Kate Vigurs: In Conversation
For the past two years, Dr Kate Vigurs has been an absolute hit at Chalke Valley History Festival. Her book, Mission France, was in the festival's bestseller lists for both years, while huge crowds flocked to enjoy her performances for History's Maid. Somehow not completely losing her voice, despite competing with cannon fire and tanks, she was able to talk to us about all the fascinating plates she's currently spinning.
Tell me about your book, Mission France.
Mission France came about because I wanted to tell the stories of the lesser-known women of Special Operations ExecutiveSpecial Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War.. I was approached by Yale University Press, who wanted a book on SOESpecial Operations Executive was a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit working in occupied territory during the Second World War., and we had a few discussions backwards and forwards about what that could be. We thought it would be a good idea to do a group biography, because the 39 women had been discussed together in the past, but always as individual chapters. So, the idea was to try to put them together chronologically to see how their paths crossed with one another. The other aim was to show that they didn't work in isolation, and to try to talk about the other resistors and the male agents around them: to give a full picture, but also not to be a hagiography. I didn't want everybody up on a pedestal if mistakes were made. And for me, the human story is the most important thing: yes, they did amazing things – ordinary people doing extraordinary things – but I wanted the human nature of their stories to be there. They got exhausted; they made mistakes; one of them had a baby in the field. These stories needed to be told as frankly as possible.
You do bust a few myths along the way. How did you feel about doing that?
I wanted just to tell the truth. There was a bit of myth-busting, but really it's just digging down into the archives. None of it's conjecture, none of it's 'Kate Vigurs thinks'; all of this is backed up by sources. It was nice to be able to tell their stories in a straightforward manner, and then to bring in the other people around them. I always got a little bit frustrated when names like Denise Bloch or Lilian Rolfe were only ever associated with the agent they were executed alongside. I wanted their stories to come to the fore as well. So it was quite gratifying to be able to do that.
You talk about the archives, but this is all secret, so how did you find it in terms of research?
The records aren't too bad. After the war, about 85 per cent of SOE records were destroyed. There was a weeding process whereby a load of stuff was just destroyed anyway, and then there was a fire. Fortunately for this book – for the next book, it's not so good because the fire basically affected the records from the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands. – we've got an almost complete contingent of the women's personnel files. There are only a couple missing, and I'm still trying to get to the bottom of why that could be, because I think some of them are redacted because of names in them of people who were still alive. So it wasn't too bad in terms of archives. And then because they worked in a circuit, you can also spread out and look at the other people within the circuit and build quite a good picture of what was going on. After the war there was a very good report done by a guy called Bourne-Patterson, called British Circuits in France. It was quite an immediate response, done in 1946, so it's not complete in terms of what we would want now, but it was still pretty good. And then the Imperial War Museum did a great job of recording a lot of information in the ‘80s.
You mentioned your next book; tell me a bit about it.
Hopefully it will be called Mission Europe, and the idea is to follow on from Mission France in terms of looking at women of Special Operations Executive. It will spread a little bit further out from the SOE remit, looking at women that we would call secret agents. If it goes to plan, I will look at the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, possibly Italy. I'm also going to look at SOE FANYThe First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was formed in 1907 and is a British women's organization active in both nursing and intelligence work during the World Wars. members – women linked to SOE but who weren't necessarily agents behind the lines. And I'm really excited to tell the stories of three ladies from Europe who moved to Palestine to work in the kibbutzAn intentional community in Israel traditionally based on agriculture.. Then when war broke out, they recruited people to come back into Europe and three women were amongst that number. They received training and they were flown back, two of them – one directly and the other via Yugoslavia – into Hungary, and another one into Romania. They're quite well known to the Jewish community, but less well known outside of that. So I'm excited to be able to bring that to my audience and for them to realize who these women were and their huge sacrifice.
It's much broader and bigger, then, than Mission France; I imagine it's going to be a bigger task researching it?
I don't think it will be a bigger book because although there are lots of countries, there are still very few women. For Belgium, for example, there are only two women who are official, so in a way it's actually a bit harder because I'm going to have to broaden the scope. But when it comes to something like the Netherlands, it just crashed and burned with regards to the SOE. So it's another opportunity to revisit the EnglandspielLiterally 'England Game', Englandspiel was an extremely successful German counterintelligence operation, which used the codes of captured agents working in the Netherlands to expose and destroy resistance groups in the region., but through the eyes of the women this time.
