formerly the Archives and Collections Society  



COMMANDER HILARY P. MEAD, Royal Navy (Retired).

In introducing the subject of this article the writer is not quite sure whether an apology is due to its readers.

Captain Marryat was at one period of his career in very bad odour in the states. During his visit in 1837 the newspapers declared that they would lynch him. He was burnt in effigy and copies of his novels were thrown to feed the flames. He himself wrote, "I shall be tarred and feathered yet before I get out of the country." They thought he was a "spy," intent on making a book ridiculing the American nation, and he did not improve matters by a speech he made in Toronto. As a matter of fact he had no idea of being offensive, as the subsequent reconciliations proved. Boston took him to its heart, and the New England Galaxy came out with a headline, "Marryat a Boston Boy," and went on to point out that his maternal grandfather was Frederick Geyer, an eminent merchant of that city. His mother Charlotte and her two sisters were born on Summer Street.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that the hatchet has long been buried, and that on account of the lasting merits of his work, a happy memory of him may now survive.

Frederick Marryat was born on July 10, 1792, at 4 Catharine Court, not far from the old Tower of London. The place was demolished in 1913 to make room for the important and imposing building of the Port of London Authority, which now looms up as a notable landmark over River Thames.

Marryat's chief recognition to fame was in the writing of fiction, and there is no doubt that his novels such as Peter Simple, Jacob Faithful, and Mr. Midshipman Easy, to quote only a few of the score or so he produced, have assured him an established place in English literature.

It is, however, to another aspect of his work that reference is made here. Before taking to the writing of fiction, Marryat had in 1817 published the first edition of his Code of Signals for the Merchant Service. His biographers have little to say about this branch of the author's activity. David Hannay in his Life of Frederick Marryat (1889) merely records that "his code of signals, which was not literature (and perhaps on that account only the more lucrative) was an appreciable income to him throughout his life." Now it is thought that a narrative of this signal code, while supplying the omission, may prove of interest to nautical readers. The Dictionary of National Biography asserts that Marryat based his work upon Sir Home Popham's well-known naval code of 1812, but it is very much to be doubted if this was the case. Marryat hardly employed any of the flag characters used by Popham. Indeed Marryat's symbols were very original and very well chosen, while many of Popham's were complicated and did not succeed for very long. Further, most of Marryat's flags, with minor modifications, are included in the International Code of today, a survival of 115 years, which says a good deal for their suitability. It was also stated by a rival codist of the name of Watson that Marryat imitated the work of Commander Thomas Lynn who produced a signal book in 1814. There is very little resemblance in the two codes, and Lynn's was far too insignificant to suggest copying.

The following is Marryat's introduction to his first edition:

When the immense number of Vessels employed in the Merchant Service of Great Britain is considered, and the advantages that would arise from their being able to communicate to each other the intelligence they have obtained, or the distresses under which they labour, it is a circumstance both of surprise and regret, that no Code of Signals for their use has been hitherto adopted. There have, however, been various obstacles to the accomplishment of this object. Among these may be enumerated the expense of providing the necessary number of flags, and the difficulty of working them, for want of a code sufficiently simple and intelligible; but the most important obstacle seems to have been that such signals would have interfered with those of his Majesty's Service. Indeed, as during the War most merchantmen sailed under convoy, and as it was absolutely necessary to forbid communications between private ships while under the direction of men of war, the utility of such a code of signals would then have been very limited.

But now that with the prospect of a long Peace, our merchantmen are roaming through every navigable sea, and a man-of-war is almost as seldom seen as her protection is required, no such objection can be made to a system that must prove of general and essential benefit. It may indeed be urged that our merchant service has hitherto gone on without it; but it may safely be affirmed, that many vessels and their crews have been lost, which, had signals been in use, might have been preserved.

