Margaret Box letter from Salonica – October 20th 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a civilian Red Cross nurse, serving in Serbia, towards the end of the First World War. On the 20th of October 1918 she wrote to her Mother from Salonica. As this had been the first major city she had been in for a while she also sent a telegram to say she had arrived safely.

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My Dear Mother

At last we have moved on & we had a comfy night here last night. We went to bed early & slept ‘double quick’ to make up for the night before – which we spent looking at the scenery. There was a lovely moon to light us on our way. We stopt at 9.30 p.m. & got out to have dinner, then went on again. I sent a cable off to you this morning from the place I promised & I hope you will get it soon. We are not staying here long & we are going much further than was intended when we started – the address you have holds good or course – where ever we go.

I say Goodbye to Miss Sinclair & Miss Murdoch today – they are both going to work here for the time being. Miss Powell-Jones, the chauffeur (Taffy – I will call her – she is Welsh) is going on with me – some of the way we go together – also 2 other chauffeurs & Miss Danby who caught us up at the last place. Miss Danby is going to the same place as I am.

Salonica is a very large place – it is awfully hot even now – so can’t imaging what it is like in summer.

When you are writing & it is convenient please will you send me a reel or two of grey cotton, I did not bring any & as you know my clothes are all grey & I have only black or white to sew them up.

My hair has grown about 2 inches since I left home. I was hoping to go to a barber while staying here, but today is Sunday so I have had no chance – however Taffy has kindly cut it for me & I am thankful to be feeling a little cooler in the upper regions.

Everybody is very nice & kind & we seem to have been feeding ever since we arrived. There is no one here that I know and am afraid I have forgotten all the people I was meant to look up. I ought to have put all their names down. But I have no time to visit anyone.

I must get a bath & pack my clothes before we move on so had better say Goodbye.

With much love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret Box.


Written on the letter is also says ‘3 copies typed’ and ‘sent to Norah’, and something else I can’t read.

As is happening during the lockdown people who are not professional hairdressers were extending their skill sets, as Taffy kindly cuts Margaret’s hair.

The journey

The journey from Bralos to Salonica was by a train on the Piraeus–Platy railway – which runs through spectacular scenery and, having been built between 1908 and 1916, would have been quite new when Margaret used it.

This video shows the type of scenery the train travelled through, no wonder Margaret spent the trip looking out of the window !

Miss Powell-Jones

I think she is probably

JONES Miss Gladys Margaret Powell, Chauffeur America Unit 19-Sep-18 1-Mar-19

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Names G-M

Note that the American Unit, also known as the Ostrovo Unit was largely funded by money from America, although the women came from all over the world. Note that according to the Wikipedia article on ‘Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Only the medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and x-ray operators received a salary and expenses while non-medical staff such as orderlies, administrators, drivers, cooks and others received no pay at all (and were in fact expected to pay their way)

So as a chauffeur Taffy would not have been being paid, but would have been having an opportunity for experiences not generally available to women during those times.

“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott

I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.


I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.

        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

The Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Today would be the two hundredth birthday of Florence Nigthtingale, and the World Health Organisation designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife in her honour. Although the Coronavirus crisis may have taken some of the attention which might have otherwise been paid to this remarkable woman, it has also emphasised the importance of nurses.

One of the results of the Corvid-19 crisis, has been the release for anybody to read, of all the Scientific American Coronavirus related articles, at


A particularly relevant recent Scientific American article is “Nurses Are Playing a Crucial Role in this Pandemic—as Always” – interesting to see the similarities and differences between nursing in the USA and here in the UK, as well as an acknowledgement of the shared history, leading back to the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – not only for her care for her patients, but for her putting nursing on a professional basis, with an emphasis on hygiene, infection control, statistics and training.

I am particularly grateful for the kindness and professionalism of the nurses of the Oxford Churchill Hospital, both the Peritoneal Dialysis team and the Renal Transplant team.


Everybody who is reading this article has been born, which is a minor miracle in itself, which we take for granted nowadays. I have already written, in ‘On being born‘ about historically high mortality rates for both infants and mothers, and it is due to improvements in midwifery that we all benefit from this.

Florence Nightingale

A side effect of writing this blog is finding out about subjects of which I had no significant previous knowledge. Reading, mostly from the Wikipedia article, I found several items that had a particular resonance

My Methodist friends would, I hope be pleased to learn of the Wesleyan influences on her theology.

Margaret Box, nurse and midwife

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, left me much correspondence relating to her time nursing in Salonica and Serbia, but little of that actually relates to nursing. I do have some information from Census and other records which give a skeletal framework to her career.

She trained as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital between 1914 and 1917

I know from the Midwives Roll of 1931 that she qualified as a Midwife on 9th February 1918, by Central Midwives Board Examination.

From September 1918 to April 1919 she was nursing in Salonica and Serbia.

