Behind every great man there’s a great woman, so they say.
Or, in Winston Churchill’s case, the man voted the Greatest Briton had a whole host of great women behind him.
This was the small army of secretaries and shorthand typists that, despite the fact he’d call on them at all hours, were utterly devoted to the “Old Man”.
As one of their number, Cecily “Chips” Gemmell, said: “I have thrown myself under the bus practically for the Old Man.”
Now, Cita Stelzer, an adviser to the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge and a member of the Board of Advisers of the International Churchill Society, has told the story of these remarkable young women – and one young man, Patrick Kinna, who was the only male shorthand typist to serve Winston – in a new book.
Several of them came from Mrs Hoster’s Employment Agency, the secretarial college and placement service for women highly regarded by employers.
To call them “secretaries” is selling them short as without their organisational skills, the PM simply could not have got through the mountain of work that he did.
Also, they could be called upon to perform some unusual duties like looking after Churchill’s butterflies at his country house at Chartwell or arrange for the shipment of special worms from Yorkshire to feed his exotic fish.
The ladies’ hours were irregular and they never knew when they be summoned by a cry of “Miss!”, Churchill’s signal that he needed someone to take down dictation.
Often there were two personal secretaries on duty, one to work from 7am until dinner time, the other to be on call from dinner until the PM went to bed, usually between 3 and 3.30am.
Marian Holmes’ diaries show the standard time for her to get to bed was 3.30 in the morning.
Churchill could be temperamental and on first seeing Marian, Winston said to Mrs Churchill: “Oh dear, she’s very young. I mustn’t frighten her.”
But she accompanied him on various clandestine visits, including his trip to Moscow to meet Stalin in late 1944, and the PM had absolute faith in her, saying “she’s the sort of girl who’d rather die than have secrets torn out of her”.
Marian wrote in her diary of her “interview”, being ushered into Winston’s private office at 11pm to type what he was dictating.
After handing him the sheets of paper, she made to leave but he barked: “Dammit! Don’t go, I’ve only just started.”
When he was finally finished, she wrote that he looked up at her and “his face changed totally, there was that beatific grin and he said, ‘Do sit down. When I shout, I’m not shouting at you, I’m thinking of the work’”.
He would dictate anywhere. Marian recalled “driving back to town with the PM. He dictated most of the way and it was a balancing act, as we were driven at great speed, trying to keep despatch boxes from falling on the flowers we were bringing back from Chequers, finding the right papers and taking dictation all at the same time”.
All this while using her ankle to hold open the trademark black despatch box on which he was working!
As Marian stated: “He seems to have an insatiable appetite for work.”
No wonder two of Churchill’s four secretaries would accompany him to Chequers at the weekend, the other two having some welcome and much-needed time off.
The schedule was gruelling but Winston was a considerate boss. Chequers was notoriously cold but when the girls had to work sometimes in the very grand Hawtrey Room, they didn’t dare light a fire.
Marian wrote that the PM “caught me working in the Hawtrey Room and ticked me off for not lighting the fire – ‘You’ll catch your death of cold, why do you do such mad things?’”.
On another occasion, he insisted on building a fire for Marian and her colleague himself, saying: “Oh, you poor things. You must light a fire and get your coats.”
Believing Marian to have caught a cold one time, he told Sawyers, his valet, to send up a hot whisky toddy.
And she probably needed a stiff drink after Winston was composing an address to the House of Commons and stepped out of bed, not realising the shortness of his bed jacket.
She recalled: “I got the best view of his behind that I have ever had.”
One of her colleagues, Kathleen Hill, recalled sitting “at the foot of his bed with a typewriter. His box, half-full of papers, stood open on his bed and by his side a vast chromium-plated cuspidor to throw his cigars into, and demanding the candle to light his cigar.
“His black cat Nelson, who had quite replaced our old No 10 black cat, sprawled at the end of the bed and every now and then Winston would gaze at it affectionately and say, ‘Cat, darling.’”
Another wartime secretary, Jo Sturdee, remembers President Franklin Roosevelt sending two very early electric typewriters as a gift to the PM for his staff.
She said: “All of us found them most difficult to use when you were taking dictation straight on to the typewriter.
“Even the Prime Monster saw that it was impossible, and they were very noisy. I am sorry to say we didn’t use them very much, I trust the president never knew.”
The compensation for the heavy workload was the chance for foreign travel and the feeling among the secretaries that they were at the centre of world-changing events.
Sturdee accompanied the PM to Russia for the Yalta Conference in 1945, where the post-war future of Europe was discussed, and she enjoyed catering in stark contrast to the rationing of food in the British capital.
“Breakfast was an enormous spread of the most delectable cold meats and cheeses and champagne if you wanted it, plus herbal teas in long glasses and lovely rye bread and delicious butter.”
The ladies ended up devoted to their difficult boss. Grace Hamblin described Winston as “a dynamic but gentle character” while Lettice Marston said: “He could be in a bad mood, perhaps things had gone wrong in the House of Commons, so we kept out of his way. It soon disappeared amid twinkling blue eyes.”
Working With Winston: The Unsung Women Behind Britain’s Greatest Statesman by Cita Stelzer, published by Head Of Zeus, is out now.