Can you crack this century-old code?

15 02 2011

 

Postcard
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 (?)
Woodbines
W.D. & H. O.
W.H.J.
Longyoungen

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

Calbourne

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.  And that is where we have to leave them.  There are no further records.  I have found a Gabriel W Critchell who died aged 71 in Berkshire in 1960 but only the age is right and as I have said in previous posts, we can’t make assumptions.

 

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.  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?

 

Woodbines

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.

 

 

 

As posts aren’t always regular on this blog it’s definitely worth subscribing to the RSS feed so you don’t miss any updates.  The Who were they? project will become a recurring feature along with the On the Window Trail posts about the works of Lawrence Lee.  You might also like to take a look at my other blog.

In this series:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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