Researching “AKKI”

AKKI with his father after arriving home from captivity, October 1945 (courtesy the Akhurst family)

It all started on 9 April 2010, with a request from Geoff Gill to find out about a FEPOW artist who signed himself “AKKI”. There were no clues as to his actual name but a manila folder in the FEPOW files contained letters and copies of a numbered series of pencil drawings – A5-sized, black and white photocopies of 22 humorous cartoon sketches – together with typed captions and a note about AKKI having been a cartoonist for a Blackpool newspaper.

These sketches depicted everyday things like latrines, bedbug hunts, a church service, bath time etc., with each clearly signed AKKI in the bottom right corner. The photocopies were given to Dr Dion Bell at LSTM by a FEPOW patient in 1977, at around the same time as the originals were also donated to the Imperial War Museum (IWM). The patient was Jack Toner Sutter a former Gunner in the 137 Field Regiment, from Blackpool. A letter in the folder referring to the photocopies, dated 28 September 1983, was written by FEPOW, former Captain Charles Ewart Escritt.

Escritt, who later was in touch with Drs Bell and Gill at LSTM, had apparently been asked by the IWM sometime after Sutter’s donation to comment on the pictures. In the letter he noted,

“… I judged the draughtsman was probably in 137 Army Fd Regt... His style is crude, relying for effect on a series of ‘stock’ comic characters, none of whom could be positively identified… before the war, [AKKI] was a cartoonist for Blackpool Evening Gazette”.

The comment placed AKKI as a member of 137 Field, one of Lancashire’s Territorial units, otherwise known as the “Blackpool”, regiment. Thanks to a helpful librarian in Blackpool AKKI was eventually identified as one Basil Parry Akhurst, Bombadier and FEPOW. Contact was made with his family in Lancashire, who had a large amount of his artwork, though none done during captivity. His son David knew about some pictures in the IWM but did not have copies of them. He said his father had always loved art, especially caricature and cartoons, and that after school had trained as a draughtsman.

Birthday card for AKKI, Thailand 1945, by Gunner Jack Chalker (courtesy the Akhurst family)

AKKI was a larger than life character. He was one of the men who did his best to help others, to raise morale and keep people smiling through desperate times in captivity. He volunteered as an orderly in the hospital huts at Nong Pladuk in Thailand. He was involved in theatricals and shows in jungle camps, painting posters, programmes as well as cards for all occasions. He was liked and admired by his contemporaries, by fellow artists like Jack Chalker and by the officers in his regiment.

AKKI survived captivity in Singapore and Thailand. He married his fiancée on his return and post-war established himself as a surveyor in Blackpool. He did cartoons for the local daily paper two or three times a week in the early days as well as supplying artwork to a postcard manufacturer specialising in saucy seaside cards, an essential commodity in Blackpool during the early post-war decades.

By the time the art enquiry started in 2012 we had gathered several different examples of AKKI’s artwork, mostly from private sources but some from museum archives. They show a range of styles including detailed and competent caricature work. Humour was his watchword but there is serious meaning in most of his work.

AKKI’s sketchpad on display in Changi Museum, 2013 (photograph by M. Parkes; courtesy J. Jeyadurai)

In 2013, on a trip to Singapore in search of FEPOW artwork, I discovered AKKI’s only known sketchpad from captivity, on display unattributed at Changi Museum.

As well as using the homemade sketchpad for his own cartoons, AKKI also shared it with friends in captivity, using it like an autograph book. Each facing page has an AKKI sketch, and each verso page art, poetry, and prose contributed by other men.

AKKI’s artwork will feature in the exhibition, Secret Art of Survival, Creativity and ingenuity of Far East prisoners of war, 1942-1945. Until now his artwork has been little known or appreciated outside of FEPOW research and family circles. LSTM hopes to shine a light on this modest, funny man who made a huge difference to the lives of many during the worst of times.

Abridged by Meg Parkes from Captive Artists: unseen artwork by British Far East prisoners of war, to be published Autumn 2019.