What got you into looking at women of the SOE in the first place?
That's a very long story! It's twofold: when I was a kid, there was a programme in the '80s called Wish Me Luck. It was by the same people who wrote Tenko and it was about women going into France doing amazing things. I had no idea that existed. I was about eight, but it was really gripping. Then I went to work at the Royal Armouries Museum after I graduated university and played women's roles: I'm a historical interpreter, and I played roles like Florence Nightingale and Annie Oakley, but I really wanted to do somebody with a bit more to them. So I thought about the French Resistance, found SOE, realized Wish Me Luck was real and just got sucked into it completely. I wrote the script with the help of Mark Seaman from the Imperial War Museum and stayed in contact with him. It was like throwing coals on a fire: I just couldn't stop, and twenty-odd years later, I still can't stop.
And you completed your doctorate, with your thesis based around SOE?
It was looking specifically at women in F-section, so in France. What I wanted to do was understand why the three George CrossThe highest award bestowed by the British government for non-operational gallantry or gallantry not in the presence of an enemy. recipients got so much attention. The title was not very catchy: 'Wartime Realities and Post-War Representations'. I looked at what really happened and then the way it's been portrayed through the media and particularly through film – because my first degree is in drama I was able to use that background. I looked at films like Charlotte Gray, Female Agents, Plenty, and also looked at the way they've been memorialized. I went on a course and became really interested in memorials and the way they affect public memory, and so also looked at all the memorials that existed at the time.
You've mentioned acting, and of course you do History's Maid. Can you tell me about that?
History's Maid was born out of the fact I couldn't face doing a proper office job, although I tried very hard! I was made redundant from the Armouries in about 2009, so I worked as a museum development officer for a few years alongside local museums, which has stood me in good stead because I still do consultancy now. But I just missed the performance and having never really wanted to be an actress on stage, this history-and-acting combination really suits me. So I set up History's Maid. I spoke to a couple of people I knew and said, 'If I do this, will you book me?' I got a handful of bookings, and then it just spiralled, especially because it's women's history and because of the way I do it, which is in character and using eyewitness accounts and journals and so on – I'm using real people's words and that can be very emotive to the audience, rather than a straight lecture. It's just a different way of doing it. So I do everything now: the furthest back I go is Viking – based on the myths and sagas – and the most recent is Cold WarA period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, 'officially' lasting from 1947 to 1991..
How do you choose the specific characters to act?
I go for things that clients want or things that interest me. I tend not to write scripts unless I know they're going to get a booking because it is very time consuming. For example, for Chalke Valley this year they said, 'What could you suggest?' So I sent them a repertoire list and then they picked from that. But for me, I like people who've got good strong stories and something that's going to inspire the audience. We're in a world of TikTok and YouTube influencers, and I really want people to understand the sacrifice and the martyrdom that some of these women went through to get us where we are. So I try to go for the eyewitness accounts, and sometimes you do go for the obvious – a suffragetteA woman seeking the right to vote through militant organised protest. The term was first used as mockery, but the Suffragettes embraced it and turned the'g' into a hard one, calling themselves 'suffra-GETs'. or something like that. It's got to be done: it's got to be in a women's history repertoire.
Are there any for which you can guarantee you'll always have a huge crowd?
Special Operations Executive always gets a good audience, because people have heard of it and they're curious how it's going to be done. The suffragette one always gets a good crowd as well because people are very divided on suffrageThe right to vote in elections. and the way it was done: you do get a lot of people, a bit like myself, who were wondering if it was a little bit too militantFavouring the use of violence and confrontation in the support of a cause. and whether it needed to go as far as it did. I've been doing one on Jack the Ripper for about a decade as well, a little bit like the book The Five, trying to bring these women back to life in a way where we don't glorify their deaths, but talk about the way they lived and what life was like in the East End of London in the 1880s. I also portray through a re-enactment group 'The Ragged Victorians’, based on Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. I remember when I started doing Jack the Ripper it seemed like nothing changed in those 30 years, and I found that really disturbing, so I wanted to try to get that across to people: the rich get richer; technology advances; but for the poor nothing changes.
