A note about Arthur Linfoot’s Diary entry of 31 May 1916 and the mysterious place-name between Leicester and Oxford:

Reveille at 4 o’clock. Paraded 5.15 for breakfast. Marched to station. Left 6.40. Beautiful country. Past Nottingham, Leicester, Sansbury, Oxford, Winchester and to Southampton. Arrived Southampton 1.15.

ALL would have been grieved to know how many hours have been spent in the effort to identify this place-name consistently with geography, the contemporary rail network and the rules of Pitman’s shorthand.

Pitman’s Shorthand

The shorthand consonantal outline is quite clear except for the opening symbol, which might be either a small circle, a small loop, or just possibly a small hook. Depending on which it is, the consonantal framework of the name will be either “s-n-s-b-r“, “st-n-s-b-r”, or “n-r-s-b-r”; the vowel signs in manuscript shorthand are seldom completely certain, but in this instance there appears to be an “aw” or a short “o”, or possibly a short “a”, before the “n”, a short, non-diphthong “u” or “oo” before the “r”, and a short, non-diphthong “I” after it. “Sansbury” is thus a simple, literal transcription; but no such place is identifiable.

It is tempting to speculate that the unclear opening symbol, rather than representing an opening “s” or “st”, or medial “n”, might have been intended for a reverse half-circle, either to represent the diphthong “yoo” (before the “n”), or – in a non-purist way – to make an opening “w” (this appears only to have been correct before a horizontal or rising straight stroke.) The latter interpretation might be tempting because it would, rather incorrectly, make “Wednesbury”, which is just about possible geographically, if unlikely in terms of rail traffic; nothing plausible can be made of the “yoo” alternative. But in any case, reference back to the actual shorthand, as written, rules out reading the symbol as a reverse half-circle.

The Rail Network

Suggestions, for all of which we are very grateful, have been made based primarily on the rail network, perhaps the strongest of these being “Banbury”. It seems very likely that ALL’s train did actually go through Banbury on its way between Leicester and Oxford, but there is no way that this name can be reconciled with the shorthand as written. Curiously, the shorthand outline (assuming an opening hook, not a circle or loop) would be exactly right for “Knaresborough” – though the vowel dots/dashes would be inaccurate, especially the final one, and of course this interpretation is impossible geographically. But this does lead on to what might seem, in default of any clearer solution, a possible explanation.

A Possible Explanation

Reveille had been at 4.00am that day, the troop-train started at 6.40, the soldiers remained in it 6½ hours (until 1.15pm), and they then waited 4 hours until they could go aboard “Karnak”, at 5.15pm; “Karnak” sailed some 2¾ hours later, “about 8”, and arrived at Le Havre 12 hours later, on 1 June. The men lay down – on deck – at about 10pm (on 31 May), and although ALL writes “Slept pretty well considering”, this was “considering” that they were “up two or three times”, and got up for the day “shortly before 5”.

We don’t know how long it would have been before ALL got an opportunity to write up 31 May in his diary, but it seems fair to assume that he and the other men had had a tiring day. The troop-train down through central England was probably fairly crowded, and although it wasn’t until WW2 that the threat of invasion led to the removal of name-boards on railways and elsewhere, the troop-train wouldn’t have stopped in stations, nor slowed except for signalling requirements, so the identification of places may well have depended on someone near a window (at that date, in 3rd class rolling-stock, there would have been 5 or 6 seated side-by-side across each closed compartment, with no corridors) seeing a board as the train went non-stop along a platform, and calling out a name which he may or may not have read correctly.

ALL’s commercial experience had no doubt given him a reasonably good working knowledge of British geography, though presumably less detailed for the Midlands and South, so the names and locations of Nottingham, Leicester, Oxford, Winchester and Southampton would have been familiar to him (although he’d never been anywhere near them before.) But he was probably less familiar with the names and relative locations of lesser towns and cities, and when he wrote his diary, at the end of the day or during the night, he may perhaps have imperfectly recalled the names and sequence of the places passed en route. If one accepts this as a possible explanation of the enigmatic “s-n-s-b-r”, and using the following suggestion only because it is what led to this train of thought (not because it is intrinsically more plausible than other hypotheses), perhaps ALL, or someone else in the train, saw the name “Kenilworth” or “Kettering” flash by, misread it as “Knaresborough”, and although ALL probably did know where Knaresborough really is, after a long exhausting day it was simpler just to write it down than to start speculating or reasoning to find a more likely place-name; I don’t think he would have had access to a map just then.


DL, 03.06.2016