The 1923 Nursing Register shows her living in Frensham, Surrey, with her nursing qualification being from Guy’s Hospital in 1917.

In 1931 and 1935 Midwives Rolls she was a Midwife at the General Lying-in-Hospital in Lambeth.

In 1937, the Register of Nurses shows her living in Broadstairs, Kent, with a date of registration as a Nurse of 17th February 1922 – this gives her 1914-1917 training dates and nursing certification.

The 1939 Census shows her as a Matron, State Registered Nurse, in Broadstairs, Kent.

I still have several family history related letters I have not read, but as far as I know, that is all I can discover about her nursing career.

Margaret Box still in Bralo, October 14th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, was nursing in Salonica and Serbia at the end of the First World War. She wrote many letters home, which I am transcribing here. This one, to her father, follows the one she wrote she wrote to her mother, from Bralo on 11th/12th October 1918.

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c/o 49th Stationary Hospital


14 x 18

& 15th

My Dear Dad

We are still here & still expect to be ! The work in the hospital now is much lighter so we are not helping any more. We generally go out for a walk in the mornings & come in for lunch at 12.30 – in the afternoon we stay inside & read – it is much too hot out then to be pleasant – we have to be in camp by 6 p.m. so there is no time for an evening walk. Yesterday morning Miss Sinclair & I set out together – we walked thro’ the vinyards by a winding footpath then across a Tobacco field & down to the river bed – just now there is only a little brook running & we easily crossed by stepping stones. We climbed the bank the other side & went thro’ a farmyard into the village street – now more than a rough cart track, the cottages are mostly made of mud (I believe I said stone before) & mostly all have a wooden stairway leading up to a veranda. I believe the family lives upstairs & the donkeys, pigs, goats & chickens downstairs.

Under the eaves & in every available hanging place are strings of tobacco leaves hanging up to dry. The wooden shutters are all bright blue. Everyone greeted us as we went along & the women & girls love to shake hands. This village was at the foot of a mountain & we thought of climbing up a little but we had no time & the mountains are all very rough & rocky with an awful lot of dwarf holly about – so we wandered on & came back again to the river. We climbed down the bank & sat on a stone under the shadow of a bridge. Some pretty little birds came down to drink. They looked like glorified yellow wagtails – there are lots of pretty birds about but they don’t sing – only twitter. Further down the river under shelter of a bridge a crowd of greek women were talking – presently ‘Whiskey’ – our dog – a huge black & white animal with red eyes jumped up & barked furiously at a woman who came to wash some clothes in the brook. Altho’ he is a Greek dog – he hates the Greeks – we had to hold him in & talk severely to him. Just then 2 pretty girls came along carrying wine barrels on their backs – they stopped & stared at us & I believe they thought we were lost – anyway they made signs for us to go with them – so we did.

We patted each other & admired each others clothes & then set off together – one took my hand & we all jabbered as we went along – as you may imagine we were all very much amused & they laughed as much as we did. We passed a church with a whole crowd of men discoursing outside in the yard. Then we went on til we came to the next village where we said Goodbye to our friends.

We saw a woman carrying her baby all wrapped up in a blue bundle & tied on her back with string ! The babies look very pale & wizzened tho’ the children look bonny enough. We left the village behind us & followed a track across a bare field towards our camp which was a good way off – but as there are no hedges or other obstacles about we could make a bee line for our tents. We were back in good time for lunch. We rested in the afternoon & at 5.30 went to church in the camp. The service is very simple & nice & the Chaplain preached a very good sermon. We miss the church bells – tho’ all thro’ the service we could hear the goat bells as the herds were being driven home. This morning we set out with the intention of climbing a mountain ! To begin with we are quite a long way from the foot of a mountain when your time is limited (we always have to be in for lunch) so we looked longingly at the 1st motor lorry that came along & the tommy stopped & up we climbed. That took us along the very dusty, uninteresting road to the village of Gravia – at the foot of the Pass we came thro’ from Itea so we walked thro’ the village & started up the mountain along a donkey track – it was very rough & prickly – you see we left the donkey track & made a bee line for the sharp edge of a ridge. I picked crowds of little pink cyclamen on the way. A little Greek girl with bare feet came with us – her feet must have been harder than shoe leather for they did not seem to get scratched & our own shoes did!

We eventually got to the top of the ridge after climbing a long time & sat on jagged rocks. We looked down on Gravia nestling below us on one side & the winding road & rocky ravine of the Pass on the other side & up behind us towards the mountain we’re going to climb! We rested there 1/2 an hour or more & discussed the nearest way home & whether we would chance getting a lift back along the road. We intended climbing down the other side into the village but it was too steep & prickly so we came down the same way. Luck was with us for just as we reached the road a lorry came along & we all climbed up in front with the driver. We had just got thro’ the village when the Colonel came along in his car – it was much nicer than the lorry. How we flew along !

