Pigeon Post

Messages 2

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Telegrams are always cryptic. Let’s start with trying to untangle the text above.

Amboise 29 nov [Message sent from Amboise on 29 November 1870] Héricé, 12, parc-royal [message addressed to M. Jules Héricé living at 12 rue du Parc-Royal in Paris]

12 rue du parc-royal

Tous ensemble, bonne santé … [we are all together and in good health at 19 St Michaels Place Brighton]

Chenard toujour caen. santés bonnes, recevons lettres. Hélène … The Chenards are still in Caen.  They’re in good health. We are getting the letters. (signed) Hélène]

If Hélène was in Brighton, why does the message carry an Amboise post mark?

The clue is in the date:  by the end of November 1870, Paris had been under siege by the Prussians for two months. Very few provisions could reach the inhabitants.  By then, the starving Parisians had been (in)famously reduced to killing and eating the animals in the Jardin des Plants (Zoological Gardens).

Hélène (alas, who she was is so far not known) must have been one of the many wealthier Parisians who had managed to escape to safety. The poorer classes did not have that luxury.

How had Hélène managed to get a message to Jules Héricé, a well-known jeweller in Paris?  She had written her very short note of 13 words (addresses and signatures counted as one word each); she had taken it to the Post Office in Brighton, unsealed, with no envelope; she had paid 5p per word plus 6d to have the message registered:  a grand total of 5/5d (5 shillings and 5 old pence). This was not cheap at being around £50.00 or a day’s income on the 2020 minimum wage.


Brighton Post Office, Ship Street as Hélène would have seen it in 1870. Image courtesy of the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove

Hélène’s message had been taken by the safest routes (most likely train to Newhaven, boat to Dieppe and train to Amboise.)  There her message had been microfilmed – yes, micro-filmed … in 1870.  Her message would then be attached, along with some three or four thousand other messages, to a homeing pigeon to Paris and voilà, Jules Héricé gets Hélène’s message delivered to him.

Of course, it was far more complicated than that.  Read the brilliant account of the Siege of Paris pigeon post by Ashley Lawrence.

Hélène’s was not the only message to leave Brighton for France. The messages ranged from the touching to the comic. The printed message following the one from Hélène reads in translation:

[Germer (rue) Baillière medical school.  Children in good health, Madeleine is learning English, Raymond is asking for his father.  Write more often.  We are all in Brighton.]

Is this from Mme Germer?  Did she have to take sudden flight with the children, not knowing where she would find refuge.  And poor little Raymond, he’s pining for his Father.

Other examples of messages sent from Brighton are signed from the following indivduals:

  • Flavie in 15 Bedford Square;
  • an unnamed correspondent staying at Page’s lodging house at 173 North Street writing to Madame Boury;
  • Manceaux at 16 Lansdowne Place;
  • Sergenton staying at 57 Ventnor Villas;
  • Caroline Robineau in Regency Square;
  • Poncet at 41 Grenville Place
  • And from a certain Mr or Mrs Hutchison from No 7 norfock hood.

All of the addresses above were of lodging or furnished houses, with the exception of ‘Sergenton’ who was staying with Malcom Ross and his small family.

Norfock hood and the equally baffling neevdborn house, Cannon Place are the results, of course, of the multiple re-writings of the original hand-written message.  Norfolk Road is not too difficult to decipher, and a guess can be made that M. Schoenau was writing from one of the three lodging houses in Cannon Place which began with N… – Newburgh House seems the most likely.

  1. Schoenau’s message might have been on business – écrivez par ballon, paris libre j’enverrais argent [write via balloon, when Paris is free, I’ll send the money] – or is M. Schoenau trying to wriggle out of a debt. The same message could be interpreted as: if Paris were free, I would send the money.

Last but not least, the requirement to expression themselves so succinctly concentrated people’s mind wonderfully.  It is quite clear what is uppermost in Mr Moseley’s mind when he wrote to Monsieur Javal in boulevard Magenta:  cinquième télégramme. tous bien. reçu letter 17. quelle quantité de fromage acheter ? [fifth telegram.  (we’re) all well.  received letter of 17th.  how much cheese should I buy?]  Or was that a hidden message wrapped up in a cryptic message disguised as simple question?  It’s a mystery wrapped up in a cheesecloth and will remain so, probably for ever.

fin symbol

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