Another "Brave Women" page

Betty Jeffrey
© Reproduced by kind permission of
Nurses' Memorial Centre, Melbourne

BETTY JEFFREY, author of best selling book "White Coolies" (Angus & Robertson), now in its 19th edition. She was one of the Australian nurses taken prisoner by the Japanese in Sumatra during World War II and held for three and a half years under inhumane conditions. She survived but many of her colleagues did not.


From a presentation
Written by her great-niece,
Emily Jane Malone

Agnes Betty Jeffrey was born in Hobart, Tasmania on 14th May, 1908.
Second youngest in a family of six she preferred to be known as Betty, not liking the name Agnes.  Whilst growing up her family moved often, as her father was an accountant at the General Post Office frequently transferred interstate to set up new accounting methods.  Her family finally came to live in East Malvern, Victoria where Betty stayed for the rest of her life.

At the age of 29 Betty began nursing training at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.  She had always wanted to begin a career in nursing, but had not been impressed with hospitals interstate and set her mind on the Alfred Hospital.  Betty graduated with her General Nursing Certificate in 1939.  In 1940, at the Royal Women's Hospital, Betty received her Midwifery Certificate.  Aged 33 she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service and was posted to Darley Military Camp, Victoria with five other nurses to set up a Camp Hospital.

 In 1941, Betty was posted to Malacca, in Malaya to join the 2/10th Australian General Hospital.  At this stage there wasn't any war in the Pacific, so it seemed to be a safe place for the nurses.  Being fit and healthy and with no responsibilities at home, going to Singapore was exciting and something that Betty wanted to do.  She was representing her country and contributing to the war effort.  In May, she left Melbourne for Malacca on the ship, ZealandiaSee footnote. After the nurses had been in Malacca for several months the war in the Pacific commenced and the hospital was now heavily involved.  In early January 1942 the hospital evacuated to Singapore.  On 15th February, the British and Commonwealth forces in Singapore surrendered.  All Army Nursing staff, very much against their will, were evacuated just before Singapore's fall.

 One group of Australian nurses were evacuated on the Empire Star, which left Singapore on 11th February and later made Australia safely after constant attack from the air by Japanese bombers.  The second group of sixty-five nursing sisters was evacuated on another ship, the Vyner Brooke, a day later.   On the 14th February, the Vyner Brooke, was attacked by Japanese aircraft, ten miles from Bangka Island.  One bomb hit the bridge and another went straight down the funnel.  The planes machined gunned the deck and the lifeboats.  Many lifeboats filled with water and sank.

In the water, Betty clung to a raft containing Matron Paschke, head of her Unit, who was a non-swimmer. It drifted very close to a pier but was carried out by a storm.  She realized that the load was too heavy so she, another nurse Iole Harper and two Malays left the raft and swam beside it.  Suddenly the raft was caught in a current, which missed Betty and those swimming beside it, and carried it out to sea.  Betty and Iole never saw Matron or those sisters again.  Of the sixty-five nurses on board the Vyner Brooke twelve were drowned.

 Betty and Iole swam together in the sea and mangrove swamps for three days.  After the first 28 hours they realized that they didn't know each other's name, so they stopped, formally introduced themselves and then continued swimming.  Finally they came across a Malayan fisherman in a boat who took them to his village where they were told that they were on Bangka Island, now in Japanese hands, and that they should give themselves up.

Our thanks to the Department of Veterans' Affairs
for its grant to enable the writing of
"A Woman's War" - biography of Wilma Oram Young under the project banner
"Their Service Our Heritage"
A prisoner under the Japanese
she devoted the rest of her life to helping War Veterans.
Click here to pre-order this book
Will be published September 2003
By New Holland Publishers



For the next three and a half years Betty and 31 other Australian Army Nursing Sisters were prisoners of war, lining up twice a day to be counted by their captors "Tenko! Tenko!".  The first camp was a concrete quadrangle with an iron roof and dormitories at each side.  When wanting to sleep they had to lie on concrete slabs side by side.  There were about 40 in each dormitory, 20 on each side.  Water for drinking came from only one tap, which would only drip. Bath water trickled into a large trough called a tong, which they stood beside and splashed tiny amounts of water over themselves.

