Category Archives: History

Public talk on Darlaston history

Bull Stake Darlaston

People from across Walsall borough will soon be able to find out about the history of one of our most historic local towns, Darlaston, in a public talk on Monday 4 March 2013 at Walsall Local History Centre.

The Essex Street centre is hosting one of Darlaston’s most noted local historians, Mr Terry Smitheman, who will present a fascinating slide illustrated talk all about that fine old Black Country town between 7.30pm – 9pm, and admission will cost just £2.00!

Darlaston has a long and varied history stretching at least as far back as the Domesday Book (1086) and was once an important industrial and engineering centre. Mr Smitheman is one of the leading experts of Darlaston Local History Society, and has many years experience of researching and writing about Darlaston and district.

Advance booking is essential, and tickets for the talk can be reserved now by telephoning Walsall Local History Centre on 01922 721305.

Walsall Local History Centre is the archives service and local studies library for Walsall Metropolitan Borough, and is part of Walsall Council. It is located in Essex Street, Walsall, WS2 7AS. Disable facilities and on-site parking are available.

Further details of the centre may be found online at

Curtain up for third Walsall Mummer’s Play this weekend!

Click to download poster
Click to download poster

The third in the remarkable series of new Walsall Mummer’s Plays written by local playwright David Calcutt, organised by Walsall Civic Society working with local groups, talented volunteers and Walsall Council and funded by a Heritage Lottery grant – ‘The Lovers and the Pirates’ – is all set for curtain up on its first open air performances this Saturday 16 February at noon, 1.30pm and 3pm in Walsall Marketplace, High Street, Walsall, just a short way down from the ASDA store – with FREE admission!

The successful series – commissioned specially as part of the historic  Walsall Bayard’s Colts Project – has brought a genuine revival of English street theatre to the town – not to mention much mirth, madness, music, mummery and mayhem!

And good weather or no, you’ll get a chance to see the play this weekend, for a special indoor performance is also taking place within the bounds of Bloxwich, at our very own Bookmark Bloxwich Theatre in Elmore Row, this Sunday 17 February at 2pm and 7pm.  Tickets for the Bloxwich performance cost just £5 – to book, call 01922 655900.

For more information, call Glen Buglass on 01922 653113, or check out the Bayard’s Colts Project website:

Bloxwich historians turn ‘Sorrow into Pride’

Barry Crutchley (left) and Ken Wayman with their new book

Last Friday a quiet, poignant and significant event in the history of Bloxwich took place at Blakenall Village Centre: the launch of a new book about the men on the Elmore Green School Great War Memorial.

Sorrow into Pride tells the story of the social and military history of the ‘old boys’ of Elmore Green School, Bloxwich, who went off to fight in the First World War.  Written by two retired teachers and local historians, Barry Crutchley and Ken Wayman (pictured, above, at the launch), the book reveals the search for a ‘lost’ war memorial, the stories of the commemorated lads and its re-adoption by the original school.

Sorrow into Pride
Sorrow into Pride

Elmore Green School Old Boys’ Association war memorial was unveiled in the school hall in 1922.  It commemorated the sacrifice made by former pupils of the school in the Great War of 1914-18, listing sixty-seven ‘old boys’ of what was then Elmore Green Central School, later High School, who gave their young lives in “the war to end all wars”, some not passing away until 1919.  It had been moved from the school in 1958 when the secondary functions of Elmore Green High School were transferred to the new T.P. Riley Comprehensive, not far away in Lichfield Road.

The memorial quietly became part of the life of the new school until, in 2001, T.P. Riley was demolished and replaced by the present Walsall Academy, which opened in 2003.  It was around this time that the finely carved marble sculpture by Bloxwich-born Frederick T. Perry “disappeared” from the public eye.  In fact, it had been put into storage because it was not required by the academy, but for a long time this was forgotten.