If it were up to you, so not thinking what would be popular or anything else, are there any stories that you would really, really like to do?
I think I've done a lot of the ones I would like to do. I particularly like bringing First World War stories to life, like the munitions girls, and I also talk about the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the women's Army Remount section. But they very rarely get booked, which is a real shame. I love doing the Crimean WarA war fought between Russia, and Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia from 1853 to 1856. It was concerned primarily with the expansion of Russia but it also had religious overtones.: we have horses that we bring into our interpretation, and we do a very small Charge of the Light BrigadeA futile British light cavalry action against well-armed and well-prepared Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, resulting in massive losses to the British. with three horses – it's not a big thing, but we do do it. There's a lady called Fanny Duberly who actually witnessed the charge: she sat on her horse side-saddle in the top of the valley in a vineyard and watched the whole thing. She's such a character that her story needs to be told – it's amazing; she's a fantastic woman. Another one that I'm really keen on resurrecting – I've only had her out for one outing – is Emily Hobhouse. She's the woman in the Boer WarThe (Second) Boer War was a conflict between the British Empire and two Boer Republics over the Empire's influence in Southern Africa, 1899-1902. (The First Boer War, fought between December 1880 and March 1881, was between the Empire and the South African Republic, over the Republic's independence - which it won.) who exposed the treatment of the South Africans and the concentration camps. It's interesting because people often say, 'The British invented the concentration camp', so it's trying to dispel the myth that it was the same as the ones that appear 40 years later. Also the HolocaustThe mass murder of Jews and other minority groups under the Nazi regime. is something that fascinates me, but I never know how you could do it as a first-person interpretation. I've attempted it once: a lady gave me permission to tell her KindertransportThe effort to rescue Jewish children from Nazi territory in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. About 10,000 children escaped across to Britain. story, so I was able to do that. But it's working out a way that you can get that story across without glorifying it, without causing offence. But in the twenty-odd years I've been doing this, I still haven't found a way that would be appropriate.
You also conduct tours of the concentration camps?
I do. I work for a company called Anglia Tours, and as part of what we do, we take school groups to Germany. It depends on what the school's remit is: it could be anything through to the Cold War. But I tend to do the rise-of-Nazism tours and we take them to SachsenhausenA concentration camp, located just outside Berlin, that operated from 1936 to 1945 and that mainly housed political prisoners and, during the war, foreigners (about 90 per cent of prisoners in 1944 were foreign).. The tour I like the most, which probably sounds a bit weird, is a Kraków/AuschwitzThe concentration and extermination camp, located in Poland, that has become synonymous with the Holocaust. tour. The reason is that you get kids coming away from home, they're going on a plane, they're staying in a hotel, they're very excited. The first day we spend in the ghettoPart of a town or city in which members of a minority group live, usually as a result of political, social, legal, environmental or economic pressure. Historically it has applied specifically to a Jewish area. in the Jewish quarter, we go to PłaszówA concentration camp and forced-labour camp under the authority of police and SS leaders in Kraków, Poland. – explaining the build-up to all of it – and they start to get it. But then you get them to Auschwitz. Now, I can't guide at Auschwitz – I'm not a trained Auschwitz guide – but I can be there in a pastoral capacity. Once we've gone around Auschwitz I, we have lunch and they're all a bit shell-shocked. And then we go to Birkenau(Auschwitz II-)Birkenau was the largest camp at Auschwitz and became the centre for the Nazi killings of Jews, Poles, Roma, and many others. About 1.1 million people were killed there., and at Birkenau I hear the most phenomenal conversations from these kids. They're chatting to each other: 'What would you have done; would you have done this; would you have tried to survive, or would you have just rolled over?' These are 13-, 14-year-old kids having really massive conversations. You watch them grow up and you watch them realize that they're not the centre of the universe and that all this is going on around them. I remember taking a girl from a traveller community and she admitted she was a bit of a runaway child. I specifically took her to the Roma and Sinti part of Auschwitz, just her and me. And she said, 'Can I phone my mum? I just want to talk to my mum and say sorry for being such a tearaway. I now understand our community better and what our community have been through.' It was just the most beautiful moment, where you realize you've got them.
It must be so harrowing; although, I suppose when you're doing it so often you get a little bit hardened to it?