For a full account of Betty Jeffrey's years as a PoW, see her book "White Coolies" (Angus & Robertson 1954) It is available from the Australian War Memorial book shop.

 Once the camp was moved from Muntok across Bangka Strait to Palembang, Sumatra.  After some time Betty thought that she would keep a diary so her mind would stay active by writing in it when events occurred.  On her way to a ‘working party’ outside the prison, she stopped by the guardhouse office and stole two small exercise books.  Needing something to write with, she went to the rubbish heap and found a full sized pencil. Later entries were also written in red ink.

 Betty hid the diary under the bench on which she slept in the hut.  She rolled it in rags and hid it with all the rats and spiders, a place where she thought the Japanese definitely wouldn't look. Had the Japanese found the diary Betty would have been executed and the diary burnt.  The other nurses knew about the diary because Betty needed someone to keep watch for the Japanese guards while she was writing in it.

The Vocal Orchestra:
A singing group was formed to pass time in the camp and Betty joined as an alto.  The concerts that the singing group performed took everyone's mind off the fact that they were hungry and prisoners.  An English missionary, Miss Margaret Dryburgh led the choir, organized church services, and produced a monthly camp magazine that had articles, a cookery section, a children's section and a crossword puzzle.  Many games and activities were played to entertain the nurses.

Over these years Betty and the other prisoners lived in a series of horrible prison camps.  Of the 32 nurses that were captured, 8 died whilst prisoners of war.  Those left, put up with the lack of food, they fought and recovered from the many diseases such as malaria, beriberi, Bangka fever and scurvy and they survived the way they were treated by the Japanese.   Though the Second World War ended on 15th August 1945, the prison camps were not informed of this until the 24th.  For their first few days of freedom the women were allowed to visit the men's camp and see their husbands and families.  More food became available and the women were given lipstick, clothes, materials and shoes.

7th September 1945: the Allies arrived.  Astounded by the awful conditions, they made the Japanese take them to their local storehouses to get more food for the women. 17th September: the Australian nursing sisters arrived in Singapore where they were taken to a hospital, washed and put to bed. Properly fed at last, they were able to catch up with mail from their families.  They all began to gain weight.  Betty's 32 kilograms increased to 41 kilograms in one week.

 Betty arrived in Melbourne on the Hospital Ship Manunda in October.  She stayed at home for one night and then became a patient at the Heidelberg Military Hospital (by then known as the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital) for 2 years that also included 6 months at the Tuberculosis Hospital in Bonegilla.  She was the most ill of all the sisters who returned.

Upon her discharge from hospital, Betty and Vivian Bullwinkel began to fulfill a promise they made in captivity, to honour their colleagues who died and to do something so they would not be forgotten.  Together they travelled around Victoria, speaking at towns that had hospitals of twenty beds or more to ask nurses to raise funds in order to establish a Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne.  This was to be a Centre to house all things to do with nursing (i.e. organizations, education, recreation).  All together they raised £120,000.  Betty lived at the Centre and worked as its first Administrator.

In 1950, Betty and Vivian travelled to England.  They were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace.  They were trained to curtsy correctly.  They were also received by Her Majesty Queen Mary at her home, Marlborough House.  Betty said this was an unforgettable and wonderful experience.  Queen Mary wanted to know of the Nurses Memorial Centre as she had sent an autographed photograph of herself there.  They were also invited to morning tea with the Duchess of Gloucester.

 Betty spent much of 1954 in Heidelberg Hospital and was advised by the medical team to retire as Administrator of the Nurses Memorial Centre, which she hated having to do.  In the early 1960s Betty was a golf caddy to Victorian champion, Burtta Cheney; an old friend.  They were both members at Huntingdale Golf Club.  During this time she also worked on the ex-Prisoner of War and Nurses Memorial Centre committees.

In 1967 Betty toured Japan for 5 weeks.  She found this trip most interesting and it resulted in much of her hatred for the Japanese subsiding.

During the 1970s and 1980s she frequently guest spoke on ex-Servicemen and women and prisoner of war subjects.  She was Patron and member of the ex-POW and Relatives Association and a committee member, and then later became the Vice President for many years.  White Coolies kept her busy during this time, writing many articles about it and answering hundreds of letters about POWs.

In 1987 Betty was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to ex-servicemen and women.

