Changi manuscript by Sir Alexander Russell Downer KBE
The book titled ‘Government in Two Worlds: An Introductory Survey of the Governments of Britain and Australia’ was written by Alexander 'Alick' Downer during his captivity as a prisoner of war in Changi, Singapore. A lawyer before the war, Alick Downer, enlisted with the 2/14th Field Regiment and served as a gunner. Following the surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Downer along with close to 15,000 other Australians, was marched into the old British Barracks at Changi where he was to be a prisoner of war until war’s end.
The prisoners of war at Changi were directed to take responsibility for their own administration. This autonomy meant that they could supplement meagre rice rations with growing their own food, organise entertainment, sanitation and discipline. Education became an important morale raising activity. At Changi Alick Downer was a key figure in developing the library and Education Centre. Downer wrote of the “ignorance amongst officers and troops alike of public institutions” and devised a series of lectures on understanding the systems of Government of Australia, its allies and its enemies to help build knowledge amongst the AIF whom he felt were deficient in this area. Topics included “the nature of capitalism and some suggestions for its reform”, “Modern Italy” and “Australian Civics”.
The library was mainly run by three men, David Griffin, Alick Downer and Tony Newsom. Russell Braddon, a fellow prisoner of war, in his book ‘The Naked Island’ described the three as the, the scholar, the lawyer and the salesman. David Griffin in the Changi Book wrote of the morale raising effect of the library … “for most men the library at some time or another played its part and kept them going during the darkest hours”. The library consisted of books scavenged and donated by the troops and grew to considerable size, holding over 20,000 books. To keep the books in decent repair and in circulation a book bindery was established.
Downer’s book is an important addition to the Memorial’s extensive collections related to the Prisoner of War experience at Changi. The Memorial has a rich collection of letters, diaries and manuscripts written at Changi that help us understand how Australians organised and lived through their Prisoner of War years. This manuscript by Downer adds a unique addition to our understanding. The manuscript is based on the lectures that he gave at the AIF Education Centre and so shows us some of the content of the lectures that the men would have attended. Downer’s manuscript is bound at the Changi library using the recycled materials that they had available. The manuscript demonstrates how the books were created, bound and cared for at Changi. It is one of the few examples the Memorial holds of books bound at the Library.
Downer showed the manuscript to Hector Chalmers a Lieutenant and fellow POW at Changi. The manuscript includes brief notes by Chalmers on a separate page and a comment that shows it resonated at the time: 'you have created a work which is valuable, interesting and entertaining. I believe that when published it will be widely read, not only by political aspirants, for the knowledge it contains, but by the general public, because of its brightly written revelations of a subject for too long too little known'.
The manuscript provides insight into the person Downer was during this time as well as into his political career as it developed in the post war period. It shows that during his time at Changi Downer researched and reflected on the nature of politics. He returned to Australia after the war and pursued a successful career in politics winning a seat in the House of Representatives for the Liberal-Country Party in 1949. During his career Downer served as Minister for Immigration, reforming aspects of the White Australia policy. He held the seat until he retired in 1964 and was appointed Australian High Commissioner in London until 1972.