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Archive for March, 2018

How Westminster’s secret hackers helped bring America into the First World War.

A guest post by London Historians Member Mark Lubienski.

Old Admiralty from Horse Guards Parade

Have you ever walked along Whitehall, or across Horse Guards Parade, and glanced up at the Grade I listed Old Admiralty Building? Perhaps you’ve pondered the Empire-changing events that were planned in its dimly lit and smoke filled rooms? You may know that it was once the office of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, or you may even be an admirer of the Robert Adam screen that was added to the Whitehall entrance in 1788. But you probably don’t know that it was at the centre of a dramatic chain of events that triggered America’s entry into the First World War. Those events began with a secret telegram sent from Berlin to Mexico City via Stockholm and Washington DC.

By January 1917 the First World War was in its third winter and had seen bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, but it was also at a stalemate. Despite calls from politicians in Britain and at home, and in the face of attacks on America domestically and at sea, US President Woodrow Wilson had steadfastly maintained his country’s neutrality. The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-Boat, with a loss of 1,198 lives including 128 US citizens, almost drew America into the conflict. But Wilson remained neutral despite acts of espionage and sabotage by German agents on the US mainland that included blowing up munitions trains, firebombing factories, and stirring up Mexican aggression towards America. The pressure on Wilson was increasing, but what would it take to finally bring the United States into the war?

Blinker Hall standing_250

Reginald “Blinker” Hall.

Back in London, in a dusty corner of the Old Admiralty Building, the Royal Navy had set up the top secret Room 40; its own intercept and code-breaking outfit. Its name really did come from its room number, and it was located on the first floor a few doors along from Churchill’s office, overlooking a shady inner courtyard. The spymaster in charge of Room 40 was Capt. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall – he had a persistent and rather unnerving facial twitch – a man who was cunning, ruthless and rather fond of intrigue. Hall had built up a brilliant code-breaking team drawn from academia and through his own social connections, generally preferring recruits with backgrounds in modern and ancient languages. One of Hall’s first hires was Nigel de Grey, a Balloon Corps veteran fluent in German and French. Another was Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, an eccentric Cambridge classical scholar and hieroglyphologist. Knox soon had a bathtub installed in his office in the Old Admiralty Building, and he would spend hours lying in the hot water mulling over code-breaking problems, steadfastly refusing to allow anyone else to borrow it. His office cum bathroom was just around the corner from Room 40, and looked out over Whitehall from where you can still see its window today.

In the early hours of Wednesday 17th January 1917, prospects for the Allied powers changed dramatically. An intercepted telegram was handed to de Grey and Knox who had been manning the night watch in Room 40, and they quickly realized that it was in the newest and highest-level German diplomatic code called 7500. The telegram was tackled with the greatest urgency and within a few hours it had been partially decoded; it was from the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, and was destined for Mexico via Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador to the US. It was dynamite; an invitation to Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany were America to enter the war following Germany’s imminent resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Mexico, a country that made America both nervous and paranoid, would be rewarded with the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for attacking America with arms and resources to be provided by Germany. Today it sounds far-fetched, but in 1917 it was a genuine and serious proposal.

de Grey & Knox

de Grey and Knox.

De Grey immediately grasped the incendiary nature of the telegram’s content, and he ran as fast as he could to ‘Blinker’ Hall’s office with the partial decrypt, breathlessly exclaiming “Do you want to bring America into the war, Sir?” “Yes, my boy. Why?” exclaimed Hall. “I’ve got a telegram here that will bring them in if you give it to them.” Hall couldn’t remember a time when he had been so excited, but the telegram was only of importance if it could be used.

Persuaded of the telegram’s authenticity and understanding its explosive implications, Hall now had to tread carefully. If the contents of the telegram became public, the Germans would immediately realise that diplomatic code 7500 had been broken. Just as significantly, the Americans would realise that the British had been tapping into their diplomatic cables as the telegram had passed through a US diplomatic channel in Stockholm en route to Washington DC. Hall couldn’t allow either eventuality to happen and so he kept quiet, hoping that America would enter the war anyway. But America did not; so Hall, a master of deception and disinformation, acted cleverly and decisively.

