James Herbert Golding Alp
The early years
James Herbert Golding Alp, my father, was the first of three children born to my grandparents Herbert and Eleanor Alp, at Gillingham, on the 8th February 1911. The story goes that his parents wanted to migrate to New York, intending to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Fortunately, as Dad was still very young, they decided to postpone the trip. Dad was sent off to boarding school at the age of six, until his parents decided to migrate to New Zealand (six years later). The family arrived on the RMS Remuera on 27 February 1923 and settled in Whanganui, living next door to where the J. J. Boyd’s Aramoho and Royal Oak Zoos had been operating between 1909 and 1916. Dad attended school for three years, leaving at the age of 15, without any qualifications, to work for his father at his auction mart. As a young adult, he led a very active social and sporting life.
The War years as prisoner of war
He had joined the Army Cadets while still at school, later served in the Territorials, and was still active as a Corporal at the outbreak of World War II. He was quick to enlist for active service, entering Trentham Camp on the 1st February 1940.
He embarked for Egypt exactly a year later, having progressed to the rank of Lieutenant in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Middle East Section, New Zealand Infantry. Dad landed in Egypt on 17th March 1941, and completed ‘signals’ training over the following 13 months.
Assigned to New Zealand Divisional Signals in April 1942, but served less than three months before being captured (as one of 1,500 prisoners trapped that day under the command of General Freyburg on the Western Front). He was originally listed as missing/queried killed in action but was confirmed by Vatican radio as being a POW two-months later. This must have been an awful wait for his parents back home. The next 15 months he spent time in various POW camps in Italy. When Italy capitulated in September 1943, he said he found it rather disconcerting to suddenly wake up and find that the enemy was now the ally. The Italians encouraged the POWs to escape, but the English officers recommended that they ‘stay put’. Dad and his fellow prisoners, were moved by cattle train through Germany, transiting through Stalag IVB and Offlag VIIIF before arriving at Offlag 79, near Brunswick in Northern Germany, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Americans in May 1945. Early on during his time as a POW he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
As is very typical of ex-servicemen, Dad rarely spoke of his war time days. Dad did recount that, as time ‘in the bag’ passed slowly, all kinds of ways (both crazy and sensible), were dreamed up to keep the extreme boredom at bay. The latter included courses being available in all manners of subjects. Dad chose art, albeit he had some reservations about the subject. He said that at school he thought art was too formal and rigid to be challenging and stimulating. Once he was handed a piece of card with a letter ‘s’ on it, and instructed to copy it. He recalled spending a whole lesson on this tedious assignment. It is interesting to note also that Dad was by nature, left handed, and forced to use his right hand (and punished if caught not doing so). As a result he became ambidextrous and developed a very flamboyant style, which he could write with either hand. But I digress ... he told me that although he and his fellow POW art students had to make do with some very basic equipment, he “got stuck in and enjoyed [himself], there was certainly nothing boring or academic about it”.
It seems that Dad left a couple of books behind, when he was moved from Italy, as I have a postcard dated 14th October 1945 from Major R. Haynes to Miss D Golding, which reads:
“I have in possession two books (1) of sketches (2) Diary of your nephew LT. J.H.G. ALP which were handed to me by an Italian civilian when we took the town of MANTOVA. There happened to be a letter of yours inside and so I have your address. Will you please get your nephew to get in touch with me. A good time is after 9PM for phoning. Yours sincerely R Haynes”.
I do not know what became of his diary, but the book of sketches was an autograph book, with contributions from different ‘artists’. Unfortunately the cover of the book, and some of the pictures, were destroyed in our house fire in 1965, but several survived and these have been passed on to various family members.
A recurrent theme in Dad’s recollection of his POW experiences, was the extreme deprivation he had to endure. From January through to liberation the POWs were on virtually starvation rations. He lost two stone during this five month period and there was an obsession with food. He described enjoying some very strange combinations of food, such as sardines and condensed milk and what sounded like ghastly meals they cooked up. This included a ‘delicacy’ called stodge – a boiled pudding where bread, flour and any sort of fat and jam could be scrounged and then boiled together. It must have been as heavy as lead, but no doubt gave a rare feeling of having a full stomach. He also said it was a treat when the POWs could get the potato and other vegetable peelings from the German mess and boil them up for a stew. When Red Cross parcels came (towards the end of his captivity they received only one parcel for every six men but nevertheless he said they were “marvelous”) they had to barter currency called bully marks and Dad swapped precious food for cigarettes.
