Diphtheria precautions

February 26, 2010

The following guidelines at Roberts Hospital speak for themselves but also to the conditions.  Cigarette stubs were a precious commodity.  I’m not sure who would have been smoking cigars.

Precautions to be taken against Diphtheria epidemic

(1) Cancel all entertainments & lectures
(2) Beds to be spaced so as to give sufficient headroom (sleep head to foot if necessary)
(3) The picking up of cigarette & cigar buts for reuse is prohibited
(4) All sore throats, however trivial, are to be reported
(5) Patients to be isolated
(6) Staff to be isolated from other personnel
(7) Staff to wear nose & mouth guards (made of gauze) when working in wards
(8) Patients to wear nose & mouth guards when being moved in vicinity of non infected persons
(9) All drinking containers to be sterilized in boiling water

Book B, p.56

Reading as escapism?

January 2, 2010

There were books at Changi; thousands of them.  One source was Singapore library the contents of which had been trucked to the camp after the Japanese had been persuaded that plenty of reading would divert the prisoners’ attention from thoughts of escape.  This must have led to a good deal of bemusement about whether reading was or was not to be encouraged as an escapist activity; a delightful linguistic conundrum that was presubably lost on the Japanese.

Christmas Day 1942 found my father in Roberts Hospital enjoying Ethel Boileu’s Arches of the Years.  But on the whole his taste was in non-fiction.  Even then it was highly eclectic including (at least in the early months of captivity) textbooks on anatomy and physiology, British government circulars on food preservation and various works on world affairs.

Sometimes he simply made lists of books to be tracked down in the future, presumably from citations he ran across in his current reading.  For example, pages 488 and 489 of his first Changi notebook include references to Frowhawk’s A Natural History of Butterflies, Muir’s Mother India, Clegg’s War-time Health and Democracy, Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, Imms’ Recent Advances in Entomology and Cox’s The Chemical Analysis of Foods, among others.

Quite often he made elaborate notes on what he read, as in the illustrated page on the Public Health (Imported Food) Regulations of 1937.  Sometimes he wrote out lengthy passages verbatim. In such instances he was no doubt trying to capture as much detail as he could for future reference.  But it was a laborious method he had also adopted in his pre-war notebooks.  No doubt he found refuge in the elaborate note taking; at the very least it would have filled up a considerable amount of time.

A Changi Christmas

December 23, 2009

My father was admitted to Roberts Hospital with pellagra on November 9, 1942 and not discharged until February 5, 1943.  He kept daily notes on his condition and treatment but the only time he permitted himself any observations of the world about him was on Christmas Day.  The following notes are reproduced more or less in full though a few unreadable words and passages have been omitted.  He crams a lot into them.  The one comment I’d add now is that they include the only reference I’ve been able to find to the Alexandra Hospital incident  in any of the notebooks other than the three eyewitness accounts that I suspect were written down near to the end of his captivity.

Xmas 1942

Roberts Hospital, a patient with Pellagra, the B1 vitamin deficiency disease – indulging in too much polished rice to the exclusion of cereals & other good things.  Complicated with Tinea Cruris & tertiary infection of Diphtheria & other odds & ends.

Passed a miserable night, having been tortured by the relays of bed bugs which have their homes in the crevices of the bed & mattress & which I am at present quite powerless to eradicate.  However, managed to get off to sleep during the early morning & slept soundly until about 8.30am when I was awakened by the sound of tea mugs being deposited on the tray. A lovely cup of hot milked & sweetened tea followed (the first “official” one for about 6 months)

Later had breakfast of cornflour porridge (sweetened) followed by Tomato (complete with skins & pips) & a thin slice of tongue (unheard of!).  Also 2 slices of rice bread (4” x 2”) the one with army butter (margarine?) the other with pineapple jam (v. good).  Somebody heard to say “You lucky patients”

At this time Ack Ack Williams Pte. popped in to wish a Merry (if possible) Xmas.  I reiterated that I would not add “many of em.”