Portrait

Hall realised that an amended version of the telegram in an older lower-level code, called 13040 and which Room 40 had previously broken, would need to be forwarded by von Bernsdorff in Washington DC to the German ambassador in Mexico City. If this version could somehow be obtained and made public, the Germans would assume that the cyber-theft had happened in Mexico. Hall contacted a British agent down in Mexico City who infiltrated the local telegraph office and had the telegram stolen. Hall now had what he needed, and it was the Mexican version that he handed to the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, who in turn presented it to the US Ambassador in London on 23rd February 1917. Just a day later, President Woodrow Wilson had the Zimmerman Telegram in his hands, exclaiming “Good Lord! Good Lord!”. When Wilson published the telegram a few days later, the American newspapers and public were appalled and called for action against Germany. Any remaining doubts about the authenticity of the telegram were removed in early March when Zimmerman himself admitted that the telegram was real, and it proved to be the catalyst that finally brought America into the First World War on 6th April 1917.

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And what became of our cryptographic heroes Nigel de Grey and ‘Dilly’ Knox? Both went on to play distinguished roles in Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, where today an exhibition remembering the work of Room 40 and the First World War code-breakers includes, as its central exhibit, a bathtub.

*****

Mark Lubienski is a Westminster Guide from the Class of 2014. He is also a co-founder of London War Walks and gives occasional talks on the secret world of intelligence and espionage.

 

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A guest post by London Historians member Roger Williams.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 08.50.45Regulars at The London Historians’ monthly meetups in the Hoop and Grapes will be familiar with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay. The beer is dispensed from the barrel, and the label on the pump handle describes it as a being from ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’. This name was first used to mark the acquisition in the late 18th century of a five-horse-power steam engine, which made the brewery one of the first outside London to join the Industrial Revolution. The engine was supplied by the Birmingham pioneering manufactory of Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose portraits are on the £50 note. This is the last note to be transformed into polymer, and there is even speculation that this note is so unused — or, perhaps, only used for drug dealing and money laundering — that it may disappear altogether.  It would be a shame if Boulton and Watt slipped back into history, for these are the men who drove the Industrial Revolution and brought Britain incredible wealth.

Their headquarters was the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, in a district named, like London’s West End quarter, after a hunting cry. But you don’t have to go that far to appreciate their work, and the first stop must be the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew, where one glance at the monster Boulton & Watt beam engine gives an immediate sense of what giants of industry these two men were.  Steam engines were designed initially by the likes of Newcomen and Trevithick to pump water from Cornish mines. By 1800 80 percent of the world’s coal was mined in Britain,  and today 75 per cent of electricity in use in Britain is provided by steam. Built in 1820, the year after Watt’s death, for the waterworks at Chelsea, this machine was moved to Kew in 1840. It is the oldest known working waterworks beam engine in the world, and it still gets fired up. Watching the leviathan 15-ton beam ease into graceful action is a vision of the hand-wrought world of man at its height.

WattWorkshop_500
James Watt’s workshop at his house in Handsworth, near Soho, was a popular place to visit during and even after his lifetime. In 1924, more than a century after his death, his house was due to be demolished so  the Science Museum organised the transplantation of the workshop to South Kensington.  It is still there, behind glass, a glorified shed, which has the oldest circular saw in the world, musical instruments and devices to copy sculpture, early 3D printing machines, which occupied Watt in the last years of his life.
The Science Museum’s Engine Hall also preserves Old Bess, one of the world’s oldest surviving beam engines, built in 1777 and used at the Soho manufactory. Buyers might be shown around Old Bess and could purchase the parts and assemble their machines for themselves in situ, with the help of a manual. David & Charles published a reprint some time ago, and it included the use of olive or ‘Spanish’ oil for lubrication. Soho engineers were sometimes sent out to help build or mend machines. It was this idea that gave me the idea to write Burning Barcelona, an historical novel based on solid fact, that imagined an engine erector installing the first steam engine in Spain for Josep Bonaplata’s textile mill in Barcelona, only for it to be attacked by the mob.