During 1996, Betty became an advisor to Bruce Beresford, director of the film Paradise Road which was largely based on White Coolies.  When the film was completed, she was invited to a private screening.  She later told friends and family that after the nurses in the film slipped over the side of the sinking Vyner Brooke, she ‘blacked out’ because the memories were too painful.  She was aware she was in the theatre, but could remember little of the film after that.

Early in 2000, the latest edition of White Coolies was re-printed.  This was its nineteenth edition.  In June 2000, Betty was awarded with a Life Membership of the Returned Services League, presented to her by President, Bruce Ruxton and Major General Peter Cosgrove.  She passed away, aged 92, in September 2000.  Her life was remembered at a family funeral, and a moving Memorial Service arranged by the Returned Nurses Association.  Betty was a wonderful woman and a great Australian who will be remembered by Australians, young and old.


On Thursday August 31st 2000 I telephoned Betty Jeffrey to ask her if I could come and talk to her about Wilma Young. She told me that she had been moved into the Cresthaven Nursing Home only a few days previously, though she had retained her old telephone number. She was not keen to be interviewed but said warmly: "But you know I'd do anything for Wilma". I asked if I could phone again the following week to make an appointment to see her, perhaps on Tuesday. She said: "I just take things from day to day." The following Tuesday, September 5th I  phoned and was disappointed when Betty declined an interview. She said, "Barb, I'm so tired… And in any case I can't see that I have anything further to say," then added ironically with the old "Betty Jeffrey" twinkle, "Except maybe Goodbye."


BETTY JEFFREY was a woman of talent as well as of an irrepressible sense of humour. Examples of her delightful drawings are shown on this page and on the Doorway Page to this site, the latter being sketched for me by her when she was over 90 years old. She also had a natural ability for writing, one which unfortunately she chose not to develop, other than in the dying art of personal letter writing. Recipients of these letters treasure them. We can be thankful that her best writing emerged when she started her remarkable diaries in 1942, later to be published as a book under the title of "White Coolies" (ISBN 0 207 18928 5). 
Many POWs kept diaries of their experiences and all of these are of unique historical value, but Betty Jeffrey's work sets itself a rung above most of the others because of its author's unique knack of expressing herself and her surroundings with pithy irony. You feel guilty for laughing with her at her sardonic descriptions of the terrible humiliations and mindless cruelties of the POW camps, and you weep for her when her energy and hope begins to fail along with her health, but she picks you up again with a wry laugh at her dreadful plight. What an important Australian author she might have become had she chosen to follow that path!
After the War her time was occupied by activities that she would have considered to be far more fulfilling than writing books. While Betty was still recuperating from the acute tuberculosis that she developed in captivity, one of her greatest achievements was to partner the great Vivian Bullwinkel in raising the bulk of funding necessary to build their "living memorial" to those of their nursing colleagues who perished. This facilitated the purchase of a large mansion at No. 431 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne. The ornate Victorian building was to become The Nurses Memorial Centre. The story of Betty's and Vision's untiring work is told in Jennifer William's book "Victoria's Living Memorial" (ISBN 0 646 05578 X).  Despite her still fragile health, Betty Jeffrey became the Center's first Administrator and, after retiring from those duties some years later, she remained as one of its Patrons.
An official biography of Betty Jeffrey is yet to be written. I, for one, hope that it will not be too long before this happens.
BARB ANGELL - May 2001

©Although Angell Productions is a Commercial Company, the "Brave Women" segment of its website is voluntary. All material thereon is copyright to the contributors and must not be reproduced, downloaded or otherwise replicated without written permission from Angell Productions.

Eulogy given by Wilma (Oram) Young, A.M.
(St. Peter's Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne September 20th, 2000)
Fellow PoW, Wilma (Oram) Young addressed the congregation as follows:
It is with sadness at parting and a sense of joy that I had the privilege of a long and special friendship with Betty. She was known affectionately by her colleagues as "Jeff" and by other people in the prison camp as Sister Jeff.

When she was in London some years after the war she was greatly surprised to hear herself hailed as "Sister Jeff! - Sister Jeff!" by a mother and her daughter with whom we had shared living space in camp.

Betty and I were in different hospital units and met on the ship as we were being evacuated from Singapore. When our ship sank in Bangka Strait we were all, if we survived, scattered in the water and had to struggle to get to land as best we could.

