If you are one of those people, and there are millions of them, who enjoy wracking their brains to solve a crossword puzzle, either on a daily or weekly basis, or solely on holiday, the chances are that you would have crossed words with Barbara Hall. She has been setting puzzles for the past eighty (yes, eighty!) years, and now aged 94 continues to set the occasional one for a charity. Her books of puzzles run into dozens, fifteen for the Sunday Times alone.
Barbara Hall is tall, slim and straight-backed. She seems to have total recall despite her years and her twinkling eyes suggest that she has enjoyed most of them. Her ambitious and talented parents were socialists with a small ‘s’ and Barbara was sent to her Derbyshire village primary school where her fellow pupils were the children of agricultural labourers and miners. Barbara was clever, won a place at a grammar school, studied music and in her spare time made up crossword puzzles.
In 1938, at the age of fifteen she answered a challenge from the London Evening News to submit a cryptic crossword puzzle. The winner was awarded the distinction of having a puzzle published. Barbara won the competition without revealing her young age. As a consequence she regularly had her puzzles published in that newspaper. Her education was cut short by the outbreak of WW2 (she had been studying for entry to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art with the ambition of becoming a speech therapist). Her father, who had been a WW1 Royal Naval Air Service pilot, worked for the LMS railway company and was transferred to London and Barbara and her mother moved there. Barbara was found a clerical job in her father’s company and in 1941, when she was 18, she was called up for National Service. Like other young women she was offered the choice of joining one of the services or the Land Army. As her father was still a Reserve officer in the Navy, training cadets, she applied to be a Wren (Women’s Royal Naval Service) although she laughingly claims she was attracted by the fact she could wear black stockings and go out with officers!
Entry to the WRNS was not easy and Barbara had to write an essay on why she wanted to join that service. In the essay she said that she compiled cryptic crosswords and could make up cryptic words. The essay must have been convincing and she was enlisted In the rank of Writer (confidential book corrector) in Nore Command, a coastal naval command stretching from the Kent coast to Norfolk. There, Barbara coded the sailing orders for captains of minesweepers, motor torpedo boats and other coastal craft; filling in the lead-covered ships’ code books each week. It was during this work that she later met Peter, a 6’6” tall Free-Dutch submarine captain, fell in love and was about to become engaged. It was at the end of the war and the German fleet was surrendering to the Royal Navy. At Great Yarmouth, German submarines and E boats’ captains were handing over their craft. Peter was accepting the surrender of a Uboat from its German captain when a crew member fired a shot over Peter’s boat as a last defiant gesture. The shot clipped the mast of the British ship which fell on Peter and killed him. Beside him, the German captain was unharmed.
Barbara remained in the navy for another year, during which time she became engaged to a fellow coder, Richard Seymour Hall who in civilian life had been a journalist. She briefly returned to her railway job when she was demobilised but together with her future husband, was awarded a returning serviceman’s place to study at Oxford University. They married and pregnancy with the first of her five sons obliged Barbara to decline an offer of a place at Somerville College and instead followed Dick to Oxford where he was at Keble College. It was there that they met Michael Croft, a fellow old sailor and also a student at Keble and he and the Halls became friends.
During the war she had continued to send crossword puzzles to various newspapers and magazines in this country and worldwide – her work was now being published in the Yorkshire Post, Readers Digest, The Daily Mail and in Isis, the University’s own magazine.
Barbara and Dick’s decision to move to Africa in 1955 while their children were still at primary school age was not so surprising in the light of the example of Barbara’s mother who had been inspirational to her. During WW1, her mother had served in France assisting with the welfare of German prisoners. The Halls settled in Northern Rhodesia, soon to be on the road towards independence. They stayed twelve years; the boys were enrolled in the local school and her husband began to carry out editorial work for various magazines. Barbara took a job as journalist for the Northern Rhodesia Government Information Service and also began compiling crosswords in two or three African languages to improve literacy. She had continued her freelancing, which now included writing occasional newspaper articles. A major step was for Barbara and Dick to start their own newspaper – The Central Africa Mail (later titled The Africa Mail) and Barbara agreed to edit the paper’s ‘Agony Aunt’ column. She says that most of the letters she received were from men rather than women!
Their friendship with the new nation’s, Zambia’s, president, Kenneth Kaunda (he wrote the Foreword to her book of her collection of ‘Agony Aunt’ letters entitled ‘Tell Me Josephine’) and her position at The Central Africa Mail, gave her what some observers and ambassadors considered as ‘influence’. Barbara denies this as exaggeration but nevertheless she was invited as a journalist by Chiang Kai Shek to visit Taiwan. Once there she asked to inspect a women’s prison, a wish that was immediately granted and the conditions and the system Barbara found impressed her. Other invitations followed, from India and even from Chairman Mao – Barbara declined the latter (a portrait of Mao sent by China graces the walls of her study) but in India Barbara was appalled at the conditions she found around the Taj Mahal and wrote a critical article which The Guardian declined to publish at the time. To her embarrassment, it appeared in that newspaper during a state visit by Mrs Gandhi.
The boys were growing up and boarding at Dulwich College and a fifth son arrived who was given the African name of Buchrya (The unexpected one). Barbara says he relishes the name of Butch! A return was made to England and Barbara composed crosswords for The Times and The Observer and in 1969 The Daily Mail commissioned her to compile the world’s biggest cryptic crossword, set on a Christmas theme. Barbara, already working for The Sunday Times as its primary compiler of crosswords was appointed crosswords editor in 1977, a full-time position she held until her retirement in 2010 shortly before her 88th birthday. In 2011 she was awarded the MBE for her services to the newspaper industry. Her book, ‘Tell me, Josephine’ was translated into nineteen languages and she has had 60 books of her crossword compilations published.
Barbara still compiles the occasional puzzle for charitable events, she looks after herself and her garden and her green fingers have encouraged an array of pot plants. She attends plenty of local events and is a member of the East Dulwich Women’s Institute.