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Agnes Betty Jeffrey (1908–2000)

by Christina Twomey

This article was published online in 2023

Agnes Betty Jeffrey (1908-2000), nurse, administrator and author, was born on 14 May 1908 in Hobart, fifth of six children of Tasmanian-born parents William Jeffrey, clerk, and his wife, Amelia Matilda, née Cooley. By 1913 the family had moved to Melbourne. Betty was educated at Warwick Girls’ School, East Malvern, then moved to Adelaide with her parents in the late 1920s. By the early 1930s she was living in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm with her brothers Alan and Rex, and her attendance at the tennis, cricket matches, and horse races with her fashionable friends featured regularly in the social pages. She worked as a sports mistress at girls’ schools and in clerical roles. In 1934 she returned to Melbourne where she qualified as a nurse at the Alfred Hospital (1938), and later in midwifery at the (Royal) Women’s Hospital (1940).

Following the outbreak of World War II Jeffrey joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. In February 1941 she was taken on strength as a staff nurse with the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, and in June arrived in Malacca, Malaya. After the Japanese armed forces invaded the Malay Peninsula she was evacuated in January 1942 with her unit to Singapore, having been ordered to abandon their patients: ‘I have never felt worse about anything’ (Jeffrey 1954, 3), she later recorded. She was one of sixty-five Australian army nurses, and others, who boarded the transport SS Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942, headed for Java in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Within days the ship was bombed and sunk. She survived after thirty hours in the water, and spent the next three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Japanese internment camps on Sumatra. Food was scarce and of poor quality, medicines were in short supply, and the prisoners were vulnerable to tropical diseases and malnutrition. When the camps were liberated in September 1945, she weighed only five stone (thirty-two kilograms) and was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis and amoebic dysentery. On returning to Australia, she spent two years as a patient at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne.

Once she had recovered, Jeffrey and a fellow ex-POW nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel, raised over £120,000 towards establishing a War Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne. The centre, located in an old Victorian mansion in St Kilda Road, was opened in February 1950 by the governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brooks. Jeffrey served as the centre’s first administrator, and also lived on the premises. In September 1950 she and Bullwinkel left for England where they were presented at the Royal Court, and received by the Duchess of Gloucester at Yorke House, and the Dowager Queen Mary at Marlborough House. By 1954 ill-health from her experience as a POW forced Jeffrey to resign, and she was unable to participate again in paid employment.

In 1954 Jeffrey gained prominence when her first book, White Coolies, about the nurses’ POW experiences, was published by Angus & Robertson Ltd, and became a best-seller. Dedicated to ‘those nurses who did not return,’ it was an elaboration of the diary she had kept at great risk of discovery while a prisoner. The book’s humour and tales of bravery and resilience struck a chord with readers, and it continued to be reprinted for the remainder of the century. A popular fifty-two-episode radio series, based on the book, premiered in 1955 and resulted in a lifelong rapport with its dramaturg Gwen Friend, sister of the painter Donald Friend.

Jeffrey remained committed to projects related to her war experiences, maintained close friendships with her fellow ex-POWs, and continued to honour the memory of Australia’s war nurses. In 1970 she published a tribute to the matron-in-chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service in World War II, Annie Moriah Sage. She regularly attended Anzac Day events, 8th Division reunions, was vice-president and later patron of the Ex-Prisoners of War and Relatives Association (Victoria), and an active member of the Returned Nurses’ Club.

A flourishing of interest in women’s war experiences in the wake of 1970s feminism, combined with the war memory boom of the 1980s and 1990s, led a new generation to learn of Jeffrey’s remarkable wartime experiences. In 1979 she returned to Sumatra to participate in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary Women in Captivity, which in turn inspired its creator Lavinia Warner to make the BBC-Australian Broadcasting Corporation television series Tenko between 1981 and 1985. By the mid-1980s Jeffrey had travelled to the United States of America to witness the restaging of vocal orchestra performances of arrangements first staged in the POW camps. There, women had sung classical pieces from scores reconstructed and arranged from memory by prison inmates. She also participated in the 1985 Song of Survival documentary based on that experience. The vocal orchestra and White Coolies inspired Bruce Beresford’s 1997 film Paradise Road, for which Jeffrey acted as a historical consultant.

In retirement, Jeffrey shared a vibrant social life with family and a community of women united by a love of sport, driving, and the outdoors. In addition to her volunteer work, she caddied for the golf champion Burtta Chenney, enjoyed golfing weekends with famed soprano Dame Joan Hammond, and holidayed annually, surfing, swimming, and fishing, at the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. In 1987 she was awarded the OAM for service to the welfare of nurses in Victoria and ex-service men and women. She never married and had no children. Ellen Allgrove (formerly Hannah), another ex-POW nurse, named her son Jeffrey in honour of their friendship. On 13 September 2000 she died in Melbourne and was buried in Springvale Botanical cemetery after a funeral at St Peter’s Anglo-Catholic Church, Eastern Hill. ‘We have lost a good and sincere friend,’ her fellow ex-POW Wilma Young told Gwen Friend; ‘Her bright, happy personality endeared her to all who knew her’ (NLA Ms Acc04.182).

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Jeffrey, Betty. Matron A.M. Sage: ‘Sammie’, A Tribute. Melbourne: College of Nursing, 1970
  • Jeffrey, Betty. White Coolies. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954
  • Jones, Philip. ‘Wartime Nurse Endured the Horrors of Captivity.’ Australian, 25 September 2000, 38
  • Kenny, Catherine. Captives: Australian Army Nurses in Japanese Prison Camps. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1986
  • Malone, Emily Jane. ‘Betty Jeffrey Biography.’ July 2020. Accessed 23 May 2023. https://australiannursesmemorialcentre.org.au/index.php/stories/. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, Jeffrey Agnes Betty
  • National Library of Australia. Ms Acc04.182, Papers of Gwen Friend, 1955-1994

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christina Twomey, 'Jeffrey, Agnes Betty (1908–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jeffrey-agnes-betty-32766/text40743, published online 2023, accessed online 26 May 2024.

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