Daphne Park

(1921-2010) – Clandestine senior controller in MI6, Principal of Somerville 1980-89

Born and raised in the Congo, Daphne Park came to Somerville in 1940 to study Modern Languages. After graduation she turned down jobs in the Treasury and the Foreign Office, instead joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). It was during the selection process for FANY that Park was spotted by Special Operations Executive (SOE) and for the remainder of the War she trained operatives who were sent to support the Resistance in Europe. After the war, Park studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, taking a Certificate of Competent Knowledge in Russian in 1952.

Under diplomatic cover, Park rose through the ranks of MI6, eventually working as senior controller in Hanoi, Moscow, the Congo and Zambia – the highest position in MI6 of any woman up to that time. Her fearlessness was legendary, although she liked to convey the impression of being a grandmother rather than a spy. Indeed, her preferred modus operandi was to build relationships rather than engage in underhand dealings. Specifically, Daphne refused to bear weapons and famously countered an attack from an armed mob by getting out of her car, opening the bonnet and exclaiming, ‘Thank goodness you’ve come along – I think I have a problem with my carburettor.’ The men promptly laid down their weapons and offered their assistance.

Her career was not without controversy, however. It is alleged that she claimed privately to have been involved in the 1961 abduction and murder of Patrice Lumumba during the Congo Crisis. The true nature of her work was publicly revealed only in 1993, when an edition of BBC’s Panorama named her as a senior MI6 officer.

As Principal of Somerville, Park oversaw the college’s first conversations about whether to admit men to the college. She also worked tirelessly for the College Appeal, raising much-needed funds by making frequent visits to the USA, the Gulf States and the Far East. A member of the British Library Board, Chair of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee and Governor of the BBC, Park was also a Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University. In 1990 she was created Baroness Park of Monmouth.

Did you know? Daphne Park’s first appearance in the Somerville records is as one of the undergraduates who volunteered to take part in a mock Blitz organised by the City Council to test Oxford’s preparedness, where her ‘realistic impersonation of a hysterical foreigner deprived of house, sense and all coherent speech had shown up some weak spots in the city organisation’.

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