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From Churchill's War Rooms
Letters of a Secretary 1943-45
By Joanna Moody
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Joanna Moody
All rights reserved.
Part One: 1915-43 Early years
'Nothing seems to have changed. It's very like it was then'.
It was February 2005 and Mrs Olive Margerison MBE once again made her way through the underground corridors of the Cabinet War Rooms, near Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London. Although she had not used the old entrance from Great George Street she sensed that nothing had changed in sixty years; it seemed as if the renovations for the CWR museum had hardly altered things at all. The restoration was meticulous and it simply looked and sounded the same. She remembered how she had felt then and heard the echoes of distant voices, the tap of machines and the ringing of telephones. It all came back: the exhaustion of work, but the fun and the camaraderie, the fug of smoke, the bright lights and varnished walls, the sound of typewriters and the voices of young marines. There was the fear of air raids, anxiety about forces overseas, and always the sense that everyone was struggling together to save the country. Winston Churchill had led his team down here to a great victory, and she, Miss Olive Christopher, had played her own small part. She felt very proud, and yet humbled by the surroundings and all they had meant to her and the others who had been there during the Second World War.
How was it that a young secretary such as herself had come to work in this famous underground bunker? What had enabled her to take up this special career all those years ago?
Olive Christopher was born in Bromley, Kent, on 12 February 1915. Her father, Herbert, was a 'will o' the wisp' figure and a bit of a rebel. His older brother Charles died when Olive was three, leaving Herbert as the only heir to Grandfather William's business in hotel and catering. But he never wanted to join him, and was told he must therefore have a trade. His choice was interior decorating and he became apprenticed to a high-class firm. Herbert talked about it often to his daughter when she was young. He loved the work, and enjoyed being part of a team. For example, they had redecorated the ballroom at Osterley House, where he worked on the ceiling having been taught to gold leaf. He was undoubtedly skilled, but unfortunately careless with money, and never did what his parents wanted. According to Olive later, it made his father exasperated and consequently hard on him.
Whilst still quite young Herbert married Margaret Brightwell, a talented singer and pianist, whose mentor was Frank Bridge. She would one day play at the Dome in Brighton although she never made a career in music. They opened an antique shop in Bromley High Street, advising on interiors and selling furniture, some of which went into Chartwell, Winston Churchill's country home. Much later Herbert told his daughter: 'I had to show father what I could do for myself'. Although father and son were never amicable, Grandfather William liked his daughter-in-law and loved the children who brought him great joy. He became very involved with them – as much as he could around his work commitments – and he devoted himself to their secure upbringing in the light of their father's mercurial nature. His considerable influence on Olive, as she grew up under his protective guidance, was instrumental in preparing her for the life she would eventually lead. In fact, he was to have a profound effect upon her development and formation, and her ability to fit in with the world of the War Office and Cabinet War Rooms was largely as a result of the social training she had received under his benevolent direction.
When Olive was five years old the family moved to Paris. Her father was a good cook and he decided to acquire a business there. Grandfather William said he should have his wife and daughter with him so they all went, and Herbert opened a restaurant in the Place de l'Odéon. Margaret liked Paris, and it was a happy childhood there for little Olive; but at the end of 1922 they came back to England and her sister Enid was born in January 1923. Herbert returned alone to Paris, having taken on a new partner, but this unfortunately proved to be a disastrous move. The business floundered, and when the restaurant was sold the partner disappeared with the proceeds forcing Herbert into bankruptcy. His pride was such that he would not turn to his father for help, and from that time on never had any contact with him, although Grandfather William maintained a regular link with his daughter-in-law. Olive forever felt sad that they never got on.
Herbert's return to England to join his family was not a success. Having declared that he was really in love with a French girl, his wife – a rather withdrawn, austere woman – was, perhaps not unnaturally, cold and unwelcoming, and life became very unsettled. The family moved to Broadstairs where Margaret opened a guesthouse, and Olive went by tram to school in Cliftonville. Herbert, however, did not like the town, so they moved again to Poole in Dorset, where Olive won a scholarship to the grammar school. She was not there long for in 1928 the family moved again, to Bournemouth. Here Olive, aged thirteen, successfully passed an entrance examination to Bournemouth School for Girls, where her fees were paid by her grandfather.
