V&A - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Olga Henderson talks about life as a child in a prisoner of war camp and the Changi Quilt.

This video was made as part of the exhibition Quilts: 1700 – 2010, at the V&A from 20 March to 4 July 2010.


The hut we were put in was for 34 people to sleep in and there was 119 of us in it. So you can imagine what we were like. I mean you just more or less slept together and you had no bedding, you had nothing like that.

The Japanese gave us a piece of land and each person, each child worked it. But you were not allowed to eat anything off it. As soon as it ripened you had to tell the guard and they would pick it. You weren’t allowed to eat it at all.

I think the horrible thing was that you had no soap. You had water … if you were in the fields, because you had to work in the fields, if they turned the water on it wasn’t a gush, it was a very slow flow, but by the time you came off the field, picked your piece of tin up that you had – an old tin can – by the time you got there they’d turned the water off, so you had nothing. We used to try and clean our teeth with ash if you could get it. We used to get the little twigs and knock the ends off and make a toothbrush.

When we were first in Changi, after we’d all got settled down and were given our allotted spaces, it was very boring because there was nothing to do. So Mrs Ennis decided to start a little girl guide group. There were 18 of us that started. Eileen and Helen and Evelyn and Shirley – they were all from one family. Shirley was the elder one. She was more the leader of one group. Mrs Ennis was the boss, you might say. We decided to do the quilt for Mrs Ennis as a birthday present. We didn’t know which year she was going to get it, but we started it anyway.

We left our homes and went as we were dressed so that’s all the clothes we had, so we had to make do. Practically all the time we were in patched bits and pieces. I started by having a little eidelweiss because I got a bit of blue wool and anything to get bits of material. We had to scrounge enough thread to make our own little badges. Thread and needles were the most important things and we used to get those by unpicking old dresses to get the thread from the seams. My mother took some needles in and thread. She gave us a little bit of thread, but it was like gold. But needles were the most important thing because you didn’t get any more. What you had in camp was what you had. We used to try and sharpen them on the concrete pavements, but it didn’t really work.

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