Secretarial Masterpiece: A Churchillian Reader by Cita Stelzer

Secretarial Masterpiece: A Churchillian Reader by Cita Stelzer

Cita Stelz­er, Work­ing with Win­ston: The Unsung Women Behind Britain’s Great­est States­man. New York, Pega­sus Books, 2019, 400 pages, $28.95, Ama­zon $19.35, Kin­dle $14.99. Excerpt­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the full text, click here.

Grace Ham­blin came to Chartwell in 1932 and served as sec­re­tary to both Churchills. After Sir Winston’s death she became Chartwell’s first Nation­al Trust admin­is­tra­tor. Through all those years she nev­er “wrote.” Nor, with one excep­tion, did his oth­er office sec­re­taries. The excep­tion was Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton Nel. Her love­ly book, orig­i­nal­ly  Mr. Churchill’s Sec­re­tary, was writ­ten with Churchill’s approval, and in the kind­est terms.

For the record

Ham­blin and many oth­ers knew their expe­ri­ences would be valu­able to his­to­ry. Thus they coop­er­at­ed by mak­ing record­ings with Churchill Archives Cen­tre. That is where Cita Stelz­er first went in search of her untold sto­ry. But Mrs. Stelz­er did not stop there: her nine-page bib­li­og­ra­phy tes­ti­fies to the count­less sources she consulted.Cita Stelzer

Noth­ing like this has been attempt­ed before. There are many com­pi­la­tions by and about those who knew and worked with Churchill. But all those involved “the good and the great.” Stelz­er instead offers the unsung hero­ines (and one hero) who spent their prime in Churchill’s “pri­vate office.”

The author is mind­ful of the vast cul­tur­al gulf between their time and ours. Today, she notes, “women of equal tal­ent and will­ing­ness to work would have grander titles.” Today they’d be called—at the very least—”executive assistants.”

The grand triumvirate

The first three chap­ters cov­er the most stel­lar and impor­tant of Churchill’s sec­re­taries: Vio­let Pear­man, Grace Ham­blin and Kath­leen Hill. Between them they piled up forty years of experience.

Pear­man, the imper­turbable “Mrs. P.,” served from 1929 to 1938. She took ill, but con­tin­ued to serve part-time from her home until she died of a stroke in 1941. Grace Ham­blin “broke in” at Chartwell under Mrs. P. “She worked like a Tro­jan,” Grace remembered.

Ham­blin her­self has been often men­tioned in Churchill lore. She was involved in every aspect of his affairs. There was no dif­fer­ence in pri­or­i­ty, she said, either. Stop­ping at the Post Office for the lat­est page proofs was no more impor­tant than fetch­ing the a ship­ment of mag­gots for Churchill’s gold­fish. She often remem­bered how she would rush off to the vil­lage after sum­mons by the post­mas­ter. “Is that the sec­re­tary? Yer mag­gots are ‘ere, Miss!”

Kath­leen Hill arrived in July 1937 to assist Grace and Mrs. P. as the Euro­pean scene dark­ened and Churchill’s polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary work built. “Hill would work for Mrs. Churchill in the morn­ings, rest dur­ing the after­noon, and then work for Churchill at nights, some­times until 2 or 3 a.m.,” Cita Stelz­er writes.


Trea­sury Tag.

Hill wasn’t on the job a day when Churchill com­mand­ed: “Fetch me Klop.” She remem­bered see­ing a lengthy study of the Stu­arts by the Ger­man his­to­ri­an Onno Klopp. Proud­ly she stag­gered down two flights of stairs with four­teen vol­umes of Der Fall des Haus­es Stu­art und die Suc­ces­sion des Hous­es Han­nover. “God Almighty!” Churchill roared.

“Klop” was a “Churchillism”—a word invent­ed “for rea­sons of ono­matopoeia.” It was a met­al hole-punch that allowed a “Trea­sury tag” (a length of yarn with met­al “Ts” at its ends) to secure pages togeth­er. He detest­ed sta­ples and paper clips, because, he said, “they are very dan­ger­ous as they pick up and hold togeth­er wrong papers.” Real­iz­ing his explo­sion had hurt Mrs. Hill’s feel­ings, Stelz­er writes, “he com­pli­ment­ed her on her handwriting.”

Their value was beyond their station

There are nine fur­ther chap­ters on these remark­able char­ac­ters. The above gives the fla­vor of them all: the warm human­i­ty, the humor and affec­tion, between the staff and the boss.

“Sec­re­taries” or “short­hand typ­ists” is what they were called in their day. Some­times with a new one Churchill would for­get her name, and refer to “Miss” or “the sec­re­tary” or “young woman.” Not one of them ever felt demeaned by this. They cer­tain­ly were dis­tressed when Churchill, deep in thought, flew into a rage over some minor mis­take. But their loy­al­ty and love nev­er dimin­ished. None ever tried to prof­it by care­less rev­e­la­tions, or by leak­ing priv­i­leged gos­sip. They respect­ed Churchill, as he, in the end, did them.

Read­ing Cita Stelzer’s pages bring to mind what Churchill said when the local gyp­sy, “Mrs. Don­key Jack,” was hos­pi­tal­ized. Churchill paid for her care and sent a gar­den­er to feed her dogs. One of them, small and fierce, stood watch over her car­a­van in the Chartwell Wood. “He allows Arnold to bring food at a respectable dis­tance, and con­sents to eat it,” Churchill wrote his wife. “But oth­er­wise he remains like the ser­aph Abdiel in Par­adise Lost. ‘Among innu­mer­able false, unmoved, Unshak­en, unse­duced, unter­ri­fied; His loy­al­ty he kept, his love, his zeal.’ A fine moral les­son to the baser breed of man!”

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