The romance of the Putney Heath telegraph

I was back at work in Portsmouth today. When I left the house, our street was strewn with frost. So much frost, it looked like snow. Dropping the dogs at Sue’s proved that I’ve not lost all my skating abilities. I then managed to reach the bus stop without falling over and sat down to wait the few minutes, admiring this feat of my feet.

Frosty path

By the time I reached the dockyard, there was no frost though the day was icy cold.

Given it’s been quite a break from the library, I was concerned that I’d have forgotten what to do but, of course, my database brain didn’t let me down. Once I’d managed to access Adlib, I was off and away. (Actually I forgot the style of the sub-records for a short while but I just looked up the Filibusters book and realised it was ‘/1’ and not the many variants I’d come up with.)

The books I started on (where I ended last year) were sports handbooks and, consequently, quite boring. This is because they are just books full of the rules and laws of various games as well as how to manage the training in a naval context. After five of these, it’s just dull. Though, sometimes the ads are a bit of fun.

I think the boxer is gay

However, the next subject was not so dull: wireless communication. From bonfires on hills to the Marconi company, the books I was working on covered it all. It all comes under the heading of telegraph.

While I took great delight in flicking through the Marconi books (there were three) possibly my favourite was a little booklet (28 pages) written by John Skelly. He wrote in the preface that no-one had written about the Telegraph Inn and sought to rectify it by creating a complete history of this charming pub.

The name comes from the fact that there was an Admiralty telegraph station nearby. It was originally a shutter station built in 1796 but not long afterwards it was replaced with a mast type. In fact, Constable sketched it in 1818.

The Telegraph on Putney Heath by John Constable, 1818. Image taken from the Fitzwilliam Museum website:

Even so, it only lasted as a viable option (except in fog) until 1847 when the Admiralty embraced the electronic version of direct communication (generally unhampered by fog).

The pub (originally a ‘beer shop’ and possibly the building in the background of Constable’s picture) obtained a licence in 1861 and adopted the name the Telegraph Arms.

Normally when a pub has the word ‘arms’ after it, it refers to the heraldic arms. I only found this out today. (In fact, one of Mirinda’s jokes is that my favourite pub should actually be called the Nelson’s Arm.) Various commentators think the naming of the Telegraph Arms was, in fact, an intended pun.

The reason for this is because the Putney Heath telegraph station was a high mast with two ‘arms’ attached which would be positioned in various ways in order to ‘broadcast’ a message. The signal would be received at the next station and repeated along the line from London to Portsmouth (or Plymouth).

For some reason, the pun was got rid of and the pub was thereafter called the Telegraph Inn. I think this is a shame. A bigger shame is the fact that the pub closed at the end of 2018.

In the beginning of his short history, John Skelly included a song written by Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) called The Telegraph. What’s good enough for John Skelly is easily good enough for me. I’ll include it as well.

If you’ll only just promise you’ll none of you laugh,
I’ll be after explaining the French telegraph!
A machine that’s endow’d with such wonderful pow’r,
It writes, reads, and sends news fifty miles in an hour.
Then there’s watch-words, a spy-glass, an index or hand,
And many things more none of us understand;
But which, like the nose on your face, will be clear,
When we have, as usual, improv’d on them here.

From: The Selected Songs of Charles Dibdin, 1845

Dibdin goes on to suggest that the English will put the telegraph to very good use by letting gamblers know the winners of races long before the results are received in the normal way along with other fine japes. An excellent use for communication if you ask me.

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One Response to The romance of the Putney Heath telegraph

  1. Josephine Cook says:

    Sure is

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