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

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.