Elise G’s story

Imagine being intelligent enough and working hard enough to achieve a doctorate in mathematics, in an era where women were only just allowed to earn them, and then being denied the title by some foreign men because you were a) from a different country and they weren’t sure they recognised the institution you earned your qualification in, and b) a married woman. This happened to Elise – a well deserving holder of a PhD, but referred to as Mrs (despite a divorce) when she found work as a maths teacher.

The second daughter of a Czechoslovakian lawyer, Elise was born at the turn of the 20th century in Most, a Bohemian city in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic. The region was German-speaking – Most’s German name is Brüx – and Elise grew up speaking that language. Her family was Jewish, well-educated and quite well-to-do.

During the first world war, when the situation for Jews in that area was good, she and her sister Kathe attended high school in their home town, with Elise showing a particular aptitude for mathematics. She went on to study at the local college at 16, graduating in 1923, and then went on to the University of Vienna for four further years – gaining a distinction in maths – and achieving a doctorate in 1928. At the time, women were only admitted to doctorates in certain subjects at the University of Vienna. Somewhere along the way she’d met and married Ernst, a junior lawyer in her father’s office, in about 1924 and gave birth to a daughter around 1928. However, the marriage did not work out and ended in divorce.

After qualifying for her doctorate, and gaining the first part of a teaching diploma, she spent eight years as visiting lecturer at the University of Prague, and then moved to be the Statistical Expert at the Institute of Market Research in Vienna. Her father died in 1931, but her mother continued to live in Most. By this point, the situation for Jews in this part of Europe was getting dangerous. Her daughter, then around 10, was excluded from her school in Vienna on the basis of her Jewish background, so she and Elise returned to Prague. Her daughter managed to escape in January 1939 as part of the Kindertransport with the help of the Barbican Mission to the Jews, based in London’s East End, who saved around 100 children in the nine months up to the outbreak of World War II. The idea of the mission was that the Jewish children should convert to Christianity, which did not particularly bother Elise or her ex-husband as – though Jewish by birth – they were agnostic. Elise was able to follow her two months later, on a domestic permit – presumably with the idea of being able to care for her – but left her mother and ex-husband behind. Her sister had married and moved to Chile with her husband, which may have been considered as another avenue of escape, but ultimately the domestic permit provide Elise with the means to leave.

England at the time was not a particularly cosmopolitan place. Many people had not been abroad – the country was decades away from package holidays – and much of the news from the area that Elise came from centred on Hitler and the activities of the Nazi party, so even rescued Czech Jews could be viewed with suspicion. In addition, Elise’s doctorate came from a non-British university, so many might doubt the rigour of that education as it was “different” to that which they had experienced.

Therefore, Elise had to find work in England as and where she could. With the help of people within the Barbican Mission for the Jews she began working as a chamber maid, then a cook and a governess, and the 1939 register – taken a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War – has her performing domestic duties for a female accountant in London, though the register acknowledges that she is a statistics expert, and she probably helped the accountant as well as doing the cleaning. But on this form her doctorate is not acknowledged. Her daughter lived separately, with the mission in a home in the Brockley area, and Elise’s access to her was restricted.

In January of 1940, with many of the male teachers starting to be taken into the forces as the war got underway, there were starting to be shortages in teaching staff in many schools. She managed to gain a position as temporary science mistress at Thorn Bank school in Malvern-Wells, Worcestershire. This was a small private school for girls, which did not have a great deal of funds for equipment. Elise taught here on her wits and vast knowledge, as her only scientific equipment was pieces of litmus paper. However, the stability of this job meant that her daughter was returned to her care, and they lived together in Malvern-Wells and later in Carlisle where Elise held a mathematics teaching position for a year from September of 1940 that was slightly better than the previous post but not by much.

From here, she had an interview with the head of a town grammar school in Wiltshire on the railway station platform at Derby with a view to replacing his head of maths who was serving in the RAF, and got the job. Whereas the governors of that school were not particularly worldly at that time, the head teacher was young and a Quaker, part of the Rowntree chocolate manufacturing family of York, and as part of the company business had even been abroad. He recognised that a doctorate from the University of Vienna was equal to one from a British university, and persuaded the governors to take on Elise – though in a nod to their reservations she was still referred to as Mrs and not as Doctor. They may also have had reservations as the previous replacement was also a German Jewish refugee and had been interned in an Enemy Alien camp for a few months in 1940, and they may have feared losing Elise to this fate too – although it was only the men who were interred in the end.

