Finding comfort in craft: Dr Margaret Smallwood

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Decorative quiltDr Margaret Smallwood ran her fingers over the faded material, tracing the pattern of her stitches. There, carefully embroidered on the scrap of white fabric was a room containing a tiny bed, a table with a single cup, and a barred window. It was her prison cell, her home for the uncertain months that lay ahead. But she was not alone; her patch was one of many that would soon be sewn together to make a beautiful quilt.

Margaret had been working as a doctor for the Malayan Medical Service in Johore, caring for sick children, when Japan launched its attack in late 1941. Like other civilians in the region at the time, Margaret was evacuated to Singapore, where she took up work at a hospital. As the Japanese drew closer to the island the sound of exploding bombs and shells echoed around the hospital building, and Margaret was treating more and more Allied servicemen wounded in battle.

On 15 February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese, and Margaret was among the 2,400 civilians, including more than 450 women and children, taken prisoner. Some had not been able to leave Singapore in time; others had chosen to remain behind. The internees were marched into Changi Gaol; a building designed to hold only 600. The men were crammed into one section, while the women and children took up residence in another. They were forbidden to speak to their husbands, fathers, and brothers living just behind the wire.

Life in the prison was hard: cells were overcrowded, sickness was widespread and food was scarce. From the outset, however, the women took matters into their own hands, electing a leader and even drafting a constitution to ensure the camp ran efficiently. They also set up a school and hospital, where Margaret took a leading role checking on the children each morning and petitioning the Japanese guards for extra food.

The months passed slowly, but the women kept themselves entertained in a variety of ways. Ethel Mulvaney, a Canadian internee, loved to sew and suggested they work together to make some quilts. Each woman involved was given some white fabric, torn from old sheets and flour bags, and asked to stitch her signature and an image that said “something of herself”. On her square, Margaret stitched an image of her prison cell, accompanied by the words “a room with a view”. 

The internees made three quilts, one each for the Japanese, Australian, and British Red Cross, and convinced the camp guards to donate them to the hospitals in Changi. Some hoped their relatives may eventually come across the quilts and draw comfort in the realisation that their loved ones were still alive. For others the project was a distraction from their bleak reality, and a way to record their hope for a better future. It would be years, however, before their release.

When the war finally ended in 1945, Margaret returned home to Melbourne. The care she had provided the internees over the years had not gone unnoticed, and in 1947 she was presented with the Order of the British Empire. She devoted the rest of her life to promoting the health of women and children both in Australia and overseas.