Brownstown’s Napoleonic signaling tower

Introduction

You will probably be aware of the twin pillars of Brownstown Head to the east of Tramore completed in 1823. There is also a lookout post dating from the time of the emergency. But in 1811 a Mr Pope sent a letter to Trinity House, the custodians of nautical affairs in Ireland. Pope was the Waterford agent of the London Assurance Company and he was troubled by the possibility that a signalling tower on Brownstown Head could be a cause of peril to seafarers. So what was this tower? Why the concern? And what exactly happened as a consequence of his letter?

Napoleonic era defences

During the Napoleonic wars Ireland was a crucial area of engagement between the warring factions. The extensive Irish coastline was well known to the French through generations of fishermen accessing the waters, and many Irishmen willing to fight on their side as a reaction to British rule in Ireland. French forces had attempted invasions through Ireland in 1796 and 1798 and as a consequence a series of coastal defences were set up around the coast.

Martello towers are perhaps the best known example of these. “Martello towers were predominantly erected around the coast at strategic positions where they might be necessary for defence. Concentrations of towers were built on the Dublin coast (27) from Balbriggan to Bray, along the Wexford-Waterford coast (3), and at various locations around Cork Harbour (5), Bere Island (4) and Galway Bay (3). Several towers were erected on the north coast, along the shores of Lough Swilly and at the entrance to Lough Foyle. Inland, two Martello towers were erected at the middle reaches of the River Shannon”

These towers had variations in the design, layout and the facilities associated with them. They comprised of storage, accommodation and a lookout and gun platform. Many had extra gun batteries close by for extra defence. A single gun tower needed a compliment including one sergeant and twelve men

Martello Tower at Baginbun, Co Wexford. Author.

Signal Towers

In areas less likely to direct invasion a series of almost 80 signaling towers were erected from Dublin to Malin Head. Work on these started in 1804 and was completed by 1806. The main building was a small but sturdy square tower used as a defensible residence and lookout point. Aligned with this was a signal mast, from which a team of lookouts could share intelligence with ships at sea or indeed with the shore allowing for speedy communication.

Of course the principal function was signalling which required a signaling mast. This consisted of a timber pole about 50 feet high from which ropes and halyards hung, allowing a series of pennants and balls which could be raised and lowered speedily as a communication tool. Depending on the terrain, the signal towers could be spread out between 7-14 miles and allowed for rapid communication at a time when transport by foot, horse or wind power was relatively slow. However, they were limited by visibility.


an interesting perspective on the use of signaling

The signal towers were crewed with ex royal navy sailors who would have been familiar with the signals from their time at sea. Their knowledge, naval training aligned with a spyglass and code book would have enabled rapid communication of intelligence on all matters related with the French. The system was based on the work of Irish born Rear Admiral Home Riggs Popham and his list of telegraph signals first published in 1799, becoming the basis of British naval and mercantile communication throughout the 19th century.

Tramore Bay

But back to Tramore and the concerns of Mr Pope. Mr R (R for Richard I think) Pope was described as the Waterford agent for the London Assurance Company, representing their interests in matters concerning trade and losses to same. He may have been a member, indeed I would say he likely was, of the merchant family of this name in the city of Waterford.

Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, St Johns, Newfoundland. Photo courtesy of Ryan Doherty

Pope outlines his concern that a disused signal tower risked confusion to seafarers in bad weather with the Hook tower. He cites two recent examples in his letter (dated 14th March 1811) to the secretary of Trinity House. The first is the sloop Commerce of Plymouth. The ship was described as a complete loss, apart for a portion of her cargo of bacon. Another was the schooner Grinder of London. She was carrying wool and bound for Lisbon when the weather drove her ashore. Pope was apprehensive about the vessel, although the cargo was saved. In both cases I don’t know did the author omit any details of the fate of the crew, or did Pope? Perhaps it highlights a preoccupation with the interest of the ship-owner and merchants over the needs of the crew and their families.

Curiously, his letter seems to omit another event of the 5th February. Again in Tramore, an unidentified brig (I found an excellent blog that named her as the Fox) was driven into Tramore Bay, where she became stranded. Her crew of eight took to ships boat but within 30 yards of the shore, the boat overturned and the crew lost. Spectators on the shore were powerless to help. The report speculates that she was bound from Spain as her cargo was of corkwood and oranges. When the tide receded revenue officers set to discharging the cargo, under the protection of a detachment the Roscommon Militia.

Pope was adamant that the risk of confusion was a factor in the wrecks occurring at Tramore and he pressed for action, stating that the signal tower had been unused for military purposes for over a year. Action was prompted eventually and apparently the signal tower was removed late that same year.

