Bletchley Park — Question for Short Debate
Baroness Trumpington (Conservative)
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity this short debate presents to recall the significance that Bletchley Park represents to our history. This debate allows me to provide some background and context to the restoration that is being contemplated as a result of the £8 million financing that it has received. I hope that those involved will avoid creating a Disney theme park experience for the visitor—the Hollywood films that have been made to date bear little resemblance to the Bletchley that I recall. I still find it difficult to discuss this subject in public. After all, the Bletchley that I knew was a highly secret place and for many years we were forbidden from mentioning it.
I am especially pleased to see that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, will be speaking. His mother Sarah was my colleague and a great friend. Three weeks ago I was called to a small table in the tea tent of the Peers’ Dining Room where a host Peer and his wife had as their guest 96 year-old Pamela Rose. Pam worked and I typed through those wartime days and nights. We were employed by the Foreign Office, never in uniform, and we did not look after Colossus, as did the Wrens pictured so recently in the Times.
Let me try, very briefly, to describe my recollection of the Bletchley Park that I knew. I spent my time working in Hut 4, followed by Block B. We were never allowed to visit other offices. I am delighted that the original Hut 4 remains. In 1941, it was the centre of U-boat warfare research before Colossus; nowadays, Hut 4 is a bar. I never went into the mansion, which was known to me and my colleagues as “The Other Side”. The present day invaluable post office did not exist, and at the back of the mansion lay paddocks belonging to Captain Ingram’s stud farm. Nowadays, those paddocks are covered by huge housing estates, and only someone as old as me and as keen on racing as I am would know of their past. The pond, now a rather grand lake, stood alone, and a nearby path is bordered by American shrubs, to which we all contributed in order to commemorate American involvement with Bletchley, which was an important part of the latter part of the war.
Food was actually a bit of a problem. Outside the main gate was a short road. On one side lay strictly private houses and on the other side a very large shed housed our only canteen. At the end of the building was a raised stage from which Bletchley Park choirs sang and theatrical productions took place. It is a pity that the shed was not preserved for visitors’ use in peacetime, although I am glad that the disgusting food is not available. I hope that some of the new money can be set aside to provide first-class meals, snacks and maybe facilities for banquets—and I consider this to be very important.
The recent debates in this house about Alan Turing have highlighted some of the work done at Bletchley. It strikes me that I am probably seriously out of date; I should therefore be wise to seek the help of the many voluntary guides who I know do such an admirable job. In the mean time, I hope that it does not sound cheeky for me to wish that funny old place a magnificent future.
Baroness Andrews (Labour)
My Lords, it is an extraordinary privilege to speak in this debate and to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. I think that she has shared with us this evening more memories than she has allowed herself to speak of at other times, because she has kept the oath of silence magnificently over the years. In fact, she has been more concerned to recognise the efforts of others, notably Alan Turing, than she has been to promote her own contribution at Bletchley. It is with great humility that we all take part in this debate to follow what she has said.
I would like to quote something from one of her colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Briggs, who when he wrote of his own memories in 2003 wrote about Jean’s
contribution. I am using the noble Lord’s term, “Jean”, because she is such a noble friend to all of us. The noble Lord, Lord Briggs, said essentially that, when she spoke at the opening of the visitors’ information centre at Bletchley in 2003, she took a long-term view. Jean, he said, was exactly the right person to present it in 21st century Bletchley Park. She always takes a long-term view and she has taken it again this evening by sharing those memories and sharing her optimism and hopes for the future of Bletchley, in which she has played such an extraordinary role.
It is very difficult to underestimate the importance of Bletchley and its scientific and technological heritage, as well as its wartime role. There were 9,000 people on that site, and they all kept silence for such a very long time. Code-breaking is what it is known for, but the work of those brilliant men and women did not just shorten the war and save countless lives; Bletchley Park proved to be to the information age what Ironbridge was to the industrial age 300 years ago. For many years, the site itself was silent and deteriorating under the long shadow of wartime secrecy, but gradually history, memories and voices have emerged. However, as with so much of our heritage, it was terrifyingly touch and go 20 years ago that anything would be saved or celebrated at all. It is extraordinary to think that in 1991 the site was almost turned into a housing development. In 1993, the mansion was not even listed, because it was not thought to be of sufficient special interest.
