Background: Changi Prison
The making of the quilts
Subject matter and style
The fate of the quilts after the war

Background: Changi Prison

When Singapore fell to the Japanese, on 15 February 1942 , thousands of Allied troops who had either been part of the Singapore garrison or who had retreated down the Malay peninsula in the face of the Japanese advance surrendered to the Japanese. Japanese military code assumed that its soldiers would fight to the death (which explains why so few of their soldiers were captured alive before the final months of the war), and they were totally unprepared for the task of housing and feeding so many prisoners. In the event, they used many of the prisoners as slave labour on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, on airfields and dockyards, later shipping them to Japan to work in the mines and in ship-building. The prisoners were poorly fed and generally had no medical supplies, although their own doctors were able to improvise some drugs and equipment. The International Red Cross supplied both food and medical parcels to the prisoners, but with a few rare exceptions these were stockpiled by the Japanese for their own use or were simply not distributed. A third of prisoners of war died in captivity, although the death rate varied widely in different camps. The main causes of death were disease and starvation, which were the results of Japanese neglect.

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.

The internees were, in some respects, fortunate to be housed in Changi Prison. It was a modern (6-year-old) “model” prison building, which boasted an efficient sewerage system and flushing toilets. Its main problem was that it was expected to house three times the number of people for which it was designed. Because of this, hygiene and sanitation were always matters of concern. Dysentery was a problem among the internees, as was malaria, because of the lack of mosquito nets. Drugs were available to treat these two diseases, but they were not supplied by the Japanese. During the first year of captivity at least (when the quilts were made), food was adequate if basic, by Asian standards but probably not by European ones. The overall death rate of civilian internees was not high but increased as the years went by due mainly to malaria, conditions of over-crowding, and the effects of malnutrition which caused, or gave pre-disposition to, diseases such as beri-beri and tuberculosis.

Male and female internees were able to see each other but were not allowed to communicate. The Japanese, however, allowed the two groups to give concerts to each other and in this way family messages could be passed in “family code” through a play script or a song.

The women in Changi Prison were a diverse group. The majority came from the British colonial administration of Malaya and Singapore, as wives of officials, or as teachers, missionaries and medical personnel. There were also a number of Eurasian children of white fathers, and even some of their Asian mothers. The British were the major group represented, but there were also women from the Netherlands colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia ), Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. There was even a Spanish circus performer.

The immediate problem faced by the women, food and shelter of a sort having been provided by the Japanese, was how to administer themselves. In most non-labour camps the Japanese left administration and organisation to the internees or prisoners of war themselves, and with the exception of spot checks for illicit items such as radios (possession punishable by death) and diaries, liaised with only a few prisoners who were nominated or elected by the camp inmates. The work of a camp administrator was often arduous, and, in the case of the Changi women, required enormous tact and strength in dealing with a diverse group of women from different social backgrounds (many of the “upper class” British wives felt it was beneath their dignity to take their turn cleaning drains or queuing for food, and had been accustomed to being waited on by “native” servants). The administrator also needed to have a good head for politics and negotiating with the Japanese.

The making of the quilts

During 1942, mainly between March and August, three signature quilts were made by the women interned in Changi Prison (these are referred to as the British, Australian, and Japanese quilts). The making of them was the idea of a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, who had been a Red Cross representative in Singapore and had been chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women. Judging by the quilt squares that Mrs Mulvany made, she was also a skilled embroiderer. (Mrs Mulvany later claimed that the British quilt had actually been made for the Canadian Red Cross, but research into the labelling of the British quilt has not revealed any evidence of a prior label relating to Canada. By the time she made the statement, she was seriously mentally disturbed as a result of her captivity, and making claims about her role in personally saving all the wounded of Singapore, together with claims of atrocities committed by the Japanese in Changi Prison which cannot be substantiated in any way).

The making of the quilts was designed to alleviate boredom, to boost morale and to pass information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. Mrs Mulvany's initial idea was that only the wives of soldiers should contribute squares because their husbands were not interned in Changi Prison with the civilian men and could not know the fate of their families. She was herself the wife of a British soldier. However, there proved to be too few military wives in the prison to make up enough squares for even one quilt and so it seems that all the women were given the opportunity to contribute a square, some contributing more than one.

In a shrewd political move, Mrs Mulvany secured the permission of the Japanese commandant to pass the quilts - ostensibly made for the “wounded” as stated on the back of each quilt - to Changi hospitals, by making a quilt for the wounded Japanese. In the event, the Japanese quilt, also containing the signatures of the women who had made it, was passed with the other two to the hospitals and eventually given to an Australian medical officer.