As a result of the novel, I gave a paper at Birmingham University in 2009 at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference*, which helped to bring the coin and ‘toy’ manufacturer (at his own expense he gave every man serving at Trafalgar a medal) into modern consciousness. I was subsequently invited to Westminster Abbey when a memorial to Boulton ‘Pioneer of the Industrial Revolution’ was installed in the floor of St Paul’s chapel.

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Boulton and Watt built the giant Albion flour mills by Blackfriars bridge, which spectacularly burnt down in 1791, five years after it was installed, The Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street near the Barbican, also had one of Watt’s first rotative steam engines, built in around the same year, which operated for more than a century. The brewery closed in 1976 and has become a Grade II listed venue with a James Watt Room, while the engine, transported to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is still going strong.

James Watt spent much of his life fighting copyright infringements. In London one of his biggest rivals was Henry Maudslay, who built the first beam engine for the Kew Bridge works in 1838. The company’s main erecting shop was in Lambeth where it ran a training school for a whole generation of engineers. Maudslay was a pioneer of machine tool technology, and he specialised in marine engines, providing the power for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched at Millwall in 1854.

If the £50 note does get issued in polymer form, perhaps Henry Maudslay could take the place of Boulton & Watt.
———————-

London Museum of Water & Steam, Kew, www.waterandsteam.org.uk

* Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World, paper from the Bicentenary Conference, can be seen on https://boultonwattpaper.blogspot.co.uk
Burning Barcelona on Amazon: https://goo.gl/5jQ2dR


London Historian member Roger Williams is a London-born journalist and former travel guide editor. His fiction is based on historical events that have caught his imagination (Burning Barcelona, Lunch With Elizabeth David, Hotel Bristol Stories). A tourist at home, he is constantly drawn to the Thames, and his books on London include Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries, The Temples of London, Father Thames and London’s Lost Global Giant – in search of the East India Company. Other London books are The Royal Albert Hall: a masterpiece for the 21st century, London Top 10, The Most Amazing Places to Visit in London and Royal London.

 

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A guest post by LH member Nigel Pickford. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from March 2014.

Detailed recording of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure only really starts from the 1850s onwards (1). So, if you want to know what the weather was like in London 350 years ago you have just two possible approaches. There is retrospective science in the form of dendroclimatology (2). The limitation of this is that it’s very broad brush. It’s not going to tell you whether it was raining on Sunday, 12 February 1682, for instance, the day that Mr Thynn was gunned down in the street. But this was the level of detail that I needed to know about when writing my new book, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn. The alternative is to study the literary and artistic ephemera of the day in the shape of contemporary diaries, letters, travel journals, early broadsheets, ships logs, paintings, astronomical almanacs and so on.

One thing was quickly evident. The winters were a lot colder than they are now. The end of the seventeenth century experienced a sharp spike of chilliness during what was anyway a cool period that had already been going on for several hundred years, a period now known as the little ice age (3). There is plenty of personal anecdote to support this. For a start the River Thames was in the habit of freezing right across, a freak weather occurrence which was quick to be commercially exploited in the form of the famous frost fairs. There was sledging, skating, coach racing, bull baiting, pop up shops, and roasting of oxen, as well as ‘ puppet places and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places’, to quote John Evelyn’s rather coy phrase. (4)

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River Thames Frost Fair, 1683, by Thomas Wyke.