Elise became the senior maths teacher of the school, in Bradford on Avon, and her daughter enrolled too. She was well liked by staff and pupils alike, and respected by all. Her heavy accent apparently was difficult to understand at first, but many students found her lessons inspirational. She was paid on the standard scale, with slight deductions for being in a temporary position and technically an alien, but was awarded a special payment for her exceptional qualifications – which they still weren’t formally recognising – in 1943.

During this period, both her mother and ex-husband – who had not been able to escape the Nazi regime – were placed by the Third Reich. Communication would have been non-existent, so she probably would not have known of their fate until after the war. Her mother was sent to the Theresienstadt Jewish ghetto, with other Czech Jews, which eventually became a labour camp. She was then sent on to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers sometime in either 1943 or 1944. Ernst, Elise’s ex-husband, was sent to the ghetto at Łódź, Poland, where he died of starvation in 1943. Her teaching position, and life in the UK, must have included hope that her family and friends had somehow survived.

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Elise, left, with other grammar school staff in 1944

Elise remained at the grammar school in Bradford on Avon until the end of the school year in 1945, when – the war having ended in May, at least in Europe – it was expected that the head of maths would return from RAF duty and take his place again at the school. In practice, this did not happen until 1946, and another German refugee was employed until then. The job did belong to the original head of maths, but it is fair to say that Elise was far better qualified for the role than he was.

She moved to be maths teacher at the Greenford County School, in Middlesex, and her daughter moved with her. After a few years here she was able to make the switch back into working in higher education in London, although an exact institution remains elusive. She was active in both the English and German language fields of maths, and here reclaimed the title of Dr again as it was finally recognised.

Elise 1961

Her daughter lived with her in Wembley until her marriage in the late 1950s, after which she appears to have lived alone. She visited her sister Kathe in Chile in the late 1950s and early 60s. After Kathe’s husband’s death in the early 1970s Kathe went back to Germany and lived in Munich, so Elise had a ready made base there when she travelled for work. She eventually had two grandsons.

elise edinburgh

She also continued her research while working in higher education. There is a picture of her attending the Edinburgh Mathematical Society Colloquium in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1976. She is also mentioned as a member of the Austrian Mathematics Association by the International Mathematical News published in Vienna in 1977. By this point she was living in Latymer Court in Hammersmith, built in 1934 and described at that time as the largest single luxury block of flats in Europe.

latymer court

In 1978 she was awarded a Golden Doctorate from the University of Vienna, an accolade given to those who have reached 50 years since their original doctorate and are still continuing to research and push the boundaries of their subject. She still did not stop there – in 1983, at the age of 80, she delivered a paper in Germany on “The practical treatment of stress concentrations and singularities within the finite element displacement algorithms”, and there is mention of her having delivered lectures for the Open University.

She died in 1991, aged 88, and was buried close to home in London.

Helen T’s story

A food technician is a job that most people would associate more with the 1970s and various lurid additives and e-numbers, rather than the 1920s and the “household arts”, but that is perhaps the best way to describe the work of Helen T.

For many years Helen lectured in the Department of Household Arts at Kings College For Women – now just Kings College, in London – and experimented with the science of particular ingredients and nutrition, with a view to improving advice given to school girls and therefore influencing the nation into better health. Since cooking and food had long been regarded as “women’s work”, this was an area where the growing number of female scientists were starting to make their mark at the time – although it is unlikely that Helen regarded herself as a scientist but more of an experimenter.

She was Scottish by birth, having been born into a landed family at the tail end of the 1890s. Her father – English by birth but Scottish by family – owned a large farm in the Scottish borders where he bred Leicester sheep and exhibited horses, and her mother appears to have done her fair share of work on the farm too. However, by the time Helen was two the flock of sheep had been sold, and the farm was let to a man from Edinburgh. Her father went to fight in the Boer War, leaving Helen and her mother living on the farm. Her mother called herself the head dairymaid, indicating that she was in charge of this operation, but clearly did not own the property herself. There were also two servants living with Helen and her mother, but possibly not working for them and rather perhaps for the farmer himself.