The Master of a merchant vessel who sees another steering into danger, has at present no means to warn her of it, but must endure the agonizing sensation of following her with his eye, till she is dashed to pieces on the rocks; and many a vessel that has sprung a leak, or met with some serious accident, within sight of another, sinks during the night; when had she been able to communicate the particulars of her distress, and the assistance she required, the crew at least, if not the vessel, might have been saved.

In like manner, ships making the land, when bad weather or contrary winds or tides may occasion great delay, in boats putting off from the shore to inquire the cause of their distress, returning back with the information, and then bringing them the articles of which they stand in need, by the use of a set of signals generally understood, may explain their wants at once, and thus avoid a delay which is frequently dangerous, and sometimes fatal in its consequences.

Independently of these important considerations, great advantages as well as comforts would arise to all parties interested in maritime concerns, from the establishment of signals. Merchants and shipowners would know that their vessels and goods had proceeded so far on their voyage by a given time; Underwriters would have the satisfaction of receiving the same intelligence of the vessels they had insured; and the relatives of the passengers and crews, would have the pleasing information that their friends were well, long before it could be communicated in any other mode.

In the plan now submitted to the consideration of the shipowners of Great Britain, the number of flags required for signals, compared to those employed in his Majesty's service, is so much reduced, that the expense of providing them will be trifling; and the system is so much simplified, as to be rendered perfectly easy in the execution.

It is earnestly recommended to Masters of Vessels to read this book until they are perfectly acquainted with its contents; and to avail themselves of periods of leisure to practise the use of the Signals, so that, when occasion requires, they may be able to make the necessary communications with precision and dispatch.

The reference to insurance underwriters was probably prompted by the fact that Marryat's father, Joseph, was chairman of the committee of Lloyd's. The allusion to the provision of "wants" was in connection with one part of the vocabulary which was termed Wanting Stores.

The flags to be used in the code consisted of ten numerals, a telegraph flag, a rendezvous flag, two distinguishing pendants, and a numeral pendant, fifteen pieces in all. In shape the numeral flags were as follows: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, and 9 rectangular; 4 and 6 triangular, and 5 and 0 swallow-tailed. The author was very anxious to do without the complications of substitutes, and, therefore, no duplicate figures occurred in any groups of the code. Substitute flags for repeating a sign already in use, have always been a source of embarrassment. It is true that the International Code of Signals has done without them hitherto, but circumstances have at length proved too exacting, and they are to be included, to the number of three, in the present revision which comes into force in 1934. In his later editions Marryat had to acknowledge that substitutes would at times be required, for instance, for signaling numbers such as 2211. The two distinguishing pendants were to be adopted for this purpose, and later on four substitutes were allotted.

The code reached its eighth edition in 1841, and this was the last to be produced under the aegis of the talented author. He disposed of the copyright to the people who published it, Messrs. Richardson, and from thence onwards it was edited by that firm, first by J. M. Richardson and afterwards by G. B. Richardson. Captain Marryat was entitled by the agreement to receive one quarter of the profits on all copies sold during his lifetime. In the year following the arrangement they jointly cleared between five and six hundred pounds.

Long after its author's death, on August 9, 1848, the Code of Signals continued to flourish. The last edition seems to have been in 1879, for nothing later is deposited in the British Museum. By that time it had greatly swollen in bulk, and the book was twice as thick as in 1817. The Richardsons also introduced "geometrical shapes" for calms or for distant signaling, and a system of lights for night communication, but neither scheme seems to have been very popularly adopted.

As to the use of the code generally, it may be said that it had quite an exceptional universal vogue; the profit of £500 a year alone shows that. Marshall's Royal Naval Biography of 1831 records that it was then used in the British and French navies, in all the principal ports in both these kingdoms, in Calcutta and Bombay, at the Cape of Good Hope and other English settlements, and by the mercantile marine of North America. It was published in the Dutch and Italian languages, and by order of the French government no merchant vessel could be insured unless these signals were on board.