It wasn’t just the frequency of sub-zero temperatures that made the London weather experience very different from what it is today. The ‘Metropolis’, as it had recently come to be called, was also a lot more susceptible to noxious fogs. One tends to associate the trademark London smog with the Victorian period, partly because of the marvellously atmospheric descriptions in Dickens’s novels. But the roots of London’s industrial pollution problems go back to the seventeenth century when smog was probably even more pernicious and ubiquitous than it was in Dickens’s time. John Evelyn’s fascinating little book Fumifugium, published in 1661 (5), describes the effect of the growing use of sea coal on London’s micro climate. He refers to ‘that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea Coal’ which caused Londoners ‘to breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fulginous and filthy vapour’ and which caused the inhabitants to suffer from, ‘Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions’. He blamed all the ‘Brewers, Diers, Lime Burners, Salt and Sope Boylers’ who belched forth a ‘cloud of sulphure’ from their ‘sooty jaws’. Evelyn was a founding father of the environmental movement and his suggested solution was to move all the polluting industries to an area East of Greenwich which would be downwind from the main centres of habitation. He was also keen on the idea of planting a ring of sweet smelling trees and shrubs right around the periphery of London, a sort of early green belt. Fumifugium was dedicated to Charles II, who received Evelyn’s ideas with enthusiasm and did nothing about them.

A fascination with daily weather was just as much a preoccupation with seventeenth century Londoners as it is with its modern inhabitants. Food supplies depended on a good harvest, transport was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and, of course, it affected everyone’s general sense of wellbeing. Even the Duke of York (the future James II) typifies that unchanging tendency to moan about the elements when he writes to his niece about not being able to get out for his usual morning walk ‘as for the weather it is the same with you, that it is with us, only it keeps us prisoners, for there is no sturing out farther than the little Parke, the waters being still so much out and the ways so durty, that I have not been able to go further, and this day has been so very rainy that I have not been able to walke abroad at all but a little in the morning early upon the terrasse’. (7)

There may have been no meteorological office but weather forecasting was still a thriving business left largely to the professional astrologers and almanac writers. One of the more interesting and lesser known works in this genre is John Gadbury’s Nauticum astrologicum: or, The astrological seaman…unto which is added a Diary of the weather for XXI years together, exactly observed in London. (8) Gadbury had a client base of merchants and shipowners who need to know whether it was a propitious weather moment to launch a new boat or start on a new voyage. Astrology was very much on the defensive towards the end of the seventeenth century against accusations of being little more than necromancy and Gadbury was anxious to prove to his readers that his work was commensurate with the strictest scientific standards of the age being full of ‘New and Real Observations or Experiments to credit his opinions’.

NPG D30383; John Gadbury after Unknown artist

John Gadbury, unknown artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Part of the point of the weather diary which extended from November 1668 to December 1689 was to validate his astrological predictions. So, the studious reader can apparently discern from his daily record that ‘the sun in Leo, generally brings along with it, parching hot air; and in Aries dry but lofty winds; in Pisces much moisture.’ or again ‘we have a fall of wet upon every New or Full moon.’ The actual daily entries are more down to earth. On 7 November 1681, for instance, the day of Lady Bette’s sudden flight from London, he notes, ‘close air, great wind East.’ That East wind was all important. It could result in the boat she hoped to escape in being trapped in the river for days if not weeks. She can’t have consulted him.

Notes:

  1. The Meteorology Office was established in 1854 with its main purpose to help predict storm and avoid shipwreck.
  2. The study of tree rings to establish changes of weather pattern.
  3. The little ice age is now thought to have lasted roughly from around 1400 to 1800.
  4. The Diary of John Evelyn, Ed. E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford 1955).
  5. Quotations are taken from the 1976 reprint published by Rota, Exeter.
  6. This idea was developed in the works of Samuel Hartlib and John Beale, contemporaries of John Evelyn.
  7. Windsor April 30th 1682, from Some Familiar Letters of Charles II and James Duke of York ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon (1902).
  8. The astrological seaman was thought to have been written in the last decade of the seventeenth century but was not published until 1710. Gadbury died in 1704.

 


Nigel Pickford is an author and historian whose book Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn was published by Orion Books in 2014. He is also a specialist maritime historian who has made documentaries for Channel 4 and published books with Dorling Kindersley and National Geographic. He is a Member of London Historians.

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