The singular world behind the riddles of Lady Cryptic

As Barbara Hall, our fiendish puzzle setter, retires at 87, we learn of her past creating codes for the navy and as Africa's first agony aunt

Margarette Driscoll

Published: 26 December 2010

Barbara HallBarbara Hall, who has compiled the Sunday Times Crossword for over 30 years

Barbara Hall set her first crossword puzzle in 1938 as a 15-year-old schoolgirl, sent it off to a newspaper, and was paid two guineas. It marked her out early as a master of the written word. Now 87, Hall's crosswords and Bookwise puzzles have fascinated and frustrated Sunday Times readers for the past 36 years.

This weekend, Hall retires — "I will be 88 in February and thought it was time to slow down a bit" — but she does not intend to be idle. She has a novel to finish, based on her years in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in the 1960s. She has five sons and 10 grandchildren scattered around the world, and an insatiable curiosity for ... well, everything.

The sitting room of her home in Camberwell, southeast London, is a treasure trove of objects attesting to her travels and passions. The "Africa corner" includes a female household god, her all-seeing eye ranging around the room over a huge collection of colourful glass paperweights, paintings and photographs, a mass of fossils including a 10,000-year-old bison leg and sundry rocks and crystals. "Look at this," she says, picking up a toffee-coloured stone shaped like a cluster of petals. "Formed beneath the sands of Morocco. Beautiful."

Then there are the books, hundreds of them, fodder for Bookwise, the literary quiz that asks readers to identify novels and characters with a common theme. In recent years, according to Hall's neatly written lists, these have included eclipses, haystacks, laughter and hedgerows. She does not use a computer and relies on her written files and phenomenal memory to ensure she never repeats a clue.

She has compiled puzzles and crosswords for all sorts of specialist publications, including yachting, food and wine and women's magazines, and even Forum, the soft-porn magazine in the 1970s. Her favourite clue was "Voluptuous girl: reason enough for the crime?" Answer: "bigamy [big-Amy]".

She was Africa's first agony aunt. Indeed, her whole life reads like a novel: a genteel childhood in Derbyshire, a stint as a railway clerk at the outbreak of the second world war (at a family lunch to celebrate her 85th birthday she recited every railway station between St Pancras and Carlisle), a posting with the Wrens to the east coast of England where she worked creating codes until 1946.

Her strongest memory from those days is of seeing drowned sailors and airmen - British, German and Polish - laid out together in the courtyard of a naval hospital. "Some were covered in mussels," she recalls. "The scavengers of the sea."

A year later she moved to a new post and met Richard Hall, a sailor, former journalist and fellow code maker at the Borstal naval depot in Cookham Wood, Kent. They married and both applied for ex-sevicemen's grants to take up places at Oxford. But after six weeks of marriage Hall became pregnant, "so that was the end of Oxford for me".

A few years later, with four small boys - Robin, Nick, Simon and Crispin — in tow, she moved out to Africa, where Jeremy, a fifth son arrived, and Richard founded the Central African Mail newspaper. Barbara's "Tell Josephine" advice column became one of the paper's most popular features.

"I thought it would be letters from women, complaining about drunkenness and polygamy but it was mostly letters from men, wanting to know how they could get women! Some of them were very sexual," she says.

"One man wrote to me saying, 'I have married again but unfortunately I have married my mother-in law.' It sounds incredible but men would roam around the country taking two or three wives and if he'd met the first wife in the town and her family were in the country ... mistakes could happen. I said to him, 'You must buy your father-in-law many presents and move away'."

Being "big fish in a small pond" she and Richard were invited to every important event in newly independent Zambia. She came to know and admire Kenneth Kaunda, its president, and met most African prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Louis Armstrong. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, is her hero. "A wonderful man, like a Boy Scout, absolutely incorruptible," she says.

As well as sending crosswords to publications in Britain, she sent back freelance reports on wars in Africa and the tensions between Taiwan and China, but on returning home in the early 1970s she concentrated on crosswords and has been setting them for The Sunday Times almost ever since. Three years ago she was made an MBE.

Her favourite clues are the daft rather than the academic - "dogs do it around trees" (bark), or "the whizzer of Oz" (boomerang) - though she can happily manage both. "I like to think it keeps Alzheimer's at bay," she says.

Her most productive thinking time is in the evening, when she sits in an armchair with a glass of red wine at her side. From this week onwards the blank puzzle grids will be replaced by the manuscript of her novel: "People say to me, 'Barbara, give it up,' but there's always so much to do . . ."