Helen and her mother then disappear from the British records for quite some considerable time. The best guess is that after the Boer War her father settled abroad somewhere and they went to join him, as later records do not appear to indicate a parental split. This may well have been in southern Africa, as there were many farming opportunities and perceived fortunes to be made across the former British colonies, but there is no indication of exactly where.

It is known that Helen travelled though, as there is a shipping record of her coming back to the UK from Gibraltar when she was in her mid-20s, and she must have studied in Paris at some point as she gained a diploma in cookery from the Cordon Bleu school based there. Her mother took up residence in Glasgow, it appears, when back in this country, and her father’s brother was quite prominent in life in County Durham, but Helen based herself in London.

She became a lecturer in the Household and Social Science Department at Kings College for Women in 1924. At this point the school was attached to that institution, but it became an independent entity in 1928 called King’s College of Household and Social Science. This meant that in 1929 the school was part of the University of London in the Faculty of Science. They also offered short courses in Institutional and Household Management, and a science course for nurses to enable them to gain a position of Sister Tutor.

Kings College 1938

The staff of King’s College in 1938. Helen is almost certainly included, somewhere.

Girls had been taught household skills at schools for many years – they were seen as an important part of the elementary school curriculum, undertaken by older pupils, either to prepare the young woman for running her own household when she married or for a skills base to enable them to take a placement as a domestic servant. Girls learnt cookery, how to stretch a household budget, sewing and textile crafts, laundry management and skills, and how to clean various different items. The advent of technology has meant that today these skills can be accomplished quickly and easily, but back then these jobs were often manual labour – cleaning silver cutlery, washing with a copper and a mangle, cooking on a range, and so on.

The Kings College of Household and Social Science took these tasks further, pushing the boundaries to find new ways of providing good nutrition, efficiencies in laundry tasks, science of food preservation, and many other ground-breaking ideas. Helen was involved in this end of the academic research, teaching the students and helping them to develop their own ideas.

Food was undoubtedly her speciality, both as an academic exploring nutrition and a cook working in the teaching kitchen. She also broadcast on her subjects as part of her job. A 1927 festive programme on BBC radio records that she was offering advice on how to “provide a party of children with a spread that will satisfy their keen sense of what is due at Christmas-time, without making them ill.” The accompanying blurb says that at this time she was an examiner in sick room cookery at Middlesex Hospital – nutritionists played an important part in helping the sick get well – and that she was presently engaged in working at the Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge. Cooking at lower temperatures would have meant using less fuel, which would have helped household budgets – therefore Helen’s research would have directly impacted on women’s daily lives.

Cookery students at Kings in the 1930s

She worked closely with Miss Jessie Lindsay, who was head of the Household Arts department, and later became the only woman member of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition for the Ministry of Health. Jessie was also an examiner in sick room cookery, and an expert in dietetics. Together they collaborated on two books. The first, What Every Cook Should Know, appeared in 1932. Rather than being a recipe book, it instead looks at the underlying basic principles of preparing food – handling yeast, how different parts of an animal have different cell structures so behave in disparate ways when heat is applied, commonly observed faults in recipes, and so on. In this sense, the work is far more about the science rather than the art of cookery, and thus goes way beyond the usually assumed remit of housewifery and domestic arts.

Their second book, Modern Cookery for Schools, was published in 1934, and instructed teachers on how best to instruct their students in meal preparation and planning. This was considered a definitive work in the teaching of domestic science, and was a popular tome for many years after publication.

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Jessie Lindsay, Helen’s co-author and colleague

As for her personal life, Helen never married. She lived with a woman, Margaret, at addresses both in London and a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Margaret worked as an arts auctioneer. There is no indication whether that this was a romantic relationship, and if it was it would have flown mostly under the radar, but it is equally possible that this was a close friendship. There was a marriage bar on female teachers in schools until 1944, and although it depended on the institution whether this applied to female lecturers it often meant that these guidelines were socially followed, and Margaret may have been a close companion rather than a lover. Her mother spent some time in Glasgow, and some time with her sister in Kent, meaning that she was close if Helen needed her. There was also a third member of their village household, an arts master named William, who may have had some connection to either Margaret’s work, or taught at a London university himself alongside Helen.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Helen was still working at Kings College, but referred to herself as a journalist as well as a lecturer, so may well have been contributing to various publications. Kings College and its students was evacuated from London, first going to Cardiff – where Jessie Lindsay can be found on the 1939 register – and then subsequently to Leicester.

