Obituary: Ann Elwell

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The Independent Online
Ann Glass was one of MI5's conspicuous, yet suitably discreet, successes. From being a fun-loving member of "the Office" in 1940 she became a highly placed executive after the war when she replaced Anthony Blunt in Rome to read Mussolini's secret papers just after his death.

Ten years later she married a fellow MI5 officer, Charles Elwell, and they were posted to Singapore, where Ann managed to find full-time freelance work while having three children in as many years - another example of her efficiency. In 1955 the Elwells returned to base, Ann had her fourth child and only left MI5 to join the secret brainchild of the Foreign Office, the Information Research Department (IRD), which despite its catch-all title was in fact dedicated to ending Communism by any means. She made several trips for the IRD to the Middle East, her allotted territory. Although she retired officially in the late 1970s, people like her never really let go and from time to time she was asked for her expert opinion of, and/or to write, special reports.

Young hopefuls of today who may well be envious of her achievements might take note of the many talents that led Ann Elwell into the world of Intelligence. To start with, both her parents, Dr Robert Glass (a GP) and Eileen Smartt, were determined that their only child should be well educated, an accomplished linguist, and a keen follower of the arts. To this end she went to Miss Faunce's (later Miss Lambert's) school in Bayswater, west London, became fluent in French and German, took School Certificate (a cross between today's GCSEs and A levels) at the age of 14, and visited pre-war Germany, where her German was so good that, when she found herself alone in a hotel lift with a German, he admonished her for consorting with "those terrible English people" - her parents.

As a precocious 15-year-old, she was sent to Florence to the Misses Lestrange's famed finishing school to combine learning fluent Italian with art tours and more than a dash of social high-life. Back in London she attended the Monkey Club in Pont Street to be taught the domestic arts, the rudiments of typing, and how to behave in "Society". Somewhere along the line she added Spanish to her repertoire of languages. This somewhat rushed programme was finished off with a brief foray into acting at the Webber-Douglas drama school. Her mother then decided that her 16-year-old daughter should be a debutante; she came out at what was to be the last of the London seasons, in 1939.

I was an exact contemporary of Ann Glass's, going to the same children's parties and dancing school. At one of Vacani's annual dancing matinees at the Hippodrome Theatre, I have a vivid memory of her in a smart drum majorette's uniform as leader of the Ruritanian Guard, while I had to settle for a pantomime dame's outfit as mother-in-law of the Prince, arriving on stage in a magnificent limousine of a pedal car (courtesy of Harrod's children's hairdressing department).

In 1940 we were both, aged 18, inducted into MI5 as temporary wartime staff. Glass was recruited by Brigadier "Jasper" Harker, the Deputy Director- General, who had met her at a party. (Glass and a colleague were later responsible for introducing Michael Hanley to MI5 who became Director- General in 1972.) I took the lesser secretarial route. All the government offices requiring suitable, discreet secretaries went head-hunting to the secretarial colleges. I remember being offered the Ministry of Information at pounds 2 10s a week or the War Office at pounds 3. Avarice won out and so it was that we met again in the labyrinthine walkways of Wormwood Scrubs prison, part of which had been requisitioned by MI5. Here we were ogled by the prisoners, but the only danger was the falling glass from the glazed ceiling of the three-storey main corridor during air raids, or finding some shifty man looking up your skirt as you climbed the open metal-tread stairs. Ann Glass was soon transferred with a large section of the office to more elegant quarters at Blenheim Palace. Unlike most of the female staff, who were accommodated in makeshift dormitories at Keble College, she installed herself at the Mitre in Oxford, until her social contacts led to the Duchess of Marlborough's insisting that she live in the private part of the palace as the duchess considered it quite unsuitable for her to live unchaperoned in a hotel.

Before long the remainder of MI5 moved to a newly acquired building in St James's Street, with no regrets at leaving the musty cells that had acted as scratch offices. After some time Glass returned to the London base. It was then that, with her fluent Italian, she landed a marvellous "job" which made me (the aspiring film director) green with envy. She was given leave, at twice her salary, to be "secretary" (unofficial "watcher") to Filippo del Giudice, the Italian film director who was acting as art director on the film Noel Coward was making at Denham, In Which We Serve. Coward had insisted that del Giudice be released from internment as an enemy alien for this job. Glass did so well that before long she was writing scripts and, as she thought, on her way to a career in film- making. It was not to be, for the Italian was "cleared" and no longer needed a watcher.

At the end of the war not many of the temporary female staff opted to stay on at the War Office but Glass was obviously officer material and did so, spending much time abroad. Meanwhile, her memorably sexy, deep bass voice grew ever huskier, making Marlene Dietrich sound like a near- soprano.

Ann Elwell was highly intelligent but she was also funny and witty, an expert retailer of gossip, fundamentally kind, equally adept at dressmaking or making jam and demonstrably a good wife and mother. I don't know anyone who combines all these qualities, or indeed anyone remotely like her.


Ann Catherine Glass, intelligence officer: born London 16 June 1922; married 1950 Charles Elwell (two sons, two daughters); died London 12 January 1996.