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National Maritime Museum

Royal Navy: Signal Books and Signals


Reference code(s): GB 0064 SIG/B

Held at: National Maritime Museum

Title: Royal Navy: Signal Books and Signals

Date(s): 1711-1816

Level of description: sub-fonds

Extent: 6ft: 18 items

Name of creator(s):


Administrative/Biographical history:


Scope and content/abstract:

This class consists of 120 printed and manuscript signal books and signal logs. 1711 to 1816. The earliest signal book is a manuscript volume compiled between 1710 and 1711. This contains additional signals made by Sir John Norris (c 1670-1749) in the RANELAGH. The format of this volume is very similar to the printed signal book of 1714 by Jonathan Greenwood. There are some manuscript examples produced privately by individual officers usually with a thumb index for quick reference, dating from the mid-eighteenth century. There are also printed signal books for 1790, 1793, 1795, 1798 and The General Signal Book of 1799, 1808 and 1816. During the 1790s the printing of signal books became general practice. There are various examples (which include day and fog signals), night signals, instructions and additional instructions, which were usually issued in sets. For example, the collection has a set issued in 1793 by Admiral Lord Hood to the Mediterranean fleet. There is a similar set issued by Sir John Jervis in 1794 while in the West Indies.

Most of the printed books which were issued have additional signals inserted in manuscript. The manuscript signal books are copies kept by officers who were not issued with a printed signal book, and preferred their own copy for easy reference; they are therefore usually pocket size. This practice was forbidden because of the danger of the code falling into enemy hands. However, there are a number of these in the collection and they often contain additional information, such as orders of battle and sailing, keys to both the British and French systems of coastal signals, pendant lists, etc. Many are finely executed and some are illustrated. There is a manuscript signal book used at the battle of the Nile, based on the 1795 edition entitled 'Day and Night Signal Book, Horarry, Fog etc.' by Midshipman (later Commander) Charles Claridge (fl 1798-1823) in the DEFENCE. This has a short diary at the back of the volume describing the battle and an order of battle and an order of battle and sailing. A manuscript copy of Lord Howe's code of 1793 is also included; this contains a list of signals for identifying coasts and headlands, caricatures, a sea song and drawings of naval vessels. The collection contains a group of signal books issued for use in a particular area; they include volumes for Barbados, 1820, Plymouth, 1797 and St Helena, 1817. There are also three signal logs, one of which was kept in the VICTORY, 1804.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

Detailed catalogue online at the: National Maritime Museum website .


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:



Archivist's note: Edited by Sarah Drewery, Sep 2011.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: 2010-08-26

Military communications | Group communication | Communication process
Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) | Wars (events)
Naval battles | Battles
Naval operations | Military operations | Military engineering
Sea songs | Vocal music | Music | Performing arts

Personal names
Howe | Richard | 1726-1799 | Earl Howe | Admiral of the Fleet
Jervis | John | 1735-1823 | Earl of St Vincent | Admiral of the Fleet

Corporate names
HMS Defence
HMS Victory
Royal Navy

Plymouth | Devon | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe