Professor William Thomas “Bill” Tutte F.R.S. (1917-2002)
This article brings us into the 20th Century and is our tribute to a man born in Newmarket but, unlike many of our Past Personalities, had little interest in horseracing. He proved to be a man for his time and by the age of 24 found himself in a position where he would have a profound influence on the outcome of World War II.
William Thomas (Bill) Tutte (14 May 1917 – 2 May 2002 was born at Fitzroy House Stables, Black Bear Lane, Newmarket, where his father William John Tutte worked as a gardener and his mother Annie (Newell) as a caretaker/cook.
For a time, the family moved to Yorkshire but Newmarket drew them back and in 1922 father obtained a job at The Rutland Arms Hotel as a gardener. They moved into a cottage in the village of Cheveley, just three and a half miles away, and at the age of five the young Bill started at Cheveley Village School.
It was not long before his teachers realized that this was no ordinary pupil. He was good at sports but also had a thirst for knowledge and showed great interest in books, particularly the school’s Junior Encyclopaedia. The Cheveley School headmaster at the time was Mr ‘Chick’ Moore, who must also take credit for encouraging his young pupil.
At age 10 Bill took the Scholarship examination, his parents, however, thought him too young to leave the village school so he re-took the exam when he was 11 and again passed.
As Cheveley lies in Cambridgeshire he was offered a place at The Cambridge and County High School for Boys, Hills Road, Cambridge. Attendance at The County School normally involved a train journey from Newmarket to Cambridge, followed by a mile walk from Cambridge Station, but young Bill was fit and enjoyed cycling, so he would often pedal the 30 odd mile trip to school and back.
New bicycles were out of the reach of most ordinary village families in those days, so Bill probably received help from some generous source. He also benefited from the Raye’s Scholarship Trust; a local award set up in the early 20th century to help Cheveley scholarship winners with school fees.
With the stimulus and teaching facilities at his new school, Bill began to blossom and showed particular interest in chemistry and mathematics. He demonstrated an analytical brain and an ability to grasp complicated mathematical problems.
When it came to Bill taking the Schools Certificate Examination in 1932, he was awarded top place for his year. His headmaster, Arthur Brinley Mayne, recognized that he was an exceptional student, and it seems highly likely that Mr Mayne, who in the 1930s had books on mathematics published, had an influence on Bill’s future career.
By age 18 Bill was awarded a place at Trinity College Cambridge, where he was able to further develop his remarkable intellect in fellowship with other brilliant undergraduates.
By the time Britain declared war with Germany in September 1939 Bill had been at college for 4 years, had obtained a first-class honours degree in chemistry and was rubbing shoulders with some of the brightest brains in the country. He came to the notice of the influential scientists and interpreters at Bletchley Park, which had been set up as a code-breaking establishment before the war.
In 1941 he was first interviewed by Alan Turing, who was later to be famed for his work in breaking the German Enigma secret code, a devilishly complicated system that the Germans thought totally secure.
It was vital to the Allies that they could read the German High Command messages which had to be sent by radio to their remote military units and U-boats.
Hitler ordered that the Enigma code must be made even more complicated, and this was done by introducing a machine designed by the German Lorenz company, known at Bletchley as ‘Tunny’, which effectively sent a message scrambled into billions of possible combinations that could be duplicated at the receiving end and unscrambled to return the message to plain text.
Much has been written and seen on TV about the highly secret work at Bletchley Park which made an outstanding contribution to the outcome of World War II. Most of this can be looked up on the Internet, where William Tutte’s lifetime achievements can also be researched.
It is not within the compass of this website article to attempt to rewrite all this information but suffice to say Bill’s potential was recognised by another Bletchley visionary, John Tiltman, the head of the research department. In 1941 he brought Bill into his department in an attempt to unravel the stream of coded messages that were being picked up by our radio listening stations.
To tackle what must have seemed a totally impossible task Bill employed a combination of great mathematical brilliance and intuition, together with months of hard mental application, plus he had some luck. It is well documented that the breakthrough happened when a German operator had to repeat the sending of a long message, but in doing so made two vital errors. He failed to reset ‘the rotors’ (multiple setting wheels on the Lorenz machine) and he introduced some small-time saving changes to the second message.
Bill was able to exploit this weakness with the help of what is generally recognized as the world’s first programmable computing machine (Colossus), developed for Bletchley by a team of Post Office Engineers led by Tommy Flowers. Incredibly Bill was able to duplicate the settings on the wheels of Lorenz, a machine that he had never even seen, this enabled the British to access Hitler’s most secret communications to his army commanders in the field.
It was, of course, vital that the Germans did not realize that their ‘unbreakable’ code had been exposed, and all employees at Bletchley were sworn to absolute secrecy.