On June 19, 1833, Captain Marryat was informed that the King of France had conferred upon him the cross of the Legion of Honour, sur le compte que je lui ai rendu des services que vous avez rendu à la science et à la navigation. Undoubtedly this referred to the Code of Signals.

Later on there were translations in Spanish and German. In the twelfth edition (1854) the editor writes:

An European vessel is rarely met with unprovided with these signals. This has induced me to vary the title of the work to that of the Universal Code of Signals for the Mercantile Marine of all Nations.

As to the usefulness of the code, the following letter to the Editor of the Nautical Magazine in 1840 may be quoted:

Sir, - I have had on many occasions cause to regret that Captain Marryat's Code of Signals were not to be found on board every British merchant vessel; their trifling cost, the facility with which they may be used, and their very great utility, I think warrant it. As a proof I will state an instance in which through their instrumentality the vessel under my command was saved, if not from shipwreck, at least from any serious injury.

We were sailing through Torres Straits in company with another vessel, both ships having on board Capt. Marryat's Code of Signals. Our consort (drawing eighteen inches less water than ourselves, and her commander having passed those straits only four months previously) led the way. We were sailing at the rate of six miles per hour under plain sail, and the mainsail up, when our consort grazed on one of the innumerable coral patches which intersect those straits. Fortunately she did not stop, but immediately hoisted the signal Starboard, which we had just sufficient time to do, and clear the danger, and on passing it had the appearance of a ridge of prickly coral, with deep water all round it.

Did shipowners and underwriters but properly appreciate the value of these signals, no ship would be without them. How much more frequently would they hear from their ships, and as I said before many serious losses and accidents would be averted. Shipmasters should apply for them as part of their stores, if not already provided, and explain the utility of them to their owners, many of whom are not aware of their existence, and few I believe so parsimonious, but would supply them, were they made aware of their intrinsic value.

Should you think the above worthy of inserting in your valuable pages, you will by so doing confer an obligation on

One Who Has Already Much to Thank You For

The first part of the nineteenth century was remarkable for the publication of a considerable number of independent signal books, invented by a variety of naval officers. The following list gives some idea of this activity.1

1814Thomas LynnCommanderHonourable East India Company's Service.
1816Nathaniel SquireMasterR.N.
1821Joseph ConollyMaster-at-ArmsR.N.
1828Henry RaperAdmiral
1832Barnard L. WatsonLieutenantR.N.
1835H. C. PhillipsLieutenantR.N.
1835L. J. RohdeCaptainRoyal Danish Navy.
1845William LordLieutenantR.N.
1850A. P. Eardley-WilmotCommanderR.N.
1854Henry J. Rogers of Baltimore(?)U.S.N.
1855C. de Reynold-ChauvancyCaptainFrench Navy.

Of these, the codes of Lynn and Squire were relatively unimportant. Raper's was essentially naval. Those of Squire, Phillips, Raper, Rohde, and Reynold all depended fundamentally upon systems of shapes and not upon the colours of flags, although some of them did use coloured flags as a subsidiary alternative. Their inventors were actuated for the most part by a praiseworthy desire for economy, alleging, for instance, that a pendant, a jack, a guidon, a cornet, two balls, a vane, and a wheft, irrespective of colour, were all that were necessary, and that the acquisition of sets of coloured flags was an expense not lightly to be borne by the more humble shipowners.

Phillips and Rohde entered into serious rivalry as to the merits of their systems, both of which were heartily damned by an anonymous but authoritative writer in the United Service Journal in 1836.

Experience has shown that distant signals, or those relying solely upon shapes are of no practical use. The International Code from 1900 to the present day has included three elaborate plans of distant signals, all of which now disappear in the 1931 edition. Radio telegraphy is supposed to have contributed to this result, but the fact remains that, with the exception of the standard signal of distress, they have been seldom - probably never, used.

