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Bringing a secret history up to date

Beaumanor Hall

Local historian Mark Temple let Novus Rotarians into a lot of secrets when he spoke to us about Beaumanor Hall.

Some members knew of it as the ‘Downton Abbey’ home of the Herrick family. Others knew it as a residential base for schoolchildren on outdoor activity breaks. Others as a conference/wedding venue. And one admitted he had been there most recently on a speed awareness course!

But Mark’s PowerPoint presentation dealt mainly with the hall’s use as one of the 38 Y Stations which intercepted and decoded wartime radio messages which were interpreted at Station X now known as Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, where boffins like Alan Turing and others are nowadays reckoned responsible for cutting a couple of years off World War II.

His excellent talk and photos showed how about 1,000 staff worked in the hall and in unheated huts in the ground, writing down Morse Code messages which were then interpreted using the German Enigma machine. The workers were mainly women who were billeted in nearby villages. For six hours at a time they would transcribe five-character-long strings of Morse.

Some of the women motorcycle riders made four journeys to and from Bletchley Park in a day.

Everything they did was secret. Mark told members that one married couple did not tell each other until 50 years later exactly what their roles at Beaumanor had been. But some sworn to secrecy did break the rules. The station Commanding Officer was concerned for the well-being of the ladies working in cold huts —they could not be heated because they had been designed to look like a cricket pavilion, cattle sheds, and a greenhouse — and got them battle dress uniform to keep them warm. They were forbidden to wear it off site, but some did. And one designed a badge inspired by radio signals which some ladies took pride in wearing on their rare visits to Loughborough or Leicester.

It was with evident emotion that Mark showed photos of the Y Stations memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and more photos of the 2021 Remembrance Day parade in Woodhouse Eaves.

To give us a real sense of the signals the ladies had to transcribe — some as fast as 30 words a minute — Mark played us real recordings of wartime German messages. He showed photos of wartime radio receivers. One Novus member, participating from home via Zoom, is a wireless expert who remembered training with similar machines in an underground bunker close to where the M1 now runs.

Mark’s talk was most entertaining with a number of anecdotes and photos which he had collected from descendants of those who took part within the last few weeks.



Last edited: 22:30 on Thursday, November 18, 2021