19 November 2022

Bletchley Park, the home of
the code breakers, and home
to many interesting families

Bletchley Park, home of the code-breakers in World War II, was developed by Samuel Lipscomb Seckham and Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday (18 November 2022) visiting Bletchley Park, the Victorian country house and estate in Milton Keynes that was the principal centre of allied code-breaking during World War II.

Most visitors to Bletchley Park come to see the museums and to learn about the code-breakers. But the pre-war history of Bletchley Park and the architectural story of the mansion are interesting in their own rights too.

The house at Bletchley Park was developed by the Victorian architect Samuel Lipscomb Seckham (1827-1901), who bought the estate in 1877 and named it Bletchley Park, and then by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (1850-1926), the financier and Liberal MP, who bought it from Seckham in 1883.

The Bletchley Park estate dates back to at least the 11th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Bletchley Park estate dates back to at least the 11th century and it appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as part of the Manor of Eaton.

Dr Thomas Willis, one of the most celebrated physicians of his day, bought Bletchley, Fenny Stratford and Water Eaton from the 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1675. He also had a house on Saint Martin's Lane in the parish of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and died on Saint Martin’s Day, 11 November 1675.

His son Robert Willis added the Whaddon estate, including Whaddon Hall, bought jointly with James Selby from the Duke of Buckingham’s trustees in 1698. However, Robert Browne died shortly after. His son, was the antiquary, author, numismatist and politician Browne Willis (1682-1760). He was MP for Buckingham in 1705-1708, and built a mansion at Bletchley in 1711.

Browne Willis also built Saint Martin’s Church in Fenny Stratford in 1724-1730 on the site of the old Chantry Chapel of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine as a memorial to his grandfather Dr Thomas Willis, and he arranged for a sermon to be preached in his memory in Saint Martin’s Church every Saint Martin’s Day.

Two seated griffins guard the porch at Bletchley Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Thomas Harrison, who managed the Radcliffe estates in Wolverton and the estates of Earl Spencer in Stantonbury, bought the property in 1793, and the house built by Browne in 1711 was pulled down and the land was let. Thomas Harrison died in 1809 and his last surviving son, Richard Harrison, died in 1858.

Richard Harrison’s eldest son, Spencer Harrison, put much of the estate up for auction in seven lots in 1865, but when he decided again to sell Bletchley at auction in 1871 it failed to sell.

Six years later, the estate was sold in 1877 to a Mr Coleman and it almost immediately passed to the Victorian architect and developer Samuel Lipscomb Seckham (1827-1901). The details are obscure, but it is possible that Coleman was an agent for Seckham, who first used the name Bletchley Park after acquiring the estate in 1877.

A three-bay embattled ashlar loggia is among the distinctive features of the front elevation of the house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Samuel Lipscomb Seckham was born in Oxford on 25 October 1827, and later became the City Surveyor. He was the original architect employed by Saint John’s College, Oxford, to develop parts of North Oxford, and developed Park Town, an early and prominent estate in North Oxford.

Through Seckham’s efforts, the Park Town Estate Company was formed in September 1857. Such was the success of Park Town, he also worked on plans for Walton Manor and Norham Manor.

Seckham rented Hanch Hall, near Longdon, outside Lichfield, from 1873. He bought Bletchley Park in 1877, renamed it and developed it before selling in 1883 to the financier and Liberal politician Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (1850-1926).

Seckham then moved to Beacon Place in Lichfield, once the home of the Hinckley family, and rebuilt and stuccoed in Grecian style ca 1842-1855 by the architect Sir Sydney Smirke (1798-1877) while he was working on Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield. Smirke also restored the Temple Church and the Savoy Chapel in London and completed the British Museum.

While Seckham was living at Beacon Place, he became a pillar of Christ Church, Leomansley, in Lichfield. When the transept and aisles were added to the church in 1887, Seckham and Albert Octavius Worthington jointly bore the cost of the north transept and chancel, while Seckham’s wife, Kinbarra Sweene Smith, presented a wrought iron screen, although this was later removed to the former choir gallery.

Seckham bought Whittington Old Hall, a 16th-century house near Lichfield, in 1889, and he set about restoring and enlarging it. At the same time, he held on to Beacon Place in Lichfield. He was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1890, and was also Deputy Lieutenant (DL), a Justice of the Peace (JP), and a representative of Lichfield on Staffordshire County Council.

His wife died in 1900, and he died on 4 February 1901. His funeral took place in Christ Church, Leomansley, and his tomb is recessed in the outer wall of the north transept. They are commemorated in a stained-glass window in the north chapel in Christ Church.