Each woman who wanted to make a square was given a piece of plain white cotton (provided from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets) and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, together with her signature. From the evidence of Sheila Allen, who made the map of Australia square on the Australian quilt, it seems that it was possible to nominate the quilt on which the square was to be placed. This may explain why there are no Australian names on the British quilt, for instance, and why some of the names on the Japanese quilt are duplicates of those on the other two quilts (not enough women may have volunteered to contribute squares for the Japanese quilt).

While the Japanese tolerated the word “gaol” (the commandant may not have been familiar with the word), the “V” for victory, and the “thumbs up” sign on the squares, the word “prison” was not acceptable, so that when Mrs Mulvany and a Dutch internee came to assemble the squares they had to unpick this word. This can be seen clearly on two of the squares on the Australian quilt. The squares were machine-stitched together and the edges then over-embroidered in red. Very few of the contributors saw the completed quilts.

The work of nine known Australian women is represented on the Australian quilt: Dr Margaret Smallwood, Sheila Allen, Judy Good, Helen Latta, Vera McIntyre, Betsey Millard, Nea Barnes, May Watson and Eunice Austin-Hofer. It is likely that a quilt was made for the Australian Red Cross not because there were many Australian internees but because Mrs Mulvany assumed that the Australian Red Cross would play a major part in supplying aid to Singapore, and to prisoners of war in Asia generally. The aid was supplied but the Japanese blocked the distribution of Red Cross parcels from Australia.

Subject matter and style

The design and sewing skills shown on the quilts are varied. Virtually all women in this period would have been taught embroidery skills, whether or not they had any aptitude for it. Many brought embroidery threads and patterns with them into the prison, and during 1942 Mrs Mulvany was allowed by the Japanese to spend a day each month outside the prison to obtain supplementary supplies of food, drugs and materials, if she could find them in Singapore.

Some of the squares are obviously the work of skilled embroiderers, while others are quite crude, consisting, for instance, of a flower cut from a piece of floral print fabric roughly applied with button-hole stitch. Some of the embroidery has clearly been copied from commercial patterns. Examples of these can be seen in the images of characters from the two pre-war Disney feature cartoons, Snow White and Pinocchio. Many of the contributors put a lot of themselves into their squares, while others confined their efforts to more traditional floral motifs. The meaning of many of the messages that are obviously included in the squares is now lost to us. Some would have been private messages only comprehensible to the couples themselves. Squares showing small children and children's toys such as bears probably refer to children in the camp. Mrs Uniake's Dungie and Dungetta (on the Australian quilt) refer to her son and daughter in prison with her. The British quilt shows a mother rabbit with a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon collar to indicate that a son had been born in prison. The dogs on the Australian quilt may refer to “Judy”, a small terrier who was a pet in the prison for some time. Other women have embroidered the “address” of the cell they were occupying and a representation of its appearance.

In contrast, the quilt made for the Japanese contains very little of the personality of the makers and no messages. The designs used on the quilt were chosen to appeal to the Japanese and include a greeting in Japanese (“Banzai!” - possibly supplied by the commandant, although two Japanese women married to Englishmen were interned in Changi), floral motifs, representations of the rising sun, Mount Fuji, a Japanese bridge, and a tea ceremony.

Although many of the squares appear to have messages, there were, as previously stated, not many women who had husbands in the military camps to whom the messages could be passed. A large number of the female internees came from the Colonial Nursing Service and were single, although some may have had romantic connections with soldiers before the fall of Singapore. Many of the contributors may not have been trying to pass on a message but simply used the opportunity of making the square as a way of passing time and producing, in some cases, a patriotic statement. The making of the quilts was a carefully considered and co-ordinated exercise and there is no evidence that they were made as objects of resistance. Every effort was made by Mrs Mulvany and the few women who assembled the finished quilts to ensure that they would be acceptable to the Japanese so that they could be passed to outside camps. It would also appear that Mrs Mulvany hoped that the quilts would be preserved in the longer term, as the back of each quilt has embroidered instructions recommending that it be dry-cleaned.

The fate of the quilts after the war

The quilts for the Australian and Japanese wounded eventually came into the possession of a British medical officer, Colonel Collins. There is no evidence that they were ever really intended for, or used by, the wounded. Collins in turn passed them to an Australian medical officer in charge of the hospital at Kranji, Lieutenant Colonel R. M. W. Webster, of 2/9th Field Ambulance.

Webster brought them back to Australia : he presented the Australian quilt to the Australian Red Cross, as requested on the back of the quilt, and gave the Japanese quilt to his wife. Mrs Webster donated this quilt to the War Memorial in 1968. The Australian quilt has been permanently lent to the Memorial by the Red Cross, so that it can be properly preserved. The quilt for the British Red Cross was taken to England after the war and can currently be viewed at the British Red Cross UK office at Moorgate, City of London.


Jane Peek
Military Heraldry Section
Australian War Memorial