Code like a Victorian

The Canada Gate in London, England, presented to the city by Canada in 1911 for a memorial to Queen Victoria – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved.

Where did criminals, blackmailers, jilted or illicit lovers post their coded messages in Victorian England? Why, in the Agony Column, aka Personal Ads, of the venerable The Times newspaper.

Without any censorship or disclosure of the identity of the ad-placer, and widely read by everyone, including the Queen, the column was ripe for intrigue from all directions.

Since The Times, born in 1785, was a daily paper, message senders and receivers could exchange information in pretty short order, and readers following the paper trail could see how things played out, even if they didn’t know who the participants actually were. As the ‘names’ were often in the form of initials – “H.K.”, “A.G.”, etc. – if readers knew someone by those initials I’m sure there was rampant speculation. Many messages, such as legal claims, were straightforward, but the messages that were veiled in mystery usually contained a clue that would be recognizable to the recipient.

The column got its name from the misfortunes that its submissions contained, but it evolved into a public bulletin board of sorts, and became so popular among readers that it was moved to the front cover, second only to marriages, deaths and shipping information. As interest grew, readers even began trying to decipher the codes.

Today the Agony Column has transformed into an advice column, in the form of ‘letters’ written to people like Ann Landers, Dear Abby and Miss Manners for help with a problem – no less filled with drama, but presumably less criminality. We’re still fascinated by what goes on in others’ lives, and often as intrigued by the answers/solutions that the Agony Aunts provide. One of my favourite quotes by Ann Landers: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.“

An exhibit by the McGill University Library called “News and Novel Sensations” ran from January 10 to April 4 this year, highlighting the development and antics of Victorian newspapers. But even though the exhibit has ended, you can still explore the many resources posted online, including hundreds of actual Agony Column postings of the time period. Just a heads-up, though, if you decide to look them up: the  postings were scraped by web bots and don’t always make a lot of sense (depending on the quality of the archived copies). They do make interesting reading, if you have the time. Here’s a sampling:

A teaser if I ever heard one:
“IF ANN GIBBONS, wife of Peter O’Donnell, and her sister, will COMMUNICATE with their sister Sabina Walters, they will HEAR SOMETHING to their ADVANTAGE.” (The phrase “hear something to their advantage” was used in a lot of ads.)

This sounds like fun!:
“ROYAL SURREY GARDENS, open at 3, 1s., daily. Sax-horn Promenade Bands—Al Fresco Amusements— Comic and Fairy Ballet—Burman, the Star Wizard—Boats on the Great Lake—Dancing on the Mammoth Platform—Band of 40 Performers. N.B. Ohlo Minstrels every evening at 7; also Tableaux Vivents. The entrance fee of 1s, includes every amusement. Open Sunday from 5 till 11 ; admission by refreshment ticket.”

Very mysterious:
“TO H. T. The generous GIFT of £5 has been safely and gratefully RECEIVED, with deep and heartfelt thanks.”

Still goes on today:
“TO DRUGGISTS, &c. — OPIUM STOLEN.— INFORMATION of this ARTICLE having been OFFERED for SALE, under suspicious circumstances, will be acknowledged if kindly addressed to Mr. Superintendent Steed, H Division of the Metropolitan Police.”

Saucy names for a couple of perfumes 😉:
“STOLEN KISSES.—Caution.—Whereas PIESSE and LUBIN have a COPYRIGHT in the above NAME of their NEW PERFUME, also in their sequel, “Box his Ears” legal proceedings will be at once taken against any persons counterfeiting the same, or copying the names and title so ss to mislead purchasers. FRANCIS CHARLES PIESSE, Solicitor, Camberwell.”

I’d hire him:
“VENTRILOQUISM and MAGIC. —Professor SINCLAIR, who gave so much satisfaction this year at the Crystal Palace; will feel happy to ATTEND PRIVATE PARTIES. All communications will be punctually attended to.”

Religious condemnation/incentive:
“J. will forgive if you return now. Your sisters know nothing yet. Return, and be saved—it is not too late.”

