A bit of a challenge (updated)

Some years ago I studied Mark Urban’s wonderful book “The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes”.  I then put the theory into use by devising a computer programme to reproduce in a simplified way the coding system for use as an intellectual exercise and also for reenactment purposes.

I spent a week in Jersey posing as a British code breaker in the 1790s deciphering a blind text in French that my programme had encoded for me.  This was most satisfying for me, quite interesting for the visiting public and totally boring for my wife, who shared the same cold, damp room.  She was engaged in sewing, and my other task during the week was to retrieve dropped needles, for she was unable to bend in her period corset.

A couple of days ago, the BBC’s programme “Antiques Roadshow” featured a small patch box dating from 1785 with an encoded message that they were unable to decipher.  It was too much of a challenge to resist:

The top of the box.  Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.
The top of the box. Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.

Here is my working on the code:

At first sight the code appears to be

663- 5446- 45- 5-9288 166- 8503 45- 288

I noticed that some numbers have a line above them, and the dashes are actually a mark like a sideways comma. Rendering these symbols with an apostrophe for the “comma” mark and an asterisk for the overscore, and if I read it correctly, the code reads:

66’3 54*46’ 4*5’ 5’92*88 16*6’ 85*03* 4*5’ 2*88

My first clue was that there was also a scrollwork in English on the box. Since the top also read “Anno Domini 1785” there was a chance that it could be Latin.

The engraving (in English) around the box side.  Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.
The engraving (in English) around the box side. Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.

Starting with English and surmising that the double 8s were probably double Ls (other possibilities in English are E,F,O,S and T), I quickly – well, after a couple of hours of brain-bending – found out that the overscored numbers 2*,3*,4*,5*,6* are the vowels A,E,I,O,U. If 4* is I then 5’ has to be F, S or T, because it is used in a two letter word (IF, IT or IS).

Although there was only one sentence to work with, the lucky part was that two groups of letters were repeated (4*5′ and 2*88).  After I had worked out that the final 4*5’2*88 was actually two words it was easy.  I tried all two letter words as possibilities for 4*5′, and then a comparison of three and five letter words ending in the same double letter and achieved:


Here I ran into a problem.   The only word that makes sense for 16*6’ using the remaining available letters is “BUT”.   If that is correct I have:

?T? ?I?T IS SMALL BUT LOVE IS ALL. Possibly the second word is “GIFT”, but I cannot find a three letter word with T in the middle and no vowels. Could there be some carving errors, or did I mistake the carving?

From my logic above, if the first word is “THE”, it should be rendered as 6’63*   not 66’3.

To be fair, I have seen in 18th century texts the word “the” spelt as “hte” and this would make sense if I missed the overscore on the 3. I was working with a still image from a video representation.

So my conclusion is that the message probably:


By examining the letters and numbers in order, here is my best guess at the whole code.  Numbers and letters in bold are those used in the sample:

1 b   1′ n
2 c 2* a 2′ p
3 d 3* e 3′ q
4 f 4* i 4′ r
5 g 5* o 5′ s
6 h 6* u 6′ t
7 k 7* y? 7′ w or y
8 l   8′ x
9 m 0 v 9′ z

If you can add anything to this, please let me know by adding a comment to this post.

The TV programme is  available until 7th February 2016 to British residents at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06wcfgc/antiques-roadshow-series-38-18-bowood-house-2

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General Whiskers

Wargaming butterfly (mainly solo), unpainted model figure amasser, and Historical Re-enactor of the black powder era.

8 thoughts on “A bit of a challenge (updated)”

  1. The code on the box brought me here as well, looks like you beat me to it. Well done. How do you pass the information on to the owner though?

  2. Paul, in the light of your deciphering activities on Jersey (and Antiques Roadshow) I wonder if you might please comment on a similar number sequence I’m battling with. I’ve applied your methods, but the sequence is far less obvious.

    1. Hi Graham,
      Happy to take a look at it if you want to send it to paul.wisken@btinternet.com.

      If you know the sunsect matter, you can start by looking for sequences that would make relevant words. Otherwise look for double letters (repeated numbers) or good old counting of the instances a number occurs. The most common letters in my experience are E, N, S and T, all of which may appear as doubles.

      I was lucky with the Antiques Roadshow one, where the code was simple and the way in was an “XYY” sequence which had to stand alone and also finish a five-letter word.

  3. am i missing it?

    where is the J ?

    though the decode looks reasonable, skipping a letter would seem to alter all following letters.

    not like s 5×5 where a Q may be left out.

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