Helen did not go with the college, however. She resigned her position to take a role in the newly re-established Ministry of Food, under its first director W S Morrison and then under the more famous Lord Woolton. Using her expertise on nutrition and household economics, she organised a nationwide propaganda campaign on food advice aimed at housewives, and gained a promotion to Head of the Food Advice Division. Much of this advice probably found itself into war-time food leaflets, although these did not bear Helen’s name.

In this new role, amid the introduction of rationing in January 1940, Helen flourished, from all accounts.

It was her personal qualities which gave to her work so great a measure of inspiration,” recalled former colleague Howard Marshall. “She saw in the Food Advice movement an opportunity for service to the community. She realised that the guidance she was able to give to housewives through her Food Advice centres would result in better standards of living.

Her mother died in Kent, in the first year of the war, leaving her effects to Helen. Her father appears to have been dead for quite a while before this, but there is no British record for what happened to him.

However, this job – though it appeared to be a great fit for Helen’s skills and personality – did not last long enough. She died suddenly at her village home in 1942, aged only 44, shocking the staff of the Ministry of Food.

“She was passionately sincere and entirely selfless in her approach to the problems created by war-time conditions,” said Howard Marshall, in letters. “Her humour, her enthusiasm, her wide humanity, and her energy will be sadly missed by all those who were privileged to work with her…. She was, I believe, too modest ever to have known how important her contribution was or how much it was appreciated… I feel as if a light had gone out… The best tribute we can pay to her memory is to continue the service to the community which is represented by Food Advice with our utmost energy.”

Her funeral was quietly held in the village, and her effects were handled by Margaret and a Scottish Writer to the Signet. There was a considerable amount of money that she had accumulated during her life.

Her former colleague Jessie Lindsay resigned her post from Kings College in 1948, though her books continued to be published for many years. She lived to be 100. Margaret lived on in their house until the mid-1970s, dying in her 80s.

Florence B’s story

In the eighth of our Grandmother stories, Florence was submitted by Claire.

Florence had to battle a selfish husband, a protective mother-in-law, and the divorce courts to achieve the life she wanted.

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My granny Florence was born in Wigan in the 1920s. Her father was an undertaker and funeral director, and a taxi driver, which meant he wasn’t working in the cotton mills or other factories, and therefore was better off than most other people who lived around there.

She had an older brother, Herbert, who went into the family business when he grew up, and a sister two years younger called Mary but always known as Molly.

She was 15 and had just left school when World War Two broke out, but I’m not sure what she did during those years. Her mother died when she was 17, and two years later her father remarried. At some point during the war though, she and her sister Molly met two brothers – James and Gordon – through Wigan Rowing Club, and their friendship developed into romance.

A big society double wedding was planned at Wigan Parish Church in 1944, and crowds of people came out to see Florence marry James and Molly marry Gordon. But apparently the brothers’ parents didn’t come as they thought James was too young to get married.

But while Auntie Molly’s marriage worked really well, my granny’s marriage didn’t. James was very attached to his mother, and didn’t want to let her go – which didn’t please Florence very much. He wanted to be an artist, and his mother encouraged him in that, instead of settling down and earning money like Florence wanted him to. They ended up moving in with James’ parents, and there were lots of rows, and he thought she should serve him and be at his beck and call – like his mother had all his life. His mother always took his side against Florence, and she felt she could never win, even with the man she loved.

She found a shop, with living quarters above, and wanted to go and live there with James and start a hairdressing business. But James refused point blank to go, as he preferred living with his mother. In the end, not one to let grass grow under her feet, Florence left him and went back to live with her father and stepmother.

It’s said that James still considered her his wife though, and even courted her while she was living at her father’s house, but nothing changed around his relationship with his mother, and all that friction, so in the end Florence left Wigan.

