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)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Saturday 19 November 2022

The third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, is by NHJ Westlake, in memory of Amy (Hunt) Lester, wife of the Revd John Moore Lester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (19 November 2022) remembers Hilda, Abbess of Whitby (680), and Mechtild, Béguine of Magdeburg, Mystic (1280).

Hilda was born in 614 into the royal house of Northumbria and was baptised in York at the age of 12 by Paulinus. Encouraged by Aidan of Lindisfarne, she became a religious at the age of 33. She established monasteries first at Hartlepool and two years later at Whitby. This house became a great centre of learning and the Synod of Whitby met there in the 664, when it was decided to adopt Roman traditions in preference to Celtic customs. Although a Celt in her religious formation, Hilda played a crucial rôle in reconciling others of the Celtic tradition to the decisions of the Synod. She is also remembered as an educator and for nurturing Caedmon’s gift of vernacular song. She died on 17 November 680, but is remembered on this day.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection on the stained glass windows in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Enoch being taken up to heaven without dying (see Genesis 5: 21-24) … a panel in the third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 20: 27-40 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39 Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40 For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

The Ascension (see Luke 24: 50-53) … a panel in the third window in the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Stained-glass windows in Stony Stratford, 7:

Throughout this week, I have been reflecting each morning on the stained glass windows in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire.

The 12 windows in Saint Mary and Saint Giles include a two-light window at the west end by Charles Eamer Kempe, depicting three archangels; a set of three windows in the south gallery, among them important work by John Groome Howe of the Hardman studios; two separate windows in the south gallery that appear to include fragments from an earlier window; and six windows – three below the gallery on the south wall and three below the gallery on the north wall – by NHJ Westlake of Lavers & Westlake.

The third window in the North Wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles is dated 1895. It is by Nathaniel Westlake and was commissioned by the Stony Stratford architect Edward Swinfen Harris (1841-1924), whose works, mainly in the Arts and Crafts style, can be seen throughout the town.

This window is of three eyelets and depicts:

1, Enoch is taken up to heaven by angels without dying (see Genesis 5: 21-24);

2, The Ascension (see Luke 24: 50-53);

3, Elijah is taken up to heaven in the Chariot of Fire without dying (II King 2: 11-12).

Enoch and Elijah are both said to have been taken into heaven without dying. These images, along with central panel depicting the Ascension, are illustrations of the Christian hope of eternal life.

This window is in memory of Amy (Hunt) Lester (1850-1895), wife of the Revd John Moore Lester (1851-1884), Vicar of Stony Stratford in 1880-1884. They were married in Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, Westminster, in 1877 and were the parents of nine children. She died on 30 October 1895.

The Revd John Moore Lester was the Rector of Stony Stratford in 1880-1884. He was born in Mumbai (Bombay), a son of General Sir Frederick Lester, and was educated at Rugby and University College Oxford.

From Stony Stratford, he went on to be Vicar of the Holy Trinity Church, Ayr (1884), Vicar of Shifnal, Shropshire, and a Rural Dean in the Diocese of Lichfield (1891), Vicar of Yarcombe, Devon (1903), Rector of Saint Leonard’s, Bridgnorth (1905), and finally Rector of Litchborough, near Towcester in Northamptonshire, and 15 miles north-west of Stony Stratford. He died at Litchborough Rectory on Christmas Eve 24 December 1919.

Amy Lester’s son, Edward Gabriel Lester (1887-1917), was the father of the Canadian-born American actress Katherine Lester DeMille, who played 25 credited film roles from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. She was considered Hollywood royalty and was noted for her dark beauty.

Katherine Lester DeMille was born Katherine Paula Lester in Vancouver on 29 June 1911. Her father died of multiple wounds in France on 25 June 1917, during World I. Her mother, Cecile Bianca Bertha (Colani), was terminally ill, and travelled to California, supposedly to find Katherine’s paternal grandparents and leave her with them.

However, the child’s grandmother, who is commemorated in this window in Stony Stratford, had died more than 20 years earlier, in 1895, and the child’s grandfather was then living in Northamptonshire. Katherine’s mother died on 18 March 1920, unable to contact her in-laws. By then, Katherine had been placed in an orphanage in Los Angeles. Just weeks months before her grandfather’s death, when she was eight, she was found in the orphanage by Constance Adams DeMille, the wife of producer and director Cecil B DeMille. The DeMilles adopted her as their third child in 1922.

Katherine Lester DeMille married the actor Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), star of Zorba the Greek (1964), in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Beverly Hills, in 1937. They were the parents of five children. They were divorced in 1965, and she died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1995.

Elijah is taken up to heaven in the Chariot of Fire without dying (II King 2: 11-12) … a panel in the third window on the north wall in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Collect:

Eternal God,
who made the abbess Hilda to shine like a jewel in our land
and through her holiness and leadership
blessed your Church with new life and unity:
help us, like her, to yearn for the gospel of Christ
and to reconcile those who are divided;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Hilda
that she served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Christ the King:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week has been ‘Living Together in Peace.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday, describing the work of PROCMURA, the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa. USPG has provided an annual grant to PROCMURA since it started in 1959.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for interfaith societies at universities around the world. May they lead to lasting friendships between people of different faiths and backgrounds.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Katherine Lester DeMille, adopted daughter of Cecil B DeMille, was a granddaughter of Amy Lester of Stony Stratford

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org