Tag Archives: Changi Gaol

Trouble in the Works

By Sears Eldredge

Meanwhile, problems with performer burnout and/or dissatisfaction with a particular format and content were beginning to be heard among divisional concert party entertainers, as had happened in the 18th Division’s “The Optimists.” (See Captive Performers, Chapter 1). Intense discussions about the need to change their production format and rethink their individual roles within the company had been taking place for a while in the A.I.F. Concert Party. Some in the group “wanted to branch out in new directions,” recalled Jack Boardman, “straight singers [wanted to become] comedians, musicians [wanted to become] actors and actors [wanted to become] musicians.”[i] To accomplish these changes would require, some believed, a change in their leadership.   

The reason why John Wood was drafted into responsibility for artistic/programming/etc. was that some performers thought Val [Mack’s] style was too old-fashioned and that an experienced “new broom” was required. Others disagreed and preferred the status quo. In the end Val continued as O.C. for discipline [Administration] and the John Wood style of show started. Less vaudeville/burlesque/music hall and more revue/drama/musical comedy. There was no visible animosity between them as a result of the change.[ii]

And since the orchestra had increased in size to fourteen members and had started giving musical concerts on Sunday evenings on its own in McNeilly’s Y.M.C.A Hut in the Convalescent Depot, it was decided that it should be administered separately. Sgt. Bill Middleton, their Musical Conductor, was given this responsibility.[iii]

When the Australian concert party reached full strength, it would have forty-three members: nineteen actors/singer/specialty acts, seventeen musicians, and a permanent staff of seven (see below).[1] 

The playing time of their shows in the Gordon’s Gymnasium had now stretched to eighty-five minutes, instead of the earlier fifty. Realizing the importance of this venue to their future plans, they sought permission, which was granted, to transform the gymnasium into a permanent indoor theatre space. 

Alterations to the Gordon’s Gymnasium were almost complete when their grand plans for a permanent theatre had to be scuttled. Some of the working parties that had been stationed in and around Singapore began to be transferred back into Changi, and their re-appearance, along with an influx of thousands of POWs from Java, caused an acute housing shortage making it necessary to use the gymnasium for their accommodation. The concert party was given twenty-four hours to move out all their staging and equipment.[iv]

Playbill for August ‘42.

August opened with “The P.O.W. WOWS” performing “Ringside Laughter” at their Rice Bowl Theatre and on tour. The 4th item on their bill, “Dickey-Bird” must have been a heads-up to the audience that they were about to receive coded news about the progress of the war from their secret radio.[2] The St. George Players continued touring with Macbeth.

Back in the India Lines, Wilkinson was finding it increasingly difficult to both direct rehearsals of I Killed the Count and play the leading role, so Major Frederick Bradshaw, who had just been brought up from Singapore and had been a professional West End actor, took over as director.[v]  

A new show, Windmill Variety No. 1, opened at The New Windmill Theatre on 17 August, which was headlined by Padre Foster-Haigh’s Male Voice Choir, the 18th Div. Signals String Band, and Fergus Anckorn performing several of his conjuring tricks.            

Elsewhere in Changi, the P.O.W. WOWS had produced their 11th tour show which starred John Wood (on loan from the “The A.I.F. Concert Party”) and were ready to open their 12th edition which contained the song, “Changi Blues.” Another play, The Dream, was running in the Command Area, and the “Changi Celebrity Artists” continued their tours. To complicate matters, there was another outbreak of diphtheria in the camp which caused two deaths and put nearly two hundred men in the hospital. Fear of an epidemic spread throughout Changi.[vi]


[1] Orchestra: Herbert Almond (Clarinet), Ray Arnell (Saxophone, Violin), Ernest Banks (Banjo and Saxophone), Eric Beattie (Violin), John Boardman (Piano and Arrangements), Fred Brightfield (Drums and Effects), Ron Caple (Drummer and Comedian),  John Garrett (Guitar),  Jack Geoghegan (Guitar, Variety Artist, Leader Swing Band), David Goodwin (Saxophone and Arrangements), Keith Harris (Piano and Arrangements), Tom Hoffman (Cornet), Leslie Jacques (Trumpet), Bill Middleton (Musical Director), Fred Stringer (Trumpet, Piano), Ray Tullipan (Song Writer, Cellist), and Ernest Warne (Trumpet, Electrician).

