The secrets of the Changi Girl Guide quilt
Monday, November 01, 2010
Posted by: jennifer punch
Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/7768593/The-secrets-of-the-Changi-Girl-Guide-quilt.html
A new exhibition at the V&A museum features the Changi Girl Guide quilt, stitched by 20 young British girls imprisoned in Changi jail during the Second World War. Elizabeth Grice talks to the last survivor Olga Henderson.
By Elizabeth Grice
Published: 7:00AM BST 01 Jun 2010
(Photo caption (from above site): Olga Henderson with the Changi quilt at the V&A exhibition in London)
"Hidden histories, untold stories”. For once, the enticements are true. Stepping into the numinous half-light of the V&A’s quilts exhibition is an almost voyeuristic experience, as if the lives of women have been stitched into the seams of the patchwork and are being liberated for the first time.
The recession and a new appreciation of the ethos of make-do-and-mend may be why so many people are flocking to see 300 years of domestic needlework. Or it could be the renaissance in traditional crafts. But once there, in a world of quiet industry and inventiveness, visitors feel caught up in something private and intense. People not so very different from us have sewed confidences into their bed-hangings, coverlets and cushions. A mother celebrates safe childbirth. The devoutly religious Ann West secures her place in heaven and posterity by embroidering, in 1820, the whole of creation. Prisoners fill their empty hours with subversive little icons. Here is love, marriage, birth, death, politics.
In our obsession with the now, we have neglected the slow, therapeutic art of stitching. For the women convicts who set sail from Woolwich to Van Diemen’s Land, Australia, in 1841, getting together on board ship to make the magnificent Rajah Quilt of chintz patchwork was an expression of solidarity as well as an escape from the daily grind. The all-male quilting group of HMP Wandsworth have sewn anti-authority sentiments and their hopes of freedom into a quilt of scenes from prison life.
"There is a lot of solace to be had from that process of stitching”, says the curator, Sue Pritchard, who notices how often confinement is a spur to creativity. "It’s almost like meditation. The rhythmic act of hand-sewing is very calming. It offers an opportunity to create something of worth in the most abject of circumstances.”
The most striking example of this is the simple quilt of hexagons made by 20 young girls incarcerated in Changi jail during the Second World War. The girls were hungry, threadbare and living in appalling conditions. They had to scavenge for every scrap of material. But they came together in secret to sew the quilt as a birthday present for their inspirational Girl Guide leader, Elizabeth Ennis. The quilt hangs modestly among far more elaborate pieces of work but as a testimony of endurance there is nothing else quite like it in the show. In the centre of each rosette, with varying degrees of skill, each girl embroidered her name. One of them was Olga Morris.
Olga (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 where 2,400 civilians were to be housed in quarters built for 600. Along with Marmite, tins of condensed milk and aspirin, Mrs Morris had presciently packed needles and thread.
"When we were first in Changi”, Olga recalls, "it was very boring so Mrs Ennis decided to start a Girl Guides group. We met once a week in a corner of the exercise yard. It became a sort of family. I remember saying our Promise, singing and lying down at night while Mrs Ennis taught us the constellations. We didn’t know which year she was going to get the quilt but we started it anyway. It gave our lives a sort of permanence.”
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. Under Mrs Ennis’s instruction, they learned patchwork but also sewed their Guide badges and emblems. "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.”
Their spirit was never broken. These were girls aged eight to 16, defying the harshest circumstances. Hut 16, which Olga shared with 119 people, was built for 34. She shared a cell measuring 8ft x 6ft with six others, and they had to take turns sleeping on the stone bed. Their diet was rice and water.
"The idea of children being interned is a powerful one,” says Pritchard, who spent six years on the exhibition. "What is seditious in sewing? They were trying to normalise their lives.” To Olga, each hexagon is a coin in her memory bank.
The newly-married Mrs Ennis, who inspired the quilt, had been a nurse with the Indian Army when she and her British husband, Capt 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 three years ago, the quilt was presented to the Imperial War Museum. "Mum was always a keen Guide”, says her daughter, Jackie Sutherland. "She gave the girls a focus. The quilt became part of our family lore. To see how much stock others put in it is very emotional.”
But that was not the end of the remarkable story of the Changi quilt. It gave Ethel Mulvaney, self-appointed Red Cross representative at Changi, 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.
The first quilt was deliberately innocuous, flattering the Japanese guards with their national symbols. Once that had been allowed through, two others were made with a more serious purpose. Elizabeth Ennis embroidered a picture of an ocean liner with a banner headline "Homeward Bound” and signed it M. E. Ennis. One patch showed a small figure in a cell with the words: How long, dear Lord, how long?” Jack Ennis, a pathologist, had not heard from his wife for 15 months but one morning the Australian Red Cross representative unrolled the quilt in front of him. "Is that Elizabeth?” he said, disbelieving.
"This message of hope and consolation”, says his daughter, "kept Jack going for the remainder of internment.”
The three other Changi quilts have also survived. One is in the Red Cross Museum in London and the other two are in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. "They encapsulate the moment and place in which they were created”, says Dr Bernice Archer, who studied them for her doctorate on civilian internment under the Japanese from 1941-45. "They affirm, record and communicate the victory of personal battles for survival in a way that no other sources do.”
Jack and Elizabeth did indeed share a boat home to England in 1945. Elizabeth died in 2003, aged 91, and Jack in 2007, aged 96. Olga Henderson, 79, lives in Eastbourne and is frequently asked to talk about the Changi quilt. Some of her memories of internment can he heard on the V&A website.
After four years’ imprisonment, she arrived back in England severely malnourished and disease-ridden. Her stomach was hugely distended from beriberi and she had malaria.
She had witnessed terrible things. She recalls how a Chinese woman was slaughtered in front of them for offering her mother water on their march to the prison camp; an Indian boy, her friend, had his ear cut off for allegedly eavesdropping. Their journey took them through a landscape strewn with bodies and rubble; past decapitated heads on spikes. At the end of the war, she watched Japanese soldiers commit harikiri by throwing themselves into a reservoir – a reservoir she and her friends then swam in to recover the gold from their teeth. "There was no feeling”, she says, unperplexed by the brutalising effects of war. "No feeling....”
We sit talking about these extreme events in a small, friendly coffee shop on the waterfront near her home. To the staff of Di Lieto’s, Olga is probably just another regular, a pensioner who calls in for a sandwich and a cappuccino to break up her day. They have no idea of her other life as a child prisoner of war or of her struggle for survival. And but for the Changi quilt, nor would we.
Quilts 1700-2010 is at the V&A until July 4. The Changi Girl Guide Quilt will then go on display at the Imperial War Museum, London