Contemplating partaking of a noxious Kum Lan cigarette made of cherry leaves  & costing 15c in the Canteen (a rise of some 500%!) –  product of Godfrey Philips India Ltd. Victory V Cigarettes  (which incredibly depicts a V over the rising sun).

At 9.30 a service started over in the next ward accompanied by a rather unsteady accordion. Starts of with “Come Ye, Come Ye to Bethlehem” (rather impossible in the circumstances).  Preaches something about Peace on earth & goodwill towards men (somewhat ironical) & continues with Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”(!)

Toffees (very sticky but very acceptable) distributed to each man.   Another 2 followed out of the blue given by Red X officer who wished me Merry Xmas.   A second pkt of Victory V cigarettes & biscuits followed.  Scoffed many biscuits & sweets.

Bill Sayer came in later in morning & said what an awful breakfast he had.  Couldn’t eat it.  Mabela (?) was full of maggots, biscuits were made of rice & like leather.  Coco  had no sugar & little milk.  Lent me a novel “The Arches of the Years” by Ethel Boileau (Hutchinson & Co London) which incidentally originally belonged to one Carlyle Morier  a sanitary inspector not residing at the POW camp Changi.

Bill’s visit interrupted by Company Officer & RSM Painter who came to wish me a Merry Christmas, a quick recovery & gave a pkt of 3 Castle’s cigarettes & smoked one each.

“Get ready for the first course”– pea soup, clear (& good) followed by the 2nd & 3rd courses.  Tiffin consisted of a slice of pork (tender & thin & easily cut with the spoon) sweet potato & local pumpkin set in thick brown gravy.  Somebody protested that the latter had been made with burnt rice but the server indignantly replied that he could assure him it was not & added that if this f—–g sauce hasn’t got some rum in it I’ve picked a (unreadable).”  This sauce was poured over a goodly block of excellent Christmas pudding.

After some reading of Bill’s book Williams came in said tiffin was lousy.  Consisted of a cup of bully beef 1 ¼ inch square, 2 thin slices from a small beetroot, & split pea soup & no sweet.  His temper was cooled down however by a piece of Christmas pudding given him legally for his ward, a couple of Cheroots for his Wardmaster.  I fed him on toffees & a cigarette.  Left later to attend a concert in his ward.  Talked of field kitchens, roast duck, boiled rice biscuits et. al.

Continued to read ‘The Arches of the Years” with breaks for toffees, biscuits & cigarettes throughout the afternoon.

Tea consisted of milk sweetened tea but with no bread.  Then there was also no Marmite or indeed treatment of any kind (the MO looked in about dinner time).

Dinner consisted of only one dixie, Cornish pastie (m & v in rice pastie) rice, a few long beans & a slice of Yorkshire pudding.  Also a mug of milk sweetened tea.  Took the rice to keep me in trim.

Read Bill’s book till Bill Batty came in.  Brought 2 tangerines (I asked for a couple of mangos for Christmas the last time he visited with no hope of seeing them.  Even now it is doubtful of their origin).  Also a promised book “Days of Our Years” by Pierre Van Paassen (?) (Angus & Robertson Ltd, London, 1940) also some peanuts to eat while we chatted.  Chatted of old times in Malaya, the war & the Alexandra Hospital tragedy & the loss of Arthur Collins & his pal Sidall who I relieved at Tekong.  Later conversation interrupted by Farrant coming in for his daily evening chat.  Conversation soon changed to watches, one Batty gave to F with hand missing.  Belonged to Bill Brandt who capped the lot by also appearing on the scene.  Soon left on pretext of Batty to go to the boreholes.  Farrant remained to eat part of tangerine, peanuts & a cigarette.  Talked of news – advance in Burma, 100 mile road with 50 bridges cutting off water. Later turned to architecture & chances of getting out of here.

After cup of coco made bed!  Later Ack Ack Williams came along & started to tell some jokes but was soon interrupted by McNeil (orderly) who came along with the red hot news that the Russians were moving south along the Polish frontier.  Lights out went soon after.

