The official who put 'Love to Patrick' on letters to his boss

Man with typewriter Image copyright Thinkstock

Office etiquette is such a minefield. Is it better to stick to the rules, or bend them? How chatty should emails to your boss be? Back in 1929, writes Matthew Teller, one British Indian diplomat took his breezily informal approach a bit too far.

On Christmas Day 1928, Mohamed Waris Ali arrived in Gwadar, a fishing port on the Arabian Sea, to represent the interests of His Majesty King George V, Emperor of India.

Image copyright British Library
Image caption Gwadar (Gwadur) is a port on the coast of Baluchistan, west of Karachi (Kurrachee)

It is not known whether he was looking forward to the job, though he did note in one early report that his predecessor had gone mad and killed himself - due partly to "passport drudgery and other overwork".

Image copyright British Library

This can't have endeared Waris Ali to his superiors, and before long one of them - the political agent in Muscat, Maj George Murphy - was writing bitter letters of complaint to the British resident in Bushehr, Lt Col Cyril Barrett.

"I think the gentleman needs… to be placed under observation as a mental case," he wrote in one letter dated 8 June 1929. He went on to relate how Waris Ali had handed a bottle of urine to a British official passing through Gwadar "to have it examined in Karachi, as he thought he was suffering from hereditary gonorrhoea".

But what particularly seems to have infuriated the Major was Waris Ali's habit of writing as if they were equals. Waris Ali was addressing him as "Dear Murphy" - "with the 'Major' put in afterwards," Murphy spluttered - and signing off with the outlandish line: "Love to Patrick".

Image copyright British Library

Tantalisingly, Murphy doesn't say who Patrick was. Martin Woodward, a British Library specialist who has studied the file, is stumped.

"Perhaps he was a British member of staff with the first name or surname 'Patrick'," Woodward says. "Some of the British political agents were married and had families, so I suppose Waris Ali's greeting could have been intended for a young son of Maj Murphy, if he had one. Or it could have been his dog. It's just not clear."

Whatever the circumstances, "Love to Patrick" was bizarrely over-familiar - a protocol-busting line for a junior diplomat to write to a military officer.

On 6 July Barrett consulted Waris Ali's other boss, the Director of Telegraphs in Karachi, Lt Col G De Smidt. He noted how much Murphy resented the "Love to Patrick" line, and asked De Smidt if he was satisfied with the agent's work.

De Smidt's reply came almost immediately. Waris Ali was, on the one hand, "a dreadful fellow" with "verbal diarrhoea" - but on the other, his work was "distinctly good".

Image copyright British Library

De Smidt even joked with Barrett. "Murphy is behind the times I fear. Waris Ali is… an Indian gentleman, and there is nothing for it but to thank him for his kind message to Patrick!"

Barrett evidently agreed. In a personal letter to Murphy on 22 August he pointedly described him as a "conscientious worker" - and the personality clash disappears from the record soon afterwards.

Image copyright British Library

Did Waris Ali know of Murphy's fury? Was he, perhaps, even baiting Murphy deliberately - or making a poorly judged reference to the major's Irish surname? We simply don't know.

The following April, Waris Ali was transferred from Gwadar. Murphy left Muscat six weeks later, on 15 June 1930.

We can only wonder if they happened to be posted to the same place.


UPDATE: Since we published this article, the British Library's Martin Woodward has found a letter that appears to reveal who Patrick was.

Image copyright British Library

Patrick was evidently Master Murphy, the Major's son. The newly-found document (folio 133 in file IOR/R/15/6/373) will be digitised by the end of the year.


A selection of your comments:

Sarah Willis: I work in professional services and have received a few odd emails over the years. One was from a trainee, who sent an email to me (his line manager), a female colleague and a female partner (my line manager) which opened "Hi girls". I had to explain to him that partners own the firm, and need to be addressed with rather more formality. A short time afterwards, I overheard him addressing the same partner as "ma'am". Better too much than too little I suppose...

Anonymous: I work in a Welsh school and a local business decided to capitalise by passing their newsletter through Google translate before sending it to us. The letter opens with the salutation (in Welsh) 'Beloved Head teacher' and the writer signs herself 'General Manager' which the translation has promoted to the military rank of General. The whole letter is a joy of mangled Welsh which I still enjoy reading.

Edward Farmer: My father, when working in the Ministry of Defence posting staff, received a telegram from one David Niven (the famous film actor) "Dear War Office, am resigning commission. Love Niven" as a prelude to him going back to Hollywood. Short and to the point, much to my father's amusement, but probably not to the rest of the Ministry of Defence, I suspect.

Uga Drava: The first year in Canada I was working at the Westin Hotel. My English was less than rudimentary. I had a charming and energetic young lady for manager. One morning she greats me with "Hi there!" in the hallway. Not familiar with the phrase and misinterpreting it as "Hi dear!" My happy response was "Hi honey!" Wondering how she remembers the episode if at all. I do.

Charles Frizell: It is all a matter of strange (or different) usage. I work extensively with the Middle East and Africa, and often get emails starting, "Hello Dear". To English speaking natives that comes across as overly familiar and a bit discomforting, but in reality no offense is meant because almost everyone will begin a letter or email with "Dear George" or whatever, whether George is actually dear to them or not. Also to non-natives it is hard to distinguish between "give my warmest regards to XXX" and "give my love to XXX". In fact I try and avoid using the "Dear XXX" as much as I possibly can.

Nick Mallett: A few years ago, when I was new in a job, I sent a genuinely sincere email of appreciation to the HR and IT team for their work in solving a serious problem very quickly. I was reprimanded by my then head of department. I was mystified. It seems that some people are so ill-accustomed to praise that they had read my email as sarcastic!

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

Click here to see the originals of the letters excerpted above: Waris Ali's obituary of his predecessor; Maj Murphy's complaint about 'Love to Patrick'; De Smidt's letter in support of Waris Ali; Barrett's letter ending the row.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.