Lilian Gladys Tompkins was born at Halcombe, northern Manawatu, on 10 March 1893, the daughter of Lilian Jane Crabb and her husband, Arthur Henry Tompkins, a storekeeper. Gladys went to a private school in Auckland. After completing her training as a nurse in New Plymouth Hospital in 1927, she spent time nursing in Perth, then Sydney and elsewhere in New South Wales. When she returned to New Zealand she did her maternity training at Alexandra Maternity Hospital, Wellington, and then went to train as a Plunket nurse at the Karitane-Harris Hospital, Dunedin. She worked in Patea as a Plunket nurse for five years.
In 1939 Gladys Tompkins holidayed with her mother in the Malay Peninsula with the intention of eventually going on to India to nurse. However, she accepted a position as a health sister, working for three months in the children’s ward of a large hospital in Johor. Next, she was given the Batu Pahat district in Johor state and worked there for 2½ years. During this time she socialised with many European families, enjoying dinner parties and playing badminton.
After the Japanese began their invasion of the Malay Peninsula, Gladys Tompkins was instructed by the British medical officer to proceed to Johor, where she worked in Johor General Hospital until she was evacuated to Singapore, which was held to be impregnable. After it fell to the Japanese, she was detained first in Katong Internment Camp and was then marched the 8½ miles to Changi Prison Camp on 8 March 1942. Along with other imprisoned nurses and doctors Tompkins helped to run an improvised hospital for the prisoners. Fortunately, she had been able to take two suitcases of personal possessions into Changi, which included a box of watercolour paints. She had been painting for many years and did many watercolours of Changi prison. This became a lifeline, a way of filling in empty days. She also kept diaries, which she hid carefully from the prison authorities.
In Changi Tompkins was very enterprising and managed to supplement the sparse diet with papaya grown alongside a concrete wall. After two years and two months she was moved to Sime Road Internment Camp. Conditions here were much better, although the food continued to get worse. Prisoners were given little other than poor-quality rice, which was often rotten and crawling with maggots. Her weight had decreased from 10 to 7 stone by the end of her internment, on 9 September 1945. She was sent first to Madras, where the prisoners received a great welcome, and then to Bangalore, India, to recuperate before eventually returning to her family in Hamilton.
After a few months in New Zealand, Tompkins was asked by the Colonial Office, London, to take up a position as a health sister at Johor Hospital. Her duties included visiting the surrounding villages to distribute medicine and food to the poverty-stricken inhabitants. Six months later she was transferred to Taiping, where she worked to restore health services. She retired in 1950, and returned to Hamilton to nurse her elderly mother.
At the age of 81, because of her worsening eyesight, Gladys Tompkins was no longer able to read, garden or play cards or croquet. Instead, she dictated to a friend a manuscript based on her diaries, recounting her experiences in Changi prison. After publishers rejected it for commercial reasons, she had it typed by her niece Gilda Tompkins and published as Three wasted years in 1977 by another niece, Felicity Tompkins. Fifteen of her watercolours were reproduced in colour. The book is a personal account of the chaos surrounding the fall of Singapore and the hardships suffered, particularly by women prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese. Written in a matter-of-fact style, it gives a portrait of a brave woman, clearly of a practical nature, but always concerned for the welfare of others. A dry sense of humour is much in evidence in her writing. Her diaries and watercolours were donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Gladys Tompkins never married. She died on 18 March 1984 at Hamilton.