Queen of Spies? The fascinating life of Daphne Park

A new book by author Paddy Hayes lifts the lid on some of the hidden aspects of the life of Daphne Park (1921-2010), who was born in Surrey and became arguably one of Britain’s most successful female spies in the post-1945 period.

Entitled Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War spy master, the new book is part biography and part history of the role of women in espionage during both the Second World War and the Cold War, a topic in gender history that still remains relatively under-researched by scholars.

Daphne Park in her younger days

Daphne Park, who eventually became Baroness Park of Monmouth and also (in 1980) Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, was – as one reviewer has put it – ‘a child of Empire who became a Cold War Warrior’.

Taken to Africa by her mother when only six months old (her father worked as a tobacco farmer there), Daphne was raised in the southern highlands of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where she lived a notably tough life in a mud-brick house that had no electricity or running water. This made the young Daphne very independent and hardy, ready to grab every opportunity that came her way.

Her mother pawned the last of her jewellery to send the eleven-year old Daphne back to England to attend a state school in south London, and Daphne did so well that she ended up studying at Somerville College, Oxford. During the Second World War, keen to serve her country after graduating in 1943, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, but during the selection process she came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was a secret sabotage and intelligence organisation that worked behind enemy lines. It had been the brain-child of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had instructed SOE to set Nazi-occupied Europe ‘ablaze’.

Daphne trained as a briefing officer for SOE, giving instructions to the brave individuals, or sometimes teams of individuals, who were dropped by parachute into Occupied France to organize the resistance and to conduct high-risk sabotage operations.

When SOE disbanded at the end of the War, Daphne decided that she wanted to carry on in the world of intelligence, and set her sights on joining the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), or ‘MI6’ as it is more commonly known. However, as Hayes points out, in contrast to the relatively egalitarian ethos that had existed in SOE, the Secret Intelligence Service was still a very enclosed male-dominated world of bowler-hatted former Army officers and public schoolboys, who tended to inhabit the same London Clubs on the Mall and viewed women with great suspicion, seeing them as useful only as secretaries or filing-clerks.

Nevertheless, although something of an ‘outsider’, Daphne Park was stubborn and determined. By 1948, she was ‘attached to the Foreign Office’, but in reality was working for MI6. And she was so good at the work that she steadily made her way up through the ranks, carving out a highly successful career as an Intelligence Officer.

On the other hand, she had to sacrifice her private life. She was not allowed to marry (it was a rule within MI6 that female officers could not marry, a ruling that apparently remained in place until at least the 1980s).

Hayes describes Daphne Park’s MI6 postings to Moscow, Leopoldville, and Hanoi, and in each posting she demonstrated great gifts for playing the dual roles of both diplomat and spy (MI6 officers often operated under diplomatic cover from British Embassies). Some of the other MI6 officers likened her to Agatha Christie’s matronly detective Miss Marple, but many of them developed a great respect for her work, while her enemies in this highly secret world noted her ‘tough and uncompromising view of life’. It could be highly dangerous work when out in ‘the field’. In the Congo in 1959-1960, for example, she came close to losing her life on at least two occasions.

Daphne Park after her retirement

In many ways, Park remained very much a daughter of Empire, with all the attitudes that came with this. She developed a lifelong hatred of the Russians, was suspicious of the French, and placed a great deal of emphasis on loyalty, trust and service to the British nation and its interests. Indeed, she admired the ‘Bulldog Drummond’ version of the Gentleman Spy, as portrayed in the intensely patriotic novels of Sapper, and she strongly disliked the gritty spy fiction of former MI6 spy-turned-author John le Carre, who she criticised for portraying the spy world as essentially nasty and treacherous.

In 1975 Park became the first woman to be made an Area Controller, which was MI6’s most senior operational rank. However, the details of what she actually did during her time in this role remain largely (and frustratingly!) unknown. And this is where Paddy Hayes hits something of a brickwall in his biography of Park, a problem that is often faced by other historians who write about Britain’s secret world of spying: in contrast to MI5 (the domestic Security Service), which has slowly opened up and released many of its ‘historical’ files to public access (via the National Archives at Kew), MI6 files remain unavailable. In fact, the Secret Service has made it very clear that they are unwilling to match MI5 and adopt any kind of ‘openness’ policy concerning their ‘historical’ files.

This means that Hayes has had to rely on newspapers or former colleagues or members of Park’s family to fill in some of the gaps in her later career. All in all, though, Hayes has still written a fascinating study of an intriguing woman. If you are interested in the secret and shadowy world of spying, and also in how a woman broke down discriminatory and other barriers to carve out a remarkably successful career as a spy-master, then this is the book for you.

Steve Woodbridge is lecturer in History at Kingston University.


This entry was posted in African History, Archives, Blogging, British history, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Queen of Spies? The fascinating life of Daphne Park

  1. Ecuadorian says:

    It was an extraordinary career for a woman who spent most of her childhood impoverished in Africa. Park had no formal education until she left home, alone, at age 11 to attend school in Britain. She earned a degree from Oxford in 1943 and then helped prepare special-operations troops dropped behind German lines in France.


  2. Pingback: The Martyr and the Consul – Jamie and His Ego

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