This afternoon being very hot I seized the opportunity to wash my clothes & hung them out to dry while I rested on my bed ! Your clothes dry very quickly in this sun& as I don’t know where my kitbag is I cant get any clothes out of it – so that is a great reason for washing to proceed. The clothes I am wearing will be worn out before I see the kitbag again.

After tea we walked up to the canteen to get soap & a few other things. Soap was an unknown quantity so we got Turkish delight instead & very nice too.

Coming back we watched the sun go down behind the mountains, the light on Mt Parnassus is beautiful & as it is the highest mountain the light is on it the longest. It is a lovely mountain & I never get tired of watching it – it is quite different from the others. As soon as the sun has gone it gets very cold & we rush for coats – just now there is a moon & the stars are grand – they seem to be so much bigger & nearer. I watch them every night from my tent door.

15. x. 18

Still no word of moving on & we are trying to practice patience. This morning we strolled thro’ the vinyards & down to the brook. We sat under the shadow of a tree & read our books for some time – but we saw rain coming over the mountains so thought we had better return. On the way back we found some mushrooms & have given them to the cook for breakfast. We got in before the rain which is coming down this afternoon in torrents. We had planned to take our tea to a mountain & search for an old monastery but that of course is out of the question now. No doubt we shall get a chance of going one day later as there seems to be no hope of marching orders yet.

This afternoon the sisters have all gone on duty in top boots & oilskins. The mountains have all disappeared behind the clouds & the whole camp looks a completely different place.

I enclose a leaf of some pretty green stuff we found on the mountain – it grows about 8″ to 1 ft high & looks so pretty in with the pink cyclamen.

I think I will say Goodnight now – am glad to say the rain has stopped.

Very much love to all

Your loving daughter

Margaret Box.


Work in the hospital much lighter

When Margaret wrote on October 11th, the sisters on the wards at the hospital had not been off duty for a month, as they were at the peak of the Spanish Flu epidemic. As I write this, we have been in isolation for over a month in response to the Corvid 19 pandemic, and it is encouraging to remember that too came to an end.

Bralo, Gravia and Itea

Bralo, is the small village below the 49th Field Hospital, which is the village Margaret and Miss Sinclair visited on the first morning.

Gravia is a larger village, down the valley from Bralo – the very dusty, uninteresting road on which they had lifts from lorries and the Colonel’s car is now part of European Route E65.

Itea will be where they disembarked from the troop ship on 3rd October, before catching a train to Bralo on 6th October.

Shopping in the Canteen

The substitution of Turkish Delight for Soap may seem like an early example of supermarket home delivery substitutions, but when you look this does not seem so silly, and according to Wikipedia ” soapwort may be used as an emulsifying additive. ” in the production of Turkish Delight, as well as having been used to make soap.

Map showing Bralo and Gravia, Itea is at the south end of the valley

Say not the struggle naught availeth

I started this post a couple of years ago and never published it, but this has been a favourite poem of mine for many years, and the idea of a hyperlinked version must date back to before 2009, as that is when Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle.
The poem can be seen as being about several times when we seem to be in the losing side of some battle. When I originally started the post it represented, for me, the struggle between the general idea that knowledge should be shared, in particular Free (Libre or Open Source) Software,  as against the concept that knowledge should be a commodity to be owned by the powerful and used as a tool to maintain and increase their power.



The poem has been used as a message of hope in inspiration in several contexts, generally from the side who appear at the time to be the underdog.

Software and Internet Freedom

The context I originally thought of. Quite a lot has happened over the past decade or more. Linux, a computer operating system written by a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, and offered freely to the world, now runs not only the computer I am writing this on, but those used by Google, Amazon, Facebook  – almost every big Internet facing website which is not owned by Microsoft. Android phones, set top boxes and cheap (£5) computers capable of running as a web server, such as the Raspberry Pi also run Linux.

On the down side, the way we communicate has largely moved from standards based, open email and openly published web pages to a small set of proprietary systems, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Churchill and the Second World War

Winston Churchill famously quoted the poem in a speech of February 1941, when the outlook for Britain – and democracy in Europe looked bleak.


The war was won, even though at the time of the speech the outcome was very much in doubt.

In the same way that the self isolation needed to tackle Coronavirus, is making this a difficult time for many of us, Churchill struggled with what he called his Black Dog – his term for depression – but he overcame it to give inspiring leadership when it was most needed.

Chartism – the original context

The poem was probably written in 1849, in the wake of the dramatic revolutions of 1848, and the defeat of the Chartist Movement. Although some think it relates to the collapse of the 1848 Italian rising, I think the Chartist cause resonated more strongly with Clough, and in either case today’s situation brings hope. Britain, and much of the rest of the world now has universal suffrage, while Italy is an independent country.



Although the death toll continues to climb, health services all over the world are under immense pressure, and an economic depression looks likely, there are signs of hope.