Among the above, special mention must be made of Rogers and Reynold, because these two experts alone made a serious bid to compete with Marryat. Reynold, using a system of shapes, but falling back on the coloured bunting of Marryat, made a sustained effort to establish his invention. His book was published in French and English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Danish. The French government ordered it to be used instead of Marryat's. Rogers, to whom a considerable measure of credit must be given, based his plan on the very admirable and ingenious scheme of the flags being equally recognizable either when extended in a good breeze or when hanging motionless in a flat calm. At one period it might have been considered that these two had succeeded, but as it turned out they never really attained an extensive international patronage.

The formation of the committee for producing the Commercial Code in Great Britain seems most likely to have been the result of this rising tide of signal book manufacture, for it must have been extremely embarrassing and confusing to the shipowners and shipmasters of the period to have been assailed by the conflicting claims of this army of inventors. A Commercial Code, backed by the authority of the Board of Trade, suggested itself as an obvious method of combating the trouble. Marryat's code, against which there could not have been a vestige of official complaint, was not supported by authority - not in England at all events, and latterly not in France - so that something else must be officially sanctioned.

The committee acknowledged in their report that they had examined and considered the various codes already in existence, and mentioned by name most of those dealt with above. The Commercial Code of Signals was published in 1857 and had the desired effect of putting a stop to the appearance of promiscuous codes thereafter.

Marryat's flags in 1856, had, by the adding of a third distinguishing pendant, been brought up to sixteen in number, and of these no less than twelve were adopted for the Commercial Code as they stood. They were Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, the telegraph and rendezvous flags, and all four pendants, and their places in the new code were respectively S, J, H, B, R, L, T, N, C, D, F, and G. Numbers 4 and 0 were slightly altered by making them rectangular instead of triangular and swallow-tailed, and now became M and K. Number 8 was made into P, the blue peter, by changing its centre from yellow to white. As the Commercial Code at that time only contained nineteen flags, it will be seen that only four new characters had to be contrived.

A significant fact is that the Commercial Code does not seem to have done much harm to Marryat's signals. Many people indeed still preferred to use his, and there were at least five subsequent English editions, besides several in French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Neither the Commercial Code nor Reynold's can have been perfectly acceptable in France, or why was it still profitable to continue printing Marryat in the French language right up till 1879?

There are further proofs that Marryat's code was very long in dying. In 1857 it had already been found useful to issue a pamphlet called Sea Signals Assimilated, by which either Marryat's or the official code could be adapted to each other. Then in 1873 a Shanghai firm is found publishing a China Coast Signal Book, appendant to Marryat's Universal Code, and containing a plan for adapting his signals to the Commercial Code.

A circumstance which must have been extremely galling to the British authorities was that Her Majesty's ships continued to ask the Admiralty to supply them with Marryat's book. In 1869, an officer mentions the "almost universal use of Marryat's code by merchant ships on the East Indies Station." In 1870, it was reported to be impossible to communicate with merchant vessels on the Cape of Good Hope station, on account of their not having the Commercial Code on board.

The most recent and probably the last authoritative reference to Marryat's signals occurs in the important work on flags and buoyage by Captain Victor Carlson, published in Stockholm in 1890. He states that

although discontinued as signals for the merchant service and no longer employed as such by the British Navy, the first section of Marryat's signal flags are still used by the French Navy and others, for intercourse with the semaphore stations in France.

Here it may be observed that the French, who had been such good friends with the code all through the century, being even more partial to it than the British, were continuing to use Marryat's symbols as long as 73 years after their inception.

The writer ventures to think that this constitutes a record unapproached by any other plan of maritime communication known to posterity.


1 This does not include yacht club codes, of which there were also many. The writer has already dealt with these in the Mariner's Mirror, October, 1932. [back]


This article was originally published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, No. 361, Vol. 59, No. 3, pp 370-375. A portrait of Capt. Marryat from the National Portrait Gallery, London, is not reproduced.


Revised: 31 March 2012