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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Review: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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This guest post by Gareth Edwards was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of January 2015.

A longer version of this article, with more images, is here.

Look around Endell Street today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago it was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital officially staffed, and managed, entirely by women.

That the hospital existed at all was largely thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women – Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. Both women had trained at the London School of Medicine for Women. They became firm friends and founded the Women’s Hospital for Children together on Harrow Road in 1912. Both were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement – not surprising, given their own experiences at the hands of the misogynistic British medical establishment.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the pair wanted to serve in a medical capacity, but realised that any direct approach to the War Office would likely end in them being dismissed out of hand. Casting about, they soon discovered that the French Army were desperate for medical staff so approached the French Red Cross with the offer of equipping and staffing a hospital. The French quickly accepted.

Within just two weeks the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) had begun to take shape. Within three Murray, Garett Anderson and their new organisation were boarding a train for the continent. The 80 year old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Louisa’s mother and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – watched on from the platform.

“Are you not proud, Mrs Anderson?” A friend asked.

“Yes.” She answered. “Twenty years younger I would have taken them myself.”

Their first hospital, established in the disused Hotel Claridge in Paris and known to everyone as “Claridges” was soon taking wounded soldiers and quickly established a reputation as one of the foremost military hospitals in Paris. This was in no small part thanks to Murray and Garrett Anderson’s deft handling of the many military and civilian visitors the hospital attracted. A succession of critical Generals and administrators passed through Claridges and each received a comprehensive tour, their questions patiently answered, however insulting. More often than not they left with a higher opinion of the WHC than when they arrived.

In November as fighting worsened, Murray and Garrett Anderson journeyed to Boulogne to meet a hard-pressed Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Medical Service who had previously visited Claridges and been impressed. If they moved the WHC nearer the front, they asked him, would he use them?

“Yes.” He replied. “To the fullest extent.”

Acknowledgement of their services at the front did not automatically translate to recognition with the War Office back home, however. The new hospital at Wimereux soon built up its own impressive reputation though and the ability of the WHC to run an effective military hospital became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Finally, in February 1915 Murray and Garrett Anderson were invited to London to meet Sir Alfred Keogh, Director General of Army Medical Services. In Keogh they found an unexpected ally. He had read the reports on the WHC coming from those in the field in France and he offered them the chance to make history – he asked them to establish an RAMC military hospital of at least 500 beds at Endell Street in London, staffed solely by women. They agreed and on the 18th February Keogh publicly praised the two doctors and announced the plans to the press.

“He had asked them to take charge of a hospital of 500 beds.” The Times reported with some astonishment the next day. “And if they pleased, of a hospital with 1,000 beds.”

Setting up the hospital at Endell Street was a whole new challenge for the women of the WHC as much of the British army medical establishment was still actively hostile to their efforts. The location chosen for the hospital was an old work house and getting it ready required significant work. Somehow, with little assistance from the rest of the RAMC, they had the hospital ready in time for its opening.

The general expectation amongst those opposed to their work was that the Endell Street experiment would fail within 6 months. Under Murray’s capable supervision and thanks to the efforts of all of its staff it instead quickly became one of the foremost military hospitals in London. With this the hostility gradually began to decrease, replaced with a sort of lukewarm tolerance and gentle neglect.

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Francis Dodd, chalk drawing, 1917. Image: Wellcome Images.

Indeed over time the staff would turn this situation to something of an advantage as it allowed them to ignore certain standard British Army practices in favour of new ideas. Murray believed psychological wellbeing was as important as physical when it came to recovery and wards were bright with many activities laid on for the men. Garrett Anderson meanwhile, along with a brilliant pathologist called Helen Chambers, was able to carry out extensive clinical research. Together they trialled, then deployed, a new compound “Bipp” paste that dramatically reduced the frequency with which surgical dressings needed to be changed.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of Bipp paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited. Later that year both Murray and Garrett Anderson were awarded the CBE for their war work.

“I knew you could do it.” Keogh confided to Garrett Anderson towards the war’s end. “We were watched, but you have silenced all critics.”

