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From a Prison to a Palace!

by The Fernhurst Centre

Contributed by 
The Fernhurst Centre
People in story: 
Helen Ouin
Article ID: 
A4427084
Contributed on: 
11 July 2005

This is Helen Ouin’s story: it has been added by Carole Randell (on behalf of the Fernhurst Centre), with permission from the author who understands the terms and conditions of adding her story to the website.

In 1939 the unit for which I worked was initially housed with MI5 in Thames House and in the spring moved into a brand new office in Rumney Street. We had only been there about three months when Churchill decided that with war being imminent we should move into the security of Wormwood Scrubs.

We took over one block and a second block had been occupied by ‘censorship’ which included some well known writers and actors and there were also still a number of prisoners in residence who were under the impression that we were the ‘molls’ of Holloway.

We were on the second floor and the removal men had difficulty with the various safes and cupboards which had to be carried up the metal stairways. We were slightly taken aback by the loos which had the equivalent of steel doors with a space which revealed the legs up to the knee and from the shoulders upwards. One of the removal men proudly showed us the cell where he had spent 18 months. The officers had a cell each and secretaries were two to a cell

After we had been there two days we listened to Chamberlain on the radio declaring war followed by air raid sirens and we all stood on our desks to look out of the windows to see the barrage balloons going up, needless to say it was a false alarm.

The windows in the cells had small panes, two of which slid across to give some ventilation for the prisoners and there was also a metal plate which they could push out from inside to call the warden. In the first 24 hours several people had managed to get themselves locked into their cells and as the walls were sound proofed this was the only way to call for help, although this was mainly not observed, therefore there were some very frustrated people when they finally had their door opened.

I had three friends living with me as my mother had moved to the country and I was the proud possessor of my first car bought for £25.00 — a Wolseley Hornet drop head coupe. The dickie had no seat so the four of us, if we were to drive to work together, had to use the folded down hood at the back of the seats of the driver and passenger to sit on.

The police en route to the ‘Scrubs’ got to know us well and we were saluted on our morning journey. During the very cold winter the car used to ‘boil’ on exactly the same road each morning and used to choose a different house to go to and ask for water to top up the car so that we could go on again. Coming back on Xmas Day from work in a ‘pea souper’ of a fog (it’s quite true that in those days the fog was so thick you could hardly see your hands in front of your face) I felt it was unlikely, if I couldn’t see my way, Hitler couldn’t see me from above, so I started to remove the cover we had to have over our headlights which blocked out the light except for a circle that was about the size of a 50p piece, as I was busily removing this, a voice asked me what I was doing then a policeman appeared looming over me.

As it happened he was just coming of off duty so he insisted on getting in the car with two of us hanging out of the passenger side so that he could steer the car looking at the kerb while we worked the gears. He was due to leave us half way home but insisted on coming with us although it entailed an 8 mile walk back. That was typical of war time kindness

Our stay at Wormwood Scrubs despite intricate air raid shelters was abruptly ended when the building was bombed and hoses turned out to be full of holes and gave a beautiful water works display but didn’t stop the destruction of a number of documents so Churchill in his wisdom decided that our next residence should be Blenheim Palace

The Registry was in the palace itself but in the courtyard there were a number of huts which had been originally put up to house Repton School which had been moved out to make way for us

We had three huts and were beside the courtyard which contained four squares of sacred soil brought back from the site of the battle of Blenheim. The Duke of Marlborough was insistent that nobody should walk on the soil, but he was not a match for the removal men who when they found that they were carrying cupboards full of ashes, walked straight across the sacred soil. MI5 had a number of interesting people working for them including Anthony Blunt, one of the Russian agents who was working with Burgess, Philby and McLean. Blunt was an Art Historian by profession and was looking after the Queen’s pictures when his past caught up with him. While we were at Blenheim he used to take us around the palace giving us lectures on the contents and was a most charming man. MI5 took over Keble College then used as a hostel for MI5. We were housed with various families in Oxford where, in return for lodging, we used to do the air raid warden stint and were on duty when Coventry was bombed. We watched the large number of German planes that flew over Oxford without dropping a bomb en route to Coventry, we could see the glow of the fires even from this distance

Winter was interesting in that we had a lot of snow and ice so there was skating and ice hockey on the lakes and wonderful walking around the grounds. In Oxford itself I found the Charter Club - an international club named after the Atlantic Charter. The members were of all nationalities, the largest number being Poles who were studying medicine and law in particular expecting to get back after the war to their own country. Sadly this didn’t happen as the Russians got their first.

An Indian member, Bahada Sing, was President of the Union and a brilliant speaker and he became a minister of Indian Independence. A son of a politician in the West Indies professed to be an ardent Communist and refused an invitation to Buckingham Palace to a large gathering. An understanding King invited him to tea on his own with the result that on VE day he appeared wreathed in a Union Jack, singing Rule Britannia together with the rest, Russians, Spaniards and South Americans who had had miraculous escapes from Nazi Germany.

When the Americans arrived a number joined the club and were fascinated by accounts of ballet given them by Stella the daughter of the owner of the club who had been a ballerina. This ended with Stella hiring a room with barres and mirrors where, with her tuition, GIs were to be seen executing arabesques and doing a fine rendition of the Cygnets from Swan Lake

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