The obits in The Telegraph are usually interesting, sometimes surprising and often fascinating. Yesterday there was one on the late Mrs. Sarah Baring (nee Norton), once described as having "an 18½in waist and reputedly the best legs in London." She died on February 4th at the good age of 93 years. In her way she typifies, in so far as any one individual can, a certain type of British upper-class 'gel' with character. Born the daughter of Lord Grantley she was raised mostly in Scotland. In 1937, aged 17, she was despatched to Munich to learn German as part of her education:
In later life she reflected on her impressions of the Nazis: “Hitler and his entourage used to take tea in the Carlton Tea Rooms in Munich, and my girlfriend and I would sit at a neighbouring table and pull faces at him. They knew us by sight and knew we were English, so they just pretended we weren’t there. We weren’t arrested, because at that stage the Germans were still being frightfully nice to us. All over the city there was a terrible feeling of fear — you could feel it, sense it, almost smell it. But by the time I left, I could speak German fluently, which was to have a profound effect on my future.”
On returning to London, natuarally she partook of 'the season' and as her godfather was Lord Louis Mountbatten she moved in high society circles. However, her reminiscences concerning her and her friends are rather surprising in this lax age of ours:
In an interview in 2000, Sarah Baring insisted that in those days the girls in her circle who danced the night away at the 400 Club or the Café de Paris were paragons of virtue: “Nobody told us anything about the facts of life. We were all ignorant, and if we had known we’d have thought it disgusting. Certainly, I and all my close friends would have considered ourselves defiled if we hadn’t come to marriage as virgins. Even after you had become engaged, it made no difference. Virginity lasted right up until the wedding night.
“My mother had died before I got married, so my aunt, Kitty Brownlow, was supposed to tell me the facts of life. But all she said was: 'Don’t worry too much if it hurts — it gets better.’ I thought sex was just for procreation. At deb dances there were a few girls of whom we’d say 'They do it, you know!’ — though perhaps all they did was cuddle and kiss behind bushes. But even that was definitely disapproved of. I never heard of any pregnancies, and can remember no sex scandals at all. If boys tried to pounce, the word soon got around. They were described as NSIT — Not Safe In Taxis — and girls warned each other to avoid them. ”
The name Kitty Brownlow instantly made me take notice because, by yet another of those weird coincidences which seem to be dogging me around these days, only a few days previously a friend had sent a 'get well' postcard to the 'Memsahib' featuring a magnificent painting by Frederic Leighton of the Countess Brownlow (1830-96). Presumably the Countess was Kitty Brownlow's mother-in-law.
Anyway, a year later the band played the last waltz and war began! Despite her 'genteel' upbringing, Sarah went to work building Spitfires, as I say, in her way, typical of her class at its best. However, her word-perfect German had not passed unnoticed and soon she was ordered to attend a labour exchange in London where her German was tested and then she was told to report to Station 'X' in Bucks. This, of course, was Bletchley Park:
Sarah Norton had never heard of Bletchley Park, and when they arrived they were assigned to Hut 4. “Nobody explained anything,” she recalled. “You were merely told that pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously
decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.”
Sarah Norton worked on the Naval Section index, helping to provide details of the U-boats to Hut 8, run at that time by Alan Turing, of whom she once said: “[He] was immensely shy, especially of girls... I once offered him a cup of tea, [and] he shrank back as if I’d got measles or something. He was wonderful. We were all very proud of him.”
On VE day she went to a cocktail party given by her aunt, Lady Brownlow, and there she met William Waldorf Astor, the eldest son of Viscount Astor and the formidable and famous Lady Astor MP. Five days later they were engaged but, alas for true love and despite having a son, the marriage ended in 1953. She went on to marry a Colonel of the 11 Royal Hussars and if I tell you that their regimental history goes back to 1715 you will instantly understand how posh they are - well, you will if you're English! Even so, that marriage, too, ended and she never married again. She is survived by her son, now the 4th Viscount Astor who is - and here is why, despite my occasional sneers, I just love the English upper-crust - Samantha Cameron's stepfather. It's the connections, you see, I just love 'em!
A beautiful and, I guess, intelligent woman with whom I would love to have had dinner simply to look at her and listen to her. On a suitable occasion I shall raise a glass in her memory.