Obituary: Irene ‘Mouse’ Brown, linguist, poet and author of a pioneering memoir on Bletchley Park

Irene 'Mouse' Brown helped break the Enigma Code
Irene 'Mouse' Brown helped break the Enigma Code
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Irene “Mouse” Brown. Born: 
16 February 1919 in Edinburgh. Died: 7 June 2017 in Edinburgh, aged 98.

In the summer of 1942, with a good honours degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and a heart broken by the ending of her engagement to an officer then serving in the Royal Artillery in the Western Desert, Irene Young joined the Foreign Office at the Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park. The story of her time there, of her war in general, and that of the same young man – with whom she was reconciled the next year, and to whom she was briefly married before he disappeared, with all his men, in his new unit’s heaviest loss in action – was to be told in the book she wrote in 1990, Enigma Variations: a Memoir of Love and War, published under her maiden name.

Irene Young served at Bletchley in the top secret and critical effort to decode enemy encrypted signals. Her own small part in the extraordinary enterprise was the first theme of her book: it was a pioneering account of everyday life at “Station X”. She felt that the “cogs” in the Bletchley machine should have their story told. The second theme of her book, essentially a tragic love story, was the developing relationship with a fellow Edinburgh student, Leslie George Cairns. He was reading History and was in the OTC. He served in the Ayrshire Yeomanry until frustration at still being on home service caused a rift, and Irene broke their engagement. He moved himself to another gunner regiment; went to North Africa; fought at Alamein and in Tunisia; transferred to the Parachute Regiment; and, finally, to the SAS. He was posted missing in June 1944 on a mission deep into occupied France. They had enjoyed only a few weekends together during their all-too-brief marriage. Neither could tell the other what they were doing.

Irene’s father worked in the British Linen Bank, as Head of the Securities Department. Her mother came of a Morayshire family of doctors and lawyers. She was educated at Esdaile School, where she excelled in Latin, French and English literature. .

After the war, and still in the limbo of presumed widowhood, she abandoned the career in the Civil Service that beckoned. Passing up also the chance to read for a B Litt at Oxford, she opted to spend a year in London, living at Crosby Hall while taking a secretarial course with the debs at the Marlborough Gate college. She thought of becoming an embassy secretary, and was offered a tempting opportunity to work in the Middle East. Instead, she honoured an invitation from an aunt of her husband (now officially presumed killed in action) to spend some time in South Africa. In Durban she was courted by Reginald Sydney Brown, a quiet but dryly humorous chartered accountant. He himself had experienced an interesting war, serving with the Royal Durban Light Infantry in the Western Desert where he was wounded and captured at Tobruk. At the Italian armistice he had walked out of his prison camp near Perugia to spend nine months on the run, being sheltered by peasant families and assuming an Italian identity. After many adventures and hardships, and having been recaptured by the Germans from whom he made an audacious escape, he eventually made it to the Anzio perimeter. In later years he and Irene would make several return visits, first to locate, and subsequently to thank, the courageous and kindly Italians who had risked so much to help evaders.

Having married in 1948, Irene and Reginald came to Edinburgh. There, despite being a qualified graduate, as a “colonial” without sufficient local connections he could not get a decent job in accountancy. In the perjink Edinburgh of the day he was viewed as an outsider, so to South Africa they returned. But the country was changing fast under its Nationalist Afrikaner government. Reginald was a man of liberal views and Irene joined him in membership of the Torch Commando, an anti-government organisation. They felt it was not a country they could continue to live in; and, accepting that it would mean a time of austerity during re-qualification, they returned to Edinburgh. Ultimately they prospered. Reginald became a partner in the same international firm which had swallowed both his Edinburgh practice and that in which he had begun his accountancy in Durban.

Irene devoted herself to homemaking, to the care of her ageing parents, and to the nurture of her husband and son. She had lectured in Durban for a tutorial college and in Edinburgh she took private pupils in Latin and English, worked for a publisher, and for ten years in a departmental library at Edinburgh University.

Reginald died suddenly in 1982, immediately after retirement. Irene was devastated. She had published verse from her adolescent years, then as a student and subsequently. Now she found solace in writing a good deal more. Her style was rhythmic and structured. Early lushness gave way to a more controlled and simple expression.

Silversmithing was among her more unusual activities. She edited her old school magazine and maintained her interest in languages, pursuing ancient Greek, Italian and German while keeping up her Latin and French. She was for 27 years a guide at the National Trust for Scotland’s Georgian House in Charlotte Square. The auction-room and the art gallery were among her favourite haunts. She was a keen member of the Scottish Arts Club. Concern for others manifested itself in much voluntary work, for example at Westerlea special school.

Extensive travel was a great diversion. The Mediterranean and its surrounding lands, as the cradle of the civilisations in which she was most interested, attracted her beyond anywhere else. The Italian Lakes she eschewed, saying that they were for old people.

She was resilient in both body and spirit. When grazed by a bus at nearly 91, she heard the policeman in attendance report that “a woman in her seventies” had been in an accident. She looked up from the road and said cheerfully: “In her nineties, actually!” Her very small (and, latterly, “bowbackit”) stature, her speed of nervous movement, her bright eyes: all made the nickname “Mouse” appropriate. She was always immaculately and brightly dressed and bejewelled, and she retained her glamour, sparkle and wonderful smile into her tenth decade. Eventually she was forced to leave the elegant Georgian house in Newington which she loved, and where she had entertained frequently and generously, to move to a care home.

There she became increasingly frail and dementia had its effects, though in her case it was benign and did not rob her of the essentials of her character and nature. Her greatness of heart and sweetness of temper remained until the end.

Irene Brown is survived by her only son, Dr Iain Gordon Brown, FRSE.

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