Sunday, July 8, 2018

Hush WAACS - Secret service women in the family tree

Since the lifting of the official secrets embargo on the history of code-breaking during World War II, there have been numerous books written about Bletchley Park, plus a number of documentaries, TV series and films, many of them about female code-breakers.

What is much less known is that women were also involved in a similar service during World War I. They were called the “Hush WAACS” but the information on them is rather scanty. Rather than describe here what they did in too much detail, see this link:-

GCHQ page on the Hush Waacs 

Imagine my surprise and delight, then,  while doing family research I would discover that two of the 17 only known Hush WAACS were distant cousins of my late husband and they came from the same area of Tyneside that features strongly in both our family trees.

WAACS off to help with the war effort

The two women were sisters, Violet Munby (1884-1974) and Gladys May Munby (1887-1955). Neither sister ever married. 

Their names appear on this list Hush WAAC Roll of Honour as follows, showing the dates they were associated with the intelligence services in WW1.

Name: Gladys Mary [sic] Munby
Age in 1918: 30
Arrived I(e)C: October 1917
Departed: November 1918
Notes: Pianist educated in Germany; YMCA work before 1917
Name: Violet Munby
Age in 1918: 33
Arrived I(e)C: March 1918
Departed: November 1918
WAACS off duty in France
Their parents were John William Munby (1855-1946) and Anne Bates Walker (1849-1915). John William Munby was a prominent figure in North Shields/Tynemouth area.

Anne Bates Walker's mother, also Anne Bates (1816-1853), was the sister of my husband’s great-great-grandfather, Matthew William Bates (1820-1860). (See below for the story of how she died and also an uncanny link to my own ancestors.)

The Munby family lived at 16 Northumberland Square, North Shields, considered to be a quality address described as “the closest thing on Tyneside to the iconic Georgian squares of Edinburgh, Dublin, London and Bath.” Sadly, No. 16 has only just been demolished in 2017 - read here.

Northumberland Square, c. 1960s

There are many references to J.W. Munby and his services to the community in the local newspapers from 1904 when he first stood for council, culminating in him becoming Mayor of Tynemouth in 1923, although he appears to have kept working in various capacities until he died aged 90 in 1946.

North Shields store owned by the father of Gladys and Violet Munby

Family vault of Annie Bates and J W Munby, Preston Cemetery, North Shields

The two sisters clearly received fine educations, being fluent in languages and talented musicians. There are a number of newspaper references to both of them being awarded prizes for their piano playing. 

Gladys studied musicianship in Germany and returned to England at the outbreak of World War I. She advertised lessons in the local Tyneside newspapers and after the war was over, appeared to do a fair bit of travelling. She made the news columns when she arrived in Sydney, Australia, in 1923. This from the Sydney Morning Herald of  29 December 1923:

Miss Gladys Munby arrived in Sydney during the week as the last English musician to put in an appearance during 1923. 
This young artist was trained at the Dresden Conservatorium as a pianist under Miss Rappoldi, a venerable virtuoso who studied under Liszt, and also with Emit Kronke, a pupil of Grieg, with whose works he is much identified. 
After 18 months at Dresden the war broke out, and Miss Munby beat a hasty retreat to her home in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where she studied with Mr. E.L. Bainton, and took her A.R.C.M. [Associate of Royal College of Music] by examination. 
Her musical career was then submerged by the calls of her country. She first went to Etaples, the great reinforcement base for the British army, and did canteen work with the Y.M.C.A [Young Men's Christian Association] until the authorites were apprised of her fluency in speaking German. Miss Munby at once joined the Q.M.A.A.C. (Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps), and was attached to the Intelligence Department at St. Omer to decode German wireless.This department was colloquially designated the "Hush Waacs". 
After the Armistice the pianist was transferred to the British Army of Occupation on the Rhine and was employed in the Censor's Office to read Germany correspondence. 
Miss Munby then left on a visit to friends in New Zealand and now proposes settling in Sydney, where her knowledge of music and languages should be of the utmost service to her.

Gladys was appointed Music Teacher at the prestigious Sydney Presbyterian Ladies College and in 1926 was transferred to the new PLC in Orange, New South Wales - that school is now known as Kinross-Wollaroi.

She continued to pop up in Australian news reports over several years, with descriptions of her playing at recitals in places like Gunning and Goulburn, New South Wales, and she is even listed in programs for Sunday night concerts on Radio 2BL in Sydney.

The last we hear of Gladys in Australia is this report from Sydney Sun 16 March 1930:

Gladys Munby 
Further study on the Continent is the mission of Miss Gladys Munby, who is leaving immediately for Paris and Vienna. 
For the past six years Miss Munby has successfully taught pianoforte playing and music in leading schools of Sydney and country districts, and she has much excellent work to her credit, her students having given proof of this by results at examinations .... 
... Miss Munby is an associate of the Royal College of Music, London, and she has already had four years' study with eminent masters at Dresden and elsewhere on the Continent.

So where did Gladys go after that? Did she really do further study in Europe as stated in the article? Although she popped up on Australian Electoral Rolls during her stay in that country, there is no sign of her in the English ones. 

Nothing else can be found for her until the 1939 Register in which she is listed as a School Teacher living at a boarding hotel in Montague Street adjacent to the British Museum.

In the 1939 Register next to her entry there is handwriting - "QM[sic]MAC Administration Temporary Unit". This suggests her previous war experience with the Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps may have come to the notice of someone. Did she then go to Bletchley Park or somewhere similar to do translation or other covert work?

