Signal stations

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This article by M B Kavanagh, Fort Regent flag signalman, was first published in the 1970 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Invasion threat

Before the advent of telephone and radio, Jersey was an isolated and vulnerable island, open to any unexpected attacks by enemy sea forces. Unless a lookout at the beacon stations, which were situated on the highest points around the island, should happen to spot the approach of a foreign fleet, and could raise the alarm faster than the fleet could sail, then an invasion of the island would have a great chance of success simply by using the element of surprise as the greatest weapon.

Two such attacks were launched by the French against Jersey. One, in 1779, failed miserably: the second, two years later, gave the French an initial success but ended with a Jersey victory at what has come to be called the Battle of Jersey.

These two attacks gave the ruling authorities such a shock that they decided to establish a chain of signal stations around the Island on the most elevated positions, as soon as possible. The idea originated from the Chamber of Commerce, who passed it on to Philip d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, then in command of the British Fleet stationed around the Island.

He referred it to Major-General Andrew Gordon, the Lieut-Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Jersey, who drew the attention of the Island Defence Committee to this proposition. The latter presented a report to the States on 18 January 1792.

Two arguments were put forward on that day in support of establishing the signal stations: first, for the more effective defence of the Island; second, for the protection of the commerce of the Islanders. Both schemes were approved.

A map showing the location of the signal stations

Ten stations

A chain of ten signal stations were established: La Moye; Noirmont Point; Mont de la Ville (Fort Regent); Herket (Mont Ube): Verclut; Mont Orgueil; Rozel; La Bouley; Mont Mado; and Grosnez on the most elevated positions. Each was manned by Naval personnel, a lieutenant, a midshipman, and two seamen.

They formed a regular line of communication around the Island, and were intended to give timely notice of the approach of an enemy, British ships of war, merchant vessels, and packets, and to alarm the Island in case of a menaced attack, for which purpose they had cannon, fire beacon etc.

After the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802, and temporary peace with France, signal stations were discontinued. But they did not remain closed for long. On 22 May 1803 when war with France was resumed and attacks by the French were expected daily, the stations were re-established.

Unfortunately the States had been in such a hurry to get rid of their responsibility for these stations that, by an Acte of 1 May 1802, they had instructed the Constables of those parishes where they were situated, to sell off the contents of the posts and to let, or "Otherwise cause to be occupied" the buildings, except that of Noirmont, which belonged to James Pipon, (the Seigneur).

So when war broke out again the States had hurriedly to pass another "Acte" on 19 May 1803 to re-establish the posts. James Pipon refused to surrender that of Noirm ont and the States were obliged to buy 16 perches of land from George Benest and Edouard Le Maistre for 240 "Livres de France", on which to erect a new signal station, described in detail in yet another "Acte" of 11 June 1803.

Stead, in his "Picture of Jersey", written in 1809, gives an account of some of the signal stations erected:-

Montagne de la Ville

On this Hill is a signal station, which commands a most extensive view of the coast of France and the Bay of St Aubin's, the surrounding Town and countryside. In command of the signal post is a Lieutenant of the Navy, a Midshipman, and two able Seamen.

Herket (Mont Ube)

Upon this hill is a signal station, called Arcot, a neat convenient dwelling, with a good garden, a small but excellent retreatfor a weather beaten seaman, his mast, yards and rigging remain: and he is still able to show his colours; his berth is amply furnished, his supply of fresh provision and grog is certain. He may enjoy all the conveniences of the shore and all the amusements of the sea, without the dangers attending upon his profession.

Mont Orgueil

Erected on the tower of the old castle is a signal post. It is commanded by a Lieutenant and his attendants. It is also garrisoned by troops and expected to be furnished with 14 days provisions.

Grosnez

At Grosnez signal station a distinct prospect may be obtained, in a clear atmosphere, of the Islands of Guernsey and Sark, and the ships of war may be discovered riding at their anchors in the Guernsey Roads. From thence intelligence is conveyed from one Island to an other by means of Telegraphic Signals that are made from the different signal stations.

Instructions were given by General Don, in 1811, regarding what had to be done in the event of an alarm. The red flag to be hoisted to the top of the mast, and two black balls to be placed at the west yardarm, two cannon shots to be fired. At night time, the beacons at the signal station to be lit and three cannon shots to be fired. All the parish church bells to be rung and the regular troops and militia to be alerted and ready.

