"The Sugar Bowl" a design for life after war

When 'Cliff’ Coles-Smith returned to Brisbane in 1945, after almost 4 years a prisoner of the Japanese, he brought with him precious sketches and designs for cabaret and bandstand venues.

Design for a Cabaret, Clifford Coles-Smith, 1942-1945. 28706 Coles Smith Family papers, Image 28706-0002, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

A member of the 2/10th Field Regiment, Cliff was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, and initially imprisoned in Changi Barracks. Coles-Smith was one of 219 men of his Regiment to be attached to ‘Anderson Force’ which was sent to work on the now infamous Burma-Thailand Railway in September 1942.

The "Sugar Bowl" design by Clifford Coles-Smith, 1942-1945. 28706 Coles Smith family papers, image number 28706-0012, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

During his internment Coles-Smith spent many hours imagining and designing concert venues. These sketches reveal a passion for music and the dance-band scene popular at the time - as well as an eye for top-end venues. His design called ‘The Sugar Bowl’ details not only the stage, but private alcove seating, the dance floor, storage and staff areas.

Cabaret venue, Clifford Coles-Smith, 1942-1945. 28706 Coles Smith family papers, Image number 28706-0006, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

These sketches are rare artefacts, several have been disguised by drawing on the reverse of POW nominal rolls, others on the reverse of letters from home.

We know that Coles-Smith participated in musical and theatre performances staged in the prison camps - which were designed to maintain moral and ease the boredom of captivity. Along with the venue sketches are music scores - "Tamuang Blues" by Jimmy Van Lingen and "G Division Jive" by Jack Altman, this dated 19 August 1945.

After the announcement of Japan's surrender, Victory Shows were held celebrating the end to their imprisonment, but for many it was weeks before they found themselves on the way to real freedom.

Many captives were held in camps scattered across Thailand, it was a logistically complex and slow process of repatriation, and many were in no condition to travel any distance. Staging camps were established, the largest located in Bangkok, and Coles-Smith was asked to delayed his return to Australia, to help organize camp concerts for those who were waiting their turn to go home.

Combined Concert Party of ex-POWs in Bangkok, September 1945, taken on the steps of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce building. (Ted Weller private collection)

After the war …. Coles-Smith came to the notice of the authorities in 1946, when he arranged to sail with a party which included his sister Joan and mother Mona to Asia and the Pacific Islands on a ‘trade mission’ as a representative of a 'Chinese firm' Consolidated Sino Australia which was in fact his own company. In 1947 the Commonwealth Investigation Service, now known as ASIO, investigated Coles-Smith, suspecting him of 'arms dealing'.

Enquiries were made of those who knew Cliff including an officer of the 2/10th who stated "although not a blackmarketer, he always had his eye to the main chance" or one who was eager to make the best of any opportunities. Eventually the authorities concluded that "either he had been 'affected' by his experiences as a Prisoner-of-War or that by temperament he was given to “grandiose plans."

The final statement of the report on the activities of Coles-Smith, then aged 28, was that he "need not be seriously regarded" that he had followed a phase of get-rich-quick schemes without much chance of seeing any of them through. The full report can be read at the National Archives of Australia - it is fascinating reading.

Later Coles-Smith found his way to real estate and established his own company ‘The Home Finders’. He married Ingelene Herbst in 1952, they had a son Gary before divorcing in 1960.

Clifford Coles-Smith died in 1995 and was described as one "who never let a failure dampen his spirit of enterprise".

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