Punch cards, porridge and a pittance

Five years of Bletchley Park's Oral History Project

Doris Marshall, nee Phillips recalls the privations and privileges of working for the Government Code and Cypher School during World War Two.

Hers was the first interview carried out under the official auspices of Bletchley Park’s Oral History project, now approaching its fifth anniversary and gathering pace to capture as many first hand memories of WW2 codebreaking as possible.

Doris worked as a Hollerith machine operator in Hut 7 and Block C, from 1941 until 1945, with three months in Hut 4 in late 1944. She was born in Canada and from 1937, her family lived just outside the boundaries of Bletchley Park. Two employees of the Government Code and Cypher School were billeted with the family and suggested to Doris when she was coming of age that she too might work at this highly interesting, top secret place.

She said “When I got to Bletchley Park, I could not believe the number of hours that they expected us to work. We had to do night shifts and only had one day a week off.”

Although Doris recalls working on a variety of machinery with little contextual detail because of the need for secrecy, she recalls a technical pitfall with one of them, which utilised punch cards: “Sometimes we had what you would call a tear up; one of the cards would have been slightly damaged and as it was running through the machine, and it would block the machine up together with all the cards coming up behind it.

“You had to be very quick to turn the machine off and you would have to take the card that was causing the trouble back to the punch room, where they would punch it  out again. This really held you up because it was so time consuming.  The machines were very loud, too noisy to talk to each other.”

Doris took the need for absolute secrecy in her stride. “We knew the work we were doing was hush, hush, because of the Official Secrets Act, but we didn’t ask questions, we were paid a absolute pittance, but we thought it was our duty.”

Conversation was, however, permitted during meal breaks. Doris recalls “This was the only time that we could converse with each other, because we weren’t allowed to talk to each other in the hut, we were not allowed any distraction. The food at Bletchley Park was quite good, if you like porridge.”

She has fond memories of the cafeteria, recalling one night when she finished her shift late and fell into a ditch while trying to catch up her colleagues. “I couldn’t get out and I was covered in mud, they all came running back, pulled me out and took me across to the cafeteria and the old ladies that were on duty took my coat, shoes and stockings off  me and loaned me some clothes to go back to work in. When I went back for breakfast the next morning, they had got it all clean and ready for me to go back to work. People looked out for each other and were very kind.”

You can hear more from Doris, who died in 2013, in the April episode of the Bletchley Park Podcast, Punch Cards, Porridge and a Pittance, out now.

If you or someone you know worked at Bletchley Park or one of its outstations during World War Two, please get in touch with the Oral History Project by emailing [email protected] or calling 01908 640404.

Image: Doris Phillips (later Marshall)

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