We are thrilled Rhian Tracey’s mystery adventure set in Bletchley Park at the start of World War II, has just come out! In this very special guest blog, Rhian reveals her inspiration for the story, its characters, and the role of women and teenage girls in Bletchley…
I first visited Bletchley Park when my daughter was in primary school. I was intrigued by the place because we’d recently found out that my great-aunt, Audrey, had been there during the war, although we initially knew little about the role she had played because she’d been made to sign the Official Secrets Act, age 17. If one broke the Official Secrets Act, they faced imprisonment, a firing squad, or the noose. As a result, we only learned fragments about her time at Bletchley as she occasionally let slip a fascinating detail or a snippet of a story. Audrey applied to join the WRNS, partly because she liked the uniform, but she was snapped up by the Foreign Office instead and whisked off to Bletchley Park, or Station X as it was known. Audrey ended up playing a vital part in cracking Naval codes in Japanese. Not bad for a Welsh girl from the valleys!
I walked around Bletchley Park with a notebook in my hand and found myself drawn to each exhibit or set, staged to look as if the staff had simply left the room for a moment. I could easily imagine Forces staff marching about the place in their smart uniforms, discovering and sharing information, which would enable the allies to stay one step ahead of the enemy. And when I discovered that a handful of children had lived on site during the war, I knew I had the ingredients for brave characters living in the most exceptional circumstances, as well as the perfect setting for a story about secrecy and international espionage.
My characters, Robyn, Mary, and Ned are all fictional and came about as I walked around the site, noticing certain things. I saw rowing boats lined up by the landing stage and I imagined how much fun Bletchley must have been before all the adults descended. I pictured a young girl, (Robyn) the daughter of the chauffeur, enjoying the freedom the place must have offered and then imagined her reaction when her home and playground, was effectively taken over when the leader of M16 bought the estate and made it the Government Code and Cypher School. There’s a bike shed full of bicycles in various states of repair and in a glass cabinet, the uniform of messenger girls and dispatch riders and I found myself picturing a young evacuee (Mary) tearing about the place on her bike, delivering vital messages and mail, which of course, she was not to look at. And as I looked through articles about Bletchley and read local newspapers from the war, I saw an advert for an undertaker and discovered that they’d been recruited to build the huts and Ned popped into my head. I had a clear image of a boy skulking around a hearse, wishing he could be anywhere other than at Bletchley Park. And what if, these three children, the only children on the park, noticed each other and became friends? What kind of adventures might they get up to? And what secrets could they uncover in one of the most secret places in the world?
I decided to write the book in tribute to my great-aunt and the thousands of women and young girls who worked there during the war. I wanted to highlight the important role women played, and often it was a silent role because people simply didn’t ask; I knew in detail what both my grandfathers did during the war, but it took me a while to ask, what about my grandmothers, what did they do? What part did they play? Everything I discovered about Bletchley suggests that women (and girls, there were plenty of teenage bicycle messenger girls working there, much like the character of Mary) were given the chance, perhaps for the very first time, to be treated as equals. They were valued for their brains and codebreaking skills and dedication to break the German cypher systems Enigma and Lorenz, which shortened the war by two years.
During my research process, I listened to endless excellent Bletchley Park podcasts, interviews with veterans and I read and watched everything I could get my hands on. I uncovered many weird and wonderful facts about life during World War Two, that I’d never seen explored before, either in literature or film. And of course, all this research material can’t fit into just one book. There are many more mysteries waiting to be discovered in places like Bletchley Park, in fact, every single time I’ve been there, I’ve found out something new, or met a guide who has a unique story to tell. There is now a wealth of material about Bletchley and what went on there during the war, but there are so many stories still to be told. I can only begin to imagine what it must have felt like, back in the 1940s and after the war, never being able to tell anybody the part you played, because you’d been sworn to secrecy and signed the Official Secrets Act, never knowing that the information would be declassified in the mid-1970s. Luckily, I have a great imagination and was able to use Audrey’s experiences as the launch pad for I, SPY: A Bletchley Park Mystery.
I, SPY: A Bletchley Park Mystery by Rhian Tracey is out now, published by Piccadilly Press, suitable for 9-13 year olds, paperback is priced £7.99.