Not forgotten – dad who died on the 'death railway' 75 years ago
A special tribute is to be paid to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of a Barnard Castle officer who died as a Far East prisoner of war. Reporter Martin Paul spoke to his daughter, Sybil
CAPTAIN Cecil Pickersgill was cut down by cerebral malaria on October 23, 1943, while working on the infamous “death railway” between Siam and Burma.
Before the war, Capt Pickersgill was an architect in the town and completed the designs for Dawson Road.
A lasting memory of him exists in the form of a lychgate situated at the National Memorial Arboretum, which he designed and had built while held captive in Burma.
His daughter, Sybil Shaw, still lives in the town and will, along with her family, visit the arboretum on the anniversary of his death to lay poppies and wreaths.
She said: “My father was a member of the TA and left home on the first day of the war.
He was with the British Expeditionary Force that went to France.
When he got to Dunkirk the boats had gone so he and his men went along the coast to Boulogne and after three days and nights on the beach they managed to get a boat for home.”
The captain was then sent to the Far East where he was taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore, and marched 20km to Changi Prison.
Mrs Shaw felt first hand the conditions he must have faced when, in 1978, she was taken along the route between Singapore and Changi, and attended a dawn memorial service there.
She said: “It was dawn and you would have thought buckets of water had been thrown over me. The humidity was horrendous.”
The cemetery at Changi soon began to fill up as the death toll mounted, which led Captain Pickersgill asking the camp commandant if he could erect a lychgate.
Mrs Shaw said: “The Japanese commandant gave permission and my father drew plans for a lychgate – he based his drawings in the lychgate at Holy Trinity Church, Startforth.
“As they had no nails, barbed wire was used and there were a number of fellow prisoners with many skills which my father made use of.”
The lychgate was dismantled after the war but ten years later was re-erected at Tanglon Barracks, in Singapore.
The gate was eventually brought to Britain in 1972 and put up at Bassingbourn Barracks, in Herfordshire.
Its final moved came in 2003 when Mrs Shaw was asked if it could be placed at the Far East Prisoner of War plot at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire.
The drawings he made for the gate are also kept safely at the memorial.
A committed freemason, Capt Pickersgill started the River Valley POW Masonic Club at the prison and was presented with a bible for the club by the then Bishop of Singapore.
The Bible is also housed at the arboretum.
Originally from Bowes, where his family owned the Ancient Unicorn Hotel, Capt Pickersgill's name is listed on the Second World War plaque in St Giles’ Church, in the village.
Mrs Shaw learned most of what she knows about him from men who were in the prison camp with him.
She said: “From what I have been told by people he was a very charismatic person.
“The person my father put in charge of wood gathering said he was never made to feel it was officer and another rank, it was like two friends talking at night.
“I was six the last time I saw him, eight when he died and ten when we got the telegram.
“I am inordinately proud of my father.
“He was 37 when he died. He will always be that young.
“I am a believer and I would like to think that I will meet him again, and I hope I am the hoppity-skippity little girl that he knew.”