Telephone: +353 (0)91 532 460  |  |  Contact Us

Queen of Codes: The Secret Life of Emily Anderson

Emily Anderson, esteemed for her works on classical musicology was, furthermore, the greatest female codebreaker of the last century.  Devoting her life to secrecy she served in Britain’s interests in both the First and Second World Wars, perfecting five languages in the process.  Dr Jackie Ui Chionna, who teaches History at the University of Galway, shines a new light on Anderson in the recently published Queen of Codes: The Secret Life of Emily Anderson, Britain’s Greatest Female Codebreaker, revealing new and extraordinary depths of genius to this enigmatic Galway woman.  The following article relates to Jackie’s recent feature on the True Spies podcast (see link below).


It was in an interview that took place in the BBC headquarters in London, in 1961, that Emily Anderson revealed the first signs of her cryptologist life.  In discussing her well regarded work as a musicologist working on the notoriously illegible Beethoven letters, Emily shares how she tried to crack the handwriting of Beethoven, how she ‘studied it again and again and again. And you wonder what that letter is. And then you think, “Ah, it could be this.” And then you use that letter as a crib.’   Jackie notes Emily’s choice of the word, crib, routinely used by codebreakers, as more revealing than perhaps she had ever intended.

Up until the recent publication of Jackie’s book, the official record stated that Emily Anderson left Galway in 1920 to join the Foreign Office and everybody accepted that. We now know the facts were very different.  According to Jackie, the first letter she wrote was very standard: I wish to resign my position as professor of German.  The second letter, however, was a little more arresting. Addressed to her friend in the college, the college registrar Monsignor Hynes, she confided: people with a thorough knowledge of Modern Languages are very badly wanted for Military Intelligence work in France and I was asked to apply…I have agreed to go for the duration of the war.  After four or five weeks work in London I am to be sent to  France.

Captivated by these few words, Jackie was now committed to writing about Emily Anderson. Despite having no previous experience studying intelligence history, she felt compelled to dig deeper and so embarked on a six-year research journey that would uncover far more than she bargained for.

Emily Anderson was the daughter of a university president. She grew up in the college quadrangle at the University College Galway  and lived her early years within its confines.  As Jackie says, ‘she didn’t really mix with too many other people because nobody was really her social equal. So she grew up an isolated, self-reliant person.’  Emily’s family enabled her to learn languages, mathematics, physics, and music.  After graduating with special distinction in French and German from UCG, Emily followed her father’s footsteps into the world of academia, landing a teaching post in the Caribbean. Shortly after that world events would conspire to bring her home again to Ireland.

Her decision to go into codebreaking was dependent on getting a salary equal to her male counterparts as she maintained she was as good, if not better than all of them. She was at one point, the highest-ranked woman within the British civil service and the best-paid woman within the British service.  Anderson and her associates chose Bletchley because it was on the Intervarsity line between Oxford and Cambridge where they would be drawing a lot of talent from.

During her time at Bletchley, Emily was in a relationship with a fellow codebreaker, a woman called Dorothy Brooks. According to Jackie’s research, ‘Dorothy was much younger than Emily. She was about 25 at the time they met and Emily would have by this stage been in her late 40s. But they really, obviously, clicked. A relationship developed between them’.  Her hosts however, were not impressed with the burgeoning relationship, so Emily left. She would not tolerate their judgement and so moved elsewhere.

Emily’s new lodgings with the Bartley family would change the course of British wartime intelligence. Charles Bartley had a daughter called Patricia. Very early on, Emily spotted something in this young woman who was fluent in both German and French.  Emily felt she had the makings of a fine codebreaker and she was proved right.  Recruited on Emily’s recommendation, Patricia Bartley became head of the German Diplomatic section at the age of 25.  The Bartley family overlooked Emily and Dorothy’s relationship, and they enjoyed  a very happy year together at Bletchley.

Managing to intercept messages being dispatched by the Italian military almost as soon as they were dispatched, they were aware of every single move the Italians made, almost as soon as they made them. It was as Jackie describes ‘the perfect example of the cryptographer’s war because never before in the history of warfare had any military commander been so well-served by military intelligence as they were during the East Africa campaign. That’s what the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East said’.

Emily’s work on the East Africa campaign, waged between June 1940 and November 1941, was arguably the most significant victory of World War II because, as Jackie describes, ‘it effectively demolished the Italians in East Africa, cost them an Army of 220,000 men, and an empire in East Africa. Within a few months of them actually exiting the war, they are now under attack by the Germans on their home territory. So it really was a critical change because it meant not only had they taken the Italians out of the conflict but it also meant that now the Germans had to then worry about subduing the Italians in Italy, and that diversified their forces, obviously. So it was very strategically important’. It was for her work on the East Africa Campaign that Emily was awarded the OBE in 1943.

Not long before she died, Emily Anderson’s life as a codebreaker ironically merged with her life as a musicologist. In 1961, the president of West Germany presented Emily with the Order of Merit First Class for her work in translating Beethoven’s letters.  The Germans were, even then, completely oblivious to the fact that Emily Anderson had been spying on them over the course of two World Wars including the interwar period.

Key to understanding Emily Anderson according to Jackie Uí Chionna is her absolute commitment to keeping a low profile, ‘if she didn’t keep her professional life secret, she couldn’t have lived her other life.  The historians at GCHQ said it all when they said “Thank goodness somebody is finally working on Anderson because we know that she’s the best. We always knew she was the best”’.


Listen to the full story on Sophia Di Martino’s True Spies podcast, Cribs, Codes and Cairo. 

Dr Uí Chionna’s Queen of Codes: The Secret Life of Emily Anderson, Britain’s Greatest Female Code Breaker is available in all good bookstores.

**Please note, the talk scheduled for Saturday 16 March at Galway City Museum, on The Galwegian who became Britain’s Greatest Female Codebreaker is now fully booked.** 




Get the latest Galway City Museum news directly to your inbox!

Scroll to Top
Skip to content