Over the course of the 1920s, 30 and 40s, high-level Liberal Party operatives sent literally thousands of encoded telegrams through the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Telegraph Service. As anyone who has worked with the private papers of any politician from the first half of the twentieth century will know, telegrams were a key, but expensive, means of rapid communication in a country as large as Canada. The fonds of almost every politician from the era are filled with hundreds of telegrams, sent mostly over the CPR network and featuring the company’s Telegraph Services logo.
While fast and convenient, these messages, asides from being expensive, also had serious draw-backs. Namely, while supposedly confidential, too many eyes would see the message en-route to its intended destination and any of those eyes could be partisan supporters of opposing parties, or simply unscrupulous people willing to trade political intelligence for political or financial gain. The Liberals solutions to this problem was to send these telegrams in code. While keeping names and locations unchanged, other words would be substituted using a prearranged method.
Some of the best examples come from the fonds of Manitoba Member of Parliament Albert B. Hudson, the former Attorney General and (most fittingly for this post) Minister of Telephones and Telegraphs for Manitoba and backbencher in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government of 1921-1925. While retiring from electoral politics prior to the 1925 election, Hudson’s connections to the Manitoba Liberals meant that he was a power broker in Manitoba. As a consequence, after the 1925 election, he was tasked by King and the Federal Liberals with convincing the seven Progressive Party MPs from Manitoba to either prop up the Liberal’s minority government or, ideally, to join the Liberal Party. Hudson and the Liberals had to keep his talks with the Progressives secret as they were integral to ensuring the survival of the Liberal Government, which despite only winning 100 seats to the Conservatives 115 in the 1925 General Election, were attempting to govern with the support of Progressive and Independent MPs. Given the fluid nature of the political situation, it was important that King and the Liberal hierarchy had the ability to relay news and instructions to Hudson in Winnipeg, hence the use of coded messages. Here is one example from the 21st of December 1925 that Hudson received while in Winnipeg:
Crerar Lengthen Tidy Excitement Toronto Ottawa Scar Prick Avoidance Transmission Jury Summed Conflict Annunciation Ornament Egbert Annunciation Drury Whirled Throws Congelation Sibilation Befit David Annoying Incrustation Crerar Caucus Wrenching Propagandism
In order to decode the message, the sender would also include instructions on how to read the message. For this message, the instructions, sent in another telegram, were to “subtract 150 Slater Code.” Not having access to the Liberal code book I have no idea what the Slater code is nor what subtracting 150 would accomplish. However, Hudson helpfully decoded the message and wrote it on the back of the telegram paper. Here is the decoded text:
Crerar leaves this evening Toronto. Ottawa Saturday present attitude towards joining subject condition and opinion yourself and Drury we think conditions should be written and include Crerar Caucus with Progressives.
Thomas Crerar was the former leader of the Progressive Party from 1921 to 1922 and former head of the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association. While not sitting in parliament in 1925 – he would return as a Liberal in 1929 – he was enormously influential in Manitoba and would be key to getting the Manitoba Progressives on the Liberals’ side. To ensure that these discussions remained secret, Prime Minister King’s personal secretary, who sent the telegram, sent it in code, to keep prying eyes confused.
While Hudson’s fonds from 1925-26 provide the best single collection of coded telegrams, the practice of sending encoded messages continued well into the 1940s. During the 1940 Federal Election Campaign Prime Minister King sent the following message to the head of the National Liberal Federation, Senator Norman Lambert. King, when discussing his campaign trip by rail to the prairies wrote that, “I shall have to keep in communication with my own office by both telegraph and telephone, receiving coded messages en route. These will require deciphering and will have to be dealt with.” While King did not do his own deciphering, unlike Hudson fifteen years earlier, the Liberal Party still employed the same tactics.
When exactly the practice of sending coded telegrams ended I haven’t been able to find out. Presumably, with the increasing presence of the telephone across the country, secret codes became unnecessary. Furthermore, despite coming across hundreds of coded telegrams, I have been unable to find any information about the type of codes the party employed. I also have not been able to find a code book or anything similar. If anybody out there does have any more information about the Liberal Party’s secret codes let me know in the comments or on twitter!