Founding volunteers reflect on the battle to save Bletchley ParkDec 27, 2012
OPINIONS vary on exactly when and even how it all began but undoubtedly a farewell party held for the World War Two Veterans at Bletchley Park on 19th October 1991 was of major importance.
During the party, local historians who’d come to realise the significance of the work carried out at the Park during World War Two asked the Veterans for their support in a campaign to save the wartime Huts and Blocks from developers’ bulldozers.
Plans were already afoot to build a hypermarket and hundreds of houses on the site. Those first few campaigners begged, borrowed and battled their way through a jungle of bureaucracy to stop the historic buildings from being razed to the ground.
Over tea and cakes in Peter & Sue Jarvis’s living room – where it all began – they and fellow founding volunteer and historian Peter Wescombe, recall how they first heard about the proposed redevelopment of Bletchley Park.
Peter, who worked in the Foreign and Commonwealth Diplomatic Wireless Service department at Hanslope Park, recalls using Hut 3 as a dormitory, hearing snippets of information over several years and realising these walls held an important history.
The early campaigners soon brought Milton Keynes Council round to the idea of saving Bletchley Park. But in those days the Milton Keynes Development Corporation – now defunct – was in charge.
Peter Wescombe says it was tough “You’ve got 55 acres of ground here, right by the railway station. People could get out of bed, brush their teeth and be straight on a train to London, without any need for parking. They would have their own supermarket and petrol station. It was a very valuable site indeed. With planning permission, it was worth an estimated £3m at the time.”
In 1991, as Peter approached retirement, he and his wife Rowena knew few people locally, because Peter’s career in the FCO had taken them all over the world.
They approached Peter Jarvis, a local GP who, with them, was a member of the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society, thinking that he would know the people to contact.
They had both already attended a Milton Keynes Council committee meeting where the future of the Park was discussed. At that meeting there was no dissension in the council from the Park being re-developed. Both Peters thought that was the end of the matter. Peter Wescombe recalls “We invited ourselves to tea at the Jarvises. I said ‘Look Peter, what are we going to do about the Park? The council’s decided it’s a dead duck, how are we going to stop it happening?’
“I then suggested a big farewell party with all the World War Two Codebreakers at the Park. I could get their names. We requested a meeting with the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society because if we personally invited the wartime BP staff they’d say ‘who on earth are Peter Wescombe and Peter Jarvis?’ But if you say the chairman of the Archaeological Society invites you, that has some clout. Remember at this point we didn’t have permission to go into the Park.” The committee agreed to write the invitation letters on the Peters’ behalf.
The next job was to get permission to hold the party at the Park. Peter Wescombe arrived on foot, unannounced, called into the administrator’s office (there were only nine people working on the site by then) and was promptly escorted off the premises.
“This is private property …”. Undeterred, he sneaked straight back in through a hole in the fence and carried on the conversation as though nothing had happened. It worked, and the party was held in Block E.
In September 1941 Winston Churchill had visited Bletchley Park. Both Peters tell the story that Churchill said to the assembled staff, “What a wonderful job you’ve done”. Codebreakers Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry then wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, thanking him for his kind comments but pointing out that they could do much more given the staff and facilities, and said to Stuart Milner-Barry ‘you’re the youngest, get down to Whitehall and give this letter personally to Churchill.’
So he went down there, (delivered the letter to Churchill, who took one look at it ad said to General Ismay, his Chief of Imperial General Staff, ‘Action this day. Give them all that they require and let me know that this has been done.’
This was October 19th, 1941. Peter Wescombe realised in May 1991 that six months later would be exactly the 50th anniversary of this famous letter so suggested to Peter and Sue ‘let’s make this the date for the party.’ The idea behind this was to call in the media and say ‘listen to these special people, listen to the stories they’ve have to tell. Just listen to this; it’s absolutely fabulous, it’s the behind-the-scenes of what happened in the war, the engine that drove the way a lot of the war was won. You cannot let them destroy a site like this.’”
The party was a great success. Peter Wescombe managed to get his hands on a four-rotor U Boat Enigma machine, on loan from GCHQ, via the head of Hanslope Park. It arrived at Hanslope Park in a diplomatic bag.
