Signal stations and semaphores: Messaging over great distances two centuries ago

Bruny Island, Tasmania

I’ve written before of the Tamar, the powerful, tortuous, tidal river that flows almost 60km from the confluence of the North and South Esk Rivers at Launceston to finally enter Bass Strait at Low Head. I’ve written, too, about my family who settled on the West Tamar in the 1820s losing two sons in the aptly named Whirlpool Reach (and very nearly a third, my immediate forebear who, fortunately, managed to scramble up a rocky embankment to safety). This was the narrowest, most treacherous part of the river’s course, with massive eddies generated on the ebb tide.

Through those early days of settlement, and for decades ahead, shipping had to endure this and many other perils in navigating the often potent waterway.

In the early nineteenth century, with the French showing a great level of interest (several Tasmanian place names came from French sources that time: Bruny, d’Entrecastreaux, Recherche, Freycinet, Huon, and many more), Governor King sent Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson and a landing party south on board the Buffalo. In 1804, they established a settlement at Outer Cove that was later to become George Town: It remains Australia’s oldest town.

Another area soon settled was at the head of the Tamar, between the Esk Rivers. Tentatively called Patersonia, after the Colonel, it was finally named Launceston for Governor King’s birthplace in Cornwall. Despite some initial uncertainty, it developed into a burgeoning centre that never looked back.

Mount George Semaphore
A lead light on the Tamar River at Low Head. Many of these were constructed along the length of the river for safe navigation. In daylight, a ship’s captain knew he was navigating a safe path if he could see a clear pane of glass while, at night, it would be a white light. Deviate to either side and he would see an increasing amount of red, a warning he was off-course.

Nowadays, the main connecting route between the estuary and the City of Launceston is the East Tamar Highway, a distance of around 55km. Back then, with no organised land transport and the railway not yet established, the river remained the key thoroughfare. George Town was only a handful of miles upriver from the mouth, with Launceston a further thirty, but the waterborne distance was considerably greater due to the river’s twists and turns. Shipping had to navigate the tormented passage, a trip that frequently required days, dependent on tide and wind. Although people at Low Head – where the lighthouse and pilot station still stand today as tourism icons – had knowledge of ships and loads arriving at the river mouth, there was no means of communication with the major centre, Launceston.

In the days before Morse code, telephones or even telegraph, thoughts turned to forms of messaging over distance. The Channel Islands had a series of semaphores to warn against French attack. A recent emigré, Peter Archer Mulgrave, early nineteenth century superintendent of telegraphs on the islands, resigned and took a pension after being wounded by the French. He arrived in Tasmania in 1822, his expertise becoming vital in developing a signal system along the Tamar.

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A flag system was developed and used but was greatly supplanted by a twin arm arrangement. Six stations were built on high ground, roughly equidistant along the eastern shore of the river. The first was at Low Head, signalling to the next on Mount George at George Town, with the last on Windmill Hill  at the top of York Street in the town of Launceston.

Low Head lead light
The reconstructed semaphore on Mount George, the first relay station between Low Head and Launceston in the system that operated from 1825 to 1858.

The semaphore arms were five metres long by two wide and mounted atop sixty foot (18m) poles. Each arm was timber slatted, painted white for best visibility, had an iron counterweight for balance, and was operated by chains attached to cranks near ground level. A great deal of coordination was required between operators as the angle of the arms denoted a specific letter or number.

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Average transmission rates were about two words a minute. In the modern age with electronic transmissions measured in dozens or Thundreds of Mbps, this sounds positively archaic. It was a manual system and, for its time, the best available. It provided the Launceston Port Office, in sight of Windmill Hill – as well as any trader with a clerk able to read the codes – information on the latest ship entering the river at Low Head, with details of passengers and cargo, all within short time of its arrival. The semaphore operated from 1825 to 1858, at which time electric telegraph took over.

A committee raised funds to reconstruct sections of the system several years ago. It is believed they revived what is the last operating semaphore system in Australia, a proud tribute to the technology of the day and to those with the foresight to develop it for the benefit of their community.

What do you think about how people used to communicate over long distances over two centuries ago? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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