By that time the war ended their success was indeed there for all to see. When Parliament granted the first limited voting rights to women in 1918, Murray ordered their only ever overt political act – a suffragist flag was hoisted in the hospital courtyard, to the cheers of staff and patients alike.

Endell Street Military Hospital finally closed in 1919. To say that it changed things instantly would be an overstatement but, thanks to efforts of those who worked there, it represented a huge step in the right direction. Some of the women at Endell Street moved on to great things. One of the younger members of staff there, Hazel Cuthbert, became the first female physician appointed at the Royal Free. Many more however still found their careers limited by prejudice – despite performing over 7000 operations, for example, none of the female surgeons from Endell Street would perform major surgery again.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson meanwhile returned together to the small children’s hospital they had founded on the Harrow Road. Both remained active in politics until the ends of their lives. Neither woman ever married, and they are buried together near the home they shared in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on their shared tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy.”

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Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy London Remembers.com.

On Endell Street itself, little evidence of their achievement remains. The old building that contained the hospital is long gone – replaced by Dudley Court, a red brick housing block. Look around a bit though and you’ll find a blue plaque marking the spot where it stood. It is worth hunting out – a few words to commemorate some awfully mighty deeds.


London Reconnections.
Wellcome Images.
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16156Book review by LH Member George Goodwin.
The Civil War in London by Robin Rowles
Pen & Sword, £12.99 152pp

As a reviewer it is well to declare an interest. Robin Rowles is both an active member of London Historians and a highly-qualified guide with a love of London’s history that easily communicates itself in conversation, as it did to me when we talked some months ago about the Civil War in London both as a topic in itself and as the subject of this book. So I can be forgiven for approaching the book with rose-tinted glasses.

Robin takes a somewhat old-fashioned approach and the book is none the worse for that. He is impeccable in the way that he credits his sources and the views of his fellow historians, and he ensures that those with only a limited understanding of the causes of the English Civil War have these background factors explained. He then tackles his subject thematically. I have one quibble with the structure of the book, addressed to its editor rather than its author, which is that it might have been better to have had some part of the penultimate chapter ‘London’s brave boys: the trained bands and the defence of London’ as the opening salvo.

There may not have been any fighting in London itself, but that was partly due to the impressive defensive measures taken by the City of London’s Common Council and to the role of the Trained Bands in repulsing the King’s army at the Battle of Turnham Green, then some miles to the west of the twin cities of Westminster and London. As Robin points out, the London units and their extremely effective commander Philip Skippon also played an exceptionally important role in the wider Civil War.

As to the meat of the book, Robin has a real insight into how the City was able to take on much of the machinery of national administration, with its networks of committees in some ways akin to those that would operate in Paris during the French Revolution. Their taking on this role being natural, due to the City’s long-established institutions and the ability of its governing Common Council to give overall direction.

The centuries-old financial importance of the City of London to the Monarchy was symbolised by the longstanding pre-coronation tradition of the monarch being escorted to the Tower through the City gates by the scarlet-clad Mayor and Aldermen of London. With a detailed knowledge of its Livery Companies, Robin shows how the Parliamentarians were able to utilise the City’s long-established means of financing the monarchy in order to back its citizen enemies. He also demonstrates how this change of loyalty had been made a great deal easier through King Charles’s assault on the City’s privileges during the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ not least through the Crown’s confiscation of the City’s Ulster plantation.

There are some intriguing details in the book to demonstrate that the City was far from universally solid in its support of Parliament, showing that some moderate Royalists were elected as Mayors during the mid-1640s before Charles’ resumption of hostilities in 1648 cut the ground from their feet, that is before Parliament was itself superseded by the army, with Skippon later becoming Cromwell’s Major General for the London area. The exceptional importance of religion in directing men towards either King or Parliament is affirmed and the means by which the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry set about their task are well described. Women also have their moments: not least the 1643 march on Parliament by City women, with their demonstration against wartime taxation and higher food prices being met not by the MPs, who were taking cover inside, but by Dragoons, with the fatal consequences persuading seven peers to desert to the King.