They were amazed at this coup and got the Codebreakers to pose for photographs with the machine, thinking they would never see another. Tony Sale, who later led the rebuild of Colossus, joined the preservation campaign at the party.
Both Peters have happy memories of the party itself. Peter Wescombe said “I walked around the lake with Harry Hinsley, Stuart Milner-Barry and Captain Edward Thomas. They started talking not about the Codebreaking but about the fun they had. Stuart Milner-Barry said to Harry Hinsley ‘Do you remember your 21st birthday?’ He (Hinsley) was a waggoner’s son: the staff in Hut 4, (his hut) had a whip round, produced the clothing coupons and bought him a pair of grey flannel trousers.
He said ‘I remember the party’ and they said ‘well, do you remember the time you got drunk and you rode your cycle into the Park and went straight into the lake, and when we fished you out the first thing you said was ‘please don’t tell Hilary!’
Hilary was his girlfriend, later his wife. Hilary was very, very proper. The mere fact that her boyfriend, roaring drunk, had disappeared into the lake might have been the end of the romance.
"These are the sort of stories that make you realise you can’t destroy the Park. You simply can’t do it. So we went from there.”
Peter Wescombe recalls a worrying moment, when he overheard a veteran Codebreaker talking to a television journalist who asked whether the site should be saved and he responded, to Peter’s horror, ‘No, knock it all down, it’s finished.’”
Peter Jarvis adds: ”A lot of them had very unhappy lives here. Broken marriages, unhappy love affairs, their husbands being killed in the war. One of the saddest things, they used to say, was young ladies sitting sniffing into their hankies down by the lake because their boyfriend or husband had been killed. So it was not a place with entirely happy memories."
At the party, the big question was put to the veterans “Will you support us if we try and save the Park? There was silence. Peter Wescombe said “Hang on a minute, we don’t mean for you to give us money, we mean give us your moral support. You’re the people who did the job.” And a sea of arms went up. And that’s how the ball started rolling to save the Park. It went from there.
When approached, the government replied that BT owned the site and they did not interfere with private enterprise. “BT said ‘you can have the site if you want it – for, I reckon, about three million quid," Peter Wescombe recalls. "Between us we had about £3.50 – that’s when the first of our problems started.”
Over the next few years, several steps proved crucial to the survival of the Park, including a set of protection orders on the trees, which had been planted during the 1880s. It was the roots that counted and they were all interlocking so they couldn’t put any roads through, couldn’t put in any infrastructure, so the development was put on hold.
But, Peter Jarvis recalls, this triumph was not met with any fanfare “It was very understated at the time, they didn’t realise the importance of it.” He remembers the Codebreakers themselves suggesting they write to the Prime Minister again, this time to save the Park from being lost to history.
The museum opened to the public in 1994, with a selection of codebreaking machines on loan from GCHQ. The two Peters’ wives, Sue Jarvis and Rowena Wescombe, helped run the office in one room of The Bungalow that winter, with further assistance from other volunteers.
Peter Jarvis recalls: “It was blooming cold in there. We all crammed in there together. We had one small Amstrad computer.”
He says they had some access to The Mansion – then known as The House, as it was in wartime – but not on any formal footing. Sue Jarvis and Rowena Wescombe made sandwiches at home to sell to visitors at in the Park, and another lady was making cakes. The volunteers were enthusiasts on a crusade.
However, a relocation to The Mansion was forced upon them. “Winter came and the tank in the bungalow roof immediately over our little office froze and then burst; the water came down and the whole office was wrecked so we moved into the house.”
This move could be said to have caused more problems than it solved because the Trust naively signed a repair and maintenance lease, landing itself with a huge bill – £70,000 worth of repairs were needed to the roof alone.
“There were ceilings falling down, water was coming in through the Ballroom and Library ceilings, and both these rooms are on the ground floor, with two floors above them," says Peter Wescombe.
"We said ‘No, we’ll raise some money, we will not leave.’ So we all moved upstairs into The House itself and used Block H as the original museum.
