There’s something rotten in the state of Bletchley, but exactly what is up for debate. A BBC News film crew brought – frankly, much-needed – light on internal disputes between the Bletchley Park Trust, which operates the bulk of the Park, and the CodesandCiphers Trust, which operates the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) housed in Block H. Video footage of a long-time Bletchley Park Trust volunteer being apparently sacked secured the report a place on the national news, and has been responsible for more column inches than either party has ‘enjoyed’ in quite some time.
But what is actually going on?
First, a disclaimer: I’ve long been a supporter of both Trusts. I was responsible for – successful – efforts to raise funds in order for Bletchley Park Trust to buy unique Turing papers for public display, and I’ve often visited the Park; when I have done so, I have also visited the National Museum of Computing. For me, the two go hand-in-hand: the exhibitions on offer from the Bletchley Park Trust offer a key insight into the activities of the code-breakers during the war and an early look at the development of computers in general; TNMOC continues this story with its rebuild of the iconic Colossus machine, and brings the tale bang up-to-date with its collection of vintage and not-so-vintage computing devices.
To explain how relations between the two Trusts, which on the surface share the common goals of the preservation of history and providing public access to education, have become so poor – and, be aware, the animosity between the two is in no way new – requires a little history. Since the BBC aired its report on Friday, I’ve been speaking to Kevin Murrell of the CodesandCiphers Trust and Iain Standen of the Bletchley Park Trust, creating a list of agreed facts dating back to before TNMOC was ever founded – so, if you’ve got a spare few minutes, read on to see the background that no articles have yet reported.
- In the early 2000s, a private collection of vintage computing known as Retrobeep was to be found in Bletchley Park’s Block H. Unfortunately, it was believed that the landowners – BT and PACE – planned to sell off the outer edges of the Park for residential development, including the land on which Block H stood.
- Two volunteers involved in Retrobeep, Kevin Murrell and Tony Sale, sought to prevent the land being sold and applied to have Block H and Block D registered as Listed Buildings and thus protected from being demolished. The sale of other areas of land continued, and indeed have residential properties on today.
- Using the listing as a delaying action, Murrell and Sale set up the CodesandCiphers Trust in order to turn the private Retrobeep collection into a charitable museum with official status. In 2005, The National Museum of Computing was founded and the Retrobeep name retired.
- Bletchley Park Trust had planned to use Block H as its headquarters, but the CodesandCiphers Trust offered a £75,000 a year lease – agreed at a time of high rent and property prices and to last a 25-year period – to retain use of the building. This lease would also require the payment of utilities and service charges, with TNMOC estimating the average annual cost at over £100,000 per annum.
- During the first few years of the lease, Bletchley Park Trust was unable to accurately assess the service charge and utilities owed by TNMOC due to issues including faulty electricity meters. Bletchley Park Trust would claim that TNMOC owed a £250,000 shortfall, a figure disputed by TNMOC. Both would later agree a lower figure, which has not been made public, to be paid by TNMOC no later than April 2014.
- Bletchley Park Trust and TNMOC discussed joint ticketing, but could not agree terms. As a result, visitors paying the £15 entry fee to Bletchley Park are then requested to pay a maximum of £2 in order to see the Tunny and Colossus galleries, or £5 for entry to the whole of TNMOC. Previously, access to Tunny and Colossus had been free but TNMOC saw this as unsustainable while paying rent to Bletchley Park Trust.
- Bletchley Park Trust reviewed the official tour with a view to reducing its time from 1h30m to an hour, by removing discussion of the Mansion’s architecture, the Leons, all private collections, and in particular the final portion of the tour which previously took in the Tunny and Colossus galleries at TNMOC. This was discussed with a panel of seven tour guides, who agreed to the changes – with at least one raising the proviso that a secondary tour, whether Bletchley Park Trust or TNMOC led, be offered covering Tunny and Colossus for those who want to continue on.
