The Women of Bletchley Park

I have always found the wartime work at Bletchley Park fascinating. I don’t know why, I have no idea what triggered this fascination but it is something that, especially considering it’s time, was quite remarkable. I have since been to Bletchley Park and watched a number of series and films based on the works there and as you can probably tell, all of these have inspired the story below.

This story was originally submitted to the Dangerous Women Project, a project exploring the power of women and how they may be interpreted as dangerous. Unfortunately, my submission was not accepted, so I’m sharing it with you lovely lot instead.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

“Goodness gracious!” Mr Hartman cried out as smoke proceeded to rise from the pot in front of me. I looked up sheepishly. “If you had a brain you’d be dangerous!” He laughed heartily, yet in an unforgiving manner. I was thirteen at the time of this incident. It was one of many. I always had a rather creative knack for Mathematics and Science at school, well, that’s how my teachers put it anyway, but it seems that knack only got me into Oxford University to study Mathematics and I only graduated with a First. I decided right then at that moment that I must, in that case, be dangerous because I was human and I had a brain. The fact was, you can’t live without a brain, so all humans must be dangerous.

Six years on from that particular day and I was in my second year at Oxford. I was walking along the great hallways one blustery afternoon, minding my own business when I found myself jolting as I realised I had speed-walked head-first into a group five boys, all of which were in the year above me. I looked up at them, startled and mumbled an apology. One jeering boy handed me my stack of books that had scattered themselves across the corridor and I quickly carried on in the direction of the residential halls. As I walked past, I heard one of them say, in a deliberately loud voice, “if women had brains, they’d be dangerous.” That was it. That must have been what Mr Hartman meant all those years ago, ” if women had brains they’d be dangerous”. Full marks for your subtlety, Sir.

It is now November 1939 and Britain is in the midst of war. Since leaving university, I have struggled to find work, even as a secretary because I am a woman. Just twelve months later, I received a letter inviting me to an interview at a place called Bletchley Park, however, the exact requirements of the job were suspiciously brief.

The following week I took the train on an hour’s journey to Bletchley and was buzzing with excitement after the interview. As it turns out, Bletchley Park wanted to recruit the most intelligent people in the country, women included, to work there during the war in an attempt to crack the Germans’ coded messages to help Britain win the war. Furthermore, the following day, I got a telegram offering me a position there. I have only eight words for my old Science teacher and those boys in the corridor at Oxford: Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Just two weeks later, I arrived at Bletchley Park to start work along with no less than thirty other girls. Myself and two other girls, Sally and Bryony, both of whom were perfectly normal girls and we became the greatest of friends. We worked together very closely throughout our time at Bletchley and were lucky enough to be placed in Hut Six, the deciphering hut. Despite Hut Six only having no more than twenty workers and only one of those was a man, we were constantly degraded by him – Charles Brook was his name. Luckily for us, the Girls of Hut Six as we were known, were ultimately overseen by Maggie Pritchard, a stern, seemingly-fierce woman who, when you got to know her, actually would not hurt a fly and over time seemed to develop a bit of a soft-spot for the three of us which was nice, as she was the first to leap to our defence when Brook picked on us. Even he was scared of her and that caused much amusement in Hut Six.

One morning, the three of us had left the pokey little cottage that we were calling our accommodation at that particular time unusually early and were taking our time getting to the grounds. As three women do, we got chatting but this time, about ourselves and our backgrounds. Sally and Bryony were appalled when I told them about the various incidents where I was singled out for being a woman. Next, Sally told her story. She was very lucky to have been born into a family of ‘dangerous women’. Her mother and five older sisters all made it to Oxbridge and were now working as bank staff, police clericals, teachers, they all succeeded as women and that was truly admirable. Bryony was always the quiet one but this morning, she barely said a word but all we managed to get out of her was that she went to the local village school in Ambleside and was always top of the class, won a scholarship to a very highly-regarded grammar school just three miles away from her home and then went on to Cambridge University. Now aged twenty-four, the youngest out of the three of us, there appeared to be an eighteen month gap in her story, however she was not going to fill that in for us, and we respected that, though remained curious.

