Inside the extraordinary life of 100-year-old former codebreaker Audrey

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderer's Guild at Norwic

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderers' Guild at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Sonya Duncan

An Antarctic island is named for her, she was part of a war-winning codebreaking team and, aged 100, Audrey Kinder still embroiders beautiful church textiles. 

And yet she might never have existed. Her geologist father was the youngest member of Scott of the Antarctic’s expedition but an injury meant he could not join the doomed trek to the South Pole.  

Instead Frank Debenham dedicated his career to ensuring Robert Falcon Scott’s name and work lived on, becoming the founding director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. In 1911 Frank had helped explore and map tracts of Antarctica but the story goes that he hurt his knee playing football on the ice and could not join Scott's final expedition.   

Frank and his wife went on to have six children including, in 1922, Audrey. Her childhood memories include hearing the news that another Antarctic explorer had discovered a chain of six frozen islands and named them for the six Debenham children. 

Audrey has never been to the Debenham Islands – Barbara, Barry, Audrey, Brian, June and Ann – although a niece has seen them. “Audrey is just an uninhabited rock really,” she said. “But it was very exciting to have them named for us.” 

Audrey Island, Antarctica

Audrey Island, Antarctica - Credit: Supplied by Audrey Kinder

Audrey's father Frank Debenham in Antarctica  

Audrey's father Frank Debenham in Antarctica - Credit: Supplied by Audrey Kinder

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderer's Guild at Norwic

One of Audrey's pictures of her father (left) in Antarctica with Captain Scott's expedition team in 1911 - Credit: Supplied by Audrey Kinder

Audrey grew up in Cambridge where her father was the university’s first professor of geography alongside setting up and running the Scott Polar Research Institute.  

“He was completely loyal to Scott and wanted to create this memorial to him. He felt so strongly that Captain Scott’s name should be kept in the public domain and through him people could be helped on future explorations,” said Audrey. 

Most Read

Her father had served in the Army and been injured in France during the First World War. By the time Audrey was 20 the Second World War was raging. She joined the Wrens (the Women's Royal Naval Service) and was sent to Bletchley Park in Oxfordshire where some of the country’s most brilliant mathematicians were cracking German codes. 

“I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do,” she said. “The train ticket just said Special Duty X.” For more than 60 years she told no-one of her part in the top-secret operations. Not even her husband knew until the vital work at Bletchley was declassified, many decades later. “I just said I’d been a secretary,” said Audrey. 

She had actually been operating code-cracking machines designed by Alan Turing – setting the dials and levers each day and running encrypted intercepted German messages through them as part of an operation vital to victory over Nazi Germany. She was then sent to Mombasa, in Kenya, to work on different machines, deciphering Japanese codes. 

Audrey Kinder served as a Wren and worked in codebreaking teams during the Second World War

Audrey Kinder served as a Wren and worked in codebreaking teams during the Second World War - Credit: Supplied by Audrey Kinder

Audrey and Hugh on their wedding day

Audrey and Hugh on their wedding day - Credit: Supplied by Audrey Kinder

After the war she married Hugh, who had studied medicine at Cambridge and went on to become a leading surgeon. They retired to South Walsham, chosen because they already had family in Norfolk and Hugh, who died in 2002, adored sailing.

Their five children, 18 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren are regular visitors and Audrey will still sometimes go out on their boat. “My husband was a keen sailor so I had to crew for him!” she said. 

She was also an accomplished embroiderer and after seeing a story in the EDP about a new group being set up to care for textiles at Norwich Cathedral, became a founding member of the Broderers’ Guild. "It was one of the best days of my life, it's been such a delight," she said.

Twenty-five years later she is the longest-serving member of the group of volunteers who meet every week in rooms above one of the Cathedral chapels to help restore exquisite Victorian embroidery and create new  vestments and other intricately decorated ecclesiastical pieces. Their work is so prized that they take on commissions as well as looking after the cathedral’s textile treasures. 

Audrey is currently repairing the gold thread on a Victorian priest’s chasuble, which will be worn by a cathedral clergyman. Over the years she has made and restored textiles including elaborately embroidered clothing, altar cloths and banners. She loves the camaraderie of the group, the friendships she has made, and the chance to create complex and beautiful pieces of work and restore precious historic textiles.  

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderer's Guild at Norwic

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderers' Guild at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderer's Guild at Norwic

Audrey Kinder has just turned 100 years old and still volunteers with the Broderer's Guild at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Victorian vestments being repaired by the volunteers of Norwich Broderers' Guild

Victorian vestments being repaired by the volunteers of Norwich Broderers' Guild - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Is there anything she is less keen about? The volunteers agree that hemming the choirboys’ robes as they are taken down and up, season by season, is not a favourite task. However, Audrey was delighted when the choir recorded a 100th birthday “Happy Birthday” especially for her.  

She celebrated her 100th birthday with family, who had put together a photo-book of her remarkable life – and she baked a chocolate cake for her friends in the Broderers' Guild. 

Norwich Broderers' Guild is looking for new members. Anyone interested in finding out more should cathedral.org.uk/about/broderers-guild 

Scott of the Antarctic  

Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expedition included setting a new furthest-south record, the discovery of the Antarctic Plateau, on which the South Pole is located, mapping coastlines and mountains – and finally reaching the South Pole a month behind Norwegian Roald Amundsen. On the return journey, beset by appalling weather, falls and frostbite, and the failure to meet up with a supply team, Scott and his companions perished. Famously Scott’s diary, recovered from the final camp, revealed the terrible story, including the heroism of Lawrence Oates who believed he was slowing the party and left the tent saying "I am just going outside and may be some time."