Scientific American has made all its Coronavirus coverage available for free, and for anyone who really wants to know more about the disease a group at Harvard Medical School have made a Corvid-19 Curriculum available. Reading that reveals the importance of the international free sharing of information about the disease, particularly from Chinese doctors who first encountered it.

It is spurring fundamental medical research, and boosting systems of testing, such as the nanopore RNA sequencing, being done by Oxford Nanopore, whose preferred analysis programme runs on Linux, and whose software is available for community review and enhancement.

I hope it is boosting open Epidemiological models, such as STEM, although I have resisted the temptation to dive deeper into this area I hope a diverse range of models are being openly developed, and tested against the real data to work out which best matches reality. (I intend to write a bit more about that when I get round to writing about Diversity and Regulation in Science)

We are recognising those, from NHS staff and carers to refuse collectors, who really are ‘essential workers’ needed to keep our society working, and I hope, post Coronavirus we will remember the part they played, and that it will not be like Kipling’s Tommy

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? “
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll

The crisis has unlocked creativity all over the world, and people are coming together in creative ways, almost too many to mention here.

The sharp reduction in international air travel has been good for the environment, and I hope unnecessary travel for meetings will continue be be replaced by Video Conferencing,

Bringing me back to the origins of this article, I hope the world will end up using some kind of solution which will be based on standards and openness, such as Jitsi, rather than a closed system which aims to lock people in.

Diversity and Regulation

The intertwined themes of Diversity and Regulation are in my thoughts a lot at the moment, so this post acts as an anchor from which I expect to expand on in other posts.


We are surrounded by diversity – among people, in the objects in our daily lives, in culture and knowledge, in fortune – good or bad; and more exposed to this than in any time in human history.

I am a fan of diversity, which is a good thing, because it exists, and to deny the existence of something real is ultimately a mistake.

People come a variety of shapes, sizes, skin colours and ethnic origins, gender identifications and orientations, abilities and interests.

The objects and tools around us are more varied, and can come from anywhere in the world. Although the food we eat may (and probably should) come from close to us, the ideas and cuisines can come from anywhere in the world – or bring them together to create something totally new.

Out in the bustling streets of Oxford (pre coronavirus) I love to see the bright colours of traditional African garb, the formal western suits, the casual jeans and tee-shirts, the outrageously short mini skirts and the ultra modest burqa, all able to mingle and co-exist.

My television has some huge number of channels, covering many varied interests, and my bookshelves hold several thousand books – I have not counted them recently. My Kindle has, slightly alarmingly, well over 500 books on it, and the Internet gives me access to more information than the librarians of the Great Library of Alexandria could have dreamt of.

Oxford Phab brings me in touch with a range of people who enrich my life, and broaden my horizons.

Pressure against diversity

There are some people who do enjoy some aspects of this diversity. They do not like the way some people live their lives, or the way they dress, or the ideas expressed in some books.

In some ways this is natural – we humans spent almost all of our evolutionary lives as small bands of hunter-gathers, where anyone who was not of our tribe was a threat, and anything we did not understand in our environment was probably dangerous. When we allow these ingrained reactions to rule our actions then bad things happen.

People have tried to remove entire peoples because they believed they were inferior, or a threat. They have tried to eliminate ideas which threaten their beliefs, or those who author those ideas.

Such attempts to make the world the way we wish it was by denying reality are doomed to failure, though they can cause great harm in the process. That is not to say that we can not change the world, simply that we must work in the real world and accept that real change needs a lot of work.

The benefits of diversity

If we lived in a perfect world, then there might be a single best food, best item of clothing, best religion and so on. However we do not, and then variety provides versatility as our environment changes.
An example would be industrial melanism, in which different moth colourings have different survival chances, depending on their environment.

Insufficient diversity leads to a monoculture, which, in an agricultural context can be efficient, but is more risky if the environment changes, leading to consequences like the Irish potato famine.


If you talk to an engineer about regulation, then depending on the type of engineer, they might thing of voltage regulation, or a centrifugal governors, or they might think of building regulations. A politician or lawyer would probably only think of the third case, but if implemented properly they are all examples of feedback loops.

A good system of regulation takes into account a continuous measurement of the current state of something, and a desired state, and a process for getting from here to there. In the case of creating laws or rules these may constrain diversity, but should do so as little as possible.

The process of arriving at the these rules, standards, regulations or laws should be open and transparent, so that, as will happen, when flaws are discovered in the rule it can be adjusted to cover the cases which had not been considered. The process of considering hypothetical cases and adjusting rules is brilliantly demonstrated in Outnumbered Series 2 episode 1, where Ben explores the boundaries of Pete’s ‘Don’t hit people’ rule.

You should never, ever hit a person..

One of the reasons the Internet is so successful (apart from YouTube) is that the standards it uses are created through an open process, under the governance of the Internet Engineering Task Force, and are openly published. This allows diversity in the ways the standards are followed, indeed to become an actual Internet Standard there must be two independent implementations of the standard, which must interoperate. The standard which specifies this is called RFC2026, which you can read to verify this by clicking on the link

By contrast there is a good reason for the current insurance advertisement saying

Do you know whether your door locks meet BS 3621

“I don’t know!” he cries. “Nobody knows!”

