Cheltenham Ladies College got a mention on BBC Radio 4 a few days ago, as being a rich source of recruitment for the intelligence services. Cheltenham Ladies have been involved in intelligence, probably since WWI when the government suddenly realised that their formerly virtually amateur and part time service needed to be brought up to date and expanded in the face of the German threat. Erskine Childers in his book ‘Riddle of the Sands’ had touched on espionage and counter-espionage, and Buchan too in books like The 39 Steps often had middle-class, well-educated men in the role of agents and frequently females in the role of ‘Mata Hari’s or the other side of the sheet.
The intelligence services needed to be boosted quickly with intelligent people and so the universities and top schools, such as Cheltenham Ladies, were quickly approached to recruit their top brains. Women, however, were usually brought into the Service in administration or support roles and it probably wasn’t until the Second World War that they were seriously used in field roles.
Cheltenham Ladies’ College is on our doorstep and over the past few years we have had a few ‘old girls’ passing through for reunions and so on. Just one example of a CLC ‘old girl’ in intelligence includes:
Mary Isabella ‘Molly’ Ingram, born in 1908 was just one such. She was taken at a young age by her parents to live in India, but returned to be educated in Cheltenham. Back in the far east, she joined MI5 in Singapore in 1938 and when the Japanese invaded escaped to India with her parents. Later in 1942 she worked with Special Force 136 dealing with Japanese sabotage and espionage and then went to work as an intelligence officer on Mountbatten’s HQ staff in New Delhi. She worked in this area throughout the war and was the only woman allowed to attend high level meetings.
The more conventional connection between Cheltenham and Intelligence, is of course through GCHQ. A very recent guest, an architect, now semi-retired, worked with his company on the construction of the iconic ‘doughnut’ GCHQ headquarters a number of years ago; every Science Festival, the Enigma machines are rolled out by GCHQ staff as an exhibit for the public and children to marvel at; our son-in-law’s uncle was Director of GCHQ from about 1950 to about 1960, having run one of the Bletchley Park huts during the war, breaking the German cyphers, then having been sent to Washington in 1946 to liaise with the US Intelligence services and arrange further cooperation. Additionally we had two recent American guests, both retired senior members of the US National Security Agency (NSA) who had been seconded to GCHQ when it was located at Benhall in Cheltenham, and who oversaw the move of their departments into the new ‘doughnut’ building on its completion. They had come back to Cheltenham to reminisce over their good times in the town and revisit some of their old haunts and restaurants – some of their choices an enigma in their own right…