Entertainers: Russell Braddon (Thought Transference), Wally Dains (Specialty Dancer), Ted Druitt (Ballet and “Glamour”), Slim de Grey (Variety Artist and Song Writer), Stan “Judy” Garland (Specialty Dancer and “Glamour”), Leslie Greener (Actor, Writer and Critic), Douglas Mathers (Baritone), Val Mack (Vaudeville, Producer, and Comedian),  Bernard McCaffrey (Baritone), John Nibbs (Singer), Doug Peart (Actor and Variety Artist), Bob Picken (Comic Artist), Syd Piddington (Stage Director and Magician), “Happy Harry” Smith (The “Funny Man”), Keith Stevens (Variety Artist, Writer), Jack Smith (Comedian), Charles Wiggins (Variety Artist, “Glamour”) Frank Wood (Singer, Actor, Variety Artist), and John Wood (Producer and Star Artist).              

Staff: Clarry Barker (Electrician), Bert Gailbraith (Tailor), Ted Rigby (Stage Carpenter), Bill Sullivan (Seating Supervisor), Robert Mutton (House Manager), Clifford Whitelocke (Publicity), and Bert Gay West (Décor). [Piddington, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” privately printed, n.d.]

[2]Whether there was more than one secret radio receiver in the camp is difficult to tell from the documents. They did not have a transmitter.


[i] Piddington, “On With The Show” in A.I.F. Changi Souvenir Song Album, n.p.

[ii] Boardman, J. Letter, 23 Aug. 03.

[iii] Stewart, Report, 3.

[iv] Piddington, “On . . . . ,” n.p.

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 27 August ’42.

[vi] Nelson, 39.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Touring Outside Your Area

By Sears Eldredge

At the start, POWs could only attend shows in their own areas and with their own Unit. But that meant long waits between opportunities to see a show as all Units in the area had to have a chance to see the show. To get more entertainment to more men more speedily, the Japanese gave concert party troupes permission to tour outside their areas for matinee performances, and POWs with legitimate reasons, permission to travel to other areas to see a show.

The next day the Aussie concert party toured to the Southern Area and performed in the Pavilion Theatre.

Even when touring by Divisional concert parties became permissible, the hunger for entertainment among the thousands of POW in Changi was still not satiated. And there were other would-be entertainers not in the Divisional concert parties who also wanted a chance to put on a show. So Regimental and Battalion Concert Parties were encouraged. Late in the month, a new Entertainment Unit and a new indoor theatre appeared in the Divisional Signals sector of the 18th Division. They called their renovated dining hall, The Theatre Royal, and their first show was appropriately titled, Signal Lights.

The end of the month came and the Senior Officer Japan Party still did not leave Changi as expected. Their date for departure was postponed once again.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Two Daring Variety Turns

By Sears Eldredge

Over in the Selarang Area, John Wood wowed audiences by singing and dancing a 1930’s revue song, “Get Yourself A Geisha,” “dressed beautifully as a geisha in kimono and obi.”[i] 

Get yourself a Geisha

A gay little Geisha

A Geisha girl’s the purest,

The sweetest and demurest.

And she’s top hole for the tourist.

Get yourself a Geisha girl.

(Doing what you want to do in Tokyo.)[ii]

Another daring turn on a playbill in a British show was a song entitled “Axis Trio,” performed by three men made up to represent their characters: 

 I’m Hitler the Nazi Fuhrer.

I’m Musso the organ grinder chief.

