Margaret Sale - twenty-five years in the service of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park

  |  Published: Oct 18th 2016
Margaret Sale at the entrance to TNMOC's Colossus Gallery. Image courtesy TNMOC.
Margaret Sale at the entrance to TNMOC's Colossus Gallery. Image courtesy TNMOC.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Save Bletchley Park Campaign and The National Museum of Computing pays tribute to all those campaigners and specially to Margaret Sale, thought to be the only person still on the Park who has given 25 years of service to ensure that the memory of the Second World War codebreakers is never forgotten.

Margaret Sale, now a trustee of The National Museum of Computing, was an eager helper at that reunion of codebreakers on 19 October 1991.

“I remember that weekend very well,” said Margaret Sale. “About 200 veterans who had worked on Bletchley Park during the war turned up for a “farewell reunion” organised by the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society in conjunction with the Civil Aviation Authority, which still had offices on the Park. The Park was to be sold off for residential development by its owners, the Government and BT, but the reunion ended in a call for the site to be saved for the nation.”

Margaret had become involved because her late husband, Tony Sale, had been seconded from the Science Museum to the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society to help organise the reunion.

Margaret recalled, “That weekend in 1991 was a hugely memorable occasion, initially planned to capture and record memories, but ending with a call by those who attended to try to save the Bletchley Park estate for posterity. 

“In 1992, the Bletchley Park Trust was created and people like me were doing lots of fundraising and awareness-raising in the Milton Keynes area. Hardly anyone in the fast-growing new town knew about their heritage and we set about telling them about the gem in their midst – doing everything from putting leaflets on windscreens in car parks to organising period costume dances and hosting a concert by The Andrews Sisters!”

Quite by chance, the opening of Bletchley Park to the general public was on 5 February 1994, a date not then realised to be exactly fifty years after Colossus had attacked its first Lorenz message! Margaret was one of the first guides, along with John Pether, today still very active on the Park as a volunteer in The National Museum of Computing.

The first modest exhibition was staged in the old teleprinter hall. A message on the stage declared “Britain’s Best Kept Secret” in black cardboard characters. And in one small area two pieces of metal had been set up by Tony Sale to show the very beginning, the famous ‘Bedstead’ of the Colossus Rebuild.

"I don’t know when the idea of recreating Colossus came to Tony, but that must have been its first public outing,” said Margaret Sale. “I don’t think the potential significance of that little display could possibly have been imagined by anyone but Tony!”  

Tony Sale’s puzzling pieces of metal did indeed go onto become a world-famous symbol of Bletchley Park. The Colossus Rebuild began to work again on the site of an original Colossus in Block H, home of The National Museum of Computing. Working every day since, it continues to fascinate and inspire visitors, and has been hailed by a leading journalist as the “crown jewels of Bletchley Park”. 

Kevin Murrell, a TNMOC trustee and active on the Park since 1997, said, “Margaret Sale’s service to the Park has continued from 1991 uninterrupted to this day. Her service to Bletchley Park and the memory of the code-breakers is truly inestimable. Her husband Tony co-founded the The National Museum of Computing and, on his death in 2011, Margaret became a TNMOC trustee. She can be seen most days telling awe-inspired visitors about the incredible breaking of Lorenz.”

Irene Dixon, a veteran operator of the very first Colossus, told TNMOC: “No celebration of the Save Bletchley Park campaign would be complete without expressing gratitude for the dedication and invaluable role of Margaret Sale and her late dear husband Tony. As a Colossus veteran, I can only be grateful for their devotion to this cause. Without their work, Bletchley Park would not be recognised as the home of Colossus, nor would its vital war time achievement of breaking Lorenz messages be acknowledged. It provides educational opportunities and inspiration for all ages, at a time of growing artificial intelligence.” 

Betty O’Connell, another Colossus veteran, added: “Without the amazing achievements of Margaret and Tony, I think the vital contribution made by Colossus in hastening the end of the Second World War would have been largely ignored. They have played leading roles in revealing that secret story after decades of official secrecy.”

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