Celebrating the Remarkable, Against the Odds

remarkable Claire Lorrimer

This week I went to a celebration of the extraordinary life of Patricia Denise Clark, whom I knew as distinguished romantic novelist, Claire Lorrimer. It would have been her 96th birthday. It was unforgettable — a truly remarkable occasion.

A Remarkable Church Chelsea Old Church after bombing

Remarkable for one thing because it was held in Chelsea Old Church, which was already old when Sir Thomas More worshipped there, and which was destroyed when a parachute landmine fell nearby on the night of the 16th-17th April 1941. The blast blew the Tower over onto the church, destroying it utterly, one would have said.

Chelsea Old Church, restored

Yet, against the odds, unlike 19 churches in the City and countless others throughout the country, it was restored. There is a gripping account on the wondrous London Inheritance blog; and, indeed, a fine book Chelsea Old Church, the Church that Would Not Die by Alan Russet and Tom Pocock, with a foreword by John Simpson CBE, world affairs editor of the BBC.

A Remarkable Secret

The Battle of Britain started on 10 July 1940. Hitler issued Directive No. 16 on 16th. To enable Operation Sea Lion, the British Air Force was to be eliminated before invasion. By mid September General Alan Brooke (as he then was) was writing in his diary “Will it be tomorrow?” You can see it, hand-written, in the Cabinet War Rooms. Chilling.

Pat Robins in WW2Also in July 1940, 19 year-old Pat Robins (as she then was) joined the WAAF — by mistake. She had stormed out, after insisting that her boss pay her the same salary as a twenty-one-year old for doing the same job or she would join the Army. Only she couldn’t find an Army recruiting office. So the RAF had to do.

Even so, she failed the eye test without her glasses and nearly didn’t get in. So she put on her glasses, memorised the bottom three lines of the sight-test card, took off the glasses and joined a different queue.

And almost at once she found herself working with the Dowding System, which used new and highly classified RADAR to plot incoming planes. She and her colleagues, like those at Bletchley Park, were sworn to a secrecy that continued for thirty years after the end of the war.

Royal opening of Bentley Priory Museum

Veterans in the Filter Room with their “models”, Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall

She was a Filterer, a complex role, requiring her to turn conflicting information into a coherent picture of incoming aircraft. She and her fellow WAAFs did ground-breaking work, according to Aviation Expert Tim Willbond. The RAF promoted her early and as high as they could imagine a woman going — to Deputy Filter Centre Control Officer. Some compensation — they have put a figure inspired by her into their exhibit in Bentley Priory Museum, the opening of which she attended, see above.

A Remarkable WriterClaire Lorrimer

The daughter and granddaughter of romantic novelists, Claire was already writing stories for women’s magazines during the War.

It earned her petrol money to take herself and her girl friends to NAAFI dances.

Denise Robins, mother of Claire Lorrimer

Denise Robins


After the war, she followed her mother, Queen of Romance, Denise Robins, and wrote full-length light romance. Robins legitimately claimed the title before her great friend Barbara Cartland. Before the War, buses could be seen in London bearing the slogan, “Robins for Romance” .


cover of "Maureen" a US bestsellerBut then Claire’s agent, casting an eye on the huge success of American three-decker bodice rippers like The Flame and the Flower, suggested she try her hand at something similar.

She followed his advice.  (Even though she had never been very keen on  history.)

The result was Mavreen, 2 million sales in its first year, several weeks on the New York Times best seller list and a whole new career trajectory.

Mind you, she was displeased that her publisher insisted the heroine marry the Vicomte instead of the highwayman, and set off on a sequel to remedy the situation.

cover of "Trust Me" by Claire LorrimerAlways ready to experiment, Claire wrote books in a variety of periods and genres as her invention led her. She set herself and her advisers high standards. “Exacting” was the word her friend and long time PR guru Tony Mulliken used. Ruefully.

She also stayed up to date with every development in publishing. Indeed, the first time I met her face to face was to celebrate the launch of some of her most popular titles as e-books. With glamorous new covers and updated blurbs, they found an enthusiastic audience. She had just finished her latest book only a few weeks before she died. And had ideas for another story.


We left the church to the strains of The Entertainer played on the organ. As I said, Remarkable. An honour and a great pleasure to have known her.

I salute you, ma’am.

Claire Lorrimer as WAAF and in later life, with medals


16 thoughts on “Celebrating the Remarkable, Against the Odds

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you Susie. She was a fascinating woman – and so down-to-earth. Her autobiography is a great read and not a hint of hubris anywhere. I really liked her.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’re very welcome, Natalie. I think I was lucky to be there and wanted to share. So thank you, too.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Chelsea Old Church was one of the first places I visited when I moved into the borough, purely because of Sir Thomas More, then one of my high heroes. It really seemed to speak to me. Every time I go back there, I get the same tingle up the spine. Not quite sure why. Maybe we have unfinished business, that church and I.

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Remarkable is the word. Fascinating to hear about these women who did such sterling work in the War, and then to go on and write Romantic fiction. We are a diverse lot.

    1. Sophie Post author

      There’s a broad spectrum of us who write and read – romance, isn’t there, Liz? So nice to be on common ground with so many people. Hopeful for the future of the world, somehow.

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this. Interesting to note how low the glass ceiling was at Bletchley Park – it scarcely reached the dado rail!

    1. Sophie Post author

      The aviation expert who spoke at her memorial, a retired Group Captain I think, made exactly that point, Elizabeth. He pointed out that the WAAFs in the Dowding System worked under the closest secrecy, such that not even their recruiters knew what they were going to do.

      He also pointed out the responsibility of what she and her fellow Filter Officers did – assess a wide spectrum of information rapidly and then make quick judgements which were effectively policy decisions. I wrote down his words “Their importance cannot be overstated”.

      I had the impression – though I didn’t make a note of those exact words at the time – that he thought that the RAF could and should do better in acknowledging the contribution of WAAFs like Claire.

      1. Joanna

        That’s fascinating, Sophie. When I served in what was then the WRAF, in the 1970s, we were still limited in the roles open to us. No flying, for example, except as a loadmaster. And so no WRAF officer could ever rise to the highest ranks of the RAF. FINALLY, in the late 80s, it changed and women could become aircrew. Since 1994, women are members of the RAF (not WRAF) following the merger of the two.

        I was by chance in the RAF Club on the day in 2008 when the first female officer to win a combat gallantry medal, helicopter pilot Michelle Goodman, received her DFC at Buckingham Palace. She came back to the Club and I will admit to having teared up a bit, with pride, at what a young professional woman could now achieve. Since then, another female helicopter pilot, Laura Nicholson, has also won the DFC and Wing Commander Nikki Thomas has become the first woman to take command of a fast jet squadron.

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