It was not until 2004 that English Heritage began the detailed archaeological research that showed, for example, how the secrecy of the operation was maintained by the physical separation of the huts and how, as the huge volume of the signal traffic increased, those huts became permanent. As recently as 2006, they were in a very fragile condition, and I am pleased to say that English Heritage jumped in, as it often does, with emergency funding to enable the bigger funders to come and provide that £8 million of public and private help. The master plan set out last year by the trust will produce, I think, a very important and productive future for the trust. We know that there are now 15 listed buildings on that site. Block C is a visitor interpretation centre, and the huts that housed the code-breakers and bombes will be restored—all because of Bletchley Park Trust 20 years ago and the volunteers and veterans.
As the noble Baroness said, we know more through documentaries and films. The visitor numbers have trebled in the past six years, and what is encouraging is that it is recognised as a world site. A world-class learning and interpretation centre must now be provided, which tells the complex and often personal stories of the genius of individuals but also of the culture of Bletchley, and the creativity and tensions not just of the mathematicians but of the historians, poets and musicians who also played such an important role. I hope that that will include the noble Baroness putting her own memoirs into that living archive so that more people learn of her contribution to this extraordinary story.
Lord Addington (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, when I saw this subject on the Order Paper and noted that my noble friend would lead the discussion on it, I could not resist getting involved given that she knows so much
about this important matter. Indeed, my noble friend hinted that the whole story may not have come out yet and it is still exciting and changing. Therefore, we should have a good, long, hard look at what was at Bletchley Park, and what it meant.
Bletchley Park is also exciting because it is not just a part of a war; it was effectively the start of the computer age in which we now live as Colossus was there. I wish to deal first with an issue that has been in the press—namely, the two organisations, both of which are in receipt of public money, which are not co-operating. I suggest that it might be the role of Parliament to bang their heads together until they either scream or agree to co-operate as the two of them are interlinked. The issues surrounding the construction of the fence and where tour groups can visit can surely be resolved given the importance of this site. Pressure should be put on the two organisations concerned to operate in a more seemly fashion. There is no reason why this cannot be done. I do not know the ins and outs of the argument, who said what or know about the egos involved—I am sure egos are involved on both sides—but surely differences can be resolved. Those who look after the Colossus, the National Museum of Computing and the Bletchley Park Trust must come together and look after the whole site as all its parts are interlinked.
Looking at the history of computing, effectively modern computing started at Bletchley Park—at least, that is my interpretation of it. I speak diffidently given who will speak later in the debate. The work done at Bletchley Park led to the development of the modern computer, which is changing our lives on a daily basis, and affects just about everything we do. Therefore, this issue is not just about the past but constitutes a link to something which dominates our lives today. The fact that computing started at Bletchley is an enormously important lesson for us to learn in terms of understanding that good things can come out of conflict—that is, if we agree that the modern computing age is a good thing. It is possibly not an unmixed lesson but it has changed the way we live.
I would like to give noble Lords a small example of what computing has achieved in the minute or so I have left to speak. I cannot write properly without using a voice-operated computer because of my dyslexia. Literally millions of people in this country are assisted to communicate by computers. I declare an interest as chairman of a firm that provides assistance to people in this country and many parts of the world, including deaf people, those with dyslexia and blind people, by means of text-to-voice and voice-to-text machines and screen images. This work all started at Bletchley Park.
We are in danger of losing the link between the past and the present embodied in Bletchley Park. The work that was done there affects us to this day in virtually every aspect of our lives.
Lord Higgins (Conservative)
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on obtaining the debate and, of course, on her speech. One is constantly astonished by the noble Baroness. Even two nights ago, I happened to turn on the television and see a recorded version of
“Have I Got News For You?” in which the noble Baroness appeared. I have never seen the regular panel so intimidated as they were on that occasion.
The noble Baroness has a very close and long association with Bletchley Park. Curiously, I discovered that I, too, have links, albeit rather remote ones, with Bletchley Park, although I was quite unaware of it at the time. I did my national service in 1947-8 in the Air Force. It was a pretty miserable time as there was no prospect of promotion or learning to fly; one was just there to make up the numbers while others were demobbed. I may have spent much of my time training for the 1948 Olympics, but I was also trained ostensibly as what was known as an “instrument basher”, where one had the responsibility of looking after aircraft instruments and so on. I did not think much of the training and I took the precaution of never going up in an aircraft which had an altimeter that I had calibrated. I was later posted to somewhere in the south of England which was responsible for testing and repairing type X machines, which were the British equivalent of the German Enigma. If there is one theme in my remarks this evening, it is that I think the type X machine has been grossly misrepresented compared with the Enigma machine. After all, the Enigma codes were broken, which was never true of the type X machine used by the British.
