Victorian Cryptography: Telegraph Codebooks

Excerpt from A Vision Greater Than Themselves: The Making of The Bank of Montreal, 1817-2017 by Laurence B. Mussio


The telegraph was a vital part of the transportation and communication revolution of the 19th century. It heralded the death of distance and the acceleration of decision-making. It was vital to the information and control-processing revolution. For financial institutions, technological transformation, then as now, can lead to complete financial transformation.

Transmitting intelligence and sensitive financial data through public telegraph lines demanded a code language. The code language developed by the Bank was continuously updated down the years. As the introduction to one such codebook (in 1960) suggested, the codebook’s purpose was “to conceal the meaning of messages and to minimize telegraphic charges. Important or confidential messages should be closely coded in order to disguise the meaning as far as possible; where there is not the same need for secrecy, economy of words is the primary objective.”

The codebooks were high-value intelligence documents and so were kept in a safe or a locked compartment in the custody of the manager or accountant. The chain of custody during office hours was carefully set out, and only authorized personnel would be able to see or use the codebook.

Here are some examples of the kind of cyphers used from the 1887 codebook – randomly selected and perhaps unintentionally amusing!

The Number “2” Above; in Pounds Sterling: “Abreast”; in Dollars: “Abridge”; in Cents, “Abridgement”
The number “10 Million” “Extort” in Pounds Sterling “Extorted; in Dollars “Extols”
“Cannot open vault; lock out of order; have sent for locksmiths to ____: “Furnishes”
Panic in Montreal “Jerking”
Panic in New York “Jerks”
You have made a mistake “Notoriety”
Bank of Nova Scotia “Raging”
Bank of Toronto “Ransack”
Baring Bros. & Co. “Rational”
Bank of Montreal Head Office “Plutonic”
Canadian Bank of Commerce “Remember”
Bank of England “Plodding”


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