The WWII Stories of Changi Chapel, Cross and Murals

The Changi Chapel and Museum is one of the war museums in Singapore, telling stories of the harsh and difficult days of the prisoners-of-war (POWs) during the Japanese Occupation.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, tens of thousands of British and Australian troops were held at the internment camp at Changi. It also detained, beside the military personnel, the Eurasians and civilians related to the British. Many POWs were later sent to Japanese-occupied territories at Thailand, Manchuria and Taiwan for hard labour, and only some managed to survive and return. It was estimated that throughout the occupation, as many as 90,000 passed through the Changi internment camp.

Changi Chapel

The Changi Chapel is modelled after the St George’s Chapel, one of the small churches built by the POWs during their internment at Changi. It was started by Reverend Eric Cordingly (1911-1976), who was an army chaplain deployed to Singapore in early 1942. Just a few days after his arrival, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.

Eric Cordingly was interned as a POW together with other British and Australian soldiers until the end of war in 1945. The poor living conditions, malnutrition and ill treatment by the Japanese guards saw many POWs perished in the internment camp. Accordingly to Eric Cordingly’s burial returns book, he buried more than 600 comrades during his times as a POW. He officiated as many as five to six burials a week in the month of May in 1942.

Despite the inhumane treatment, the Japanese did not really restrict the POWs’ religious activities in the camp. Hence, Eric Cordingly and the other POWs decided to establish a chapel. According to the archives, there were four versions of the St George’s Church built during the war. The first was housed at a former mosque used by the Indian soldiers of the British Army, who gave Eric Cordingly permission to use it. He would conducted the church’s first service on 22 February 1942.

When the POWs were sent by the Japanese to work on the notorious Thai-Burma’s Death Railway, they also built a similar small chapel – the second St George’s Church – at Kanchanaburi. Those who had survived and returned to Singapore, built two more St George’s Churches at Changi Gaol. For all three versions of St George’s Church, the POWs painstakingly savaged all the scrap materials they could find to build the chapels and their altars and furniture.

Throughout the war, the various St George’s Chapels provided comfort and relief to the POWs, giving them the will and hope to live on.

Changi Cross

After the first St George ‘s Chapel was established, Eric Cordingly designed a cross and asked his fellow POWs to make it for the chapel’s altar. One of the POWs, Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden, was able to construct the cross at the prison workshop using a brass howitzer shell case. Another POW Tim Hemmings used an old umbrella stem to engrave their regiments’ badges on the cross. It became known as the Changi Cross. By the sides of the cross was a pair of pewter candlesticks. After the war, Eric Cordingly brought the cross back to Cheltenham.

The idea of a Changi Chapel museum began in 1953 at the Changi Prison, where one of its hospital wards was converted into a chapel. But as the visits to the chapel grew, it caused inconvenience to the prison’s operations.

Hence, in 1988, Singapore decided to build a replica chapel next to the Changi Prison, where a small museum was also set up. The Changi Chapel and Museum served as the site of remembrance for the visitors and former POWs to commemorate the history and significance of the St George’s Church during the Second World War.

In the late 1990s, due to the expansion of the Changi Prison, the replica chapel was relocated to its current location along Upper Changi Road North. On 15 February 2001, 59 years after the Fall of Singapore, the Changi Chapel and Museum was officially opened.

On the altar of the replica chapel displays the original Changi Cross, which was loaned by the Cordingly family since 1992.

During the Japanese Occupation, other than St George’s Church, the POWs and civilian internees at Changi also set up several other places of worship, such as the St Luke’s Chapel, Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel, St Paul’s Church and the Synagogue of Ohel Jacob. Only St Luke’s Chapel and Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel survived till this day.

Our Lady of Christians Roman Catholic Chapel was built by Australian POWs in 1944. After the war, the church was dismantled and shipped to Australia. In 1988, the original building was reassembled at the Royal Military College in Duntroon to serve as the poignant memorial to the 35,000 former Australian POWs.

Changi Murals

St Luke’s Chapel was housed at the former Roberts Barrack’s (present-day Changi Air Base West) Block 151. It was where former POW Stanley Warren (1917-1992) painted his famous Changi Murals. Between 1942 and 1943, a very sick Stanley Warren, inspired by his pastor, comrades as well as his faith, carried out and completed the Christian-theme works.

With scarce resources available, Stanley Warren managed to paint a total of five wall murals. He eventually survived the war and returned to England. Roberts Barracks was returned to the British artillery who then transferred it to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1947. One popular version of the story on how the murals were “rediscovered” was that one of the servicemen, in the fifties, found the murals hidden under the distemper paint applied by the Japanese. Under much persuasion by the RAF, Stanley Warren returned to Singapore in 1963 to help restore the murals. He would return to Singapore two more times, in 1982 and 1988, for the restoration works at the former chapel which had became a part of the Changi Air Base premises.

As the location of the original Changi Murals is restricted to public access, the Changi Chapel and Museum showcases the replicas of Stanley Warren’s murals for visitors to appreciate his priceless works of significant historical values. (Refer to Heritage Tour around Colonial Changi for the original Changi Murals)

Changi Gaol

Built in 1936, the former Changi Gaol was designed to accommodate up to 600 prisoners. When Singapore fell in 1942, the Japanese used it to detain the civilians and families of the British and Australian troops. 3,248 internees were packed into the prison for more than two years. Out of these internees, 2,598 were men, 408 were women and the rest were children.

The filth and misery inside the gaol was indescribable. It was infested with bed bugs and cockroaches, and the latrine buckets and garbage tins were used for cooking and the distribution of food. Hunger, diseases, tortures and deaths became daily affairs at Changi Gaol.

The Changi Chapel and Museum displays an original prison door of Changi Gaol. It was part of a prison cell meant for a single occupant. Such doors had eye-level and knee-level spyholes for the guards to observe the prisoners. During the war, four internees, sometimes up to eight, were crammed into the cell. There were no beddings, so the internees typically slept on the bare concretes inside the cells.

The Japanese guards would use a muster gong to gather the internees for parades and headcounts. This roll call was known as tenko in Japanese, and was instituted in November 1942 at the Changi internment camp. By 1944, as many as 10,000 internees were packed into Changi Gaol, almost 16 times its intended capacity.

The Changi Chapel and Museum opens from Tuesdays to Sundays between 9:30am and 5:30pm, closing every Monday except Public Holidays.

Published: 2 October 2022

Updated: 6 October 2022

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2 Responses to The WWII Stories of Changi Chapel, Cross and Murals

  1. One can buy Changi Murals postcards and a fantastic book about Stanley Warren’s story (by Peter Stubbs) at the Changi Chapel and Museum.

  2. Jan H says:

    Thank you for reviving this history!

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