I’m Tojo the Nip, whose navy made a slip,

In ever going near the Barrier Reef.[iii]

Oliver Thomas believed the lyrics to this song “were written by a Major Bowen (Brig. Major 54 Brig.) who thought we were becoming defeatist and needed to sing a song which would reawaken our aggressive instincts.”[iv]

If any Japanese guards appeared, these items would suddenly be cut from the bill. But at this point, no Japanese officers attended the shows and guards dropped by only intermittingly during their rounds. Nor did scripts have to be submitted to a censor.


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[ii] Boardman, J. Lyrics and Score in Original Docs.

[iii] Thomas, Letter. 31 March 01.

[iv] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01. 1-2.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Two New Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

The 18th Div. Dramatic Society was given the N.A.A.F.I. building as requested and they set right to work making the necessary structural improvements.[i] They would christen this new space “The “New Windmill Theatre.”[1] 

Locating a suitable play from the scripts available in Changi’s libraries had proven more difficult, but A. A. Milne’s 1923 “absurd comedy,” The Dover Road, was finally selected.[ii]  After their first rehearsal in the N.A.A.F.I., Wilkinson thought the show would go off well. And then reality set it: “Webb and his 39 men went off this afternoon. I wonder if we shall ever see them again.”[iii] July 10 . . . 

. . . was a full dress rehearsal with an audience of about 50. It consisted of all the people who have done so much to get the theatre and the show ready, e.g., Sappers, Scenery Artists, Electricians and so on. It went well and we had all the props, food, etc. The “Kippers” have been most realistically made by the cook at “A Mess”, Div. H.Q.[iv]

During the month, another new Entertainment Unit appeared in the 18th Div. Area with a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed in St. George’s Church, a converted mosque, situated next to the Officers’ Barracks. It was produced by Alan Dant with costumes and settings by Ronald Searle, one of the Royal Engineers in their midst. 

Searle, who would gain enormous fame after the war for his satirical cartoons of British life, became a costume and set designer for several concert parties in Changi.[2] His design concept for Julius Caesar was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ sensational 1937 modern dress adaptation of the play in New York which interpreted the play as the rise of Fascism. Searle’s set designs for the first part of the play show a fixed set of arches and how they could be employed for either interior or exterior settings.

The Dover Road

11 July was the opening night of The Dover Road performed by “The New Windmill Players” at their new indoor theatre. The scratch orchestra quickly put together to play pre-show and interval music, became known as “The Nitwits.” It was led by Jack Greenwood, who had been a professional trumpet player in civvy street, and recently arrived from Java with a detachment of British POWs. With him came an American POW, the “angelical pianist,” Jack Cooper. Eric Bamber, a British O.R., joined these musicians as their drummer.[v]

In the audience for opening night was D. S. Cave, who was amazed at the renovations which had taken place in the old N.A.A.F.I building:

The Windmill . . . has been converted into a small theatre by the addition of tiered seats. Owing to a shortage of cut wood the rear and higher seats have no floor and patrons sit like pillar saints, high above the floor. The curtains bear a painting of a Malay girl in an abbreviated sarong and a smile, and a Chinese girl playing a lute without even a smile. Round the walls are some neat cartoons. One shows Mr. and Mrs. Blimp holding aloft shooting sticks flying the Union Jack, captioned ‘Remember you are British; sit still as the siren sounds’. Another depicts an army field urinal with an arrow pointing outside. This is matched by one showing a matron guarding a door marked ‘Ladies’ and an arrow pointing to the heavens.”[3][vi]

And contrary to expectations, they had lights! – the POWs had been able to build a small power station which provided the needed electricity.[vii] But there was no set per se for the show, only a backdrop, a window frame suspended in air, and some furniture that had been scrounged or made in the camp. To overcome for this difficulty, a character called “Prologue” verbally set the stage for the audience.[viii]      

The opening night had been planned as a gala event with an invited audience: “The G.O.C. (General Beckwith-Smith) was in attendance as it was a special programme for his birthday,” noted Wilkinson. “There was a large audience of invited guests, consisting of all Unit Commanders, Senior Officers of the Division and representatives of O.R.s . . . The G.O.C. made a speech at the end and the whole thing had a real first night atmosphere. The show went well.”[ix]

With the success of their first offering, “The New Windmill Players” immediately made plans for their second. The Dover Road was scheduled to run until 14 August by which time all the troops in the 18th Division would have seen the show as well as patrons from other Areas.

