Stories from the Archives: Reuniting Two Friends Separated by War

On 3rd September 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. In The Netherlands, however, there was no such declaration. The Dutch were determined to remain neutral. So that meant the little English School at The Hague was in a strange position, and the months that followed are perhaps the most interesting in the school’s history. Before war was declared the British Consulate in Rotterdam sent telegrams to the various members of staff warning them of the possible dangers of returning to the school for the new school year; and one teacher, Nancy Macdona (about whom I shall be writing in a future article), decided not to risk it and stayed in England. Olive Bowen, whom we have already met, decided to take a chance and did return but then, as circumstances worsened, had a terrible time trying to get back to England. She spent nearly a week at Schiphol before finally getting on to a flight back to little Shoreham airport. At the school there was a German lady, Fräulein Willkomm, on the staff, and the Chairman of the governors, Dr Nuttall, whom we also met earlier, was himself half German. There were also two German-Jewish boys, refugees, called Günther and Wolfgang, who “were timid and withdrawn. They were very thin with pale haunted faces that never smiled.” On one occasion there was a discrete nationality check by the authorities and, not long after, Günther and Wolfgang stopped turning up for lessons. The numbers of pupils gradually dwindled and then there was a mini-scandal. The Vice-Principal, one Margaret Davies, became romantically involved with the Egyptian Chargé d’Affaires, Nicolas Khalil bey, a man old enough to be her father and a diplomat to boot, and gave a month’s notice of leaving. Gwen Brunton-Jones’ letters at this point make fascinating reading. Then, one blow after another, the Dutch school at van Diepenburchstraat 1 in which the English School rented rooms, was taken over by the Dutch army to be used as a barracks. Gwen had no alternative but to convert her own home, as far as possible, into a couple of classrooms; and that’s where the few remaining pupils received their lessons from February 1940 until the actual invasion.

One of those pupils – indeed the Head Boy – was called Luis Fernandez Herlihy. His father was the Mexican consul in Rotterdam. In 2002 I managed to establish contact with Luis. By then he was an elderly gentleman, living in Massachusetts, long since retired but with an illustrious career behind him as a doctor with the US military. He told me what had happened to him and his family when the Germans invaded The Netherlands on 10th May 1940. Two months later, on 16th July, some very special trains departed from Staatsspoor Station in The Hague. I had already heard of these so-called ‘sealed trains’ which were waiting in readiness to evacuate diplomats and staff members at the International Court of Justice. The Herlihy family were on board one of these trains. With them were several Jewish refugees. As consul Luis’s father had obtained Mexican passports for them and passed them off as members of his party with diplomatic immunity.

From The Hague this particular ‘sealed train’ went to Berlin. There the Herlihy family were forced to remain for several months surviving as best they could. From there they travelled on to Sweden, then to Finland and thence, on board an American troop transport ship, via a circuitous route to New York.
In one of his emails to me Luis talked about his best friend at the English School, a boy called Ben Cheng whose father was the Chinese judge at the International Court in the Peace Palace. Luis had spent a lot of time with the family: “I recall so many happy occasions at the Chengs – where I also learnt the polite way of eating with chopsticks. Ben and I were inseparable.” But in the chaos of the invasion they had been separated, and over the years Luis had often thought of his boyhood friendship. Had Ben made it out of the occupied Netherlands? Luis wondered. Was he still alive? Where had he finished up?


Once again the detective in me was aroused. This really would be a challenge. I set to work once again re-reading everything I had in the archive connected with the pre-war period and in one letter, written by another member of the Cheng family, came across a remark to the effect that young Ben wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Well, it was a very slender lead but had to be followed. I figured that if the Cheng family had made it out of The Netherlands they might not have returned to China. There the communists under Mao Zedong were engaged in a civil war with the old government, and any high up representatives of the old order might well have a very precarious future there. It would be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. So where might they have headed? Well, since Ben and his two sisters were bi-lingual in Mandarin and English and had received all of their education in the latter language, and their parents could also speak it to some extent, then the UK or the USA seemed most likely.

I would start with the UK. I worked out roughly when Ben might have graduated, if he had indeed finished up studying medicine, and phoned the British Medical Association. Had they, I enquired, any record of a student called Ben Cheng who might have completed his medical studies in the early to mid-1950s? Insufficient details, according to the rather unhelpful lady to whom I addressed my question. So I hung up. But then, the next day, I phoned again, and this time got someone far more friendly. “It may take a while, sir, but I’ll phone you back,” she said.

Half an hour later she phoned me back. Yes, she said, she had managed to find a possibility. There was indeed a record of one Ben Cheng who had qualified and later practised as a doctor in England but he was long since retired and the address they had for him could be out of date. No matter, I said, scarcely able to believe my luck, and noted down the London address. From there, a short step to directory inquiries – and I dialled the number. It was another of those amazing moments that dotted my search through the early history of our school. Nowadays with Facebook and LinkedIn and the like, it is relatively easy to track down old friends and acquaintances. Perhaps some of the magic has been lost. When I was doing my research all those years ago it was something very special indeed to make contact in this way. And Ben Cheng was overwhelmed when I told him who I was and why I was phoning. He was deeply moved to hear that I’d tracked him down for his old friend Luis Fernandez Herlihy whom he had last seen in the chaos of the German-occupied Hague 62 years earlier. And Luis was pretty pleased too when I told him of my success. In fact, I shall devote my next story to Luis and what he thought of this little, old English School.


Stories from the Archives is a new Voices Blog series by BSN Archivist Mike Weston.

Mr Mike Weston

BSN school archivist, detective and storyteller

Mike came to the English School at The Hague (BSN) in 1972 as Head of German, intending to stay for two years. Mike has been at the BSN for nearly 50 years. Over the years, he has taught a range of subjects and has been involved in many school activities. Starting a school archive from scratch and tracing the school’s history is the activity that has given him the most pleasure. Once he reached retirement age, he asked if he could stay on as the school archivist in hopes to be of service for a while yet. In this capacity, he regularly dives into the archives and comes up with some great stories. His stories are all our stories; enjoy them.

When asked what does he do? In limited space, he can only give the bare bones: Mike stores the BSN’s past. Strictly speaking that is the past of the whole school up to 1966 and after that date (when the BSN split into separate Junior and Senior Divisions) of the Senior School. He has past students’ records, about 150 photo albums going back to the 1940s, programmes, letters, realia, over 200 CDs and DVDs, magazines (beautifully bound in blue and gold!), newspaper clippings. And so on. It’s a long list. Much of the printed material has been scanned – a very onerous and time-consuming task. Mike deals with all manner of enquiries, from parents, alumni, colleagues, employers, other schools, embassies, the public, people being shown round the school.

He enjoys it very much when visitors come to the archive. If you would like to get a glimpse into the archives and hear a fascinating story (or two), just get in touch with Mike beforehand to arrange a time.

In case you missed it, you can read the last instalment of Stories from the Archives: A Twenty-Four Year Puzzle. 

One Comment

  • David C says:

    Great blog Mike, I look forward to the next one. So I assume Ben and Luis been in touch with each other? Some amazing coincidences have favoured your tireless research! Keep it up Sir!

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