Olive was always on excellent terms with Grandfather William whom she frequently visited as she grew older, later accompanied by her sister. Separated from his wife, William lived alone at 'The Brackens', a smallish house with beautiful garden and woods in extensive grounds, close to his business in Dormans Park, near East Grinstead, Sussex. He was a self-made man who had worked extremely hard all his life to build an immensely successful business from quite simple beginnings, when he had pushed a cart around with cooked food to sell at race meetings. Not only was he owner of the Dormans Park Hotel, but, more importantly, he was the founding director of Letheby and Christopher Ltd., High Class Caterers and Confectioners (with the Royal Warrant), caterers to Royal Ascot and the Royal Agricultural Society of England, as well as to many other functions. Its offices were based in the centre of East Grinstead, over the Whitehall restaurant and ballroom and Radio City cinema (a magnificent copy of the one in New York), which he also owned. William Christopher was a man of great warmth, considerable force and tremendous energy, but also with a strong sense of duty and a work ethic second to none. He had a huge range of contacts and was a member of the Founders' Company in the City of London. The Cheltenham Christopher Cup, named after him, gives due recognition to his importance in one of the main events of the social calendar. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that he was disappointed in his remaining son's lack of ambition and apparent fecklessness, and it may go some way to explain his exceptionally close interest in the upbringing and formation of his two bright granddaughters. He wished to see them develop into young ladies like those he saw at Ascot, and he aimed to set them up well in good marriages. He kept an eye on their schooling, he paid attention to their dress, he ensured they had good manners and that their deportment was correct, he helped them financially, and kept in contact via correspondence. Because he travelled often to different events around Britain he was always a fund of stories about the rich and famous, and the girls enjoyed visiting him at 'Brackens'.
Olive's grandmother, in contrast, was a bit of a martinet. She lived with their only daughter Daisy, first in Sidcup, Kent, then in a large house at Elphinstone Road, Hastings, Sussex. She died there in 1930, and Daisy eventually had to leave when war was declared, moving to 'Brackens' where she would feel safer if and when the Germans invaded. Olive was a little scared of her grandmother but adored Aunt Daisy, and loved seeing her when she visited 'Brackens' for its house parties, especially the large ones during 'the season'. Her grandfather grew all the strawberries for Ascot in his own gardens, and Olive once went with him into the Royal Enclosure where the fruit was much admired. The famous Mrs Topham, owner of Aintree Racecourse, was a regular houseguest at the weekend party before Ascot.
When Olive was fifteen she left school and the family moved to London. Her mother ran a small hotel in Anerley, East Croydon, and Olive attended South London Secretarial College for a year. Herbert and his father were still not on good terms, but her grandfather was kind to his granddaughters, though sometimes, it was felt, perhaps not always as generous as he might have been! On one occasion he said to Olive: 'I want you to buy yourself a nice frock - your Aunt Daisy recently bought a very pretty frock at Marshall and Snelgrove'. He gave her a cheque for three pounds, nineteen shillings and elevenpence, which, to Olive, seemed a huge sum; but her mother was cross, as there was actually not enough for the shoes, stockings, and handbag needed to complete the outfit.
Grandfather William, concerning himself particularly with his granddaughters' personal conduct, used to send instructions in letters, always signing 'Yours affectionately, W. Christopher'. For example, on 29 March 1934, when Olive was already nineteen so out of school and into employment, he nevertheless wrote:
With regard to your handwriting, it is very poor indeed – I can see that with a little practice you could easily write quite nicely, which is very important from a social point of view. No matter how polished you may be so far as education is concerned, bad handwriting gives the impression of being illiterate. Take my advice and attend an Evening School to learn writing & away from business, write as much as you can. You can buy a Copy Book & try to imitate the writing, this causes you to form your letters properly, & you soon get to write properly, & you will be pleased with yourself.
With her secretarial training Olive was of course an efficient typist and clearly found typing quicker, so a couple of months later he wrote:
Darling Olive, when you communicate with me again, please write the letter, as I shall like to see how you have got on with your handwriting. I am pleased to hear from you & it will give me great joy to have you with me for an hour or two.
He could sometimes be cross with her, though, for not thinking of others. For example, on 29 April 1936 he wrote:
When you find you are unable to keep a suggested appointment, always state the reason, no matter to whom it may be, do not just baldly write that you "cannot keep the appointment", but write "I am sorry I cannot be with you for lunch as I am still in my engagement, & do not leave until next Saturday, but I can meet you etc". Had you explained how you were situated I should have understood, moreover you have delayed replying to my letter until this morning. ... You young people are too casual, but I am too busy a man for that sort of thing, & if you want consideration, you must be considerate yourself, by giving decisive, prompt replies, & the reasons for not being able to do certain things.
I will let you know when you can bring your young friend to see me.
He followed this in May expressing further displeasure:
I quite understand that it was impossible for you to meet me on the Friday as I suggested, & having regard to your explanation I should not expect it, but I was under the impression that you were doing nothing, & thinking that I put the day aside for you, & thought you ought to have made an effort to come & that is why I wrote that you ought always to give a reason why you cannot keep an appointment, whether with me or anyone else. Never write that you cannot keep an appointment without first kindly stating the reason why you cannot do so.
