A Knight’s Tale (16: Refugees)

In the aftermaths of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Estonia won its independence in a War of Liberation against Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1920. As we have seen, Mabel Knight settled in Tallinn in 1922. Her sister Evelyn was to join her seven years later. From 1929 to 1940, Evie taught English to Estonians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Finns; she may have spent periods as a tutor in Latvia and Finland.

Then came the occupation of the three small Baltic States, of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by Soviet invaders. Once more my great aunt was to leave a country at war. In her letters she writes:

‘We left Tallinn early in the morning of 26th October 1940 for Riga where we were joined by parties from Latvia and Lithuania so that we were 174 in all.

After spending a night in a hotel in Riga we left on a through train for Vladivostok and although we stopped for about an hour in Moscow we were not allowed to leave the platform. The British Ambassador, the Consul General and other consulate officials were, however, at the station to meet the train. The Soviet fed us very well in the restaurant car of the train and we had plenty to eat with a lot of caviar – black, grey, and red. The bread was rather awful and we were all very glad when we were able to eat English fare on the ship. Here again the food was excellent and we particularly appreciated the fresh fruit twice a day.

We had a stormy time while passing the Chinese coast on our way to Hong Kong, and as ours was rather a small ship I was more than glad to get my feet on terra firma. Whilst in Russian waters we had no wireless but afterwards the news was posted up daily in the dining saloon.

It seemed quite funny to be waited on by Chinese boys. They wait very well at table, quite deftly and silently; but in the kitchen and corridors there was a terrible jabber reminding of monkeys.

We were a mixed and motley crowd, as all refugees are, I suppose, and as we were allowed to leave Estonia with only 30 kilos of luggage we had to dispose of much of our wardrobe.

Some of the refugees from Lithuania were of the working class and very poor. Unfortunately most of us had retained warm blankets and clothing for when the British Consulate was closed on 4th September we were all prepared to leave for Finland – in fact some of us were down at the harbour with our luggage when the Consul received a wire from the Foreign Office telling us not to leave. This, I suppose, was because they thought we might be stranded in Finland and unable to get any further. However, we were now approaching the tropics and were all feeling the heat in our unsuitable clothing but when we reached Hong Kong we had much to be truly thankful for. We were extremely lucky.

The British Social Service of the Anglican Church at Hong Kong invited us to attend evensong and afterwards to a social evening at the Church Hall. After the service, which was taken by the Dean, we went along to the Hall where the Social Workers had put out small tables with coffee, tea, sausage rolls, cakes etc and some very interesting conversations took place with some of the English people now resident in Hong Kong and an Australian lady gave us information about Sydney and Brisbane.

The lady who was looking after the Lithuanian refugees then made a speech and explained how badly off they were. Hers was followed by another telling them how we, from Estonia, had been limited in the amount of our luggage for having expected to go to a cold climate we had only warm clothing. The result of this speech was that, in less than day the social section had collected masses of men’s and women’s clothing – hats, shoes, shirts, shorts, trousers, wrappers, summer frocks, underwear etc. – most of them as good as new. At 4 p.m. the following day the Dean, himself, arrived in a motor boat with a huge pile of parcels. I thought they would never finish unloading the motorboat. The lounge was stacked up with packages and there were simply heaps for everyone. We left Hong Kong the following morning full of gratitude for the wonderful kindness and my only regret was that I completely forgot my ambition to ride in a rickshaw.’


  1. Riga to Moscow is 600 miles, Riga to Vladivostok is 4,500 miles. Just one stop? That journey is going to take several weeks. Vladivostok to Hong Kong is another 2,000 miles. I am reluctant to challenge but are you sure about this?

    Why not just return to England through Scandinavia? Much easier.

    1. I only have Evie’s letters as transcribed by my late brother. England doesn’t seem to have been the destination. Thanks for questioning it, Andrew, even if I can’t answer satisfactorily

      1. Sorry to cast doubt Derrick. My favourite professor at University (the historian Gwyn Williams always told us to challenge, challenge, challenge). There never was and still isn’t a through rail route from Riga to Vladivostok and the first part of the journey would have been to Tallinn in Estonia, Leningrad and then to Moscow. The terminus was on the west of Moscow and the Trans Siberian railway station was on the east of the city so there would have been a requirement for transfer. In 1940 the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok took four weeks, maybe longer as priority was given to military trains and goods trains supplying grain to the capital. The journey today still takes seven days and crosses seven time zones.

        The story does however make a ‘ripping yarn’.

        1. No worries, Andrew. I never mind being questioned or corrected. I think you will find that Evie’s next letter, along with Gwen’s comment on this one, explains the journey and confirms your timescale.

  2. I’m not surprised she forgot about her inclination toward a rickshaw ride; there was plenty enough to fill her mind at that point. To be honest, there are ways in which their accomodations and travel seem in some ways better than air travel just now. After a four-day trip from California to Houston by air (the details are…um… unhappy to say the least) a friend decided it would be easier to rent a car for a business trip to Denver. No more airplanes for her. A rickshaw might not have made it in four days, but there could have been fewer complications.

  3. It is fascinating to read this firsthand account of events that happened so long ago. I appreciate you sharing these details with your readers.

  4. A tale of three sisters – the story of these three sisters and their travels sounds like it would make an excellent book and BBC series. Please write it up!

      1. I figured as much. So glad she left written memories. I hope this series continues through to your life. Didn’t you write puzzles and run marathons? I’d love to hear about all of it.

  5. Wow! So interesting! And so amazing to hear about Evie’s life in her words/memories/thoughts! Your Great-Aunts lives would make a wonderful movie or TV series! They sure experienced as much of the world as anyone could have experienced in those days/times. Their adventures and their attitudes make me smile. ๐Ÿ™‚
    (((HUGS))) ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Over the years I have met several “White Russians” who escaped WWII conflict by travelling across the USSR to shanghai, even though that sounds counter intuitive. In October 1940 Finland was in all sorts of strife, Norway was under German occupation, Sweden was dodgy with its non combative (and later neutral) stance, and the Wolf Pack was roaming the North Sea. It may simply have been too risky to head west.

      1. Can you please make my ‘to’ into ‘too’. And yes, the Luftwaffe. Whether that was part of the hesitation depends on what Evelyn writes next. How long did they shelter in HK me wonders?

  7. In the midst of my utter fascination I realised it is Derrick Knight behind the riveting account of his remarkable aunts. I am sure it would make a bestseller if continued to the length of a novel or a series.

  8. I did not know that the refugees from “voluntarily reunified” Baltic states were taken by train across the entire Russia and treated exceptionally well on the way. Even more interesting is the fact that among them were ethnic Lithuanians. We had been taught that only foreign nationals were allowed to leave, as opposed to the “reunification” of Bessarabia (Moldavia) where people were given a choice whether to stay on the Rumanian side or to cross the river Dniester to Soviet Moldavia.

    1. Thank you very much for this additional information, Dolly. It is good that this story could add to your knowledge. You may have seen that Gwen is planning a couple of posts based on Australian newspaper reports.

    2. Hi Dolly, although many were ethnic Lithuanians, in the sense they had lived most of their lives there, they were all British citizens. As I’m sure you are well informed about, others were left to find their own way under the occupation, or via a risky escape. I have on my desk one such story from Latvia in 1944. By the way, there were also Bukovinians in this British exodus.

      1. That answers my question, thank you.
        Now I have another one: how did Bukovinians get there? Bukovina is in a different part of the map.
        I will be very interested to read about Latvia in 1944, as it was under German occupation at that time.

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