Margaret Dryburgh

Margaret Dryburgh
Margaret Dryburgh
Born 21 February 1890(1890-02-21)
Sunderland, United Kingdom
Died 21 April 1945(1945-04-21) (aged 54)
Bangka Island, Singapore.
Education BA Degree in Education, qualified nurse
Profession Teacher, Nurse and Missionary

Margaret Dryburgh (1890–1945) was born in Sunderland, England and trained as a teacher. She later became a missionary in Singapore, where she was captured in the Second World War. The plight of Dryburgh and her fellow inmates such as Betty Jeffrey in a Japanese prisoner of war camp inspired the 1996 film Paradise Road.[1] Today, her memory lives on through the song she penned in camp, The Captives Hymn.[2]


Early life

Margaret Dryburgh was born in Nelson Street, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, UK in 1890. She was the eldest child of Reverend William Dryburgh, minister of St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Elizabeth Webster. The family moved to Swalwell, near Gateshead, when Dryburgh was a baby, where her father worked as minister at Swalwell Presbyterian Church from 1895.[3] When he retired in 1906, the family returned to Sunderland, where their local church was St George’s in Stockton Road.[4]

Dryburgh trained as a teacher at King’s College, Newcastle, after leaving school, later achieving a BA degree from Durham University with distinction in Latin and Education.[5] She then joined the staff of Ryhope Grammar School in 1911, where she taught history, French and Latin for the next six years.[4][6][7] She left teaching, however, to become a Presbyterian missionary in 1917, qualifying as a nursing sister to extend her skills.[6] It is believed it was the influence of her mother, a leading light in the Women’s Missionary Association, which persuaded her to volunteer for this role.

Life as a missionary

Dryburgh’s first posting as a missionary came in 1919, when she was sent to Shantou in China.[3] Quite by chance, the mission was supported by her family church of St George’s, and she was affectionately "adopted" by the Sunderland congregation as “our missionary.” It was a critical time in China’s history, with a growth in anti-foreign feeling, but Dryburgh managed to learn the Shantou dialect in two years and then started work as a teacher at the Sok Tek Girls’ School.[6]

Dryburgh moved on to Singapore some years later, where she was appointed principal of the Choon Goan School in 1934.[3] Such was her dedication to the role that, within a very short time, she raised standards so much that it was officially recognised as a secondary school and received Government aid.[6] Dryburgh spent her time outside the classroom helping in the local community.[6] As a skilled musician, she organised the training of choirs and was a stalwart of the Women’s Fellowship. Fund-raising concerts and charity events in aid of the school were also arranged by Dryburgh, as well as picnics for local children. Former pupils later recalled how she “frequently paid for milk for undernourished pupils” and encouraged the girls to become teachers.[1][8]

Second World War

The outbreak of the Second World War put an end to her missionary work. When Singapore fell in 1942, Dryburgh tried to escape from the advancing Japanese forces by ship, but was captured with other missionaries.[3] The women were taken to a Japanese internment camp at Sumatra, where death from disease and malnutrition was common.[7] Despite the squalid conditions, Dryburgh retained her indomitable British Bulldog spirit throughout, as well as her strong Christian faith.[9]

Within days of arriving at the camp, Dryburgh started arranging church services for her fellow inmates, as well as a Glee Club, hymn singing, writing classes and poetry sessions.[4][6][10] She also ran a short story club for the prisoners and produced a monthly camp magazine which included articles on cookery, a children's section and a crossword puzzle.[7][9]

It is for her musical work in the camp, however, which Dryburgh is best remembered.[6][10][11] After joining forces with fellow musician, Norah Chambers, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, the pair formed a camp choir. Dryburgh wrote down pages of music from memory, from baroque to contemporary, for the Voice Orchestra to perform, as well as pieces of her own light classical compositions.[4] The music was arranged in four parts, which were hummed by the women to give the effect of an orchestra, and included pieces by Handel, Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven.[5][9][12] Even the Japanese soldiers were said to be amazed at what they heard, inviting themselves to the concerts.[12] The Captives Hymn was one the pieces written by Dryburgh, which was sung each Sunday during church services.[13]

