Barbara Eachus, 91; former vice-consul at British Consulate
By the time Barbara Eachus was recruited to serve in a secretive British code-breaking operation during World War II, she already was an old hand at unconventional experiences.
A 16-year-old from Belfast, she was a Protestant studying in a Catholic convent school in Belgium when the British Foreign Office spirited her away to the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire, England, to work at the renowned Government Code and Cypher School.
“The secrecy was extraordinary,’’ she told the British newspaper The Guardian in 1999. “Nobody knew what anybody else did. I couldn’t tell my mother where I was, but she assumed I was all right: She put her trust not in the Lord, but in the Foreign Office.’’
Mrs. Eachus, who later served for three decades in the British Consulate in Boston, retiring in 1986 as vice-consul, died Feb. 14 in her Cambridge home. She was 91 and her health had been failing for several years.
In 1971, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Mrs. Eachus a member of the Order of the British Empire.
“I am thrilled,’’ Mrs. Eachus, who for many years was the information officer at Boston’s British Consulate, told the Globe in January 1971. “This is the kind of thing that mostly happens to other people.’’
Meeting royalty, however, was the kind of thing that happened to her. At the consulate, she took part in planning the Boston visit by the queen and Prince Philip during the 1976 bicentennial, and trips here by Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
Showing prominent Bostonians how to properly greet the royal family was only one of Mrs. Eachus’s many duties.
Globe columnist Marjorie Sherman wrote in 1971 that Mrs. Eachus was everyone’s “favorite voice with all the answers at the British Consulate.’’
Along with answering questions at work, Mrs. Eachus offered her expertise to the “Ask the Globe’’ feature, fielding inquiries from readers. Once she dismissed as nonsense a rumor that H. Ross Perot had bought the Magna Carta. Another time, she explained that US immigration officers did not ask Queen Elizabeth for a passport during her 1976 visit.
“She always had the answer for everything,’’ said Anahid Salakian, a former consulate colleague who also is a member of the Order of the British Empire. “She was much loved by everyone. She was a great colleague, really.’’
Often, Mrs. Eachus dealt with very serious subjects. When members of the Irish Republican Army were jailed, she engaged in spirited debates with Globe readers in letters to the editor.
In 1978, a reader wrote that the British government was holding “thousands of political prisoners.’’ Mrs. Eachus responded with a letter listing how many Irish inmates had been convicted of murder, explosives and firearms offenses, and other violent crimes.
Though she assumed the reader meant “these crimes were committed for political motives,’’ she wrote that “a man who kills or maims for political reasons is not a political prisoner, in my book at any rate.’’
Little is known about her life before World War II. An only child, she was born Olivia Barbara Abernethy and never used her first name.
Mrs. Eachus told The Guardian that her mother sent her to a convent to study languages. Already able to say Mass in Latin, “in Belgium I had learned French, German, and Flemish,’’ she said.
The Bletchley estate, she told The Guardian, “was very interesting even before the eccentrics came.’’
Among the first to arrive at Bletchley, she was the last to lock the doors when everyone left after the war.
“I was in decoding,’’ she told the Guardian, “but then they learned I had commercial training - I could type - so they whipped me into administration. I kept the personnel records all through the war.’’
Just as importantly for her, she met Joseph J. Eachus, an American Navy lieutenant and mathematician assigned to work at Bletchley with the British to break codes produced by the legendary German Enigma machine.
“They were attracted to each other right away,’’ said her stepson Alan Eachus of Villa Park, Ill.
They met again after the war, when the British Foreign Office sent her to Washington, D.C., where he was working for a precursor to the National Security Agency.
The couple married in 1947 and moved north in the 1950s. She began working at the British Consulate in Boston in 1956, and he worked at Honeywell and for a few years as a consultant to Raytheon.
In retirement, they coordinated an alumni association for recipients of Marshall Scholarships, which are awarded to top US university students who are continuing their studies in the United Kingdom.
Living in Cambridge, they were renowned for their parties, particularly on the Fourth of July and Guy Fawkes Night. The two holidays, one American and the other British, traditionally feature fireworks, and the couple did not disappoint guests. Mrs. Eachus refreshed her memory about every visitor ahead of time.
“She was an extremely organized person, to the nines,’’ said Alan’s wife, Elaine. “If she was going to have a dinner party, she would have a file on the people she had invited, with notes written down about each one.’’
At the gatherings, guests “were attracted to her because she was vivacious without being center stage,’’ Elaine said.
“She was a very sophisticated person,’’ her stepson said, “and learning so many languages at such an early age didn’t hurt a whole lot, either.’’
As part of her work, Mrs. Eachus organized parties for everyone from royalty to British actors performing in Boston shows.
“But she was not a name-dropper, so I had to pry everything out of her,’’ said Tom Lehrer, a longtime friend in Cambridge. “You know: ‘What? You actually met the queen and you didn’t tell me?’ ’’
In addition to her stepson and his wife, Mrs. Eachus, whose husband died in 2003 at 92, leaves another stepson, W. James of Seattle; five step-grandchildren; and nine step-great-grandchildren.
A service will be announced.
Some two decades ago, Mrs. Eachus became a US citizen, though “being a British subject was part of her demeanor,’’ Elaine said.
That was certainly true of afternoon tea, a tradition whose slow demise Mrs. Eachus tracked for many years in Boston and back in England.
“You’re as likely to see someone order a drink as tea now in London,’’ she lamented one afternoon in 1983 as she sipped Earl Grey tea in the Colonnade hotel.