When I was expecting my children, one of the most exciting things was getting all the baby paraphernalia ready for their birth. Baby grows, nappies, cuddly toys and blankets were all crammed into my hospital bag.
So when I saw this little pair of hand-made baby shoes in the British Red Cross museum, I was curious. Who had made them, clearly with so much love, and what happened to their owner?
The shoes belonged to Jennefer Davidson, the daughter of Daphne and James Davidson, interned in Changi Prison when Japan occupied Singapore in 1942. Daphne was pregnant at the time and was one of a group of women who made the Changi Quilt. With the help of her friends in the prison, she also made shoes and other gifts for her baby out of whatever materials she could find.
Daphne spoke about Jennefer’s arrival and their experiences in Changi in a talk to a Mothers’ Union group in 1970.
She recalled: “In July I went into the Singapore Maternity Hospital which rejoiced in the Malay name of ‘Kandang Kerbau’ (Buffalo Pen) to have my baby. I left the prison in a car accompanied by my doctor. In front sat a Japanese sentry with a rifle and fixed bayonet…
“…In my basket, I had six cotton vests, 40 yards of butter muslin which I had cut and made into napkins, one lawn petticoat, a white voile dress I had carefully made and embroidered with forget-me-nots, cotton wool, safety pins and a tin of Johnson’s baby powder. Some of my friends in the camp had knitted a few soft silk bootees and I had also made a pair of white sharkskin shoes, embroidered with forget-me-nots, from a scrap of material I had been given.”
Caring for Jenny in prison
After Jennefer’s birth, Daphne was allowed to stay in hospital for two weeks, before returning to the prison with her newborn daughter.
“When I returned to Changi in the middle of August I was demoted to the cells and there the heat was terrific. Children cried, mothers lost their tempers ad the long days crept by. Jenny grew and flourished.
“One day, to our joy, the Japanese consented to build a large, well-ventilated hut for the mothers with small children and here we were able to get some sleep during the hot, airless nights.”
“Until we meet again”
It wasn’t until Easter 1943 that James Davidson was able to see his daughter for the first time. Daphne describes their meeting:
“He brought his daughter a present he had made her in the Changi workshops – a rattle made from some pebbles in an old can attached to a stout wooden handle…When our short hour of being together was past – so precious and so full of fear for the future – my husband took one of the little sharkskin shoes off his baby’s feet and placed it in his wallet. ‘Until we meet again’, he said.”
The Red Cross museum also holds this rattle and a few other small toys made for Jennefer.
Liberation and reunion
In May 1944 Daphne, Jennefer and some of the other women and children were taken to an open air camp called Sime Road. But it was not until 30 August 1945, two weeks after V-J Day, that British troops arrived to liberate them.
Daphne recalled: “Strangely enough, my memories of those last days are clouded in a haze of happiness. I knew my husband was alive – so many wives were mourning for those who would never come back.
“My husband, my baby and I left Singapore for England, freedom and feeding. What the future held we did not know – it was enough to be together again.”