- In December 2012, a letter is drafted which outlines these changes and in particular states “Guides will no longer take groups through the Colossus and Tunny galleries on this revised standard tour but can signpost TNMOC along with the shop, cafe etc from their finishing point on the oval.” This letter is distributed to all Bletchley Park Trust guides.
- A reprint of the Bletchley Park Guidebook, available to purchase at entry or from the Gift Shop, removes any labelling for TNMOC and any other private collections or non-Trust exhibits on the rear map. TNMOC’s presence in Block H is mentioned in a single sentence on page 39, while Colossus is mentioned in historical context on pages 12-13 but with no hint it is available for viewing at TNMOC.
- At the same time, selected private collections were contacted with a view to relocate to alternative buildings or leave entirely. Some left voluntarily rather than relocate. The Model Railway Exhibit from Hut 11a – built to house Bombe Machines during WWII – was outright asked to leave the Park, as was the Churchill Memorabilia Collection from the Teleprinter Hall. Plans for a ‘Community Museum’ that could house some or all of the above private collections were scrapped by Bletchley Park Trust as funding could not be found and nor was space available
- With numerous new exhibitions, including the Harwell Dekatron restoration and a gallery on the history of software, visits to the whole of TNMOC have increased but numbers visiting the Colossus and Tunny galleries have fallen dramatically.
- Bletchley Park Trust plans to build fencing which will separate the tenanted properties in the Park from the Trust-occupied buildings that form the Trust’s heritage tour, in order to pedestrianise the tour route and other guest thoroughfares. This will see Block H, and thus TNMOC, located outside the fenced region, with guests transitioning between the two through the Bletchley Park Visitor Centre.
- Said fencing forms part of an £8 million plan for the Park, funded in part by a £4.6 million grant given to Bletchley Park Trust by the Heritage Lottery Fund. TNMOC receives no portion of this funding.
- TNMOC relies entirely upon donations, gift shop sales and ticket sales to operate, and has received no funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and will not directly benefit from any of the proposed redevelopment plans or Bletchley Park Trust’s increased funding.
- A Bletchley Park Trust volunteer tour guide was asked to vacate his post during the filming of a BBC News segment at the Park, bringing considerable publicity onto previously private disharmony between the two Trusts. The Trust states this was due to his repeated inability to stick to the official tour schedule.
- Aired on Friday, the BBC News piece was removed from the website’s archive over the weekend but returned late Monday afternoon. Bletchley Park Trust denies making any request for its removal to the BBC. A radio piece on the same subject remains accessible through iPlayer, while the original televised report has been mirrored on YouTube.
Now, those are the facts on which both parties agree. Unfortunately, there are plenty of areas of disagreement – starting with what volunteer guides from the Bletchley Park Trust can and cannot do.
According to the Trust, and highlighted in the letter of December 2012 provided by Iain Standen, while the tour no longer covers Tunny and Colossus – as well as other areas removed to shorten the tour, which was considered too long for elderly visitors – guides are actively encouraged to signpost TNMOC and the Colossus gallery at the end of the tour as continuing the story they have heard thus far. Several guides have, however, publicly indicated that they are expressly forbidden from doing so, and are instead to make no mention of TNMOC or Colossus.
The guide seen in floods of tears in the BBC’s filming was claimed to be removed as a result of ignoring that request. “They [Bletchley Park Trust] haven’t got a clue – they are ruining this place,” he told the news crew. “We [the guides] are all very upset about not being able to tell the story we want to.”
Although the Trust’s public policy is that guides are free to signpost TNMOC, Colossus, and the Computer Conservation Society-owned Bombe rebuild, some guides are claiming otherwise. Standen admits that the guide seen in the BBC report was “despite repeated requests, unwilling to deliver the tour in the agreed format; as a result we were no longer able to use his services as a guide,” although does not indicate how the guide varied from the agreed format.
