Research uncovers secrets of Newnham women sent to codebreak at Bletchley Park  

The group photo shows the Principal and Fellows in 1936, with Pernel Strachey (front row, 3rd from left), Alda Milner-Barry (middle row, 4th from left), and Dorothy Garrod (back row, 3rd from left).

New exhibition tells the incredible story of Newnham College women’s war work, at Bletchley Park and beyond

More than 70 former students of Newnham College were secretly recruited for World War Two codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, thanks partly to the personal connections of three Newnham women. 

The role of the Cambridge College in the vital work at Bletchley Park has emerged slowly and piecemeal through historical research, as the women involved were sworn to secrecy, the need for which continued after the war ended when Cold War tension followed the armed conflict.  

Erica Munro, Head of Content at Bletchley Park Trust said: “We were delighted to work with Newnham College to help bring to life these little-known stories of the secret wartime work of their alumnae. By 1945, nearly 9,000 people worked for Bletchley Park and its associated outstations, and 75% of those were women. The vital intelligence that was produced helped turn the tide of war, but those involved were unable to reveal the parts they played, even to family and loved ones.  

“The importance and impact of Bletchley Park’s work remains an inspiration to us today, and it is a privilege to be able to help Newnham College tell these Veterans’ stories.” 

The role of Newnham women at Bletchley Park, carefully concealed for decades, was uncovered by alumna Dr Sally Waugh, historian and Fellow Emerita Dr Gillian Sutherland, and College Archivist Frieda Midgeley, who worked closely with staff at Bletchley Park. 

Careful selection 

The demands of war brought women into intelligence work but great care was needed to select people who were able and trustworthy. The trio discovered that a significant number of Newnham women found their way into codebreaking at Bletchley Park because of the personal links of three women: Alda Milner-Barry, Pernel Strachey and Ray Strachey (née Costelloe).   

Alda had been a Fellow and Vice-Principal and her brother Stuart was among the earliest members of one of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) huts. Pernel was Newnham Principal and her brother, Oliver, was an experienced cryptanalyst. He was also married to alumna Ray, who ran the Women’s Employment Federation, who in 1939 was asked to draw up an Emergency Register of women with specialist experience.  

During the war, they helped recruit mathematicians, modern linguists, classicists, historians, English graduates and more, for work at Bletchley Park, and Newnhamites played a crucial role in deciphering Enigma. Some were alumnae and others students who interrupted their studies. All developed the skills needed for exceedingly complex work. 

Hidden lives 

Many of the women’s stories have never been revealed, and if their family knew of a connection to Bletchley Park they downplayed it. Hut 6 codebreaker Jane Monroe, when asked what she did, habitually replied airily, “Oh, I made the tea.”  

John and Jane Monroe (née Reynolds, Mathematics 1936) met while working at Bletchley. Their children Robert Monroe, Alice Rogers and Polly Taylor said: “Our parents were quite open that they had worked in Bletchley Park during the war. We knew that they made many life time friends there. However we did not perhaps appreciate the struggles that they had gone through and the difficult physical conditions which they had endured together as a close knit team. The work was undertaken on round the clock watches and they were billeted with families living in the vicinity. Certainly it was made clear to us from an early age that the work they undertook was totally secret and that they were not allowed to talk about it.”

Dr Sutherland said: “The scrupulous observation of secrecy has meant that piecing together information about the individuals involved and the work they did has been a slow business, very like assembling a scatter of tiles towards a mosaic.” 

That research has informed the stories highlighted in the exhibition, Newnham and Bletchley Park: Women’s Work in World War II, which opens at Newnham College this month. 

One of the first Newnham women was recruited in the build-up to war. Fiona Ede (Mathematics, MML 1919) was one of only two women on a reserve list of codebreakers and analysts who could be recruited for an emergency expansion of the GC&CS codebreaking team.    

Joan Murray (née Clarke, Mathematics 1936) is the best-known Newnham woman at Bletchley, featuring in the film The Imitation Game, which tells the story of codebreaker Alan Turing.  Joan worked alongside Turing in Hut 8 and was engaged to him for a short while.  

