Beckingham, Charles Fraser, 1914-1998

by Edward Ullendorff

16 Apr 2016
978-0-19-726230-6 hbk
Number of pages

Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1983.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

When war was declared in 1939, the cataloguers [in the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum] were deemed to be in a reserved occupation, but they were gradually released for military service in reverse order of seniority. Charles worked in the Museum until the summer of 1942. He was then given basic military training and drafted into the Intelligence Corps. He had originally been selected to work at Bletchley Park but was soon transferred to the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty to assist Dr Hugh Scott, FRS, the entomologist and traveller, with the preparation of the Admiralty’s confidential Handbook of Western Arabia and the Red Sea Coasts which was, in fact not published until 1946. While it is marked as having been ‘produced and printed for official purposes during the war of 1939-45’ and bears several notices about being ‘restricted’ and ‘for official use only’, it is difficult to fathom of what use this learned tome could conceivably have been to the enemy. Beckingham himself was as puzzled about this as is the present writer. The volume runs to 659 pages of scholarly prose, and page 619 enumerates the predominantly academic contributors, among them C. F. Beckingham, Kenneth Mason, H. St. J. B. Philby, R. B. Serjeant, Bertram Thomas, and many others.

Charles was involved in this connection in a curious and protracted, at time acrimonious, dispute between the British Museum, the Treasury, and the Admiralty. He left an account of this episode in an autobiographical note deposited with the Academy. It is more than somewhat absurb that so much ink should have been spilt in mid-world war over a matter of little importance and concerning the placing of a minor cog (still in his late twenties) in some major governmental organisations:

‘The contretemps began when I was asked to catalogue the old series of Admiralty handbooks dating from World War I. These had been confidential publications and had therefore not as yet been entered in the General Catalogue. I had for some time been interested in the history of Arabia and had learnt a little Arabic. I noticed that there were errors in the old Handbook and that readers were invited to notify the Director of Naval Intelligence of any they might detect. Accordingly I wrote to the D.N.I. asking whether he was still interested in receiving corrections. He replied that a new series was being prepared, so that corrections to the old volumes were no longer of interest, but that he would be glad to receive any notes I might have made about Arabia. My notes, mostly on history, were passed to Scott who was editing the new Arabia volume, and he asked me to meet him. The result of our conversation was that he applied through the Admiralty, for me to be released from the B.M. to work with him. The cataloguers were by no means fully occupied at the Museum, but the Keeper of the Department received Scott’s request with indignation and categorically refused it. Scott continued to press and the Museum to resist, and in the meantime I was released to the army. I understand that a large file about me accumulated in the office of the D.N.I. Finally, in January 1943, the Admiralty secured my release from the army. I spent the remainder of 1943 working with Scott. I then returned to the army and spent the rest of the war at Bletchley Park.’

When the war ended Charles had no wish to return to the British Musuem but accepted an offer to join GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) where he remained until his appointment in 1951 as Lecturer in Islamic History at Manchester University. It appears that his war-time employment on cryptographic work had held enough of his interest not to be lured back to the BM.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

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