In honour of International Women’s Day, we spoke to Contact the Elderly guest, crossword extraordinaire, journalist and all-round incredible women Barbara Hall about her achievements and the secret to a happy life.
“Learn Spanish…because…well Brexit.” would be the advice Britain’s longest serving crossword compiler would give to her younger self. Journalist, speech therapist, Navy Wren and agony aunt are just a handful of things she has been known for. With a career spanning over 70 years that has taken her from a village in rural Derbyshire to Buckingham Palace, 96-year-old Barbara Hall certainly has some stories to share.
Barbara is the epitome of an inspiring, successful career woman – but for the first few years of her life, she was sometimes dressed as a boy. When she was six years old, she found out that she had been born a triplet and was the only survivor. Her father had been so devastated by the loss of two sons that her mother would dress her up as a boy to stop him being so sad.
Despite this, Barbara, who was born in Derbyshire in 1923, speaks happily of her childhood. Unable to have any more children and motivated by the traumatic experience of childbirth, her mother was determined Barbara would have the same advantage the boys would have done and encouraged her to concentrate on her studies.
“My mother understood that being a girl was a disadvantage back then,” Barbara says. “She did her absolute best to ensure that I achieved whatever they would have done. I attended elocution lessons, did piano and learned to read by the time I was three.”
Barbara was clever and at 11 she won a competitive scholarship to attend a local grammar school. It was during her time there that she developed a love of crosswords. “By the age of 14 I had published my first crossword after winning a competition in the Daily Mail,” she says. “They had absolutely no idea about my age.”
At 18, Barbara moved to London to follow her dreams of becoming a speech therapist and accepted a place to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but her studies were cut short due to the outbreak of World War II.
“As soon as I finished school, I went to London for the first time to continue my studies but then the war broke out,” she says. “My father got me a temporary job on the railways. The war messed us up so much I ended up staying and never did get to go to LAMDA. It wasn’t until 1941 that I was able to leave at last!”
She worked as a clerk for two years before becoming one of the 75,000 women who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the war. It was her analytical mind and love of cryptic crosswords that gained her the place.
“They were looking for cooks, stewards or people who could write crosswords. That’s the only reason they allowed me to join. I joined the coding offices, serving on England’s east coast where I coded the sailing orders for the captains of the ships. There was one time I accidently got stuck on a ship after taking the coding orders to the captain. My senior was not very happy!”
After the war ended, she married and relocated with her husband to Zambia with their four sons. They were only planning to stay for two years but ended up staying for 12 because they loved it so much.
“While in Africa I worked as a journalist for the Northern Rhodesia Government Information Office,” Barbara says. “Later on, my husband and I, along with some friends, set up our own newspaper which was the country’s first ever English language paper, and I started the country’s first ever advice column, ‘Tell Me Josephine’.”
This popular column was later published as a book and translated into 19 different languages. “I was the only women on the newspaper team. I had to juggle it with looking after the children. I would work from the office writing short stories and putting together crosswords in the morning and then in the afternoon I would be at the school gate waiting to pick them up. Men didn’t really have to think about that in those days.”
While living in Zambia she and her husband campaigned for the country’s independence and she became a great friend of the president Kenneth Kaunda. “We were very passionate about his campaign and tried to support him in whatever way we could with the platform we had.” During that time she met many world leaders, including Mrs Ghandhi, the first female prime minister of India.
On their return to the UK the couple settled in Kensington until her husband left her for another woman, which she describes as the biggest challenge of her life. “I had to completely start again,” she says.
Professionally, Barbara was at the top of her game, she was compiling crosswords for several well-known publications including the Daily Mail and The Observer, began producing crossword books and made history by creating a Guinness world record breaking cryptic crossword.
It was during this period she started selling her work to The Sunday Times and in 1977 she was appointed as Puzzles editor where she stayed until she retired in 2010 at the age of 87, and in 2007 she was awarded an MBE for her services to the newspaper industry. She kept making up crosswords and travelling to Europe, China and the USA into her 90s.
Barbara now spends her time reading, attending local social groups and following the adventures of her five sons who live all over the world. “I don’t really have time to write crosswords anymore!”
Barbara’s top tips on how to lead a happy life:
1. Be cheerful.
2. Be friendly with everyone.
3. Never hold grudges and try not to have enemies.