Skip to comments.Elizabeth Nel — obituary
Posted on 11/16/2007 7:43:42 PM PST by dighton
Elizabeth Nel, who has died aged 90, was the last surviving personal secretary to have worked for Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
At 10.30 one evening in late May 1941 Elizabeth Layton, as she then was, first encountered the prime minister in 10 Downing Street as he paced up and down in his siren suit.
There was no greeting; he disliked new faces. The new shorthand-typist sat down at the specially adapted silent typewriter, and immediately made a mistake when he started to dictate.
Churchill liked his minutes typed in double-spaced lines, but she used single spacing. He exploded. With the words fool, mug and idiot ringing in her ears she was ordered from the room.
More ructions followed when she returned a few days later, not least because the prime ministerial lisp made his words even more indistinct when delivered through the inevitable cigar. Moreover, having recently arrived from Canada, Elizabeth Layton displayed woeful ignorance: she had never heard of chrome or of General Auchinleck.
In addition she wrote perverted for perfervid, and described the Air Minister, rather than the Air Ministry, as being in a state of chaos from top to bottom.
Churchills curses and growls of complaint continued, but Elizabeth Layton never doubted that she worked for a great man who was under the greatest pressure. Even if he kept her up until 4.30am, as he often did, and had a habit of dictating to her from his bed, in cars or aircraft, or while walking in the garden, he was not unaware of the price he exacted, telling her to take no notice of his irritation, and remarking, when he noted her tiredness: We must go on and on like gunhorses till we drop.
If he had been particularly short with her he would usually say Goodnight in a contrite manner. As a result she retained furious feelings of devotion.
The young Miss Layton recorded her observations in a diary and in long letters to her mother, which formed the basis of Mr Churchills Secretary (1958), a book that was to be mined by his official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert.
She noted the way Churchill liked his speeches laid out in verse form; his habit of lighting cigars from a candle which then had to be whisked away because he disliked the smell of it being snuffed out; and how he was most irritable when things were going smoothly, yet sweet when the situation looked dark.
The Chiefs of Staff who entered the secretaries room before meetings were too preoccupied for small talk, but she found ministers more friendly.
Anthony Eden was affable in his velvet smoking jacket; Ernest Bevin reminded her of a steam shovel; Lord Beaverbrook talked with a snarl; and while General Smuts liked the country house atmosphere of Chequers - though not the late hours - the American Secretary of State, Harry Hopkins, complained of the cold.
Sitting silently with Churchill when there was no dictation, Elizabeth noted the way the chimes of Big Ben became intermingled with those of the Horse Guards clock in the early hours; and recalled the time that Nellie, the parlourmaid, saw a German parachutist on the Admiralty building (it turned out to be Nelson on his column). There was also the morning that Smokey, the cat, bit a prime ministerial toe while Churchill was lying in bed.
When the flying bombs started Miss Layton refused to abandon work for a shelter, and then screwed up the courage to ask to accompany Churchill abroad. The work on these trips was often as hard as ever. Gee, are you crazy? asked a guard in the White House who found her going to bed at 4.30am. All the American girls went home 12 hours ago.
But she was summoned to meet President Roosevelt, who told her: I think it is time I met you; and, after being bidden to join a dinner in the Crimea, which ended with toasts, she was astonished when Churchill leapt to his feet to propose another, to Miss Layton, the only lady present. A Russian general then seized some flowers from a bowl and dumped them, dripping, in her lap as a bouquet.
After being forced to make a one-line speech of thanks, she found herself taken by the general to a room for another toast, and then another, before rescue came in the form of a senior male secretary.
When she came on duty in Downing Street the night before VE Day, Churchill greeted her: Well, the wars over, you have played your part.
Elizabeth Shakespear Layton was born at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, on June 14 1917, the daughter of a First World War veteran who was advised, because of his tuberculosis, to live in South Africa or British Columbia. The family settled at Vernon, BC, where Elizabeth found the resilience she was to need later when she fell into a frozen pond and had to pull herself out as the ice broke around her.
After leaving school she was sent to a secretarial college in London, and worked at its City employment bureau before going home on holiday in the summer of 1939. She had trained in air raid protection work, and eventually obtained a passage back to London. She worked briefly with the Red Cross before being sent to Downing Street.
Elizabeth Layton remained with Churchill during his brief coalition ministry, and wept with him in his room after his defeat in the subsequent general election. She then announced that she was going to marry a South African soldier, Frans Nel, whom she had met in London after his release from prison camp.
Churchill and his wife Clemmie replied that she must have four children and chanted together: One for Mother, one for Father, one for Accidents and one for Increase.
The young couple settled at Port Elizabeth, in Cape province, and had two sons and a daughter. Elizabeth Nel became vice-president of the National Council of Women and was a strong supporter of her local girls collegiate. She was in regular demand as a speaker about Churchill, but never met him again.
He sent a telegram protesting about her plan to publish a book, but she knew him well enough to take no notice, and he came round when she approached him a second time. Its combination of affection and honesty won round members of the Churchill family.
In the last holiday she and her husband took before Franss death in 2000, they accompanied Churchills granddaughter, Celia Sandys, around the Boer War sights for the book she wrote about her grandfathers time in South Africa.
Elizabeth Nel returned to Britain, once dining with Mrs Thatcher at Downing Street and making a pilgrimage to the home of the Old Etonian Battle of Britain pilot Colin Pinckney, with whom she had been in love before he was killed in action.
In 2005 she was the first person to be presented to the Queen at the opening of the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, and she came back earlier this year to make an 80-minute speech without notes (unlike her master) when it was named a European heritage museum.
A new edition of her book, Winston Churchill by his personal secretary Elizabeth Nel, was completed shortly before her death on October 30.
Born and bred to fight Hitler... he had what it took.
Sounds like Churchill was a hero to his secretary, too. That’s an accomplishment in itself.
What a very special person and what a full life. Very, very humbling.
Hehehehehe....I like that.
Great post, thanks so much.
Well, the wars over, you have played your part. RIP Mrs. Nel.
Wow. What an amazing lady!
Wonderful story, wonderful lady. Thanks for posting.