The Admiralty Telegraph Fan

February 3, 2023

The fan is an English one with a double paper leaf that has the following text printed on the obverse to the lower centre, ‘Enter’d at Stationers Hall by the Proprietor July 1 1796’.  The design, which appears to be etched, has a central scene of the telegraph with the shutters closed and mounted on the roof of a hut.  Within the hut is a ‘disabled’ Lieutenant attending the signals, a Midshipman looking out for the next telegraph and a Foremastman operating the ropes.  The reserves are printed with the code instructions and the inner border with sixteen diagrams of the telegraph each one with the shutters at a different position.  The reverse is usually undecorated.  The sticks can be of wood or bone and measure 10in, (25 cm.): a complete fan would have eighteen sticks and two guards.

In 1791 the French inventor Abbe Claude Chappe (1763-1805) designed an optical semaphore which was taken up by the French government and put into use with a signalling code in 1794.  The design consisted of a long rotating bar with two smaller rotating arms to each end that acted as indicators, all this was counter balanced by weights. The first network was between Paris and Lille in 1794 and a second line from Paris to Strasbourg was completed in 1798. Napoleon Bonaparte extended the network in 1799: it is thought in France that he even included a line across the Channel. Essentially the design was highly sophisticated: it was one that needed to be controlled precisely.

The signalling system the English used was one of balls and flags on high ground and with the threat of an invasion from Napoleon they were set for use along the south coast of England.  However, the method was limited in scope and an alphabetical and numeral code system was needed.  Reverend John Gamble (1762-1811), chaplain to the Duke of York and later to become the first Chaplain General to the Forces in 1796, designed a five shutter vertical telegraph to submit to the Government and the Admiralty in 1795.  The second submission was by Reverend Lord George Murray (1761-1803) whose design consisted of six shutters, three in each of two vertical columns, that were allocated letters and numbers.  The latter design was chosen and Reverend Lord Murray was awarded £2,000 for his invention. The first line to be completed was from the Admiralty in London to Deal in 1796, extended to Portsmouth later in the year. There was a line to Plymouth and during the Napoleonic Wars one to Great Yarmouth which operated from 1808.

The Reverend Lord Murray was the second son of the Duke of Atholl: he later became the Bishop of St. David’s in Wales and his wife Lady Anne Charlotte (nee Grant 1765-1844) was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the three elder daughters of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

The Murray design was simpler and easier to use than the one designed by Abbe Chappe, but it was replaced in 1822 when a new method of semaphore designed by Sir Home Popham (1762-1820) was taken up.  However, Abbe Chappe’s design was still being used in 1846 when an electric system took its place.

Five fans of this design are known.  The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers in London has two; the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has one that was part of the Christopher Lennox Boyd Collection; another was offered by Dominic Winter, the auctioneers of Broadway, in December 2012 and the fifth was sold in 2021 by Auction Team Breker of Cologne, the specialist auctioneers of technical antiques.  Each fan has the same inscription on the leaf.  However, to date, the registration of the Fan has not been found at Stationers’ Hall.