Brownstown’s Napoleonic signaling tower


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.


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.

Metal Man – Waterford Harbour Countdown system

Following the Seahorse tragedy in Tramore bay in January 1816 an initiative was started to create a warning system about the dangers of confusing Tramore Bay with the entrance to Waterford Harbour(1).

The system commenced with the placing of three towers on the western entrance to Tramore at Great Newtown Head. Standing on the middle tower is what is known as the Metal Man, a Jack Tar who points away to sea towards the Hook, and who on wild nights was said to cry “Keep out, keep out, good ships from me, for I am the rock of misery.” On the eastern headland lie two towers, known as the Brownstown pillars. They have no dramatic figures, but I don’t think it diminishes them in any way. And then further to the east marking the entrance to Waterford harbour lies the Hook tower, a lighthouse which as stood for hundreds of years and a very obvious beacon to seafarers.

Although Hook as I said is ancient, the other towers were constructed by Lloyds of London, the maritime insurance company, and they were responsible for it for over a hundred years.(2) It was subsequently taken over by the Irish Lights, who I presume are still the owners.
I remember as a child visiting the Metal man on a Sunday afternoon drive with my uncle, pat O’Leary. Pat and my aunt Margaret had five children and he drove a VW Beetle, so how he managed to fit others into the car I can’t even imagine now. But fit me he did, and probably my brother Robert too and we walked out and laughed as the girls hopped around the metal man – apparently a certainty for getting a husband.
It was years later when I fished off the bay when I first heard of the count down system. It was the late winter early spring of 1984 and I was aboard the MV Reaper with Jim ‘dips’ Doherty and Denis Doherty gillnetting. Chats were always had as we worked on deck clearing fish out of the nets and cursing every time it came to clearing dog fish that had curled themselves into a súgan.
One day they started to tell me about the towers and their purpose, claiming that it was all thanks to a fisherman from Cheekpoint. Apparently in the mid 18th C a hydrographic surveyor was aboard a Dunmore fishing boat known as the Nymph which was operating out of Passage East and with a harbour based crew. They were taking coastal markings and mapping fishing grounds. The Hydrographer was an English man named William Doyle, and he is credited with discovering the Nymph bank. On one of the trips out the weather became dirty and Doyle indicated that they should return to shore. But the direction he pointed in was Tramore bay, and he was corrected on this and told that it was a sure fire way of being wrecked in dirty weather. The crewmen had their own markings for getting back to Passage East and this, apparently, was what Doyle referred to as the Waterford Harbour Countdown system; a three, two one of headlands with a safe haven at the end.
William Doyles chart of the harbour first published in 1738
Follow this link for a chart which you can magnify
Now I’ve never read about the system, but according to my fishing companions that day when Lloyds came to mark headlands it was the written words of William Doyle that was used. If anyone could point me in the direction of same I would appreciate it.

(1) The Seahorse was driven by bad weather into Tramore, she did not mistake it as the entrance. See for example Julian Waltons book On This Day Vol II
(2) According to Ivan Fitzgerald, on the Waterford History Group facebook page, the actual construction was carried out by the Ballast Board