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Professor R F Churchhouse

Bob Churchhouse joined the Atlas Computer laboratory in 1962 from GCHQ. He was the first Head of Programming and was in charge for most of the life of the Atlas I leaving in 1971 to take up a new Chair at the University of Cardiff. He had a wide interest in computing but his own specialism was Number Theory. Several of the Atlas Fellows shared that interest (Oliver Atkin, Jack Good and Fred Lunnon). Some Atlas staff moved with him to Cardiff including John Baldwin and Fred Lunnon.

Some of the papers that he produced while at the Laboratory were:

In 2002, he published Cods and Ciphers: Julius Caesar, the Enigma and the internet (Cambridge University Press).

Bob Churchhouse studied at Manchester University, being taught by both Max Newman and Alan Turing. After university, he worked at GCHQ working on ciphers. It was there that he discovered that most of his colleagues had served during World War II at Station X at Bletchley Park.

During the 1980s, teaching a course on data security to third year undergraduates at Cardiff, he was able to call in a favour from his old employers at GCHQ, and borrow an Enigma machine to show the students. The workings of the machine was sometimes set as an exam question although, perhaps considerately, Professor Churchhouse never asked his students to crack the code.

He died peacefully on 27th August 2018, aged 90, after a short illness.

Obituary for Robert Churchhouse, The Times, Monday, 15th October 2018

Mathematician who worked at GCHQ at the height of the Cold War and later lectured on the achievements of Bletchley Park

Bob Churchhouse had no idea, that day in May 1952, what job the Royal Naval Scientific Service was considering him for. His interviewers would not even tell him what it was the service did, yet they seemed very interested in his soon to be submitted PhD thesis in number theory. Having quizzed him, they consulted among themselves, asked him back into the room, and offered him the role of "scientific officer", a title that dispelled not a jot of his perplexity.

He had intended to join the Signal Corps, yet, when he mentioned this, he was told: "You'll do no such thing. This will count as your National Service and you must serve at least two years."

So what, Churchhouse asked, would the work actually involve? "We can't tell you that," the man replied. All they could say was that after receiving his PhD he should report to GCHQ at its temporary home in, Eastcote, west London, and be prepared to relocate to Cheltenham the next year.

Churchhouse duly did. On arrival he and three other recruits were shown into a room. The head of security then came in, locked the doors and windows, and said he could not speak another word until they had signed the Official Secrets Act. Everybody signed. He then began to talk of codes and ciphers; the necessity of protecting Britain's ciphers and of keeping an eye on those of other countries.

Like the rest of the public at the time, Churchhouse had never beard of GGHQ's code-cracking work at Bletchley Park. Indeed, it was in a manual of codes given to him then that Churchhouse first came across the Enigma machine, one state secret among the many that he would keep tight-lipped about during his time at GCHQ.

Robert Francis Churchhouse was born in 1927 in Collyhurst, one of the poorest parts of Manchester, to Robert, a window cleaner, and Agnes (neée Howard), who worked in a cotton mill. He attended Saint Clare's RC Primary School in Blackley and won a scholarship in 1939 to study at Saint Bede's College, where he excelled but showed little interest in maths. This changed in 1942 when, while ill at home, he completed a trigonometry textbook for fun.

Churchhouse won a scholarship to study mathematics at the University of Manchester, where he was taught by Max Newman and Alan Turing, both now famous for their work at Bletchley Park. Their stock answer to what they had been doing there was: "Nothing very interesting." Churchhouse then did a PbD in number theory at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.

It was during his years there that he re-established contact with Julia McCarthy, whom he had met at a school dance aged 17. They arranged to meet on the steps of the Central Library in Manchester during the Easter holiday of 1950. They were married four years later and had three sons: Gerard and John, who became IT executives; and Robert, an accountant.

While at Cambridge, Churchhouse was introduced to other people who had worked at Bletchley, which was a fitting prologue to his own 11 years at GCHQ. His academic ambitions later led him to join the fledgling Atlas Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire, in 1963, where he became the head of programming.

Two years later he was asked to serve on a committee, which was chaired by Brian Flowers, the physicist, and was responsible for the provision of computers to universities. He was also asked to serve on the follow-up Computer Board, which he chaired.

He was awarded a CBE for his services.

While he was on holiday in France in 1970, the principal of University College Cardiff called to ask if he would set up a department of computing mathematics. Churchhouse accepted and moved to Wales the next year. He set up a thriving department. As part of the senate, he oversaw the university's merger with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, which became Cardiff University. Churchhouse retired in 1996 and became an emeritus professor.

A lifelong Catholic, he helped to reorganise the Catholic secondary schools in Cardiff and served as a governor of St David's Sixth Form College for 15 years. He was recognised for his service with a papal knighthood.

His impact at GCHQ was not limited to signals intelligenoe. A cricket fan all his life, he once took four wickets - all bowled - in one over during an inter-divisional match.

He would also periodically sit on GCHQ promotion boards and it was on one of these occasions that he was loaned the Enigma and Hagelin cipher machines. Although he said little even to his family about his work in cryptography, he was eager to tell the world about the history of his trade. He gave more than 50 lectures on the Enigma machine and wrote a book, Codes and Ciphers: Julius Caesar, the Enigma, and the Internet, detailing their use from Roman times to the present.

Professor Robert Churchhouse

Professor Robert Churchhouse
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Professor Robert Churchhouse, CBE, mathematician, was born on December 30, 1927. He died of heart failure on August 27, 2018, aged 90