In the first of our grandmother pieces, Alison’s granny worked in codes and ciphers during WW2, but her involvement has never been officially acknowledged:
My grandmother Hannah (known as Ciss) was born at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, which was then a British colony. The youngest of four siblings, the family squeezed into a tiny terrace house in Queenstown, now Cobh, the port of the city of Cork. Her father and a brother were employed in shipbuilding, and the family home looked directly over the harbour. When the British passenger ship R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk in the First World War, Ciss watched from the dockside as the bedraggled survivors were brought to shore.
Fast forward five years when the war is over and another ship arrives in port, this time carrying my grandfather Eric (Don) Lambert, a Royal Marine. Don may have been English, but crucially, he was a Catholic. His relationship with Ciss had the full approval of her family as well as the Church. They were married in Cobh in the mid-1920s. Ciss left her homeland and moved to England to the South West where Don’s Royal Marines unit was based.
Their daughter Mary, known as Molly, was born two years later. When she was just a toddler, Don was sent away to sea for a year, leaving Ciss behind to cope on her own. When he was home on leave they made the most of their time together, taking to the road on the family motorbike, Ciss and Molly squeezing into the tiny sidecar. The Lamberts were then posted to Deal in Kent.
In the year that George VI was crowned King, my grandfather reached the end of his Royal Marines commission. His prospects looked bleak at a time of high unemployment. He was recruited for what would turn out to be a life-changing job in South East Asia, first in Hong Kong, then Singapore.
He and then Ciss worked for the Admiralty in a highly secretive job in codes and cyphers, listening in on Japanese naval communications. It was an exacting but monotonous job and involved shift work, including nights. After spending World War Two crisscrossing the oceans with the Eastern Fleet, to Ceylon, East Africa and back to Ceylon, my grandparents returned to their beloved Singapore. What they were doing there remains a mystery but I know that they still both worked for the Admiralty. While my grandfather is on the official veterans register at Bletchley Park and was awarded an OBE, Ciss and wives like her, never had their war work officially acknowledged, as she was employed as local staff.
In the early 1960s, Don was forced to retire and he and Ciss reluctantly returned to live in the UK after more than thirty years in South East Asia. They missed their life and the heat of Singapore. England was grey, wet and miserable. Don died not long after and Ciss was facing life alone as a widow. She was heartbroken. But despite this tragedy, she threw herself into her role of grandparent to we three children with gusto. Because our parents also lived and worked in South East Asia, Nan, as we called her, became our saviour, spoiling us rotten, giving us a much- needed respite from boarding school.
In her 70s, she moved house and country to live with our family in New Zealand. She was delighted to be recognised and greeted by name by the elderly doorman at her hotel when she stopped over in Singapore. Life in her new home wasn’t easy as not long after she arrived her son-in-law died in a family tragedy. Molly and Ciss had each other, but the two of them had opposite personalities and Ciss had always found her daughter to be a handful. Ciss made the best of her situation: she charmed everyone she met and when she died in her 80s, after complications from minor surgery, there were many who mourned her.
The girl from Cobh became one of the few Irish women who was permitted to work for British intelligence. She was a wife, a mother and our beloved grandmother. When we children asked her about what she did in the war, she would put a finger to her lips and say ‘codes and ciphers.’ The work that went on at Bletchley Park was still classified and Ciss was good at keeping secrets. It was only when I started researching my memoir, Castles in the Air: A Family Memoir of Love and Loss did I find out the true extent of what this work involved.
When Ireland became an independent country, because of the sensitive nature of her work, Ciss was not permitted to become a dual national. That baton has been passed to her descendants: I have recently become an Irish citizen. I plan to make a trip to Cork to say a silent thank you, and to take the opportunity to reflect upon an ordinary woman who lived through extraordinary times.
Alison Ripley Cubitt is a multi-genre author. Connect with her on Twitter @lambertnagle, on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alisonripleycubittwriter or visit her website: lambertnagle.com
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.