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Shutter telegraph signalled new era

PUBLISHED: 15:17 03 January 2008 | UPDATED: 10:14 03 July 2010

BY now, we have probably lost interest in our Christmas presents, except perhaps that special one that has retained its initial sparkle ten days later in 2008.

BY now, we have probably lost interest in our Christmas presents, except perhaps that special one that has retained its initial sparkle ten days later in 2008. One Christmas gift in my wartime childhood in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston that fitted into that category by remaining a favourite well into the new year was a Morse code machine.

This simple black Bakelite device needed to be wired to a battery to produce the authentic sounds, but as neither batteries nor basic electrical expertise were easy to come by in those days, I had to make do with an unexciting tinny click when I pressed the knob down, instead of the instant da-da-dit-da buzz every time the connection was made.

But in my fertile imagination, I was sending vital information to my spies deep within the German Third Reich, receiving replies that could save lives and shorten the war. Or I was in contact with covert resistance groups in occupied Europe. The boy's adventure stories featuring canoe safaris up the Zambesi where crocodiles, lions and head-hunting native warriors lurked round every bend, or perilous excursions into Red Indian territory, had lost their appeal as I tap-tapped for hours on end...with nobody really listening.

It was a more exciting way of signalling than boring semaphore, or running international code flags like the Blue Peter up the mast, I thought, unaware that my home town was once one of the pioneers of a revolutionary communications system introduced when Britain was at war. And I must confess that it has taken me more than six decades till now to discover it!

I am indebted for my introduction to the shutter telegraph to reader Basil Hubbard, a 72-year-old roofing contractor who shares his time between Eccles and Bedfordshire. He explains: “I saw an illustration of a shutter telegraph in a book that I have, entitled Bedfordshire at War, by Nigel Lutt. I thought it might be of interest to you with the Great Yarmouth connection.”

The book includes a 1819 painting of the Dunstable Downs shutter telegraph, the caption reporting that the system was devised in 1795 and adopted by the Admiralty as a means of solving its problem of urgently passing information between its London headquarters and its major Royal Navy stations at Plymouth, Portsmouth, Deal and Yarmouth.

Shutters on a wooden frame were pulled open or closed by rope or chain operated by men in a cabin below, and the 63 different combinations could represent letters, code words or numbers. That Dunstable Downs shutter telegraph was built in 1807 as part of the 146-mile route between London and Yarmouth but it was abandoned in 1814 in favour of a simpler semaphore system.

There were claims that a message could be conveyed and its reply received within a quarter of an hour whereas a mounted messenger could take three to four days!

The Yarmouth shutter telegraph, I find, was perched a-top one of the twin towers of our medieval South Gate (locally known as “the great gate”), today the King's scrapyard location. At one time the edifice included a portcullis, stable and a cottage.

From there the route went to Strumpshaw - where the implement was on a hill south of the church - and Norwich (Mousehold Heath, on high ground at the top of what became Telegraph Lane off Thorpe Road) before heading for Wreningham, Carleton Rode and East Harling.

Altogether there were 18 of these devices between Yarmouth and Whitehall, seven-mile intervals being preferred when the terrain permitted. The sites chosen were usually on high ground because each had to be visible from the next in line. It is the reason why there are a number of Telegraph Hills in villages, the only reminder of the era when they were part of an important swift information chain. The telegraphs could function only in daylight and good visibility.

There was usually a cabin for the four or six man crew below the actual telegraph, and two kept permanent daytime watch through telescopes, each peering in opposite directions at the next shutter in the chain for a glimpse of movement of the boards. Immediately they saw a signal, they shouted down to their colleagues manning the ropes, and the message was relayed.

Of course, as Yarmouth was the start and finish of the chain, the observers needed to look only in the one direction, across the flat Norfolk landscape towards Strumpshaw nine miles distant.

The inventor of this revolutionary time-saving messaging system was a Frenchman, Claude Chappe, in 1794 but the British became aware of its benefits during the Napoleonic wars and copied it to help their campaign. London-Deal and London-Portsmouth were completed in 1796, the latter being extended to Plymouth ten years later.

By 1808 - exactly two centuries ago - the London to Yarmouth series of shutter telegraphs was up and running, but later than planned. The Admiralty had ordered Superintendent of Telegraphs George Roebuck, who had surveyed the London-Yarmouth route but deemed it “very difficult” and favoured a coastal alternative, to try again, possibly because there was a likelihood of a fleet assembling in Yarmouth for a major Baltic mission.

But already trials with a semaphore system were demonstrating that it was simpler and therefore quicker than shutters, and within the decade the one had replaced the other. By 1845 this too became outdated with the arrival of the electric telegraph that were no visibility problems; one of the worst spells of fog lasted 17 continuous days during which the shutter telegraphs stood idle and messages had to be conveyed by messenger.

Once the speedy benefits of the shutter telegraph for military business had become apparent, Yarmouth became part of a coastal chain established for, I believe, official and commercial purposes, This stretched around our east coast, two of its stations being at on the South Denes at Yarmouth and on the 90ft tower of Gorleston parish church - already as designated sea mark - below which was a cottage for the man in charge.

Capt Clements, of the Royal Navy, successfully asked Yarmouth council for consent to use waste ground at the south end of what became Marine Parade for a telegraph site, and built a small wooden single-storey house for the officer-in-charge. This building, eventually enlarged and turned into a permanent residence called Telegraph House, was at one time occupied by a senior Coastguard inspector but eventually was privately owned.

Later in the 1800s the Royal Naval Hospital was build on adjacent land. Telegraph House survived until the 1950s when it was demolished, the site redeveloped as Seafield Close.

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