Every month, we dust off a piece of art from the British Red Cross collection to give it the attention it deserves. This month, we look at some items crafted in the most desperate of settings – and the remarkable efforts it took to make them.
In 1942, Daphne Davidson’s life changed forever.
She was living in Singapore with her husband. She had a good job and had just become pregnant.
But then Singapore surrendered to invading Japan. James left for the front and Daphne was sent to a prisoner of war (POW) camp.
The days were long, tedious and full of hard work and hardship.
So how did arts and crafts become an act of rebellion?
A quilt with secrets
Taken to Changi prison, Daphne found herself among thousands of other women: doctors, teachers, typists, nurses and nuns. They were from countries as far-flung as Britain, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.
Many of the women had husbands and relatives in a nearby military camp – but there was no way of contacting them. It’s hard to imagine how frustrating that must have been.
Then a woman called Ethel Mulvany had a brilliant idea. She plotted to turn an innocent craft project into a coded document.
The idea was for women to stitch a symbol or secret message into a patchwork square, cut from a rice sack or Red Cross parcel. When the quilts were sent to the military hospital in the barracks, the men would spot the hidden messages – and know their loved ones were alive.
Daphne was one of the women who sewed a six-inch square into the quilt – and it wasn’t the only thing she was busy making.
Rattles made with pebbles
In July 1942, Daphne gave birth to her baby girl, Jennefer.
Friends at the camp managed to magic odds and ends into clever presents for the baby. Daphne even made some white sharkskin shoes out of scraps of material.
In this overcrowded prison, most women craved space, quiet and privacy. These projects were a way to focus their thoughts and dream about better days.
And that was also true for the men.
When baby Jenny finally met her father, she was eight months old – and her dad was bearing some resourceful gifts of his own.
Her mum, Daphne, later recalled this precious – and all-too-short – hour together. “Grey eyes looked steadily into grey eyes, ginger eyebrows raised in query; and, to my great joy, he bent and picked her up as though he were well trained in carrying small children.
“He brought his daughter a present he had made in the Changi workshops – a rattle made from some pebbles in an old can attached to a stout wooden handle.
“Jenny accepted it graciously and then dropped it over the side of her pram. A good place for it to be, I thought! Might come in useful if I have to hit a Japanese in self-defence.”
After the hour was up, James took off one of Jenny’s sharkskin shoes and put it in his wallet. “Until we meet again,” he said.
Here’s one they made earlier
Meanwhile, prisoners around the world were also discovering how to employ their creative talents under such terrible circumstances.
Every week during the Second World War, Red Cross volunteers packed 90,000 food parcels: containing 18 different packages and wrapped in 180 miles of string.
The prisoners found countless ways to recycle and re-use these parcels and packaging. Absolutely nothing was wasted.
Prisoner Len Stevens, in a diary extract, lists all the items that could be made – and ends up exclaiming: “Oh! Just Everything.”
In one ambitious project, which would rival the best of Blue Peter, a prisoner made an oven out of 300 tins. This involved an elaborate series of gears, handles and fans to drive the heat.
Meanwhile, two prisoners at a German camp, Stalag Luft III, turned cocoa tins and string into a clock that “amazed the whole camp”.
But sometimes the projects were more artistic than practical. The canvas sections of sacks were used for paintings and tins, while string and boxes made wonderful models.
The wartime works were so skilful and impressive that The Daily Telegraph even held a prisoners of war exhibition in 1944, to display the very best of the art.
Palm trees and Pooh bear
Jenny remembers the Red Cross parcels well – even though she was so tiny at the time.
She told us: “My Pooh bear came in a Red Cross parcel. He was actually given to another child, but she didn’t want him at all. She cried, so I got him – and I loved him!”
Jenny held on to him tightly until the day finally came for her, mum and Pooh Bear to say goodbye to Changi prison.
It was August 1945. Japan had surrendered to the Allies (on what is now known as VJ Day). The war was over.
People caught up in conflict now faced the most creative challenge yet – rebuilding their lives after six long years.
When talking about this moment years later, Daphne said: “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.”