Over the following years, various people including Bloxwich local historians Edna Marshall, Barry Crutchley and ex-T.P. Riley history teacher Ken Wayman, had tried to find and raise the profile of the missing memorial and eventually, following convoluted enquiries via the Academy and within Walsall Council departments, in late 2010 it was tracked down to the premises of monumental masons A. Walker & Sons of Cannock, who had been storing it safely since the demolition of T.P. Riley years ago.

Following work done by Walsall Council officers Mike Gaffney and the now late Elaine Box, funding was found from the Council to have the memorial returned to its original home in March 2011, when it was mounted on the wall of the school hall by the masons who had preserved it.  On Armistice Day that year, a special service of re-dedication was held at the school, truly bringing the memorial home.

Barry Crutchley (left) and Ken Wayman ponder the men on the memorial.
Barry Crutchley (left) and Ken Wayman ponder the men on the memorial.

Now, Sorrow into Pride traces the families and experiences of the lads named on the alabaster memorial, as well as one Old Boy who for some unknown reason was omitted from the list. In addition, the events leading to the deaths of ten servicemen closely related to those commemorated are examined, showing how the war affected their wider families; moreover, a number of related servicemen who fought in the Great War have been bound into the tale.

Now re-adopted by the school community from whence it came, the war memorial has re-invigorated the local community and brought forward numerous descendants of the Old Boys, furnishing invaluable information, precious photographs and memorabilia.

The authors owe a debt of gratitude to the present school community and its enthusiastic head-teacher Jane Humphreys, staff and pupils – following the hard work of local historians and council officers, they gave the war memorial’s story an unexpected happy ending.

Pupils read the Elmore Green Roll of Honour at a Remembrance service on 11 November this year
Pupils read the Elmore Green Roll of Honour at a Remembrance service on 11 November this year

New Horizons Community Enterprise, which runs the Blakenall Village Centre and a number of local projects and activities, is proud to have sponsored the publishing of the new book, which adds an important chapter to the history of Bloxwich and its people.

Friday’s launch was hosted by the Chair of New Horizons, Tom Perrett MBE, presented by the authors and attended by descendants of the Elmore Green ‘old boys’ and other contributors, including Stuart Williams, Editor of The Bloxwich Telegraph, who wrote the Foreword and a special dedication to the late Elaine Box of Walsall Council, who was instrumental in returning the memorial to its rightful home.

Barry Crutchley chats to descendants of Elmore Green heroes at the launch
Barry Crutchley chats to descendants of Elmore Green heroes at the launch
Ken Wayman talks to Elmore Green Primary School head Jane Humphreys about the book
Ken Wayman talks to Elmore Green Primary School head Jane Humphreys about the book

The 458-page profusely illustrated softback book is published by Tommies Guides under the Reveille Press imprint with the ISBN: 978-1-908336-44-6, and is available to order via New Horizons at £18.99 plus postage.

For further information and to order Sorrow into Pride, please contact Terri Wall, Service Manager of Blakenall Village Centre  – email or telephone 01922 714900.

For more pictures taken at the book launch, check out our Flickr Album.

Reflections of Old Walsall launches on Thursday!

Stuart Williams with the new book Reflections of Old Walsall

Bloxwich Telegraph editor Stuart Williams’ latest book for Walsall Local History Centre has just been published and will be on sale from this week – with a special launch event taking place at Walsall Museum on Thursday 6th December (details below), and just in time for Christmas.

Reflections of Old Walsall  – subtitled ‘Local history in and around Walsall Metropolitan Borough’ – includes diverse subjects from local heroes like Walsall’s greatest aviator Flt Lt Webster to coalman’s son and Bletchley Park code-breaker Harry Hinsley via spooks and spectres, the remarkable Highgate Windmill, Aldridge’s Naval VC, Bentley’s ‘Giant’s Causeway’, one of Queen Victoria’s greatest diplomats – from Birchills(!), the time Sherlock Holmes came to Walsall, Walsall’s electric trams which were “better than Blackpool” and Bloxwich’s war poet Harold Parry – plus many more!

In fact if you thought the story of old Walsall was just about the leather industry and Sister Dora, then you’re in for a few surprises with this book.  Even the essential Sister Dora article takes a very different track to the usual story…

Reflections of Old Walsall Book Cover
Reflections of Old Walsall Book Cover – click to enlarge.