So great was the contribution made by Bill that General Eisenhower is quoted as saying that it shortened the war by two years. Bill’s work has also been described as “One of the greatest intellectual feats of World War II”. One can only speculate on the many thousands of lives saved as a result of his work.
When the war ended Bill returned to research work at Trinity College where he studied for a doctorate in mathematics and in 1948 he was invited to take up a professorship at the University of Toronto. After another four years he moved to the young University of Waterloo Ontario and settled into academia in Canada for the rest of his working career.
For many years after the war ended those who had participated in the work at Bletchley were not allowed to discuss it and was not until late in his life, after he retired in 1984 having reached high academic status and recognition in Canada, that Bill was at last able to talk of his achievements. Even then modesty prevented him from seeking personal fame.
With the increased ease of air travel in the 1970s Bill and his Canadian wife Dorothea had been able to make a number of visits to his hometown of Newmarket, particularly at Christmas, where they would stay with his family. It would seem that Bill was still a simple country and family loving man at heart.
After his wife Dorothea died in 1994 he returned to Newmarket in 1996 to spend four years with his family, where he was a familiar sight around the town and on his long walks, especially along the Devil’s Ditch which he loved. In the year 2000 his academic contacts drew him back to Canada, where he died in 2002.
Jeanne Youlden, Bill’s niece, is a Newmarket lady with many personal memories of this unassuming man; he lived with her and her family for four years towards the end of his life. She remembers him as a quiet, rather shy person who had an almost childlike interest in simple pleasures and a quirky sense of humour.
H e would be laughing and joking at the table but would suddenly look at his watch, turn off and go back to his books, as though his brain needed to grapple with obscure problems.
They knew that he had worked at Bletchley and was an emeritus Professor with doctorates in chemistry and mathematics, also that he was recognized internationally for his academic work, but the family were not aware of the vitally important contribution he had made to the war effort, as he never talked about it to them.
November 2011. A tribute by James Youlden,
Jeanne’s son and Bill’s great nephew.
“Uncle Bill was and always will be the best Uncle ever to me, Bill and Dorothy would come and stay with us in the summer and over Christmas for several weeks most years, Bill was great fun he was always getting down on the floor and playing with our toys with us when we were little, and spent time to listen and taking interest in us all through our growing years, he was always fit and active right up until his final year, when he came to live in Newmarket in the late 1990s he would often walk from my Mum’s in town to visit Nadine and Me for tea in our then home of Snailwell.
To me he was always a great man, we knew he was a well-respected professor and he lectured and tutored all around the world, he became a fellow of the Royal Society (in both Britain and Canada), signing his name into history alongside the likes of Isaac Newton and finished his career as professor emeritus. He was also awarded the Order of Canada. It’s wonderful that he is finally gaining some recognition here. We did start to hear of his war work near the end of his life, and he even began to do lectures mentioning his work at Bletchley, as he said, “it’s no secret anymore, everyone else is talking about their part”.
It has not been until the relatively recent declassification of material relating to Bletchley’s activities that the full importance of their work has come to light. It is now understood that Churchill kept secret the British ability to decode Enigma and Lorenz even from the allies. He then let it be known that he had had Colossus dismantled at the end of the war but only one of two machines was dismantled.
During the Cold War the Russians also used Lorenz as they still thought it was an unbreakable code. In fact, British Intelligence was monitoring them constantly using Colossus. Thus, Tutte’s work was still not made public, but he was still serving his country all those years on!
April 2012 update: Following a campaign in The Newmarket Journal for more recognition of his work. Prime Minister David Cameron has written to Professor Tutte’s closest living relative, his niece, Jeanne Youlden, who lives in Newmarket, expressing his “personal thanks and the United Kingdom’s gratitude” for her uncle’s work.
Town councillors, members of the public and Mr Tutte’s family formed The Bill Tutte Memorial Working Group, following a campaign to honour one of Newmarket’s greatest sons.
On 10th September 2014 the Bill Tutte Memorial was officially unveiled on Rutland Hill. It is an unique sculpture consisting of six vertical pierced panels representing the complex codes that Tutte was instrumental in cracking. The clever part is that when a viewer stands in a certain position facing the sculpture an image of Bill Tutte appears. Richard Fletcher, the group’s secretary, said: “We wanted it to tell a story and to raise awareness of his achievements, so people ask about him when they see it.”
You may like to read more, via this website Bill Tutte Memorial.
- Michael Symons – Cheveley Net website (pictures of old Cheveley) www.cheveley.net where you can find pictures of Bill Tutte’s early life and family and a tribute to his academic achievements written by Dan Younger, University of Waterloo, Ontario Canada.
- Jeanne and James Youlden
- Sources from the Internet
- The Newmarket Journal, which is running a campaign to get Bill Tutte local recognition
- Ruth Bourne, ‘Bombe’ operator at Bletchley during the war and present-day guide.