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.

Deep_Over-night_Fallen_Snow_Art.IWMART17082
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.

Flickr_-_Duncan-_-_Alexandra_Palace
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.)

Albert_Einstein,_by_Doris_Ulmann
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”.

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 17.37.47
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”.

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 17.42.08
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.

Alexandra_Palace_from_air_2009
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.

Door to Nowhere: The Blackheath Vanishments

This is a short post to aggregate some of the stories concerning what locals have come to call ‘The Blackheath Triangle’. These stories, drawn mainly from local press archives, go back some time. They have an eerie similarity. All vanishments occurred within a relatively small area towards the southern point of the heath. None of the missing reappeared. In many cases witnesses were not believed, some even accused of concocting the stories to hide murder or mishap. There is little explanation for the phenomena, and – as is often the case in the absence of returnees – it is hard to categorise from a portals point of view. Still, the relevance to the catalogue should be clear.

Blackheath,_looking_south_-_geograph.org.uk_-_493184
The southern corner of Blackheath  source | license

One night in 1712, at the height of the ‘highwayman’ era, a carriage carrying a Naval officer across Blackheath was held to ransom. (Watling Street, the present day A2, was the main route between London and Kent, and the remote heathland was a dangerous crossing). The robber pocketed a large sum of money, but before he could make his escape the carriage’s coachman managed to discharge a pistol, which spooked the highwayman’s horse to such a degree that the man was thrown to the ground. The highwayman then ran with his takings across the heath, the coachman giving chase on foot. The coachman later explained that under the full moon, and despite the shrubs and small trees which then covered the heathland, visibility on the heath was good. The highwayman was fast, but the coachman was faster. He said that when he was some six feet away from apprehending his mark, he saw the thief appear to stumble or trip, and then “(fall) somehow into vanishment”. At which point the coachman also stumbled – but stumbled “over naught but air”. When he got to his feet, the highwayman was gone. The coachman’s story was derided in the press at the time, and it seems he suffered some damage to his reputation, though he retained the confidence of the Naval officer.

Blackheath_near_Vanbrugh_Park_-_geograph.org.uk_-_378005
The area around the Vanbrugh gravel pits gives some indication of how most of the Heath would have looked 300 years ago  source | license

In 1887 a man leaving Sunday service at All Saints Church stopped at the door to speak with the Vicar. As he did so, he watched his wife, as she walked out from the church and across the heath – where, in bright sunlight, and in view of her husband, she vanished.

In 1956, a woman was imprisoned after failing to convince a jury that she had watched in horror as her child – running after a ball on the Heath – had vanished, some three metres from where she stood.

Blackheath,_looking_east_-_geograph.org.uk_-_651615
All Saints Church, Blackheath  source | license

Headlines attest to a spate of dog disappearances in the late 1990s. Initially blamed on the incompetence of one professional dog-walker, the disappearances began to affect dogs out walking with many different people. Since then it is said that dogs do their best to avoid the area, becoming agitated if compelled to walk there.

Other stories of animal disappearances include one from a retired local man who reported seeing a flock of mallard ducks fly across the heath and vanish in mid air.

Two joggers vanished side-by-side in 2002.

Blackheath
Blackheath from the air. All Saints Church can be seen at the top of the image source | license

The Blackheath Cricket Club became so tired of losing balls which had gone for sixes that they moved off the Heath altogether in 1886.

And during WW2 the heath was notorious among the pilots who used it for parachute training. They nicknamed it ‘The Void’ and were so terrified of ‘over-shooting’ that they often landed in the much more wooded Greenwich Park to the north.

PoL’s research into this phenomenon is ongoing. We will continue to update the list as stories come to light. Meanwhile, we hope that Blackheathians continue to warn their youngsters to be wary of the patch in question.


  • Candidate: The Blackheath Vanishment Zone
  • Type: [Unknown]
  • Status: Under observation

Source and licence for featured image