The illustrated A5 format softback book, 72pp plus 4pp cover, is a compilation of the original, uncut texts of twenty of Stuart’s Local Heritage articles which were written on behalf of Walsall Local History Centre for his monthly feature in the Walsall Chronicle newspaper – a series which has run since 2001 and which was renamed Memory Lane at the end of 2011.

As such, the newspaper-published and edited versions of the articles are not only long out of print but were somewhat shorter than those in the book.  The articles in the new book also have their original titles, which were often changed by the Chronicle’s editors!

Each article as published now comprises 3-4 pages with 3 or 4 period photographs, so the book is ideal for dipping into, especially as the subjects focus on numerous surprising, quirky and often forgotten aspects of the area’s history and its people from ancient times to the 1970s.

The new book costs £6.99, and you may be interested to know that Stuart’s previous book for the Centre Billy Meikle’s Window on Walsall is also still available for £5.

The individual titles of the articles in Reflections of Old Walsall are:

  • A Bridge By Any Other Name
  • Bentley’s ‘Giant’s Causeway’
  • Things that Go Bump in the Borough…
  • From the Earth to the Moon – Highgate Windmill
  • From Red Books to the Red Planet – W. H. Robinson
  • One Man and His Books (to say nothing of the dog)
  • Remembering Aldridge’s Naval VC
  • Sister Dora and the Steam Engine
  • The Battle of Walsall
  • When Sherlock Holmes came to Walsall
  • Better than Blackpool: Walsall’s Victorian Tramways
  • An Englishman’s Castle: Council housing in Walsall
  • From Dixon of Dock Green to Gene Hunt
  • Flaming brilliant: Walsall Fire Brigade
  • From Guild Hall to Civic Centre
  • Going to the ‘flicks’ in ‘Sixties Walsall
  • From Borneo Street to the Stars
  • The Hinsley Enigma – Decoded
  • From Birchills to Beijing – Sir Harry S. Parkes
  • Remembering Harold Parry – Bloxwich War Poet


‘Reflections of Old Walsall’ by Stuart Williams

Publisher: Walsall Local History Centre
ISBN: 978 1 907363 03 0

A5 format softback 72pp plus 4pp cover.
Retail price: £6.99.

BOOK LAUNCH AT WALSALL MUSEUM Thursday 6th December 2012

REFLECTIONS OF OLD WALSALL is being launched by Walsall Local History Centre with the kind assistance of Walsall Museum who are hosting the event in their Education Room on Thursday 6th December.

The launch will take place between 10am – 12 noon at Walsall Museum, 1st Floor, Central Library, Lichfield Street,  Walsall, WS1 1TR.  ADMISSION IS FREE.

The launch programme is as follows:

10am        Doors open.  Informal chance to speak to the author and view the book.

10.30am   Talk:  Reflections of Old Walsall.

11am         Book sales and signing.  Books cost £6.99.

11.30am    Videos and FREE refreshments.

12 noon  Close.


After the launch, Reflections of Old Walsall will be available from Waterstone’s bookstore in Park Street, Walsall Museum, Walsall Leather Museum and of course direct from Walsall Local History Centre in Essex Street, Walsall, which will also operate a mail order service – telephone 01922 721305 for details.

Archivist to reveal true story of Walsall Zeppelin Raid in public talk

L19 Zeppelin

Archivist Paul Ford is all set to reveal the secrets of the 1916 Walsall Zeppelin Raid in a public talk at Walsall Local History Centre on Monday 3 December.

In the talk, which starts at 7.30pm, Paul will use the original police, coroners, council and other records to try to piece together not only the series of events that night, but also to answer some important questions about the wider context of the raid.

On 31 January – 1 February 1916, the Black Country night was turned to flame when German airships attacked Walsall, Wednesbury, Bradley and Tipton. This totally unexpected Great War bombing raid caused ‘universal shock’ across Walsall – claiming several lives and badly damaging a number of properties.