Casting Crisis

But on 20 July the Players had a casting crisis on their hands when the I.J.A. confirmed the rumor that had been circulating in the camp. With thousands of POWs on their hands in Changi and Singapore and relatively few I.J.A. or I.N.A. forces to guard them, the Japanese greatly feared that a breakout might be organized. To prevent such a possibility, all the Senior Officers above the rank of Lt. Colonel were ordered removed from Changi and sent overseas, supposedly to Japan. They were to leave on 21 July – the next day. It was, in Wilkinson’s words, “the greatest blow we have had since we surrendered.”[x] With Lt. Col. Dillon and Archie Beavan (members of the cast) scheduled to go with them, it would end the run of The Dover Road unless understudies could be quickly found. They were. Cpl. Oliver Thomas (formerly of “The Optimists”) and Capt. Tunbridge, were given four days to learn their lines before they had to go on stage.[xi] Capt. Wilkinson took over as producer-director of the fledgling company.

That evening, General Percival was in the audience as the guest of honor, and he came with all of his Malayan Command Staff along with General Beckwith-Smith[4] and the Australian G.O.C.[xii] This performance was supposed to be their farewell concert. But the 21st came and the officers’ departure did not happen. It was postponed until the end of the month.

On 30 July, the “St. George’s Players” opened their second Shakespearean production, Macbeth, produced again by Alan Dant with sets and costumes again by Ronald Searle. It would tour to four different venues within the 18th Division.


[1] The “Windmill” in the titles referred not only to the “flash” of the East Anglian 18th Territorial Division, but may also refer to the well-known London theatre of the same name.

[2] . In Searle’s IWM Art folders are costume and set designs for Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, these were not made available for this blog.

[3] It was Ronald Searle (and, most likely, Derek Cooper) who had painted the murals.

[4] 18th Division G.O.C.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 June ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 15 June ‘42

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 18 June ’42.

[iv] Wilkinson. Diary. 10 July ’42.

[v] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[vi] Cave, 9.

[vii] Cave, 9.

[viii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[ix] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 July ‘42.

[x] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July 42.

[xi] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01.

[xii] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July ’42.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Changi Carries On

By Sears Eldredge

Even with the reduction in camp numbers caused by the deployment of troops to Singapore, Up Country, and other overseas locations, concert parties continued to flourish all over Changi. When the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” opened their next major Variety Show in the Gordon’s Gymnasium, the highlight was John Wood in a solo drag act singing “Flora MacDonald,” a song made famous by the British female impersonator, Douglas Byng.

John Wood as “Flora MacDonald.” Cartoon by A. E. G. West.
Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

According to Jack Boardman, who was sitting in the orchestra pit, 

John Wood was dressed in full tartan rig including cap and sang a song . . . “Many’s the time I’ve been out in the heather, behind the bracken with young Charlie Stu” . . . dialogue mid-way through details how Bonny Prince Charlie was shacked up with her on the Scottish moors hiding from the Sassenachs and used to work in the field by day. He was particularly fond of porridge and would return home at night to the shack, saying, “Flora, Flora, I must have it now (ha’e it noo).” Flora would say, “Bonne Prince Charlie, get ye to bed. You’ll have your oats in bed and not before.”[i]     


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Further Troop Deployments

By Sears Eldredge

During July, the further removal of POWs from Changi to overseas worksites continued as the Japanese mined the enormous supply of free labor for construction projects in support of their war effort. The 2nd of July saw 1,500 Australians (“B” Force) ship out of Changi for Sandakan in North Borneo to build an airfield.[1] Among them were Captains Claude Pickford and John Rowell, and Lieutenants “Tod” Walker, Bill Peck, and George Forbes. These officers will become responsible for producing an astonishing series of choir concerts, original musicals, and plays under the most adverse conditions in their camps at Sandakan and later, when they, along with other officers and batmen, were separated from their Unit and sent to the Australian Officers’ Camp at Batu Lintang outside Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. They were the lucky ones. Before the war was over, those left behind at Sandakan would undergo a series of death marches that would kill all but six of them.

