Guide to the papers of Sister Agnes Betty Jeffrey



Title: Papers of Agnes Betty Jeffrey.

Date range of collection: 1941 - 1995.

Reference number: PR01780.

Extent: 2 boxes.

Location: Private Records collection, Research Centre, Australian War Memorial.

Abstract: The collection includes diaries (that were the inspiration for the book White Coolies, notebooks and sketches covering Jeffrey's time in the POW camp, 1941-45. Correspondence, photographs, news cuttings, letters and ephemera relating to her post-war activities which included dedicaitons, memorial openings and her work at the Nurses Memorial Centre.


Administrative information

Provenance: The collection consists of three separate donations. Jeffrey's diaries and some notes written on Australian Red Cross letterhead were donated by Jeffrey in 1952. After Betty Jeffrey's death there were two further donations. A series of drawings were donated by Jeffrey's niece, Joanna Bajenoff in December 2000. A further collection, was donated by Tim Gale, Jeffrey's newphew, in February 2001, comprising drawings, sheet music, poems and a note book.

Access: Open.

Restrictions on use: Copyright of materials described in this guide is governed by copyright law in Australia. For further information contact the Curator of Private Records, Research Centre.

Preferred citation: Papers of Agnes Betty Jeffrey, Australian War Memorial PRO1780.


Additional information

Related collections:

The Australian War Memorial holds related material in the following Private Records collections:
Papers of Captain C. H. Ashton, AWM PR87/080.
Papers of Matron Irene M. Drummond, AWMPR87/187. 
Papers of Sister D. G. Elmes, AWM PR88/180. 
Papers of Nursing Sister Pat J. Gunther, AWM PR90/019. 
Papers of Sister Ellen M. Hannah, AWM 3DRL/7474. 
Papers of Staff Nurse EL Keats, AWM PR88/002. 
Papers of Captain Wilma Elizabeth Forster Oram, AWM PR84/345. 
Papers of Staff Nurse Mena P Raymont, AWM PR88/003.
Papers of Lieutenant Mona Margaret Wilton, AWM PR89/092. 
Papers of Sister Veronica Turner (nee Clancy), AWM MSS1086.

Subjects: Prisoners of war; Second World War; Australian Army Nursing Service.


Biographical note

In 1940, at the age of 32, Jeffrey volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force. She embarked for Malaya where she joined the 2/10th Australian General Hospital in Malacca. The 2/10th was moved to Singapore on the 18th February 1941.

She was evacuated from Singapore on February 12th 1942 aboard a small coastal steamer, the Vyner Brooke. The steamer was attacked and sunk by Japanese bombers in the Banka Strait on 14th February 1942.

Jeffrey and another nurse, Iole Harper spent three days in the water, resting in mangrove swamps and up trees until they found a native village. The nurses were persuaded to give themselves up to the Japanese. They rejoined the other Sisters who had made it to shore.

The 32 Sisters who survived the shipwreck in the Banka Straight, spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war on Banka Island and Sumatra. Of the original 65 nurses evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke, only 24 returned to Australia. During their internment, eight Sisters died in the last seven months before freedom, due to malnutrition and other easily treated diseases.

During her time in the camp Jeffrey stole two exercise books from the Japanese. In these books she wrote a diary of their life in camp. Jeffrey also kept many scraps of paper and another note book full of drawings of life in camp, recipes and music written for her performances as part of the Womens' Choir. Imaginary dinners were held where they would describe the lovely food they imagined having. Jeffrey's drawings depict many of the individuals and scenes that are part of White Coolies.

During her imprisonment, Jeffrey became very ill with malaria, beri beri, recurring appendicitis, Banka Fever and tuberculosis. Jeffrey weighed 30 kilograms at the end of the war. On her return to Australia she spent a further two years in hospital. She never fully recovered her health.

In 1947, after leaving hospital, Jeffrey and Bullwinkel drove throughout Victoria visiting hospitals, telling of their ordeal and collecting donations to build a "living memorial" to the nurses that never came back. The Nurses Memorial Centre still exists in St Kilda Rd Melbourne. Jeffrey was appointed the first administrator of the Memorial Centre.

In 1950 Jeffrey and Bullwinkel travelled to the United Kingdom. They were presented to King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother.
Jeffrey's book White Coolies became a best seller and was serialised in The Sunnewspaper in 1954 and on the radio. Movies such as Paradise Road and Women in Captivity have usedWhite Coolies for inspiration. The 19th edition of White Coolies was published in 2000.

