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Archive for the ‘20th Century’ Category

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.

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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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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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2017. 
by Rob Smith. 

explosion at silverown police news April 1880

Police News Illustrated 24th April 1880

January this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the explosion at the Brunner Mond factory in Silvertown, one of London’s most devastating disasters. The explosion at the plant, where TNT was being made for the British war effort, killed 73 people and injured more than 500, flattening nearby homes and factories. The explosion led to a rethink about locating dangerous manufacturing plants close to residential areas; a memorial to the explosion has recently been relocated in a new housing development on the site. The disaster has become an important part of East London history. However, the 1917 Silvertown Explosion reprised another event from 1880 at a factory just next door. Unfortunately, industrial accidents in this part of London were depressingly common.

The 1880 explosion took place at a creosote plant owned by Burt, Boulton and Haywood. The company had been set up by two railway engineers H P Burt and S B Boulton with the idea of producing a chemical preservative that could make railway sleepers last longer. Coal Tar creosote had been patented in 1838 by London-based inventor John Bethell. Burt and Boulton set up their works in what was at that time known as Lands End – the strip of industries set up between the Thames and the Plaistow Marshes. This was a desolate location at the time, served by a railway built by George Parker Bidder to connect Kent with the City of London via a passenger ferry at Woolwich – a railway known as “Bidder’s Folly” so unlikely did it seem to succeed. Bidder had the last laugh though, when investors were looking to build the vast Royal Victoria Dock, they had to take him on as a partner as his railway owned the land in the area. When the dock opened in 1855 Burt and Boulton’s factory was in a prime location – able to bring in timber by ship and with the raw materials for making creosote being brought by rail as the by products of London’s many gas works. Soon the plant was busy creosoting tens of thousands of railway sleepers for India’s growing railway network. This unglamorous factory played a small but vital part in making rule of the British Empire possible.

The area now known as Silvertown grew up as housing for workers at Samuel Silver’s rubber and gutta percha works, where the coating which made Transatlantic telegraph cables possible was made. By 1880 the area was home to a sizeable population with a school and a rather fetching church built by S S Teulon. Dangerous industries were no longer on an isolated part of the Thames but in the midst of workers housing

Monday 12th April 1880 had started as an ordinary day at Burt, Boulton and Hayward, with the workforce of three or four hundred boys producing barrels of creosote, as well as by-products like insecticides and sulphuric acid, which went on to become fertilizer. The factory, at a location called Prince Regent’s Wharf, was constructed around a yard which at its centre had a group of four stills containing 2500 gallons of tar each. Two workers oversaw the stills which were heated to separate naptha and creosote from the coal tar. At around 2pm a worker in the yard saw a blue flame erupt from a manhole at the top of the still. A man attempted to pour sand on the flame and shortly afterwards another worker called Benjamin Price attempted to use a portable fire appliance on the blaze. Before Price could do anything, a huge explosion ripped through the still, and the lid went flying into the air, despite weighing several tons. Witnesses say the men on the lid of the still were blown high in the air, and that the still lid rose up like a hot air balloon. Workers in the yard ran in panic as they were showered by burning tar, falling bricks and twisted metal. Two men panicked and ran to hide in a building filled with sulphuric acid fumes, dying instantly. Another still had cracked in the blast and there were fears that it would explode too, while a 50-tonne water tank was knocked over causing more destruction. Barrels of creosote caught fire, setting fire to adjacent buildings. The blast had also damaged ships in the neighbouring Royal Victoria Dock. Terrified horses bolted through the streets of Silvertown

Twenty-five fire engines raced to the scene. It was to their credit that the blaze was brought under control in three hours but not without further problems. A horse pulling the Leyton fire engine panicked and crashed into a lamppost – injuring the crew and killing the horse. The next day the grim task of identifying the dead began. The explosion had been so huge it was uncertain of the death toll. Body parts were put on display at the nearby Graving Dock Tavern while family members filed past in the hope of identifying some of them. One man was identified by his wife recognising his whiskers. In all, eleven men were found to have died in the blast. The sad funeral took place on the Sunday, the victims’ families all agreed that the funerals should be held together and a grim but stately procession of 250 people from the local community followed the eleven hearses that had been paid for by the factory owner.

An inquiry into the accident began shortly afterwards. It was found that the “worm” part of the still that allowed pressure to be released had become blocked. This was quite common in the factory the inquiry was told, but this time the worker in charge had not noticed. A verdict of Accidental death was given in the inquiry, which was over in a day. This infuriated some people, including the press. It was like having a kettle being boiled with the spout blocked and the lid bolted down, claimed the London Evening Standard – any schoolboy could see that this was dangerous. A simple safety valve could have prevented the accident. Why had there not been stricter regulations on the plant, under the 1875 Explosives Act? The factory owners said that it did not apply as tar was not explosive. Eventually the factory was rebuilt and creosote produced there until the 1960’s. There is no memorial to the explosion, but the site is now occupied by the rather lovely Thames Barrier Park.