Book D, 17-18



That my father devoted nineteen pages to the treatment of dysentery within a couple of weeks of arriving at Changi gives some indication of the incidence of the disease and the challenge facing the improvised hospital.  The pages illustrated below indicates the treatment for “very weak” patients as including colonic lavage, Kaolin, glucose saline, Virol and arrowroot or custard along with Bovril which was obviously still available.
Still, providing treatment in such conditions was only part of the challenge.  Flies were a ubiquious problem, for example, and patients were expected to do their part in eradicating or at least reducing them.

The general practice at Roberts during these early weeks and months included the following:

Precautions against the spread of the disease may be summarized by (1) the elimination of flies (2) personal hygiene.  In more detail these precautions include:

(1) The killing of all flies in the ward and sanitary annex.  This is done chiefly by swatting: many of the patients can help in this respect.  Fly papers, both hanging & placed on the ground, are also used but these are more of a nuisance than anything else.  Swatting should be carried out all day on & around the beds. The fly papers are more or less permanent & when full are replaced by new ones.

(2) The protection of all food from flies. All feeding jars, mugs, cups and utensils are covered after use with squares of gauze.  Bulk foods are stored in fly-proof cupboards, preferably with well ventilated gauze front & for sides.

(3) The protection of all excreta from flies.  All bedpans & urine jars, vomit bowls, spittoons etc. must be emptied immediately after use & rinsed out with cresol solution.

Book A, 56-57

Roberts Hospital

November 7, 2009

But back to Changi.

It was only in 1941 that the British military installation on the promontory was completed.  In fifteen years, as H.A. Probert describes it in his History of Changi, “a piece of virgin jungle had been transformed into one of the most modern and best equipped military bases in the world.”  Given the lack of air defense in Singapore, he continues, it was also essentially obsolete.

Roberts Barracks became the hospital for the prison camp.  Formerly housing the Royal Artillery it had to absorb sick and wounded prisoners from across the island, including those from Alexandra Hospital which the Japanese had commandeered.  Given the bombardment it had taken during the invasion it was in no condition to do so.  Water supplies, sewerage systems, buildings and roads had been severely damaged.  This is how my father put it in a note written towards the end of the war.  “To such a camp, with all of its essential services disorganized, the whole of the ‘white’ patients of the Malaya and Singapore garrisons, complete with their medical & associated personnel & multifarious supplies, converged.  It is hardly surprising therefore that for some days chaos reigned, with its accompaniment of hardships, pestilence & death.”

The Australian artist Murray Griffin completed a painting of Roberts Hospital while he was a prisoner at Changi.  Visit the Australian Memorial web site to view the image: http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/sharedexperience/AWMART24491.asp.

My father was posted to Roberts precisely two weeks after the fall of Singapore.  if he had not found the rest of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) before the invasion, presumably he did now.  I have no idea what his duties were at Roberts; he never talked about them, nor do his notes make any reference to them.  Yet he writes a good deal about the kinds of diseases that always threatened to overwhelm the hospital — well, did overwhelm it — particularly, dysentery, malaria, beri beri, dhobi itch and pallegra.  When he himself became a patient at Roberts on at least two extended occasions, he wrote about that too.


Given the climate and conditions, flies were both a general nuisance and major health threat. Every effort was made to stamp them out, including the literal; at Roberts Hospital doctors, orderlies and even patients had their fly-swatting quotas. Here is a diagram of an early fly-trap for an Otway pit constructed with a metal funnel “such as a petrol funnel with the stem sawn off” and a wooden box with a hole in the bottom to take the funnel.

The trap is fitted on top of the Otway Pit which merely consists of a large hole dug into the ground and covered with a fly proof board with two openings: one to take the fly trap, the second to receive an oil drum to act as a filter.”

Book C, 112-113

There were many other contraptions of this sort. One of them is described more for “its novelty than any efficiency derived from the device.”

“The trap merely consists of a series of lemonade or similar white glass bottles inserted by their necks into holes made to receive them in the vertical timber forming the superstructure of these two improvisations.* Every morning two men visit the traps equipped with two containers, one filled with disinfectant, the other being intended to receive the results of the previous day’s captures. Both containers are provided with handles which are slung over a pole which is carried jointly by the two men. each bottle is visited in turn and half-filled with the disinfectant. The flies are attracted to the light & enter the bottles. Here they fly about trying to escape & eventually get drowned in the disinfectant.