During the last few months of captivity he kept a notebook, at the beginning of which he note:
"This notebook is not intended as a diary but as a chronological record of POW activities, covering my last year of captivity (I hope). 1 Jan 1945"
His entries focused very much on lack of food and the cold and boredom of POW life.
Wednesday, 21 Feb 1945
"Bitterly cold all day. I stayed in bed all day fully clad, including a greatcoat in an endeavour to stay warm. We get no heating now. Morale in the camp now is pretty low nowadays – no heating, no mail, no cigarettes, no light at night on account of the air raids, no Red Cross parcels and reduced rations. What a life!"
Entry in journal kept by J H G Alp. Extract provided by the Alp family. No known copy right restrictions
There is a marked contrast with the entries he made when the camp was liberated by the Americans.
Thursday, 12 April 1945
"We are free! The Yanks are in the Camp and the German sentries are now in the bag! Happy days are here again!"
Wednesday, 18 April 1945
"This afternoon I put in a solid walk, a distance of 8/10 miles. Went across country and on the way acquired some excellent asparagus – I found a nicely cultivated garden and filled my haversack. For the first time I am beginning to feel normal again as regards my health – a week’s good eating has worked miracles with my stamina. Had a cold shower when I came back. Spent an hilarious evening with [fellow prisoner]– we drank a bottle of Cognac between us with milk, followed by a quantity of first class Benedictine. It was a very warm evening and we spent an enjoyable session, finishing up at 0200 hrs – during this time we consumed fresh asparagus tips and butter and later on a cheese omelette."
Entries in journal kept by J H G Alp. Extracts provided by the Alp family. No known copy right restrictions
Instead of being airlifted out, Dad and one of his mates decided to journey overland to England, passing through Germany and Belgium. At the time he said he was rich, because he carried 200 packets of cigarettes and “on the black market they fetched one quid each.” He arrived in Margate at the end of April where he spent time convalescing.
It was during this time that he met my mother, Grace Elizabeth Smailes who was waiting to be demobbed, having served in the WAAF in a RAF Y Station intercepting German airmen’s message (as she was fluent in German). Once released from hospital Dad collected £1,000 sterling, plus ration cards and clothing coupons and bought a new bike. He and Mum spent a happy couple of months on a cycling tour of the counties.
Whanganui and the Sarjeant
Dad eventually returned to Whanganui to join his father in the auctioneering business. He was discharged from the Army in 1946 and married my mother, later that year, after she had emigrated from England to join him.
However, Dad soon became discontented with working for his father and resolved to sell life insurance, mainly to sheep farmers. He didn’t like this job much either because he said “I was subjected to too many insults, and I couldn’t take that”. He threw in the job and took up fulltime art. He picked up the occasional commission painting and some better contracts painting pictures on tapestry canvass (for people to stitch over). One problem he had was that he didn’t like selling his art so he gave some away, but only to people whose idea on art he liked. However, he said that “with four starving kids and a wife it was pretty hard and I began to realise how much I didn’t know”. Fortunately, in 1963, he was asked to relieve the custodian at the Sarjeant Gallery for a fortnight, but this continued for two years until the permanent custodian retired and Dad was offered the position.
As the gallery’s custodian, and sole staff member, Dad’s main duties involved unpacking art works, hanging them (with assistance of staff from the City Council), publicising exhibitions, repacking the art works, vacuuming and cleaning.
There was a relaxed atmosphere in the Gallery, reflecting Dad’s philosophy that “art was to be enjoyed by the many, not to be looked at and critiqued by the few”. He wanted art to be accessible to all and believed that exhibitions were the life-blood of any art gallery. He encouraged the local art society, artists and schools to display their art in the Gallery. He was also in favour of the Gallery being used by musicians and dance bands, but he drew the line at serving meals or morning or afternoon teas (only because there were no facilities for that).
