Rev. John Short: From London to Australia and then the Death Railway

John Harold Short was the uncle and godfather that retired Anglican vicar Helen Wheeler would never know. He would know her for all to brief a period between 1939 and 1941, before being posted to Malaya and his eventual demise on the death railway aged just 35. John’s story is one of persistence and a never-say-die attitude to fulfil his calling to be an Anglican priest. That calling would see him return to England after nearly fourteen years in Australia to enrol as an army chaplain and see his duty through to death.

Born in Wood Green, now a suburb of London, but in 1908 a settlement on the north-eastern edge of the metropolis, John struggled academically at school, being the only one of his six siblings not to pass the 11 plus examination, and in 1925, aged 17, he set sail from England to make his mark in Australia. His passage paid for by the Bush Brotherhood, the organisation which had supported Fred Sams, the WW1 Fighting Parson. Eventually he decided on becoming an Anglican minister.

John Short

Rev John Harold Short, courtesy of Helen Wheeler

A series of precious letters survive in family hands, detailing John’s struggles to pass the examination needed to become ordained. They also speak of his experiences out in the New South Wales bushland, ministering to flocks hundreds of miles apart. These form the basis of the account of his life in the bestselling book Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War.

John displayed a sense of humour in some of his letters:

Initiation of the freshers is next Friday night and we have mapped out quite a good programme for them. We start at midnight by removing them violently from their beds and after leading them round the quad a few times and through a few fences during which they are blindfolded, they are taken to the common room and subjected to all sorts of things. They are baptised with water, soot and flour and made to kiss the goat.

However John still struggled with the academic demands of his course, even apologising in one letter to his sister for

bad spelling, bad grammar, bad writing, bad language etc etc etc etc etc.

Following disappointment in one set of examinations, John took a trip to Sydney, being astounded by the enormity of the bridge. He spent a day at the test match, one of the infamous `Bodyline’ series which nearly caused a rupture in diplomatic relations between England and Australia.

John was what was termed a very High Anglican, displaying his dislike of any form of worship which deviated from the highly ceremonial practice of his youth in Wood Green. He expressed disquiet at the quality of one service, `as the churchmanship was appalling. I can stand Mass without vestments or candles, but celebrating from the north end with ordinary crumbly bread & no reverence…I cannot stand.’

Eventually in October 1935 John was ordained a deacon, but still had to wait a year before being able to be a fully-qualified priest

I am longing for the time now when I shall be a priest and be able to carry out all the priestly duties specifically that of saying Mass. There are times too, when I have been sorry I was not in the position to hear Confessions. People have poured out their inmost secrets to get them off their minds and have told me because for some reason or another they have not wanted to go to the Archdeacon…

But after only two years as an ordained minister, and with war in Europe threatening, John took the decision to bring his time in Australia to a close, and on 25 May 1939, set sail on the P&O liner SS Strathnaver, returning to England in the summer of that year.

By August John had been granted a licence by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to act as a priest in that archdiocese, and on 22 April 1940 he was appointed assistant curate at All Saints Church, Fulham, on a salary of £250 pa.

On 23 July 1940, perhaps stirred by the British Army’s reverses at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain which raged over southern England during that summer, John took the fateful step of joining the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. Appointed as a 4th class chaplain, equivalent to the rank of captain, as were most new recruits to the department, John was attached to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.

He was sent out to the Far East in 1941, and was part of the general surrender of British Forces in Singapore on 15th February 1942. He was taken to Changi camp, the same place which initially housed Dr Bill Frankland, Stanley Warren and Rev Eric Cordingly .

A number of chapels were established in the camp. John was in charge of the Chapel of St Barbara, Patron Saint of the Gunners. Later he was moved to the River Valley Road Camp, then on to the Thai-Burma `Death Railway’.

With the onset of the monsoon weather in October 1943, cholera joined with malaria, jaundice and tropical ulcers to kill many hundreds of men. The railway was officially completed on 17 October 1943. Eight days later John was dead. Today his body lies in Kanchanaburi war cemetery. It reads:


John Short’s spiritual journey had taken him from London to New South Wales, back to London and thence to Thailand.

His determination to fulfil his calling and his duty led him across the globe three times; as a young man in search of a mission in life, as an ordained priest returning to his home country in its hour of need, and finally as an army chaplain to meet the needs of men in combat. He was a man of vigour, joy, courage and devotion to others, whose work touched the lives of many across the globe.

A full account of John’s life can be found in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War available for the discounted rate of £16 plus £4 p+p as a signed and personally dedicated version. Email to secure your copy.

Fight the Good Fight2




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