People think it gets easier, but I will tell you now: it gets harder. You stop seeing the big picture – literally the big pictures on the walls – and you start to see the very small things. I haven't been since COVID, but I find it harder every time I go. The last time I was there, this guy pointed out a cabinet of tins of shoe polish – it basically shows shoe polish from all different countries of Europe. But in the cabinet there's a Nivea tin – it's exactly the same as today's tins – and for me that shows how recent all of this was. Then I thought, 'Why would you pack Nivea?' But she thought she was going somewhere lovely: she thought she needed her moisturizer, and it floored me. It absolutely floored me. So, it does get harder, and because you go around with different guides, you learn different things every time.
A lot of what you do, the tours and the research and the writing, must be so difficult. There's a particular scene in Mission France with an SOE agent’s death in a furnace, which I think took me three or four attempts to get through. It must have been awful writing it?
I actually wrote those last chapters first because I wanted to get them out of the way, so I could then enjoy writing about their lives. With NatzweilerNatzweiler-Struthof was a Nazi concentration camp, on formerly French soil, that mainly housed resistance fighters. Although it didn't start out as a death camp, many died through forced labour and malnutrition, before it started executing people later in the war., I must be on a government watch list somewhere because I Googled, 'How much phenol does it take to kill a human being?' I was trying to work out if the amount the women had been given was going to be enough. It's so harrowing because there's such a good eyewitness account of the whole thing, from the minute they arrive. You've got agents like Brian Stonehouse and Pat O'Leary who knew the women, and who recognized them. When I went to Natzweiler, I had a book called Flames in the Field in my hand because the author, Rita Kramer, had done similar research in trying to work it all backwards. I just followed the route, and I ignored all the signs that said 'No Entry', because I wanted to follow the route they'd done. When I was writing it, I was up until one in the morning and I'd got them into the camp. But I didn't want to go to bed because then they'd be left there. It was ridiculous, but it felt like I'd left them on the top of a hillside and maybe if I could stay up a bit longer, I could save them. I got really weirdly affected by it.
So, onto cheerier subjects then?! I know you're writing your next book, but do you have any other projects coming up?
I’ve just been given an honorary research fellowship at the University of Warwick, so hopefully stuff will start to move in an academic direction again. But it's really about getting the book done and seeing where the future takes me. It's so nice to be on the flip side of writing a book. I don't know if anyone ever talks about it, but it's a very lonely process. And then suddenly you're at places like Chalke Valley, you're doing interviews, you're selling books, people are telling you it's quite good. It's really gratifying. So I'm just enjoying being on the other side of it. I will be at We Have Ways Fest as well, doing similar stuff, which I'm really looking forward to. It's very niche, all about the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945., so it's right up my street. And what I like about that is people who come in already have a knowledge – you're not having to explain occupation resistance; you can come in at a level where you're having really in-depth conversations.
Assuming there's a safety bubble, basically a TARDIS, where in history would you go?
I've thought about this quite a lot. I would like to go to the liberation of France. I'd like to see the Allies coming in through Paris. I would also really like to go to a Roman amphitheatre and see the games, because I don't think we can comprehend what they were like. I know that's totally random and different from anything I talk about, but I'd really love to try to understand that psyche and that atmosphere because I'm very interested in how things become what they are, and how violence becomes so normalized.
If you could use your TARDIS to bring any people from history to now and have a dinner party, who would you have?
I was fortunate to meet some of my SOE agents, so I'm not going to include them in it. I'd like to meet Fanny Duberly, the one I mentioned from the Crimea, because I think she was hard as nails. She'd be really, really interesting. Joan of Arc would be interesting. It'd be nice to try to understand her – was she being very, very clever or was she really hearing these voices, and did she want to be a martyr? I think Emmeline Pankhurst as well, just to understand how it became as militant and as violent as it all did. There's the speech where she said, 'I've inspired, I've incited' – is that something she was genuinely proud of? And how does she feel about all these women going on hunger strikeWhere a prisoner refuses to eat food as a form of protest. and basically being tortured because she told them that's what they should do. Also, who doesn't want to meet Henry VIII? I'd quite like to meet Henry VIII, in his younger days, because apparently he was a bit of a dish. There are so many – if I’m not careful, it would be a full-on banquet!
Read our review of Mission France here.