IMG_1184

Thames Barrier Park – on the site of the 1880 explosion at Burt, Boulton and Hayward.

This was far from the end of the industrial accidents in Silvertown. In 1886, fire broke out at a guano storage works; in 1887, a huge fire starts in an oil storage facility; in 1897, a worker at the Silver factory was killed in an explosion; and in 1899 the Keiller jam factory was destroyed in a gas explosion. The Brunner Mond explosion needs to be seen in that context: the largest incident but not an unusual one.

London’s industry during the Victorian period made a huge impact on the world, something it rarely gets credit for. However, with every great innovation there are dangers and learning to minimise the risks in industrial production was an important breakthrough in itself. We often talk of “health and safety gone mad” but the Silvertown Explosion is an example of what life was like for workers without the protection of health and safety rules.


Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a guide with Footprints of London. You can find out more about his industrial-related walks at their website.

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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Guest Post.
Fifty years past. The Summer of Love ; Sgt Pepper; homosexuality decriminalised. Momentous events. Ursula Jeffries remembers her time as a young executive in London. 

It is hard to see yourself as part of history but there comes a time….

I was always a south London girl but July 1967 was when I really started to get to know the city. There were few gap years in those days so my graduate traineeship began straight away and I was whisked from the dreaming spires into what was known by the inmates as the tomb of the unknown borrower. The Abbey National headquarters building in Baker Street can still be seen in its imposing nearly art deco glory. Now divided into flats, it was then the ultimate functional commercial building of the sixties straddling the old and the new. Almost the whole of the ground floor was taken up by the computer, below ground were machines devoted to efficient direct mail and deep dark corridors of client files. The public view was mainly a grand banking hall and sight of an elegant lift to the working offices; this was operated by a Hungarian refugee, by all accounts a professor in his time. Visitors often looked for Sherlock Holmes and would get a response to a letter.

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The Abbey National Building, Baker Street. Today only the facade survives.

While modern management sought to brand the building society as up to date and swinging with cutting edge advertising campaigns and window displays (Happy National) many of the old guard clung to the old ways especially the logo of a couple holding an umbrella shaped like a roof. Much time was spent on keeping the silhouette of the lady in contemporary style. The length of skirts affected me as well. For the last three years I had been assiduously cutting off the hems of coats and skirts as the mini skirt took over. I literally had nothing to wear in a traditional office except my interview suit and only expensive shops had anything of suitable length. I had to wait until 1968 to afford Carnaby Street. My mother had sorted the problem of my waist length hippy hair by buying me a haircut at Vidal Sassoon and the change was so radical that my own boyfriend didn’t recognise me. I found the formality of the organisation difficult to absorb and I was the first female graduate in this post but they were very welcoming to me despite paying less salary on account of my gender. I had subsidised lunch in the middle management dining room and my own secretary; hierarchies were still firmly embedded.

Outside, the noisy, dirty streets were familiar to me. Red buses, telephone and post boxes, commercial traffic. Although much of the war damage had been dealt with the place was grimy, not helped by the massive level of cigarette smoking indoors and out. Nobody thought twice about it and the beleaguered nonsmokers didn’t complain much. I soon took a room in a shared flat which was affordable and near Baker Street – I could walk to work alongside Regents Park if I chose. I felt very safe as I started to get to get to know the different villages of London and there was an air of change for the better, unthreatening and fun. The only problem being that there was far too much to do.

On the South Bank the Festival Hall floated by the river representing British design and the modern London to come. The cafeteria was a great meeting point, snug between the bridges, ugly Hungerford and elegant Waterloo, and the promise of the Festival of Britain still hovered in the air as the riverside developments continued. The Old Vic had evolved from a Shakespeare rep to an embryonic National Theatre. Anyone lucky enough to be working and to have connections to the arts was privileged to be witness to a confident flowering of culture. I missed seeing Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles but I did get to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I didn’t have time or money for a television although I did have my Dansette record player. Back in the suburbs life was changing at a slower pace but pop music was a shared revolution and although views varied as to its ‘suitability’ it was absorbed much more than hippy culture was ever going to be.

london-summer-of-love

And what became of the hippies? On a hot summer afternoon we came out of the Curzon where we had watched Blowup. A commotion in Hyde Park attracted us and we found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of flower children dancing, ringing bells and floating in a fragrant mist. Music thumped in the distance and a poet declaimed from the top of a step ladder to anyone still in a state to listen. Free marijuana was the message; the demonstration was very gentle as were the police that we saw. One could trace their many influences but on that day it just felt like a dream – and you only had to breathe in to feel part of it!

hydepark67

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A guest post by LH Member Roger Williams. 