She went down to Wiltshire, and met my grandfather – Frank – who was an engineering lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science. He’d previously been married too, and it hadn’t worked out, so they couldn’t marry until both of them had got a divorce. James hadn’t wanted a divorce – it was still very taboo in the late 1940s – so it took a while to happen. In the meantime, Florence used Frank’s surname as her own, and they had two children: Godfrey in 1947, and Roxanne in 1951. Eventually their divorces came through, and they were able to marry in 1953. She went back up to Wigan for this wedding, and her father and stepmother were witnesses. This marriage was considerably happier, and she brought up her children with Frank in the countryside.

In the meantime, James started to become a rather successful – if a bit controversial – artist, and began to exhibit and sell his paintings. Some were given to Florence, and she kept them on the wall of her new home in Wiltshire.

Frank eventually died, and Florence married a third time – to Geoffrey in the early 1980s. Her sister’s marriage to Gordon continued to be successful, and she was instrumental in James’ art career, keeping her sister in touch with her earlier life.

Florence eventually died in 2014. James’s paintings were still on the wall.

Olive P’s story

In the seventh of our grandmother pieces, Sharon’s granny was adopted, a feminist and served in World War II.

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My Grandma, Olive was born (as the family story goes) as the result of an affair that her Dad had. Her birth mother had no interest in raising her so my her Dad and his wife adopted her (though there were no official adoption records) when she was six weeks old in 1921.

My Grandma was now the youngest of three girls. Her parents doted on her and raised her as their own, so much so that she didn’t realise that she was adopted until she needed to get her birth cert when she was 18. On finding out she arranged a deed poll and officially changed her name to that of the family who had raised her.
Her father was very much a feminist. He was a staunch Labour supporter. He was a coal miner and very much involved in workers rights.
This attitude also went towards how he raised his three girls. He told them to never let a man support them, to always have their own independence. He pushed education as vital to them.
So, during WWII my grandmother enlisted straight away in the ATS, she served a few roles, she was a nurse for a while in 1940 but one of the things she was most proud of was manning the radar machines for the anti-aircraft guns. She would tell me how her boss didn’t have great eyesight and would tell them to wait until they could see the whites of their eyes before firing.
Anyway, after the war she married my granddad, he was in the Navy and wanted to stay in the Navy but his father was a miner and the mining company owned his house and said that he would be removed unless my granddad came back to work for the company. So he did.
They had five children like steps of stairs and as soon as the baby was old enough to go to school my Grandma went back to college and then began working as a teacher (she was one of the first special needs teachers in Yorkshire).
All the neighbours were belittling my Granddad for letting his wife work. Then came the mining strikes and all of those neighbours and my Granddad lost their jobs but my Grandma could afford to keep her house and help her neighbours too.
When she was in her eighties she lost her sight but that didn’t stop her, she started listening to audio books and taught herself braille.
She was hilarious too, when I brought my then girlfriend (now wife) to meet her for the first time a few years before she died, she said to her “You can be having affairs all over the place, I will keep one eye open and one ear closed, as long as you are happy that’s all that matters”
She passed away in 2013 and she wanted “If I ruled the world” played at her funeral and we played it for her.

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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.

Charlotte P’s story

Charlotte was something of a spectacular chef, in an era when women did the bulk of the domestic cooking but mostly only male excellence was recognised and awarded.

She was born in the mid-1860s in the southern part of Ireland, which at the time was part of the United Kingdom, and was one of six children. Her parents were a Church of Ireland clergyman, whose job moved him around the southern counties of the island, and his wife – herself a clergyman’s daughter. Charlotte and her siblings seem to have enjoyed a relatively comfortable living growing up, with at least a couple of domestic servants to help, and her father’s profession meant that the family were well respected in the area.

She had three sisters – one older and two younger – all of whom never married, like Charlotte herself. Of them she was the only one who went into a profession. She went away from Ireland and studied cookery in both London and Paris, although the exact establishments where her training took place remain elusive.

By the turn of the 20th century, Charlotte was in her mid-30s and back living with her family again in County Carlow, and calling herself a lecturer on the culinary art. She had clearly amassed enough knowledge and experience during her training to feel able to teach others at a high level.