Lots of these types of notices. Apparently Brits of the times couldn’t hold on to their pets:
“LOST, on Saturday last, at Deptford, a small BLACK and TAN TERRIER DOG, with leather collar mounted in silver. A handsome REWARD will be given if returned to the Sydney Arms, Lewisham-road, Greenwich.”

There’s such a thing as a Pomeranian Wolf Dog? Can’t imagine that conjugal visit:
“TWO POUNDS REWARD.—LOST, on the 27th, t 12 o’clock, at the Elephant and Castle, a POMERANIAN WOLF DOG—Lou-lou—fawn and white; small white triangle on head, teeth yellow. No further reward will be offered.—R. B., Marston house, Park-crescent, Stockwell, S.” (Turns out there is such a doggie!)

What has George been up to?:
“GEORGE,—Reflect! RETURN at once. Your absence is known but to few, and your immediate return will spare the necessity of communicating it to others.”

Sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes:
“SCOTT.—A YOUNG FEMALE was brought to the Central Home of the London Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution on the 27th inst., giving the name of F. H. SCOTT. She is about 19 years of age, fair complexion, height about 5 feet 6 in. dressed in a light muslin dress, black straw hat with feather, and black siik mantle. She has evidently been brought up in good society, and received the rudiments of a superior education; but the accounts she gives of herself are so contradictory that it is thought she may have LEFT her BOME or SCHOOL under unpleasant circumstances. Applications to Mr. E. W. Thomas, Secretary 200, Euston-road, N.W.”

No emotional blackmail here whatsoever:
“SHOULD this MEET the EYE of J—M.—R, for the sake of your dying mother, RETURN or WRITE. G—Y.”

Alas, the course of true love…
“F.—The LETTER you left breaks my heart. One word spoken would have changed all. Have mercy, and come back to us. Nothing can ever alter the love which has entirely returned, and which implores you to forgive as you are forgiven.—H.”

If there was time to see this much detail, couldn’t the owner have given chase?
“FIVE POUNDS REWARD.—MISSING, a YOUNG MAN, not quite 17 years old, looks older, 5ft. 8 or 9 high, of very dark complexion, hair, and eyes, pale thin face, long straight nose, having a slight seam on his forehead from a cut; dressed in a dark blue jacket with pockets, dark mixed waistcoat, and trousers torn in the leg, laced boots, unbleached cotton socks, and lavender striped cotton shirt, low round crowned hat. Was seen to leave the London bridge Station from the country, from the North Kent line, on Friday afternoon, between 4 and 5 o’clock, having in his arms a very rough light brown dog, of the Scotch terrier breed, answers to the name of “Fergus.” Any one giving such information as will lead to his recovery shall receive the above reward. Address A. B., 9, Eastcheap.”

Yikes – someone’s going to be in trouble:
“BLACK LEATHER BAG, containing official papers. Whoever will take the same to Mr. Ingram, news agent, 9, Parliament-street, S.W., shall receive the above reward. ON the 9th of September, a CARPET BAG, containing articles of considerable value, was STOLEN at Berlin, It had on one side coloured marks embroidered on a ground of black wool, on the other, in a light blue field, the letters E. M.; and, besides articles for the dressing-case and travelling necessaries, contained, among others, 17 shares of the Franco-Austrian Government Railway at 5001s., Nos. 24500, 24838, 18956, 9793, 112706, 112708, 276341, 297522, 276328, 277500, 118838, 92630, 90001, 92629, 118840, 118841, 172114; moreover, four bonds of the Debito Publico del Regno d’Italia (Italian rent), among which two at 500f., No. 1, 406396 of the 5th of October, 1866, and No. 502993 of the 30th August, 1862, in a pasteboard-box, together with other objects; two pieces of money with the portrait stamp of the Pope (2f. and 20f.), and an English half-crown; and in a green linen bag 150 Napoleons d’or. Those to whom these articles may be offered are cautioned against purchasing them, and begged to inform instantly Mr. Emil Brachvogel, rechtsanwalt (attorney), at(…)”

