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Archive for the ‘20th Century’ Category

As a great admirer of Wyndham Lewis’s art, I was delighted to see his portrait of TS Eliot at the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan all the way from Durban, South Africa.

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It is part of the 250th anniversary of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition, a retrospective being held concurrently with this year’s show: The Great Spectacle.

This painting caused great controversy when the Academy rejected it for the 1938 Summer Exhibition. Many of Lewis’s peers were incensed, including Augustus John, who resigned his membership of the R.A. over the issue. His resignation letter is also on display.
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Eliot liked the portrait, but a possible reason the work was rejected was that both artist and sitter had a somewhat jaundiced view of the Academy. There are some choice quotes here.

I’ve only mentioned Wyndham Lewis once before on this blog and then only in passing in a piece about David Bowie’s personal collection. Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) was a Canadian-born artist and intellectual, active in the first half of the 20th Century. He served with distinction in WW1 as an artillery officer. Before the conflict he had been a member of the Camden Town Group and was active in the Vorticist movement (who expounded a sort of hybrid of Cubist and Futurist styles), being a contributor to its magazine, BLAST. Lewis was a combative critic of the intellectual Left in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1930s, like many at the time, he became admirer of Hitler, a position which had completely reversed by 1936. For the last years of his life from the early 1950s he was completely blind.

But back to the show. The Great Spectacle is indeed great and an most certainly an excellent spectacle. In the spirit of the Wyndam Lewis controversy, there is an amusing picture by Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959, surely the best painter of horses ever) which takes the piss out of admirers of modern art.

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The inclusion of this picture is significant in that Munnings, as outgoing President of the Academy, in 1949 famously made a drunken speech attacking modern art and its practitioners. Fortunately for us, it was recorded, but the Academy must have been rightly horrified.

So two of our best painters of the 20th Century attacking the Academy from opposite directions. They couldn’t win, really. But all credit to them for showing us their story, warts and all, through this superbly curated show, necessarily chronological, but paying close attention to genre. All the British greats are there, famous and obscure, men and women: some of your favourites are bound to be there.


The Summer Exhibition 2018 itself is a joy. I hadn’t been for over 25 years, but from my dim recollection of the previous occasion compared with 2018, I’m sure that this year’s show is superior in every way. Brighter, more variety, more imagination, talent. Many pieces are political, many quirky, lots are funny and indeed, some are all three. I particularly enjoyed the humorous homages of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, but there is so much more to savour.

A big anniversary year for the Royal Academy, and they’ve played a blinder.

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A guest post by London Historians member, Martyn Cornell, first published in our members’ newsletter from July 2014.

It is doubtful that many of the hipsters drinking their craft-brewed, hoppy IPAs in rough-walled, high-ceilinged pubs in Hoxton and Hackney realise that the beers they are sipping have their historical roots not very far away, and that the very first beers to be called IPAs – India Pale Ales – were made by East London brewers.

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Abbott’s Pale Ale, circa 1850.

Pale ale as a style of drink seems to have originated as a country speciality, popular among the gentry, and according to one 18th century writer it only came to London in the reign of Queen Anne, when those same gentry began spending more time in the capital, bringing their tastes with them. The popular drink in the capital was and remained a type of well-hopped dark brown beer that would eventually develop into the style known as porter, because of its popularity with the street and river porters of London. However, some London brewers began brewing pale ales as well, and not just for the home market: there is evidence that the Fountain brewery by the Hermitage in Wapping was exporting pale ale (and stout) to the West Indies from early in the 18th century.

One point of difference between the export pale ales and those sold at home was that, in order to survive the journey overseas, the export ales had to be more heavily hopped – one third more hops was “absolutely necessary” for beer sent into a warmer climate, according to one writer in 1768 – and heavier hopping is what links those 18th century ales sent out on sailing ships to hotter climes and the sorts drunk today in craft beer bars.

Ale and beer were being exported to the East Indies as well by at least 1711, carried there in the ships of the East India Company, which had a monopoly on trade between India and Britain. The company allowed its commanders and crew to carry all sorts of goods out east to sell to Europeans settled in places such as Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, including furniture, china and, clothes, foodstuffs, wine and cider, as well as beer. A ship’s commander could make up to £12,000 a year from private business, and by 1784 it had become the usual (though illegal) practice for an East Indiaman captain to sell his command to his successor for between 4,000 and 7,000 guineas.

