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History & CommunityLook - Heap Big Smoke

Look – Heap Big Smoke

This phrase comes back to me from films of “Cowboys and Indians” and childhood comics and refers to the method of sending messages by smoke signals, used by the native Americans. However, we all need to send messages, some more frequently than others!

The late Bill Putnam said he believed the Romans used Iron Age hill forts here as a chain of relay stations, from Maiden Castle to Eggardon and on to Waddon Hill near Beaminster. The local Iron Age people are known as the Durotridges and they were conquered by the Roman general, later Emperor, Vespasion in the 50s AD. The relay stations relied on line of sight and probably used reflected sunlight, so only possible in daylight. The only other possibility is similar to the native Americans, but using beacons with flames at night.

Beacons were used at the time of the Spanish Armada, in a chain around the south coast. Transfer of information was limited to little more than “fire seen” meaning “Armada sighted”.  Beacons were still used early in the Napoleonic Wars on hilltops, locally at Orchard Hill (near Chideock), Pilsdon and Shipton Gorge. Another at Golden Cap was recorded as being a cylinder on a braced post with ladder access, adjacent to a signal station. The signal station was a two-roomed building with a canvas roof and equipped with a stove or grate. Signals were carried on a 50 ft topmast and a 30 ft flagstaff and comprised a red flag, a blue pennant and four 3 ft diameter black painted balls. These coastal signal stations were manned in 1798 by “Sea Fencibles”,  a volunteer force of sea and fishermen. They also patrolled the coast by boat. They were armed with hand pikes, a spyglass and flag. At one period the Golden Cap Station was in the charge of Lt. John Twisden and a rent of £5 was paid to a Mr Roper. Other personnel comprised a Petty Officer and two men. Another signal post was on Abbotsbury Hill.

In April 1799 the  “Western Flying Post” reported that at 10 pm on Monday evening “an enemy actually landing in the west”. The drums “beat to arms” and three Bridport Volunteer Companies quickly assembled, including the local Yeomanry under Captain Travers. A “galloper” roused volunteers at Beaminster but they took time to gather and eventually march towards Bridport. Two troops of the Somerset  Provisional Cavalry followed. At 7 am it was reported that it was “a mistake at the Signal House” and the troops were stood down. This was during the Napoleonic Wars and Thomas Hardy later wrote about similar misinformation from the beacon at “Abbotsea” in the Trumpet Major.

Apparently, Napoleon Bonaparte was using frictional electricity to transmit over 30 wires with a pith ball telegraph display from Paris to Boulogne. He had plans to have a cross-channel telegraph if he invaded. In 1793 a system of visual communication using a mast with signalling arms had been invented in France. The British Admiralty decided that there was a need for a system of fast communication between the coastal stations along the South Coast. They considered several systems and finally decided on one invented by Lord George Murray and paid him £2000 for it. Work began in 1796 on his first shutter telegraph.

A shutter telegraph consisted of a wooden structure on top of a small cottage carrying a frame 20 feet high by 12 feet wide. This contained six 3-foot square shutters arranged two by two vertically, pivoting about their horizontal axis operated from the cottage by ropes and pulleys. Each of the six shutters could be held in open or closed positions, allowing a total of 63 changes, catering for the full alphabet, ten numerals and some selected phrases.

It seems strange to us now that such a crude and apparently complex means of sending messages was considered in 1796, but there were no fluorescent tubes or electronic displays then, like the large displays we are used to seeing at sporting occasions.

Within a year the shutter telegraph lines, consisting of a chain of huts with signalling frames, were built on sites between five and ten miles apart. They were located on three routes from the Admiralty in London to Deal, Sheerness and Portsmouth.

Work was halted by the Peace of Amiens in 1802/3, but recommenced in 1805 with a line to Great Yarmouth and a spur off the London to Portsmouth line which continued to Plymouth.

The line which passed through Dorset had telegraph stations located at: Pistle Down, now known as Telegraph Plantation, Chalbury, a “shoot” to Blandford Racecourse, Bell Hill, Nettlecombe Tout, High Stoy, Toller Down, Lamberts Castle and then on to Devon. The station at Blandford Racecourse was on what is now called “Telegraph Clump”.

The wooden hut or cottage usually had two rooms, an operating room and a general living room. Busy stations near London were operated by a Lieutenant, Midshipman and two assistants. In the line station this was often reduced to three people who might be civilians. Two men acted as “glassmen” who manned the telescopes during the day. The men became expert at receiving and sending messages by the shutter system.

An average message would be passed from London to Portsmouth in fifteen minutes. A prearranged message could be sent and acknowledged between London and Plymouth in three minutes. The performance of the system depended on weather conditions. In 1808 Henry Ward of Blandford was awarded ten guineas from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts for his invention of a crank that helped to overcome the difficulty of moving the shutters in high winds.

The shutter stations were stood down in 1814 on the signing of the Peace of Paris but remained occupied and were reactivated briefly when Napoleon returned to France in 1815. They were closed again after Napoleon’s defeat and exile but most remained occupied, usually by the officer and his family, until 1825 when a new signalling chain using a semaphore system was built along a different route. The Plymouth line station at Saltram in Devon was later incorporated into a larger structure.

Much of this information was supplied by the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford.

In my childhood, books told us a method of sending messages. In these days of the mobile phone, do small boys still use two tin cans and a length of string?

Bridport History Society does not meet in July and August, but suggest a visit to the Bridport Heritage Forum Exhibition in Bridport Town Hall from 1st to 19th August – “War, Peace and New Beginnings.”


Cecil Amor, Hon. President Bridport History Society.

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