image Collections in Focus: POW Toothbrush

G Street was a Prisoner of War during World War Two. Captured by the Japanese, he was imprisoned in Changi Jail, Singapore, from 15 February 1942 to 16 October 1945. Street was among 50,000 Allied soldiers, predominantly British and Australian, who were imprisoned at Changi.

Conditions in Changi were poor. Japan had not ratified the Geneva Convention (1929), unlike other major powers. Prisoners were assigned to backbreaking, forced work details as food and medicine quickly became scarce. Malaria and dysentery were common, as were beatings for not working hard enough. About 850 POWs died during their internment in Changi.

As it was difficult for POWs to obtain supplies, they had to use their ingenuity to make the most of what they had. REME prisoners used their skills as Craftsmen to create cooking utensils, shoes, medical equipment and even musical instruments out of simple tools and found materials.

2020-08-04 A19741294

Mr Street replaced the worn out bristles of this toothbrush with coconut fibres. From the Museum’s collection A:1974.1294.

Before his imprisonment, Street was serving with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (the RAOC). By the time he was released, REME had formed and many RAOC members joined the new Corps, Street among them. He donated this toothbrush to the Museum in 1974 along with a prisoner identity tag and a handmade cutthroat razor. All of these items are currently on display in the Museum’s World War Two gallery.

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During his internment, Street had to wear a metal identity tag, inscribed with his prisoner number. From the Museum’s collection, A:1974.1294.02.

Over time, the plastic handle of the toothbrush deteriorated so Museum staff conducted a careful repair job so it could be displayed in our World War Two gallery. As with many twentieth-century collections, the REME Museum looks after lots of different types of plastic, including early types which degrade easily. Preserving these items poses a tricky challenge for the Museum’s curatorial staff.

Find out more

The Australian War Memorial Collection has shared footage on YouTube of prisoners at Changi.

Read more about Changi on the Children (and Families) of the Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW) website.

You can read more about how plastics are conserved in Museums in this blog by Sophie Row, a Conservator for University of Cambridge Museums.

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