Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 11:19 UK

Secrets of No 10's Garden Room Girls


Naomi Grimley tells the story of Downing Street's elite band of secretaries

By Naomi Grimley
Presenter, The Garden Room Girls, BBC Radio 4

If you ever find yourself in the bowels of No 10, you will come across two unmarked rooms. They are called the Garden Rooms for the simple reason that they look out onto the famous Downing Street rose garden.

It is from these offices that an elite band of secretaries work around the clock.

Over the years the women who have worked here have had a behind-the-scenes view of our prime ministers.

So we took some of the old "Garden Room Girls" back to No 10 for a reunion.

And for the first time, they have given special interviews to the BBC recalling their memories.

Churchill's Budgie

Ann Finchett - our eldest Garden Room Girl - arrived at No 10 in the last year of Clement Attlee's government, aged just 19.

It was back in the days when women had to wear hats and gloves to work - especially if you were a prime minister's secretary.

I really found them remarkably good. There are lots of people who would just run out of the room screaming
Tony Blair

Her clearest memories are of working for Winston Churchill, who would often dictate while he lay in bed.

"He had a budgerigar which used to fly about his bedroom," remembers Ann.

The bird would land in her lap and start nibbling the edges of the paper.

"I often wondered what ministers made of the letters they used to get with bits taken out of them," Ann adds.

Ann is touched by being invited back to No 10 for our documentary. It is the technology which has changed the most.

Gone are the heavy-set typewriters - now there is even a flat-screen computer in the Cabinet Room.

In Ann's day, she would be called to attend the Prime Minister through a bell system - like in a country house.

Ann stops to ask one of the current Garden Room Girls how they are summoned nowadays.

The reply is by email. "By email?" says Ann in shock. "From one room to the next? Gosh!"

Foreign Trips

Another of the Garden Room Girls' tasks is to follow the Prime Minister everywhere he or she goes, to act as a travelling communications hub.

No one knows this better than Tony Blair.

He tells our programme: "They came on holiday with me, and one of them even went with me to hospital when I had to have that procedure on my heart."

Reunion of Garden Room Girls
The No 10 reunion sparked memories for ex-Garden Room Girls

The Garden Room Girls are certainly a well-travelled lot - some of them have kept their luggage labels and tickets from cruises on Royal Yacht Britannia or flights on Concorde.

Tessa Wells was a Garden Room Girl in the 1970s. She remembers being particularly busy on one trans-Atlantic flight.

"I had to take dictation from one civil servant whilst I was being fed canapés by another to keep me going," she recalls.

The thing about being a Garden Room Girl is that the unexpected happens and you have to be ready to respond.

'State of shock'

Linda Townshend found this out on 22 November 1963.

She was accompanying Sir Alec Douglas-Home on a country weekend to the Duke of Norfolk's castle.

Linda had gone ahead to set up her office when the phone rang. "It was from the private office in London to say that President Kennedy had been shot," she remembers.

"We had no more news but I was to tell Sir Alec the minute he got there."

Garden Room Girls
The technology used by Garden Room Girls has transformed over the years

In the days before mobile phones there was no way of getting hold of the Prime Minister, who was stuck in bad traffic.

Linda soon took a second call: "President Kennedy had actually died, and still the prime minister hadn't turned up."

When he finally did arrive Linda had to break the terrible news.

But as often happens during big events, there was confusion.

"I thought I'd said President Kennedy had been shot but I may well have said President De Gaulle by mistake because we were all in a state of shock," she admits.

Either way, there was a moment of black comedy while they established which President was alive and which one was dead.

After that, they had to rush straight to Washington to attend JFK's funeral.

'Funeral parlour'

Nowadays all the No 10 post is opened by a special correspondence unit.

But it used to be yet another job for the Garden Room Girls.

Tessa Wells had to cope with the bags and bags of mail that arrived in November 1990, when Mrs Thatcher stood down as Prime Minister. "It was like a funeral parlour with all the flowers," she recalls.

Reunion of Garden Room Girls
The Downing Street rose garden gives the secretaries their collective name

Mrs Thatcher herself came down stairs to the Garden Rooms to open and read a sample of letters herself.

Tessa remembers how she and her colleagues looked on nervously as the Iron Lady picked an envelope and started to open it.

"We were all terrified it was a letter from someone saying 'good riddance, you old boot'. But thankfully it was just from a small boy so there were sighs of relief all round!"

Stand-up row

Tempers - of course - do get frayed from time to time in such a high-pressured environment. Sir Anthony Eden had a short fuse.

Sue Stanier, who worked in No 10 in the 1950s, once saw him throw a sherry glass in a fury.

Another of our Garden Room Girls, Lillian Rhodes, even had a stand-up row with Jim Callaghan as she reminded him tersely that she wasn't a mind-reader.

Then - of course - there are Whitehall rumours about Gordon Brown being moody around the office. "Have you ever thrown a stapler in anger?" I ask Tony Blair. He laughs and says he cannot remember.

But he can recall the moments of tension before those keynote speeches. "There was always something going wrong with the printer," he says.

But it was then that the professional Garden Room Girls came into their own.

"I really found them remarkably good," Mr Blair says.

"There are lots of people who would just run out of the room screaming."

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