If the spy stories are to be believed, then most communication codes do eventually yield to mathematical analysis, but the combined brain-power of Bletchley Park could fail to unravel the more intuitive weavings of the cypher-maker’s art when it comes to initials.
A case in point was the neat series of looped scrolls within a part-circle found above the name of the maker – Charles Goode – on a fine bracket clock at Heathcote Ball’s memorable sale of the contents of the Old Rectory at Ufford, Lincolnshire in May.
The catalogue not unreasonably interpreted the cypher as JSL, but subsequent research has not only brought a positive identification of the initials, it has reopened a mystery story which first appeared on the pages of Antiquarian Horology in the late 1980s.
In an article entitled Charles Goode – CW (An Enigma), Paul Tuck drew the attention of horologists to a small but significant number of lantern clocks and watches from the workshop of the distinguished London maker Charles Goode which also bore the contemporary monogram CW. He surmised that CW might have been another maker working with or for Goode.
That was in the winter of 1988.
The Spring edition of the same journal brought a letter that speculated further that Goode and CW were one and the same, in that the letters should be reversed and that WC indicated Goode was a warden of the Clockmakers’ Company.
It was not until the Summer 1989 edition that the mesmeric loops were finally and definitively interpreted as WP, probably within an encircling C for Colonel William Parsons, “a mathematical practitioner and designer of cyphers” whose 1704 A New Book of Cyphers is filled with cunningly contorted initials, including the now identified CWP.
At the Heathcote Ball sale last month, Chislehurst clock dealer Michael Sim had been happy to pay £39,000 (plus 12.5% premium) for the Charles Goode bracket clock on the basis of its quality and condition, but he was baffled by the cypher.
Happily the first person he turned to in his research was Jeremy Evans of the British Museum, who had contributed the letter to Antiquarian Horology which identified William Parsons back in 1989.
He was able to confirm that this is the first bracket clock to be found with this or any similar cypher and further research at the museum has identified the clock among the records of the eminent clock restorer, Philip Thornton of Stafford, whose scratch marks were subsequently discovered on the rear of the back plate.
All good detective stories leave room for a sequel and the next study of the strange case of Goode and Parsons will need to find out just why the Colonel added his hidden identity to the clearly engraved signature of an established London maker.
Unravelling the secret of cyphers
UK: CYPHERS can be frustrating things, whether one is using the word to denote a code for secret writing or, as is more often the case in the antiques world, some ingenious arrangement of conjoined initials.