During WWII, hundreds of prisoners of war were interned in Changi Prison, civilians who were in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in February 1942. During their imprisonment, quilts were literally scrapped together at the camp. Several quilts were made by adult women who wanted to show their husbands that they were still alive; that’s the topic for next week. However, I wanted to start with the Changi quilt done by a Girls Guide group that formed within the prison, which is the topic of this week, as the web seems to have less information on this quilt than on the others. While some of the resources are the same, I’ve extracted text specific to each group, as these quilts are so important I think that they deserve separate posts.
Also interned in Singapore were civilians (non-Malays/Chinese) who had not been able to obtain shipping berths in time to escape, or who, in some instances, had made a decision not to leave. The majority were associated with the British colonial administration of Malaya and Singapore or with the colonial (white) administration of plantations and tin mines. Many of them had wives and children, and although most of these had been evacuated by the time Singapore fell, a group of about 400 women and children remained at the time of the surrender.
Together with the civilian men, the women and children were crowded into Changi Prison, a building designed to hold about 600 inmates and now accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building until 1944 when they were moved to another Singapore camp at Syme Road. For the purposes of the Japanese administration, children were deemed to be all female children of whatever age and male children up to the age of twelve. Twelve-year-old boys were automatically transferred to the male section of the prison whether or not they had relatives there. Internees were permitted to run schools for the children during the first few years of captivity although the subjects were limited. The teaching of history and geography was not allowed.
Quilt made by Girl Guides who were interned in Changi. 20 girls aged 8-16 years made the quilt as a surprise birthday present for their Guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. They collected scraps of material and met in secret to sew them together. Each girl embroidered her name on the quilt. The Changi Girl Guide quilt provided inspiration for Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian Red Cross representative, to come up with the idea of creating quilts for their loved ones interred in other sections of the camp and the three Red Cross Changi quilts were made, which the Japanese allowed to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.
20 girls aged 8-16 years made the quilt as a surprise birthday present for their Guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. They collected scraps of material and met in secret to sew them together. Each girl embroidered her name on the quilt. The Changi Girl Guide quilt provided inspiration for Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian Red Cross representative, to come up with the idea of creating quilts for their loved ones interred in other sections of the camp and the three Red Cross Changi quilts were made, which the Japanese allowed to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.
“When we were first in Changi,” Olga recalls, “it was very boring so Mrs Ennis decided to start a Girl Guides group. We met once a week in a corner of the exercise yard. It became a sort of family. I remember saying our Promise, singing and lying down at night while Mrs Ennis taught us the constellations. We didn’t know which year she was going to get the quilt but we started it anyway. It gave our lives a sort of permanence.”
She describes how they worked in the baking fields, growing crops they harvested but were never allowed to eat. When their dresses rotted in the sun, they would unpick the seams and reuse the thread for the quilt. Under Mrs Ennis’s instruction, they learned patchwork but also sewed their Guide badges and emblems. “Needles and thread were worth more than gold,” says Olga. “Whenever we left our cell, we had to post someone on duty so we weren’t robbed.” As they sewed, they were on constant alert for the sound of approaching Japanese guards. At the clatter of boots, they stuffed the patchwork into their knickers. ….
“The idea of children being interned is a powerful one,” says Pritchard, who spent six years on the exhibition. “What is seditious in sewing? They were trying to normalise their lives.” To Olga, each hexagon is a coin in her memory bank.
The newly-married Mrs Ennis, who inspired the quilt, had been a nurse with the Indian Army when she and her British husband, Capt Jack Ennis, were imprisoned. She was proud that, as she put it: “Out of the grimness and misery of internment something so beautiful could be made by the Guides who had lost all their possessions – but still had courage.” After her death three years ago, the quilt was presented to the Imperial War Museum. “Mum was always a keen Guide”, says her daughter, Jackie Sutherland. “She gave the girls a focus. The quilt became part of our family lore. To see how much stock others put in it is very emotional.”