by Julia Kelly
Whenever someone visiting London asks where they should go, I always recommend a trip to the Churchill War Rooms (CWR). Now a part of the Imperial War Museum, the CWR, which was known as the Cabinet War Rooms when it was in use, was a secret underground bunker for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his ministers, and military strategists during World War II.
The CWR has been lovingly brought back to life, and museum-goers can now wander by Churchill’s bedroom, the map room, and the cabinet room where some of the great men of the war worked. It even houses a retrospective on the life of Churchill. However, it is the tiny, unassuming Room 60A that inspired me to set my debut historical mystery A Traitor in Whitehall in the CWR because of the nearly anonymous but incredibly important women who worked there.
Between the summer of 1940 and 1941, Room 60A served as the CWR’s Typing Pool. Given that this was a time before modern conveniences such as copy machines, typists, like my amateur sleuth Evelyne Redfern, were a vital part of a well-run office.
In A Traitor in Whitehall, Evelyne is recruited to join the Typing Pool. All seems to be going well until, on her second shift, she stumbles across the body of a fellow typist. Unimpressed with the investigators brought in to handle the case, she takes it upon herself to catch a killer hiding in plain sight among her colleagues.
The demand for administrative support from typists like Evelyne was high throughout the war, but there were limitations on who would be chosen for such a role. The women of the typing pool were often young and universally unmarried because the civil service had operated a Marriage Ban since before the war. Not only were both male and female staff working for the government required to receive their employer’s permission before marrying, women who wished to marry were forced to resign from their jobs unless they received a special waiver. (Married women were not hired in the first place.)
The Imperial War Museum has a letter in its collection that was sent to a typist in July 1943, and it gives some insight into the practicalities of the job. The writer tells the recipient that, pending background checks, she has been offered the job of Temporary Shorthand Typist Grade II for the “war period,” with one week’s notice required for firing or resignation. She was offered 47 shillings plus 13 shillings, 6 pence a week in war bonus, which is just over £3 (roughly £215 today). This typist was also offered sick leave and annual leave (or vacation time).
Once employed by the CWR, a typist would receive work sent to her supervisor from departments across many branches of the military. The women, who worked in shifts of six, sat on swivel chairs at wooden desks with a low light with a green shade hanging over their desks. On their Imperial typewriters (later “noiseless” Remington models imported from America to appease Churchill’s distaste for excessive sounds), the typists would insert a top paper and two carbon pages so that all their work was produced in triplicate.
In this manner, the typists of the CWR produced an incredible number of documents for the Joint Planning Staff. These might include memos, reports, or handwritten meeting notes.
Although the typists handled incredibly sensitive information, former CWR typist Joy Hunter recalls, “You [had] no idea where it’s come from and probably [hadn’t] got much idea what the content is either because you just have to type it, get it right, and get it checked.”
In some ways, life in the CWR resembled that of life above ground. There was a post box for staff members’ personal letters that was emptied four times a day, and those working there could also receive personal letters. From 1942, the typists could have used the canteen that was set up for staff meals or, if there was not an air raid on, they could choose to go out to a local cafe for a bite to eat. There were even film screenings for recreation.
A typists’ shift typically lasted three days at a time, and those on shift would sleep in the CWR’s dormitory called the Dock on hard wooden bunk beds. However, even when they went home, their work was not far from their thoughts because they couldn’t tell anyone where they worked or what they did, not even close family, because of the incredibly secretive nature of their job.
Writing a mystery set in the CWR and featuring the Typing Pool proved to be both a challenge and a blessing. Much like an isolated country house in a Golden Age detective novel, the CWR was a closed environment that was carefully guarded because of its incredible importance. However, having the scope of the museum’s physical catalog, Secrets of Churchill’s War Rooms by Jonathan Asbury, as well as its online collection and extensive record of oral histories was a boon when it came to adding rich historical detail and bringing to life the experience of the CWR’s typists—even a fictional one on the hunt for a murderer.
Julia Kelly is the international bestselling author of historical novels about the extraordinary stories of the past, including The Lost English Girl and Light Over London. Her books have been translated into 14 languages. In addition to writing, she’s been an Emmy-nominated producer, journalist, marketing professional, and (for one summer) a tea waitress. Julia called Los Angeles, Iowa, and New York City home before settling in London.