Reading through some of the books that have recently been published, it has become clear to me that it was not just a question of decoding the Enigma ciphers; you also had to decipher them in a form which was readable. To do that, you had to put it into a similar machine. We clearly did not have very many Enigmas, so the type X machine must have been used. I believe that that was the case. Therefore, the type X machine played a major role in the success of the whole code operation and its effect on the outcome of World War 2.
As noble Lords have pointed out, the work which was done at Bletchley was of great importance. I fear that, increasingly, we are tending to concentrate on World War 1 rather than World War 2. Perhaps this is just because it is the anniversary of World War 1. It is very strange how World War 1 seems to have captured young people’s imagination more than World War 2. However, young people may be inspired by Bletchley as the place where modern computing began, and where they can discover what it was all about, which is important.
Just before I was demobbed, I was told that the type X machines were going to be destroyed. I gather that that did not take place, but I believe that Churchill had the big machines destroyed. That was a shame, but it is good that the exhibition has those machines on display. That is as astonishing as the extraordinary decoding work that was done at Bletchley Park in the war, including by my noble friend.
Lord Stirrup (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, although I must conclude, with some relief, that during my career I clearly never encountered any of his altimeters.
I, too, welcome this debate and add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for securing it. I should also like to express my admiration for her sterling efforts in support of the work to secure a pardon for Alan Turing. A few years ago, I had the privilege of opening the Turing building at Qinetiq’s facility in Malvern. The increasing official recognition of the debt that we in this country owe to Alan Turing is very much to be welcomed. We cannot, alas, reverse his personal tragedy, but we can at least ensure that he and his work are remembered and honoured. And, of course, some of the most important strands of that work were carried out at Bletchley Park.
This year sees the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the allied landings in Normandy. Bletchley Park played a defining role in that operation, as it did in so many others during the course of the Second World War. The intelligence produced by Bletchley Park undoubtedly shortened the war and saved countless lives. This success depended upon the talents and dedication of many people, and, above all, upon their unyielding secrecy. It is worth remembering that, while transparency is often a good thing, it can occasionally be destructive. One whisper of the successes at Bletchley Park would undoubtedly have led the Germans to eliminate the poor operational procedures on which the code-breakers depended. The history of that time underscores forcefully the old adage that secret intelligence needs, above all, to be secret.
We in this country need a considered debate on the balance that we should seek to strike between the sometimes competing needs of security, liberty and privacy. In such a debate, the story of Bletchley Park has important lessons to teach us.
Bletchley Park is relevant to our consideration of the future as well as to our remembrance of the past. It reminds us of a debt that we owe, but also of the need to make hard choices. It is an important part of our national heritage, but it should also help to stimulate an important discussion about our future society.
We should be very grateful to the Bletchley Park Trust, which over the past 22 years has transformed the site from a derelict wasteland to a thriving memorial. Visitor numbers have indeed increased threefold since 2007, but continue to rise steeply. Many of the historic buildings have been restored, and in June the carefully rescued code-breaking huts will be formally unveiled, along with a new visitors’ centre. Of the some 250 staff at Bletchley Park, 174 are volunteers, including all the 46 tour guides. The work of that team has been and will continue to be crucial to the preservation and development of Bletchley Park, and we can only admire and praise its commitment.
There has been some controversy in the media recently surrounding the relative positions of the Bletchley Park Trust and the National Museum of Computing, a valuable independent enterprise that occupies part of the site. Needless to say, the coverage has aimed to maximise the controversy rather than to reflect in a balanced way the issues involved. I am sure that the leadership of both enterprises is mature and experienced enough to work out an appropriate modus vivendi.
I would just say this: for most of the past 22 years, Bletchley Park has been in survival mode. Only now—only today—after the sustained efforts of the trust, its staff and its supporters is it able to think with confidence about the future. As visitor numbers grow, so the quality of the Bletchley Park experience needs to develop to meet that demand. That means continued change. Change is never easy and often controversial, but standing still is not an option. Bletchley Park is simply too important both to our heritage and to our future in this information age. The trust recognises that, I know. We should be grateful to it for bringing Bletchley Park to its present successful state, but should also support it in its endeavours to fit it for the challenges ahead.
Viscount Astor (Conservative)
“It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war”.
