Peter Elson speaks to Lady Pilkington, about spying and Willowbrook Hospice
YOU would not think of this unassuming woman as material for the spy world. But then again that sort of demeanour amounts to the perfect cover.
Even now, Lady Pilkington prefers a low profile and is adept at merging into a crowd.
Yet back in the 1950s, when Ian Fleming created James Bond, at 18-years-old, she signed the Official Secrets Act and became a secretary employed by MI6.
With gadgetry worthy of Bond’s long-suffering colleague ‘Q’, she was sent out in London with a camera disguised as a handbag.
“In exercises we took photos of trainee spies crossing London, to see if we could do it undetected. It was right out of John Le Carré.
“When his novels came out we were horrified as he was telling everyone about our work. There was a different feel in those days as you were not expected to talk,” she said.
“We only used Christian names as an extra layer of security at a time when Mr and Mrs or Miss was the norm. As in Le Carré’s books, there were all these unique oddballs in the secret service, leading slightly sad lives.”
Becoming bored with these capers, in 1958 aged 22 years, she emigrated to the US aboard the Queen Mary (“I was sick as a dog all the way”) with a friend, plus £50 loaned by her bank manager father (later paid back as he instructed), planning to stay for three years.
“It was a magic time but very hard at first in New York. We were so poor and hungry we used to go into bars asking for a glass of water and raid the free pretzels on the tables.”
However, they landed jobs in Madison Avenue’s advertising firms, in what was the prime Mad Men era, before taking the Greyhound bus across the States to work in San Francisco.
This must all seem a long way from her current role as a founder and chairman of the board of trustees at Willowbrook Hospice, St Helens.
The hospice is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year and has immeasurably improved the final days of thousands of people from around St Helens.
Not only that, Kirsty Pilkington has also become the matriarch (“but I don’t think of myself that way”) of a family whose name is an internationally known business brand and was given the Freedom of St Helens in July.
Her late husband, Sir Antony Pilkington, who died in 2000, was the last family chairman of Pilkington’s Glass. The company, synonymous with St Helens, is now Japanese-owned.
Was she aware, back in 1960, she was marrying into Britain’s top glass-making dynasty?
“I’d no idea. I’d not even heard of Pilkington’s Glass,” she chuckled, “I come from Sussex and was evacuated to the Scottish lowlands during the war, but was vague about the bit in between.
“I came back from America after a year, drawn by my relationship to Antony. We’d first met at Waterloo station on a university skiing trip. I confess I was actually with another boyfriend at the time,” she giggled.
She enthusiastically embraced her new life in St Helens and the North West, settling in Kingsley, Frodsham. She said: “When I moved up here, a woman said to me ‘what do people do in the North?’ An amazing attitude in a small country like this, isn’t it?”