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Child neglect, domestic abuse: How Bletchley Park saviour Dr Sue Black OBE survived and succeeded

Professor Sue Black didn’t have the easiest start in life. Starved and neglected as a child, at 24 she fled an abusive husband and stayed in a refuge with her three small children.

Back then, she never considered for even a fleeting moment that one day she would be a professor, let alone be the saviour of Bletchley Park, the codebreaking institute that halted WW2, saving 22 million lives.

Today, Sue is a professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University. She was awarded an OBE for “services to technology” in the 2016 Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.

1986 with her babies, Women’s Aid came to her rescue

Life with her new partner, Paul, four children and five grandchildren, is pretty damn good.

Sue’s mum died when she was 12 and life changed dramatically for her and her younger twin brother and sister when her father remarried a year later.

“We were severely neglected. There was never enough food to eat,” she recalls. “I had one bath a week after my three stepbrothers, brother and sister. I had to wash my clothes by hand in the garage because my stepmother refused, although she washed for the rest of the family. I was banned from using the washing machine.

“Even now, I can’t bear to wear even slightly damp clothes because I couldn’t dry the clothes in winter so had to wear them wet. I left home at 16 to live with a friend and I worked as a waitress in the evenings and went to school during the day. I was often doing my homework at 11.30pm. It was impossible. Even social services couldn’t help.”

So she left school and applied for a job helping refugees in London. Everyone in her family was a nurse so, at 18, she started training but hated it. “I was really shy and I hadn’t realised that nursing often involved chatting to people.”

She’d always been good at maths, so managed to land a job in accounts at RCA Records, she got promoted and had a great time. She married her boyfriend at 20, had a daughter at 21 and twin boys at 23. But her husband turned violent.

With Stephen Fry, a supporter of Bletchley Park in 2009

It was 6am when Sue’s now ex-husband woke her up to threaten her and their three children’s lives.

“There had been moments in the few months leading up to that where I’d thought to myself I needed to get out of that situation… He’d threatened my life before but he’d never threatened the children before and that was the thing that really triggered me in thinking I’ve got to leave.”

Sue didn’t have any family she could run to at that time so she packed a suitcase, and took her twin sons and their three-year-old sister across the road to a friend’s house. Women’s Aid organised a room in a refuge for her that night.

“We were there for six months and then got a council flat in Brixton and started life again. I had five O-Levels and hadn’t worked in some years because I’d been bringing up the kids.

“I knew I had to get back to work to earn some money, but I knew I’d be on minimum wage and wouldn’t earn enough to pay for childcare. Going back to work wasn’t an option, so I thought about going back into education…I hadn’t wanted to leave school at 16.”

Sue went to Southwark College in London and asked if she could do an A-Level in maths.

“I found a course luckily which was equivalent to two A-Levels in maths in one year, which was mainly working from home so that suited me. I did that for a year which meant I got into university to do a degree in Computing, because I was excited about technology.

“In 1993 during the final year of my degree, my project supervisor said to me ‘what do you think about doing a PhD?’ I said I’d love to, but what I didn’t tell him was I didn’t know what a PhD was!

“I went away and looked it up in the library, and thought: ‘actually yes, I would like to do a PhD’ because it was research and I’d enjoyed the research in my final year. I started a PhD in software engineering – it took me seven years instead of three, but I got there eventually.”

Towards the end of her PhD, Sue began attending networking events, an experience she found intimidating as she found “small talk” and chatting so challenging.

“At one conference I tried to start a conversation with two guys who were standing together, I went over and asked a question – they both looked at me, but completely ignored me.

“I stood there for 30 seconds thinking ‘what do I do now they’ve completely blanked me?’ Then I went off and sat in the loo and started crying. Now I wouldn’t care less, it’s their problem, but back then I wasn’t very confident and it was horrific.”

“It helped me realise if you’re in a majority, life is so much easier and that’s something I hadn’t realised before, and that’s affected the things I’ve done since.”

Her experiences at conferences made her believe she was “hopeless” at networking until she went to a women in science conference in Brussels in 1998.

“I went in thinking I was hopeless at conferences and that I couldn’t network – I went in, got a cup of tea, stood at a table and for the next two days I was non-stop chatting to people because those barriers weren’t there.

“It helped me realise if you’re in a majority, life is so much easier and that’s something I hadn’t realised before, and that’s affected the things I’ve done since.”

Sue came back from that conference and set up BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in tech. She is also the founder of #techmums, which helps women learn coding, app design, web design and how to set up their own businesses and get online.

In 1998 she led the campaign to save Bletchley Park, after attending a meeting at the museum, and later wrote a book about it. Saving Bletchley Park details the traditional media and then social media campaign she led to save the facility from 2008-2011, it has been an Amazon UK bestseller.

“I was fascinated when I visited Bletchley for the first time. They were rebuilding Alan Turing’s Bombe, a machine developed for decrypting messages sent by German Enigma

cipher machines during World War II. The machines were destroyed by Churchill and all the pieces were buried, so the information could not be divulged. I didn’t realise that 80 per cent of the 10,000 employees who worked at Bletchley were women.”

Sue learned that Bletchley Park had financial difficulties and was in danger of closing. “This facility had saved 22 million lives by shortening the war by two years. It had to be saved.”

So she rallied academics, actor Stephen Fry got behind the campaign and the BBC followed the story. It was a three-year campaign which ended when Bletchley Park received a Lottery grant of £4.1million to guarantee its future.

“Women in technology still account for only around 20 per cent, that situation hasn’t changed much which is why I’ve founded organisations to promote women in tech. One male colleague asked why I was “ghettoising women”. I was really shocked by that negativity.

“As a child I always wondered why I was discriminated against. We’re not all born with the same opportunities and not everyone is treated fairly.

“I somehow came through it all and I believe that adversity pushed me on to succeed. My brother wasn’t so lucky as he took his own life 10 years ago. I think the way he was treated as a boy had an effect. He couldn’t talk about the awful things that happened.

“I feel very fortunate to have come through it all and be in a position to help others myself.”

Read Sue’s book: Saving Bletchley Park: How #socialmedia Saved The Home of the WW11 Codebreakers.

Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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