The name, of course, arose because the intelligence that was obtained was considered more important than that already designated by the highest British security classification, “most secret”, so it became “ultra secret”. Much of the German cipher traffic was encrypted on the Enigma machine. Used properly that machine would have been virtually unbreakable, but in practice shortcomings in its operation allowed it to be broken.
As my noble friend said, my mother was also in Hut 4, the naval section, from 1941 to 1944, when she moved to the Admiralty in London to be the liaison officer between Bletchley and the Admiralty. She and my noble friend became great friends, and their friendship lasted all my mother’s life. Just before she died last year, I asked my mother what two things she remembered and was most proud of in her time at Bletchley. She said that she was most proud of being part of the team which was able to find where the U-boats were waiting to sink Allied convoys, and being able to alert the Admiralty. The second thing was what she really remembered—it was, one afternoon, putting her friend Jean in a large laundry basket on wheels, which was normally used to move “most secret” files, and launching it down a long corridor. It gathered considerable momentum, and Jean and the basket disappeared through the double doors down the next corridor, before finally crashing to a halt in the men’s lavatories. I do not think that noble Lords require an Enigma machine to work out who Jean was. A serious reprimand was administered to both of them, and their watches were changed so that they were distributed among what were called more sober colleagues.
Over the last few years Bletchley Park, managed by its trust, has been transformed with a new visitor centre, and receives more than 150,000 visitors a year. There is more to do as interest grows in the extraordinary work and achievements of its code-breakers. I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate and giving us all the opportunity to thank her and all those who served at Bletchley for their extraordinary wartime work.
Lord Sharkey (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing the debate, and that is not just the usual formula. It is clear that the situation at Bletchley Park needs some attention. I was rather dismayed when I looked through the Library briefing for this debate. Bletchley Park is much too important to allow the current problems to continue. As many speakers have said, two important things happened there: the cracking of the Nazi Enigma code, and the beginning of computing and of computer science. Both deserve a proper, civilised and shared commemoration. It is entirely appropriate that we should have a museum of code-breaking and a museum of computing on the site. What is entirely inappropriate is that the two museums should be on such very bad terms.
I will not rehearse again the various charges and countercharges levelled by each museum against the other. I will not comment on the obviously dysfunctional management that allows the situation to continue. However, I will say that any organisation which loses the person who saved it is obviously doing something wrong. That person is Dr Sue Black, who is largely responsible for saving Bletchley from dereliction in the first place. She was instrumental in obtaining the funding needed to secure Bletchley Park’s future, yet has resigned from the board of the Bletchley Park Trust in protest against its failure to sort out the long-running dispute with the National Museum of Computing. Dr Black even suggested that the gender balance on the boards could be preventing a solution; she did not mean that there were too many women on the boards.
It is clear that the relationship between the Bletchley Park Trust and the National Museum of Computing has broken down. It is clear that some kind of intervention is needed. Common sense needs to be restored. The commentator Gareth Halfacree, in his blog of
None of those recommendations seems difficult. In fact, they all have a common-sense and conciliatory air. However, to put them into place and even to begin to discuss them, firm leadership is required. Bletchley Park and its history are too important to allow a rather shameful quarrel to continue there. Intervention is needed, and I hope that the Government will think creatively about how they can, if at all, help to resolve the situation. But there is another kind of intervention available. When the campaign to pardon Alan Turing seemed to be stalled the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, wrote to the Prime Minister. Two months later, Turing was pardoned. Perhaps it is time for her to take up her pen again.
Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (Crossbench)
My Lords, as a novice Baroness and a woman who has worked in technology her whole career, an invitation to tea from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, in the first few weeks in your Lordships’ House was indeed a highlight. Hearing her this evening, I defy anyone of my generation not to be inspired by her example. I am not an expert on the situation at Bletchley, but I would like to suggest three ideas which I hope illustrate why it still has wide-ranging significance and must be preserved.
First, today is the 25th anniversary of the invention of the world wide web. It was probably about this time of the day when Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave to his boss the piece of paper on which he had written down his invention, and on which his boss famously wrote “vague but interesting”, and handed it back.