It is said the lights of the town were blazing away and the trams were running, making Walsall a sitting duck; but in truth, no detailed official report of the night’s events actually survives.

Today, the raid is largely forgotten in the town, save for a shrapnel hole and blue plaque in Bradford Place and a bronze plaque in the Council House that commemorates Walsall’s most famous victim – Mary Julia Slater, Walsall’s Mayoress.

Nearly 100 years on, it is time to re-examine one of the most extraordinary episodes in Walsall’s history and to remember those that were affected by it. This talk aims to set the record straight and shed light on a dark chapter in the story of the town.

Tickets for the talk cost just £2 and booking is essential, telephone 01922 721305 to book.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE CENTRE’S ANSWERING MACHINE WILL BE ON ON MONDAY – so leave a message with your telephone number, asking staff to confirm your booking before making a journey.

Walsall Local History Centre is the archives service and local studies library for Walsall Metropolitan Borough, and is part of Walsall Council. For further information on the centre, telephone 01922 721305 or check out the centre’s website:

Devilish treat draws crowds to Walsall High Street

Walsall Civic Society Chairman Tony Kemshall (left) meets Mayor of Walsall Cllr Dennis Anson, Pioneer Magazine editor Gill Thomas and Mayoress Mrs Kate Anson.
Walsall Civic Society Chairman Tony Kemshall (left) meets Mayor of Walsall Cllr Dennis Anson, Pioneer Magazine editor Gill Thomas and Mayoress Mrs Kate Anson.

Shoppers, families and visitors to Walsall joined the Mayor of Walsall Cllr Dennis Anson (pictured, above) on Saturday in enjoying and applauding a traditional Black Country street theatre treat with a Walsall edge.

Walsall Civic Society’s second new “Mummer’s Play” The Alchemist and the Devil was penned by top local playwright David Calcutt and performed by a talented cast of local volunteers and project workers as part of the society’s Heritage Lottery-Funded Bayard’s Colts Project.

David Calcutt gets to grips with a reproduction Bayard's Colt.
David Calcutt gets to grips with a reproduction Bayard’s Colt.

The play, which was directed by Glen Buglass and performed in the open air on Walsall’s ancient High Street, offered both history and hilarity, music and mayhem – and delivered all this and more in spades!  From a mad French Alchemist (wizard), capering minions and a decidedly saucy comedy Sister Dora to scary spooks, a personal appearance from The Lord of the Flies and his inevitable defeat by the mighty Bayard and the Black Country spirit of Walsall, the quite literally all-singing and all-dancing show led by narrator ‘The Tat Man’ captivated and amazed hundreds on the High Street throughout the day.

Pot calling the kettle Black Country - the Froggy Alchemist gets some stick from Walsall folk
Pot calling the kettle Black Country – the Froggy Alchemist gets some stick from Walsall folk.
Saucy Sister Dora camps it up with a colleague...
Saucy Sister Dora camps it up with a colleague…

The original Bayard’s Colts, which are held by Walsall Museum in Lichfield Street, are a unique collection of seventeen clubs which used to be carried behind the Mayor in ceremonial processions at the openings of markets and fairs and on other civic occasions.

Bayard's Colts in Walsall Guild Hall, 1921 (Walsall Local History Centre).
Bayard’s Colts in Walsall Guild Hall, 1921 (Walsall Local History Centre).

At one time they were kept in the Guild Hall when it was the police court and the seat of local government, then later they were mounted on a wall at Walsall Magistrate’s Court for many decades, until recently, when the project was initiated by Walsall Civic Society working in partnership with Walsall Museum, Walsall Council and other partners.

Walsall’s colts, which are unique, are at least 300 years old but their exact age, origins and how they got their name are shrouded in mystery – though new research is now taking place and it is believed that there are links with Carolingian legends of the mighty horse Bayard and his Thousand Colts.

The latest in the series of four special Mummer’s Plays commissioned by Walsall Civic Society (the first was Robin Hood and The Giant, unveiled in August) was performed on Saturday at 11am, 1pm and 3pm.

