An enigmatic affair

Great British genius Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code, but was criminalised as a homosexual. So just who was the woman at the centre of a new film about his life?
The story of Alan Turing is as tragic as it is remarkable. He was one of our greatest mathematical minds, played a key role in breaking the German Enigma code during the Second World War and laid the foundations for the computer age. In 1952, however, he was criminalised as a homosexual and subjected to a draconian chemical castration. Two years later, aged just 41, he killed himself by eating a cyanide-tainted apple.

In 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially described Turing’s treatment and conviction for homosexuality as ‘appalling’ and a bill has now been introduced to grant him a pardon. Many would argue, however, that amends are being made pitifully late.

Either way, this 20th-century genius is the subject of a new film. Scheduled for release next year, The Imitation Game will reportedly star Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, who was a central figure at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking headquarters, and Keira Knightley as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke, to whom he was briefl y engaged.

So who was Joan Clarke? And what was the truth behind their relationship? The Imitation Game is based on a biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges, a Tutorial Fellow in maths at Oxford University. And his book gives a fascinating insight into this lady codebreaker.
Alan-Turing-02-382Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke
Joan, a clergyman’s daughter, arrived at Bletchley Park as a new recruit in June 1940. At the time, the vast majority of employees at Bletchley were women, but most were employed in administrative and secretarial roles. Indeed, despite her academic stature, Joan, like many women, was given the rather modest rank of ‘linguist’. Her talents, however, were never in doubt and soon she was working on cracking the Nazi’s infamous Naval Enigma code.

She doesn’t appear to have been quite as glamorous as Keira Knightley, however. In fact, Hodges himself was recently quoted in The Sunday Times as saying, ‘I’m not being rude about her, but Joan Clarke was no glamourpuss.’ In fact, colleagues saw her as more of a ‘country vicar’s daughter’ or ‘bluestocking’.

Nevertheless, Turing, who went to an all boys’ boarding school, had had only limited contact with women before this point, and working alongside Joan must have been something of a novelty for him. By early 1941, they had struck up a friendship – and, before long, they were engaged.

Turing, however, clearly had his doubts. ‘One thing that Alan never questioned was the form of the marriage relationship, with the wife as housekeeper,’ Hodges writes in his critically acclaimed book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. ‘But in other ways he took a modern view, and above all was honest to a fault. So he told her a few days later that they should not count on it working out, because he had “homosexual tendencies”.’

It was a brave admission – homosexuality was a crime until 1967 – but Joan clearly respected it and instead of breaking up, Turing bought her a ring. He also confi ded that he enjoyed speaking to her as ‘to a man’, even that they should start a family. They knitted together, played chess, and worked on mathematical problems. For a while at least, ‘he was free to be himself’, writes Hodges.

Later that year, however, after a week-long holiday in Wales, Alan Turing fi nally decided they should go their separate ways, and broke up with her with a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad Of Reading Gaol: ‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves…’

But Joan understood, and while there was an initial awkwardness at work, life – and their friendship – went on. When he was sent to the US in 1942, he joked to her, ‘The first thing I shall do is buy a Hershey bar’ – and on his return, he gave her a fountain pen as a gift.

Indeed, when he was charged in 1952 with ‘Gross indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885’, he wrote to her to explain, admitting he ‘did occasionally practice [homosexuality]’.

Joan Clarke received an MBE for her codebreaking work in 1947 and continued to work at Government Communications HQ in Eastcote, where she met Lieutenant-Colonel Jock Murray, whom she married. She died in 1996, with the full extent of her wartime work cloaked in secrecy.

Her relationship with Alan Turing, however, is about to make the big screen – and who knows what she would have had to say about that…

Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges (Vintage, £10.99).

Andrew Hodges maintains the Alan Turing website:


◆ Born on 23 June 1912 in London to Indiabased civil-servant parents.
◆ Attended Sherborne School (1926-31), where he showed remarkable aptitude for the sciences. He achieved ­ rst-class honours in mathematics from King’s College, Cambridge.
◆ Worked with the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park, breaking codes, and created the Turing- Welchman Bombe to decipher German Enigma machine-encrypted secret messages during the Second World War.
◆ In 1945 he created the original design of a stored programme computer in London: the Automatic Computing Engine.
◆ Prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, then a criminal o’ ence, and underwent chemical castration, where he was given oestrogen as an alternative to imprisonment.
◆ Committed suicide on 7 June 1954 aged 41, by eating a cyanide-laced apple.