Why Railway of Death survivor Len Gibson is backing Sunderland’s culture bid

Len Gibson
Len Gibson
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World War II hero Len Gibson from West Herrington is among those backing Sunderland’s City of Culture 2021 bid. We chat to him about how music helped give him strength under the most unimaginable of conditions

Len Gibson will be 100 at the start of 2021.

Len, fourth from the left, with some of his comrades from 125

Len, fourth from the left, with some of his comrades from 125

And the teacher knows more than most about how arts and culture can inspire and motivate.

Len, now 97, was among 600 soldiers from Sunderland’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942.

He spent the next three and a half years in various Japanese Prisoner of War camps, facing death on a daily basis through starvation, torture or disease. Len endured more than two years of working on the infamous Burma railway – the Railway of Death – before being put to work on the Mergui Road, which he says was even worse.

At the start of his regiment’s captivity, spirits were comparatively high and Len and fellow choristers from Bishopwearmouth Church (now Sunderland Minster) kept the men entertained with songs from the music halls.

Len Gibson

Len Gibson

“There were six of us choristers from Bishopwearmouth, but only three survived the camps,” he said.

Len could play the banjo, but his instrument went down with his other possessions when Japanese dive bombers sank his troop carrier, the Empress of Asia, en route from Bombay to Singapore.

So Len fashioned a crude guitar out of an abandoned wooden crate. The strings were made from pilfered telegraph wires and a key from a bully beef tin was used to dig out holes for tuning pegs.

He had a guitar - but didn’t know how to play: “My dad played the banjo and taught me how to play and my sisters and I would tour local churches and church halls playing concerts in the 1930s, but I had no idea how to play a guitar.

Len performing at the Cultural Spring event in honour of his wife

Len performing at the Cultural Spring event in honour of his wife

“A fellow prisoner, an organist from Taunton, taught me the chords, often talking to me as we worked on the railway,” Len added.

He and a group of singers became very popular in the camps, keeping morale up during some incredibly difficult times. Nearly 200 of the 125 Regiment died during captivity, and Len is now the sole survivor.

He caught typhus while caring for a sick friend and in the same night he was bitten by two scorpions – he played his guitar throughout the night.

Later, Len made an improved guitar and played in a camp orchestra, composing his own songs and music. One tune, Monsoon, became especially popular.

“I wrote it trying to capture the sound of the rain in the jungle during a monsoon. It was broadcast from Rangoon Station on the day the war ended.

“Music and singing kept us going during some very dark days. We were exhausted after long days working, but music kept us going. As well as playing I taught others to play and we helped make several guitars for other lads.

“Music has been a thread through my life – it brings people together so well, everyone loves music,” he added.

When the war ended, Len returned to hospital in Sunderland a sick man. He fell in love with one of his nurses, and Ruby became his wife.

She passed away last year and Len paid tribute to his wife of 70 years with a moving performance of her favourite song, On The Street Where You Live, at the Cultural Spring’s A Great Night Out show last year.

Len became a music teacher, always working in schools in Sunderland, and then a deputy headteacher.

He also taught music to adults at summer schools and night schools, and continues to perform to this day.

“I was singing and playing guitar at the Gunners’ Club in Mary Street just last night – playing to some visiting veterans,” explained Len, a father of two, grandfather of seven and great grandfather of six.

He plays local songs, some of his own composition and some based on childhood games he used to play growing up in Farringdon Row.

He published a book of songs and poetry – A Wearside Lad in Verse – after he’d published a book based on his wartime experiences – A Wearside Lad in World War

This musician, poet, composer and teacher is firmly behind Sunderland’s bid to become City of Culture in 2021: “I think it’s a great idea and will help put Sunderland on the map for all the right reasons.

“It would be a marvellous thing for the people of the city to enjoy and I’m sure it will bring people into the city who’ve never been here before.

“Over the years we’ve not been known as a city particularly interested in arts and culture. I remember a few pianoforte recitals and we’ve always had the Empire and museum, but I don’t think it’s been a priority.

“Becoming City of Culture would change this, change how we think of ourselves and change how others see us.

“Music has always been a big part of my life, and it would be nice to think that such a year could introduce others to music and other things like drama, acting and dancing.

“I remember going to a night school in 1937 and on my way I passed the Empire and Rigoletto was on. I thought ‘I’ve never seen an opera before so I’ll go in.’ I didn’t get to the night school, but discovered I liked opera - soon after Faust was on and I went to see that too.

“I’ve always gone to the Empire. I remember when I was very little my dad would take all of us on a Friday night. He had this very thick coat and would roll it up and put it on my seat so I could see what was happening on stage.

“If we win the City of Culture title, I’d like to see more opera in the city, more ballet and more orchestras playing – more of everything really, it will be a terrific year.

“We’ve always been known as a friendly city and I’m sure visitors during 2021 would be given a very warm welcome.”

It was announced in July that Sunderland was on a shortlist of five to win the coveted City of Culture 2021 title. Other cities shortlisted were Paisley, Swansea, Stoke and Coventry.

The winner will be announced in Hull – holder of the title City of Culture 2017 – in December.

To keep with news of Sunderland’s bid, follow it on Twitter on @sunderland2021 or on Facebook.