The Mayor said in advance of the event:

“I watched another play earlier this year and it was a real crowd puller – the Walsall Civic Society is doing the project proud.

“We should seize the opportunity to celebrate Walsall’s heritage and history at every turn and the Bayard’s Colts certainly have an intriguing past.”

Tony Kemshall, project director added: “This vibrant and colourful street theatre not only brings something unique to the town but has also helped start the campaign to highlight the Walsall story Of the Bayard’s Colts.

“Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and key local partners the Bayard’s Colts are a strand of local history that we can all be very proud of.”

Devil may care - Beelzebub shows his ugly mush in Walsall High Street!
Devil may care – Beelzebub shows his ugly mush in Walsall High Street!


There is also a special indoor showcase event highlighting the project and including a live performance of The Alchemist and The Devil at The Peformance Hub at University of Wolverhampton Walsall campus, Gorway Road, Walsall, on Saturday 24 November.

Performances will be at 2.30pm and 7.30pm and the Mayor will attend the 2.30pm show.  Tickets cost £5 and proceeds go to help support the project.

To book tickets for the 24th November shows, follow this link for more information, telephone 07885 317491 or go direct to http://performance


The story of the Colts themselves, as far as is known, will be revealed in a special public talk at Walsall Museum on 4th December.  The talk will explore the theories about the possible origins and age of the Bayard’s Colts, as well as presenting what is known of their history from documentary and other sources.

It will be presented by Jennifer Thomson, Community History Curator at Walsall Museum, who has been undertaking research into their history.  People attending the talk will be able to view the original Colts for themselves and contribute their own ideas to the debate on their origins.

The talk, entitled ‘The Curious History of the Bayard’s Colts’, takes place on Tuesday 4th  December from 2-3pm.  It costs £1 per person to attend and advance booking is essential as places are limited. Please contact the Museum on 01922 653116 or email to reserve your place.


To see many more pictures of Saturday’s first performance of The Alchemist and The Devil, check out The Bloxwich Telegraph’s Flickr Album via this link.

New Walsall ‘Mummer’s Play’ to get first stage airing at Gorway

The Alchemist and the Devil poster.

The second installment in Walsall Civic Society’s exciting series of four brand-new ‘Mummer’s Plays’ for Walsall in a revival of English street theatre in the town is all set to take to the stage at the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall Campus on Gorway Road in a special indoor public presentation and performance later this month, following rehearsals at Bookmark Bloxwich Theatre.

Part of the Civic Society’s Heritage Lottery-funded Bayard’s Colts Project, ‘The Alchemist and The Devil’ is penned by top local playwright David Calcutt, and will offer the same heady mix of history and hilarity, music and mayhem as the first play, also by David, ‘Robin Hood and the Giant’, which was performed in the open air on Walsall’s historic High Street earlier this year, as the new play will be on 17th  November at 11am, 1pm and 3pm.

‘The Alchemist and The Devil’ will however be specially showcased on Saturday 24th November in the comfort of The Performance Hub theatre, on the University’s Gorway site (off the Broadway) in Gorway Road, Walsall, WS1 3BD.

There will be a matinee at 2.30pm and an evening performance at 7.30pm.

Each two-part event will consist of a multi-media presentation revealing the rich heritage of Walsall’s unique Bayard’s Colts and the development of the project followed by a live performance of the mummer’s play.

Tickets cost just £5 to help support the Bayard’s Colts project.

The ticket booking link for this very special event is:

Tony Kemshall, Chairman of Walsall Civic Society and Project Director of the Bayard’s Colts Project, said:

“If anyone is interested in talking about this remarkable project and possibly becoming a sponsor or supporter, they are very welcome to please call me on 07885 317491 or email to ”

A series of photographs was taken of ‘Robin Hood and the Giant’ by Stuart Williams, and may be viewed on Flickr via this link.

Fascinating fair to bring borough’s history alive in Walsall

Walsall MuseumA special event designed to bring local and family history alive in Walsall will be taking place at Walsall Museum on Saturday 13 October.