The concerts continued throughout 1944 and into 1945.[6] The chorus ceased to function, however, once over half of the chorus had died.[9] Constant hunger and disease eventually took their toll on Dryburgh, who died on April 21, 1945, a few days after the women were transferred to a camp at Loebok Linggau.[3][10] She had become ill on the three-day journey from Bangka Island camp, and eventually succumbed to dysentery. The remaining inmates buried Dryburgh among some rubber trees at Belau camp on Sumatra two days later. She was later reburied in the Dutch War Grave Cemetery in Java in 1951.[5][6][11]

"Very soon after we arrived in this camp Miss Dryburgh died. That awful move from Muntok was too much for her. What a wonderful person she was, and how hard she worked to give the people of the camp such pleasure! With the help of Norah Chambers she wrote all the music for the "orchestra", the words and music of all the songs for the glee singers, anthems for the church choir, two books of poems, stories, etc. She was also co-editor of a camp magazine ... Miss Dryburgh's death has caused much sadness throughout the whole camp."

Betty Jeffrey's diary account reproduced in White Coolies.[14]


Today Dryburgh’s music lives on through The Captives Hymn and her other compositions, which are still performed by women’s choirs.[7][11][15] A documentary about camp life, Song of Survival, was shown on Channel 4.[6] The film Paradise Road, made in 1996, told the story of life at the camp, with the role of Dryburgh played by Pauline Collins.[2][6] The Captives Hymn was used in the film during a burial scene. Dryburgh’s name was changed to Margaret Drummond in the film.[3][10]

Captives Hymn

The Captives Hymn by Margaret Dryburgh[15]

Father, in captivity,
We would lift our prayers to Thee,
Keep us ever in Thy love,
Grant that daily we may prove
Those who place their trust in Thee
More than conquerors may be.
Give us patience to endure.
Keep our hearts serene and pure,
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own Thy will,
Be we free or captives still.
For our country we would pray,
In this hour be Thou her stay,
Pride and sinfulness forgive,
Teach her by Thy laws to live,
By Thy grace may all men see
That true greatness comes from Thee.
For our loved ones we would pray,
Be their guardian night and day,
From all danger keep them free,
Banish all anxiety,
May they trust us to Thy care,
Know that Thou our pains dost share.
May the day of freedom dawn,
Peace and justice be reborn,
Grant that nations loving Thee
O'er the world may brothers be,
Cleansed by suffering, know rebirth,
See Thy kingdom come on earth.


  1. ^ a b Singapore Ministry Of Education Newsletter (2006). "A Tale of Inspiration; A Legacy of Love". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  2. ^ a b John Roxborogh (1992). "THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Malaysia - see NOTE 18 at bottom of page". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Whickham Web Wanderers (2006). "Miss Margaret Dryburgh 1890-1945". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  4. ^ a b c d Swalwelluk website (2005). "Miss Margaret Dryburgh". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  5. ^ a b c Brave Women of Oceania (2005). "Lest We Forget Tribute Page". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Durrell, John (1998). Margaret Dryburgh. Independent Office, Sunderland. pp. Page 1, 2, 3, 4. 
  7. ^ a b c d Sunderland Echo (2003). "Home-town concert of music by war heroine". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  8. ^ Kuo Chuan Presbyterian School (2006). "Alumni honoured at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Schools Founders’ Day Celebration". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  9. ^ a b c d Roger Emanuels (2006). "Song of Survival". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  10. ^ a b c d Sunday Sun (2004). "Songs for survival". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  11. ^ a b c Rev. June Barrow (2008). "Look to the Cross". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  12. ^ a b The Times (2000-10-05). "Betty Jeffrey". London. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  13. ^ Daily Telegraph (1997). "Prisoner of war memories". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2008-06-18. [dead link]
  14. ^ Jeffrey 1954, p. 162
  15. ^ a b Phyllis.M.Thom (2005). "Phyllis Briggs's War - Life in the Dutch Houses". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 


  • Colijn, Helen (1995). Song of Survival: Women Interned. Ashland, Oregon, United States: White Cloud Press. ISBN 1883991102. 
  • Grant, M.E.; Cullen, S.G., Dryburgh, M., Livingston, A.A., Mackintosh, S.E.. A Memorial of Margaret Dryburgh, Ann Armstrong Livingston, Sabine Elizabeth Mackintosh ... With an account of their internment by their fellow-prisoner, S. Gladys Cullen.. Unknown binding. B000XGK7RM. 
  • Jeffrey, Betty (1954). White Coolies. London: Angus and Robertson. 

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