An accountant and businessman who spent time at Bletchley Park

Eric McDowell obituary: Born June 7th, 1925 – Died August 10th, 2017

Eric McDowell: he joined the Bletchley Park establishment straight from school, and was part of the Japanese Emperor Codes cryptology department

Eric McDowell: he joined the Bletchley Park establishment straight from school, and was part of the Japanese Emperor Codes cryptology department


Eric McDowell, who has died at at the age of 92, was involved in many facets of life in Northern Ireland, both business and private. However, a significant part of his life only came to light in relatively recent times when his son Martin discovered documents and papers which revealed a well kept secret – Eric McDowell had been recruited into military intelligence as part of the Bletchley Park code-breaking team on leaving school in 1943.

McDowell’s school days at Royal Belfast Academical Institution had honed his maths and language skills, and these characteristics were of considerable interest to the intelligence corps at Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park, just outside London, was a top secret code-breaking establishment during second World War which is credited with breaking German and Japanese codes, and thus providing the Allies with information about enemy plans and actions.

Since its existence was revealed a few years ago, books, films and documentaries have been written and made showing the vital role played by Bletchley Park in contributing to the Allies’ success in the second World War. The 2014 film The Imitation Game dramatises the work of mathematician Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park in cracking the Enigma Code, which was used extensively in German signals traffic.

The Bletchley Park roll of honour shows that McDowell joined the Bletchley Park establishment straight from school, and was part of the Japanese Emperor Codes cryptology department. McDowell learned Japanese, but his vocabulary was of necessity militaristic.

Martin did ask his father if he was there when they broke the Enigma Code. McDowell’s response to this query was “no, but I was in a hut close by”.

Textile and linen

On his discharge McDowell was commended for his “exceptional service” and apart from his inclusion in the roll of honour his name is also included on one of the bricks in the memorial wall at Bletchley Park.

McDowell’s family had been involved in the textile and linen trade, and it was this background and his maths skills from his school days (if not his time at Bletchly Park) which pointed him in the direction of chartered accountancy after the war.

He enjoyed considerable success in his chosen profession, and merged his own firm with the original Deloitte & Co, which through subsequent mergers became PwC.

He was a past president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland. (He was president in 1974/1975).

He was chairman of the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board (IDB) in the 1980s, a time when inward investment was particularly difficult.

McDowell was awarded a CBE in 1982 for services to industry, and in particular for his work in IDB. He was subsequently knighted in 1990.

Amongst the many incidents of McDowell’s life was one where he travelled to Japan, and during the flight chatted to the man in the seat next to him. When he turned up at the IDB office he was visiting in Japan, he was stunned to discover that his travel companion was the vice-president of Hitachi, who had extended a personal invitation to McDowell to visit him at his home. McDowell was flabbergasted, the IDB was delighted.

McDowell was educated at Inchmarlo and Royal Belfast Academical Institution, with which he retained a governor and old boy association relationship for well over 50 years. He was also a member of the Queen’s University Senate, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.

Private lunch

Following his stepping down from his involvement in the IDB in the early 1990s, he was invited to a private lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip. The lunch involved six guests, and to McDowell’s delight sitting alongside the Queen was Cameron MacKintosh (producer of McDowell’s favourite musical Les Miserables). Another guest was former Beirut hostage John McCarthy. This eclectic event, which was a source of some pride to McDowell, afforded him some fascinating conversational opportunities.

In his private life he had a deep Christian faith, and was an elder in the Presbyterian churches he attended for almost 60 years. He was a former board member of the Trustees of the Presbyterian Church, treasurer of the Abbeyfield Society and chairman of Relate marriage guidance.

On a personal level he was respected for his integrity, his genuine interest in all people he met and their families. He worked at this, and his diaries contain much information on those same people.

He is survived by wife Helen of 63 years, three children and seven grandchildren, including Andrew Smyth one of last year’s stars of The Great British Bake Off.