Walsall Local History Centre, the archives service and local studies library for the Walsall borough, has joined forces with the museum for the second year running to bring together displays and local and family history and heritage organisations from across the borough and beyond.

Walsall Local History Fair will take place at the Lichfield Street museum, above the Central Library, on 13 October, between 10.30am – 3.30pm. 

And as well as displays and the chance to talk to representatives of the centre, museum and other organisations throughout the day, there will also be special talks and other activities, including local historian and author Ian Bott who will speak on ‘Black Country Murders’ between 2pm – 3pm, Paul Ford, archivist at Walsall Local History Centre,  speaking on ‘An Edwardian Family Mystery’ at 11.00 am and 3.00pm and Tariq Khan from the Heritage Lottery Fund who will give an overview of heritage lottery funding from 11.30 am-12.15pm.

Admission to Walsall Local History Fair is free of charge and all are welcome!

Walsall Local History Centre is the archives service and local studies library for Walsall metropolitan borough and is part of Walsall Council. Parking is available on-site.

Walsall Local History Centre, Essex Street, Walsall, WS2 7AS.

From Birchills to Bletchley Park: Harry Hinsley

Birchills to Bletchley Park

The old Bloxidge Tallygraph website began as a primarily local history magazine, only later evolving an emphasis on community news.  With this, the first of a new series of local history articles, its successor The Bloxwich Telegraph returns to that focus.

And it seems timely, with the 100th birthday of Dr Alan Turing, mathematician and father of computing, so much in the news world-wide, to begin with the tale of one of Turing’s colleagues – a man from Birchills whose work also helped shorten World War II through his work at Bletchley Park, and who deserves to be better known, particularly in his home town.

Some Walsall people have changed world history.  One such was Francis ‘Harry’ Hinsley, born 26 November 1918, an ordinary working class lad whose analytical mind, talent and expertise were to help speed the winning of the Second World War.

A typical coal waggon of the early 1900s
A typical coal waggon of the early 1900s

Harry’s father, Thomas Harry Hinsley, was a waggoner, employed by the coal department at the Walsall Co-op.  His mother Emma Hinsley (nee Adey) was a school caretaker, and they lived in Birchills, then in the parish of Bloxwich, Walsall.

Reception class, Wolverhampton Rd School, c1920 (Walsall Local History Centre)
Reception class, Wolverhampton Rd School, c1920 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Young Harry was educated at Wolverhampton Road Board School and later at Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall, on a scholarship.  A bright, quiet and studious boy according to friends, his academic bent and hard work resulted in his winning a further scholarship in 1937, to study history at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

St John's College, Cambridge, late 1910s
St John’s College, Cambridge, late 1910s

Two years later, he was awarded a First in Part I of the Historical Tripos. Then, with Part II coming up and another First within his grasp, his life changed forever – and his historical studies were temporarily set aside.

Harry Hinsley
Harry Hinsley

One day, in the winter of 1939-40, Harry Hinsley was asked to see Martin Charlesworth, the Fellow of St John’s who, working with F. E. Adcock at King’s College, was running Cambridge recruiting for the Government Code and Cipher School.

Alastair Denniston
Alastair Denniston

Harry was subsequently summoned to an interview with Alastair Denniston, head of the GC&CS, and despite his slight, bespectacled aspect must have made a considerable impression.  Denniston immediately saw his potential and recruited him to serve in Bletchley Park’s Naval Section in Hut 4 (which is now a cafe as part of the Bletchley Park museum).

Bletchley Park today
Bletchley Park today
Hut 4, now a cafe, Bletchley Park
Hut 4, now a cafe, Bletchley Park

There, Hinsley studied the external characteristics of intercepted German messages, a process known as traffic analysis.  From call signs, frequencies, times of interception etc, he deduced detailed information about the structure of the German Navy’s communications networks, and their navy itself. His powers as an interpreter of decrypts were also unrivalled and were based on an ability to sense something unusual from the tiniest clues.