Betty and Iole Harper found themselves together and had to struggle for three days in the water, resting occasionally in mangrove swamps. They were eventually picked up by two Malay fishermen who took them to their village where they were well received. Here they were given food and water and a little first aid and they were then advised to given themselves up to the Japanese. Betty and Iole arrived in our camp sun burnt, tired, hungry and covered in bites and sores. The nurses who were already prisoners were overjoyed to see them and we couldn't stop talking. They were looked after as well as possible, a space was found for them on the cement floor and they lay down without any bedding and slept for three days.

65 nurses had left Singapore and there were 31 survivors until Vivian Bullwinkel joined us - making 32 nurses now in captivity. Taking a great risk, Betty was to record almost every day of our captivity in her diary. This later became the book "White Coolies", which became the factual basis for radio, television and film about women in captivity under the Japanese.

Betty's wonderful sense of humour and her adjustment to our situation helped us all. During our imprisonment she never lost hope of eventually finding Matron Paschke and her friends. During our three and a half years of incarceration she was ever helpful and inspiring - full of fun when things were grim. I recall on one Melbourne Cup day in the camp, Betty found an old bag, slung it over her shoulder and called the odds. A lovely light-hearted moment when we were all hungry.

Mitz takes the bow each day. She is wearing a black satin skirt that always hangs down at the back. 4 along from Mitz in spotted dress is Blanchie. Jenny Greer next to her in sarong - then thin legged Rene Singleton - then Jeff and on the end near the Jap is Wilma wearing her coolie hat. "Del" holds the axe behind her back. Viv not there. She was "sakit" (sick) in our house with very severe tinea. This makes me cry with laughter - it is so like us all - I can pick us all out.
Tenko Tenko!
Drawn by Betty Jeffrey in prison camp at Irenelaan, Palembang 1943.
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She was a familiar figure around the camp as she took part in all our chores, looking after the sick and the hygiene of the camp. Betty helped with the sharing out of the food and extra materials that were allowed into the camp.

With our meagre ration of rice and vegetables Betty was innovative and imaginative, dressing up the rise with a little oil or kang kong, which grows prolifically and resembles our spinach. In our sordid surroundings, Betty would always strive to make things as attractive and civilized as possible. Sometimes it was possible to borrow or buy a spoon or a bowl from the Dutch internees who brought their belongings into the camp with them.

Betty took her turn at the unpleasant jobs such as cleaning drains and emptying the toilets with good humour and grace. She was a member of the camp choir which has been immortalized in the film "Paradise Road". The choir brought untold pleasures for the prisoners and Betty loved her part in it. As our captivity continued, the number of very ill grew to an alarming degree. betty, though ill herself, always took her turn on the hospital roster, working under appalling conditions with great skill and compassion.

On this page we are using the names
under which the women can be recognized in Betty's book "White Coolies"
most of them married and have additional surnames.
Mates forever
Mates forever!
Rear: Jean Floyd (Empire Star), Pat Blake, Vivian Bullwinkel, Wilma Oram, Betty JeffreyFlo Trotter.
Front: Jessie BlanchJoyce Tweddell
Friendship forged in the camps...
Mavis Hannah (L) and Mickey Syer
Hannah and Syer
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On our return home in October 1945, Betty was found to be suffering from severe tuberculosis and spent nearly two years in isolation receiving treatment for this condition. When the time came for her discharge from the AANS, she was to travel from the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital to Royal Park Barracks for the formalities. The day was cold and, not having a greatcoat, Betty was offered the use of a Colonel's coat for protection against the elements. This was most fortuitous for, on arrival at the barracks, the queues awaiting their processing for discharge were enormous. Noticing the insignias of her rank, Betty was ceremoniously ushered to the head of the line amidst calls of, "Make way for the Colonel! Make way for the Colonel!" With a mischievous twinkle in those blue eyes she acted out her role and was later to admit that it was the first time that she really enjoyed pulling rank.

Betty was a much loved and valued member of our camp life and a true friend since we were released. Since arriving home, Betty has had concern for the families of the nurses who lost their lives and has been active in keeping their memory alive. She has always mourned her friends - we spoke of them often.