The East Indiamen, as the ships were called, loaded up at Blackwall, just down-river from the Isle of Dogs. Generally, it seems, and certainly by the end of the 18th century, the commanders and captains did not travel very far to buy their beer, getting it from the brewery founded in 1752 at Bow, just up the Lea, by George Hodgson. It seems it was not just Hodgson’s nearness that attracted the officers of the East Indiamen, and the way that his beers could be easily shipped down the Lea by barge, but also that he gave them lengthy credit of up to 18 months: since a round trip to India could not be done in much less than 10 months, this was very handy.

Hodgson is sometimes said to have discovered the need to heavily hop ale that was being shipped out east, but there is no evidence for this at all, and nor is there any evidence that his was the first pale ale shipped to India: he was just doing what every brewer knew needed to be done to export ale. But while other London brewers also exported beer to India, his became the best known. Although Hodgson sold porter as well as pale ale to the East Indiaman commanders, it was for pale ale that the Bow brewery became most famous, perhaps because only the soldiers and servants drank porter in India, while the officers and gentlemen drank pale ale. It even had a song written about it, “sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”:

Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.

O! to drink it at morning, when just from our bed
We rise unrefreshed, and to breakfast sit down,
The froth-crested brimmer we raise to our head,
And in swigging off Hodgson, our sorrows we drown.

By 1813 the Bow brewery was selling 4,000 barrels of beer for export to the east. Four years later the brewery was rebuilt by Bow Bridge, 230 yards east of its original site, and where a pub called the Bombay Grab had been running since at least 1805. (The name of this now-closed pub almost certainly comes from an East India Company warship, the Bombay Grab, a three-masted armed cruiser of the Bombay Marine active in the 1780s, of which an oil painting exists in the British Museum. A “grab” was a two-masted Eastern coasting-vessel or galley, from the Arabic gurab.) The brewery was rebuilt again in 1821, at which point its owners, Frederick Hodgson and Thomas Drane, decided that they were now going to cut out the East Indiamen’s officers and ship their beer to India themselves, thus taking all the profits from the operation.

 

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The Bow Brewery, circa 1928.

Unfortunately for them, the East India Company was so angered at this attempt to reduce the income of its ships’ commanders that it invited the brewers of Burton upon Trent to turn to the India pale ale trade. Within a few years Burton brewers such as Bass and Allsopp had captured the majority of pale ale sales in India.

Curiously, all this time the name “India Pale Ale” had still not come into use. Instead it was called “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market”, “Pale Ale as prepared for India” and similar circumlocutions. The first known use of the term “India Pale Ale” (or to be exact, “East India Pale Ale”) comes from a newspaper in Sydney, Australia in 1829, when it appears to be referring to a beer brewed by Taylor Walker’s brewery in Limehouse. The first known use of the term India Pale Ale in Britain does not occur for another six years, in an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper published in 1835, though this time it was for Hodgson’s “very superior” East India Pale Ale, the London brewer evidently trying to get at least some of the Liverpool shipping trade otherwise easily supplied from Burton.

The trade for India Pale Ale at home, meanwhile, appears to still have been pretty limited. But in 1839 the railway arrived in Burton upon Trent, and within a couple of years the Burton brewers began shipping increasing quantities of their IPAs around Britain by rail – in particular to London, where IPA soon became popular with the middle classes. (One visible sign of this trade can still be seen down the east side of St Pancras Station, opposite King’s Cross Station, where the attractive arch-windowed frontage was once the stores for the Burton brewer Thomas Salt, with room for 20,000 barrels.)

London’s pre-eminence as the original home of India Pale Ale had now fallen away, helped by the fact that, unfortunately, Burton well-water, saturated with gypsum, or calcium sulphate, made a much better sparkling pale ale than London water, which is better suited to dark beers. Indeed, several big London brewers, including Charrington’s of Mile End and Truman Hanbury and Buxton of Brick Lane, had opened branch breweries in Burton to supply their pubs with pale ales, which is why many old Truman’s pubs still say on their stone frontages things like “London Stout & Burton Brewed Bitters”.

