by Suzanne Labry
The Changi Prison Quilts
It is said that during the century prior to World War II, Shanghai, China, was a place where the ideological, cultural, and geopolitical struggles of that era were most
Changi Prison Girl Guide Quilt, photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London, England.
In the 1930s, the city was an international hub and the playground of the world’s rich and famous people. That all changed when Japanese forces took control of Shanghai in 1942 and some 50,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner. Also caught in the takeover were 2,400 civilians, including 400 women and children, who were housed in a prison in an area of the city called Changi. They remained imprisoned there until the fall of 1945.
The women were mostly wives of officials, teachers, missionaries, and medical personnel and they came from England, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Spain. The prison had been built to house 600 people, and the overcrowding exacerbated the harsh conditions in which the internees found themselves. Hunger, disease, poor sanitary conditions, fear, hard labor, and boredom made life in Changi deplorable.
It was a group of 20 girls, ranging in age from 8 to 16, who, given those conditions, did something remarkable and inspired the making of what are now known as the Changi prison quilts.
One of the women internees, Elizabeth Ennis, organized the girls into a Girl Guides group in order to keep up morale and give them something positive to do. One of their activities was making badges and emblems from scraps of fabric that they found and Mrs. Ennis also taught them about quilting. The girls decided to make a surprise birthday quilt for Mrs. Ennis—a Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern on which the girls embroidered
In a 2010 article in the British newspaper The Telegraph, writer Elizabeth Grice interviewed Olga Henderson, who had helped make the quilt when she was ten years old:
She describes how they worked in the baking fields, growing crops they harvested but were never allowed to eat. When their dresses rotted in the sun, they would unpick the seams and reuse the thread for the quilt.
“Needles and thread were worth more than gold,” says Olga. “Whenever we left our cell, we had to post someone on duty so we weren’t robbed.” As they sewed, they were on constant alert for the sound of approaching Japanese guards. At the clatter of boots, they stuffed the patchwork into their knickers. The Kempetai [Japanese military police] were brutal and unpredictable and they didn’t like groups. “They might come in at any moment and scatter and punish us.”
The girls never gave up, and they were finally able to present their quilt to Mrs. Ennis. Her husband donated it to the Imperial War Museum in London in 2006.
News of what the girls had done spread throughout the prison, and inspired another internee, Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian Red Cross representative and the wife of a British soldier, to suggest that the women create quilts for their loved ones interred in other portions of the camp.
Eventually, three Changi quilts were made, one for the British wounded, one for the Australian wounded, and one for the Japanese wounded. The Japanese authorities allowed the quilts to be sent to the military hospital at Changi barracks.
“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
The Australian quilt was eventually presented to the Australian Red Cross, the British quilt to the British Red Cross, and the Japanese quilt to the Australian War Memorial. The British Red Cross website has an interactive image of the British Changi quilt that describes each block and known information about its maker. The site also provides details about the history of the quilts, as does the website of the Australian War Memorial.
*History of the Changi Quilts, by Jane Peek, Australian War Memorial.