The Seckhams are commemorated in a stained-glass window in the north chapel in Christ Church, Leomansley, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, Sir Herbert Leon bought Bletchley Park from Seckham in 1883, along with the estate of 581 acres (235 ha). He set about redeveloping and rebuilding the mansion in the years that followed in the Victorian Gothic, Tudor and Dutch Baroque styles, with a Moorish influenced roof. He turned the house into what the architect Landis Gores called a ‘maudlin and monstrous pile.’

The house is asymmetrical in design with sumptuous interiors featuring reproduction Jacobean ceilings, marble arches and an impressive ballroom with gilded ceilings.

It is a large, rambling, two-store Grade II house with partial attic. It is built in red brick in Flemish bond with ashlar dressings. The principal gables are half-timbered with pebble-dashed infill, some others are tile-hung. There is a Welsh slate roof with red tile ridge, and the brick stacks have clustered flues, ribs and bands. There are ransomed wooden windows, and the principal windows have leaded upper lights. There are decorative wooden barge boards and finials at the gables.

Sir Herbert Leon turned Bletchley Park into what Landis Gores called a ‘maudlin and monstrous pile’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The front elevation of the house has six bays. The entrance in the second bay has an internal, vaulted, porch protecting the panelled half-glazed double-door with side lights and a fanlight. The flanking porch has hexagonal brick columns surmounted by panelled stone tops that flank a base with a four-light oriel window that has a decorative base.

Two seated griffins on bracketed plinths project from porch and are attached to it. Other features include a domed, metal roof, a single storey wooden conservatory with traceried bays, gableted buttresses, canted bay windows, and a three-bay embattled ashlar loggia.

Inside the house, the elaborate, interiors survive, with panelling, panelled doors, decorative fireplaces, and decorative plaster ceilings. There are stone columns and vaults, and arcaded polished-stone screen wall in the entrance hall, traceried panelling, elaborate columned ashlar fireplaces, a Jacobean-style fireplace, a painted glass roof, coffered ceilings, and a panelled stair hall, with a fretted balustrade, carved surround and carved octagonal newels.

The former library, which served as a naval intelligence office, has an elaborate wooden Jacobean-style inglenook with an over-mirror and fitted book cases and shelves.

The former ballroom has linenfold panelling, clustered wooden columns, traceried arches, and elaborate plaster work.

The former billiard room also has interesting panelling, cornices, columns ceiling ribs and wooden trusses.

The former library has an elaborate wooden Jacobean-style inglenook with an over-mirror and fitted book cases and shelves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

After Sir Herbert Leon died in 1926, his widow, Lady Fanny Leon, lived on at Bletchley Park until she died in 1937. The mansion and much of the site was bought by a builder for a housing estate, but in May 1938 Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), bought the mansion and 58 acres (23 ha).

Bletchley Park, known as BP to those who worked there, was chosen because of its prime location beside Bletchley Railway Station, a main road linking London to the north-west and a telegraph and telephone station at Fenny Stratford.

During World War II, Bletchley Park was the headquarters of the code-breakers and became the birthplace of modern computing. It was the place where Alastair Denniston, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Dilly Knox, Peter Twinn and others broke the ‘unbreakable’ Enigma machine code and helped shorten World War II by several years, feats recalled in the film The Imitation Game.

The arched entrance to the stables at Bletchley Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

At the peak of MI6’s code-breaking efforts in early 1945, around 9,000 people working at Bletchley Park. To accommodate them and their extensive equipment, a large number of buildings were added to the site. Wooden huts known by numbers and brick-built blocks were known by letters.

It is here too that Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’ with the US was created, and on the small green outside the house is the ‘Churchill Stone,’ representing the boulder where Sir Winston Churchill stood on 6 September 1941 when he addressed the Bletchley Park staff, describing the code-breakers at Bletchley Park as ‘the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.’

After World War II, much of the equipment and documents at Bletchley Park were destroyed and the buildings were left to ruin. The site of Bletchley Park was used as a teacher training college and local GPO headquarters in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1990s, it was at risk of being demolished for redevelopment. Milton Keynes Borough Council stepped in and declared Bletchley Park a conservation area.

The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and opened the site to visitors in 1993 as a museum. After decades of secrecy, Bletchley Park is now open to the public, and visitors can see how the codebreakers lived and worked, and view the largest collection of historic computers in the National Museum of Computing.

An artist’s impression of some of the code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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