Above all, the book takes you through the streets of the City and is good preparation for accompanying Robin on one of his London Civil War walks, which he lists with those on Sherlock Holmes and others on http://www.strollintime.co.uk/walks.htm


George Goodwin FRHistS is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.

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A guest post by London Historians member Robin Rowles.

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Modern bust of Thos Cromwell, Guildhall.

In September 2016, I was preparing for the annual Sherlock Holmes Society of London annual weekend, when I received an unexpected tweet from publishing firm Pen and Sword. Would I be interested in writing a book about Sherlock Holmes and London? I was very flattered, wow, somebody out there had heard of my Sherlock Holmes walks, but immediately realised this would be a difficult undertaking. Not writing about Sherlock Holmes, that would be relatively easy, but marketing might be trickier, because I knew the market was saturated with books about Sherlock Holmes and London. Not only do I own many of these, I’m also friends with the authors and I know how good their books are. However, thinking quickly, I explained this and said I could write a book about the civil war in London. After some negotiation, the contract was agreed and I got writing.

The book, which was given the working title of A civil war walk around London, was to be an expansion of my walk ‘Civil war connections ‘round St Paul’s and Cheapside’. Like the walk that inspired it, the book is bookended by historical events from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the Restoration. However, as with the walk, it necessarily takes the reader back into the medieval past and forward into the early eighteenth century. As a fellow guide noted, context is important. Similarly, although the book is about London, parts of it step out of London entirely. Namely the chapter describing the evolution of the Trained Bands, the part-time militia, into the London Regiments. After the battles of Edgehill and Turnham Green in the autumn of 1642, London was secured for parliament, politically and militarily. The London Regiments were free to go on campaign. Which they did, to good effect, marching to relieve the Siege of Gloucester in 1643 and buy the embattled parliamentarians a vital breathing space. The royalists were pressing hard and it’s no exaggeration to say the London Regiments saved the day and the parliamentarian war effort.

Returning to London, there was so many stories to tell. The amazing construction of the Lines of Communication, London’s defences, now long dismantled and confined to the history books. The stories of the various City Livery Companies who housed the parliamentarian committees: The Goldsmiths Committee for Compounding Delinquents for instance. This term was originally applied to those who didn’t contribute to the parliamentarian coffers. Later in the war, the Committee expanded its remit and fined captured royalists with property, who ‘compounded’ for release of their estates. The money thus raised helped finance the war-effort. The Guildhall, where the annual elections to Common Council overturned a relatively pro-royalist caucus in December 1641 and voted in parliamentarians. In the wake of this Puritan revolution, it was the City of London that pressed parliament on important matters during the civil war, such as the removal of idolatrous monuments from churches and elsewhere. Possibly the most dramatic example of iconoclasm came in May 1643, when parliament ordered the dismantling of the Cheapside Cross.

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Map showing the Lines of Communication, by George Vertue, 1738.

16156Writing this book was almost like learning to guide again. Every fact was checked several times over, and then rechecked. I am indebted to the curators of British History Online, who kindly gave me permission to quote from various sources, including the Calendar of State Papers, House of Commons Journal, and the House of Lords’ Journal. The City of London generously allowed me to use photos taken in and around Guildhall Yard and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries very kindly gave permission to use an amusing photo of a bust of Charles I, by a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Charles’ father James was seriously anti-smoking and hiked the tobacco duty by 1,000 percent – although he didn’t mind spending the revenue! Quirky anecdotes like this are bread-and-butter for guides building a walk, but when writing a book, I had to dig a little deeper, look a little further, and work a lot harder. Two or three nights and Saturday in the library, quickly morphed into three to four nights, plus Saturday and Sunday. Fifty thousand words, over eight chapters in nine months. However, with a more than a little help from many friends I got there. The Civil War in London: Voices from the City is published by Pen and Sword.


Robin Rowles is a qualified City of London guide lecturer and a long-standing member of London Historians. 

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Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

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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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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.

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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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