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Singing to Survive – the concert – Chichester, England 2013.

Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Women’s Vocal Orchestra created in a POW camp, Palembang, Sumatra 1943.

The incredible story of how this vocal orchestra was formed in camp and their performances was  told in between hearing spine-tingling pieces from the original vocal orchestra’s repertoire. Refreshments were served and an introduction to the concert was given by Nurses Memorial Centre member, Diane Whitehead, who attended the concert, together with other members of the Nurses Memorial Centre in 2013. The afternoon provided us with opportunity to learn more about our nurses and civilian women and children who were interned in Prisoner of War camps in Sumatra during the Second World War.

The women’s vocal orchestra was formed in the Palembang camp, which consisted of British, Dutch and other nationals who were evacuees from Singapore whose ships were bombed by Japanese planes February 1942. The camp’s internees also included our Australian Army Nurses who survived the bombing and sinking of the Vyner Brook which had been evacuated from Singapore just before it fell, and the subsequent Bangka Island massacre. The nurses and civilian women were interned by the Japanese for over three and a half years and during that time, were moved to three different camps in Sumatra and Bangka Island.

During captivity British internee, Norah Chambers, a music scholar, suggested forming a vocal orchestra to try and lift morale. Combining her talents with those of Presbyterian missionary, Margaret Dryburgh, they both wrote musical scores from memory, re-arranging them into four-part voice scores. They created thirty orchestral pieces, including such classics as Dvorak’s Largo and Ravel’s Bolero. By using only vowel sounds they overcame language difficulties.

In September 1943 thirty women formed the vocal orchestra. Rehearsals had to be held clandestinely in small groups as the Japanese forbade social gatherings. Eventually, in a blatant act of defiance, on 27 December 1943 the women gave the first concert of the vocal orchestra. As the first chords floated across the squalid Palembang camp compound, the Japanese guards were ordered to break up the gathering. But awe-struck and captivated by the music coming from the shelter they stopped in their tracks. The concert continued to its finale. More concerts followed. But by April 1944 many of the members were too weak to perform and others had died and so the vocal orchestra ceased. Out of the 600 women in the camp only 300 survived. Some of those who had performed in the vocal orchestra carried their musical scores with them to freedom and eventually into archives around the world.

Among the singers in the vocal orchestra were Norah’s best friend in the camps, Audrey Owen; Norah’s sister, Ena Murray; Shelagh Brown and Dorothy MacLeod, British nurse Olga Neubronner; Dutch sisters Antoinette and Alette Colijn; Dutch nun, Sister Catharinia; three Australian nurses, ‘Mickey’ Syer, ‘Flo’ Trotter and Betty Jeffrey; and Sigrid Stronck, a Dutch mother of two.  In this way the orchestra united different nationalities in the camp as the music they learned together helped to break down barriers.

 Four of the Vocal Orchestra members: Sister Catharinia, Flo Trotter, Betty Jeffrey and Sigrid Stronck

 Founding member and former administrator of the Nurses Memorial Centre, Sister Betty Jeffrey OAM, was a second alto in the vocal orchestra. Some of Betty’s relatives travelled to Chichester, England to be part of the very special ‘Singing to Survive’ concert.

Several books written by former internees mention the women’s Vocal Orchestra and some of the Vocal Orchestra’s story has also been recreated in the movie Paradise Road. A concert was performed in California in 1983, recreating the music performed in camp, which many of the surviving vocal orchestra members attended, including Betty Jeffrey.



Sunday 25th November – 2.00-5.00pm – Christmas Market and Afternoon Tea ($25 per person or $15 concession)

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