Before 4G, before radio, before the electric telegraph, sending an important message could take days. In 1794 the French inventor Claude Chappe found a solution, namely a series of relay towers built within line of sight with a set of semaphore signals on the roof. The Royal Navy established their own system the following year, initially using hexagonal shutters and later two long movable arms whose sequential orientation spelt out the letters of the message. Chains of towers were erected linking London to Deal, Portsmouth and Great Yarmouth, the Portsmouth branch embracing the new semaphore system in 1822. [more][more][more, with map]
Only thirteen intermediate stations were needed to link the Admiralty in London to the Dockyard at Portsmouth, with sharp-eyed operators ensuring that naval messages could be sent in a matter of minutes. The system ruled supreme until the electric telegraph was invented in 1845, allowing instantaneous transmission, and the semaphore towers sent their final message on 31st December 1847. Their arms have long been dismantled but many of the buildings on which they were supported survive... so I thought I try tracing the London end of the chain, starting in Whitehall. [map]
The Royal Navy has always needed a central point of control, close to government, and for almost three centuries this was in Whitehall (between Horseguards and Trafalgar Square). The Admiralty started out as a single building in 1726, and has been described as London's first office block. Over the years it's gained several extensions, and is now occupied by the Department for International Development, but the original wood-panelled boardroom is use and can usually be visited on Open House weekends. It's here that information from distant ships would have been collated, pressing strategic matters debated and decisions despatched to the coast. The first semaphore signal in the Portsmouth chain was on the roof, just to the left of the central portico, and can be seen in this illustration from 1830.
↙ 2 miles on a bearing of 226° (or take the number 11 bus)
The second point in the sempahore chain has had two different locations. It started out on the roof of the Royal Military Asylum, a school for servicemen's orphans on the King's Road, Chelsea. You'll know it better today as the Saatchi Gallery, part of the Duke of York's Headquarters complex. Then in 1844 the mast was moved a couple of hundred yards south to the roof of the Royal Hospital, the splendid Wren building where the Chelsea Pensioners reside. My photograph shows the latter. This low-lying land is barely higher than Whitehall, so no direct line of sight exists today, but in the early 18th century the rooftop elevation was sufficient to read incoming messages and transmit them onwards across the Thames.
↙ 4 miles on a bearing of 229° (or take the number 170 bus)
PutneyHeath is a large undeveloped open space immediately to the north of, and connected to, Wimbledon Common. It's no obvious hill, more a hump on a plateau, but at 50m above sea level proved the ideal spot for a semaphore tower. The main road to Portsmouth has long passed this way, with highwaymen the chief danger when it was only a track across heathland. That track is now the A3 trunk road, rudely slicing Putney Heath in two, with the telegraph originally positioned near the summit a short distance to the north. It's not there now.
This is a mighty strange part of inner London, a sprawl of woodland and recreational space surrounding a tiny, and somewhat exclusive, community. The few grand homes built up here in the 19th century have been sequentially replaced by gated flats and detached boltholes, the iniquity of their presence tempered by the fact that nobody passing by can see them. Accidentally dropping by on the 424 bus feels like slipping into the deepest Home Counties, especially when there are cricketers on the outfield.
The hill's former communications outpost is namechecked by Telegraph Road and by The Telegraph pub, whose inn sign shows two arms configured to show the letter Q (or maybe an X from the other side). All looks welcoming until you cross the beer terrace and read the signs hastily stuck to all the windows on New Year's Day - "For reasons well beyond our control our journey here has come to a close." The former tenants go on to apologise profusely for the late notice, diplomatically not mentioning the rent rise that forced them out, and invite everyone to their new projects in Barnes and Epsom. Hopefully the new licensees, if there are any, will keep the name.
↙ 2½ miles on a bearing of 222° (or take the number 85 bus)
The other side of Putney Vale, at a similar elevation to Putney Heath, is an even more exclusive spot. Welcome to the suburb of Coombe, originally the hunting grounds of Coombe Warren on the flanks of Coombe Hill. For much of the 19th century Telegraph Cottage was the only building up here, linked by a track to Kingston Hill and Coombe Lane, but over the years a string of gated mansions has sprung up covering most of the land that hasn't been golf-coursed. The private estate's owners would love to keep everyone else out, but unfortunately for them Warren Road was deemed a public footpath in a legal wrangle over access in 1853 so it remains possible to take a peek.
These are houses which hide behind thick hedges, with lanterns and lions on the gateposts plus intercoms for guests or deliveries. They have names like The Brass Bell or Conjury Nook, and multi-million pound price tags to boot. Telegraph Cottage no longer stands, alas, having been destroyed by fire in 1987. That's even more of a pity because its most famous resident was General Eisenhower, who holed up here in secret during the months leading up to D-Day (as a plaque at the northern end of the road attests). The building currently on site has kept the name, but is of classical modern construction divided up into flats, with a little porter's hut out front. Nothing to see here... and that's the way they'd like it to stay.
↙ 4½ miles on a bearing of 219° (or take the K3 bus)
This leap has taken us beyond the bounds of current London into proper Surrey, not so far from Esher. Before the telegraph arrived this was Coopers Hill, its name evolved over the years into Telegraph Hill, another 50 metre spot height on the optimal alignment. I walked in from the commuter village of Claygate, following the gentle mudbath climb of Telegraph Road to a patch of open public land at the summit. Most of the surrounding land is grazed by horses, making this the first semaphore tower site with a properly rural feel. The beech slopes on the northern flank form Hinchley Wood, which gave its name to the more modern suburb at the foot of the slope.
The Claygate station was a house whose central section included two additional rooms, one above the other. One of the these was the operating room, reinforced with a large diagonal beam to support the semaphore mast which extended a further eight feet above the roof. After decommissioning the property switched to residential use and today it's a smart family home called Semaphore House. The front gate looks fearsome, but at this time of year the leafless branches down one side permit a much clearer view of the original structure. Tree cover still makes viewing Coombe or Kingston impossible, at least from ground level, but that's no doubt why a stacked-up tower was needed in the first place.
This is a lot further out, between Cobham and Wisley, so I didn't get this far on my latest trek (the photo is from a walk I did two years ago). We're now marginally beyond the M25, the motorway running in cutting less than 100 metres away. Poor old Ockham Common ended up with Junction 10 slapped in the middle of it, that being the interchange with the A3... the modern way of linking London to Portsmouth. The Admiralty's semaphore station was positioned at the highest point, amid forest and heather heathland, and this is the sole location on the route where engineers chose to construct a lofty tower. Five storeys high, octagonal and topped by a redbrick parapet, it adds a crucial extra eighteen metres.
This is also the best preserved of all the semaphore stations in the Portsmouth chain, thanks to restoration work carried out by the Surrey Historic Buildings Trust. They even created a small museum inside, including hands-on working semaphore models, which was open to the public on a handful of summer Sundays. Unfortunately further maintenance work is now required so the tower is closed, and may reopen as a Landmark Trust property (sleeps four). It still looks impressive from outside, however, and is a magnificent reminder of a 200 year-old communications plan of strategic brilliance.