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British Convoy Signals 1801-1815

Last modified: 2011-12-24 by rob raeside
Keywords: signal flags: united kingdom: 1801-1815 | smith (john) |
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Recently I stumbled upon a link introducing the ephemera left by John Smith, bookseller, councillor, etc., to the University of Glasgow.


John Smith, Youngest, of Crutherland, was given the honorary degree of LL.D in 1840. In 1842 he announced the bequest to the University of his runs of publications from learned societies, and his volumes of ephemeral items. These came to the library on Smith's death in 1849. The ephemeral items were bound as Smith received them in large scrapbook-type volumes. A decision was taken in the late Twentieth Century to disbind them and arrange them in boxes according to theme.

Shown – among other things – are two pages from Ephemera F155: Book of signalling codes, quote:

These pages show flag signals, with numerous manuscript additions in the hand of Captain Taylor of the Camilla, lead ship of the convoy. The flags are hand-coloured. Other pages give signals for use at night or in fog, when flags were useless, and secret passwords which would change with each convoy.

The reproduction in question is twice clickable. Direct link:
Jan Mertens, 26 March 2007

Here is a transcription. I think that all the printed words are correct, but perhaps someone would like to check my interpretation of the hand-written entries, and make sense of those words which stumped me?

These signals were used between 1801 (Union Jack has St Patrick) and 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars ended. The red/yellow/red flag was removed from the suite of signal flags in 1816. May have been used by the convoys that sailed between England and the Iberian Penninsular in support of the Penninsular War. Nine hundred eighty vessels were employed on this service in 1810.

The first page is not shown, the second page is for signals made by the Convoy Commander and the third page for signals made by ships other than the Commander. On the general page all the signals have printed significance, but on the Commander's page only four of the twelve possible signals are printed, the rest being blank, or having a hand-written significance.

Items of note.

  1. The Red Ensign is called the English Ensign.
  2. An upside down ensign is, in one case, a signal of distress.
  3. Ensigns were probably not normally hoisted in convoy, as an ensign at the gaff is a signal.

Signals from the Commander of the Convoy (continued).

Union Jack (1801).
Foretopmast head. For a pilot to come on board.

Maintopmast head. Illegible hand-writing.

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. The ships of the convoy to pass within hail of the Commander thereof.

Red Pendant under Union.
Foretopmast head. Ships of the convoy to hoist out their boats to assist in towing, or otherwise.

Maintopmast head. The Masters of all the ships of the convoy to bring their signal instructions to the Commander.

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. Hand-writing.
Strange sail in sight appears suspicious keep a good look out.

Quaterly red/white.
Foretopmast head. Blank.

Maintopmast head. Hand-writing. The Ship in sight (?) having a blue(?) ? ? at the main is to lead(?) the Convoy(?) ? ? ? ?

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. Hand-witing.
His Majesty's Hired Cutter Queen Charlotte will lead the convoy.

Red Pendant.
Foretopmast head. Blank.

Maintopmast head. Hand-writing. (?) The Commander of the convoy will take the lead (?)

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. Blank.

Compass Signals.
When accompanying other signals, they point out the course to be steered, the bearing of land, or any other direction necessary to be signified at the same time.

North.Dutch pendant over red/white horizontal.
N. by E.Blue pendant over red/white horizontal.
N.N.E.White pendant over red/white horizontal.
N.E. by N.Red pendant over red/white horizontal.
N.E.Red/white horizontal
N.E. by E.Red pendant under red/white horizontal.
E.N.E.White pendant under red/white horizontal.
E. by N.Blue pendant under red/white horizontal.

Similar arrangement for the other quarters,
South-East being blue/yellow horizontal,
South-West being yellow/blue horizontal,
North-West being white/red horizontal.

Signals to be made by Ships of the Convoy as well as the Ships of War.

Yellow/red/yellow horizontal.
Foretopmast head.
To signify that an enemy is in sight. Merchant ships not having this flag are to signify the same by hoisting an English ensign at the maintopmast head with the Union downwards.

Red Ensign.
Foretopmast head. Land discovered.

Foretopmast shrouds. To signify being overpressed with sail, and being unable to keep company on that account.

Maintopmast shrouds. Needing the assitance of boats to tow.

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. Being in distress but not wanting immediate assistance.

Red Ensign with Union downwards.
Foretopmast head. Being in distress and wanting immediate assistance.

Foretopmast shrouds. Being in distress and obliged to part company on that account, when the state of the waether will not admit of acquainting the Commander of the convoy of the occasion thereof.

Mizzentopmast head or Gaff end. Being in danger, or/of (?) sticking on a shoal. Fire guns until relieved.

A weft.
Foretopmast head. To speak with the Commander of the convoy.

Union Jack.
Maintopmast head or where best seen, except the maintopmast shrouds. To signify that the ships of the convoy see and understand the signal made to them by the Commander of the convoy.

Maintopmast shrouds. To signify that the signal made by the Commander of the convoy is not distinct or understood.

Added in hand-writing.

On joining Company after separation the Ship making(?) the first Signal to hoist a flag ? English ? ? ? at the main top mast head and lower the fore top sail.
Answer an English Ensign at the fore top mast head and lower the main top sail.

David Prothero, 28 March 2007

A further interesting link concerning convoy signals at the Mystic Seaport Libraries website.

On view is a printed list, British but used by an American ship. It seems this kind of document was widely used and often illustrated.

One example of an instruction: "For the fleet to heave to, and keep close together" the signal is a "Swedish Jack".
Jan Mertens, 30 March 2007

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