After burgeoning poor health Jeffrey was forced to retire from the Nurses Memorial Centre. In the 1960's she acted as a golf caddy to her friend, Burrta Cheney, the Victorian champion golfer. Betty spent much of her time doing volunteer work for the Ex-Prisoner of War and Nurses Memorial committees.

During the last decades of her life Jeffrey spent much of her time answering correspondence in relation to her book. She was often invited to be a guest speaker relating her prisoner of war memoirs.

Jeffrey was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1987 for her services to ex-servicemen and women. Betty died in September 2000 at the age of 92.

1937 Jeffrey began her nursing training at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne
1940 Aged 32, Jeffrey joined the Australian Army Nursing Service after completeing her nursing studies. She was posted to Darley Military Camp in Victoria.
1941 Arrived in Singapore 18th February, then went to Malacca in Malaya where she joined the 2/10th Australian General Hospital.
1942 Evacuated to Singapore with the 2/10th AGH. 12th February, Jeffrey was one of 65 nursing sisters that were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke, from Singapore. 14th February, the ship was attacked and sunk by Japanese.
1942-1945 Prisoner of War , Banka Island and Sumatra
1945-1947 Jeffrey was the most ill of all the returned nurses, suffering from beri beri, tuberculosis and amoebic dysentry spending 2 years in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital.
1947-48 Jeffrey and Bullwinkel drove throughout Victoria giving talks about their ordeal and fundraising for a 'living memorial for nurses that died in the war.
1949 Jeffrey appointed administrator of the Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne.
1950 Jeffrey and Bullwinkel went to Britain where they were presented to King George VI, Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth.
1954 Spent most of the year as a patient in Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and was advised to retire from work. Her novel White Coolies was published.
1960's Acted as a caddy for champion Victorian golfer Burtta Cheney. Also did volunteer work for ex-Prisoner of War Association, the Nurses Memoroial Centre and the RSL Nurses Club.
1967 Went to Japan for a holiday and was able to revoke much of her hatred against the Japanese.
1970's - 80's Spent her time corresponding and writing articles about her her time as a POW. She was also a sought after guest speaker at this time.
1987 Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her contribution to ex-service men and women.
1996 Acted as advisor to Bruce Beresford on the film Paradise Road which was inspired by her novel.
2000 Betty moved into the Cresthaven Nursing Home . She died on 13th September.

Scope and content note

The papers of Betty Jeffrey comprise diaries, photographs, notebooks and papers relating to her evacuation from Singapore in February 1942 and her imprisonment on Banka Island and Sumatra, 1942-1945. The diaries contain details of the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, recipes, song lyrics and sketches of life in the camps. Other records include reviews, publishers correspondence and newspaper clippings relating to the writing and publication of White Coolies, 1945-1957; prisoner of war accounts of the fall of Singapore and speeches and programs for concerts, reunions and memorial services, 1949-1990.

SERIES 1: Photographs, 1941 - 1995

Description: Photographs ranging from Jeffrey in uniform in 1941 to Jeffrey and other ex-prisoners of war attending memorial ceremonies and reunions in 1995.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
1/1 1941 - 1942 Wartime photographs; Jeffrey in uniform before going overseas; Photographs of Jeffrey in early army days at home and in Malaya; group photographs of nursing sisters from the 10th AGH & 2/4th CCS 1
1/2 Post war photographs; Homecoming parades including Jeffrey and Bullwinkle; miscellaneous photographs including commemorative plaques and the Banka Island Ward plaque at Duntroon, gravestones; reunion photographs; wreath laying 1

