A cuppa and the codebreakers

An Historian
5 min readAug 17, 2020
Bletchley Park Trust, https://bletchleypark.org.uk/news/secret-history-of-bletchley-parks-captain-ridleys-shooting-party-revealed-80-years-on

Among my friends, a common joke, when discussing slightly idiosyncratic research topics, is ‘teacups’. This was because, as a part of my Doctoral dissertation (and subsequent book), I spent a good deal of time researching crockery. My research was on the bureaucracy of Britain’s now famous cryptanalysis bureau, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) headquartered at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

What, you might reasonably ask, does crockery have to do with wartime Signals Intelligence? Well, the answer is nothing. But understanding crockery does have a very great deal to do with understanding bureaucracy. When GC&CS first started migrating from its London offices to Bletchley Park (BP) in September 1939 it sent a staff contingent of a little under 200 individuals. By the December of 1940 that figure had reached 600, by February 1942 over 1,500, and by December 1944 there were at least 8,000 employees working at BP.

These huge staff numbers were needed for all manner of work, from cryptanalysis and translation of intercepted messages, to processing the vast quantities of information accrued, to operating hundreds of cryptanalytical and cipher machines. Quite understandably, agency officials had realised that their workers needed to be both fed and watered. The provision of regular cups of tea was deemed essential to maintaining morale and failure to provide them was unthinkable.

This should come as no surprise, given the centrality of tea in British culture. As George Orwell wrote in 1946, ‘tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand’. He further added that Indian tea (as opposed to Chinese tea) had clear, beneficial qualities and that people ‘feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it’. Given its importance, tea was swiftly placed on the ration and remained restricted until 1952. In 1945, the tea ration was 2 oz a week.

The National Archives, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/3182090345

Meanwhile, government organisations and private businesses, if they wanted a happy, functional workforce, also supplied tea. This was all the more pressing in large organisations where essential work was conducted by a…

An Historian

UK based academic historian. Interested in modern Britain / the Second World War / Cold War / spies / history of comedy / gender history. Lecturer