History of Black Chambers

The term ‘Black Chamber’ comes from a French phrase, cabinet noir. It’s a great name isn’t it!

I’ll start by letting you know about the History of Black Chambers (see this section). There’s lots of information on this part of the site to get your teeth into once you’ve understood the basics!

The very smiley King Henry IV of France

What Exactly is a Black Chamber?

King Henry IV of France, 1590

The first cabinet noir was set up by King Henry IV of France in 1590. Its mission was to open, read and reseal letters, therefore finding out secrets.

The workers at the cabinet noirs became very skilled at resealing letters so no one would know the secrets had been read. Eventually though, people became suspicious! Secrets were being uncovered which led people to suspect their letters were being read!

The letter writers had to come up with a plan to protect their secrets. The plan was simple. If you want to keep a secret…then write in code! It was a fabulous plan and frustrated those who worked in the Black Chambers. The workers had to learn how to tackle this problem and the only thing to do was to learn how to crack the codes. This meant that eventually Black Chambers became code cracking centres.

Black Chambers continued right through history in various different forms and across various different countries. They were places where codes were made…where codes were cracked…and where secrets were uncovered! Black Chambers still exist today!

The Idea Behind Secret Breakers

This gave me the idea for the series title of the book…SECRET BREAKERS. Not only did the code breakers break the code, but they worked in secret…finding secrets…so the title plays with all these ideas.

Now you know what a Black Chamber is, we can get more specific with the details!

History Of Black Chambers & The Secret Breakers Who Worked There

Army and the Navy code cracking departments

During the First World War, the British Army and the British Navy had separate departments which collected messages sent from enemy forces and tried to read them.

If these messages were sent in code, the departments had to break the codes first. Just after the First World War ended, the Cabinet’s Secret Service Committee decided that there should be a peace-time code-breaking agency.

The job of creating this agency was given to Hugh Sinclair and he merged the Army and the Navy code cracking departments to form one code cracking organization.

Government Code & Cipher School

The team had about 30 officers and about the same number of clerical staff. Sinclair wanted this new Black Chamber to remain a secret and so the Black Chamber was given a cover name. It was called the “Government Code and Cipher School”.

In the beginning, this new department was based in Watergate House, Adelphi, London. As far as the public was concerned, it gave advice on codes and how to use them.

Secretly, it looked at the way foreign countries used codes to pass messages on.

“Secretly it looked at the way foreign countries used codes to pass messages on”

Bletchley Park Mansion & The Ministry of Information

It was during the Second World War, that GCCS was moved to Station X (Bletchley Park Mansion.)

The Ministry of Information (MOI) was a department set up at the end of World War One. It was led by the ‘Minister of Information’. Although it closed after the end of the war, it was publically reformed when the Second World War began. (Actually, the department began to take shape again, a few years before the war, in 1935, working in secret but they just didn’t tell anybody so no one knew it had been reformed).

The department was based in Senate House which is a fabulous building in London. It was the part of the government who dealt with publicity and campaigns trying to get the country to work together during war time.

The MOI had many jobs. One was controlling the censorship of the news. People were in charge of what bits of information about the war were shared with the public. (This idea about controlling information has inspired lots of writers. The author George Orwell used the idea in his book ‘1984’).

Senate House London

Keep Calm And Carry On

During the Second World War, the department employed many artists and writers who could produce posters and leaflets that would encourage the public to support the war effort.

In 1942, £4 million was spent on publicity. That’s a huge amount of money even now…but it seemed an enormous amount all those years ago. £120,000 of this was spent on posters, art and exhibitions. Artists were paid to produce all sorts of work according to how the war was going or how it looked like it might develop. Other people were employed to find out how the nation was reacting to the publicity campaigns.

One advert produced by the department but never used in war time has since become very famous. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, is a wartime poster from the MOI in 1939. It was printed and got ready to be given out but it wasn’t displayed in war time. It was recently rediscovered and has been used in all sorts of advertising in recent years.

We have been told that The MOI officially stopped existing in March 1946…..but perhaps the department is still at work secretly and I use this idea as part of the plot for the series…..!

‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ propaganda poster