A GCHQ Christmas carol

Last Updated: 22 Dec 2016
Our Historian tells the story of a post-war festive present from our transatlantic partners

Far from the end of the Second World War bringing peace and prosperity, the UK entered an age of even greater austerity.  The country was broke and rationing became more stringent.
There was no money for infrastructure other than to make do and mend what could be repaired: much of the damage caused by the 1940-42 Blitz remained unrepaired.  The housing stock, which was already substandard in the 1930s, was in a much worse state after a decade of neglect.
And to compound the misery, the winter of 1947/48 had been exceptionally cold, so cold that transport was sufficiently disrupted to cause the breakdown of the national distribution network.  And this caused more problems in the cities than in more rural areas, as food could not be brought in.  Rationing of potatoes - something that hadn’t happened during the war - was introduced.
So let us think of GCHQ’s predecessors in Eastcote, Middlesex, in December 1949.  It was more than ten years since the beginning of the war, and the buildings occupied by GCHQ were still those hurriedly constructed in 1940. Heating was limited, public transport was pretty well the only way to travel to work, and salaries were low and highly taxed.  Working hours would rise the following year, with Saturday morning working reintroduced.  In short, things were bleak.
Now, this being the season of good cheer, you will be expecting a silver lining around the edge of the fairly miserable black cloud I have described above.

Our partnership with our US counterpart NSA and its predecessors has always had an added dimension because of the continual contact between individuals from each of our organisations.  We aren’t allies so much as friends, and friends look out for each other.

In December 1949 staff at the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), which was the predecessor of NSA, had collected money and sent food parcels for distribution among staff in GCHQ who had entered a draw. 

Each parcel contained five items from an overall list: "1lb Steak and Kidney, 1lb Beef and Gravy or Broth, 8oz Corned Beef Loaf, 8oz Liver Loaf, 12oz Bacon, 1lb Apricots, 1 lb Raisins, 1lb Cranberry-Apricot Jelly, 2lbs Shortening, 8oz Butter, 2lbs Whole Milk Powder, 8oz Egg Powder, 8oz Tea, 2lbs Sugar, 2lbs Rice, and two cakes of soap".

A ceremony was held on 22 December in the Conference Room at Eastcote, which was suitably decorated for the event, hosted by Captain Hastings Royal Navy, the Assistant Director, and attended by all members of the American Liaison Group.


Black and white photo of the care parcels, US/UK flags, and various people
Captain Hastings, 4th from left, and others at the ceremony to mark the donation. ©GCHQ

Captain Williams United States Navy, the Senior US Liaison Officer, wrote that the remainder of the afternoon saw people roaming the corridors with various tins and packages to barter and exchange. Many of the GCHQ staff had agreed to pool the proceeds of any winning food parcels, so most junior staff took something away with them for Christmas.

The Assistant Director Personnel 1  issued a notice informing staff of the Christmas signal that the Director had sent to the head of AFSA:
"The distribution of gifts so kindly sent by staff of AFSA has just taken place.  This wonderful generosity, and the friendship of which it is the token, is warmly appreciated by all, whether lucky or unlucky in the draw.  By it, over the last three years, about a thousand of GCHQ staff, covering the lower salary scaled, have shared the parcels.

"Please be good enough to convey this message to the staff of AFSA, with the thanks and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year of the whole staff at GCHQ."

I wonder what Charles Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come would have had to show all those people. Their dreams in 1949 might not have gone much beyond the basics: enough to eat; a warm house; nice clothes. Imagine how pleased they would be if they could look into the future and see that as the world changed and the country managed to sort itself out, the need for the food parcels went away. Instead, the successors of those who once received them are now in a position to help others ourselves.

It is inspiring to see how many people at GCHQ have spent so much time this year putting so much back into the community, and, in doing so, matching the generosity shown to us by our American counterparts 67 years ago.


1. This post was held by Eric Jones, who would later become Director GCHQ. Eric Jones was a factory owner from Manchester who had been commissioned into the RAF as a Group Captain and had been posted to Bletchley Park in the Second World War specifically to make Hut 3 (German Army and Air Force analysis and reporting) work efficiently and productively.  For the time, his approach was singular: he dealt with all of his subordinates with courtesy and tact, treating them all, from the most junior, as individuals.  This brought out the best in his staff and as a result Hut 3 tended to be a happy place to work (however, some senior colleagues, at Bletchley and beyond, referred to him, somewhat sniffily, as "the Manchester Businessman". It was not meant to be complimentary).