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A Tribute to Dame Margot Turner

A Tribute to Dame Margot Turner

‘Tenko’ is one of the most beloved and well-remembered series from the 1980s. It was set in a Japanese internment camp for women and featured a mostly all-female cast. The series told the story of the conditions and brutal treatment the women prisoners-of-war endured at the hands of their captors until being liberated at the end of the Second World War. What is perhaps not so well remembered is that ‘Tenko’ was based on actual events, following the fall and capture of Singapore in 1942, and was inspired in large measure by the experiences of QAIMNS nurse, later Dame, Margot Turner.

Evelyn Marguerite Turner, known as Margot Turner, was born in May 1910 at Finchley, Middlesex, the daughter of a Solicitor’s Managing Clerk. She trained St. Bartholomew’s, one of the oldest training hospitals in London, and after four years took her final exams. Upon qualifying as a nurse she took a particular interest in theatre work, before joining the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in 1937, when she was posted to the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. The following year she was sent to India, to the British Military Hospital at Bareilly. She was remembered at this time as being a “tall, good-looking girl and full of fun. She was a fair tennis player and fond of a party [and] a charming and dedicated nurse at the hospital.”

Turner was posted to Singapore in March 1941 although by the following December the city had been bombed by the Japanese prior to invasion. Turner was evacuated aboard the Kuala on 13 February 1942, which was shelled the next day by Japanese aircraft. Turner found refuge on Pompong Island and helped with the medical relief of the other survivors until being rescued three days later by a small cargo steamer. This too was sunk by enemy aircraft fire, and Turner survived the sinking on a small raft, along with one other nursing sister. Together they rescued six children and eight women survivors from the wreck. Unfortunately, though, there was no food or water on the raft, and all but Turner died during the days adrift that followed.

Rescued from the water by a Japanese Destroyer, Turner was imprisoned for the rest of the conflict as a Prisoner of War, suffering many privations and cruelties, alongside starvation and hard labour. Although she rarely spoke of her internment, it was the research for the ITV programme ‘This is Your Life’ in 1978 that eventually inspired ‘Tenko.’

Returning to England after the War, Turner resumed her life as a nurse, serving with the medical services until 1968 when she retired. She served as Matron-in-Chief of the newly formed Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (which replaced the QAIMNS in 1949) and was Director of Army Nursing Services between 1964 and 1968. Upon retirement she became Colonel-Commandant QARANC, from 1969 to 1974.

She was awarded an MBE in 1946 and Damehood in 1965. Margot Turner died at Brighton, East Sussex, on 24 September 1993.

The Museum of Military Medicine has numerous items formerly in Turner’s possession: some personal, others relating to her work. Her Christian faith was important to her throughout her life, and her Bible, containing miscellaneous notes and prayer cards, is in the museum’s collections. The museum also has various personal papers of Turner’s, along with recordings of interviews with her, and a copy of the memorial service booklet from 8 December 1993. Illustrated also is the powder compact she used to catch rain water whilst adrift at sea after the bombing of Singapore by the Japanese. Perhaps most recognisable of all is the famous ‘This is Your Life’ Red Book, given to her with her appearance on the television show on 25 January 1978.

All of these are viewable by appointment at the museum.

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