Naomi Grimley interviewing Janice Richards


Naomi Grimley (NG): Well I'm very pleased to be joined by Janice Richards, who worked in No 10 from 1971 to 1999 - that's over 28 years. Thanks for joining us Janice.

Janice Richards (JR): Thank you for asking me Naomi.

NG: Just explain what the ‘Garden Room Girls’ are, because for many people who've never heard of them, they won't really be clear what they did.

JR: No. Very little has been written about them actually, but we used to class ourselves a bit like the ‘Windmill Girls’, that we never closed because we were always here, always everywhere. And the secretariat I believe was set up at the end of the First World War and has carried on since. We actually took over the rooms downstairs overlooking the garden, I think just after the Second World War, because those two rooms were inhabited by Winston Churchill. It was, I think, his sitting room and his dining room during the war. So I'm not quite clear when we took those rooms over. It was Churchill, in fact, who got us the name as the ‘Garden Room Girls’ because he used to request ‘Please send up a garden girl’, so that was how that started I think. But basically there were 12 of us when I started and we just performed normal secretarial duties, but for the prime minister and his private office, nobody else. We went everywhere with the prime minister, it didn't matter where he was or she was and it was an exciting time, and I think on the whole the garden rooms was rather the hub of Downing Street, because we actually kept a lot of things together I think.

NG: Yes you have tremendous proximity to a prime minister because you've got to be with them all the time, particularly, as you mentioned, when they're travelling.

JR: Exactly. And, of course, in those days we didn't have mobile phones and wonderful communications like, you know, there is today. So they had to rely on us to get to our destination and then ring and say ‘We're here’, and then we would pass on any messages and obviously be ready there and then to set up offices and speak to the prime minister when we had to.

NG: Now when we were talking about prime ministers you said ‘He’ instinctively...

JR: I did.

NG: But of course you did work for Margaret Thatcher. Can you describe the day that she first walked inside No 10, because you must have been here at that time?

JR: I was here, yes, and we were standing in the hallway as we always do to clap the new prime minister in. Times had been a bit flat in the years before. The Wilson second administration, it didn't really seem that things were moving along very quickly. James Callaghan, when he came in, was very calm, very experienced and the place on the whole was a little flat. But I can honestly say that the day Margaret Thatcher walked in it was just alive. It was abuzz. And we all thought that this was the start of something big, actually, and we weren't wrong.

NG: Did she have a stature then when she came in?

JR: Absolutely.

NG: Because her image did evolve over time, but you did feel it was the start of something special.

JR: Straight away. Absolutely. I mean her presence just walking in a room, not subsequently, but actually on that very first day. We were, I think, excited by what was to come and that sort of buzz and enthusiasm didn't leave the building at all, all the while she was here. It was a great family atmosphere all the while she was here.

NG: Do you think, though, that the civil service structure had to get to grips with having a woman at the helm? I mean it must have been quite a male-dominated place in those days.

JR: Yes I think it did. I mean, prime ministers when they come in, they assume that they can do lots of things, and then the civil service says, ‘Well, I'm sorry, you can't do that, it's not in civil service rules’. So with Margaret Thatcher I think she wasn't quite so demanding, I think, as the men had been before in what she might have required, but I know that the secretary of the cabinet had to, sort of, deal quite firmly, I think, with what she wanted and what she thought she was going to have here.

NG: What was she like behind the scenes, because obviously there is a lot of pressure on prime ministers, tempers might get frayed… how did she deal with the pressure of being at the top?

JR: Well when we were with her at Chequers or Scotney or wherever, I never once saw her lose her temper. She was firm, very firm, but she just dealt with everything so expertly in a way, it was amazing just to watch how capable she was.

NG: You mentioned travel. Can you tell us where you followed her to, where in the world did you go? Who were the kind of guests that came to No 10 as well to visit her?

JR: Well Gorbachev came here of course, and Reagan, and the Cold War period was an amazing time here. We were all very enthused by what was going on then. Lots of heads of state have been here - I mean forgive me but I can't actually recollect who came in her era and who came before or after - but we did meet all the heads of state, either in their own countries or here, at various functions that were given. It was her presence that stood out actually, even when she was with others like Reagan. Her presence was predominantly the one that you looked at, it was strange.

NG: Could you see the definite chemistry between Reagan and herself?

JR: Absolutely. And I think he was in awe of her actually. You could see he was listening on her every word and yeah, it was quite unique I think.

NG: I mentioned travel. Any trips that stand out for you or, even if they were in Britain rather than abroad?

JR: Well we went to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Lusaka, and we'd had awful stories about mad dogs and terrible accommodation and, you know, we were trying to not go on the trip, we were trying to get rid of it to another colleague or something, but it turned out when we got there that in fact our accommodation was beautiful. We had a lovely, a lovely house and poor Mrs Thatcher and all the other heads of the Commonwealth were in rather sub-standard little bungalows on a complex and there were lots of leaking roofs and things like that, so she actually would come over to us and spend some time with us because it wasn't very nice accommodation at all, so that stood out. We didn't always see a great deal of her. India, we were two weeks in New Delhi, and we didn't see a great deal of her there, but it was a wonderful country to have visited, but I can't actually say a lot of what she did on that trip I'm afraid.