Despite this, the incidents continued however. For example in December 1811 alone I could find two. In the first a brig named the Albion was driven ashore about 200 yards below the men’s bathing place on the beach. The crew were saved and there were hopes that the ship might be got off. Her unidentified but “valuable cargo” was placed under the custody of the revenue and yeomanry. The report concludes with a very complimentary affectation of the Tramore citizenry; “We feel peculiar pleasure in being able to add, that the characteristic humanity and honesty of the inhabitants of Tramore were conspicuous this occasion, as there appeared not the least disposition to plunder, or even embezzlement…”

And later that same December, the Albion, which had not yet got off caused another near tragedy. In this case it was a ship called the Benjamin, en-route from the coast of Africa to Liverpool, with red-wood, palm-oil, ivory, etc. She ran into the bay, mistaking it for the harbour and in hazy weather conditions mistook the mast of the grounded Albion, which was occasionally seen, as riding at anchor. Evasive measures were hurriedly taken, part of the cargo was jettisoned and they managed to get about and drop anchor. Her captain, Captain Barker, rowed ashore. A Mr. Walsh, of the local hotel ensured a signal to facilitate a safe landing. Following discussion with locals the next day two local boats and crews were procured and the Benjamin was got off leaving only her anchor behind.

The Brownstown pillars with LOP 17. Author.

Conclusion

Unfortunately the precarious nature of sailing and navigational errors continued and there is a long list of casualties in Tramore Bay to prove it. Following the Sea Horse tragedy a plan was developed to erect five towers, what I had previously mentioned as a countdown system (and although not conclusive, perhaps this article might support that in a way). As said the LOP was erected between 1939-1940 and the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society have plans to refurbish this building in the near future.

I’m indebted to a paper on the History of the Tramore Beacons sent on to me by David Carroll last year for prompting the idea for this article and the details on the letter by Pope.

Other sources include those linked directly in the piece, several contemporary newspaper accounts and an article called MARTELLO AND SIGNAL TOWERS by Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam Downey in Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 26, No. 2, Special 100th Issue (Summer 2012), pp. 46-49 Published by: Wordwell Ltd.

I found the following fascinating blog site in relation to Tramore just prior to publishing. Hopefully others might enjoy it too.
http://tramoreshippwrecks.blogspot.com/

Recalling the loss of UC 44

It was just about midnight on a calm moonlit night in Waterford Harbour. Aboard the WWI mine laying submarine UC-44, her skipper, Kurt Tebbenjoahnnes, satisfied himself as to their position and gave the orders to start deploying her load.  The UC class of sub were a relatively new design and although they could deploy mines from the surface, secrecy was paramount.  As the night was so clear and they were initially so close to land (at Creaden Head, Co Waterford) Tebbenjoahnnes gave the command to submerge. These mines were stored in chutes in the forward section of the submarine. Each mine was dropped individually and the position carefully recorded.  As the mine dropped out, the sub floated astern on the tide.  As it hit the bottom, a soluble plug held the mine in position, allowing plenty of time for the sub to clear.  Saltwater reacted to the plug, which eventually dissolved and released the mine which floated up to a predetermined height on a wire.

A sketch sketch of the mines deployed

Beneath the mine was a hydrostatic valve that was set to a specific depth which controlled the position of the mine.  Whatever way the tide was running, it maintained the mine beneath the surface making detection much more difficult.  There the mines waited for an unsuspecting ship to pass over and strike the protruding horns which triggered an explosion.

While this operation was ongoing Tebbenjoahnnes remained in the conning tower, checking the boats position and plotting his course for Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork harbour.  Suddenly he heard and felt a loud explosion and his boat lurched downwards and struck the seabed.

Tebbenjoahnnes found himself on the bottom of Waterford harbour in the conning tower and was speedily joined by two other submariners; chief engine room officer Fahnster and a young apprentice named Richter.  Any attempts to raise the submarine were in vain and with no communication with the rest of the crew and waters rising around them they were faced with only one choice, to try for the surface which was 90 feet above. All three emerged from below almost as one, but eventually they drifted apart. Miraculously Tebbenjoahnnes was pulled aboard a local fishing boat later that morning by Dunmore East fishermen. Tebbenjoahnnes was cared for in the home of Mrs Chester and was seen to by Mr Austin Farrell. Later that morning he was turned over to the authorities and began his journey to London and life as a POW.

Removing the remaining mines following salvage. Courtesy of Paul O’Farrell

The rescue of Tebbenjoahnnes would trigger a series of events over the next few days and weeks that would see the death of a crew man aboard the minesweeper Haldon and the dramatic salvage of the submarine that would have a major part to play in the allies winning WWI.

All that was to come however. On that morning of the 5th August, Tebbenjohannes had breakfast before commencing his new life as a POW under escort to London for interrogation.

A story of the salvage and the implications of WWI is subject of a new book by Tony Babb. It makes for an interesting read


Please join me for Heritage week at Cheekpoint from Saturday 24th to Sunday 25th where the focus will be on the three sister rivers and Water Heritage Day