Can you crack this century-old code?

15 02 2011


Click for large image to see detail

Who were they?

With a few clues from an old postcard, photograph or letter, it is sometimes possible to piece together a profile of the lives of the people who owned them.  Tantalisingly, these exercises often open up even more questions that may never be answered.

The code of the postcard

On Monday July 20th 1908 at around 8pm, this postcard was sent on its way.  It was posted in Newport on the Isle of Wight, quite possibly near to the scene it depicts (below).  Much of the message is straightforward, but who is it from?  What are the messages concealed by code?

Here is my attempt at a transcript:

Dear Gab (Want to borrow something then)
I was very sorry that I could not come out last night there was still a leakage in the bicycle tyre.  Will see you to-morrow (Tuesday) I hope. Will you please inform Edith that I did not see her on Saturday, of course you know I would have spoken if I had seen her.  Tell her next time she happens to see me, to talk to me like she do her class at school or hit me over the head with her umbrella. ???? Hed(?) Baker & George. Remember me to all please.  Hoping to see you tomorrow night & make arrangements.
Yours etc Bedmate (?)
W.D. & H. O.

Bedmate? Is that what it really says?  In 1908?

Back in the early 20th century, there were several post deliveries a day, so a postcard referring to the next day would not have been uncommon.  In some respects, postcards such as this one might have been equivalent to sending a text message today.  By 1908 pillar boxes had been around in Britain for over 50 years, so the practice was commonplace. But would the messages all have been so brazen?  Is this brazen at all, or am I mis-reading the signature?

Who is this young lady? Well, without a name to go on, I have been unable to find out. But I have discovered the identity of the young man to whom she was writing.

Winkle Street, Calbourne, Isle of Wight


William Gabriel Critchell was born in May 1890 in Newport, the county town of the Isle of Wight, so would have been 18 years of age when he received this postcard.  His father was a Wheelwright, (the son of a fisherman from Dorset), and his mother had been born in Hampshire.  By 1901 the family had moved out of Newport to Rose Cottage in Calbourne (a small village, even today).

The month after this postcard arrived, Gabe Critchell enlisted with the Army Ordnance Corps.  He had been apprenticed as a carpenter to Herbert Long, a Builder in Calbourne, but was still living at home.  He had apparently been previously rejected for the military on the grounds of having bad teeth!  From his service record it can also be found that he was 5’7½” tall, weighed 123lbs, had a 33″ chest and was of dark complexion with dark brown hair and brown eyes.  Now he is a real person. We can picture him.

On January 27th 1916 Gabriel married Lilian Sarah Harris in Putney. She was born in 1893 in Essex. It is not impossible that she is the author of this postcard, but it seems unlikely at this stage in the research.

He transferred to the Reserve in 1919 and was discharged from the Army in 1920 having been temporarily promoted to 2nd corporal (military buffs please feel free to interpret that in the comments) and later acting sergeant.  His address is given as High Street, Newport (back to the Isle of Wight).

There then appears on his record a copy of a reference sent to the Crown Agents for the Colonies which ends:

I know of no circumstances that would in any way disqualify him for a Colonial Govt. appointment.

In 1924 we find him returning from Lagos and his given occupation on the passenger list is Builder’s Foreman. His British address is in Essex, his wife’s home county.  Six years later and he returns to these shores again, now as an Inspector of Works.

In 1932 his wife Lilian returns, seemingly alone, and Gabriel in 1934.  In both cases their address is given as c/o Barclays Bank, Essex.  Gabriel is listed as a Civil Servant.  In 1936 and 1940 the couple return together and he is a Govt Officer.   It is not clear whether they live in Nigeria and visit ‘home’ or the other way around.  They lived in Windsor from at least the mid 1950s and William Gabriel Critchell died in January 1960 in Windsor, leaving Lilian a widow. In June of the same year, Lilian left for Australia where she died in 1979.

Newport Postcard

Sts Thomas Church, Newport, Isle of Wight (now Newport Minster)

So what of ‘Bedmate’?  I feel it is unlikely that she is Lilian but of course we can’t discount the possibility that she is, even though she was not born on the Isle of Wight.  The final mysteries to unravel here are the cryptic messages she left at the foot of the message.

She writes ‘Woodbines’ and ‘W.D. & H.O.’  An earlier investigation revealed that Woodbines (a very popular cigarette once, in Britain) were made by WD & HO Wills.  That explains what it is, but not what it means (nor what she may have meant by writing it).  If it was a request to bring cigarettes to their Tuesday meeting then it was a little elaborate.  There would not be any need to state the initials of the makers, surely.  And what is meant by W.H.J.?  Google only throws up William Henry Jackson – a New York photographer from that era.  Perhaps they knew of his work.

The final, and perhaps most intriguing mystery is the signature. Is the card signed Bedmate or is the signature Longyoungen – and what on earth does that mean?


Photo by Leo Reynolds

If you know anything about the conventions (or otherwise) of sending secret messages by such a public vehicle as a postcard, then please let me know in the comments below. I’m hoping to discover that these words and initials are codes, but perhaps they were known only to Gabe and this young lady, and were not universal to young people of that day.