She was a Member of the Culinary Association, and also a Member of the Universal Food and Cookery Association – given as a cookery teacher from Carlow. All other members on the list are men, and are chefs at restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs.

In the early part of the century she advertised herself as a cookery teacher in Waterford, offering courses in high class cookery for a higher price and household cookery for a lesser fee. Her name seems to have spoken for itself in these adverts, and it’s likely that she was a well known figure among the local middle class populace. She also prepared society wedding receptions, and at one point travelled to Belfast and offered “balls, dinners, weddings and private teaching” for two guineas a week.

Her parents both died over the next few years, and several of her siblings moved to England to live with relatives of her mother – who were also clergymen. Charlotte appears to have remained in Ireland, making her living from her culinary skills and supporting all the sisters that remained with her.

However, by 1912 the changing situation in Ireland and the moves towards a home ruled mainly Catholic state in to cover most of the island might have made the lives of Church in Ireland worshipers a little uncomfortable, so it is no surprise to find Charlotte living in Hampshire, England, by that year.

She placed adverts in the Church League for Women’s Suffrage magazine – which may give a clue to her political views – advertising her services. These included bespoke cakes (Christmas and wedding), dinners, ball suppers and wedding breakfasts. She also offered lessons in high class cooking and sweet making in ladies’ own houses.

The same advert appears in the publication in both 1913 and 1914, by which point Charlotte would have been in her early 50s. She then disappears from view until the outbreak of the Second World War, when she was in her mid-70s and living with all three of her sisters in Bournemouth in an overly-Irish-named house. She appears to have retired from culinary teaching, but the family have two Jewish refugees – one from Germany, the other from Czechoslovakia – living with them, who have clearly fled from the Nazis.

Her sisters died one by one in the years after the war, gradually leaving Charlotte their assets. She was the last one left when she died herself, in the early 1950s. She left a considerable amount of money to a civil engineer.

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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.

Martha B’s story

In the third of our grandmother pieces, Jan’s granny was a victim of World War 2:

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My grandmother died in 1940 after the house she was living in was hit by a bomb that was meant for a location close by. She and my grandfather together with my Mum were sleeping in the same room as they had been decorating my Mum’s room ready for some evacuees who were to stay with them.

My Mum hurt her ankle and my grandfather was cut and bruised but my grandmother had no marks on her. The local GP said she probably died of shock. I have found a photo of their house and it is nearly split in two!

Oh, and she died on her 60th birthday.  I never knew her but I have photos of her and tales from my Mum. Apparently she was a cook and worked in a large house for a well-to-do family.

She had led a life of ups and downs. She was born in Ludlow, Shropshire, got married the first time in Birmingham, and we assumed she was widowed, then she was with a man called George with whom she had a child (Mum’s half brother). George was killed in the Munitions Explosion at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire. His name (spelled incorrectly) is on the Memorial.

Then, of course, she married my Grandfather and they had my Mum. On her marriage certificate she states that she is a widow but we are unable to find a wedding for her and George in the GRO records. When my Mum was about six a man appeared wanting to know if my grandmother was dead because he wanted to remarry and didn’t know if he needed to get a divorce or not. So we now know that she left her first husband and went to live with George and when he was killed married my Grandfather even though her first husband was still alive.

This is only one of the juicy stories in my family history.

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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.

Hannah F’s story

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:

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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.

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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.

Joan T’s story

Joan T faced down nazi war criminals, and then was at the forefront of changing attitudes towards disability.

Born to a shop’s head buyer and his second wife at the turn of the roaring twenties, Joan T grew up as the elder of two daughters in suburban London.

Her mother had trained as a shorthand typist in the boom of that profession in the early years of the twentieth century, before her marriage, and as Joan came to adulthood during the Second World War she was encouraged into a similar profession. She attained the role of secretary during this time, working for the North West Civil Defence Authority. Her boss was Hartley Shawcross, who was made Attorney General in 1945.

She wrote to congratulate him on this appointment, and to see if there were any employment opportunities, and he suggested that she was posted to the Nuremberg Trials.

Joan became secretary to Airey Neave as he served with the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. She travelled to the city, and lived there for the duration of the trials, writing home to her parents regularly.