Paul Evans, who has long acted as a volunteer guide for both Bletchley Park Trust and TNMOC, claims that fellow volunteers are actively discussed by Trust staff as “not fit for purpose.” A report in the Mature Times, written by an anonymous Trust volunteer, goes further and claims that Trust staff actively described modernisation plans as looking to “cull the old and infirm.”
The volunteers, the anonymous guide claims, are to be removed from their posts in favour of technology – multimedia guides, a combination of eReader and audio playback system currently being rolled out at the Park – and video clips hosted by paid, professional actors. “The intention is to eliminate any costs associated with volunteers,” it is claimed. “Highly trained and experienced tour guides will be replaced by minimally trained volunteers to cut out their travel expenses as they tend to come from further away, hardly a way to engage and motive the right people to give of their best.”
In short: while the Trust claims its modernisation plans are to be of benefit to visitors, its own guides – unpaid volunteers, it must be remembered, many of whom are experts in their field – see things very differently, leading to internal tensions that can explode as seen in the BBC’s report.
The Colossus, available for daily viewing in Block H, is an integral part of the Bletchley Park story and handily bridges the gap between work done on devices like the Turing-Welchman Bombe and modern electronic computing. Previously taking up a 20 minute portion of the 90 minute Bletchley Park Trust tour, it’s a must-see exhibit for visitors – but one that fewer and fewer visitors are actually going to see.
Part of the problem comes from an inability for the two Trusts to agree on joint ticketing. The result is that visitors are asked to pay more on top of the £15 they’ve already paid to the Trust – something many have highlighted as a ‘bait-and-switch’ experience. Sadly, it’s also necessary: TNNOC’s whole funding comes from the £2 or £5 tickets – less for concessions – it sells to visitors, along with its small gift shop selection. It has received none of the Lottery funding given to Bletchley Park Trust, and receives no portion of the £15 gate money or any income from the popular on-site cafe.
The difference in income between the two Trusts is plain to see: publicly-accessible accounts for Financial Year 2012 show Bletchley Park Trust enjoying £3,837,438 income for an £834,583 net gain for the year, while the CodesandCiphers Trust filed just £331,162 in income for a net loss of £6,276 over the same period. The disparity in scale isn’t just financial, either: a large chunk of Bletchley Park Trust’s expenditure – £938,136 – is on paid staff equivalent to 42 full-time positions; the CodesandCiphers Trust, meanwhile, has a paid staff of just four who share a total staffing cost of just £20,866.
Bletchley Park Trust claims that TNMOC walked away from discussions on joint ticketing, which would see visitors buying a single ticket for access to both facilities with TNMOC receiving a portion of the cost; TNMOC denies this, stating that Bletchley Park Trust began adding new conditions to the agreement which were not germane to the matter at hand, and offered only a tiny fraction of the gate money. As a result, no agreement was reached – resulting in the split ticketing system both agree as an issue for visitors.
It has also been claimed by TNMOC that as one of the conditions of joint ticketing Bletchley Park Trust attempted to claim at least part ownership of the Colossus rebuild, on the grounds that it was constructed on Trust-owned property. This attempt, which Standen, who has only been in the role of chief executive these past two years, denies knowledge of, did not succeed. Last year, Bletchley Park Trust chair Sir John Scarlett addressed the issue in a public speech in which he attributed ownership of Colossus to TNMOC – although it is actually owned by Colossus Rebuild Limited with TNMOC holding a contract to display and run the device.
No joint ticketing also means no joint marketing, and TNMOC has claimed that extends to its volunteers being banned from the Bletchley Park Trust ticket office. While it’s certainly true that the ticket office is staffed by Trust employees only and that TNMOC tickets must be purchased separately within Block H, Bletchley Park Trust has denied that it looks to exclude TNMOC and points to the existence of a – singular – poster in the office extolling the virtues of TNMOC.
Combined with the removal of TNMOC from the official guidebook’s map – whereas previous versions had it clearly labelled, with the logo of TNMOC hovering next to Block H with an arrow indicating its location – TNMOC clearly feels sidelined, and a part of the Trust’s modernisation plan detailed below is only going to make things worse.
