Diaries of an elite Downing Street secretary or ‘Garden Room Girl’ who served in Whitehall under Winston Churchill and worked at No 10 under Clement Attlee, 1945-1946.
Two small diaries. 1. Lorimer’s Ruby Diary, inscribed on the cover ‘B.Crisp 1940’ and on the flyleaf: ‘Belinda Crisp If found please return without turning this page over’, mostly pencilled schoolgirl entries. 2. Walker’s Year by Year Book, Five Year pre-printed Diary bound in faded red cloth over boards. Inscribed opposite title page: ‘Belinda Jean Crisp Christmas 1941. From Mummy… Old Windsor Berkshire… 1945 HM Treasury Whitehall, S.W.1. - 1945, 1946 10 Downing St. S.W.1. My personal diary from 1942, when all Europe was in Nazi chains…’ Crisp’s diary is laid out over 366 pre-printed pages containing 5 years of hand-written entries on each dated leaf, written in a miniscule hand in contrasting ink colours to distinguish one year from the next. To the rear 18 pages of additional ‘Memoranda’; approximately 120,000 words.
These two diaries cover the end of Belinda Crisp’s schooling and secretarial training before this socially well-connected young woman transitioned from Windsor to H.M. Treasury in April 1945 and Number 10 in September 1945 soon after Clement Attlee’s arrival: ’Started work at 10, Downing Street. V. bewildering & pretty terrifying’. Her learning curve was steep, as she records on 13th October ‘... terrifying... Went over to Annex & learnt to teleprint to Grosvenor House to get to America.’ In the Garden Rooms, reinforced during the war years in the basement of Number 10 for the secretarial corps, and Churchill’s dinner parties, Crisp records her work with the Cabinet Secretary, government ministers and then Prime Minister Attlee: ‘I also went to... the PM. who was awfully sweet but I had to stay till 8.30. However that ambition is at last realised.’ Later in the diaries such encounters become almost routine: ‘Mostly reading post & doing urgent typing for the P.M.’
Crisp became familiar with the most sensitive material that passed through Downing Street, including nuclear weapons, in October 1945: ’V. Interesting typing on Atomic energy. Churchill says it should be kept in the hands of Brit & U.S. Attlee wishes to give it to the world’. No 10 life was unrelenting, if rewarding, for the diarist: ‘A quite impossibly hectic AM with fair copy of speech & stencilling for it to be rolled out & translated for the delegates of the United Nation’s organisation at 4.0 this PM. It gives me a thrill & I hope it always will - to do work urgently when it means something’ (10.1.1946). The deteriorating situation abroad breaks into the diary repeatedly. First, pre-independence India: ‘... awful rush. Jean doing a scramble with Chequers with India telegrams. The situation is becoming v. acute. There is a lot of rioting, a lot of people have been killed & there is this terrific famine looming. How I wish I knew no one there…’ (23.2.1946) and then Palestine: ‘P.M. came up to London for meeting on Palestine. Reports from there are pretty bad & no one seems to know what to do.’
In order to be available around the clock Crisp often slept in a government dormitory on Downing Street whence she records: ‘’Went to bed at 10… but had to get up at 11.45 for ¾ of an hour for F[oreign] O[ffice] telegram about Trieste - hectic rush in nightdress wh[ich] I’ve always longed to do’ and this urgency inevitably brought with it moments of comedy: ‘Rolled off telegram [on Palestine] & only slight chaos as no paper could be found till 9.45 & the cabinet met at 10.’ In his final months in Downing Street Churchill’s presence is felt during Crisp’s months at the Treasury where she got to know her new colleagues in early 1945 ‘... managed to talk to some of the other girls, too - & giggle! Excitement over Churchill’s chair.’
Naturally, much of the diary is concerned with the day to day life, ambitions and anxieties of a young woman growing up just outside London, who lives with the privations and losses of wartime: ‘Oh God, to think I may never get married, may never do the domestic things for a home or husband of my own - may never really love.’ After the move to Whitehall there were also more pressing worries: ‘Hell trying to get to work as streets shut for opening of Parl[iamen]t. Work pretty well all day on odd bits of PM’s speech… masses of guards & police [because] of Jewish terrorists. It seems rather serious & it is a strange feeling knowing one is a target for death - rather unpleasant but not really frightening.’ And her war years had their fair share of loss, notably her close friend and the brother of the future politician Tony Benn: ‘Michael [Benn] has been killed… died… 2 mins after Lady S[tansgate] got there…. Made today almost unbearable as he was the type of man for whom there’d have been a future after this war’ (26 June 1944). Despite her subsequent loyalty to Attlee, Crisp’s entry on the day of the Labour landslide is amusingly trenchant: ‘Never, never have I had such a ghastly depressing day. Full force of the labour result has come on us all… What HELL life is.’ But alongside such melodramatic entries Crisp acknowledged that you have to keep on keeping on: ‘Hitler is reported dead officially & Doenitz has taken over…. Washed hair’ (May 6 1945).