The only remaining semaphore tower in Britain
A unique remnant from the Napoleonic era, this Grade II* listed brick structure is the only surviving semaphore tower in Britain. It was once a building at the forefront of technology and design, a vital link in a signalling chain that transmitted messages from Admiralty House in London to Portsmouth Docks in just a few minutes.
Restored during the Coronavirus pandemic
Thanks to the generosity of over 1,152 supporters to our public appeal, contractors Valley Builders began work in early 2020 to sympathetically restore the five-storey structure. Within weeks of work beginning, the Coronavirus pandemic hit and England entered lockdown. Despite the many challenges – supply chain interruptions, maintaining social distancing in a narrow tower environment - works continued throughout the difficult year. BBC’s Countryfile visited in August 2020 to see the work underway. In early 2021, just as the building was on the brink of welcoming guests, the third national lockdown delayed opening until mid-April.
The innovative military structure now sleeps up to four with a double and a twin bedroom, two bathrooms, a cosy sitting room with a wood-burning stove, a top-floor kitchen with treetop views from the kitchen sink, and a roof terrace with 360 degree views across the Home Counties and towards London. Thanks to our partners Craig & Rose, their paint has been used throughout – each colour carefully chosen to gently evoke the tower’s naval history.
The semaphore machinery has been refurbished, providing a living lesson in technological and engineering history, and we look forward to demonstrating the system on our free public open days.
In the heart of a nature reserve
Chatley Heath itself is a nationally important site for dragonflies and damselflies, with twenty species recorded. It also attracts many rare birds. The tower is surrounded by 800 acres of woodland and heathland that can be explored by the many footpaths and cycle paths. The basement provides a bike store for those keen on exploring the area on wheels.
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A brief history of Semaphore Tower
With Landmark Historian, Caroline Stanford.
A mid-19th century tower
The Semaphore Tower stands deep in ancient heathland near Wisley in Surrey. This unique remnant from the Napoleonic era was once a vital link in a signalling chain that transmitted messages from Admiralty House in London to Portsmouth Docks in a matter of minutes. The construction of the line was ordered in 1816 in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, when foreign invasion still seemed a real possibility.
For over 20 years the urgent affairs of the Royal Navy passed back and forth along this line, relaying orders to the fleet and reporting the movements of friend and foe alike. If things had turned out differently – if there had been another war with France, if England had been invaded – this Tower in Chatley Heath might have played a key role in a great naval conflict.
The Royal Navy’s most advanced signalling system before the electric telegraph
Historically, long-range military communication was a real challenge: simple hilltop beacons signalled the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As naval warfare developed across the centuries, more sophisticated signalling systems were invented using flags or moving balls, but these were slow and unreliable. Semaphore was the solution; moveable arms on a mast that signalled letters of the alphabet.
The French invented the first semaphore system in 1794, but the British preferred to find their own solution. The first British coastal naval signal stations in the 1790s used either flags and balls or a system of shutters in a frame, but none were efficient in bad weather.
'England expects that every man will do his duty.'
Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham was fascinated by signalling. In 1800, Popham created the first flag system for individual letters, famously used by Nelson to declare ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Later, he devised a semaphore with wooden arms for ship-to-ship signalling. Much easier to operate than the shutter system, it was soon adopted on land.
Yet in 1814, with Napoleon apparently safely confined on Elba, the Admiralty decommissioned all their signal stations. Napoleon’s escape and the ‘damn nearest run thing’ at the Battle of Waterloo made the Admiralty realise that such optimism has been misplaced. Eleven days after Waterloo, an Act was passed to acquire land for a new chain of signal systems, this time using Popham’s semaphore.
The only five-storey Semaphore tower
The Chatley Heath mast was the only station on the Portsmouth line that required a five-storey tower for visibility across the seven miles to its two neighbours. In 1822, on its completion, it was chosen to be the junction for another line to Plymouth. The stations were operated by Royal Naval lieutenants who were close to retirement. They worked with an assistant, possibly a former petty officer or wounded seaman.
Early reports of water ingress
Each station housed a lieutenant and his family. From the beginning, water ingress was a problem at Chatley Heath and many letters were sent by the first station superintendent there, Lieutenant Harries, to the Admiralty on the subject. In one such letter dated December 1826 he complained:
“Water still finds its way through centre of the mast even to the lower room.... great difficulty in getting any workman in neighbourhood to do any small jobs by the distance we are from their abode... my family and myself are almost poor hermits.”
New technology and new residential use
For over 20 years, orders and reports clacked up and down the line from Admiralty House to Portsmouth. But the railways were coming and with them the electric telegraph: in 1847, the semaphore lines were decommissioned.
After its decommission, needy retired naval officers and then local civilians lived in the tower until 1963. Left empty, it suffered vandalism and then a major fire in 1984. Surrey County Council and Surrey Historic Buildings Trust restored it well, and again let it residentially.
By the 21st century, water ingress was threatening the structural integrity of the tower to an alarming degree and its future was uncertain. By 2018 the tower was decaying rapidly and Surrey County Council approached Landmark for help. After a successful fundraising campaign, restoration work began in spring 2020 and, despite the complications of the Coronavirus pandemic, the building opened for holidays in spring 2021.
A short history of the Semaphore Tower
The full history album for the Semaphore Tower
Download the childrens' Explorer pack for the Semaphore Tower
Thank you to our supporters
We are hugely grateful to the 1,152 supporters who gave so generously to make the restoration of Semaphore Tower possible. They include:
Guardians of Semaphore Tower and other lead supporters:
Mrs S Andrew, Mr A Baker, Dr J Bull, Dr P Corry, Ms S Darling, Dr C Guettler and Ms J Graham, Mr S and Mrs R Jordan, Dr and Mrs B Moxley, Mr M Seale, Mr M Simms, Mr J Thompson, Mrs P Thompson, Professor W Tsutsui and Dr M Swann.
Patrons and other generous individuals:
Mr R Baker, Mr M Bennett MBE, Mr D Brine, Mr G Clayton, Mrs D Ford, Dr R Gurd and Ms M Black, Dr E Hicks, Mr D Haunton, Mr D Holberton, Mr A Jardine, Mr N and Mrs W Kingon, Ms V Knapp, Mrs P Maitland Dougall, Mr S Martin, Professor R Mayou, Mr N Merry, Mr A Murray-Jones, Mrs P Nasr, Mr B Preston, Dr P Strangeway.
Gifts in Wills and in memory:
In memory of Mr P Harris.
Charitable Trusts and Statutory Grants:
The H B Allen Charitable Trust, Felix Foundation, Martha David Fund, Mintaka Trust, The Sargent Charitable Trust, RV and RH Simons Charitable Trust, Peter Stormonth Darling Charitable Trust.
We thank all who have supported the appeal, including other Guardians, Patrons and trusts who have chosen to remain anonymous.
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Monday 13th February 2014