted by a roar of applause that was heard across the island. 

Somehow Spong had managed to bring into the prison camp a full set of female clothing including corsets. He was allowed to grow his hair to a feminine length. Bobbie often stayed in role offstage. In particular she would tour the hospital wards and sing for those too sick to attend the performances. She was so convincing that when she sat on a patient’s bed they would blush and attempt to cover their nakedness. Late in 1943 when Private Spong returned to the Chungkai camp in Thailand from a work-camp up the line, and converted to Bobbie for a show, she was so convincing that the Japanese officers stopped the show and demanded proof of her manhood. Both Japanese and Korean guards often asked Bobbie to give a private performance in their quarters. This she did, graciously accepting fruit and cigarettes, and then would quickly flee back to her own quarters.

On Christmas Day 1943, Bobbie - in a light green and orange frock and hat - was in the hospital to give out cigarettes. Later that day she was at the mock horse races where everybody dressed up the best that they could. She kissed the winners of the races. The day ended with Bobbie under a large tree singing from the Douglas Byng repertoire.

The theatre at Chungkai.  Bobbie sitting front right.


On 29 April 1944 the shows were cancelled because the Japanese had taken all the theatrical paraphernalia for the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday. Bobbie was part of a burlesque football match that was hastily arranged instead.

West London Press, 32/10/1952 p1
Bobbie’s final appearance was in mid-May 1944 at Chungkai camp. Spong then shocked everyone by volunteering for a work detail in Japan because her best friend had been drafted for it. Departure was 8 June. By then Spong had had his hair cut, but managed to pack twenty frocks in his rucksack. 1300 POWs were crammed into an unmarked transport ship. The ship was spotted, torpedoed and sunk by a US submarine - very few survived.

  • “Pledge Renewed”, West London Press,October 31, 1952: 1.
  • Sears Eldredge. “Wonder Bar: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival in a Second World War POW Hospital Camp” in Gilly Carr & Harold Mytum (eds). Cultural Heritage and Prisoners of War: Creativity Behind Barbed Wire.Routledge, 2012.
  • Sears Eldredge. “ ‘We Girls’: Female Impersonators in Prisoner-of-War Entertainments on the Thailand-Burma Railway”. Popular Entertainment Studies, 5, 1, 2014: 74-99.
  • Sears A Eldredge. “The Uncomparable Bobbie” in Captive Audiences / Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945. Macelester College, 2014: 533-8.


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