96-year-old crossword designer shares her incredible story and tips for a happy life


Barbara Hall – the longest serving crossword compiler. Sounds quite a mundane achievement, doesn’t it?

Not at all, if you were a woman living in the 1920s and 30s.

With all opportunities shut down for you, Barbara Hall was one of those special few who was able to break down all systemic barriers to become what she is now. She has been given a number of names – speech therapist, journalist, Navy Wren, and also agony aunt.

But this 96-year-old woman has a story to tell.

Her life which spread around 70 years from the small Derbyshire village to the Queen’s Residence is something to celebrate.

As a young child, Barbara would not appear in the girl’s dresses that were so popular back in the 20s.

Rather, she would come out of her room in boy’s clothes.

That’s because her mother would compel her to wear boy’s dresses. She was born as part of a triplet, the other two being boys. But the boys died and Barbara’s father was devastated at their death. To keep him calm, Barbara would often appear as a boy.

However, Barbara still had a happy childhood as it can be in the 1920s. Her mother was not able to produce extra children and on top of that, the trauma of the death of the remaining children was too much. She did not want Barbara to go to waste. She knew that women were at a disadvantage back in those days. But that didn’t stop her one bit.

She made it a point to give Barbara all the education required – that any male would have received.

From piano to elocution lessons, Barbara was already reading books by the age of three. At the age of 11, she won the competitive scholarship and got into the local grammar school. During that time, she became a fan of crossword puzzles.

Her first big break

At 14, she had her first crossword puzzle published in Daily Mail. They didn’t even know her age back then.

When she was 18, Barbara went to the capital to pursue her dream to become a speech therapist. She even got the opportunity to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. However, World War II broke out in between her studies. She had to leave it. Her father got her a job in the railways.

The war did not allow her leave until it was way into the year 1941. She started working as a clerk in the wartime and eventually got selected as one of the 75,000 women chosen to take part in the war efforts as the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Her love for crosswords and analytical ability got her the job.

Photo: Contact The Elderly

The authorities were trying to get stewards and cooks who could design crosswords. As she became part of the coding offices working on the East Coast of England, she would be coding orders for the ship captains. She did her fair number of mistakes too, but that’s just human.

When the war concluded, she and her husband moved to Zambia. She had four sons. They wanted to spend two years in that area but they were in love with the place. They stayed for twelve years.

She continued working too in Africa, this time as a journalist for the Northern Rhodesia Government Information Office. Eventually, she and her husband started their own newspaper in the country, as well as an advice column which was titled ‘Tell me Josephine’ – a first timer in the country. Later on, It was published as a proper book.

Back then, Barbara did all the work, it seemed.

She would write short stories for the newspaper, design crosswords, as well as pick up her children from school. Men did not really want to be involved in all these works. Along with her husband, she became a freedom fighter too, campaigning for the freedom of the country. They became good friends with Kenneth Kaunda, the president. She also met other great personalities too, like India’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

When they returned to the UK, they settled down in Kensington. Sadly, her husband abandoned her for another woman. It was one of her saddest periods. She knew that she had to start all over again.

Photo: Contact The Elderly

In her professional front, Barbara was a wonderful and inspiring woman.

She compiled crosswords for famous newspapers like the Observer and the Daily Mail. She even made a Guinness world record for breaking cryptic crosswords.

In 1977, she got the appointment of a Puzzles editor as she was delivering her work to famous The Sunday Times. Things were never the same again.

She had retired when she was 87 – back in 2007. She even received MBE for her extraordinary contribution to the newspaper industry. Even in her 90s, she kept on designing crosswords which she sent to China, USA and Europe.

Now, she just spends more time reading, socializing and hearing the interesting anecdotes of her five sons living all across the globe. She does not have any time to design crosswords.

According to her, there are three ways to be happy:

  1. To be always cheerful.
  2. To make friends with anyone and everyone.
  3. To not make enemies or hold any grudges.

Her life is truly an inspiring one, no doubt!