The customer is not entirely correct, however the British Standards Institute charges between £55 (for members) and £228 for each of the 9 standards which match a search for 3621 on their website.

When the process of regulation, particularly the introspective step of testing the regulations to ensure they meet the requirements goes wrong the results can be catastrophic. The Grenfel Tower fire, and the Great Recession are examples from fire regulation and financial regulation.

By contrast if society is over regulated, for example by a totalitarian government, it tends to stagnate, and – because it has suppressed the diversity in its society, which is where the innovation comes from, it is left behind by more open societies. Refusing to allow different voices to be heard, or actively suppressing them, cuts off a flow of information which is vital to the feedback loop. It may be uncomfortable to be told you are wrong, but if you are wrong, it is better to know.

On that topic, if I am wrong – please let me know. Comments on this blog are moderated – to prevent spam, but I do try to approve or respond in a timely manner.

On Isolation, being prepared and the NHS

As I write this we are in self isolation, in response to the Coronavirus. The situation is exposing the risks of much of the ‘Just in Time‘ world wide flow of goods and people which we normally take for granted to view. As the situation is unusual, many people have panicked and stockpiled things they think they might need. Unfortunately their system for deciding what to stockpile seems to be based on buying as much as they can of whatever seems to be in short supply, particularly toilet roll – thus creating a supply shortage.

Oil Rigs

The situation reminds me of some lessons from my past. From 1987 to some time in the early 1990’s I worked on an oil rig on the Hutton oil field in the middle of the North Sea.

I worked there in stints of a fortnight at a time, doing, as most of the crew do, a 12 hour shift, 7 days a week, although as the work was extremely interesting, and I did not have much else to do, I tended to work longer. I learnt a lot about many things, but of particular relevance to our situation was the way the rig was always prepared to be self sufficient in dealing with problems.

Travel to the rig involved a helicopter flight of several hours, and weather conditions could be extreme. I remember one landing where the wind was so strong that the pilot had to use the rotor for downforce, rather than lift, to keep the helicopter on the helipad, and the passengers, and their luggage, were passed along a chain of crew to the stairs down into the accommodation. If the wind had been any stronger there would have been no way on or off by helicopter.

Supplies arrived by ship, which stood to, near the rig, and pallets were removed from the hold by skilled crane operators on the rig, whose cranes could pull a load off a ship very quickly, as once the load was being carried by the crane it had to be moved out of the way before the ship came up and smashed it. Again, in a heavy sea there was no way on or off the rig by ship.

The systems on the rig were designed with an expectation that it could, if necessary, be self contained (i.e. in isolation) for up to a month. This meant holding spare parts for everything which might need it. My own work was the ultrasonic inspection of the legs of the oil rig, which was done by a winch lowering a complicated and expensive probe down a 75mm diameter hole in the centre of each leg. There were two probes on the rig, the one in use, and a spare, plus a full set of spare parts to replace any component which failed. There was also a well fitted out workshop, so when a component – luckily a common one, failed on a CAMAC module, I was able to replace it rather than have to wait for a new module to be flown in.

The rig was powered by two large generators, either of which was capable of powering the rig in production on its own (or a small town), plus a less powerful stand by generator. The need for this level of redundancy, and the way that, as a colleague of mine used to say ‘Murphy is always vigilant‘ was demonstrated one time I was out there, when one of the main generators was ‘on the beach’ – i.e. it had been taken off the rig and was onshore for a major overhaul. The main generator failed, and there were problems starting the backup generator, so the rig was running on is large bank of backup batteries. I shut my systems down, as they were in the control room, but not vital to the running of the rig but using its batteries, and waited in the emergency lit accommodation for the generators to be repaired. During this time a very wet worker entered the accommodation, as he had been in a compartment where the batteries had not been powerful enough to keep the deluge fire suppression system from operating. The problem was fixed – by engineers already on the rig, and life in the little closed world returned to normal.

There was not only redundancy in equipment. The regular crew were all trained in more than one job, so could cover if someone was sick, and workloads were designed to ensure that normal operations were calm and well organised – so that there was slack in the system available for an emergency.


Unfortunately budget constraints have squeezed the slack out of the NHS, even when they were operating under normal conditions. This is partly due to confusion over whether it should be treated as a set of isolated parts or as a single entity, even a single ‘superentity’ combined with the social care system. For budgetary purposes elements of the NHS, for example NHS Trusts or GP practices, are regarded as targets for budget cuts if their resources do not match their normal load, but if there is a sudden peak in demand they are supposed to be able to deal with it by diverting demand elsewhere – but the financial systems actively discourage this.

If we want our NHS to be able to deliver excellent service then we must build slack into the system.

