"The nice thing about doing a crossword is you know there is a solution." – Stephen Sondheim

While The Lightbox is closed to the public and many of us are confined to our own homes, we've recruited the help of Rosemary and Richard, two of our beloved Heritage volunteers, to discuss topics relating to the home.

According to a survey conducted by YouGov for magazine app Readly, Britons have downloaded 125% more online crosswords since lockdown began. People do crosswords for many reasons – as a challenge to keep the mind active, to relax after a busy day or while commuting to work; but how much do we really know about these brainteasers - and their enduring popularity?


The first crossword was published on the 'Fun' page of The New York World on 21 December 1913. It was invented by British journalist Arthur Wynne, who emigrated to the United States in the 1890’s. His first crossword, or 'Word-Cross' as he called it, did not look like the present ones – it was diamond shaped with no black squares.

Recreation of Arthur Wynne's original crossword puzzle from December 21, 1913

During the early 1920s other newspapers picked up on the pastime. The New York Times's crossword editor said: "Solving crosswords eliminates worries, they make you a calmer and more focused person".

The first British crossword was published in Pearson's Magazine in February 1922, and these versions were deemed harder than their American counterparts. This started a crossword craze during which even dresses and shirts were made of crossword puzzle material – to this day, you can buy toilet rolls impressed with crosswords for solving.

Cryptic crosswords

The first crossword answers were just definitions and similes; the first cryptic crossword was published on 30th July 1925 by The Daily Telegraph. The then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was known to enjoy doing crosswords, as does the Queen – whose cipher ER is a frequent allusion in cryptic clues.

By the 1930s cryptic crosswords had become more sophisticated in design: clues can be full or partial anagrams, double meanings and clues leading to further words.

Roles in World War II – deliberate or accidental?

On 3 December 1941 after readers started writing to the paper to share their speeds at solving the cryptic crossword, The Daily Telegraph took up the challenge of seeing who could beat the time of 12 minutes and ran a competition.This resulted in 25 competitors being invited to the paper's newsroom to test their speeds.

The first competitor completed the puzzle in 6 minutes 3.5 seconds, but was disqualified as he spelled a word incorrectly, while the winner took 7 minutes 57.5 seconds and was rewarded with a cigarette lighter. After that, competitors were contacted by the War Office, who felt their skills would be useful as cryptographers for code-breaking work at Bletchley Park.

The Bombe Machine, used by cryptographers at Bletchley Park during World War II

Later in the war, The Daily Telegraph crossword became involved in secret intelligence. In the days prior to D-Day, 6 June 1944, the five code words for the landing beaches in Normandy and names of the operation appeared in issues of the crossword, and MI5s suspicions of espionage were aroused.

It appears that the compiler of all the crosswords, Leonard Dawe, was headmaster of The Strand School; he and his pupils may well have heard some of the Canadian and American servicemen based in the area mention the words in conversation. Being short and perhaps unfamiliar words, they gave him ideas for crossword clues. Dawe was arrested and interrogated, and later cleared of suspicious activity - various versions of how the situation came about have appeared over the years, but the mystery is still unresolved.

It was suggested that, in the bleak days after the war, crosswords could be inserted in ration books to while away the time spent queuing for food, still in short supply.

From crosswords to...

In the early 1930s, an architect by the name of Alfred Mosher Butts decided to create a board game based on the principles of the crossword puzzle. His game that utilised both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles. This game became the Scrabble we all know and love today.

A game of Scrabble

Other puzzles based on a grid square have proved to be very popular in recent years, such as Sudoku and Nonograms (or Griddlers). Most of them stem from Japan, where the written language is based on syllables rather than single letters, making conventional crosswords difficult to set. The alternatives play with numbers, e.g. in Sudoku, where the numbers from 1 to 9 have each to appear uniquely in lines, rows and squares each of nine spaces.

Sudoku grids

Do you consider yourself a crossword aficionado? Or are you a recent convert? Which other pastimes have kept you busy during lockdown?

For more fascinating stories from Rosemary and Richard browse our blog.