NG: What did you have to take with you on a trip? Did you take the typewriter or…

JR: No we didn't. We didn't have to do that. The duty clerks looked after all the paper work. We just had to set up office while we were there and be prepared. The foreign embassies or high commissions actually gave us all the equipment we needed, there and then, so we didn't actually have to take things with us, but they were long hours and needless to say, you had to set up the office and then you pack up after everybody's gone to bed, and you have to be there again the next morning and in some cases, I mean my last trip in 1985, we went to, I think, five countries in as many days, and that was hard work, just stopping and starting and not getting sleep. So that was our job basically, to just be on hand at all times to do whatever was necessary.

NG: Let's talk about some of the big events during the Thatcher period. Obviously one that really stands out is the Brighton bombing.

JR: Yes.

NG: What's your recollection of that?

JR: Well my recollection was that of course we were all very shocked about it. One of my staff, Sally, was the one on duty in Brighton at the time, and I'm sure she won't mind me saying that it took her quite a long time to get over that. Mrs Thatcher pretty much, when she got back from the party conference, was normal, as if nothing had happened at all. But that was how she was. I mean she just carried on regardless. She wasn't easily fazed. I don't think she was easily embarrassed about anything either. So it was a tough time for her but she got over it remarkably well. But it was a sad time for us too because we knew some of the people who had been killed or injured in that time. And as we're talking about the IRA, the other two people that were killed during her time, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, Ian Gow we knew very well here too so that was a great shock to us and to her.

NG: And presumably security in No 10 tightened immeasurably afterwards.

JR: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean the gates were put up of course. But the post, all the post that came in went through security clearance which it hadn't done before, because we had to open all the post, and yes things got a lot tighter, and yeah, we had to make sure things were where they should be and people were watching out for everything.

NG: Another period of course that stands out during Mrs Thatcher's period is the Falklands War. Tell me about what it was like working in No 10 while the war was going on.

JR: I think it was difficult for us in a way because there was such a lot of work involved behind the scenes with that. I think we actually had to work through the night and everything while that was going on. It was a very worrying time, I know, for her. She was concerned about it especially, I know, when she actually had to make the decision to send the troops down and, you know, that sort of thing, but there again it was jubilation and euphoria when, you know, we won, and we got the Falklands back, and the place was buzzing again after having a period of, you know, being very serious.

NG: And of course her popularity does have a bounce...

JR: Absolutely. It bounced right up and the actual postbag went way up high. Flowers everywhere.

NG: Fan mail?

JR: Fan mail. Lots of fan mail saying, you know, well done and yes, absolutely.

NG: It can't have all been fan mail, given that she was a sort of Marmite politician I guess you either loved her or you hated her, and you were in charge of the correspondence unit as well. Tell us about some of the things you used to get through the post for the prime minister.

JR: Well people were very generous to her and they'd send lots of little knitted things that they had done, lots and lots of gifts came through the post. She was very generous, in as much as obviously she couldn't keep them all. And we used to actually have an auction once a year, which I used to be the auctioneer at, and she allowed us to actually auction the items off. We'd make quite a lot of money. Nobody was allowed to get rid of the gifts when they got them home, they had to stay in the family at some stage, and then all the proceeds went to her favourite charity which was the NSPCC, so we did that every year for her, but she was extremely generous. The mailbag on the whole, I think, because she was a woman prime minister, people used to think she could get things done better than a male head. So I think that's why the mail, when she first came to office was about 3,000 letters a week. By the time she left it had gone up to 30,000 letters a week; that's how much it went up. So people thought they might get things done better with her. On the whole there wasn't a lot of abusive letters for her. Obviously you got the odd one or two, but mainly it was people with hardship problems and that sort of thing which, you know, we dealt with in any other way.

NG: And of course children also often send things to prime ministers, as well...

JR: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we used to select those things which we thought she'd like to see. You didn't have to be important people. Anybody who had a real situation at home which we thought she might like to know about, then we would make sure that the private office saw those letters and passed to her if necessary. We had to be very careful that we didn't let letters slip by that came in that could have caused a lot of adverse publicity for her.

NG: What about the miners' strike, do you remember anything about that period, because of course that was the period when her divisiveness came to the surface…

JR: Yes, I do. Well for a start my husband was in the police and he was on the miners' strike, so I got quite first-hand from what was going on on the picket-lines et cetera from him. But she was very determined during that time, and of course she was very well-prepared for the miners' strike and we knew that she had been ensuring that stocks of coal were high. But it was a long, long time and it went on for a long time but I think we all knew that in the end she wasn't going to back down and at some stage she would win the battle. And she did of course, and I think it probably changed the country more than anything that strike, and the outcome of it.

NG: Let's fast-forward to the end of her time, because that must have been a very dramatic period - Geoffrey Howe's resignation and, I think, the sense of cabinet ministers deserting her. What do you remember from being below stairs, as it were, about what was going on?

JR: Well we - because there was 11 and a half years of her time here - we were a very tight unit. Not just the civil servants, but her political staff as well and her security people, her bodyguards, we were all very close in one way or another. And although we knew what was going on we didn't for one minute think that this was the end. And it was a terrible shock to us all, because we had been a big family for such a long time, and she just really seemed that she was going to be the person who was going to be here for a lot longer. There was an awful lot going on leading up to her resignation which we knew was going to end badly for her and of course we couldn't say anything, but when the actual resignation announcement did come, we were all shocked, absolutely shocked. And the whole...