Like the millions of lives that were saved due to the direct work at Bletchley, the web has transformed millions of lives, and both are achievements that this country should be immensely proud of and grateful for. I believe that both Bletchley and the invention of the web could be used more widely as examples of British creativity and possibility. I am not convinced that many people in our country are aware of the history of either.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend time in the Science Museum with the computer on which Tim wrote the first code for the web. It has come on loan from CERN, and I felt a bit giddy next to it. We were in a room full of computational history, including Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, the first Lyons tea factory LEO computer and ERNIE—the random number generator that ran the premium bonds. What struck me was how many women were part of the stories of all these computers—from Ada Lovelace to the women working on ERNIE and at Lyons.
Starting with Bletchley and on through the 1950s and 1960s women worked in computing and fuelled the burgeoning computer industry. The unbelievable Dame Stephanie Shirley employed only women in her company, all working remotely at home and on complex problems, from the black box on Concorde to the Polaris submarine. Half the people working at Bletchley were women, yet we are now facing stagnation in the numbers of women in the tech sector. How can Bletchley be more widely used to help reverse this trend? The numbers are depressing.
Finally, I should like to mention coding itself. From September this year, every child at primary school will be taught to code. This is a visionary policy and the Government should be congratulated. We will lead the G8. A number of organisations have been encouraging coding for many years, especially among children—including Young Rewired State, Decoded, Free:Formers, Code Club and #techmums, started by Dr Sue Black. The curriculum shift has also raised the profile of coding, with Hour of Code and Year of Code being particular examples, and demonstrates the power of this incredible language. Yet, there remain a number of challenges in training teachers and it would be sad if this incredible opportunity was not given the best chance of success.
I look at Bletchley and think what an immense shame it would be if it did not continue to be a national treasure. What a tribute it would be to the brave people who worked there in secret for so long if we used it to celebrate more noisily our technology inventions, to encourage more gender equality in the sector and, finally, to inspire a whole new generation of coders.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow one of our most remarkable new Members of your Lordships’ House. She has today become the chancellor of the Open University and we should all congratulate her on that.
It is a real privilege to speak in a debate introduced by my noble friend Lady Trumpington. She is a national treasure. If we had, as the Japanese have, national treasures as human beings, she would be right at the top of the list. She embodies so many of those qualities that made our country great. She is determined, never takes no for an answer, has a wonderful good humour but, above all, has a passionate love of her country.
I remember taking my noble friend to Bletchley. A few years ago, she will remember, I was asked to take there a group from the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage Group. We had a bus load of Members of this House and of another place and went to see the manor and the huts. The company included not only my noble friend Lady Trumpington but the son of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein and Countess Mountbatten of Burma. It was a real historic day. Of all the buildings that the all-party group has visited over the years, not one is more distinguished architecturally than the house at Bletchley. We saw huts that would never enter the heritage league but we came away united in the realisation that we had seen something of imperishable worth that was truly part of our national heritage, because the work that was done there helped to preserve our national heritage of freedom and democracy at a dark time. I very much hope that young people going there will realise just what was done by a number of extraordinary people, led by Alan Turing but including my noble friend—our noble friend—Lady Trumpington and so many others, such as the mother of my noble friend Lord Astor.
It would be very bad indeed if we allowed any disputes between individuals to confound the preservation of Bletchley Park. I have the honour to be a patron of the trust and hope that the patrons together might help to bridge any gaps that may exist. Of course it is vital to have a computing museum. As my noble friend Lord Sharkey said, it is nonsense to have disputes between two essentially worthwhile organisations confounding the realisation of both. If there is one thing that I hope the Minister will be able to say when he replies, it is that the Government are utterly determined to ensure that this part of our history, symbolised by a rather indifferent Victorian manor house and a number of huts, is preserved for future generations. These huts are every bit as important as—indeed, in many ways more important than—Captain Scott’s huts in the Antarctic, which should also be maintained. I hope that we will have a positive response from my noble friend to the debate, which was so brilliantly initiated by our noble friend Lady Trumpington.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Labour)
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for arranging for us to debate these issues.
I notice that most noble Lords have a small memory of working with, or a story about, the noble Baroness. I should like to mention a small event. She may not recall it but she was briefly a Films Minister in the Conservative Administration when I was director of the British Film Institute. She is nodding, so I have stirred that memory. She may not remember that one of her duties, which I do not think she volunteered for but she accepted with great grace, was to open the London Film Festival. It was not a happy hunting ground for Conservative politicians, certainly not before she arrived. I was terrified because there were some 2,000 film fans there who were eager to bay for the blood of those who, they felt, were cheating them of their right to watch films for free in perpetuity and at the public’s expense—I exaggerate slightly to make the point, but noble Lords will get the feeling.
