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The following passage was in Lord Tebbit’s recent column in The Telegraph:

Mr Pascall wrote that he was “amazed to read that there are now 400 staff in Downing Street” and goes on to say that in Thatcher’s day he was one of but seven, alongside Alan Walters (economics) and Alan Parsons (foreign affairs). There was also the principal private secretary and four other private secretaries; about four in the press office under Bernard Ingham; two in the political office; another four in the honours section; Ten garden girls and four or five members of security and police.

What does garden girl mean in this context? I don't think it means ‘gardener’ (nor is professional groundskeeper necessarily a women-only occupation), since that wouldn’t usually be counted as staff in Downing Street, but I also have no idea what alternative meaning could be attributed.

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  • There is a big groomed garden at the back of 10 and 11 Downing Street. Having a few gardeners is reasonable, and 10 is high. As for girls, The Telegraph didn't comment on gardening as a women-only occupation, only hinting that the staff seems generous. Why not assume the garden girls do gardening? Sometimes a cigar. Feb 14 at 23:39
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    I'd hope in these modern times that secretaries would also not be considered a women-only occupation. And it's surprising that they'd still be okay with calling them "girls", when I'm sure they're probably all adults. Seems there's a bit of antiquated language going on here even though it's a recent article. Feb 15 at 14:37
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    I was really amused by the prospect of Alan Parsons being a foreign affairs adviser to Margaret Thatcher, but it appears that the Telegraph just got his first name wrong. Feb 15 at 17:53
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    @DarrelHoffman What about "girls night out"? I'd expect married women to use that term for a night away from the family. As for antiquated, I think it depends more on your culture - I wouldn't expect anything else in London (I live elsewhere, but my mum flies the union jack). It's just an unpretentious nick name that hasn't bent over backwards to be overly pc. The youngest of my mum's golfing girls would be 60, and almost all married. (They're most likely all women, but I wouldn't put it past the british to include a man as in the gardening girls).
    – Stephen
    Feb 16 at 0:18
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    @DarrelHoffman - They're certain elite secretaries (which you'd expect, since they work with the Prime Minister in Downing Street) but they have little or no 'rank' in government, other than that they sometime ask things on behalf of the Prime Minister. They make no decisions about government business and are lowly ranked in the Civil Service, typically sitting in the "Administrative or Support" grades; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Service_(United_Kingdom)
    – Richard
    Feb 16 at 18:47

1 Answer 1

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They are secretaries, although that isn't entirely clear from the sentence.

According to Wikipedia, this is what Winston Churchill called his secretaries. "Garden girls" had offices that looked out over the garden of 10 and 11 Downing Street.

To clarify from comments, "secretary" in this case means they are administrative assistants of support grade in the civil service, @Richard noted, not to be confused with secretaries of state.

From a FT article in 2007, the term is dated earlier:

The garden room girls are the elite cadre of Whitehall secretaries who serve the prime minister. Since the time of Lloyd George early in the past century they have worked in the rooms overlooking the Number 10 garden – hence their name.

As for why the Ten is capitalized but no other number, I assume a connection to the well-known street number as a proper noun, but that might be an issue of style or another question. This BBC article calls them "Garden Room Girls," capitalized.

The Garden Room Girls are certainly a well-travelled lot - some of them have kept their luggage labels and tickets from cruises on Royal Yacht Britannia or flights on Concorde.
The thing about being a Garden Room Girl is that the unexpected happens and you have to be ready to respond.

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    I suspect that the capitalised Ten is an erroneous "correction" in an article about Number Ten.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 15 at 8:23
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    To confuse things, the private secretaries here were not secretaries in the 1980s sense, but middle- to high-ranking civil servants advising the Prime Minister on policy issues, telling government departments what Margaret Thatcher wanted them to do.
    – Henry
    Feb 15 at 9:39
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    This usage (in the longer form "Garden Room Girls") can also be found in the book "Yes, Prime Minister" (Jonathan Lynn & Anthony Jay) - while fiction, this book was considered spookily accurate about all aspects of life and politics at Number Ten and can usually be taken to be very reliable in its use of jargon, procedure and formalities.
    – Spratty
    Feb 15 at 10:54
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    Not that spookily. Sir Anthony Jay was a real political speechwriter who knew how Number Ten worked. Feb 15 at 15:00
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    @terdon - I couldn't remember the phrase being used in the TV series but I remember it being in the book. I'm happy to be corrected, though - and anyway, it's a good excuse to dust off the DVDs and watch it all again, so thank you :-)
    – Spratty
    Feb 16 at 11:41

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