Bletchley Park Trust claims that its plan to build fencing around its central buildings is part of a modernisation plan that seeks to improve the visitor experience, pointing to troubles visitors – elderly visitors in particular – have on areas with no pavement and narrow roads shared with cars. The fencing, the Trust claims, will keep cars and visitors separate to improve comfort and safety.
Sadly, the fence will not include outlying buildings – including Block H and TNMOC. As a result, as well as needing to buy a separate ticket when they get there guests will need to transition through the fence at the Bletchley Park Visitors Centre in order to reach Block H at all. TNMOC, naturally, feels that this is exclusionary and contrary to the bid placed in order to raise the Heritage Lottery Fund money for the works and will have a further detrimental effect on its visitor numbers. Its most vocal critics even have a historical counterpart for the plan: Checkpoint Charlie.
This is a tough one: during my visits to the Park, I’ve certainly had to dodge a car or two. The Park was never built as a museum; it was a working wartime facility, with many blocks being added on ad-hoc as requirements change. Pedestrianisation is, therefore, a good thing – but balkanisation isn’t.
TNMOC further claims that as part of its Heritage Lottery Fund bid, Bletchley Park Trust stated that the Colossus Rebuild was to be interpreted to the public as an integral part of the Bletchley Park story. TNMOC was not made aware of this, nor was it provided with a copy of the bid. It would later obtain a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request, bringing this claim – which flies in the face of building the fencing, removing Colossus from the tour and refusing joint ticketing – to light.
If you’ve read this far, then you’ve got a heck of a lot more background than any mainstream news report – or the press releases of both organisations – will offer. It breaks my heart to see the two Trusts at loggerheads, as I believe both are incredibly important to telling the story of British ingenuity both during the war and at the birth of modern computing.
Having reviewed the evidence – and I will be eternally grateful to both Iain Standen and Kevin Murrell for their time in discussing these matters with me – and having spoken to volunteers from both organisations, I believe that Bletchley Park Trust needs to review its position. Modernisation is good, but whizz-bang videos and pre-loaded Kindles can’t replace the passionate and knowledgeable expert volunteers that have given their time to the Trust over the years out of nothing more than a passion for the subject.
I also urge both parties to look again at joint ticketing; Bletchley Park Trust denies that it is looking to oust TNMOC from Block H, and if that’s the case then it has nothing to lose from agreeing a fair joint ticketing system with the CodesandCiphers Trust. Indeed, if TNMOC were to fold tomorrow Bletchley Park Trust would take a £100,000 annual hit to its finances – and while that may be peanuts to an organisation which pays a single member of its management staff between £70,000 and £80,000 a year, it’s money that could be spent improving the experience for all.
I would especially ask Bletchley Park Trust to look at the way it is communicating its goals and plans to its volunteers. Whether or not it’s true that guides are being removed from service by simply mentioning non-Trust exhibits or as a result of their age, that’s how the guides feel – and that feeling, previously bubbling under the surface, is now public. The Trust has benefited immeasurably from the expertise and manpower of its volunteers over the years; now its funding is finally looking more stable, it’s vitally important that their contribution isn’t overlooked in the name of modernisation.
In the days that followed the BBC’s emotive report, there were various calls to ‘boycott Bletchley;’ I’m not going to join the call to arms. Bletchley Park is an important piece of world history, and should not suffer. That said, I will be concentrating my future efforts to raise funds for The National Museum of Computing, as in doing so not only will I be helping to secure its future but, thanks to the £100,000 a year lease it holds with the Trust, I’ll be financially contributing to Bletchley Park’s future too.
If you want to join me in this, the TNMOC website has details of how to donate money or become a personal member along with opening times for the museum itself – which, if you weren’t aware, can be visited without paying the £15 gate charge to Bletchley Park Trust.