Service excellence, spare capacity and virtuous cycles

At one time I was involved with managing an expensive supercomputer system. The support staff spent quite a lot of time apparently doing nothing, but training and learning. This meant that when there was a problem they could react quickly and knowledgeably. These large systems generally ran Unix (from which the the Linux system I prefer was derived). This is used in places where reliability is very important, and tended to run for many months at at a time. Because they were so reliable they could be monitored very carefully, and any problems investigated in depth. This created a virtuous cycle where minor potential faults could be fixed to make the systems even more reliable.

At another time in my career our over-stretched team were sent on a ‘Service Excellence’ course. One of the examples the instructor gave of excellent service was a company being unable to deliver a washing machine at the agreed time, and excellent service would be to not only reschedule at a time convenient to the customer, but then to plumb it in for free. They conveniently ignored the fact that if the team is already working at capacity, then other customers will not receive their washing machines as the delivery team will need to cancel other deliveries to meet this expectation. A vicious circle.


One of the themes which drives the world as it is today is regulation — in the meaning of the management of complex systems according to a set of rules and trends. With my science/engineering background I tend to think of it in terms of control theory, or like a regulator on a steam engine.

There are some key parts to the feedback loop as they relate to the Coronavirus, and the issues it has shown up.


This is vital to any kind of control loop – we need to know something has happened before we can do anything about it.


How long does it take between measuring something and being able to do something about it


On the basis of what we know from the measurements, what do we need to do.

Regulating Coronavirus

In the context of coronavirus, the experience of South Korea has shown how important testing is. Coronavirus, like most infectious diseases has its own feedback loop, in which each infected person infects more people, and in the absence of a good information about the disease, the only way we can control it is through the blunt instrument of isolation. This has a significant economic impact on the country – or world in general.

Regulating the NHS

The inherently long delay between detecting a problem and being able to act on it is very significant in the context of the NHS. Our modern, connected society has led us, and our politicians, to operate as if, once a problem has been detected, it can be solved quickly – our electricity goes out, we contact our supplier, or an electrician and soon we have electricity again. The expectation of a quick response means that we do not need to prepare for this. My family had a cottage in Argyll, where we knew that we had to be able to manage for some time without electricity, so we had firewood, hurricane lamps and a camping stove to mitigate the problem.

The NHS fairly quickly identified that it did not have as much of some kinds of equipment as it would need, and if we had either been a fully self sufficient nation, or the worldwide market had been normal then this could have been rectified more quickly; although still not instantly – it would have taken time to switch our respirator factories to three-shift working, or for container ship loads of respirators to arrive from China. As it is there is a longer delay while factories change the type of item they produce and there is international competition for purchasing all forms of medical equipment.

The time lag between knowing that we do not have sufficient doctors or nurses and them becoming available is several years, which is, unfortunately, further than the attention span of some politicians. A possible short term fix is to recruit already trained medical personnel from abroad, although some sections of our society seem to be determined to sabotage this approach by being as unwelcoming as they can to anyone coming here from abroad.

Shortages of doctors or nurses put extra pressure on those who remain, who are more likely to become unwell from stress,


Another theme running through my mind at the moment is the importance of diversity, and how we retain cohesiveness and diversity simultaneously.

The crew of the oil rig was remarkably diverse, and yet, as a small community, everybody worked well together. Keeping an oil rig clean (in the accommodation and working areas) requires constant hard work from the cleaners. Being there for a fortnight, with only a flight bag, meant that everyone was grateful for the unobtrusive overnight (or I assume overday for the night shift) way you could leave your laundry outside your cabin and it would be returned clean by morning. I got to know the people running the ‘ship’ side of the rig quite well. Many had been working on oil tankers, so seeing their family for a fortnight every other fortnight was a boon to them. They tended to be quite, steady and unflappable family men, from all over the country. The scaffolders were a slightly rougher crowd, younger, largely from Glasgow, and using the f-word as every other word, but very friendly and good natured. Like everybody they took their work very seriously, being the only people allowed to work outside the main body of the rig without being on a certified scaffold. The range of professions was fascinating ; Drillers – huge strong men who helped manoeuvre the sections of drill into place, I saw one carry two plates heaped high with food to the table and work his way through them ; Reservoir modellers ; Explosives experts ; Underwater submersible pilots – all fascinating to meet.

Working in such a close community, there was no room for social differences – I saw the OIM – the Offshore Installation Manger, playing table tennis with one of the cleaners.

If any good is to come out of this pandemic, I hope it will be to realise that, in our diverse world, we can, and must come together (figuratively, while still maintaining social distance), that we all have a role, are valued, and value and respect our neighbours in return.

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December 1918 – Margaret Box home soon, or not

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By late December 1918, Margaret Box had been Nursing in Salonica and Serbia for around three months, and her Father, John Robert Box must have written to Scottish Women’s Hospitals, with the aim of sending her a tie as a Christmas present. On the morning of 20th December they sent him a letter, telling him that they would not obtain the tie, as his daughter would be returning home soon.