The first guided tour was taken in 1994 by Peter Jarvis and he was so excited – there were ten people on the tour
“It was almost champagne all round. Now we get 60 people on the tour several times a day, with probably four or five coaches as well.”
It’s clear it was a team effort from the very beginning. Peter Wescombe says “We have to thank the volunteers who came and gave us their support. They stood out there in the cold, in the rain, and without them we could not have succeeded. They did all sorts of things for us to make sure the Park ran.”
He sums up the saving and development of Bletchley Park over the last 21 years as “A series of cliff hangers.” He remembers them repeatedly being presented with huge, unexpected bills and the volunteers responding by flatly refusing to desert the Park, resolving instead to do whatever was needed to raise the necessary funds to keep the Park for posterity and as a museum open to the public.
Milton Keynes Council has always been a friend to the cause of saving and preserving Bletchley Park. “For example, English Heritage said they’d give us £300,000 if we found match funding. Well, we’d got about three shillings and fourpence.
"We told them the importance of the site, what it did, how it affected the war, then they realised they’d got to save it. We’d been hanging on by our fingernails for several years but they said ‘Oh crikey, yes, look what we’ve got on our hands’. So the council gave us £300,000.”
He says there was never a period of stagnation in the Park’s development – nor a dull moment. One big problem, however, was a lack of business acumen among the founding volunteers.
Peter Wescombe, whose background was in the Foreign Office, says: “This is now a thriving business, but Peter’s a GP, I’m Diplomatic Service and we had people like Roger Bristow, a local councillor, and Tony sale, a computer technician.”
Bills came as a nasty surprise. “We didn’t realise these things mounted up. In the very early days, if we’d had an accountant with us they’d have said ‘Watch out, there’ll be a problem there’ or ‘This is coming up, what are you going to do about it?’ We just sort of blundered our way through it.".
One turning point was the signing of a 250-year lease in 1999. Since then, the profile of Bletchley Park and public awareness of the breathtaking story of what the World War Two code breakers achieved there has continued to grow.
“It’s worldwide now," says Peter Wescombe. "Visitors come from all over the world. It’s now an established organisation. We can now stand back and do what we want to do – taking guided tours.
"The young professionals now run it as a proper organisation. We’ve got accountants running the money, we’ve got fundraisers, we’ve got the whole thing. When we started we had nothing, but what drove it was enthusiasm – It ain’t going to go down the drain, stop.”
In the very early days the Trust opened a charity shop in Bletchley. Peter Jarvis remembers it fondly. “We sold things to do with the Park and we got a petition going – 14,000 people signed it, and Bletchley’s only got a population of 17,000.”
Thousands of people have helped to save and develop Bletchley Park into a successful heritage site with a bright and exciting future.
“Everyone gave us their loyalty. They were all so determined. It was rather like an attack of measles. We all caught it and nobody was going to let that Park suffer. Nobody was going to let the Park down. We were going to save the Park come what may, we didn’t care how we did it.”
When asked how he feels looking back over the last 21 years, seeing the success BP has become, Peter Wescombe says “Thank you very much to all those people who supported us and got us through. It was their enthusiasm that saw us through.”
The people of Bletchley also deserve credit for keeping the secret as well as those who worked at the Park. A lot of them knew because every girl in the district who left school was drafted into Bletchley Park.
"I had known people for years and when it all came out these people had known for years and had never said anything about it at all," says Peter Wescombe. "They told the most astonishing tales.”
The high profile afforded to the Bletchley Park story by the awarding of GCHQ commemorative badges in 2009, and an ever-increasing media profile have combined to bring about an exponential rise in visitor numbers in the last few years.
Last year 140,000 people visited Bletchley Park and this year has seen an increase of around 30%on that figure.
Bletchley Park Trust’s chief executive Iain Standen says: “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the thousands of volunteers and enthusiasts who not only saved Bletchley Park from the bulldozers but kept it going through difficult financial times, and helped turn it into the success story it is today; a thriving heritage site and education centre which celebrates the achievements of the World War Two Codebreakers and is about to embark on a development plan to turn it into a world-class visitor experience.”