As Olive grew older he began to invite her to accompany him, in place of his absent wife and daughter Daisy who was too delicate, to formal luncheons at Dormans Hotel and later to City banquets of some distinction. In May 1936 Olive received the following:
I understand you have been able to get a nice little dress for next Monday, and I am looking forward to having you with me at the banquet. I gave you, in a former letter, the particulars as to the train you are to catch at London Bridge, due at Dormans Station 1.11 & I will send a car to meet you & bring you to the Brackens. After dinner we shall return to the Brackens & you will leave Tuesday morning. I think you had better let me know what time you have to be at business Tuesday, so that I can arrange accordingly. I enclose the receipt for Enid's schooling which please give to your mother. ... You must let me know of any expenses you may have in connection with this matter.
Accompanying her grandfather to banquets became more frequent; Olive was well known by the society attending them and her role increased in importance. A letter from him in January 1936 states:
I may want you to act as hostess at the LADIES banquet next year (not this). What you want to do is to get a little training in speaking, deportment etc, & not to be 'shy', but to be able to converse easily with the gentlemen who may be on the right & left of you, who will be the company's most important guests. One will be the Lord Mayor of London and the other probably the Lord Chief Justice ... you will see the importance of trying to get a good training from someone who is a Lady and knows what she is about.
He followed this up on 7 March with:
I will try & find out if I can find a suitable Lady to give you a few lessons. I will let you know. Meanwhile you can buy a book on Etiquette, which may be all that is necessary, & just a lesson or two on deportment may be all that is required. I will pay for the book, but you had better get a good one.
And when it finally came round to September, nearing the date of the banquet, he prepared her with the following:
Referring to you coming to the dinner next Saturday, I want you, if you will, to respond to the Toast of the Ladies. It is not a very difficult matter & I enclose you a suggested little speech which you can add to or alter as you like – it is only a suggestion, perhaps you can get an added inspiration from some of your girl friends, or you can learn this off if you like & just give it. In any event it must not be long.
With love & looking forward to seeing you,
You will be Hostess of one of the tables.
The speech he sent read as follows:
Master Wardens, Members of the court of Assistants, Ladies & Gentlemen:
We cannot be other than grateful for the kind way Mr Hatswell has proposed the Toast of the Ladies, and while I am unused to after dinner speaking & feel that this Toast deserves a better response than I am able to give it, I gladly do so, and thank you all, the Ladies in particular, for kindly coming here this evening, and I hope you will not be long before you come again, as then, perhaps, I shall get another invitation.
In the end Olive wrote her own short speech, for which she received many compliments.
By this time, of course, she was a fully-fledged secretary, independent, living in a flat of her own, and with all the accoutrements needed by a young 'lady' destined for the world of society. Her father had effectively moved out of his wife's hotel in Croydon, and was buying property, such as rows of houses, to sell after renovation. They finally agreed to divorce, and by the time war began he was remarried and had moved to East Grinstead. It was a traumatic time for all the family, but, though Enid kept her distance, Olive did manage to keep in touch with her father and see him occasionally.
Olive's first secretarial employment was with George Court and Sons Ltd., a New Zealand company of merchants and importers, in Chiswell Street, EC1. She was not there for long but enjoyed herself and when she left their testimonial read:
To WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. This is to record that Miss Olive Christopher of 154, Lower Addiscombe Road, East Croydon, was in our employ as Shorthand Typist and filing Clerk from 30 June 1930, to September 18 1931, on which latter date she left of her own accord. During this period we found her extremely willing and courteous, thoroughly trustworthy and competent. We are sorry to lose her and extend our best wishes for her future.
This trustworthiness and competence were to stand her in good stead later on, especially after the onset of war.
She then took a job with Lloyds Underwriters, firstly Robert Bradford and then C.E. Heath and Co. By the age of eighteen she felt completely independent and had become a chorus member of the Lloyds Operatic and Dramatic Society, taking part in productions such as Bittersweet, White Horse Inn, and Music in the Air. She loved being on her own, and she really felt she was 'going somewhere'. Life in London at this time was sociable and fun for a young secretary such as herself, and there was so much to do; but she kept in touch with family, visiting her mother and sister in Croydon, and, when she craved country air, heading off on the train to see her grandfather at Dormans Park, or joining him for lunch when he came up to town.
Excerpted from From Churchill's War Rooms by Joanna Moody. Copyright © 2013 Joanna Moody. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: 1915-43 Early Years,
Part Two: Letters,
(I) 1943-44 Cairo, Teheran, Marrakech,
(II) 1944 Quebec,
(III) 1945 Berlin/Potsdam,
List of Illustrations,