On the afternoon of the same day they wrote again, to tell him that she would probably be there for another three months, and that it was very cold there !

Margaret did indeed return to Britain in April 1919, but it must have been a little worrying for her parents to have Margaret in such a distant and cold foreign country over Christmas.

New Year 1978 and Box Family history from Margaret Box

Every time I dig into the treasure trove of family letters I find that both sides of the family seem to have been in the habit of cramming as much into a letter as possible. This letter, send from my Great Aunt Margaret – of Nursing in Salonica and Serbia fame – to my mother in January 1978 is no exception. It starts with some remarks about Christmas presents, but then moves on to cover a lot of ground in Box Family history. I suspect Margaret is answering questions my mother asked in a previous letter, as she jumps straight into the topic of a shawl.

6 Furness Close, Furness Road


East Sussex BN21 4EZ

6 Jan 1978

My Dear Jane

I expect you are home again now after your Christmas with the Lines, I expect as usual it was a full & busy time with all the members crowding in.

Thank you ever so much for the nice Scots calendar. I recognize some of the places – & also the hippeastrum, which is now in the cellar beside the boiler, the warmest place I have to bring it to life as I have not got a radiator with a shelf on it. Do you remember you sent me one in 1970 white and pink feathers, I sitll have in in the kitchen window facing south & in 1977 it excelled itself, two stems 30 ins. high, four flowers on each, it was the biggest & best effort it has made all these years, people going by the house stop to look at it. I repotted it last August, Norah had one of the young off bulbs, but I don’t think it will flower this year, now it will have competition with the red one ! I also loved the dear little Tunnicliffe and the blue tits, I have read his life & he is one of my favourite bird artists.

The Paisley Shawl belonged to & was worn by my Grandmother Box, as an outdoor coat, as was the fashion then. Aunt Edie had it & on her 90th birthday in March 1958 in the nursing home in Eastbourne she had Rose, Mary & me to tea & draped the shawl around her. She died a year later & I inherited it, it was in very good condition & I expect it still is.

A friend of mine had one made into a “housecoat” but I think it a pity to cut it up, a bed spread seems about the best use for it nowadays. I expect it must be quite valuable – being all wool and well over 100 years old.

What went on at Launceston ?? My Grandfather Box was born in 1814! was baptized and married there in St Mary’s Church, went to Clerkenwell in London & set up his clockmaker’s business. My father (& the others I suppose), was born there, so they were Cockneys being born within the sound of Bow Bells, the church in Cheapside.

Sometime ago I saw on the Tele. craftsmen working in quaint old rooms & corners in silver, clock making & repairing & other old crafts still in Clerkenwell – well worth a visit if you can find the area somewhere behind St Bartholemews in the City.

When Evelyn Green died last year she left me a miniature of John Box of Launceston., born in 1788, he was my grandfathers father, my great grandfather, he was a clockmaker well known all over Cornwall specially for grandfather clocks. His father was William Box of Marhamchurch, the iron foundry, there was also one in Launceston, which for a time Uncle Arthur ran, he was Leonards Godfather & Leonard used to go & stay with them in Launceston.

Evelyn was the only child of my youngest Uncle (Charles). She married but has no children. I want you to have the miniature when I pass on.

The Los Angeles Box’s are descended from the Marhamchurch lot. This Christmas they have sent me a snap of Bill, his 2nd wife (Bill’s first wife died when their youngest was 2 years old) & their combined family. They are all grown up now & Tom, the eldest got married last summer, the first & only one of Bill’s family to be married. There were six of them, 4 boys & 2 girls, but the 2nd boy, John Robert, was killed in Vietnam.

I have a business card of myMy Grandfather, WIlliam, W.B.Box, chronometer and watch manufacturer, 21, Upper Charles Street, Northampton Square, London”. I expect it was all bombed in the war & gone now.

My maternal Grandfather was a master baker & confectioner in Gresham Street, also near Cheapside & within the sound of Bow bells, he also had a “Coffee house” in Moorgate Street where of course he also dealt in wine.
He catered for banquets in Guildhall & also the Yacht Club on the Thames & was a city alderman.

Now it is bedtime ! so I will say Goodnight & wish you all a happy & adventurous 1978 full of interest & love, bye the way if you plant a clove of garlic beside your rose bush it will banish the green fly !

Much love


p.s. My grandfather W.. B. Box when he was young made a small engine or machine in brass probably in Launceston. Later this was kept in our house on a small inlaid table, it had a glass case, it was about the size of a mantlepiece clock. Leonard inherited it (& the table which I think you have) & kept it at the office no. 28.