[For more on these men and the entertainments they produced, read the forthcoming blog on Borneo.]


[1] This was 2/10th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery under the command of Lt. Col. Walsh.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The 18th Division Players

By Sears Eldredge

In response to the success of Malayan Command’s Arms and the Man (and perhaps a little sense of rivalry), 18th Div. H.Q. requested that Capt. Charles Wilkinson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, form a Dramatic Society.[1][i] Canvasing the 18th Division Area for an indoor location, the Entertainment Committee found a N.A.A.F.I.[2] building with a stage that, if it could be acquired, could be easily remodeled to fit their purposes.   

The N.A.A.F.I. building in the India Lines, Changi, Singapore.
Photograph by Capt. Charles Wilkinson.

Over in the Selarang Area, “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” had also located a potential indoor venue – the former gymnasium of the Gordon Highlanders – where they could perform additional shows. Here they could hold their audience’s attention for a longer period of time – fifty minutes rather than their half-hour tour shows. So, they put everyone and everything they could muster on stage—songs, instrumentalists, comedy sketches, a magic act, and a ballroom dance number, as well as the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey, with “Joey,” his dummy—for Sing As We Go, their first show in this new indoor locale.

Highlights of their next show, Cheerio, included a telepathy act with Syd Piddington and Russell Braddon that would become one of their great concert party acts,[3] and a piano duet by Herb Almond and Fred Stringer.                 

How these two pianos were “acquired” are intriguing stories. One piano – an upright – had been obtained without the Japanese knowing about it.

One night, some months later, a party of engineers, led by Sergeant Keith Stevens of the 2/12 Field Company, making use of one of the gaps in the fence, made their way stealthily to an unused building in the former British naval base, in which a piano had been discovered. Without anyone’s authority they took possession of the heavy Robinson upright and carried it through the scrub and swamps back to the camp, a distance of about two kilometres. This was a daring and highly dangerous exercise, for if the lads had been discovered outside the wire they probably would have been treated as escapees; and the usual penalty for attempting to escape was death.[4][ii] 

“The Piano.” Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

The other piano – a grand – was actually acquired with the help of the Japanese. Some Australians on a day-long working party cleaning up the debris at Raffles College of Singapore University found it. As Boardman tells the story,

Not a full size grand, but one of the intermediate sizes. And they said to the Japs, “Can we take it back?” And they couldn’t care less, you see. So to get it on the truck they had to take the legs off, and the pedal. And, of course, when you see a baby grand without those things, it’s just a flat box.

So they put it in there. And then some of them sat on it on the way back. And they came back, and they said, “Boardie, try this out!” And in front of the theatre was all cement. And to play it I had to kneel down. Somehow, they got the Cantonese to build some legs on it and put on its pedals — and we had two pianos then.[iii]


[1] Wilkinson was passionate about theatre and his diary recording the planning of shows, their rehearsals and performances, as well as his attendance at other productions, has been a godsend.

[2] Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. An education and recreation center.

[3] Piddington and his wife would continue this mind-reading act to great acclaim after the war.

[4] This is the treasured upright piano that the concert party would bring back with them to Australia after they had been liberated and now resides at the Australian War Memorial.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 3 June ‘42.

[ii] Boardman, J. “The Changi Piano – and the Little Organ – The True Story,” Legacy Torchlight, 8.

[iii] Boardman, J. Interview, 25.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The Temple Players

By Sears Eldredge

Arms and the Man

On May 28, a new entertainment group, “The Temple Players,” appeared in the Command Area to give their first performance in the 11th H.Q. Division at Temple Hill. The Players, composed entirely of officers, chose George Bernard Shaw’s full-length play, Arms and the Man, for their debut. This would be the first time a straight play had been attempted in Changi. It had quirky characters, an absurd plot, and scintillating dialogue barbed with typical Shavian wit. But, given the circumstances, it was also a provocative choice. In the words of one critic, Shaw’s play was a “comedy that mocked war, propaganda, lies, and false heroism.”[i] Arms and the Man would engage audiences in a way that the Variety Shows and Revues did not, and it proved to be hugely popular with the POWs.