I’d love to hear what you think about these mysteries.  I hope you have found it interesting.

Updated March 2019.



16 responses

15 02 2011
The Baby and the Photographer « The Blah Blah Blog

[…] Can you crack this century-old code? […]

28 07 2013
sheila ettridge

The CRITCHILL Family lived in the next village from Calbourne NEWBRIDGE ~ Well into the 1980s ~ Think if Memory serves me right Mr Chritchill was the village Blacksmith ~ He Had I Believe5/ 6 Children ~ Tony David Josie Val ? Doreen Rosilie ~ Wonder how / If these People are Related ? ~

28 07 2013
Paula Bailey

Thanks Sheila. I looked up the children’s names and found a Doreen Critchell whose mother’s maiden name was Smith. I then looked for a marriage between Critchell and Smith and found Joseph Critchell – brother of Gabriel 🙂 – so they were related.

15 02 2011
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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paula Bailey, MamaSwifty and Mermaid Wiggle, Paula Bailey. Paula Bailey said: RT @auntiep: Can you crack this century-old code? #genealogy #familytree #isleofwight […]

16 02 2011

Is it possible that bedmates was meant to follow arrangements and not the closing?

As in – Make arrangements for who will be bedmates. English does not appear to be the writer’s first language.

An absolutely beautiful job on dissecting this old postcard. Have done a few myself and loved it.


16 02 2011
Paula Bailey

Thanks – it could be to do with the arrangements, I hadn’t thought of that.

I think English is her first language but you might not be familiar with some of the phrasing which would make it seem that way to you from ‘across the pond’. “talk to me like she do her class” is poor English but quite a commonplace way of speaking it, and if you knew the Isle of Wight accent it would not sound odd at all. Equally with “Remember me to all”. When I was a child I would ask why people said that, when it made no sense at all – but people did, and still do. It’s just a quaint way of saying ‘hello’ through another person. I suppose it might have been “may your family be reminded of me”. 🙂

16 02 2011

Why do you think that the writer is female?The bedmate could be a childhood thing.Also refers to a bicycle,how common was it for girls to ride them in 1908?

16 02 2011
Paula Bailey

You’re right, I can’t know it was written by a female, but I feel the handwriting is feminine and the tone is too. I think it would have been quite common for young people of all ages to use bicycles by 1908 – maybe not so much ladies, but certainly girls. But it’s worth thinking about so I checked here – – and found:

“1890s: Mass production of reasonably-priced bicycles allows working men to use them for transportation and leisure. Daring young women see the bicycle as a ticket to freedom. Bloomers allowed women wearing skirts to ride while maintaining their modesty. This led suffragist Susan B. Anthony to declare that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Circa 1900: An English manufacturer develops a three-speed wheel hub for bikes, allowing riders to cover hilly terrain with less effort.

Circa 1910: The dawn of the automobile age in begins to make bicycles passe for adults in America. Smaller bikes designed for children are introduced, but the market for kids’ bicycles doesn’t really take off until the post-World War II ‘baby boom’ begins.”

So I think, whilst they would not yet have been “passé” on the Isle of Wight, they would certainly have been common.

Good points though and the ‘bedmate’ thing could well be a childhood (or even sibling) nickname. Every word is a potential clue. 🙂

16 02 2011

Everybody was taught copperplate handwriting at the time.Doesn’t look especially female to me.The tone strikes me as male to male.Would a girl of the time invite someone to hit her over the head?Could Longyougen be another nickname meaning tall child?

8 10 2011
Paula Bailey

I suppose I had only assumed it was female, but I don’t think it looks masculine at all, nor does the tone. I don’t see why young people would not joke about hitting over the head – I read it as a bit of nonsense. Longyoungen could mean that – I’ve certainly heard “young’un” as a term. Thanks for your comment.

8 10 2011

Think is should read “Dear Gab (want to borrow something thin”) not “then” (as the recipients name is Gabriel, and it appears the author is explaining why they have shortened name in greeting). Also, I think it says “I see Hed Baker & George” (where you had question marks). Finally, I think is says “best mates” not bed mates as the letter D throughout text is completely different to this last word, and the letter s was not always clearly defined – especially when signing off?

8 10 2011
Paula Bailey

I think you are right about the word ‘thin’ (though I’m not so certain about the reason for that). It does look like ‘Hed’ though I can’t imagine what that is, but I think the ‘d’ does look like the others, though it’s lifted from the paper a little. What I love about this is that we will never know for sure. Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

5 01 2012
robert che vola

With my limited english knowledge I find this story very interesting…I had never thought that from a postcard, an old postcard so many things and ideas could come out…thank you for sharing

5 01 2012
Paula Bailey

Thanks for your comment. I find it fascinating, and I have done similar research on other postcards. I’ll be sharing more stories soon so keep visiting. 🙂

26 07 2013
Paula Bailey

Since writing this I have been able to access the 1911 census and have found Gabe living in Gillingham, Kent (Chatham), in quarters – Army Ordnance Corps. He is 20 years old, single, rank Private, and is a carpenter, as are many of his fellow servicemen.

27 07 2013

Could the signatory’s name be John Younger?

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