Untold lives blog

23 June 2016

Chronograms: dangerous dogs and escaping elephants

Chronograms are sentences, phrases or poems created so that the letters, which are also roman numerals add up to a certain date. In order to achieve this, the letters that are also roman numerals are attributed with a numerical value. So for example I is 1, V is 5 and X is 10. They can found in historical tracts, on buildings and grave stones.

James Hilton (1816-1907) was an avid collector of chronograms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He found and copied out examples from many different manuscripts but he also received new chronograms from chronogram enthusiasts.

Reverend Cecil Deedes (1843-1920) was a key contributor of chronograms to Hilton’s collections. His chronograms were based on local events and national news stories including the death of Gladstone, the situation in South Africa and escaped tigers.

One chronogram from 1898 reveals Deedes’ empathy for the dogs of Sussex who due to the persistence of rabies were ordered by magisterial powers to be muzzled. Any dogs found not wearing a muzzle were disposed of by the police. Deedes’ chronogram is as follows:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

Luckily for the dogs the order was revoked later on in 1898 by which time Hilton notes that many dogs had grown very fat due to a lack of exercise. Deedes celebrated with his canine friends with the chronogram below:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

A couple of years later in February 1900 Deedes was concerned with the fate of Archie the elephant. Archie was an elephant in Sangar’s exhibition at Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Irritated by his keeper prodding him with a spear, Archie crushed him under his foot and broke loose. Hilton reports that he caused ‘much mischief and alarm in the neighbourhood’. Deedes’ chronogram reports what happened next:


Detail from a chronogram in James Hilton's Papers, British Library, Modern Manuscripts Collection. Cc-by

Deedes enjoyed writing many of his chronograms in Latin but luckily Hilton includes a transcription for those like me who have trouble translating it. The translation is as follows:

‘From Sagars beast enclosure
Within the Crystal Palace
An elephant just bolted
Who bore the name of Archie
He levelled walls and fences
And ruined people’s gardens
In a big wood was concealment
Till here the herd revealed him
Now that his jaunt was over
To work returns the rover’

In order to draw Archie out, a number of other elephants were herded around the wood. On seeing the other elephants Archie emerged from his hiding place. Hilton and Deedes don’t record what happened to Archie but Hilton notes that at the coroner’s inquest ‘magisterial interference caused punishment to fall on certain of Sangar’s people’.

The British Library holds a number of volumes of Hilton’s published and unpublished works on chronograms, which include both historical and current affairs chronograms. Many can be found at Add MS 68939-68941. There are four more volumes from this collection currently being catalogued which will shortly be available.

Laura Walker, Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1851-1950.

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