Review:  The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
By Peter Stone

51FqDHqHplL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_It is flattering when a publisher asks out of the blue if you would care to write a book. That’s what happened to London Historian member Peter Stone, when his posts about the city on his The History of London website caught the eye of Pen & Sword History Press.

The subject he chose was the port of London because, he says, as a Londoner born in the East End, he wanted to know more about it, and there were few comprehensive books on the subject. The result is The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations, a 250-page book with 16 photographs, half a dozen prints and a dozen clear, specially-drawn maps that tell the story of the port from Roman Londinium to DP World London Gateway.

Medieval London is particularly well researched. This was a time when wine was the biggest import, and the Vintners Company established a 400-year monopoly. Trade was wrapped up in rules and regulations, even stipulating where foreigners could stay ashore. In the early 12th Century crews of foreign ships, when approaching London Bridge, we learn, were required to sing the Kirie Eleison to show they were not pagan pirates.

Elizabethan times saw a great expansion is shipping. Legal quays were established along the City’s foreshore, which held a monopoly on the landing of imports for 250 years. Suffrance wharfs on the south bank were later added to handle the increased volume of cargo brought mainly by charter companies like the East India Company that held monopolies on trade in great swathes of the world.

The first wet dock was in Rotherhithe. Howland Wet Dock was initially designed to shelter ships en route to London, but it also served the whaling fleets, whose messy business was kept away from the city. By 1800 an estimated 8,500 vessels could be seen between six miles below London Bridge and two miles above it. Import and export docks were sorely needed and they developed with great rapidity –– London, West India, East India, St Katharine’s, the Surrey Docks complex and the Royal Docks. An aerial photograph from 1957 shows their enormous extent.

With quotations from Pepys to Millicent Rose, the book is good on social history, on the lives of all those involved in the docks that by 1900 supported 20,000 full-time jobs and half as many casual ones. Ben Tillett, the unions and the everyday lives of dock workers are evoked, and the role of the Port of London Authority fully explained. There is the development of the villages from the City to the Isle of Dogs, from the time when Stepney was a village with a dock at Ratcliffe to today, when everything has slipped way down the river. But Tilbury, it is heartening to read, is still active, exporting engines from Ford at a rate of two vessels a day and importing a quarter of a million vehicles a year. Petroleum, steel, timber and sugar are still important imports, while DP World London Gateway, which covers an area twice the size of the City of London, can handle the largest vessels in the world,

The story of London’s ports is the story of the city, and, with a final chapter that looks to the future, Peter Stone has given the port of London a fulsome and highly readable biography.


The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
by Peter Stone is published by Pen & Sword History with a cover price of £19.99.


Review by Roger Williams. His latest book is ‘Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries’, Bristol Book Publishing, £7

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A guest post by John Bennett.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, this piece examines two different eras of the East End’s turbulent history which have sealed its reputation for challenging extremist right-wing ideologies: the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the 1930s and clashes with the National Front in the 1970s.

The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 showed the political loyalties of the East End tested considerably. Despite Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists extolling a protectionist view of multiculturalism, the privations of the recession of the 1930s had made the ideology popular in the area, even counting some Jews as supporters. Nonetheless, racially motivated violence against Jews had become common, particularly in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Mosley’s decision to march through the East End was understood to be a provocative flashpoint and East Enders of all creeds set up barriers around Cable Street to stop the procession. The result was messy: the BUF were redirected away from the east, but the disorder created by the creation of barriers led to pitched battles between protestors and police. It appears no fascists were actually involved in the disturbances but the protestors had won the day and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has since been seen as a successful of example of the people rising up against what they saw as a threat to the cohesiveness of their community.

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Battle of Cable Street memorial mural. 

The East End was at a low ebb in the 1970s. A major housing crisis in Tower Hamlets had been exacerbated in many people’s eyes by the large influx of Bengalis to the area following the civil war in Bangladesh. Accusations of housing queue-jumping and squatting only inflamed resentment of the newcomers. Far right groups such as the National Front found a willing audience in the area, bolstered by skinhead youth groups looking for an identity. Throughout the mid 1970s, violence against Asians and their property became commonplace, resulting in the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel in May 1978. This more than any other incident galvanised the Bengali community to take action, forming their own ‘vigilante groups’ to nip violence in the bud and campaign for police intervention which, on the face of it, had been severely lacking up to that point. Vandalism and physical attacks by NF supporters in Brick Lane in June 1978 (‘the battle of Brick Lane’, as the local press dubbed it) created a backlash by the Asian community to stymie the attacks as they happened, resulting in a stronger police presence and the street’s own police station.

Although fascist groups would once again raise their heads briefly in the early 1990s, the events of the late 1970s would see the subsequent rapid decline of right-wing activity in the East End, thanks to a more successful cohesion of community and law-enforcement and a more established Asian population.


John Bennett’s book Mob Town, A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End was published last month by Yale.

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