Picture:  THS Logo

The Telegraph on Telegraph Hill

This is a short explanation of what the telegraph on Telegraph Hill was and how it worked.   A longer description including an explanation of the codes used and a map of the line is available from the Society as Historical Note number 4.

Picture:  The Telegraph Station

The semaphone telegraph hut on the Hill from any early engraving.

In 1794 our hill was known as Plow'd Garlic Hill as it had been since the middle ages -- most possibly a reference to the marketing gardening which took place here.  To the north were field and to the south, the remnants of the Great West  Wood.  All that was about to change.

Britain was at war with France and the Admiralty needed a faster means to communicate to its fleet moored on the South Coast than could be achieved by rider on horseback.  

The Semaphore Telegraph system involved a chain of buildings each on a prominent hill-toand each bearing a series of eight shutters on their roofs.  The shutters were opened and closed by means of levers and each of the 63 different open or closed shutter combinations signified a different letter or word.  Each building in the chain could be observed from  the next in line and, by this means, a message passed along the chain. 

The Telegraph Hill semaphore station was established in 1795 and was the third in line from the Admiralty.  The messages went from there to St George's in the Fields, then Telegraph Hill, then Shooter's Hill and on to Deal and Dover. 

Why this location for the telegraph?  You only need to go there today to see that it commands impressive views over Central London, St Paul's and the Palace of Westminster are easily viewable.  The views to the south and east - down the telegraph chain - have been obscured by Victorian development although it is said that before South London was built up Knockholt and Sevenoaks could be seen on a fine day.

Work carried out by the Telegraph Hill Society using early maps indicates  that the precise location of the telegraph station was where the tennis courts in the Upper Park now stand. 

Picture:  Inside the Telegraph Station

Inside the semaphore hut.

Picture:  The View today

The telegraph must have been heavily used carrying messages concerning the Napoleanic wars, both with the land campaigns and Nelsonís battles, ultimately ending at Trafalgar. The telegraph's high point came with the signalling of Wellington's victory at Waterloo  but with the final surrender of the French forces, the telegraph's days of glory were almost over.  A new single mast telegraph was tried out in 1816, and a system with rotating pointers tried in 1824 finally reverting to the six shutter type until its demise in 1836.

That demise came as the railways came to New Cross Gate and, with the railways, faster and more secure means of communications rapidly followed.  It is a strange coincidence  that the first examples of railway semaphore signalling were also  tried out at New Cross only a few years later.  That too has almost gone -- leaving only the name of Telegraph Hill as a reminder of the early days of automated communications.

The view north from Telegraph Hill today with the Hampstead Heights and Alexandria Palace on the horizon.

For more information on Telegraph Hill follow the links below

Picture:  THS Logo

This page created by The Telegraph Hill Society: the amenity society for residents on the hill. 
The Society publishes a number of histories of the area. 
Click here to find out more.

© Malcolm Bacchus, Telegraph Hill Society 2004.