* Otway Pit and Deep Trench Latrine

Book, C 182-183


Originally uploaded by Brian Spittle

Sometime during his final year of captivity — possibly very near the end of it — my father recalled the conditions during the early weeks at Changi.

“Particularly nauseating at that time was the all-pervading stench of decomposing organic matter – excreta, flesh & other residues of war.”

Establishing some sort of sanitation system was therefore an immediate necessity and often required a good deal of improvisation. Here are his instructions for a do-it-yourself incinerator which was critical for disposing hospital waste and other refuse.

Incinerator

All that is required are:


(1) 4 sheets of corrugated iron
(2) 4 concrete slabs 18″ square
(3) 4 lengths of wire
(4) Some form of support to hold up the fire.

Each of the four corrugated sheets are cut in exactly the same way; each with flue or vent cut away at the bottom, & a number of perforations 1/3 the distance up the sheets to draw the fire. The sides of the sheets are wired together.

The incinerator is set on the concrete slabs & is supported by lengths of wire extending from the top corners of the incinerator to the ground as shown in sketch.

Just above the flue a piece of perforated corrugated iron or iron fire bars are placed to support the fire.

Cut in the front corrugated sheet 1″ above the fire bars is the fire door.  This door is on hinges.

Book C, 86

Jack Spittle

Jack Spittle

According to his birth certificate my father was born on March 30, 1914 in Ascot though he dismissed the location as an administrative fiction.  In fact, he maintained stoutly, he had been born just down the road in the village of Eton Wick.  Why the distinction was so important to him I never thought to ask but it may have to do with the fact that Ascot was in Berkshire and Eton Wick, in those days at least, was just across the county boundary in Buckinghamshire.  My father was a Buckinghamshire lad through and through.

As a teenager he developed a strong interest in natural history embarking on a project that was to occupy (not to say preoccupy) him until well into his eighties; a census of herons nesting at Oaken Grove, a small wood near the Thames between Henley and Marlow.  After leaving school he went to work  at the Farnham House Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham Royal near Slough.  Though only a lab assistant he worked closely with some of the leading entomologists of the day and illustrated a number of the Institute’s publications.  He was probably at his happiest working (and learning) at Farnham House but the job did not pay well and in 1938 he qualified as a sanitary inspector and quickly got a position working for Slough Council.

He was called up in 1940 and initially joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.  This wasn’t what he had in mind at all, however, and he was eventually transferred to the RAMC.   Trained for anti-malarial work, he was sent to Singapore in November 1941 and after a chaotic first few weeks posted to Palau Tekong island in the Jahore Straits as sanitary assistant.  It was from here that he got a “grandstand view” of the invasion of Singapore.  He was a prisoner first at Changi (where he worked at Roberts Hospital) and then at Krangi, for the remainder of the war.

Returning to England he settled again in Slough marrying my mother, Jean, in 1947.  He had been reappointed as sanitary inspector but within three or four years became deputy river pollution prevention officer for the Severn River Authority, another position that allowed him to pursue his entomological interests.  In 1950 he published an article on the ‘Nesting Habits of Singapore Birds’ in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, based on his observations and hundreds of pages of notes while at Changi and Krangi. In 1961 he was appointed to a more senior position at the Devon River Authority where he remained for the rest of his career.

After retirement he got down to serious work.  This involved the completion of a thirty or so year study of insect life in Devon streams,  now housed at Plymouth Museum,  and the writing up of his Oaken Grove project which by this time had mushroomed from a heron census to a full-blown ecological study of the wood.  He was still making the three or four hour drive from Devon to Oaken Grove into his eighties; except for the war years he had visited the heronry at least annually since 1928.

While he rarely talked about his experience as a prisoner of war, he finally started to sketch out some notes about it a year or two before he died.  Clearly, he was planning to write up his memories and reflections in some way and had come up with a working title: Changi Years Recollections: An Education in Frugal Living. He died in 2004.