The system of signalling used locally consisted of flags, pennants, and balls. Each signal station had one main mast and two yardarms, the four points on the two yardarms represent direction, top yardarm east and west, lower one north and south. A pennant or flag hoisted at the mast head referred to the vessel, a black ball placed at the yardarm referred to direction and number of vessels. A total of 56 signals were used.

On 16 May 1814 an application was made by several principal inhabitants of St Helier to General Don with reference to keeping up the signal stations from La Moye Station to Fort Regent for the benefit of merchants, and to announce the approach of vessels, men of war, etc into St Helier Harbour.

Chamber contribution

He referred it to the Chamber of Commerce, requesting their decision and also asking if the Chamber will contribute anything towards their upkeep. Upon which it was unanimously decided:

”That the Chamber will contribute Twelve Pounds Sterling for one year towards defraying the expenses that may be incurred in keeping up the signal communication from La Moye Station to that of Town Hill, it being understood that, should the British Government re-establish the signal stations, the Chamber will then discontinue such payments.”

In 1886, the States ordered all their Actes, as well as all correspondence relative to the signal stations in Jersey, to be printed. It dates back to 8 April 1802, although signal stations were first established in 1792. A certain amount of correspondence dealt with the personnel employed, their working conditions and pay, and responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of the signal stations.

For example, between 1868 and 1878, the States instructed their Treasurer to pay annual sums of between £30 and £70 to the Harbourmaster for the maintenance of the three stations at La Moye, Noirmont and Fort Regent. During the same period, the War Department was paying £5 a year to the Harbourmaster "towards keeping up the Tackle (Instruments, Flags, Ropes, Balls, etc)"

Appearing in this booklet is a letter of 15 October 1883 from Benjamin Davis, signalman at La Moye Signal Station, addressed to Captain Bichard, Harbour Master, and Superintendent of the Jersey Signal Services. The signalman gives an account as to the conditions under which he worked and lived. The letter reads as follows:

Deare Sir - Captain Bishar
I wish to report the Oreable Condichon the House and Lookout is in at La moye Signal station, (the First Signal Poast of the Island). Dear Sir, the Roof of the House is Quite Likey and the toyles are All Lussen with the North and South and West Gailles and Winds, all so the shutters and window Freams and doors are Qite rotten, the House is so Old and Likey that Our furncher are Quite spoilt and we are suffering very much with Colds and romitusn, and cramps, in our Limes. Deare Sir there is no supply of water and no convinces to the House to make use of, the House is so Old and too Far inland that i ham Obliged to walk from three to four hundred yards to the Point to take the vessels and flags in all kinds of weather, so i am allway catching heavy colds, and the house beingn so low that it cawesses evry thing To be mildew, and i have no Controal Over the Work, and there is no shelter for me at the Point, and it is very trying for my health, the House being so far inland that i cannot see the vessels Coming nor Passing. the Lookout House is in a bad a Condition or wares, the rafters and flaring is in falling Condichon and all so the roof is cracking verey much. Dear Sir the man that i Rerled, Mr Ranney dide thaw a sevrier cold and the man Before him Mr Carras went blind all so a nother man Life was Lost thro this Place.
Deare Sir, I must Conclude,
I reman your humble and oligent Servant.
Pensioner BENJAMIN DAVIS.
Signal man, at La moye Signal Station.

The matter of repair to La Moye Signal Station was referred to the Lieut-Governor, of Jersey Major-General Henry Wray, who passed it on to the Commanding Officer, Royal Engineers.

As there was a conflicting opinion as to the ownership and responsibility of maintenance and repair, the Lieut-Governor asked the Harbours Committee, if they would be good enough to direct such repairs to be done, as are absolutely necessary to render the house habitable, without prejudice to any decision or arrangement which may be hereafter come to.

Arising from the above disagreement, the States of Jersey approached the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, on 8 June 1885, with a view to the transfer of signal stations at La Moye and Noirmont to them. In reply the Admiralty agreed, on condition that they would not contribute towards their maintenence or repair and that should at any time the use of it as signal station cease, the property is to handed back to the Commanding Officer, Royal Engineers, as representing the Admiralty, in such condition as it may be then.

