On the 19 October 2016, Bletchley Park celebrated 25 years since the first Bletchley Park tea party to reunite Government Code and Cypher School veterans for the first time since the war. To mark the anniversary Bletchley Park gave away free passes to the first 25 visitors through the door.
In 1991 local historians set out to arrange a small tea party to give Bletchley Park veterans a chance to see their wartime home one last time before bulldozers knocked it down for housing.
Nowadays, Bletchley Park is well-equipped to welcome a quarter of a million visitors a year but in 1991, Peter Wescombe, the man with the idea to hold the party, had to sneak into the site to speak to site manager Doreen Sawyer. Doreen agreed to his idea for a small farewell party catering for about 20 people but the escalating numbers of veterans interested in attending sent the invitation list soaring to over 200 and gave her sleepless nights.
“I had not said a word to my boss man. He didn’t know anything about this. In the end, when we got over a hundred I thought no way can I cope with this without saying something.”
With only weeks to go and the fate of the party balancing on a line of telephone cable, Doreen told her boss about the plan.
“He said, “Oh Doreen, what the heck are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. We’re stuck with tea and biscuits.'”
Doreen’s boss took the matter in hand and promptly contacted British Telecom Headquarters in London. To Doreen’s relief, the Director said, “Yes, go for it. It is quite important.” And that’s how it started.
When the veterans arrived on the 19 October 1991 they walked through the mansion, circled the rotting huts and peered through the windows of derelict blocks reminiscing about work, play and ghastly food. Amongst the laughter and anecdotes captured on 14 hours of audio, something stirred. Whether it was the warm glow of memories or the growing national realisation of the importance of the site, the veterans and historians knew that the site was far too important to knock down. So began the campaign to save Bletchley Park.
Peter Wescombe, the man leading the campaign, remembers the incident that crystallised his determination to save Bletchley Park:
“I was walking around the park with these two men I didn’t know from Adam. One was Harry Hinsley and the other was a chap called Stuart Milner-Barry, who was the head of Hut 6. Harry Hinsley, of course, was a Hut 4 man and became number two here and also wrote his magnum opus British Secret Intelligence in the Second World War. He, in fact, was talking to Stuart Milner-Barry and Edward Thomas and they were walking around the lake and I was walking with them, and they got round to where the steps are and Stuart Milner-Barry said, ‘Do you remember Harry when you came in roaring drunk and drove your cycle into the lake?’ Harry, of course, was a very straight-laced bloke. ‘Yes,’ Harry said. ‘Do you remember what you said?’ Harry said ‘No.’ Stuart said, ‘Please don’t tell Hilary. Please don’t tell Hilary.’ Hilary was his girlfriend and they married after the war…. And I thought, Yes. That’s the sort of thing we need. Not just the straight-laced stuff about codebreaking. These were ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. That’s the story I wanted to get…So that’s how the whole thing took off after the party.”
The 14 hours of audio recorded that day were recently discovered in Bletchley Park Archives and capture the veterans’ reactions to seeing Bletchley Park for the first time since the war. They also give an incredible insight into staff recruitment, the roles they carried out and the reality of working at the secret intelligence site and its outstations. In one recording, veteran Nancy Holderness comments:
“We were a motley crew really, from all different walks of life – I was in the lingerie department at Marshall & Snelgrove. We were sworn to secrecy and we took it so seriously. In wartime everyone realised how serious everything was and if you were on secret work they respected it.”
Katherine White from the Bletchley Park Podcast reminds us that the 1991 tea party started something else too:
“The campaign to save Bletchley Park from being bulldozed was not the only thing that party started. It was also the first of what has become the highlight of the year at Bletchley Park – the annual Veterans’ Reunion. This year’s was another great day, with veterans bringing their families to remember and celebrate their contribution.”
From October to December 2016, the Bletchley Park Podcast will mark the 25th anniversary of the party that saved Bletchley Park with three special episodes made from the recently discovered tapes. Listen to October’s episode below, which features interviews from the 2016 Veterans’ Reunion as well as the 1991 Bletchley Park tea party.