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Berry Head Signalling Mast Community Project

Celebrating 200 years since Napoleon’s arrival in Torbay

Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust (TCCT) in association with Brixham Heritage Museum have an exciting new community project culminating at Berry Head National Nature Reserve this summer. In conjunction with the 2015 celebrations of the battle of Waterloo, a full-size replica of a Napoleonic-era naval signalling mast will be installed at Berry Head. This event will mark Napoleon’s arrival in Torbay on board HMS Bellerophon, 200 years ago (on 24th July 1815).

As explained by Noel Hughes, TCCT Berry Head Countryside Officer, the project aims to use traditional methods and local craftsmen to build the replica signal mast which will replace the lookout mast that was removed from Berry Head in 2013. The wood for the mast has been sourced from three larch trees in The Grove woodlands at Churston, felled under direction of TCCT Countryside Manager, Chris Lingard and Noel himself.

The transportation of the mast takes the project to new levels, with the felled trees being extracted from the woods by traditional horse logging under the guidance of local experts Dan and John Fisher from Noriker Horse Logging, then floated and towed, courtesy of Nigel Lihou and his boat “Optimist”, from Churston Cove to Galmpton (with a stopover at Brixham Harbour), where Brixham trawler mast makers Mike Ticehurst, Bill Wakeham and their team will be carving the wood over the next few months to form the replica Napoleonic mast.

When complete, the mast will stand approximately 36 feet tall, with a base diameter of 10 inches, narrowing to 6 inches at the top.

Horse Logging

What inspired the project?

In the famous oil painting (dated 1817) by Thomas Luny, depicting HMS Bellerophon at anchor in Torbay with Napoleon on board, 26th July 1815, it is just possible to discern at the end of the Berry Head promontory, a signalling mast (with flag flying).

Two sources have provided information allowing an understanding of the origin, purpose and operational system of the Berry Head naval signal station that was present at the time of Napoleon’s arrival in the bay:

1) An article by Frank Kitchen, “The Napoleonic war coast signal stations”, published in The Mariner’s Mirror vol.76 (No.4) 1990: 337 – 34;

2) Information kindly supplied to Brixham Heritage Museum’s Curator by Mr R. G. Hart (who has researched papers in the Public Record Office).

It was this knowledge (summarised below) that prompted Brixham Heritage Museum’s Curator to contact Noel Hughes with the idea of recreating a signalling mast at Berry Head to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon in Torbay.

History surrounding the signalling mast

In 1794, a year after Britain and France were at war, a chain of signalling stations was established by the Admiralty along the Channel Coast from Land’s End to Poole Harbour - which was later (by 1811) extended along the east coast as far as Calton Hill (Edinburgh). Berry Head station (designated as Station Number 14) was manned by a half-pay Naval Lieutenant, a midshipman and two able seaman who were tasked with observing and reporting on movements of any enemy (French) warships or merchant vessels off the coast and to be on the lookout for an invasion force. Messages were communicated from the Berry Head station to the neighbouring stations at Coleton and Dawlish Head by means of combinations of coloured flags, pennants and four black signal balls displayed at the signalling mast.

Unlike the more technologically advanced shutter telegraph system, adopted for the inland communications line between Plymouth and London (set up in 1806) the method of signalling available to the men manning the coastal stations was extremely basic - with a limited vocabulary of coded signal combinations using the flag-and-ball system. However, even this somewhat “crude” system would have allowed the Berry Head station to alert the neighbouring stations of any enemy force landing (for example) westwards of Torbay, by means of flying a pennant between two black balls in vertical alignment. Warning of an imminent enemy invasion would also be sent on horseback by Dragoon Guards (serving as despatch riders attached to the Berry Head station) to the nearest military defence forces: the Brixham Quay Militia, Brixham Sea Fencibles and Brixham Artillery Volunteers.

Fortunately no invasion force materialised and messages sent between the coastal stations (including that at Berry Head) all concerned observations of passing enemy ships.

When not sending messages concerning enemy ship movements, the Berry Head station would display the combination of flag and three balls shown in the reconstruction drawing by Rose Coulton (below). Commanding officers on board Royal Naval ships at sea would recognise this signal location which aided their navigation along the coast. The other coastal stations similarly each had their own unique flag-and-ball recognition signals.

Drawing of signal mast

Admiralty documents in the Public Record Office (researched by Mr Hart) provide the names of the succession of Lieutenants commanding the Berry Head station:

David Pryce CUMBY – appointed December 1794

Richard CROSSMAN - appointed May 1805

William GATEHOUSE – appointed July 1806

William BEARD – appointed Aug 1808 (later “Dismissed due to improper conduct”)

John IRELAND – appointed March 1810

Written reports sent by these officers to the Admiralty during their tenure provide a fascinating glimpse of events at the Berry Head station:

In June 1796, Lt Cumby reported that his midshipman Henry Tozer had made “malicious” accusations against him - which were later established by investigating officer, Lt John Harris (Dartmouth Rendezvous) to be unfounded and that the midshipmen’s “character in town of Brixham” was known to be that of a “troublesome man”. [TNA PRO ADM 1/2806 C234] and [TNA PRO ADM 1/3045 N21].

In December 1796, Lt Cumby reported on the “state of works at Berry Head”, pointing out that he had been informed by Mr Samuel Faulkner, the bombardier (gunner) at the fort, that he was the only man there “knowing anything of the guns” [twelve 42-pounder cannon] in the battery and that as he had but one arm it would be out of his power to fire one of the guns should any of the enemy’s ships attempted an attack on the place at night. Furthermore, at that time the only defending force in the fort comprised a “corporal’s guard of militia”. [TNA PRO ADM 106/1418 Officer “S” to Navy Board, 1790-97]

Look out for updates on the project’s progress

Members of the public are invited to take part in celebrating the restoration of the signalling mast. Please keep a look out for more updates on the project over the next few weeks on our Brixham Heritage Museum website and on the TCCT website and social media


Dr Philip Armitage on behalf of Brixham Heritage Museum wishes to acknowledge with sincere thanks the generous donations of time, resources and skills from the following: Noel Hughes and Chris Lingard (both TCCT); mast-shaping team of Mike Ticehurst, Bill Wakeham, David Chopping, John Marshall, John Wilkinson and John Smith; horse loggers Dan and John Fisher; and boat owner Nigel Lihou – all of whom are enabling this project to take place. Thanks also to Brixham Harbour Office and Brixham Holiday Park for support.

Dr Philip L. Armitage
Brixham Heritage Museum