Hopefully Dear One can make sense of this:
“DEAR ONE.—Your last received safely. Many thanks. Cannot hear anything of the other. They want to take it up. Would this be wise? Have put the other matter in hand. Look next week. All’s well.—Yours ever,” (no name scraped)

Someone’s been naughty:
“FIFTY POUNDS REWARD.—Whereas a WARRANT was, on the 6th March, 1869, granted by the Lord Mayor of the city of London, at the Mansion-house Justice Room, for the APPREHENSION of SAMUEL JOHN SHRUBB, Manager and Secretary of the Hercules Insurance Company (Limited), of 33, Poultry, city, lately residing at Saint Alban’s, Herts, for publishing a false prospectus of the said Company with intent to defraud the members thereof; and whereas the said Samuel John Shrubb has absconded, The above reward will be paid upon the apprehension and conviction of the said Samuel John Shrubb. Information to be furnished to Messrs. Lewis and Lewis, 10, Ely-place, Holborn, solicitors for the prosecution; and Inspector Bayly, detective office, Old Jewry, city.”

Fraud is an age-old game:
“CAUTION.—In consequence of frequent misrepresentations, E. MOSES and SON, merchant tailors, outfitters, &c., find it necessary to state that they do not employ any travellers or agents, and that their only establishments are the undermentioned:— London Houses. Corner of Minories and Aldgate. New Oxford-street, corner of Hart-street. Corner of Tottenham-court-road and Euston-road. Country Branch, Bradford, Yorkshire.”

Well, if that’s all:
“LOVEY.—I find it Now impossible to carry out our intentions. Ruin and starvation would be the result.”

Plenty of adverts for private investigators:
“PRIVATE INQUIRY OFFICE, 2, Southampton¬ buildings, Holborn.—Mr. BENTLEY (late Sheriff’s officer), having had 20 years’ experience, undertakes inquiries of all kinds requiring secrecy and despatch, especially for the Divorce Court.”

One of the earliest, and eventually best-known private detectives in Britain, sometimes referred to as the ‘real Sherlock Holmes’, was a man named Ignatius Pollaky. Exiled from his home country of Hungary, he started an agency in Britain, Pollaky’s Private Inquiry Office. He must have known his stuff, because one of his first commissions was to spy on Confederate agents in Britain who were obtaining supplies for the U.S. Civil War. He often advertised in The Times, offering his assistance in “election, divorce and libel cases” or “discreet enquiries in England or abroad”. He also often inserted messages in the “Agony” columns related to his cases; here’s a typical example illustrating his powers of observation:

“MYSTERIOUSLY MISSING, since Thursday, October 1st, when he left England en route for the continent, an ENGLISH NOBLEMAN, 64 years of age, but looks younger, tall and of aristocratic appearance, sallow complexion, gray whiskers and moustache, thin iron gray hair, bald on crown of the head, good teeth, the two front ones widely apart. Supposed to have departed in company with a French lady, about 28 years of age. Information to Mr. Pollaky, Private Inquiry-office, 13, Paddington-green.”

Note the age of the nobleman and his disappearance with a much younger foreign woman – by the sounds of things, some hanky-panky going on, or something nefarious. I was also entertained by Pollaky’s description of the missing man’s “good teeth”, even though the two front teeth had a big space between – clearly those were distinctive features.

Also in the website’s resources you’ll find a game that allows you to play amateur detective and decode a series of messages, Pollaky’s Agonizing Adventure: Solve a mystery in the Agony Column! It’s fun to play and gives an interesting look at codes and decoders of the era.

Screenshot of entry to the game, from

One final cool resource is the site’s Vibecheck, where you can look up the vocabulary typical of the time period. If you’re a writer keen in setting your novel in the Victorian Era, this resource will be invaluable in helping you get the appropriate period nuances. I tested out the word “doubtful”, and you can see the result below.

The many actual Agony Column postings – at least the ones you can make heads or tails of – also contain plenty of material for either a Victorian romance or mystery. You’ll be in good company: the great Sherlock Holmes himself made good use of them, referring to them as “surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual” (from The Adventure of the Red Circle).

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