In November 1947 Betty set out with Vivian Bullwinkel to fulfill an idea which was born in one of our camps. his was to establish a memorial in memory of our young nurses who were massacred at Radji Beach on Bangka Island, or were lost at sea, and to those who later died in the camps. The nurses who died on the Centaur were also to be remembered. Together, Betty and Vivian were to make two trips around the State of Victoria in Betty's little car to raise monies for the establishment of a Nurses' Memorial Centre. By March 1948 they had raised L822/3/- towards the project. The next 2 years saw countless fundraising activities and by April 1949 a magnificent single storied Victorian mansion was purchased for L22,500 at 431 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne.

Once the Centre was open, it was necessary to find someone who could manage it and Betty was appointed Administrator with a salary of 400 (Australian) Pounds per year, plus board and residence. She really didn't want to take on the job, as she was so terribly tired after all her efforts at fundraising, and her war-related illnesses required many weeks of hospitalization each year. Even before she took up this new position, she had to spend nearly a month in the Repatriation Hospital.

Betty also wanted to go overseas and after getting the Centre up and running, in September 1950, she and Vivian were to travel together to the United Kingdom. Here they were to be presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth; to Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, and to the Duchess of Gloucester. A signed photograph of Queen Mary was to become one of her most treasured possessions.

Leaving Vivian behind in England Betty returned to Australia at the end of 1951 to continue her work at the Nurses' Memorial Centre. She held the position of Administrator until her continuing ill-health forced her retirement in 1954. These years at the Centre were to cement the lasting friendship with Maie Casey, who later became Lady Casey, Baroness of Berwick and the City of Westminster.

Lady Casey worried about Betty often being alone in such a big mansion, so she gave her a little dog "Robbie" for company. Everyone at the Centre knew and loved Robbie and Betty still spoke of his escapades right up until the time of her death.

But her Administrator's duties did not always go according to the book, and Betty loved to recall the hot summer's day when she received a telephone call from Sir Clive Steele, the then President of the Centre. He had rung to tell her that some men were coming to erect a small, temporary, wax model of the proposed Canberra American War Memorial in the shadiest part of the Center's gardens. In her own words: "...At about 2 p.m. I went out to see how it looked and was horrified to notice that the hot weather - about 103 degrees that day - was softening the wax a little. I rang and told Sit Clive, who was to arrive at about 5 p.m. with a small group of American men to see their model. He told me to 'keep an eye on it' which I did. at 3 p.m. it was beginning to look droopy, so I hosed it for a while to cool it down. At 4 p.m. the wings were really melting - more hosing. Finally I rang Sir Clive and suggested that they come as soon as they could. was asked to keep hosing. When the American group finally arrived the Eagle's wings were so soft, they were almost folded - a depressing sight and water everywhere!"

Despite the mess the Americans must have liked what they saw, for that eagle now soars majestically above Canberra.

Betty's retirement did not stop her love of people and challenges. She now had more time to pursue a number of interests: competitive golf at Huntingdale Golf Club; weekends away with golfing friends such as Dame Joan Hammond; card games with Girlie, Simmy, Dulcie and other friends from the Returned Nurses' Club: Club luncheons and other activities, as well as her strong support for the (then) newly established RAANC and later the Corps Association. She was unstinting in her loyalties and, despite her poor health, seemed tireless in her activities. She attended many reunions with both her POW friends and her 8th Division colleagues.

Betty kept in contact with her many overseas friends from camp days as well as her friends locally. Her letters were always a joy to receive and were very entertaining.

I know of one of our friends from camp who lives in England and has a grandchild with a disability. Betty wrote bright and charming letters for some years to the mother of that child. This is a measure of her compassion.

Betty was much loved - we have lost a gifted and sincere friend. My personal loss is very great and in the words of Margaret Dryburgh: "How silent is this place... a hush enfolds me, deep as I have known".

I want to express my sincere sympathy to Mary and her family.
Betty, we must continue without you but you will live on in all our hearts.
Farewell my friend.
Salamat Jalan.
From "Willie".

Most of the 2/10th AGH sailed for Singapore aboard the Queen Mary in January 1941. Betty came to the Unit later as a replacement. Her great sense of humour enabled her to be accepted by her colleagues much more easily than might otherwise have been the case.

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