The History Behind The Bletchley Circle

Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Blog Posts | 0 comments

The History Behind The Bletchley Circle

Those of you who enjoyed PBS’ recent miniseries The Bletchley Circle will be pleased to know that ITV, the British channel behind the program has ordered a second season, which should hopefully come to America sometime in early 2014.  According to press releases, season two will be comprised of two two-part stories, reuniting the four main characters and adding a fifth, played by Hattie Morahan. To tide you over, I thought I’d look into the history of Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility that gives the series its name.

Bletchley Park was originally a private estate built by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon in 1883 near the town of Bletchley, approximately 50 miles outside of London. At the outbreak of World War II, Herbert and his wife Fanny had died, and none of their heirs wished to live in the sprawling estate. Economic depression limited interest in the property, and it was sold for £7,500 (approx. $11,500) to a developer who planned to demolish the house.

Then fate intervened. The British government needed a secure location for its wartime intelligence program – someplace near London but relatively safe from attacks by the German Luftwaffe. Bletchley Park was taken over by MI6 and given the code name Station X. The facility housed a radio intercept station, a code and cypher school, and several cypher decryption machines, including “Enigma,” “Lorenz,” and “bombe.” Intelligence generated from the work at Bletchley Park was designated by the code name “Ultra.” When the United States entered the war, several American cryptographers relocated to Bletchley Park.

Although Susan, Millie, Jean, and Lucy in The Bletchley Circle were engaged in decrypting code, the majority of women at Bletchley Park performed administrative and secretarial services. Those selected to be trained as cryptoanalysts tended to be linguists, chess champions, crossword puzzle experts (like Susan), or mathematicians. Arguably the most well known resident of Bletchley Park was Alan Turing, later credited as being the father of computer science. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably due to the Turing Test, a method of determining whether a computer can think independently. The Turing Test has turned up on a number of television dramas over the years.

The majority of women at Bletchley Park worked in indexing, garnering several not terribly flattering nicknames, including the Deb’s (short for debutante) Delight and Dilly’s Fillies (for section leader Dilly Knox). But though women didn’t hold top positions at Bletchley Park, they formed the backbone of the program, accounting for 80% of the 12,000 people stationed at the facility at some point during the war. All signed the Official Secrets Act, which limited their ability to discuss their wartime work, and the general public wasn’t aware of the role Bletchley Park played in the war until the 1970s. Susan’s plight in the Bletchley Circle, in which she is unable to tell her husband anything that might lend credibility to her suspicions about the serial killer is extreme, perhaps, but it does mirror the experiences of many of Dilly’s Fillies, who would have been unable to tell their own families about the crucial role they played in the war effort.

After the war, Bletchley Park changed hands several times, passing through the ownership of a number of groups who were unaware of its historical significance. In the early 1990s, the site was once again abandoned and at risk of demolition when a trust was established to convert the property into a museum dedicated to its former code breakers. The museum has struggled to gain funding over the years, but recently it won a £4.6 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. This money will go to a number of projects on the property, including a variety of WW2-era exhibits, from Winston Churchill memorabilia to the role of carrier pigeons during the war. Code deciphering machines, including “Enigma” and “bombe” are also on display. In 2008, the National Museum of Computing signed a 25-year lease to operate a museum dedicated to the history of computers in Block H or the park.

For more information about Bletchley Park or to plan a visit, check out this site.

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