One such letter, from October 1945, said:

“…The Court House is a cosmopolitan place as you can guess… Americans – both Army and civilians predominate but we see plenty of French and Russians – all services – Army Navy and Air Force. The Russian Army wear brown uniforms and they would look perfectly at home standing outside the Odeon Cinema!

Nuremburg is practically flat – London is nothing to it – and the striking thing about it is that no attempt seems to have been made to clear away the rubble. The German Civilians must be in an awful plight; there is nothing for them to do in Nuremburg at any rate unless they are working for the Allies. As we waited outside the Opera House last night there were grown ups and children waiting to pounce on the cigarette stubs thrown away.”

Neave’s role in the trials was to investigate the firm Krupp, who had been involved in the Third Reich, and Joan provided him with secretarial support in this, often attending court house sessions and seeing prominent Third Reich members at close quarters.

In November 1945 she writes:

“It was worth going just to get a look at the Criminals. Unfortunately I had gone without my chart of where the Criminals were sitting so I could only pick out the obvious ones. Goering, of course, was quite unmistakable; he looked very interested in the proceedings and at the end, after the adjournment, was laughing and chatting with three American Guards as though they were the best of buddies. (Actually I thought it was very slack on the part of the guards the way they were ‘fratting’ with him.) Hess really looks quite potty and sits with his nose in a book most of the time. Streicher looked very well turned out in a navy blue suit.”

The trials concluded in the early autumn of 1946, and Joan returned to life in England.

She remarked:

“I feel I have made up a bit for the dreariness of the war years… You learn a lot about human nature living in a cosmopolitan atmosphere like this and you come out of it all with a tremendous respect for British people and the British way of life; I have realized what a tremendous advantage it is to be born an Englishman.”

She had several other secretarial jobs in the years that followed, but none as high profile as Nuremberg. In the late 1950s, at the age of 37, Joan married a man who worked for the Ferodo brakes firm, and settled in the north Midlands. Like much of society at the time, his family regarded her previous work as “just secretarial”.

Their first child followed in the summer of 1958. He was born with spina bifida, and until around this time most babies born with a disability were considered not to have a good quality of life and were killed soon after birth. However, her son’s birth occurring in the summer meant that she was attended by a younger locum rather than the family doctor – who was on holiday at the time – and traditional attitudes towards disability were starting to change. The locum did not hold these traditional views, and alongside Joan determined that her son would live.

Whereas now people born with spina bifida or any number of other differences are fully part of society, in the late 1950s and early 1960s most disability would have been as a result of injury – and Joan and her son were at the forefront of gradual changing attitudes, both positive and negative.

Despite having waited to start a family, a daughter followed less than 18 months later, and her husband was involved in setting up the Ferodo factory at Port Dinorwic near Caernarfon, so the family moved to the coast of North Wales.

Later on, Joan and her husband ran a shop together. She was known for her diplomatic skills in the family.

Widowed at the beginning of the 1990s, she enjoyed a long retirement, and was deeply involved in the community. She died in the early 2000s, in her eighties.

 

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.

Elsie W’s story

Born in rural Devon, Elsie W was the eldest of three children born to a former bootmaker who had taken to agricultural labouring.

In the 1880s, in her early teens, she lost her mother and her father remarried twice, producing more siblings. She spent a little time as a domestic servant in Devon, working for a naval engineer. She then followed her father and newest stepmother to the Bristol area, where he had established a shoemaking business.

At the age of 25 she married a man nearly fifty years her senior, who had been widowed by his first wife only two years previously. He was a Chelsea pensioner, and had run coffee shops among other professions in Bristol throughout the 19th century, but with a wife to support and a new clutch of children appearing, he took to working in a ropemaking establishment to provide money for his family.

Elsie’s first child, a daughter, followed well over a year after their wedding. The next, a boy, died within six months of birth. And a third, a daughter, was born a couple of years later, when her husband had reached the age of 79.

She was widowed at 36, with two daughters to support, and took to running a pub in central Bristol – with a boarder in the house to make ends meet. Her daughters helped run the pub. This pub also operated as an off licence, and she ran it until 1931, when her youngest daughter took over the business.

She died in 1941, at the height of the Bristol Blitz, but was not a victim of any of the bombing raids that destroyed the city at that time.