Gladys died in 1955 in a nursing home in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, which is a long way from her family connections in North Shields. She left an estate valued at £14,000 (at least £300,000 today) and her executors were her half-brother Robert Pickering Munby and sister Violet Munby. 

Meanwhile, Violet Munby had a similar background to Gladys, with a few newspaper reports of her piano playing locally on Tyneside, but she is even more mysterious. 

The passenger ship records show that after World War I, Violet travelled back and forth across the Atlantic between the UK, France, Italy and New York regularly. Her occupations are as numerous as the  crossings she made. She's a "maid", or "journalist", "housekeeper" or "housewife", "companion" or "governess", even a "proof-reader". Her addresses on arrival are rarely the same either and they 
included flats in Kensington and Hampstead in London as well as 317 West 45th Street, New York, an apartment complex originally built by Vincent AstorOthers are just shown as Washington DC, or random places such Birmingham or Crookham in the UK. 

By 1955, she gave the address of her brother, Dr. William Maxwell Munby, who lived at 12 Mill Grove, Tynemouth. There is also only one passenger list showing her sister Gladys heading for New York to stay at the W. 45th Street address. 

Violet also acquired an American Social Security Number, likely to have been issued in New York some time after 1936 and before 1951. 

Name:Violet Munby
Last Residence:
800 (U.S. Consulate) London, United Kingdom
BORN:25 Apr 1884
Died:Dec 1974
State (Year) SSN issued:New York (Before 1951)

What was she doing going back and forth so frequently and doing different, rather humble, jobs? Could she have been some kind of courier? 

The most telling evidence that Violet may have been involved in some sort of covert travel is this extract from 1943 of a rare Pan American Airways manifest of people flying from Darrell Island, Bermuda, to New York. 

Violet is accompanied by another woman and both are described as "Civil Servants" with their Bermuda address as "Imperial Censorship Bermuda".

So this proves that during World War II Violet continued to be involved in similar work to that she did in World War I. 

Most of the censors were women, called Examiners or "Censorettes", with the majority being older spinsters chosen for their world knowledge and language skills ... one wonders if Gladys might also have been there? Other censors included:

... a Swiss florist, the former manager of the Anglo-Czechoslovakian Bank of London and a Cambridge University professor with a command of 30 languages including rare Indian dialects.
Others who have worked for the Imperial Censorship in Bermuda are Val Gielgud, a BBC producer, Eric Maschwitz, author of Balalaika, a doctor who was at Dunkirk, a biographer of obscure French philosophers and a Scottish girl with a command of 10 languages. Age was no issue with several eminent language scholars over the age of 80.

Read more here
Censorship Department in Bermuda
Bermuda's Espionage Role
The Man Called Intrepid - the "boss" at Bermuda

It may well be that Violet even crossed paths with Elizebeth Friedman, recently the subject of a fascinating book  by Joseph Fagone entitled The Woman Who Smashed Codes  - read my book review here.

Princess Hotel, Bermuda, HQ of the WW2 Censorship Department

Violet died in North Shields in 1974, her last address being the same as that of her brother, William Maxwell Munby. Her estate was just over £53,000 [around £600,000 today], so either she came into family money from her father or she earned a very good income doing whatever it was she did.

From what I have discovered about these two spinster sisters, it may be that there is a book waiting to be written on them!

My research into Gladys and Violet is ongoing as there is probably much more to be found on them in the archives of the intelligence services but which are not easily accessible to hobbyists like me and it will require the skills and contacts of an investigative journalist to really find out what the pair of them were up to. 


As to the family connection:

The mother of Anne Bates Munby, Anne Bates Walker,  ran a shop selling flour at 154 Buckingham Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, where she was blown up in a gas explosion in 1853 when her daughter was only about 4 years of age. 

The inquest found that Anne's husband William Walker was to blame as he obviously wasn't very smart, having gone looking for a gas leak with a lighted candle! 

Anne’s brother, Matthew William Bates, my husband’s ancestor, rushed to her aid but she died soon afterwards. 

By a truly bizarre coincidence, my own g-g-grandmother Julia Atkin (1803-1861) lived just a few doors away from that very shop around this period and no doubt she may have known Anne Bates Walker or even bought supplies from her. She may even have been a witness to the explosion.

See this relevant page of the 1851 Census. Little Anne Bates Walker on the first line, my own g-g-grandmother [sic. Judith Aikin] fourth from the bottom.

One final twist in this uncanny tale of family connection is that Violet appears to have lived out her later years with her brother, Dr. William Maxwell Munby, at 12 Mill Grove, Tynemouth.

In the early 1960s when I was a teenager, and many years before I met my husband or had the slightest inkling we had ancestors who'd once lived close to one another, I'd just started my first job in Newcastle on Tyne during which time I lived briefly in a rented house in Tynemouth with my parents prior to us moving to Canada to live. 

I can't now recall the exact number, but the house was a corner one in Mill Grove, possibly quite close to, maybe even right across the road, from the Munbys. 


Jen said...

Very interesting!

Deirdre Farrar said...

My great-grandmother, Olivia Chevallier, was also a Hush WAAC. She wrote of Violet and Gladys in her memoirs.

Regina of Arbeia said...

Thanks - I'd be interested in knowing what she wrote about them. Are her memoirs available anywhere to read?