The papers of Sister Agnes Betty Jeffrey


Australian War Memorial

Australian War Memorial
Canberra, Australia

Australian army nurse Sister Betty Jeffrey survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942 only to become a Japanese prisoner of war. Jeffrey recorded her experiences in various camps, including Palembang on Sumatra, in notebooks and on scraps of paper.
For the prisoners, paper was a rare and valuable treasure, and writing implements were as difficult to obtain as food. Identity records, such marriage or birth certificates, or lists of names, were regularly confiscated and destroyed if discovered. Personal diaries and writings, created under difficult and dangerous circumstances, were also forbidden, but kept surreptitiously by many prisoners. Having surviving searches and destruction, these records are today some of the most valued items in the Research Centre’s collections.
Jeffrey drew many sketches depicting camp life, including depictions of the various jobs she needed to perform to survive: carrying water, chopping wood, cutting hair. On an empty stomach, she wrote down mouth-watering recipes. Jeffrey also kept a diary in two children’s exercise books she managed to steal from the Japanese. She often had to hide it, sewing it into her pillowcase where it sometimes stayed for weeks, even months, at a time. Jeffrey later used her diary, and the scenes depicted in her sketches, to write her best-selling memoir White coolies (1954).
Among Jeffrey’s papers is a sketch that depicts waving hands and barbed wire. It was drawn in front of House Two at Palembang, the only place from where women could see their relatives in the men’s camp. The women would wave to the men in the distance each morning and evening. In White coolies she described how on Christmas Day 1942 they sang “Oh come, all ye faithful” for the men. She describes how they stopped and listened, and waved hankies, shirts and hats; a faint “thank you” was also heard. Two days later, the men sang the same song back to the women. Everyone wept.
In another camp near Palembang in 1944, Jeffrey joined the camp orchestra, for which women used their voices as musical instruments. Among Jeffrey’s papers are copies of the music they performed, which was originally transcribed by a British missionary, Margaret Dryburgh. The story of the orchestra was dramatised in the 1997 film Paradise Road.
Betty Jeffrey donated the majority of her papers to the Memorial in 1952. The sketches and music were donated by her family in 2000 and 2001.


  • Title: The papers of Sister Agnes Betty Jeffrey
  • Date: 1942-1945
  • Location: Netherlands East Indies: Sumatra, Palembang

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