Programme cover for Arms and the Man. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Unfortunately, the opening night’s performance in their open-air theatre was rained out, and had to be postponed until the following day. And the performance that Australian S.M.O.[1] Albert Coates saw on the 31st also got rained out in a fierce storm: “Near the end rain stopped the play and we made for camp. We were soaked in a minute, blue with cold, wind blowing branches off trees off right and left, nearest approach to hurricane I’ve seen.”[ii] With the coming rainy season, foreshadowed by drenching tropical squalls (deemed “Sumatras”), there was now a determined effort by the Divisional Concert Parties to acquire indoor performance spaces. Indoor theatres would allow them to do more than keep the rain off themselves and their audiences; they would increase the performers’ abilities to project their voices so they could be heard more easily. And, as electricity was slowly being restored to the different Areas of Changi, lighting effects, combined with scenery, would greatly enhance a show’s effectiveness. Most of all it would give the theatrical producers an opportunity to create the atmosphere of attending a real theatre back home. Unfortunately, these indoor spaces would also limit the size of audiences.


[1] Senior Medical Officer.


[i] Weintraub, “Introduction,” xix.

[ii] Coates, 7.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Singapore and its Environs — Work Site Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

Among the Australian work site concert parties not reported on in Captive Audiences/Captive Performers were the work camps at Adam Park and The Great World Amusement Park.

Adam Park –

“The Tivoli Theatre was an open-air affair,” wrote Adam Boyle, “and accommodation quite good really. The stage was situated in front of two adjoining cement garages at the bottom of a relative steep slope, thus affording a perfect view of proceedings beside providing excellent sound effect.”[i]

The Tivoli Theatre at Adam Park. W. T. Pole.
Courtesy of Mrs. Rae Nixon.

Boyle was one of the volunteers willing to provide entertainment at Adam Park even though they did not get release time to prepare their shows:  

Amateur actors and musicians were called for, and within a week we had quite a versatile group of between 30 and 40 artists.

I enlisted my aid as a banjo-mandolinist, and joined the band each evening for practice. The show was capably managed by [Lt.] George Bransen of the 2/4th MB Batt. The orchestra consisting of about fifteen instruments was conducted by Bert Ford of the 8th Div. Sig, who had been a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before enlisting.

Some of the instruments were wholly manufactured in our camp, mainly from 3-ply and some of the lighter timber from the house furniture. For instance, chair arm-rests made ideal ‘necks’ for guitars and banjos. Strings became a problem for a while, until we found that steel signal wire served the purpose admirably. Later on, we made a machine by which we could bind thin coil wire into D8 signal wire for the heavier D and G Strings of the mandolins and so on.

 A new show would be produced each two weeks and would run for two or three nights. They became so popular that some of the chaps would take their evening meal with them in order to obtain a good seat[ii]

Program cover for “Khaki on Parade” Adam Park, Aug. 1942. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.[1]

Desmond Bettany was a British O.R. in the Royal Artillery. He survived the evacuation at Dunkirk and was posted to the 18th Div. Territorial Army. While a POW in Changi POW Camp and Changi Gaol, Bettany was able to use his skills as an artist by producing numerous concert party program covers, caricatures, and sketches of POW life, which are an invaluable resource.

