The 1991 Bletchley Park Tea party

25 Years since the first Bletchley Park Reunion

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.

copyright Bletchley Park

Veterans at the first Bletchley Park Tea Party. Copyright Bletchley Park

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.

Veterans’ Annual Reunion 2014 at Bletchley Park

Back in September 2014 I attended the veterans’ annual reunion at Bletchley Park. It was a busy visit as I weaved between the veterans and visitors gathering their views for the Bletchley Park Podcast. I love doing these interviews! It is fascinating and a reminder there is so much to learn from the veterans and hear what brings the visitors through the gates.

You can listen to the interviews I carried out as well as those collected by fellow roving reporter, Astrid Specht and the Producer of the podcast, Mark Cotton.


Shaun Armstrong (self-confessed professional lurker) is the official Bletchley Park photographer. He’s the man who sees all but is rarely seen. I was able to get a sneaky shot of him photographing Iain Standen, Bletchley Park CEO and veteran Gwendaline Page. You can hear him talking about the unique role of capturing history and Bletchley Park’s transformation.

Veterans' Annual Reunion at Bletchley Park, www.bletchleyparkresearch.co.uk

 

Author Geoffrey Pidgeon (The Secret Wireless War) talks about his wartime work for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and it really is a family affair. His father and brother also worked for MI6 and his mother was a nurse at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

Veterans' Annual Reunion at Bletchley Park, www.bletchleyparkresearch.co.uk

 

In this group of visitors are four interviewees. Howard Craston, Eric Jacobson, George Keller and Fred Hampe all share their interest in the Bletchley Park and views of the its recent transformation. (In the photograph from left to right Eric Jacobson, Kerry Howard, Ian Richards, Charlotte Webb (Secret Postings: Bletchley Park to the Pentagon), Ann Keller, George Keller, Howard Craston, Fred Hampe).

Group at Veterans Reunion

 

Iain Standen, CEO of Bletchley Park addresses the veterans in the freshly decorated Teleprinter Room about the progress made in 2014 as well as an overview of Project Neptune – the codename given to the Heritage Lottery funded restoration.

Veterans' Annual Reunion at Bletchley Park, www.bletchleyparkresearch.co.uk

The Teleprinter room was formerly occupied by the remarkable Churchill Collection, which is where I found the inspiration for my novel The Milliner’s Spy. The Churchill Collection has a new home at Stratford Armouries.

All photographs copyright Bletchley Park Research 2014. They can be used as long as attribution to Bletchley Park Research is given.

Victory Roll of Honour at 1940s Boutique Day

On 15th March 2014 I attending Bletchley Park’s first 1940s Boutique day ran by Sarah Dunn, a talented vintage hair and make-up artist.

Sarah Dunn demonstrationThe day, hosted by Bletchley Park in the beautiful panelled ballroom started off with Sarah demonstrating the key elements of 1940s make up and hair on Jessica Duncan, MK web journalist. While expertly ‘setting’ Jessica’s hair with  curling tongs (a modern alternative to the wartime curlers and sugar-water setting lotion), Sarah entertained us with interesting anecdotes from the era to illustrate the variety of tricks used by resourceful women in times of enormous scarcity.

Sarah is very knowledgeable but also is mindful to show respect to the fact that although it is nice at look at the era through rose-tinted glasses, it is important to remember it was a very hard and tragic time.

Vintage enthusiasts fully realise that there is nothing glamorous in war, but what appeals to them is a desire to reignite the lost sense of style of gloves and hats and a hankering for the well-groomed and glamorous woman – there were no tracksuit bottoms for a 1940s gal! There is also a massive online community of ‘make do and menders‘ who challenge themselves to make and recreate clothing from the past.

It makes me realise that our fascination with vintage styles is also about a sense of ‘do it yourself’ creativity and self-expression that we have moved away from in our modern world of large-scale manufacturing and cheap throwaway goods.

Sarah and Jess with hat2

Sarah made many references to the book The 1940s Look: Recreating the Fashions, Hairstyles and Make-up of the Second World War, which is full of interesting facts and pictures about World War 2 fashion and make-up. I purchased a copy as it a useful resource as I research my novel, The Milliners Spy.

Interestingly, hats were not rationed during the war but became very expensive due to the lack of available materials. However, scarves were rationed and Sarah expertly demonstrated how one hairstyle could be accessorised with a simple scarf to make 3 different styles and the same hairstyle could take on a new look with a hat and snood.

As a researcher I found the easy blend of practical demonstrations and social history commentary a very lively and enjoyable mix. Let’s just say I was much better at taking in the information than I was at the practical application!

But, you know what, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t roll my hair despite fifty attempts or that my effort at minimal eyeliner was more attuned to a drawing done by a three-year old with a thick black crayon – I had a fabulous day. It also didn’t matter that I was there on my own.

There was a good mix of people who came as a mother’s day gift, birthday gift, a get together between friends and even a professional development day. There was a woman and her two daughters who were there to learn more about a family member who had worked in a top-secret job as a ‘cipher clerk’ during the war and visiting Bletchley Park brought them closer to her. You can hear the interview with them and the 1940s Boutique Day here on The Bletchley Park Podcast.

Victory Roll ReflectionThe day was brilliant with a genuine sense of community and group involvement. I enjoyed make up tips and hair styling help from my fellow boutique ladies, and Sarah was on hand to rectify the most wonky, flat victory rolls this country has EVER seen (aka my effort).

The day included tea, coffee and a light lunch. We also had free time to look around or go on a guided tour with vintage attired Bletchley Park guide, Philomena Liggins.

There are still a few tickets left for next Saturday (19th April 2014) or see the list below for the next available dates that Sarah will be running the Boutique days at Bletchley Park (click on the date you want to attend for booking information):

You can find out more about the talented Sarah Dunn and her brilliant vintage business at: www.sarahsdoowopdos.wordpress.com.

Sarah and Kerry

Kerry Howard & Sarah Dunn