Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Hooptedoodle #362 - The Liverpool-Holyhead Optical Telegraph

A bit more Merseyside local history, I'm afraid - pretty ancient history, too. During lock-down, I am presently working my way through some of the old BBC TV Coast series on DVD, and enjoying them thoroughly - apart from anything else, it's nice to get a change of scenery, and to see people travelling about in the fresh air and speaking to each other!

Yesterday I watched the episode from Series 2 in which they discuss the North Wales coastline from Anglesey to Liverpool. One of the items covered was the Optical Telegraph, begun in 1826, I think, which was built to communicate between Holyhead, in Anglesey, and Liverpool. My interest was kindled!

Long before any electric telegraph, it was very useful to be able to pass messages back and forth, with news of arriving shipping. In those pre-steam days, most of the sugar trade from the Caribbean and the cotton from the USA came into Liverpool, and voyage times were very variable. When incoming ships reached Anglesey, they only had about 70 miles to go, across Liverpool Bay to the port itself. Ships passing Holyhead could exchange (flag) signals with the signal station, and then the telegraph system (invented, I believe, by an employee of the Liverpool Dock Company named Watson) would send news to Liverpool, where the shipping companies could make arrangements for berthing and unloading, and the local traders could make announcements in the Cotton Exchange and in the local commodity markets, and of course, messages to the ship could be sent back.

The Telegraph stations
 The system used a relay of semaphore stations, sending coded messages which consisted of numeric signals, translated by means of a code book.

Each station would receive incoming signals from an adjacent station in the line, and resend as quickly as possible. I imagine the job of spotting a new signal quickly would be a demanding one, but the signal traffic was heavy, so there might be little chance to doze off! This sounds painfully slow, since someone would have to decode the numbers at each end, but it seems that 3 to 4 minutes from end to end was about average, which is impressive. During the BBC TV show, they made great play of the fact that there was a claim that the fastest ever recorded time for a message from Holyhead to Liverpool was 27 seconds. My reaction was to wonder how they could possibly have measured this, since there was no time signal or satellite clock to check it against. It took me a while to realise that it would be possible to time a there-and-back signal and response at one end of the line, but I have to say that still don't believe they could have done it so quickly!

Ruin of the station at Carreglwyd, abandoned in 1841 when the Puffin Island station opened
Puffin Island
Bidston Hill "Observatory" in the Wirral - telegraph station, and one signal flagpole for each shipping line!
If you want to know more, here's a link to a pleasing little history of the telegraph system - there seems to have been a gradual improvement in the technology - there are still traces of it around. I remember that when I was a small child I saw the signal pylon at Hilbre Island, just off West Kirby. Come to think of it, I never realised until yesterday what that site was!

One nice moment in the BBC programme was a reference to the fact that that one of the coded signals in the book, transmitted as a number, meant "do you have the code book?", which, of course, would convey nothing at all if you didn't.


  1. I remember that episode. I do enjoy that programme. 27 seconds does seem fast but it might have been a single number that meant something like ‘get ready to receive’. Can imagine the excitement when news came through to the city.

    Didn’t Napoleon have a similar system for communications within France?

    1. I think I've got some information about the Napoleonic system somewhere - I wonder where it is...?

      The improvement introduced by the telegraph system must have been considerable. When the used flag signals to Bidston, there would be less than an hour before the ships arrived in port. I don't know how quickly sailing ships would have travelled, but I guess 8 or 10 hours for 70 miles would be good going, so the owners were gaining half a day or so - information was, as now, vital to success.

  2. Just read the articles in the link. Fascinating stuff. The one about Lieut. Watson’s Telegraph even predicts sexting (sort of).

    1. I see Watson was sacked in the end for freelancing and selling his invention to competitors. I wonder did they telegraph his P45?

  3. Walked around the coast at quite a number of locations and on a passible day you can see the next site, but on a good one the next again. Hilbre island one of the last is a regular walk (when the tide is out)

    1. Hi Will - yes, the coastal area is supposed to be clearer, so the distance between stations was 8 miles or so. Hilbre Island - I still have nightmares about charging across the mud flats - complete with my sister's push-chair - to get back to West Kirby before the tide caught us. There were lots of channels, we knew nothing about what we were doing, and idiots (like us) were regularly drowned when caught by the tides. It would have helped if someone had published the tide times, mind you, but we probably wouldn't have read them. Taking a picnic out and being "stranded" until next low tide was a real adventure for little kids, and I remember being there in very stormy weather, with big waves breaking over the lifeboat station - I've a photo somewhere of me and my cousin Dave, both aged about 6, on the slipway, getting soaked. Photos courtesy of my dad, who was one of the great madmen of the Twentieth Century.

  4. Interesting stuff. the French Napoleonic system was Semaphore style:

    and a short video from... the BBC!

  5. Thank you Tony, quite fascinating and makes me wonder if there were similar systems along other coastlines, such as Nova Scotia for traffic coming from Boston to Halifax or vice versa.
    As for getting caught by tides on mud flats, I had an experience like that on the Bay of Fundy where I was quite lucky to get back to dry land in time. You hear about how fast the tides come in there, but you don't believe it until you see it.

    1. The commercial advantages of getting advance information from incoming shipping must have been amazing if you think about it, given the journey times and the uncertainty of travel in those days - not just about cargo coming in, but also advance warning of sickness on board, any special repairs needed, etc. The port and the ship owners were certainly prepared to pay a lot to have a system constructed at Liverpool. The change from the flags at Bidston to the semaphore from Holyhead meant that the lead time jumped from about an hour to the best part of a day - also the system worked far better!

      Tides on mud flats - Hilbre Island is at the end of the River Dee - the Dee (the Welsh/English one, not the Scottish one), as a wide-mouthed, tidal river, consists mostly of silt - as evidenced by the fact that the one-time port at Parkgate is now about a mile from the water. The coast at the end of the river, around Hilbre, Hoylake and West Kirby, is just a big flat area of sand and mud, and the tide comes in like an express train.