You must get it from Mr Smith, who will soon be retiring, it is a family heirloom. Your father-in-law would be interested in it. M


Paisley Shawl

The Paisley Shawl does not appear to be in the collection of cloth heirloom items, such as Blackout Curtains from Little Cucknells, and the waistcoat which William Braund Box wore at his wedding to Rosina Williams. It does however remain in the family, and is a thing of beauty, made of Cashmere wool, as well as remarkable size ! (3.42m x 2.66m)

Aunt Edie would be Edith Alice Bryson Box (1868-1959), daughter of William Braund Box and Rosina Williams, and Margaret’s Aunt.

Launceston and Clerkenwell

I think Margarets grandfather, William Braund Box was baptised on 5th June 1815, in Lawhitton, which is a little village 3km from Launceston, with is own church (St Michaels), but I only have a date and place for this. Family records show he was married on 10th February 1845, He had already been living, in the 1841 Census, in Finsbury, I assume as a lodger, with his profession shown as Watchmaker. He must have returned to Cornwall to marry, and by 1851 he is living at 21, Upper Charles Street in Clerkenwell. where my Great Grandfather, John Robert Box was born in 1849.

By a curious coincidence my Great Great Grandfather on my father’s side, Abel Lines (1807-1877) was born in Clerkenwell, although he had moved to Saffron Hill by the time Joseph Lines was born in 1848.

Miniature of John Box

I think the miniature referred to is probably this

John Box (1788-1849)

Evelyn Alice Box (1894-1977), daughter of Charles Joseph Box, married John Lawrence Green.

I know from several sources that John Box’s father was William Box, but although the inherited family trees show his wife at Sarah Pope, other evidence suggests Thomasin Heard.

Los Angles Box family

My parents went and stayed with them and were in touch. I may revisit this to update how exactly they fit in. I think they saw the announcement of my Grandmothers death, and got in touch then.

William Webster (1823-1889)

The maternal grandfather, and master baker was William Webster, who married Elizabeth Reitze, daughter of Justus Reitze. He will probably get an article of his own.

The small brass engine

This does not sound like the Model Beam Engine now in the museum in Launceston, I do not think I have seen it, so it may have never been retrieved from Mr Smith (who was my Grandfather’s Clerk).

John and Charles Wesley Treasure Hunt in Oxford City Centre

If you have an interest in Methodist History, and wish to visit 15 locations around Oxford City Centre related to John and Charles Wesley, or Methodism today, there a free mobile phone app, called Huntzz, which can take you round them on a free Treasure Hunt.


Download the app onto your phone, and run it – you can do this from home (or your hotel in Oxford if you are visiting) before you start. You will see a list of available Hunts, sorted by distance from where you are.

Select the Wesley Walk in Oxford entry (you should only see one – mine has two as I developed it), and you should see a screen which looks like this:

As the screenshot above shows the start point is Wesley Memorial Church, in the centre of Oxford. If you are travelling by car you should use the Park and Ride, as the roads into Oxford are slow and confusing and parking is expensive. The church is a short walk from the train and bus stations.

To find out more about the Methodist Heritage in Oxford, have a look at the Wesleys Oxford website.

How the hunt came to be written

I am a member of Oxford Phab Club, a social club for people of all abilities, which is based at Wesley Memorial Methodist Church in Central Oxford. We are always looking for new ideas for things to do and over the years have done several Treasure Hunts around Oxford City Centre, for example the paper based treasure hunt we did in June 2015. We were looking for another hunt go to on the programme for the summer of 2017, and I found an App for Android and iPhone devices called Huntzz, which had an inexpensive (£1.79 at the time of writing this post, I think it was about that in 2017 too) paid Treasure Hunt around Oxford City Centre available. I downloaded the app, bought the Oxford Hunt and tried it, and on July 7th 2017 several Phab members did the same, with reasonable success. I had a family event that night, so was unable to participate, so the event is not recorded on the Phab website.

Through much of 2016 members of the congregation of Wesley Memorial, joined by other people with connection to the church, rehearsed a musical called Amazing Love, written by Jack Godfrey. This was performed in February 2017, and some Oxford Phab members performed in it, while others went to see it. Through this I became interested in the lives of the Wesleys, and their time at Oxford, tying it into my interest in family history when I wrote a post about Amazing Love, Demographics and Mass migrations.

I had noticed that the Huntzz app allowed a user to create their own Hunt, and felt it would be good to try, taking inspiration from the Wesleys in Oxford walking tour leaflet already available in the church. The Huntzz app authors encourage charities to create their own Hunts, and were very helpful and supportive. I also like a business model I can understand, where they sell Hunts at a good value price, as opposed to, for example offering something for ‘free’ where they make their money through intrusive advertising in the app, or selling your personal information. I produced the ‘Wesley Walk in Oxford’ hunt for fun, but if you feel inclined to support either Wesley Memorial’s Open Doors project, or Oxford Phab donations would be very welcome.

Although John Wesley may not have actually said

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

it expresses the values which drive many of the activities of the church, so I have tried, in the “scroll” or guide entries, to link the historical sites on the Hunt to current activities.