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Signals Collection

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0064 SIG
Held at: National Maritime Museum
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Full title: Signals Collection
Date(s): [1673]-1885
Level of description: Collection
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Scope and content/abstract:

Signals Collection comprising two East India Company signal books. The first is a printed signal book of 1783 entitle 'A Collection of Signals for the use of the ships in the Service of the United East India Company'; a sheet of coloured flags has been loosely inserted, but the book was not issued. There is also a manuscript volume of signals issued by Captain Alexander Montgomerie to the fleet under his command, St Helena to England, 1794.

153 volumes of sailing and fighting instructions include the majority of those listed in Sir Julian Corbett, Signals and instructions (Navy Records Society, 1908). In addition, there are many examples of those issued to smaller squadrons rather than fleets. The earliest is a printed copy of 1673 issued to James Duke of York (1633-1701). There is a copy of 1691 by Admiral Russel (1653-1727), issued in 1702. Subsequent sets show the development which took place up to the Seven Years War. From 1756 onwards additional and supplementary instructions became more numerous. The collection also contains several versions of instructions for ships in convoy, 1708 to 1815. In addition to these single items, there are sets in the personal collections. The most extensive, of thirty-four volumes, is that of Admiral Duncan (q.v.), 1760 to 1799, including signals and instructions issued during the American War, convoy instructions for 1782 and a number of sets from the 1790s. Other sets of significance include those of Vice-Admiral Duff, 1748 to 1762, including convoy instructions, 1756 and 1758, and printed instructions for disembarking and re-embarking troops, which were issued by Admiral Rodney (1719-1792) for the landings at marinique, 1762; of Rear-Admiral Clements, 1758 to 1770; and of Captain Lord Longford, 1779 to 1780.

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 (q.v.) 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.

Over half the signal books in this category are French; the other nations represented are Spain, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Sweden and Turkey. There are eighteen volumes, 1754 to 1885, the majority of which are printed with manuscript annotations. Of the French volumes, the earliest is a signal book kept in 1754 by the pilot of LA ROSE, in the squadron of Le Comte de Gallissoniere (1693-1756). The volume has a thumb index of coloured flags and is illustrated with watercolours of fleet manoeuvres. There is also an English translation of the signal book issued by the Comte D'Ache (1700-1775) to his fleet while in the East Indies in the ZODIAQUE, 1757 to 1759; a signal book issued by the Comte D'Orvilliers (1708-1792) in 1779; and a printed signal book of 1787 issued by the Marquis de Nieul, in which the names of the vessels in the squadron have been scratched out, but the twenty flags and ten pendants have been coloured. The Revolutionary War period is represented by three signal books issued for the navy of the Republic in 1799 and 1801. Only one has actually been issued and gives a key to the flags. In addition, there is a handbook for a coastal semaphore between Bayonne and Flushing; published in 1807, the system was invented by an artillery officer named Depillon and built ca.1803. The category also includes two signal books for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; one was issued in c 1784 by John (later Sir John) Acton (1736-1811), the other in 1816; a Spanish book of signals and instructions printed in Cadiz in 1765 and issued by the Marques de la Victoria; another Spanish volume for 1781 for the fleet of Don Luis de Cordova; and two Swedish volumes, 1795 and 1796. The Turkish signal book is naval, 1885, and the format is similar to a French or an English volume. There is also a Dutch volume of flags rather than signals which was compiled c 1687; it is described on the title page as 'The Flagbook of Captain Paulus van der Dussen' (1658-1707).

Seven volumes concerned with naval signalling, telegraphic and merchant shipping codes, 1787 to 1822. The earliest volume is by Captain (later Admiral) Phillip Patton (1739-1815); in 1787 he published 'A system of signals combining the method commonly used in theBritish Navy...with a numerary method'. As far as is known this was never used, since preference was given to the code invented by Lord Howe. Patton employed two methods: one was the old idea of the meaning of the flag being governed by the position of the hoist and the other gave each flag a fixed numerical value. A new arrangement of Howe's day and night signals and instructions was made in 1792 by John McArthur (1755-1840), while secretary to Lord Hood, and printed in 1793. McArthur also published a comprehensive plan in c 1804, entitled 'Thoughts on several plans combining a system of Universal Signals by day and night', of which there is also a copy. There is a lithographed copy, made in 1822, of 'Practical Rules for making Telegraphic Signals with a description of the two-armed telegraph invented in 1804' by Lieutenant-Colonel Pasley (1780-1861); he put forward a system of sending messages by land using a pole with two moveable arms. A similar manuscript of ca.1820 is by Lieutenant (later Commander) Poynter Crane (1782-1879).

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Detailed catalogue online at the: National Maritime Museum website .

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Description Notes

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.

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