Tony Lord: Memories of Shooters Hill Signal Station

Tom Pigott came out of the Admiralty Telegraph hut in Hazelwood field near the summit of Shooters Hill and looked around with a grunt of satisfaction at the promise of a fine day ahead.

It was early on an April morning in 1801, and the long war with revolutionary France had pointed the need for rapid communication between the Admiralty in London and the naval stations at Deal, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

The telegraph at Shooters Hill was part of a chain of stations erected at elevated points throughout Kent to the coast.

Over each building, little more than a two-roomed cottage, towered a strong timber frame holding the six 3ft square shutters operated by cranks and ropes, 63 different patterns and combinations of the shutters enabled the whole alphabet plus 10 numerals to be used, and it was possible for the veteran signallers to send routine messages using arbitrary phrases along the whole network in under five minutes.

On this particular foggy morning, things were quiet as the neighbouring stations at New Cross and Swanscombe were invisible, even through the 12 guinea brass telescopes provided by the Admiralty.

Lieutenant Saunders was still snoring in his bunk and Midshipman Simpkins, knuckling the sleep out of his eyes, was about to enter a fair copy of the previous day’s signals in the big ledger.

Tom’s mate, Harry Edwards, was cook for the day and busied himself stirring a pot of burgoes (oatmeal gruel) simmering on the coal stove.

Piggot could just make out the Dover Mail coach beginning the long climb up the steep hill from London.

The passengers were walking behind to ease the horses after having breakfasted in the Green Man at the edge of Blackheath.

Shooters Hill Signal Station illustration by Tony Lord

Some of them glanced quickly at the blackened body of a highwayman who had been hanged a month previously, still swinging from the gibbet at the crossroads at the foot of the hill.

Tom sat down slowly on a bench outside the cottage, the damp air making his leg ache.

A flying piece of splintered oak had neatly taken his foot off at the ankle in a furious action with a French frigate three years before, and now he stumped about on a peg leg, grateful for his comfortable billet, coal and candles provided and two shillings a day.

He was well content. Later on he would plant some potatoes in the garden of the little enclosure, and his wife had promised to walk up from Woolwich, bringing a piece of salt pork, that afternoon being a Sunday.

A puff of wind ruffled his hair and gleams of sunlight pierced the dissolving clouds of mist.

The midshipman’s high pitched shout summoned him inside the hut to his post beneath the hanging ropes.

Simpkins was staring through his telescope eastward to Swanscombe which was already urgently calling their attention.

Lieutenant Saunders, stuffing his nightshirt in his breeches, crouched over the big signal book, quill poised to write down the groups of words cried out by the young officers.

To Tom’s astonishment the signal ended with the two men bursting into exultant whoops of triumph.
Forgetting the difference in rank, they slapped each other on the back.

Tom, stony-faced, hauled on the ropes, turning the shutters side on to acknowledge receipt of the signal and at the same time calling the attention of the station at New Cross, the gantry of which was now clearly visible through the dispersing fog.

Moving the shutters up and down and listening to Simpkins’ squeaky voice, Tom sent: “From Admiral Baltic Fleet. A great victory at Copenhagen. Danish fleet destroyed. End.”

Saunders and Simpkins were already toasting Nelson with glasses of grog. Tom sat down with his bowl of gruel and a biscuit.

These days he was more interested in digging his potato patch in the April sunshine than bloody feats of glory at some distant place in ‘furrin parts’.


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