His contribution to the Gallery is referenced in his obituary in the Wanganui Chronicle (Tuesday October 17, 1989):
"James Herbert Golding (Jim) Alp, who died on Saturday, played a significant part in the development of Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery.
Paying tribute to him, deputy mayor and former chairman of the Wanganui City Council’s library and art gallery Phyllis Brown said:
“Wanganui owes a great debt to Jim. At a time when the gallery was given very little funding he became the curator and although virtually its only staff member did a great deal to keep the gallery foremost in the minds of the people.
He encouraged local use of the gallery. He believed, because it is such a fine building, it should be used in as many ways as possible. It was during his time the ‘Prom Winter Concerts’ were started. These continued for about 10 years and the gallery, today from time to time is still used for concerts. Jim also played a prominent part in raising funds to have the gallery carpeted. Without his work the gallery would not have been able to develop the way it has”.
During his time as custodian, Dad was a hobbyist painter, stimulated by all the major artists he encountered. He painted in a variety of mediums and used all sorts of things to create pieces of art - lamp bulbs, polystyrene, paper, kitchen utensils, paint, aniline dyes and balloon. His style was certainly not conventional – for him art was fun and to be enjoyed.
Mrs McSweeney makes an appearance
In addition to his art, another love of Dad’s was cats. I always remember our having two or three cats, often females who produced regular litters of kittens. Dad took one of these, a silver tabby to be his companion at the Gallery. He named her Mrs McSweeney. She quickly got into her duties, which were to supervise everything that went on and do a cat-scan of anything that was new. She was visibly active in the day-to-day running of the Gallery.
Pictures and stories of Mrs McSweeney often appeared in the local newspaper. She greeted visitors at the door. Visitors loved her and if she liked them she’d escort them around the gallery. And then she helped in the ways all cats do – if there were documents to be read she’d sit right in the middle of them and if there was packing to be done, lie down on top of it, and if it was half unpacked, lie in that and then lie in the empty boxes so they couldn’t be cleared away. She would stretch out about a metre long over the floor mounted gas heating vents and she’d lie there until she was just about scorching.
The sculpture of the Wrestlers was a favourite haunt. Being the first thing you saw as you came in to the Gallery, it was a wonderful vantage point for her and she’d nose around every nook and cranny between the two wrestlers.
Dad also reflected his love of cats in his art work. Our home was adorned with numerous cat forms he made out of papier maché, wire forms, wool, wood and cottons.
When Dad retired in 1974, Mrs McSweeney retired with him. She soon settled into her new home with my mother, Dad and the three already resident cats. While Dad stopped doing any formal art, his creative instincts found an outlet in a beautiful flower garden and potager he created and spent several hours in each day. For him his garden became his ‘palette’. He continued to live an active life - gardening, playing lawn bowls, and cooking (growing most of the vegetables he cooked himself).
Dad was a well-known and popular personality in Whanganui. I recall dreading going shopping with him as we would stop every few minutes, as we walked up Victoria Avenue, while he chatted to one of his mates. He wore outlandish outfits, one of his more extravagant being dark orange tweed pants and a lime green shirt. He had a mischievous sense of humour and often regaled us with tales of various pranks he had played on his friends and other unwitting subjects.
It came as a shock when Dad died suddenly, at the age of 79. He was active, ate well and was always in good spirits. Both his parents lived into their late nineties and it 35 years after being discharged from the army, before he needed to visit a doctor again. I cannot help but think that the years of deprivation he experienced as a POW took its toll on his health.
I still often think of Dad, with fond memories of a somewhat whimsical and gentle man, with a great sense of fun, a positive outlook to life and an approach to his art that was ahead of his time.
You can read more about Captain Alp's war experience on his Online Cenotaph record.
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Thank you to the Alp family for sharing your memories of James Herbert Golding Alp with us.
Cite this article
James Herbert Golding Alp . Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 25 March 2020. Updated: 2 April 2020.