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Bletchley Park hero to have church blue plaque

11 November 2016

Simon Chapman/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

Concession: the blue plaque in memory of Gordon Welchman on the wall of St Mary’s, Fishponds, Bristol

Concession: the blue plaque in memory of Gordon Welchman on the wall of St Mary’s, Fishponds, Bristol

A CHURCH on the outskirts of Bristol can honour one of the Bletchley Park code-breakers after a consistory-court ruling has approved a blue plaque.

The Consistory Court of Bristol diocese granted a faculty for a blue plaque to be attached to the exterior of a listed church, to remember the late Gordon Welchman (1906-85), the son of a former vicar, who grew up in the rectory and became a member of the team whose wartime work at Bletchley Park was key to the breaking of the Enigma code.

The proposed blue plaque at St Mary’s, Fishponds, in the diocese of Bristol, has been funded by the Bristol Civic Society. Mr Welchman was the son of the Revd William Welchman, who was Vicar of St Mary’s when Gordon was born. From 1927 to 1937, he served as Archdeacon of Bristol.

Gordon’s “prodigious mathematical ability” won him scholarships to Marlborough College, and from there to Cambridge. He taught mathematics at Cambridge, and was Dean of Sidney Sussex College when he was asked by the wartime government to form a team at Bletchley Park.

He worked in Ultra Intelligence with Alan Turing on the machine that broke the Enigma code. After it had been broken, Welchman continued to work as part of the “Hut Six Team”, and found ways to speed up the performance of the machine and make it more effective.

He was also instrumental in the development and management of the entire Bletchley Park code-breaking operation, which is regarded as having shortened the Second World War.

After the war, he moved to America and worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He continued to work in intelligence, making significant contributions to mathematical and computer science. His work on intelligence networking was a precursor to the development of the internet.

Welchman was born in Fishponds, and was baptised at St Mary’s, in the font that is in the church today. The original rectory where he was brought up, which would have been the usual place for a blue plaque, has been demolished.

The Chancellor, the Revd and Worshipful Justin Gau, expressed concern about the possible setting of a precedent in granting a faculty for a blue plaque to be attached outside a church. The statement of significance and need in the petition for the faculty said that the telling of Welchman’s story was “a way to engage and inspire students in maths, IT and other STEM subjects”. The plaque “had the potential to spark the development of further community-based projects involving local children through their schools”, it said.

The PCC emphasised the “missional potential” of a plaque nationally and internationally, and also with schools in the area.

The Chancellor concluded that, in “the unique circumstances” of this case, he was prepared to grant the faculty for the blue plaque. He was satisfied that it would not set a precedent, it was capable of being significantly helpful in the mission of the Church, it would cause no damage to the church building, and it was capable of being easily removed.

The plaque describes Welchman as a “key contributor to World War II British codebreaking at Bletchley Park and abroad”, and a “computer science pioneer and inventor”.

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