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Shutter Telegraph

The Murray Sutter Telegraph 1796 – 1816

The Shutter Telegraph was conceived at the time Napoleon was a threat to Britain and followed the successful implementation of the system employed by the Chappe Brothers in France.

murray-telegraph-buildingBritain, however, was looking for a less complicated system, cheaper and easier to operate, requiring little or no training of personnel to run it.

In 1795 following a request from the Admiralty two designs were put forward for consideration, one from John Gamble which employed five shutters and one from Lord Murray which used six.

The Admiralty chose Murray’s design. Murray’s design consisted of a timber building with a twenty-foot-high frame mounted on the roof. In this frame were six shutters: two mounted horizontally and three vertically which were pivoted about their centres.

Each shutter was approximately three feet or one metre square and could be opened and closed using ropes from inside the building. The six shutters gave a total of sixty-three combinations, and these were used to provide letters of the alphabet, numbers and other short codes.

The Telegraphs were erected in line-of-sight and were five to ten miles apart depending on terrain. They only operated during the daytime and telescopes were used to read the signals from up the line and relayed down the line and vice-versa. The first Telegraph line to be completed was London to Deal in 1796 and later that year the London to Portsmouth line.

In 1805 the Admiralty wanted communication to its Navy based in Plymouth. A junction was then formed on the Portsmouth line at Beacon Hill, West Sussex and a line of twenty-two Telegraphs were installed and completed by July 1806. The stations would have up to five navy personnel at each telegraph: two glassmen (looking through the telescopes), two to operate the shutters and a lieutenant in overall charge.

If the visibility was bad locally a horse and rider would be dispatched to take the message by hand to the next station and pass it on. Experiments were made to use some form of lighting at night, but these were the cause of several fires and not successful. The Telegraph Stations were kept in operational readiness from 1795 until 1816, when the telescopes were returned to the Admiralty.

They were in actual operation whenever Napoleon was free, and Britain considered itself under threat from invasion. By 1816 the Semaphore Telegraph was brought in and the line from London to Portsmouth was the first to have the shutters replaced with the new Semaphore stations.

Long before the electric telegraph came on the scene a method of communication existed that relied online of sight, using relay stations set up at points visible to the next one. This was no new idea as some similar system was used by the Romans to communicate from hilltop to hilltop.

One route required was from Great Yarmouth. This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and Yarmouth being the most easterly naval station was important for the defence of the North Sea and the Baltic. The first official message was sent via the new Telegraph in 1808 when the Admiral based in Yarmouth reported to the Admiralty in London “Calypso ready for sea”.

The relay station was sited on Long Hill Newmarket at a spot known as ‘The King’s Seat’, as it was a favourite spot of Charles II when out walking; this being on the north side of Moulton Road close to where Warren Towers now stands. From this high point (elevation 260 ft) there would have been uninterrupted views to the next relay stations SW to Gog & Magog Hills Cambridge and NE to Icklingham Suffolk (Telegraph Plantation).