When the noble Baroness arrived, she made it clear that she was not entirely happy to stand around waiting and wanted to get on with it. We went on stage at the Odeon Leicester Square, which holds some 2,000 people. We arrived slightly early, so the organ was still playing and we had to wait around while it disappeared slowly down. The organist disappeared in a mysterious way that I never quite understood. She then wowed the audience with a completely unconvincing narrative about how supportive the Conservative Party was of film at that time. However, the members of the audience were all so terrified and impressed by her that we went off without a single hoot of derision. There were cheers, it was a triumph and I had a wonderful festival. Thank you very much for that memory. That is the sort of person who we are talking about. When she says that she wants the Government to reveal their plans for Bletchley Park, I am sure that the Minister is quivering in his shoes and will come up with some wonderful new announcements, even as we speak.
As the noble Baroness said, it is inevitable that the place that was built and operated in deepest secrecy should have retained that aura, and a lot of the contributions today have been about why it is difficult to understand more of what went on there and to understand better the role it played. I think that we owe it to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and all the others, including of course Alan Turing, to tell their story accurately and within the wider narrative of how Britain organised and won this aspect of the war.
Somebody said that until recently Bletchley was in survival mode. It is absolutely right that, when the works are completed, we should have a Bletchley that is fit for the 21st century and beyond, marking all the important things that we have heard about this evening. When the Minister comes to respond, it would be very good if he could explain exactly where we are in that process. We know the opening date, but I am looking through the good collection of material provided by the Library and I find it hard to work out who has made the contributions that have allowed this to happen. There is talk of the Heritage Lottery Fund and a sum
of about £8 million; there is the separate sum of about £330,000, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Andrews, for the restoration of the house; there are Google and McAfee; there is a donation from an individual, Maureen Jones, who I think worked there and left some money in her will; and there is money from the Foreign Office. Is this an independent trust which is gaining money on its own, or is it in fact part of the Government’s contribution and does it fit within the DCMS? It would be helpful to be clear about that.
We would like some information, if it is possible to get it, on what is happening in the dispute between what seem to be two very important national activities: the National Museum of Computing and the Bletchley Park Trust. As we have all said, this needs to be sorted out. Also, when the Minister comes to speak, perhaps he could say on what lines we should be thinking with regard to this site going forward. If we can get it fit for the 21st century, we have to think about how to take it forward.
I was very struck by the contributions from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, about using the 25th anniversary of the world wide web and some of the suggestions surrounding that, such as having a Magna Carta for the web. The Government might get behind that and think harder about the balance between liberty and security. They might use this site and the relaunching of Bletchley as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to, and support for, the way that the web is developing. If, within that, we could get a British creativity centre located there that exemplified the best of British creativity—which is often talked about but rarely analysed and looked at—and particularly pick up the point about the need to have a better gender balance in that, then I think we would achieve something really worth while and something worthy of the efforts made by those who worked there in the 1940s.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative)
My Lords, I, too, wish to say that it is an enormous privilege to speak in my noble friend’s debate. She brings to it an exceptional personal knowledge of Bletchley Park in its operational days. What we owe to the men and women like her is impossible to express adequately. Their importance to the history of our nation and, in turn, the free world should never be forgotten.
Why and how did this place and the truly extraordinary people who worked there become so crucial to the successful outcome of the Second World War, and therefore why is it so important that its future should be secured? Bletchley Park, until fairly recently, was probably Britain’s best-kept secret, a point to which my noble friend Lady Trumpington referred. Indeed, the secrecy surrounding all the activities carried out there was vital to our national security and ultimate victory, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, emphasised.
During the war it became the centre of code-breaking and intelligence activity. As has been said, it was at Bletchley that the Enigma codes were broken—an event which turned the course of the Battle of the Atlantic in our favour, as the mother of my noble
friend Lord Astor knew at first hand—and later the Lorenz codes, with crucial implications for the D-day preparations. It has been estimated that the duration of the war was reduced by two years thanks to the work undertaken in secret at Bletchley.
Some of those who worked at Bletchley are now as famous as the site itself: Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman and Dilly Knox come to mind. Your Lordships have recently played a pivotal role in ensuring that due recognition is given to the supreme contribution that Alan Turing made and which the Government acknowledge. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and my noble friend Lord Sharkey were particularly crucial in this matter.
