I have learnt that everywhere, no matter how small or prepossessing, has something unique about it. So, on investigation, I have discovered that Highworth is the highest town in the county of Wiltshire!
I really enjoyed this commission and was keen to do a blog on the town. OK, it’s mentioned in the Doomsday book and Sir John Betjeman said, “l have never seen Highworth given due praise in guide books for what is one of the most charming and unassuming country towns in the West of England.”
Even if it is the highest town in the county of Wiltshire, all in all, however it didn’t look exciting enough for a blog.
Defeated, I had one last dig about only to discover that Highworth Post office, and its ageing Postmistress Mabel Stranks (then aged 55) played a pivotal role in the WW2 British Resistance, formed to protect us should a German invasion come from across the Channel.
Preparing for invasion
Once the evacuation from Dunkirk was complete invasion was thought to be not far away. So under the direction of Churchill a resistance movement in waiting known as Auxiliary Units were set up.
These were suicidal (14-day life expectancy), behind the line’s, resistance fighters tasked to disrupt enemy movements as best they can until more conventional forces could be mustered. Some were soldiers though many were gamekeepers, farm workers, and other men familiar with the local countryside.
These men needed a secluded training camp to learn signals, demolition, slashing throats and all the other nefarious trade crafts of guerrilla warfare. A large country estate outside Highworth called Coleshill was deemed to be ideal for the purpose.
Mabel does her bit for Highworth and Britain
This is the bit where our hero, the diminutive Mabel comes in. As it was all top secret, an extra layer of security was needed. So the Auxiliers selected for training were giving instructions to report to Mabel at Highworth Post Office.
They would present themselves to with their credentials for vetting. I have to say, they must have been mightily confused at what was going on. They were expecting something like a British john Wayne and they got a bespectacled granny. I suppose that’s what made it so secure. Old lady, busy post office, middle of nowhere, what’s suspicious about that? The perfect ‘cutout’.
Once Mable looked over the orders, she made phone calls to the camp for them to be picked up. They sometimes had to wait for hours too.
Of course, she was a stickler for the rules and would bend them for no one. The notoriously vain Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was once made to wait in his car while Mrs Stranks checked the paperwork!
Joking aside, if invasion had taken place it wouldn’t have been long before the Gestapo picked up Mabel, she did after all vet all 3,000 auxiliaries. The fact that she was a civilian wouldn’t have saved her from a bullet or something creatively far worse.
Mable died in 1971 aged 88 and never talked of her work as The Auxiliary Gateway.
Brennan Stranks her grandson, said during the unveiling of the plaque on what is now a charity shop,
‘My grandmother never said a word to me about it. We only know from what different people have told us over the years’.
You can see the post office in my painting, third building from the end with green windows. Just in front of the large red brick shop.
An interesting aside!
Two miles away in a tiny village called Sevenhampton an ex Naval intelligence officer was penning the worlds most famous spy. The writer was Ian Fleming and the spy was James Bond. He may have known Mable but never have known she was the original ‘Moneypenny’.