The Great World

The Great World had been one of several popular amusement parks in Singapore prior to the war. It was here that a work force of Australians from the 2/30th Battalion were quartered. Their earliest concert – just a two-person show – took place soon after their arrival.[iii] 

And with the resources of abandoned open-air cinemas and small theatres that had operated as part of the amusement park prior to the war readily available, “The Great World Concert Party” soon developed more elaborate variety shows for presentation every Saturday night. And Gunner David was there to appreciate the additional theatrical elements: “it is wonderful where all the clothes and props have come from, even evening dress suits, a woman’s wig and clothing.”[iv] The Great World company had no problem finding soldiers willing to be female impersonators, and at the close of one show, “a banana for each of the ‘ladies’ was handed up from the audience and one ‘lady’ came forward to thank the audience for their applause.”[2][v]

Removal of POW workers from Changi to Singapore and its environs continued throughout March and into May greatly reducing the number of able-bodied men available to perform the necessary daily tasks in Changi.


[1] After liberation, he returned to England, got married, and he and his wife eventually emigrated to Australia. The Bettany Family have been extraordinarily generous in granting permission to use Desmond Bettany’s artwork in this series of blogs. Please see http://changipowart.com for more images and information.

[2] One can easily imagine the comic possibilities in those bananas and those “thanks”!


[i] Boyle, 33-34.

[ii] Boyle, 33-34.

[iii] David, 20.

[iv] David, 36.

[v] David, 37.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

“Changi by the Sea”

The Concert Parties in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, Feb.  ‘42—May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge


Dedicated to Oswald “Jack” Boardman[2]

With his peerless musical ability Jackie Boardman brought great happiness to hundreds of prisoners of war for the total time of their long captivity, yet he never sought headline billing. He was quite happy to accompany those of lesser ability, but he deserves to be rated as the brightest star of some legendary luminaries.

–Gus Baker. “Legacy Spotlight”[i]  

Introduction

This new blog series assumes that the reader is familiar with Chapter 1 (“In The Bag”) of my free online book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers,[3] which details how the defeated British, Australian and Volunteer troops in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, quickly reestablished their pre-war concert parties, or created new ones, to alleviate the boredom of POW life and to keep hope alive.

What readers will discover is that concert parties in Changi proliferated so much during the first year and a half of captivity, that it came to resemble Broadway, or London’s West End, with all its entertainment venues. The professional and amateur musicians and theatrical performers active in Changi numbered in the hundreds with more POWs behind the scenes in construction, technical, and design work. Changi was not the worst place to be.

Indeed, the POWs who were sent Up Country to Burma and Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma railway looked back wistfully on their time in Changi as in a holiday camp. Not counting the first few months as prisoners, or the last year and a half, the POWs’ living conditions during the intervening years were bearable—food was never plentiful (when the meat rations ran out, they were given fish), but they had running water (for at least two hours a day), electricity, gardens provided fresh produce (although a limited variety), and daily rations of rice. Though there are many reports that they were “always hungry,”[ii] their lives were not filled with sickness, brutality, and starvation as it was for POWs elsewhere.

Following the departure of the all-Australian “A Force” to Burma in May, 1942, there is little mention in Chapter 1 of the accomplishments of the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party”[4] which remained in Changi, because the focus is on those POW musicians and theatrical entertainers who were sent up to the Thailand side of the railway construction.

This new series of blogs will first recover the unreported story of the Australian entertainers in Changi—going back before May 1942, if necessary, to mention events left out of my book. But once that’s been done, it will tell as complete a story as possible of the extraordinary entertainment that took place in Changi—up to the point when the POWs are removed to Changi Gaol in the spring of 1944. A future blog will detail the story of the last year and a half of POW entertainment in the Gaol.

This will be the most comprehensive history of the POW entertainment in Changi POW Camp and Changi Gaol ever attempted.


[Title: “Changi by the Sea”] From “A prisoner’s lot is not a happy one”—a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”—sung in a camp show.

[2] Jack Boardman, who was the pianist/musical arranger for the A.I.F. Concert Party, provided me with voluminous invaluable materials on their activities in Changi POW Camp and Gaol.    

[3] http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/

[4] This had been the original name of the A.I.F.’s 9th Divisional concert party (see previous blogs on pre-war concert parties).


[i] Baker, Gus. “The Legacy Spotlight,” Sydney, 2003, p. 2.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 5 Feb. ‘44.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22