Nurse survivors of the Vyner Brooke

Obituary

Sister Agnes Betty Jeffrey, OAM, RN
Born 14 May 1908
Died 13 September 2000

Betty Jeffrey died of a heart attack in Melbourne on 13 September 2000, aged 92. Betty is well known as one of the Australian army nurses who survived the bombing of the Vyner Brooke, was imprisoned in Sumatra during the Second World War, and published her prisoner-of-war diary as White Coolies in 1954.

Jeffrey worked as a secretary before taking up nursing at age 29. She graduated, specialising in midwifery, in 1940. She signed up for the army reserve when she completed her nursing studies. She was sent to Malaya with the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, arriving in Singapore on 18 February 1941. In February 1942, with the Japanese invasion imminent, Jeffrey was one of 65 Australian Army nursing sisters who were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke.

After the steamer was bombed off Banka Island, Jeffrey spent three days in the water. On landing, she and her companion, Iole Harper, were imprisoned and re-united with the surviving 30 nurses from the Vyner Brooke, including Vivian Bullwinkel. The nurses spent three and a half years as prisoners of war at various camps in Sumatra. Jeffrey was very ill when she returned to Australia, weighing only 30 kilograms and had severe tuberculosis. She spent the next two years in hospital.

Once out of hospital, Jeffrey set out with Vivian Bullwinkel to establish a memorial to the Australian nurses who died during the war. Over the next two years, they collected £78,000. They opened the Nurses Memorial Centre in St Kilda, Melbourne, on 14 May 1949. Jeffrey became the Centre's Administrator, but continuing ill health forced her to retire in 1954. In retirement, Jeffrey was co-patron and life member of the Victorian Ex-Prisoners of War Association, and a member of the RSL Nurses Club. She attended reunions with her ex-prisoner-of-war friends and 8th Division colleagues and was a great correspondent.

In 1950, Jeffrey and Bullwinkel travelled to Britain to be presented to King George VI, Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. In 1987, she received a Medal of the Order of Australia. She worked as script adviser in 1996 to film director Bruce Beresford in the making of Paradise Road. Jeffrey never married and lived alone before entering a nursing home two months before her death.

At great personal risk, Jeffrey maintained a detailed diary of her experience and treatment in the prisoner-of-war camps. She donated this valuable record to the Australian War Memorial in 1954. She also donated her nursing uniform, a watch (the Japanese removed the hands to prevent prisoners telling the time), and a cloth doll representing a Japanese soldier. The doll, a birthday present, was made in the camp from a shirt tail stolen from a Japanese soldier and is a reminder of the indomitable spirit of the nurses. Jeffrey has also bequeathed to the Memorial drawings and paintings from her time as a prisoner.

Jeffrey's friend and colleague, Wilma Oram Young, presented a eulogy for her at a Memorial Service held at St Peter's Church, Melbourne on 20 September. "We have lost a gifted and sincere friend," Young said, and recalled the words of Margaret Dryburgh, a civilian internee who died in the camp: "How silent is this place … a hush enfolds me, deep as I have known."