Wendy Hinde was one of the first History graduates to arrive at the Park. Post-war she worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House and edited International Affairs, before working for The Economist and later as an accomplished political biographer. 

Others included Margaret Usborne, one of several Newnham Classicists recruited; and statistician Violet Cane, in later years a Fellow of Newnham, who was described by Professor Sir John Kingman in the Roll Letter after her death as: “Something perhaps, of the statistical Miss Marple.” 

Women’s war work 

Other Newnham women helped to map troop movements and deceive the Nazis in the run-up D-Day. They included 

  • Betty Goold-Adams who was sent to work in Wormwood Scrubs prison, which housed the MI5 unit that listened in to radio communications between German infiltrators in Europe. 
  • Joan Curran (née Strothers) specialised in military red-herrings: she invented aluminium chaff, which was dropped to confuse radar searches for aircraft or ‘invent’ vessels at sea.  It was used extensively in the Channel in the lead-up to D-Day. 
  • Archaeologists were particularly suitable for photographic intelligence (PI) work because of their experience in interpreting aerial photographs.  Glyn Daniel of St John’s led the way and in 1942 recruited Dorothy Garrod, a Fellow of Newnham and the first woman professor in Oxbridge, who came to specialise in the movement of troops and supplies by train.  
  • Lucia Windsor went straight into the WAAF in 1942, after the Geography Tripos. Her ground-breaking work on the use of computers to map the fruits of photographic intelligence with precision led eventually to the headship of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys. 

Showcasing their stories 

Newnham principal Alison Rose said: “I am so grateful to Dr Sally Waugh for the curiosity and research which led to this exhibition, and to Dr Gill Sutherland and Frieda Midgley whose historical and archival skills completed the team effort. Teamwork helped recruit Newnhamites to Bletchley Park in the 1930s and 1940s. Teamwork has revealed for us today the previously unsung and secret contribution of these women to the war effort.  

“This exhibition also demonstrates the vital role of history in telling the stories of other subjects. History deepens our understanding of the future by connecting us with the past. We have learnt how many different fields of study equipped the Newnhamites for codebreaking and intelligence work. Graduates in modern languages, geography, history, English, classics, archaeology, mathematics and science all put their skills and knowledge to good use. Women remain underrepresented in the computing and technology world today, but the Bletchley Park experience shows there is no need for this to be the case.” 

The Exhibition, Newnham and Bletchley Park: Women’s Work in World War II, opens from 11 March at Newnham College, with public access for tours later. For opening times and further details see here: Newnham and Bletchley Park exhibition.

  • History is a popular subject for undergraduates and postgraduates at Newnham, and we also offer two joint courses in History and Modern Languages, and History and Politics. We are raising funds to co-fund a permanently employed University Teaching Officer in History who is also a Director of Studies and College Lecturer at Newnham. This will enable succession planning and shape the direction of History at Newnham. Please contact Sarah Carthew, Development Director if you would like to make a donation: 

Further information 

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About Bletchley Park  

Bletchley Park is a vibrant heritage attraction and museum, open daily to visitors. It was the home of British World War Two codebreaking; a place where technological innovation and human endeavour came together to made ground-breaking achievements that have helped shape the world we live in today. This unique site was previously a vast Victorian estate, where parts including the Mansion still survive, expanding during wartime to accommodate Codebreakers Huts and Blocks. 

During World War Two, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), now known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), was based at Bletchley Park. It grew from a small team of specialists to a vast intelligence factory of thousands of dedicated women and men. This extraordinary combination of brilliant and determined people and cutting-edge technology contributed significantly to Allied victory. In tough conditions, they provided vital intelligence and developed pioneering technological innovation that had a direct and profound influence on the outcome of the war. The site continues to reveal secrets and tell fascinating stories of our national legacy. 

Bletchley Park Trust  

Bletchley Park Trust is a registered charity, heritage attraction and independent museum. As an independent charity, we rely on income from our visitors, Friends and supporters to secure the long-term future of the site. 

  • The group photograph shows the Principal and Fellows in 1936, with Pernel Strachey (front row, third from left), Alda Milner-Barry (middle row, fourth from left), and Dorothy Garrod (back row, third from left)