We eventually reached the hut and thankfully were not late, despite our snail’s-pace walk for leaving early. The day started out pretty normal and continued that way until well into the late afternoon, around four o’clock. A new message came through which we pretty quickly established that it was the Germans planning to invade an English city the very same night. No more that fifteen minutes later, a new message came through with, we assumed, further details of this invasion, however, it was completely different and seemed impossible to crack. It took rather a long time before anyone came up with anything, when eventually, Bryony had a bright idea.

“The code at the top!” She piped up, rather excitedly.

“What do you mean?” Maggie questioned, confused.

“She’s right! Look at the header.” Sally began, as Bryony leapt into action, grabbing a pile of papers and spreading them across the desk but keeping hold of the current one. “It’s different. The new one is four characters longer than all the others.” There was a pause as the others took in the information.

“They’ve changed the settings!” Bryony announced triumphantly.

Bryony’s breakthrough was like a lightbulb suddenly switching on in my brain. I immediately started spinning the wheels of the machine to input the new code and then punched in the characters of the message and everything made sense.

“Well done Bryony!” I grinned to her. “You’ve saved our country.”

“No.” She said modestly. “This won’t stop it happening again.”

“It’s one less invasion the troops can stop, though.” Sally told her. ‘Brook is passing on the information right now. Well done.”

“Yes, good work Bryony. You’re a credit to Bletchley Park. You all are.” Maggie praised, looking at us all one-by-one.

We were together at Bletchley Park right up until the end of the war in 1945 and our friendship remained strong throughout, and still does. When we left, we exchanged addresses and now write often, however, it wasn’t like that for the first four years. Sally and I kept in regular contact but despite multiple letters, we never heard a thing from Bryony and there’s no denying, we were very concerned. Just before Christmas 1947, Sally and I both received identical letters:

Dear Mary,

I would forgive you if you had forgotten about me by now but I will not give up hope that you have not. I received and read every one of yours and Sally’s letters and I wanted to reply, I really did but could not and here is why.

Remember the day we made that huge breakthrough? We left the cottage early that morning and were telling stories of how we came to be at Bletchley. I told you mine very briefly but never told you what happened after I graduated from Cambridge. I was not from a wealthy family but they scraped and saved every single penny just to get me through university and when I came home, my father introduced me to a very well-off man ten years in my senior and within a week we were set to marry. I didn’t want to marry him, I didn’t love him but I married him out of love to my family. Only two days after the wedding, it started. The abuse. He hit me, he called me the most awful names, he constantly belittled me but he gave my family money, there was no way I could speak up. My call to Bletchley was a relief and he never had to know, as he was one of the first men to be called into service. I was there and back before he returned home and when he did, nothing had changed, the abuse continued. Three months ago, I finally did it. I spoke up. I told him I could no longer live this way – I wanted to be my own person, have a job, have a life and I left. Walked out. I got on a train and am now staying in a cosy little B&B in Bath and will be starting teacher training next month and you’ll never guess where at? Bletchley Park. Can you believe it? I’ll be staying on-site so I don’t have to worry about accommodation cost too much. It will be lovely to be back there again. Even though we were doing such a heavy-going job, they were the best years of my life, we had some great times. Perhaps yourself and Sally could come up for a weekend and we can reminisce?

I apologise once again for everything, especially the secrets but I hope you now understand why I am like I am. I will eagerly await to hear back from you – I have included the address for Bletchley at the bottom of this letter, send it there and I’ll reply as soon as I get it.

I hope you are keeping well and still showing those men how dangerous we women are.

Your loyal friend always,

This letter was extraordinary. I could not believe it. It was unheard of for a woman to walk out on their husband, yet Bryony did just that and I admire her courage and bravery. There was one last thing in the envelope containing the letter. A small rectangle of wood decorated with painted flowers and the words ‘Keep being dangerous’ painted on it. It made me smile as that became our little catchphrase after that early morning stroll at Bletchley and the events which followed. I guessed Bryony had made this plaque by herself, as she always had the most fantastic creative streak.

As women, being belittled helped us to be stronger, especially in Bryony’s case but women like Sally were just very lucky with their upbringing and had very little need to fight. Working at Bletchley helped us prove that women can be just as clever, if not more so, than men and have as much right as anyone else to put their intelligence to good use. Being told that “if women had brains they’d be dangerous” on more than one occasion did upset and anger me at the time but now, I’m proud of that, I’m proud to be a woman and most of all, proud to be dangerous.

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The Women of Bletchley Park by Rebecca Jayne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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