Biography

Birth date: 14 May 1908
Birth place: Australia: Tasmania, Hobart
Death date: 20 September 2000
Death place: Australia: Victoria, Melbourne
Final rank: Lieutenant
Service number: VFX53059 - Second World War, 1939-1945
Unit: 10 Australian General Hospital

Betty Jeffrey, Second World War nurse, Vyner Brooke survivor, prisoner of war and author of the best-selling book, White coolies, was born in Hobart on 14 May 1908. Her family moved regularly while she was growing up, eventually settling in East Malvern, Victoria.

At the age of 29 she began nursing training at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, graduating in 1939. Shortly afterwards she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. In 1941 she was posted to the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, then in Malacca, Malaya. The hospital was evacuated to Singapore in January 1942 as the Japanese swept southwards, but less than a month later, on 12 February, she boarded the Vyner Brooke hoping to reach Java. The ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft two days later and, of the 65 nurses on board, five were killed. The survivors made for nearby Banka Island, already under Japanese occupation. Jeffrey's group were taken prisoner and began life as captives.

After a few weeks on Banka Island, Jeffrey and her fellow prisoners were moved to Palembang on Sumatra. Some of the experiences shared by Jeffrey and her fellows formed the basis of the film, Paradise Road. Most notable, was the formation of a choir that sustained the women in the early months of their captivity and of which Jeffrey was a member. Boredom was a serious problem and so the women played cards, produced magazines and performed plays to pass the time. As the months passed, their diet grew progressively worse, their condition not helped by the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in which they lived.

Throughout her captivity, Jeffrey kept a diary hidden from the Japanese. The diary became White coolies, Jeffrey's record of a physical and mental battle for survival, an unrelenting obsession with food, the death of friends and the fading of hope. After three and a half years of this life, the 24 Australian nurses who had survived the ordeal were taken to Singapore to regain their health when the war ended. Jeffrey arrived home in Melbourne in October 1945, but was hospitalised with tuberculosis after her first night at home. She was in hospital for much of the next two years, after which she and Vivian Bullwinkel began raising funds to establish a nurses' memorial centre in Melbourne. Jeffrey became the centre's first administrator when it opened in 1949.

She retired from this position after an illness in the mid-1950s but continued to represent former prisoners of war and nurses. She received the Order of Australia for services to ex-servicemen and women in 1987. Regarded with great fondness by her friends, Jeffrey's dignified bearing and sense of humour has been recalled by many who knew her during the war. She died on 13 September 2000 at the age of 92.

Rolls and Awards

Second World War POWs and Missing Persons

  • Rank: Lieutenant
  • Unit: 10 Australian General Hospital
  • Theatre of war: Malaya

Collection Items

Art

10pm edition

A view of the sleeping arrangements inside one of the rooms at the Palembang prisoner of war camp at 10pm in the evening. The women are all sleeping on the floor or on makeshift beds. Each of the women has her name written beside her and some of the characteristics of the individual women are...

ART91487

House 8 Australian Sisters (32) Palembang, Sumatra

A house in Sumatra in the Palembang prisoner of war camp. This house was called 'House 8' and housed 32 Australian nurses. The house looks a little delipidated and there is fencing wire missing from the front of the house that was used by the women to make cooking utensils and knitting needles. ...

ART91488

Private Record

Heraldry

Japanese Soldier Doll 'Bully' : Sister A B Jeffrey, 2/10 Australian General Hospital

Soft doll made to represent a Japanese guard nick-named 'Bully' at a prison camp for women near Loebek Linggau in Sumatra. It was been fashioned from part of a stolen Japanese soldier's khaki coloured shirt tail, and other fabric and leather scraps. Doll shows a Japanese soldier complete with cap,...

REL/11877

T-shirt : Sister A B Jeffrey, Australian Army Nursing Service

Light blue crew neck T-shirt with small rounded patch pocket on the left breast. The pocket is embroidered in white with the letters 'BJ'. A section of white ribbed cotton is sewn into the bottom right of the shirt. A makers label is sewn inside the neck with another inside the left seam.

REL28952

Pencil : Sister A B Jeffrey, Australian Army Nursing Service

Stub of yellow pencil with some manufacturer's markings visible along one side. At the end is scratched the first letters of the owner's name 'JEFFR'.

REL28953

Small kit bag : Sister A B Jeffrey, Australian Army Nursing Service

Khaki drawstring bag made of one length of cloth folded over and sewn up the sides. The words 'V.F.X. 53059 LIEUT. A.B.JEFFREY.' are written with blue ink on the front. On the back at the top is written in smaller lettering 'SR. B. JEFFREY'.

REL28954

Kitbag : Sister A B Jeffrey, Australian Army Nursing Service

White canvas duffle bag with circular base and drawstring top. Inside the opening is a flap which is used to secure the contents when the bag is drawn shut. The side of the bag is stamped in black 'VFX53059 SR. A.B. JEFFREY.'

REL28955

Aircraft headrest cover : Sister A B Jeffrey, Australian Army Nursing Service

Beige cotton headrest cover with velcro strip on the top of the back to attach it to the seat. The front is printed in blue with 'DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS' AFFAIRS'(DVA) followed by the DVA logo and the words 'COMMEMORATIVE FLIGHT S.S. VYNER/BROOKE/AANS MEMORIAL BANGKA ISLAND 1st-3rd MARCH 1993...

REL28956

Sound

Agnes Betty Jeffrey as a nursing sister 2/10th Australian General Hospital and a prisoner of the Japanese, 1939-1945, interviewed by Margaret Evans

Agnes Betty Jeffrey as a nursing sister 2/10th Australian General Hospital and a prisoner of the Japanese, 1939-1945, interviewed by Margaret Evans. A transcript of this recording may be available. For further information please contact the Sound section.

S02908

Timeline

Date of birth 1908-05-14 Hobart, TAS.
Other 1937 Began nursing training at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
Other 1939 Graduated from nursing training at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1941-04-09 Joined the Australian Army Nursing Service and posted to the the 2/10th Australian General Hospital stationed in Malacca, Malaya.
Other 1942-01 The Hospital was evacuated to Singapore.
Other 1942-02-12 Jeffrey and 65 other nurses, including Vivian Bullwinkel, boarded the SS Vyner Brooke to escape the Japanese invasion of Singapore.
Date captured 1942-02-16 The SS Vyner Brooke was sunk by Japanese aircraft. The survivors made for nearby Banka Island, already under Japanese occupation. Jeffrey's group were taken prisoner and began life as captives.
Date released 1945-08-08 Released from captivity at Pelambang prisoner of war camp.
Date returned to Australia 1945-10-18 Jeffrey arrived home in Melbourne, VIC. She was hospitalised with tuberculosis after her first night at home.
Date of discharge 1946-11-06 Discharged from the Australian Army Nursing Service.
Other 1949 She and Vivian Bullwinkel began raising funds to establish a nurses' memorial centre in Melbourne.
Other 1950 Jeffrey became the Nurses Memorial Centre's first administrator.
Other 1986 - 2000 Patron of the Nurses Memorial Centre.
Date of honour or award 1987-06-08 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
Date of death 2000-09-20 Melbourne, VIC.