Harry was frequently in contact with Naval Intelligence.  But at first the Admiralty’s Operation Intelligence Centre paid little attention to the Bletchley codebreakers – a serious mistake.  At the beginning of April 1940, the OIC ignored Hinsley’s radio traffic report of an unusual build-up of German naval activity in the Baltic, and as a result Britain was caught unawares by the German occupation of Norway.

HMS Glorious shortly after conversion to aircraft carrier in March 1930
HMS Glorious shortly after conversion to aircraft carrier in March 1930

Two months later he reported that a number of German warships were about to break out of the Baltic. Again he was ignored, leading to the sinking of our aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.

His warnings were covered up, but after this more attention was paid to Bletchley Park, despite continuing suspicions of profession jealousy and obstruction from some naval intelligence officers.

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, 1940
Schlachtschiff Bismarck, 1940

Radio traffic from the Baltic in May 1940 indicated that the mighty German battleship Bismarck (one of the two largest ever built by German) was about to leave, and Bletchley Park’s insistence that the Bismarck was heading for a safe French port was once again ignored.

Hinsley would not let the matter lie, and repeatedly telephoned the OIC after Bismarck’s fateful engagement with HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, but it was not until 25 May that this conclusion was accepted.  Just minutes after his last call, Hut 6 deciphered a message from the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff who was concerned for a relative on the Bismarck.

The response from this revealed that the ship was heading for Brest, France and with this information the Royal Navy closed in and sank the Bismarck on 26 May.

German Enigma machine in use on a Nazi U-boat
German Enigma machine in use on a Nazi U-boat

Many German military radio transmissions were encoded using the famous ‘Enigma’ machines, electro-mechanical devices combining a keyboard system and ‘key’ wheels with codebooks, making it extremely difficult to break.

But it was Harry Hinsley who, at the end of April 1941, identified the Enigma system’s fatal flaw.  The same codebooks used on German U-Boats were also aboard their unprotected trawlers. These trawlers, transmitting weather reports to the Germans, also received naval Enigma messages. Hinsley helped initiate a programme of seizing Enigma machines and keys from German weather ships, significantly aiding Bletchley Park’s breaking of German Naval Enigma.

Harry Hinsley (left), Sir Edward Travis and Brigadier Titman in Washington DC, USA, November 1945 (National Archives)
Harry Hinsley (left), Sir Edward Travis and Brigadier Titman in Washington DC, USA, November 1945 (National Archives)

Towards the end of the war, Hinsley, then a key aide to Bletchley Park chief Edward Travis, was part of a committee arguing for a single post-war intelligence agency combining both signals and human intelligence. Eventually, though, the opposite happened, with GC&CS becoming GCHQ, still in operation today.

In 1946 Harry married Hilary Brett-Smith, whom he had met at Bletchley Park and in whose company he returned to St John’s College Cambridge where he had been elected a Fellow two years before.  That same year he was awarded the OBE.

Harry Hinsley at his desk in Cambridge
Harry Hinsley at his desk in Cambridge

Dapper and small of stature, Harry Hinsley often had his leg pulled for the distinctiveness of his pronunciation (the Walsall accent, a variant on Black Country dialect, is famous in some quarters!) but proved an exceptional teacher, and in 1969 he was appointed professor of the history of international relations.

Hinsley edited the official history of British Intelligence in WWII, and argued that Enigma decryption had speeded Allied victory by one to four years.  President of St. John’s College 1975-79, and from 1981 Master, from that year to 1983 he became Vice-Chancellor of the University.  He was knighted in 1985, when his wife also became Lady Hinsley as a result.

Harry Hinsley late in life
Harry Hinsley late in life

Sir Francis Harry Hinsley OBE died at Cambridge on 16 February 1998. His was one of the most remarkable minds to come out of the borough of Walsall – and change the world. Not bad for a coalman’s son from Birchills.

Stuart Williams

Further research on Harry Hinsley is ongoing and this article will be extended in future. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, why not support the wonderful museum at Bletchley Park with a visit, as well as the National Museum of Computing there?