Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Bletchley Park special by guest author Alison Weatherby

Secrets. 

We all have them. Some are small – when you’ve eaten your little brother or sister’s sweets or bought a surprise for your mum’s upcoming birthday. Others are so big they involve tons of people and sit at the back of your mind always. When I was young, I blurted out my sister’s birthday gift casually, a coveted doll my mother had driven miles away to buy. I’ve always been lousy at secrets, especially when they’re juicy. Thankfully, most people know that and don’t ask me to keep them for very long.

But what if you had to keep a secret for decades, one that was so big, it involved secret codes and massive machines, life-saving decryptions and even spies? Could you do it? 

Bletchley Park

That was one of the first questions I had when I visited Bletchley Park, Britain’s headquarters for codebreaking during WW2. Workers from the Government Code and Cipher School moved to Bletchley before the war started with the primary goal of assembling a team to break the cipher the Germans were using to keep their radio communications secret. This cipher, called Enigma, had many variations and was considered “unbreakable.” Bletchley recruited some of the top minds -- including linguists and mathematicians, chess champions and historians, students from Oxford and Cambridge – to help break Enigma. But before any person could start work at Bletchley, they had to sign something called the Official Secrets Act.

The Official Secrets Act stated, essentially, that no one could tell anyone anything about what they did at Bletchley. This meant workers couldn’t tell their parents what they did all day, or chat with their co-workers about what they were doing over lunch in the canteen. And because no one knew what other people at Bletchley did, they never knew if their decrypts were successful or what part their work played in the war effort. Very few photographs were taken and, when Bletchley closed its doors after the war, buildings were left to ruin and records were destroyed. People still had to keep their lips sealed for decades after. In spite of this, the workers at Bletchley helped immensely with the war effort. It’s said that their efforts shortened WW2 by at least two years. 


 Decoded messages

But in spite of this great secret, the employees at Bletchley worked hard. Whether it was trying to figure out clues to the encoded messages, operating the loud, hot machines that helped decode messages, or archiving information to for future messages. Thankfully, the workers at Bletchley also had time off, where they were able to relax. They certainly had a lot of fun – putting on plays, cycling through the countryside, taking the train into London – because they needed the relief from their high-pressure jobs.

When I set out to write The Secrets Act (and yes, the title is inspired by the Official Secrets Act), I knew I wanted the book to focus on two things – friendship and secrets. I was fascinated by the idea of two friends working together, yet not able to tell each other anything about what they did or saw or heard. Most of the workers were women – 75% of wartime employees were young women – and they worked long hours, around the clock. And because Bletchley grew so quickly, the hastily constructed huts where they worked were draughty, cold, and damp, with heaters that often smelled or spat out smoke. I couldn’t imagine working in such a place and being alone and away from home for the first time, as it was for many of the girls. 


The radio used in the wireless listening stations.

I realized rather quickly, though, that if everyone obeyed the Official Secrets Act and kept mum about what they did, my story would be rather boring. That’s why I based my character, Pearl, on a real worker at Bletchley, the youngest employee at the Park. Pearl was based on a 14-year-old messenger who took memos and communications from office to office, hut to hut. And while I’m sure the real messenger at Bletchley didn’t spill any secrets, I knew Pearl would not be so careful. I needed her to hear and see things, to be unable to resist the eavesdropping so that she knew the bigger picture of what was happening at Bletchley. Ellen took shape from a few accounts of girls who had been recruited to the Park because of their academic achievements. 

 

The lake at Bletchley Park

Many girls were interviewed or given puzzles and quizzes before being asked to join the war effort, then sent to Bletchley with no idea what they’d be doing or what Bletchley was. Though I couldn’t imagine getting on a train to some unknown destination, girls like Ellen were excited by the opportunity to help their country through employment that was previously reserved for men.

But as I put all these characters together against the fascinating backdrop of Bletchley Park, I wondered, what secrets would I keep? What would you do if ordered to keep your entire life a secret? Would you tell? Even one person?


Alison grew up all over the USA as a child, moving to five different states before she was 13. Now she lives south of Dublin with her husband, two daughters and very naughty dog. Alison has worked in computers and technology her entire life, but has always loved writing stories for children, mostly because her favorite books are those she remembers from her childhood.

 

After being discovered in Chicken House’s Open Coop competition in 2020, The Secrets Act was published by Chicken House in January 2022. A historical mystery for teens, The Secrets Act follows two friends and workers at Bletchley Park during WW2, whose lives are turned upside down after a tragic incident that uncovers many dangerous secrets.

Instagram @alisonweatherbyauthor

twitter @aliwea

Find out more about Bletchley Park at https://bletchleypark.org.uk/

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Titanic anniversary special by author Lindsay Littleton

This month is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, so it seems like a good time to focus on the disaster and in particular, on what happened to some of the children who were on board the doomed ship. 

 


Titanic

The main characters in my historical novel, The Titanic Detective Agency, were both real-life passengers aboard the doomed ship. 12-year-old Bertha Watt was travelling in 2nd Class with her mother and 14-year-old Johan Cervin Svensson was voyaging alone in 3rd Class. Researching Bertha and Johan’s experiences on Titanic was fascinating, but there were so many incredible stories to tell, and I couldn’t fit them all in the book!

Here’s what happened to four young Titanic survivors.