During this period the Jersey signals had changed very little since their introduction in 1792, except a box witha red flag attached was used to announce the approach of a steam vessel to the Island.

A simple code using two flags, two pennants, and one black ball was devised. Each of these represented a number from 1-5. A number was allocated to each shipping merchant's house flag; for example the number 231 was allocated to G Allix. (Jersey Signals, 1880). When a vessel was sighted off La Moye Signal Station, a ball or box was hoisted to the yardarm, and a number to the masthead. This signal was copied by the signalman at Noirmont Signal Station, and from thence by the Town signalman at Fort Regent.

The next phase in signalling was the introduction and laying of the electric telegraph from Corbiere Lighthouse to Fort Regent in 1888-9. All shipping nearing the Island was then signalled at Fort Regent by telegraph from the Corbiere Lighthouse.

Signals in use in Jersey

Gale warning signals

Jersey was included in the first list of Stations compiled by Admiral FitzRoy when he devised the Gale Warning System in 1861. This was made possible by the laying of the Post Office telegraph cable to Jersey in 1858.

The signal consists of a black cone, and measures 3 ft high and 3 ft in diameter at the base, and was hoisted on instructions from Dunstable Weather Centre in the UK via the Harbour Office and relayed to the signal station at Fort Regent, where the appropriate signal is made. The signal warns all shipping of an approaching gale in the area of Portland, which includes Jersey. This station is one of three in the UK to fly a night signal - three red lights.

From 1 August 1969 instructions to hoist the cones no longer came under the directions of the Dunstable Weather Centre, but under the States Meteorological Office in conjunction with the Harbour Master.

It was found that in the past when a cone was hoisted for the Portland Area, very often no gale had occurred in the Channel Isles. The new range covered by gale warning will be 50.00 degrees North; 03.00 degrees West; 50.00 degrees North; 02.00 degrees West. to Cap de la Hague, then the French Coast South and West to Ile de Brehat, then returning to 50.00 degrees North; 03.00 degrees West, which will be an improvement to both local and visiting yachtsmen and to shipping in general.

Fort Regent Signal Station, founded in 1708, over 260 years old, must rank as one of the oldest in the UK which is still in existence, and which still uses private signals, first compiled in 1792, and still used today, although reduced in number from 86 signals to 18. The station still plays an important role in shipping and signalling, despite the excellent radio communications that ships and shore stations have developed.

On several occasions during the year the station is dressed overall to celebrate, HM the Queen's and Royal Family birthdays etc. and in Jersey, Liberation Day, The Flags of the International Code are used and set out in alaphabetical order and hoisted to the top of the signal mast, along with the Union Jack and Jersey Flag. The flying of flags to celebrate an important occasion or anniverary is a very old custom and stems from a Naval tradition.

The Hours of Sunshine are also recorded at the station using a Campell-Stokes Recorder which is universally used. Records have been kept since 1925. It has on several occasions topped the Sunshine League both in the Channel Isles and the UK.

New Signals

A new signal was devised in 1967 by the Harbourmaster, Capt R S Taylor. A red pennant is hoisted to the south yardarm which indicates that the lifeboat is on an emergency call. Another recent signal is the orange pennant ,- when hoisted to the top of the signal mast, it signifies that the aircraft carrying thenational newspapers have left London. On arrival in Jersey the signal is lowered to half mast. The Jersey signals are reviewed each year and new signals added when necessary.

Today news of all shipping nearing the Island from the north is relayed by telephone from Corbiere Lighthouse to the signal station at Fort Regent and all shipping from the south is passed by the Jersey Marine Radio Station, and the appropriate signal is made by hoisting a box on the yardarm and a house flag (denotes the owner or the agent for the vessel concerned) to the topmast.

With the redevelopment of Fort Regent, the States appointed a Special Committee on Former War Department Properties in 1967. In its recommendations to the States with reference to the signal station which forms part of the Fort, it proposes to retain the signal station as this is a colourful feature and of much local interest.

As this station is a well known land mark and stands about 300ft above sea level, having played a valuable part in history of the Island and having survived for 260 years, it is hoped that it will continue to operate for the generations that follow.

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