Meanwhile the firm that had once been synonymous with the Indian beer market faded into obscurity. From at least 1838 the Bow brewery partnership was known as Hodgson and Abbott, after apparently merging with Edwin Abbott of the Sun brewery in Wapping. It was “Abbott (late Hodgson & Abbott) by 1843, but by 1849 Edwin Abbott & Son, Pale Ale and Stout Brewers, were in business on their own at the Bow Bridge brewery. The operation was eulogised in 1861 by the comic writer Charles Stuart Calverley, who wrote a poem called Beer that began:

O Beer! O Hodgson, Guinness, Allsopp, Bass!
Names that should be on every infant’s tongue!

though while the last three were still huge names, the Hodgsons had been completely replaced at the Bow Brewery by the Abbotts at least 18 years before the poem appeared. In 1863 the concern became the Bow Brewery Co Ltd, and in 1869 it turned into Smith, Garrett & Co. In 1927 Smith Garrett was taken over by Taylor Walker of Limehouse. The Bow brewery was eventually demolished in 1933 to make way for London County Council flats.


Martyn Cornell is a historian of beer and brewing who likes to boast that he was born on the site of the former Upper Flask pub in Hampstead. He is a member of the editorial board of Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society, and a founder member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. His publications include Amber, Gold and Black, a history of the beer styles of Britain (priced outrageously on Amazon at time of writing). Also Strange Tales of Ale, more than two dozen historical anecdotes involving beer, from flying mild ale to the D-Day troops in the drop-tanks of Spitfires to history’s most notorious brewer.’

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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

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If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

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As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.

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The Wandsworth Prison Museum was founded and has been run by a London Historians Member for the past 10 years. He is a serving prison officer at HMP Wandsworth. He has organised these on-site events during 2018.

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WANDSWORTH PRISON MUSEUM
2008-2018 10th Anniversary Events

20.5.18 Boardroom Talk “ The Prison & the First World War” Spies, hangings,
Conscientious Objectors, Easter Rising.

8.7.18 “The Ronnie Biggs escape” (8.7.1965) External and internal wall walk
and talk during the history tour of the escape.

8.9.18 Boardroom talk “Wandsworth’s Last hanging and the end of capital
punishment” (8.9.1961)

4.11.18 Boardroom talk “Oscar Wilde, his time at HMP Wandsworth

The above events are taking place for a maximum of 20 per event, as part of a small scale celebration of 10 years of the Wandsworth Prison Museum.

The venue for the talks is the Governor’s Boardroom inside the prison but all groups will meet initially at the Wandsworth Prison Museum at 11am. The talks and one walk will be for approximately one hour.

To book.
As the venue is inside the prison, the following is needed to make a booking:
Name, address and date of birth of each visitor. Visitors must be over the age of 18.
One booking per person, which is not transferable as there may be a waiting list should any event be over booked.
Bookings can be made by emailing: Wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk or in writing at Wandsworth Prison Museum, C/O POA Office, Heathfield Road, London SW18 3HS

The above is the current agenda, other events may be added if time and resources permit

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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gavin stamp.jpgSorry to hear that we’ve lost Prof. Gavin Stamp, heroic defender of our historic built environment, enemy of lackadaisical councils and clueless planners. He wrote as ‘Piloti’ for Private Eye for many years up until very recently, only last week a devastating critique of the new George Orwell statue at Broadcasting House (and modern portrait sculpture generally).

Earlier this year we exchanged several emails resulting in an excellent piece in the Eye on the wanton destruction of the historic Sarah Trimmer School in Brentford under the noses of Hounslow Council. He kindly contacted us later to ask if the item had had any effect (it hadn’t).

Around that time I invited him, as a fellow disciple of the great Ian Nairn, to join us on our annual Ian Nairn Pub Crawl, but he explained he was too poorly to venture out much. Well, now his race is run, he’s done a great service to cities and towns up and down the land. Thanks, Gavin. RIP.

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