The Secret Code of Beatrix Potter


As codes go, Potter’s wasn’t inordinately complicated. As Wiltshire explains, it was a “mono-alphabetic substitution cipher code,” in which each letter of the alphabet was replaced by a symbol­—the kind of thing they teach you in Cub Scouts. The real trouble was Potter’s own fluency with it. She quickly learned to write the code so fast that each sheet looked, even to Linder’s trained eye, like a maze of scribbles.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Here’s an example of what it looked like.

Posted on June 23, 2017 at 1:57 PM8 Comments


SJM June 23, 2017 2:30 PM

Isn’t this some kind of security by obfuscation? I mean, if the content of those journals had some kind of relevance at all, it would have been decoded way faster than that. Still impressive she could coherently write so fast with that kind of cipher!

JF June 23, 2017 5:07 PM

Perhaps this is a good post to use to mention an art exhibition I saw a few months back in Vero Beach. The artist, Larry Kagan, arranges wire in such a way that it appears a snarled mess, which when lit with directional light from the correct angle, reveals an image.

I don’t know how useful it might be, but it seems a good example of analog encryption; secrecy through obsfuscation.

Clive Robinson June 23, 2017 9:57 PM

@ SJM,

Still impressive she could coherently write so fast with that kind of cipher!

You’ld be surprised how easy it is to do, not realy any more dificult than just writing in block capitals.

I read both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings well before I was a teenager. In the Lord of the Rings you will find a runic script that is just a monalphabetic substitution. I used to write poetry using it because it gave a more pleasing look, and it stopped those who were just casual snoopers finding out what I’d written.

It also had substitutes for certain common bigrams much as Old English had. That is when you see “Ye olde pork pie shop”[1] the first leter is not a “y” but a “thorn” that replaced “th”.

[1] Yes there realy is “Ye olde pork pie shop” you can find it in Nottingham St Melton Mowbray in Leicester (UK Midlands) behind the town cross and next door to “The Bell Center”. I used to get sausages in there till they started adding to much water, and they would make a mess of the frying pan as well as causing a burnt caramel taste that’s realy quite unpleasent.

Clive Robinson June 23, 2017 10:30 PM

@ Benjamin Bunny,

Perhaps not so much a “secret code” as a personal form of shorthand

Short hand goes back a long long way, maybe as much as 4000 years.

As far as I’m aware the earliest form that we know a name for it’s designer was a Roman by the name of Marcus Tullius Tiro. His system of “Tironian notes” was still in use over a millennium and a half after his death.

Tiro started out as a slave to Cicero and became his Personal Assistant and eventually a freedman of Rome and might actually have done much of Cicero’s writing for him 😉

Joshua Bowman June 24, 2017 3:11 AM

An entire page full of huge fullscreen photos, about a public domain journal — without a single image of the code it gushes on and on about. That was a waste of time. Thanks, Jarda, for posting an example.

Me June 26, 2017 12:59 PM

Am I the only one whose mind went to Beatrix Lestrange and Harry Potter when reading about this?

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