The code-breaking activity at Bletchley developed into an operation on an industrial scale. I believe that up to 10,000 people were employed there at the height of the war. In October 1941, after receiving a letter from some of the senior code-breakers decrying the lack of resources being afforded them, Winston Churchill directed:
“Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done”.
Machines were developed to deal with the huge amount of data, including the Bombe, an electromechanical device which helped to reduce the potential number of codes. It was at Bletchley that Tommy Flowers built the Colossus, now recognised as the world’s first electronic computer. So Bletchley is also recognised as being of international significance due to its place at the beginning of the age of the computer. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, highlighted this point, as did my noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. At the end of the war, the remarkable expertise that had been developed at Bletchley Park was taken forward by a number of the wartime Government Code and Cypher School staff in a new organisation known today as GCHQ.
In 1987, after 50 years of association with British intelligence, Bletchley Park was finally decommissioned. In 1991, many of the organisations that had occupied post-war Bletchley Park had moved out. The site became partially derelict and was being proposed for housing and a supermarket development. A campaign was launched to save the site. Inspired by veterans and others, the Bletchley Park Trust was formed and took ownership of the site on a 250-year lease.
Bletchley Park museum opened in 1993, and since then the trust has been working to restore the site. My noble friend Lord Cormack spoke of the beginning of this journey and the impression that it made on parliamentarians when they visited the site in those early days. In 2007, the Codes and Ciphers Heritage Trust began to establish the National Museum of Computing, which includes a working reconstruction of a Colossus computer, along with many important examples of British computing machinery.
A number of your Lordships have raised concerns about the reports of discord between the Bletchley Park Trust and the National Museum of Computing. I acknowledge the work of both these organisations and I very much hope, as I know do your Lordships, that they will look to collaborative solutions to their
differences. Indeed, we look to both museums to tell the incredible story of Bletchley in the most innovative but accurate way that will enable Bletchley to be in the nation’s consciousness for many generations to come. Since opening, the Bletchley Park museum has seen a consistent growth in its visitor numbers: 40,000 people passed through the gates of Bletchley Park in 2006, with that number swelling to 150,000 in 2012. Indeed, there are ambitious projections for the next three to five years. The figures that I have seen for this year compared with last year are very remarkable indeed. It is obviously a place that is becoming very strong in people’s consciousness, which is so important.
This is a testament to the relevance and importance of the work of Bletchley in this country’s history. So many people of all ages and backgrounds want to come and understand how this site contributed to the world in which we live now. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, was absolutely right to mention education and interpretation. We have to inspire the next generation to understand what this was all about. The education and interpretation part will be a very important feature of what will happen at Bletchley.
Of course, this increased demand has meant that the Bletchley site has had to upgrade to reflect this continuing interest. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, rightly asked some questions about the status of the independent Bletchley Park Trust. In September 2011, the trust secured a grant of just under £5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the £8 million restoration of Bletchley Park phase 1 project. The noble Lord was absolutely right to acknowledge that there were other contributors to that £8 million which again has been hugely appreciated and is absolutely vital for the fulfilment of that first phase.
In this first phase of regeneration the once derelict Block C will become a vibrant visitors’ centre. The code-breaking Huts 3 and 6 have been restored to their original condition and the restored bomb Huts 11 and 11A will present exciting new displays. So, by the middle of this year, the huts will be ready for visitors to experience what life as a code-breaker was like. I thought that my noble friend Lord Higgins gave a fascinating and personal insight into what that could mean.
Remarkable work has been done and progress made over the past 20 years. We have mentioned discord, but it is important in all these things to get the balance right and record and celebrate the remarkable achievements. The strategic vision for Bletchley Park is to restore and put to productive use all the remaining buildings. Everyone I have spoken to who has visited—I have to say that I have asked quite a number of people how they would describe it—almost without exception has come up with the words, “This is such an inspiring place”. Our task is to ensure that that remains.
My noble friend Lady Trumpington and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, referred to volunteers. I say specifically that volunteers, as in so much of our nation’s life, have been at the heart of Bletchley’s regeneration and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to their work. It is through the dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm that they devote to Bletchley that has helped to bring it to life again. It is very clear from the
rise in visitor numbers and the growing recognition of what we owe to the men and women of Bletchley Park that there is ever-increasing interest. It is clear that it is somewhere where families and children go, and it is very important that all of it is understood. These men and women who worked there gave of their best. Indeed, we are rightly very proud of my noble friend. It is for our generation and those who follow to ensure that this site of exceptional, historic and national importance is secure.