Pre-1850 Sites

Portsdown Shutter Telegraph

 Created 23-11-2004   Last update 09-07-2017

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The Beginning

By the end of 1792 the French were leading the way in an astounding new system of signalling based on a plan evolved by the six brothers Chappe. The French Empire was using  'levered Semaphores' situated on towers nine to ten miles apart and were able to send messages over hundreds of miles at around 1.75 words per minute.

The Admiralty (the Royal Navy Headquarters) in London took note of this because the Napoleonic Wars were now being fought out and a machine was needed which could send and receive any desired message between them and their fleet based at Portsmouth. At this time all messages had to be delivered by Horsemen which at the very best took 4.5 hours.

The Reverend John Gamble had invented such a machine and was sent to Portsmouth to carry out trials. This was a 5 shutter machine allowing 32 (2 power 5) different signals. It was erected on Portsdown and on 6 August 1795 he reported that it was complete and in working order. However the Admiralty had decided to use a design by Reverend Lord George Murray instead. This machine consisted of 6 shutters in two columns in a vertical frame 20 feet high. Each shutter could be either closed or open which gave 64 different permutations (including all open and all closed). During September 1795 successful experimental trials were carried out on Wimbledon Common. Murray was awarded 2,000 for his invention, and Mr. George Roebuck was made Superintendent of Telegraphs on a salary of 300 per annum. 


Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph Line

The Admiralty to Portsmouth telegraph became known as the 'Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph Line' and during March 1796 work commenced on building it. It was ready a few months later. There were 10 signalling stations. These are listed together with their modern location:


Roof of the first Lord's house - Whitehall
2 Chelsea - Royal Hospital
3 Putney - near Telegraph Inn
4 Cabbage Hill - near Chessington Zoo
5 Netley Heath - 'Telegraph', Blind Oak Gate
6 Hascombe - Telegraph Hill
7 Blackdown - Tally Knob
8 Beacon Hill - Harting Down
9 Portsdown Hill - various references: "Cosham Road Junction - south of crossroads" "near Cliffdene Cottage"
10 Portsmouth - Southsea Common by Clarence Pier

It seems that the Telegraph was never meant to permanent but was intended for use only until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, as the construction of the signal stations was little better than a sturdy hut with two rooms and a coal shed. It was very successful however taking about 7.5 minutes to send a signal from Portsmouth to London. Its main drawback was that it could only be used in good visibility and during the daylight hours.

There were probably four men at each station. Two men watched through telescopes - called Glassmen - for a signal from the stations on either side of them. When they saw the signal 'all shutters closed' or 123456, they would call the two 'ropemen' who would operate the station's shutters to relay the message along the line. The Glassmen and Ropemen would have interchangeable jobs and one of them would be the Foreman. There may or may not have been a RN Officer with them.

On 18 May 1814 peace was proclaimed, Napoleon was banished to the Isle of Elba. On 6 July 1814 the Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph Line was ordered to 'immediately discontinue'. Napoleon had other ideas. He escaped from his prison island and landed in France on 1 May 1815. Once again England was at war and the Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph was re-established. Seven weeks later on the 18 June 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and ten days later on the 28 June 1815 the Admiralty announced plans to establish a permanent system of stations using Semaphore - a machine with movable arms. (this is described on the next page)


Contributors:      Dave Scanlen

Geoff Salter

Grid Ref SU666063 - Portsdown Station

Map showing location of Portsdown Shutter Station

The arrow shows the location of the Portsdown Shutter Station. It was near Cliffdene Cottage which was demolished in the 1980s?, and south of Cosham junction which refers to the B2177 / London Road crossroads slightly to the east of the arrow.

Model of a Shutter Station

NEW 27-11-2004

This is a model of the Portsdown Shutter Station showing the six open shutters and their control gear. The construction was clapper board with a brick chimney (left). A lean-to coal shed would be constructed on the right side. The label on the roof shows the number 178 for reasons unknown.

Inside a Shutter Station

 A view inside the station showing two Glassmen on telescopes and two Ropemen operating the shutters.

Working the shutters

 The Glassman is reading the signal from the next station in the line and the Ropemen are relaying the message on. The inset shows the outcome of their efforts - the number 13. 


Portsmouth Shutter Station

 The Portsmouth terminal station located on Southsea Common. This would send and receive messages from the Portsdown station 5.5 miles to the north. All the shutters are set to open - station idle. They went to all closed as a signal that a message was about to be sent.

Modern view of site

 Looking east on top of Portsdown 2004. The Portsdown shutter station was located here. To the left is the site of the former Cliffdene Cottage. Centre left the white walls of the George Pub can just be seen, then a road sign on the B2177. Interestingly on the far left is the Shutter Station's modern day counterpart.


Shutter Station Layout

From contributor Laurie Booth:

"Google Earth brings the the converted OS reference to the grassed area, which differs about eight feet in height from the Telecom complex.
As an Archaeological Dowser, I have searched the lat/long bearing and revealed a structure indicated on the attachment.
Within the outline is a n E-W central line from edge to edge. At the N & S ends are centrally placed approx. 3x3ft features.
These internal features are not flagged, so as to avoid cluttering at ground level photography.
I suggest the features could be read as positions of a shutter operating mechanism and two glassmen.
Three nearby utility covers are taking services from the west and directing them north towards the Telecom complex; they don't continue east.
A dowsed path leaves an access at the top left, following round the southern end to meet the path GSP marked 010.
It runs along the northern edge of this existing path before veering right towards a destination I've not investigated.
My interest in telegraphic communication, including the London - Portsmouth line, encouraged sending you this information".


From contributor Laurie Booth:

An annotated layout.

"For orientation, the station's northern face of 15' continues, in line, 9' from its N-W corner to meet a square iron GPO embossed utility cover.
The N-S face is 22'".


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