SERIES 2: Prisoner of War Records, 11th February 1943 - 23rd October 1945

Description: Jeffrey's Wartime diaries, notebooks and papers describing her ordeal from her evacuation from Singapore in February 1942 to her convalescence on her return home. The diaries and note books are full of recipes which the prisoners used to inspire their imagination in an attempt to ease their constant thirst and hunger.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
2/1 Diary entries, 11th February 1942 - 23rd October 1945, handwritten in pencil and red ink in two exercise books and on Australian Red Cross stationery. Rewritten extracts of diary relating to the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, includes timing of events. Time line detailing Jeffrey's declining health in the POW camp. Exercise book containing hand written recipes and sketches of life in camp as well as other places in Sumatra. Notebook containing recipes, drawings of life in POW camp, Hand drawn christmas card 1942, handwritten music from the female choir, hand drawn pictures of Mah-Jong tiles, lists of words in Malay with English translations. Satirical song lyrics written by Jeffrey in camp. 1
2/2 Correspondence, 17th September 1944 - October 1945, Letter dated 17th September 1944 from Army Chaplain to Jeffrey's mother. Prisoner of War post cards sent from Jeffrey's parents to her in Palembang, dated 20th February, 13th June and 28th June 1945. Letter from Jeffrey to her family, handwritten in pencil on Red Cross stationery, dated 5th September 1945. Two telegrams sent to Jeffrey's parents in October 1945 regarding her arrival home. 1
2/3 Sketches, 1942 - 1945, of camp life in ink and pencil on scraps of paper. Recipes and sketches in pencil on a reused Dutch letter. Jeffrey's sketch book titled 'Diary of a White Coolie'. Drawings in ink and pencil with some colour on scraps of paper attached to plain paper. Includes detailed sketches of life in the POW camp in Sumatra. Most drawings have captions including many names of fellow prisoners. Included is a concert programme for Easter Monday 26th April 1943 to commemorate St Georges Day. Includes Jeffrey's will dated 12 February 1945. 1
2/4 Ephemera, 1941 - ?, Contains four handmade flags, a card from H.M.A.S Perth and a 1941 Christmas card from Jeffrey to home. 1

SERIES 3: White Coolies, March 1954 - February 1957

Description: .This series contains reviews, newspaper clippings, exerts and correspondence from publisher. White Coolies was published as a serial in the Sun newspaper in 1954; there are several of these clippings in the series. White Coolies was also made into a radio series staring Ruth Cracknell and Gordon Chater. There are many press clippings and advertisements relating to the radio programme in the series.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
3/1 Press clippings and Reviews, March 1954 - February 1957, including reviews and extracts from White Coolies. 1
3/2 Correspondence with publishers, August 18th - 26th 1954. Copies of letters from publishers. 1

SERIES 4: Post War Records, 1st May 1949 - June 1993

Description: Papers, correspondence and ephemera relating to Jeffrey's activities around Australia and overseas. Jeffrey's volunteer work, attendance at memorial services and prisoner of war reunions and her diary from her return to Sumatra and the making of the filmWomen in Captivity.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
4/1 Diary, March - April 1979, describing Jeffrey's trip back to Sumatra as an advisor for the movie, Women in Captivity. 2
4/2 Correspondence and Records 28th July 1946 - June 1993, from fellow POW's or their families or in relation to memorials and dedications to POW's and nurses. Correspondence regarding Repatriation benefits for nurses from the POW camps. Memoirs from fellow prisoners. Letter from Department of Army dated 28/07/46 requesting repayment of a loan from a civilian, taken out by Jeffrey and Sister Harper during the war. 2
4/3 Ephemera 1st May 1949 - 1990, including photocopies of articles and speeches, programmes from concerts, reunions and memorial services. Itinerary from Remembrance Day at the Australian War Memorial 1968 with Jeffrey and Bullwinkel. Nursing journals. 2
4/4 Female Choir, 1983, manuscript books, photocopies of music, programmes form concerts relating to the POW women's choir . A proposal for a film called Song of Survival, based on the female choir in Sumatra. 2

SERIES 5: Accounts of War and Memoirs, 1941 - 1993

Description: Includes accounts and memoirs written by Jeffrey and other nurses after returning home. Accounts include the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, time in the POW camp and coming home. Included are memoirs of return trips made by ex-prisoners to Banka Island in 1993.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
5/1 Prisoner Accounts 1941 - 1993, of the fall of Singapore, time spent in the POW camps and their rescue. Authors include Jeffrey, Willma Oram, Thelma Bell and Major Harry Windsor who flew the survivors out of Sumatra. Some of these accounts were written as late as 1993. 2
5/2 Memoirs, February - October 1992, written by Jeffrey about returning home after the war. Bullwinkels' memoirs of her return to Banka Island in 1992 where she chose the site for the nurses' memorial. Betty Clarke's return to Banka Island. A list of surviving nurses and what became of them after repatriation. 2

SERIES 6: Newspaper Clippings, 24th October 1945 - April 1999

Description: Clippings related to Jeffrey and stories of the nurses in the POW Camps.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
6/1 Newspaper Clippings, October 1945 - April 1999. October 1945: nurses returning home. Jeffrey's and Bullwinkel's time in England in 1951 - 52 and their presentation to the King and Queen and lunch with Queen Mary. Accounts relating to the nurses time as POWs and the womens' choir. Clippings relating to novels about the nurses internment in POW camps such as Women Beyond the Wire. Jeffrey's attendance at memorials, reunions and dedications. Jeffrey's time advising for the documentary Song of Survival made in California. 2