Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08
Around and About
ELIZABETH NEL, 1917-2007
One of Winston Churchill’s few surviving secretaries, Churchill Centre Honorary Member Elizabeth Layton Nel, 90, died in her sleep in October at her cottage in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Elizabeth Layton was born in England but grew up in Canada. She returned to London to involve herself in the war effort. She was party to numerous key gatherings, including the Yalta Conference with Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union in February 1945. At a banquet in Yalta, toasts were drunk to the various dignitaries and to the countries represented. Churchill then rose and proposed a toast to “Miss Layton,” the only woman present.
In recent years Nel received numerous invitations, including one in 1990 to 10 Downing Street, on the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s assuming office as Prime Minister. In interviews with The Herald, Nel had said that working for Churchill was “an incredible privilege—it was hard work and not easy, but it meant such a lot to me.”
Nel described Churchill as demanding. His staff had to be on hand at all times to attend to his needs: “He awoke late, stayed in bed until lunch whilst attending to urgent Red Box matters, then dressed and worked till 5pm, then took a nap. Dinner followed at 8pm and then he worked through until the early hours. At any one time a secretary was at his side prepared to take any notes.”
At the time of her death Nel had just had her book, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, a record of her years with Churchill, republished. After the war she married South African soldier Frans Nel and settled in Port Elizabeth. (FH readers who cannot obtain the original should order this outstanding memoir from the Churchill Centre Book Club.)
Elizabeth is survived by three children and seven grand-children. One daughter, Debbie Schlosser, said she had died peacefully: “It’s not nice for anybody to lose a mother, but after 90 years one knows that it’s time to go. I am glad that she lived her life out.”
—Dineo Matomela, The Herald, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Elizabeth Nel, like Grace Hamblin, had only good words for her former boss—whatever the strains, and they were considerable, of “sterner days ” when imminent extinction flickered. Grace used to say that the hardest thing about working for WSC was “getting used to being shouted at.” The first day he shouted, Elizabeth burst into tears. “Good heavens, you mustn’t mind me,” said WSC, immediately contrite. “We’re all toads beneath the harrow….We must go on like gun horses, till we drop.” Notified that she was marrying Frans Nel and emigrating to South Africa, Winston and Clemetine recited in unison: “You must have four children. One for Mother, one for Father, one for Accidents, and one for Increase.” She had only just written us, pledging her support (FH 136: 58). We will never forget her. Rest in peace. —RML