Letchworth pupils crack 111-year-old code in Latin lesson

PUBLISHED: 11:17 29 January 2020 | UPDATED: 11:33 29 January 2020

AS level students Rosalind Mackey and Amy Gilbride decoded a 111 year-old postcard during a Latin lesson. Picture: St Francis College

AS level students Rosalind Mackey and Amy Gilbride decoded a 111 year-old postcard during a Latin lesson. Picture: St Francis College

Archant

A pair of Letchworth school pupils have proved themselves a match for the Enigma machine after beating academics to crack a 111-year-old code for the first time.

The postcard addressed to Helene Huber in 1908. Picture: St Francis CollegeThe postcard addressed to Helene Huber in 1908. Picture: St Francis College

Amy Gilbride and Rosalind Mackey - A-level pupils at St Francis' College - were given the fiendish challenge by their Latin teacher of deciphering a coded postcard from 1908.

"Towards the end of the autumn term the three of us were in high spirits, so Mrs O'Mahoney decided to stretch our linguistic skills even further," Amy said.

"The postcard had been sent from London to Paris, but we had no knowledge of the base language - and the code had never been decrypted before.

"Our first assumption was that the postcard would be in English. It had been sent from London to Paris, so this was a reasonable guess.

Amy and Rosalind deciphered the code in German before translating to English. Picture: St Francis' CollegeAmy and Rosalind deciphered the code in German before translating to English. Picture: St Francis' College

"However, very quickly we noticed that with our three-letter common words such as "and" or "the", it would lead to unlikely letter combinations of double a's or double h's."

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It was only after noticing the German origins of the surname - Huber - that Amy and Rosalind thought they'd translate the postcard into German - and that is where the real fun began.

After successfully translating the opening line "meine liebste Helene" into "my darling Helene", Amy and Rosalind used their knowledge of these letters to decode the entire message over one triple-lesson.

"It turned out that what we were reading was a regular correspondence between siblings," Amy said. "The author tells Helene about a mutual friend's mother who had been ill, and a marriage in London.

"On the back of the postcard, a smaller coded section tells us that the writer was headed to see a German play in London - at the time there was indeed a German theatre in London, which closed in late 1908."

In the early 20th century, picture postcards had just come into fashion, and the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes novels meant that encrypting personal messages was becoming more common.

St Francis' College Latin teacher Mrs O'Mahoney said: "A handful of academics had tried to decipher the postcard over the past five years, but none managed. I knew our Latin students would love this kind of challenge so I set it as an activity in class. I had a feeling they would do well, but never anticipated how quickly they would decode it.

"It's an amazing snapshot of something personal shared between those two correspondents. There was such a connection to the past in that moment."

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