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Past issues
Spring 2021

Behind the Enigma - highlighting GCHQ’s impact on 1950s Cheltenham

Behind the Enigma - highlighting GCHQ’s impact on 1950s Cheltenham has echoes for the Golden Valley Development

If you’re interested in Cheltenham’s long and fruitful association with GCHQ you might want to take a look at “Behind the Enigma: the authorised history of GCHQ” by author John Ferris.

As well as being chock full of fascinating insights into the history of GCHQ, the book also sheds light on those first days when the service relocated to Cheltenham in the early 50s, and the impact that move had on the town.

One of the biggest and most profound impacts was on Cheltenham and the surrounding area’s jobs market. Back then, jobs in the local area pre-GCHQ were mostly rural and agricultural. To most people commutes, even short ones of just 20 minutes or so, were practically unheard of.

All that was to change when GCHQ took up residence in Oakley, Cheltenham and, while the hundreds of new jobs created by the move was welcomed, it did initially cause some disgruntlement among locals.

According to a passage in the book within the chapter ‘We want to be Cheltonians’: “To ease the move to Cheltenham the government subsidised the construction of council houses for members of GCHQ, which initially angered Cheltonians.”

It continues: “Attitudes soon changed. As often with British industry, GCHQ offered livelihoods to locals. Gloucestershire was already a centre of technology, in particular aircraft manufacture. GCHQ steered the local economy even further away from the rural and agricultural and strengthened the already high status of Cheltenham. GCHQ became a major employer; locals, often trained through apprenticeship programmes, provided much of GCHQ’s support staff.”

The book also sheds light on the gender attitudes of the day. For example, a GCHQ job ad in the “female vacancies” section of the Gloucestershire Echo at the time read: “Young women of good education to be trained in the operation of punched card, electronic and computing equipment for statistical purposes.”

To say the hiring process of the day was slightly less formal than today would be an understatement.

According to this section from the same chapter: “Local applicants for posts were tested en masse in the restaurant at the Oakley site on a Saturday afternoon. Boys, with parents alongside, faced positive vetting interviews in their family kitchens.”

In his book John Ferris continues: “Rural families debated solemnly whether children should take jobs at Cheltenham that involved a twenty-minute bus ride, each way. The location also aided the retention of higher staff with families, for whom movement would cause disruption. The saying went ‘if you stayed in Cheltenham for three years, GCHQ had you for life’.”

So, we can tell from these insights that the major effect GCHQ had on Cheltenham back in 1952 was to open up a whole new industry full of opportunities to a population which, until then, could mostly never have imagined a life in the Civil Service, let alone at the leading edge of intelligence and technology.

Today the Golden Valley Development is following in that proud tradition, creating the right environment for the establishment of Cyber Central, where young people will have greater than ever life opportunities for long and fulfilling careers in cyber and digital technology.

We’ll finish this blog with a 1950s excerpt from the Gloucestershire Echo, published in Behind the Enigma, which reads: “The coming of GCHQ may well mean Civil Service careers for a big proportion of young Cheltenham people, “for”, the Echo was told, “we do offer very interesting careers to children from the grammar schools and technical schools and colleges.”

Behind the Enigma: The authorised history of GCHQ by John Ferris is published by Bloomsbury.

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