One of the 3rd Class passengers who survived on that terrible night was Jamilah Niqula Yarid, aged 14. She and her younger brother Ilyas had to use their own initiative and courage to survive the disaster.

 

Jamilah Niqula Yarid

Jamilah and Ilyas had boarded the ship at Cherbourg. Their father wasn’t allowed to travel as he had an eye infection, so the children were unaccompanied by an adult. On the night of the disaster, the two children were struggling to find a way to access the lifeboats and bravely decided to climb an external iron ladder all the way from the lower decks to the Boat Deck.

Ilyas Niqula Yarid

By the time the children completed their terrifying ascent, most of the lifeboats had gone, but thankfully, they were grabbed by a gentleman on deck, reputedly John Jacob Astor, and thrown into Collapsible Lifeboat C  (both Bruce Ismay and Billy Carter’s father were in this lifeboat). Once they reached New York on board RMS Carpathia, Ilyas and Jamilah were looked after by their older brother Isaac until their father was able to travel to the USA.

Billy Carter

Another child survivor, William Thornton Carter, was travelling in very different circumstances but had his own challenges on the night of the disaster. Billy, aged 11, was a 1st  Class passenger aboard Titanic and was travelling in the height of luxury with his parents, older sister Lucile, three servants and his dog, an Airedale terrier.

On the night of the sinking, the boy was devastated when he was informed he’d have to leave his dog behind, and never got over the loss of his beloved pet. Then, while Billy and his mother were waiting to get into a lifeboat, a steward announced “No more boys!” Immediately, Billy’s mother took off her large hat and placed it on her son’s head. After the disaster, Billy’s mother filed for divorce, claiming unfairly that her husband had got on a lifeboat before ensuring his family was safe.

 

Ruth Becker

While Billy’s mother was determined to save her son during Titanic’s sinking, Ruth Becker’s mother was a little careless with her daughter’s safety! Ruth, whose father worked as a missionary in India, was travelling in 2nd Class with her mother and two younger siblings, Marion and Richard. While the family waited on deck for a lifeboat, Ruth’s mother Nellie became worried when she saw that the younger two children were shivering in the cold.  She told Ruth to go back down to their cabin and get some blankets. While Ruth was doing as she was told, an officer on deck noticed little Marion and Richard and threw them into a lifeboat. Nellie got into the lifeboat with the children and it was beginning its descent down the side of the ship when Ruth arrived back on deck with the blankets. Luckily, Ruth was able to get on to another lifeboat and was reunited with her mother and siblings on RMS Carpathia.

 

Albion House, Liverpool - when news of the disaster reached the offices of the White Star building, officials were too afraid to leave the building and instead they read the names of the
dead from the balcony

Of course, tragically, not all the children on Titanic survived the disaster. On the night of the sinking, being  a 3rd Class passenger was a real disadvantage. The 3rd Class cabins were situated on the lower decks and all the lifeboats were on the upper decks, closer to the 1st and 2nd  Class cabins. Also, there were gates on the ship designed to separate areas meant for different classes, and while the evidence is unclear, it’s possible that some of these gates stayed closed during the sinking. Many of the 3rd Class passengers didn’t speak English, but no efforts were made by the White Star Line to ensure that all their passengers knew what to do in the event of an emergency: there were no written instructions in other languages and no lifeboat drills. On that terrible night, events were so chaotic it must have been almost impossible for 3rd Class passengers to work out what they should do and where they should go - I expect many hoped that the lifeboats, several of which were lowered half-empty, would stop at the lower decks to enable 3rd Class passengers to board, but that didn’t happen. 

Altogether, there were 128 children aged 14 and under aboard RMS Titanic, including two young members of crew, plate steward Frederic Hopkins and bellboy William Watson, both of whom died in the disaster. 59 child passengers died, and almost all of those children were travelling in 3rd Class.

Thankfully, changes were made to maritime law after RMS Titanic’s sinking to prevent a similar tragedy ever happening again. Both the British and American Boards of Inquiry ruled that ships should carry sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board, that lifeboat drills should be mandatory and that 24-hour radio contact must be maintained.

The Titanic memorial in honour of all the heroes of the marine engine room, Liverpool

Writing challenge

Imagine you are one of the four child survivors whose Titanic experiences are described in this blog. Write a short account, from their point of view, of what happened to them on the night of the sinking.

I was fast asleep in the cabin when ….


Lindsay Littleson is a qualified primary teacher and lives in the village of Uplawmoor, near Glasgow.

In 2014 she began writing for children and won the Kelpies Prize for her first children’s novel The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean. The sequel, The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean, was published by Floris Books in 2017 and Guardians of the Wild Unicorns came out two years later. 

Guardians of the Wild Unicorns was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for both the Stockton Children’s Book Prize and East Sussex Children’s Book Prize.

Her latest novel with Floris Books, Secrets of the Last Merfolk, came out in 2021. 

 

Littleson has also written two historical books for children, A Pattern of Secrets, set in Victorian Paisley, and The Titanic Detective Agency, both published by Cranachan Books. Her latest novel with Cranachan, The Rewilders, was published in March 2022. 

Website: https://lindsaylittleson.co.uk/

Publisher : https://www.cranachanpublishing.co.uk/product/the-titanic-detective-agency/

Bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/the-titanic-detective-agency/9781911279440?aid=2496

twitter: @ljlittleson 

Instagram: @lindsaylittleson

 

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