Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.

Walthamstow’s Unquiet Village: Elswick-on-the-Marsh

A footballer, arriving early to Hackney Marsh one autumn Sunday League morning, sees strange lights flicker in the mist.

A conservationist, picking through trees at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes on a quiet afternoon, hears shouting and laughter from the adjacent field. When he emerges from the overgrowth, he finds the field is empty.

A commuter, on a train crossing the marshes one dark winter evening, thinks she sees a ramshackle settlement of odd-looking houses where she knows only scrubland should be. She puts a hand to the glass to block the reflection from the carriage lights, but the train moves on, and the vision fades into the night.

Most people would soon forget such moments – once an eerie, out of place feeling had passed. But for some residents of the streets surrounding North East London’s Lea River Marshes, the feeling might linger. It might nag at them, in the days and nights to follow, until finally an old tale from their school days surfaced in their memory. Then, they may wonder if they have played a small part in the strange, restless life of a most unusual portal: a temporally and geographically untethered market town named Elswick-on-the-Marsh.

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Even for the tiny number of locals who remember it, Elswick (pronounced Ezzik or Elzik, depending on who you’re speaking to) is notoriously elusive. Glimmers, glimpses in the half-light, unexplained voices, distant shadows: these are the ways in which Elswick manifests.

Unless you are one of the privileged few.

We learned about Elswick from Jessica, a teenager from Leyton. She, in her turn, had learned about the village from her Great Aunt (whom Jessica calls ‘Nan’).

“I don’t remember a time when those stories weren’t in my head”, Jessica told us. “Of people who had found Elswick and never returned. When Nan told them to me, her eyes would get this look. The way she used to talk about it, I never knew whether it was a good or a bad place. All I knew was that she was obsessed”.

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Jessica says she carries in her memory a small book’s worth of Nan’s sayings about Elswick. “She’d repeat them like prayers… ‘Elswick is a doorway’ … ‘Elswick ever moves’ … ‘Elswick shows itself for a reason'”.

Nan walked the marshes almost daily, often taking Jessica with her.

“Look for a path, Nan said. An old paved road you haven’t seen before. And – how did she used to put it? – ‘Don’t take the path unless you’ve got something to trade'”.

Now, Jessica searches for Elswick alone. Nan went missing five years ago, when Jessica was not long into secondary school.

Jessica is pretty certain she knows where her aunt went.

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Much has been written about the marshes surrounding the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames. They have been drained since Medieval times and up until the 19th century were mainly lammas (common agricultural) land, used by commoners for grazing cattle and growing wheat.

The extent of the marshes, while still impressively large and wild-seeming for an area so close to London’s centre, has diminished significantly since the industrial revolution. Railways, housing, industry, waterworks, international sporting events – the enemies of the open marshland are many, and the struggle to protect what remains is ongoing.

When it comes to Elswick, the written records are much more sketchy. In fact, we found only one concrete mention, albeit from a major source. The Domesday book records the small settlement of Elleswych, in the Hundred of Beconsfield, Essex, under Lord Peter of Velognes.

We knew it was a long shot, but with the written records less than helpful, we decided we had to visit the Marshes for ourselves. We went close to dusk, knowing that most sightings occur in the still-time between night and day.

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The path that Jessica mentioned was our starting point. We can presume that when the Domesday survey was made, Elleswych enjoyed a relative degree of stability within space and time. So on which road did it lie in the 11th Century?

There are references to a paved Roman road that crossed the marshes near Leyton, but its location, if it exists at all, is disputed. There is of course the old road which crosses the River Lea at Stratford, but there is little remaining of the marshes there. We weren’t sure where to look next.

Then we read about the Black Path.

The Black Path was a porter’s way, leading from the fields to the great market of London (Lundenburh, as it was in the late Anglo-Saxon period). It was also a route of pilgrimage. Both uses seemed to chime with what we knew about Elswick.

You can follow the Black Path’s line on modern maps – look for a straight diagonal through London Fields up to Hackney City Hall which becomes, a few lost turnings later, Porchester Road in Clapton. After the marshes you can pick it up again in Walthamstow, near St James’ Park. But the path’s way across Leyton Marsh has been lost. Some open space remains here, however, so that is where we headed.

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Could Elswick have once dwelled in the lost marshes south east of Hackney?

From here we explored east and north, along the line of the Lea and inland, into Walthamstow Marshes. As twilight deepened and shadows rose from the brambles and bullrush, from the grassland and scrub, certain lights became apparent at the marsh’s edge. Half-hidden industrial buildings, streetlamps, the headlights of a distant train. Glimpsed in the gloaming, you can see how they could be mistaken for the lost village.

Sounds, too, drift across the marshes. Unexplained noises weave with crow-caws and the rattle of the passing trains. A pylon buzzes overhead, briefly harmonising with the airborne, ever-present roar of the city.

Are the stories just phantoms? Is Elswick an unreachable will-o-the-wisp?

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On Leyton Marsh we found a transient village of hawkers and traders – just not the one we were looking for

But we remember Jessica’s fervent words.

“It’s out there somewhere, the old trading post. Nan certainly had a lot to trade. So much to give… She once said Elswick only revealed itself to those in need of it. Or those whom it needed”.

Did Nan need it?

“I don’t know. It was around the time of the Olympics that Nan disappeared. She took a lot of that whole thing badly. The loss of great chunks of the marshes. She knew friends that relied on a lot of the community stuff that was lost, the allotments and all that. But – I was only a child. I can’t believe that Nan would have left me by choice”.

We feel bad for Jessica and her unanswered questions, tied up as they are with this fickle, endlessly flittering gateway – and with the uncertain future of a unique and magical part of London.


  • Candidate: Elswick-on-the-Marsh
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active [monitored]