Friday, May 6, 2016

Changi Quilts


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The Changi Quilts


When Singapore fell to the Japanese, on 15 February 1942 , thousands of Allied troops and civilians were taken prisoners.
The majority of civilians were British colonial administrators or plantation and mine managers . 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.
A third of prisoners of war died in captivity from disease, starvation and brutality.
Around 2,400 civilian men, women and children were crowded into Changi Prison, a building designed to hold about 600 inmates. The women and children occupied one wing of the building until 1944 when they were moved to another Singapore camp. The children were held with their mothers but when boys reached 12 years of age they were automatically transferred to the male section of the prison whether or not they had relatives there. Internees were allowed to run schools for the children during the first few years of captivity although teaching history and geography was not allowed.
The majority of the women in Changi were British wives of officials, or teachers, missionaries and medical personnel. There were also a number of Eurasian children of white fathers and their Asian mothers, wives from administrators of the Netherlands colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Australians, New Zealandanders, Canadians, and Americans.  There was even a Spanish circus performer.
The Changi Quilts – their story
EPH 9206
This “grandmother’s garden” quilt was made from printed dress cotton in Changi prison by 20 girls aged 8 -16 as a surprise birthday gift for their guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. The guide group met once a week in the corner of the exercise yard. The girls would wear white dresses as their uniform. There are 72 rosettes embroidered with the girls’ names and surrounded by plain white hexagons. The centre rossette has the Girl Guides’ insignia outlined in satin stitch.
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Olga Morris (now Henderson) was 10 when she and her family were rounded up following the Japanese conquest of Singapore in February, 1942. She remembers her mother putting on seven dresses as they started the long, hot walk to Changi prisoner of war camp. Along with Marmite, tins of condensed milk and aspirin, Mrs Morris had also packed needles and thread. Olga talks about the quilt in this video.
Mrs Ennis, who inspired the quilt, had been a nurse with the Indian Army when she and her British husband, Captain 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 the quilt was presented to the Imperial War Museum. 
Mrs Ennis’ quilt  gave Ethel Mulvaney the idea of making other quilts into which they would stitch coded messages to let their husbands, brothers or sweethearts in the men’s camp know that they were alive.
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A Canadian, Mrs Mulvaney, had been a Red Cross representative in Singapore and had been chosen to be the camp’s Red Cross representative for the Changi women
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During  March and Ausgust 1942 three signature quilts were made by the women interned in Changi Prison, these are referred to as the British, Australian, and Japanese quilts.
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The making of the quilts was designed to alleviate boredom, to boost morale and to pass information. 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.
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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 all the women were given the opportunity to contribute a square, some contributing more than one.
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Mrs Mulvany obtained permission from the Japanese commandant to pass the quilts to wounded soldiers in  Changi hospitals, by making a quilt for the wounded Japanese. The Japanese quilt, also containing the signatures of the women who had made it was passed with the other two to the hospitals.
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Each woman who wanted to make a square was given a piece of plain white cotton scavanged from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets. The women were asked to put “something of herself” into the square, together with her signature.
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The design and sewing skills shown on the quilts are varied and some of the squares are the work of skilled embroiderers.
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Many of the women put a lot of themselves into their squares but  some of the messages are now lost to us. Some would have been private messages only understood by the couples themselves.
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A large number of the female internees came from the Colonial Nursing Service and were single, although some may have had boyfiends in the armed services. Many of the women may not have been trying to pass on a message but made a square as a way of passing time.
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The Australian quilt was presented to the Australian Red Cross, as requested on the back of the quilt.
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The Japanese quilt was donated  to the War Memorial in 1968. 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.
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The Red Cross have a webpage that has an INTERACTIVE photograph of the British quilt and you can click many of the blocks to find out more information about the quilt.

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