Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Garage 9

Have you ever wondered what happened to Miss Prouse and Miss Glasgow during World War 2? Up until last week, all I knew was that they were interned in Palembang, Sumatra. Thanks to Barbara Coombes, a Masters student at London Metropolitan University, we now have a unique glimpse into their lives as prisoners-of-war. I am very grateful to Barbara for sharing her research with us. We'd love to hear from you if you have any comments about this article.

Views of Palembang in South Sumatra, circa 1935

Women’s internment camp at Palembang, Sumatra

Fleeing from the fall of Singapore, many civilian women found themselves interned in camps throughout Sumatra, Java and the Philippines during the World War 2. Eva Prouse and Mary Glasgow were among the women in a camp at Palembang Sumatra, although they were moved many times during their internment. However it was at Palembang camp early in their captivity that they found themselves housed in Garage 9. The houses, previously a Dutch settlement were already occupied, often 30 to a house!

Garage 9 was to be their home for nearly a year and they shared this small space with 12 other women and one orphaned little boy. This group appeared to have a particular bond with several keeping and hiding diaries recording their captivity. There were four Presbyterian missionaries, a civilian teacher; a nurse with the Colonial Nursing Service; the wife of the choirmaster at St.Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore with her daughter who was in her early twenties, three other wives, a young single woman and the small boy. Mary Glasgow apparently had the nickname ‘Paddy’ because she came from Ireland.

(L-R) Miss Eva Prouse and Miss Mary Glasgow

Their days centred on all the chores that they had to undertake in order to survive with tasks allocated according to physical ability. Task such as carrying great lengths of wood to cut for firewood to fuel the fires for cooking needed strength and to keep them burning one had to stoop low and keep fanning the heat, therefore the younger members took on these tasks. Mary herself said that she enjoyed getting up early to chop the wood! They cooked in pairs and for their own group, later when they were moved to another camp the cooking was done centrally. Other chores that had to be completed were: cleaning the rice as it arrived with glass, stones, weevils and maggots and had to be painstakingly cleaned. Often other rations, if they were lucky, were just dumped in the grounds of the camp so had to be collected. Water also had to be carried a long way then used for cleaning food before being able to be used for personal washing. The worst job of all was clearing the open drains that serviced what passed for toilets. The heat and humidity of course made these tasks even worse. It was amazing that in the light of this that the women managed to keep their dignity and supported each other. Physical conditions and the women’s health deteriorated, as they were move from camp to camp and many suffered from malaria, dysentery and beriberi. Only 4 women and the small boy survived from Garage 9.

Despite the conditions, particularly in the early days when they were all in much better health, some women were able to earn a little money that was used to buy extra food, albeit very small amounts. Eva Prouse volunteered for the sewing party making garments for the Japanese military. There was much debate and excitement when she came back with her first 50 cents! How were they to spend it? One diary records that once they bought a whole banana! Later it became clear that the children of the camp were running wild so a school system begun with Eva Prouse in charge of the seniors and Mary Glasgow assisting. Other women took on the younger children and also ran language classes for the adults. One of the Presbyterian missionaries, Margaret Dryburgh from Garage 9, along with another internee Norah Chambers started a ‘vocal orchestra’ giving concerts to the camp internees. The ‘orchestra’ in four parts hummed classical pieces; the scores had been written down by memory – an astounding feat. The women worked hard at trying to keep spirits high but many of the activities, as the years passed, had to be forsaken as they fought hard to stay alive. From the very beginning, Margaret Dryburgh assisted by others, ran Sunday services and bible readings, helping to sustain the women throughout their ordeal.

Sadly, Eva Prouse died but Mary Glasgow survived and returned to Kuala Lumpur to continue her work in teaching.

Barbara Coombes researching women’s internment for a Masters Degree at London Metropolitan University, London.


Vincesapplemac said...


I dont suppose you have contact details for Barbara Coombes, as my mother was interened at Palembang at the same times as Miss Prouse and Miss Glasgow and it would be nice to know if she knows of any survivors of the camp that she may have found out about or contacted while doing here masters

Joanna Yeoh said...

Hi Vince,

Yes, I do have Barbara Coombe's email! Could you please write to me at joannayeoh@gmail.com and I'll introduce you to her?