British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J. S. A. Lewis, OBE
More Bumps in the Night
Gordon Highlanders in Tampin
I went out to the Federated Malay States in 1928 as a Customs Cadet and was stationed at Ipoh, a fairly large town in a tin mining district. After passing my language and law examinations I was transferred to Tampin, which was an out-station on the borders of the Federation and the State of Malacca, as the Asst. Superintendent i/c of the Customs station there.

There was only one road into Malacca at Tampin and, as the State boundary ran through the town, there was a Customs gate in the middle of the town to make life more interesting. Malacca was virtually duty free so there were no Customs controls on the Malacca side of the boundary; smuggling was one sided i.e. into the Federation. Consequently most of the town, consisting of Chinese and Indian shopkeepers, lay on the Malacca side of the boundary.

The town on the Federation side of the border was the usual small out-station with only five European Government officials - the District Officer, the doctor, the P.W.D. engineer, the Police Officer and myself. We had the usual Club, with billiard table and a hard tennis court, which was also used by neighbouring rubber planters. There was a fair sized playing field in the town where the local Asians played soccer and hockey. The Government offices overlooked this field and I had a pleasant office next door to the District Officer where I was kept cool by a punkah over my head pulled by the office boy.

More Bumps in the Night
Malacca, 1930s
I was allocated a bungalow to live in which was about one mile out of town and rather secluded. It was a three bedroom wooden bungalow raised three feet above the ground, solid but somewhat primitive. I had an open verandah around the house with roll up blinds known as 'chicks' to keep out the rain. There was no electric light so I had to make do with Chinese oil lamps and candles. A good torchlight was therefore essential. A block of ice was delivered daily for the ice box to keep the drinks cool and the food from going bad.

The kitchen in the servants quarters only had an open wood fire and a few pots and pans. As an oven the cook used an old empty four gallon kerosene tin placed near the fire. How he was able to produce the meals he did, I cannot imagine. Each bedroom had its own bathroom, which was a small concrete room at ground level and contained a large earthenware jar of cold water and a 'thunder-box' (loo). Snakes had a habit of visiting the bathroom via the water drain, presumably to cool off, and small scorpions had a nasty habit of dozing under the thunder-box seat. One had to be constantly aware of creepy crawlies and be always on guard.

One night during my sojourn there I was woken up by the sound of padded footsteps on the verandah outside my bedroom. I suspected a thief and so got out of bed with my torchlight and revolver, which I kept under the pillow, and opened the swing doors of my bedroom quietly. When I turned on my torchlight to see who was there, the sound of footsteps immediately stopped and there was no-one on the verandah. I was somewhat surprised and assumed that the noise must have been caused by a civet cat or possibly rats thumping about in the roof.

More Bumps in the Night
Malaya Bungalow
The revolver may sound melodramatic but at that time there was a world wide recession which hit the Malay States badly. Many rubber estates and open cast Chinese mines had to close down, shedding their labourers, as the price of rubber and tin had plummeted. Consequently robberies and burglaries had increased considerably. As my bungalow was wide open to intruders and I was on my own I felt a bit safer with a revolver under my pillow.

Some weeks later the same thing happened again. I woke up to hear the distinct sound of footsteps on the verandah. I got out of bed with my torch and gun and listened by the swing doors, as I did not want to be fooled a second time. I thought to myself I am wide awake, the noises are not from the roof, this time there is definitely someone on the verandah. I was not the slightest bit frightened, as I had had nearly two years experience of grappling with bootleggers and smugglers at night in the jungle, so that catching a thief would be child's play.

I opened the swing doors quietly and turned on my torchlight fully expecting to find a thief on the verandah. You can imagine my astonishment on finding no-one there and the sound of footsteps had stopped as soon as I had shone the torch. Some time later the District Officer obtained a young ADO to help him and I was instructed to share my bungalow with him. I welcomed his company and between us we were able to buy a kerosene oil pressure lamp for the house. This gave off a bright light which made life easier at night.

One night I was again woken up, this time by the noise of banging and thumping coming from the ADO's bedroom which was across the dining room from my bedroom. Thinking that he might be in some kind of trouble I went across to his bedroom. When I reached his swing doors commotion still reigned in his bedroom but as soon as I opened the door and flashed my torchlight into the room, the noises stopped. The ADO, to my astonishment, was fast asleep in his bed. He woke up when I entered his room and I explained what had happened but he had heard nothing.

Years later I met a colleague who had lived in the same bungalow before me and he admitted he had also heard footsteps in the night. I was also told that the bungalow had been built over an old Malay graveyard, which may have had something to do with it.

Bumps and More Bumps in the Night
by Edward Pound
The account by J.S.A. Lewis makes interesting reading, but unless one believes in ghosts, there must be some alternative, plausible explanation for the noises heard.

I was reminded of a story related by "Daddy" Barnes (Soil Conservation, Kenya) in the 1950s. He and another officer were on safari and sharing a wooden Government rest-house. One evening they distinctly heard what appeared to be footsteps approaching across an adjoining room. The communicating door swung open slightly, the footsteps passed through the doorway, the door swung to and the footsteps continued across the room in which they sat. No doubt some hair had stood on end at the time but "Daddy" Barnes explained the episode by suggesting that it resulted from wind pressure on the wooden building and creaking of the wooden boards against one another.

Some years later, I lived with my wife and two very young children in a large wooden bungalow built on stilts in Mahe, Seychelles. We had engaged a local girl to help with the children and, to save walking home every night, she slept in the loft - but only for a very short time, since she was scared of what she called "Gri-gri" in the loft. This turned out to be noises, which we assumed to arise from contraction of the large expanse of corrugated iron in the roof. Needless to say, the girl would not accept our explanations.

Somewhat related, when in Ghana during 1939, I was helping a statistician to check his figures, when I heard the sound as of a dog scratching its ear near my chair. I looked down only to find that there was no dog there. We looked at one another and simultaneously said "Earthquake". The building was again a wooden structure on stilts. We left the building to find that terra firma was anything but firm, but the most interesting feature was to experience the gradual receding of the tremor to what would have been to the other side of my chair, I suppose one to two minutes later.

British Colony Map
1965 Map of Singapore and Southern Malaya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 64: October 1992
OSPA Journal 67: April 1994


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