A quilt stitched with coded messages by allied female prisoners of war and a lamp believed to have been used by Florence Nightingale are among the “objects of kindness” that are to go on display for the first time this week.
Locked away in the archives of the Red Cross for decades, the rare artefacts bear witness to the kindness and resilience of women in wartime and have never been seen by the public. Now they will be exhibited by the Red Cross when the charity opens a museum at its headquarters in London on Wednesday.
Mehzebin Adam, curator of the “Museum of Kindness” said: “Women played a really significant role in our history. Not just as nurses, but as leaders who influenced the beginning of the Red Cross, like Florence Nightingale, and as artists who were documenting war and their experiences.”
The quilt on display is one of three handmade in Changi prison by women and children from Britain and its allies, who were imprisoned when the Japanese army invaded Singapore during the second world war.
Separated from their male relatives, the women convinced their guards to let them make quilts for the wounded men in the camp’s hospital, ostensibly as a gift to the Red Cross and a way of passing the time. Using material that is thought to have come from Red Cross food sacks, the female internees then embroidered coded pictures on to the 66 squares of each quilt, incorporating secret, uplifting messages for their husbands and fathers into their designs and signing each picture with their names.
“The women came up with this idea to stitch messages on the quilt, so they could pass messages to their male relatives, who were held separately,” said Adam. “They had to do all this in secret, because they weren’t allowed to communicate with the men.”
Conditions in the prison camp were extremely harsh and all the internees suffered from overcrowding, malnutrition and disease. For many men, the messages and names contained in the quilts would have been the first news they got that loved ones were still alive. “Each square on the quilt has a very special story,” says Adam.
For example, one embroiderer whose husband was imprisoned in the camp depicted a V, presumably for victory, and two smiling rabbits. “She had two daughters, so we think that the message was intended to let her husband know that her two daughters were well and with her.”
Other squares contain chirpy, patriotic emblems like Scottish thistles and Welsh dragons, and subtle references to King George VI. But most importantly, “every square has a name or initial: that was the main objective, just to get their name on the quilt”.
The other two quilts created by the female internees, dedicated to the Red Cross Societies of Australia and Japan, are famous and are held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. But the quilt made for the British society has never been displayed: “It was discovered in the 1960s, folded in a drawer in the archives among many other objects – it’s a mystery how it got to the UK.”
A Turkish lantern believed to have been one of the lamps used by Florence Nightingale while she was caring for soldiers in the Crimean war will also be on display for the very first time. “Nightingale became known as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ because even at night she would be constantly checking on her patients,” said Adam. “Her work was an inspiration for the founder of the Red Cross movement, Henry Dunant.”
Nightingale went on to work with the Red Cross, as a member of the ladies’ committee, when the society was formed in 1870. The lamp was later discovered in the archive of a Red Cross office in Essex. Adam said: “We don’t know who left it there and how it got there.”