Signals at Sea

This  carries on from a previous blog post – Crossing the Line

The visit from King Neptune was a welcome interruption to the routine of the previous four weeks for those aboard the William Money. Richard and the other emigrants gained their sea legs, and life settled into a schedule of domestic chores.

Wednesdays and Saturdays, if fine, were reserved for washing. Wet clothes and linen draped over every available surface and hung from ropes strung between the rigging. Richard thought it looked like the rag fair selling secondhand clothes that he had seen in Plymouth.

On Sundays, the captain created the perfect place for the church service on deck. He fashioned a reading desk by draping the Union Jack over the harness cask and hiding its usual purpose, which was to soak the daily salted provisions. It was here he delivered the prayers of the established church to passengers and crew, who were seated on barrels  and boxes. The numerous Methodists on board had their own, separate prayer meetings on Sunday evenings and sometimes on Fridays as well. Richard and his family were Anglican. They had the choice of the service on deck, or the Methodist prayer meeting with their Cornish brethren.

Richard sat on his favourite, high vantage point with James and Mary Ann on top of one of the ship’s boats stowed on the deck of the William Money. A sailor sat at the base, repairing rope. The sea was calm, a typical scene of these last few days in the doldrums as the William Money approached the equator. The first mate stood at the wheel, lazily moving it to chase any elusive breath of wind. A slapping of the sails punctuated his occasional successes.

The young passengers looked for sharks, hoping the sailors dangling a line over the gunwales would catch one too many and provide dinner for their families. Unknown to the younger boys, Mary Ann was hoping for a catch of her own. She was on the lookout for Master Thomas Nankervis.

Richard squinted his eyes as he tried to focus on something in the distance. Was that what he thought it was? Yes, he became certain. “Sails,” he yelled, “I see sails.”

People came running over to the side of the ship. “Where? Surely, your eyes are tricking you, young Richard.” But Richard’s eyes weren’t deceiving him. One by one, as their gaze followed the line of Richard’s outstretched arm, the passengers and sailors picked out white sails against the hazy, blue sky.

The first mate called the crew to change the sails so the William Money could move closer to the other vessel. It would not be easy to approach that ship in the light and fluky wind. To the rope repairer, he said, “Sailor, take this and get yourself up that rigging.” To another he said, “Quick, hoist the ensign at the peak.” And to yet another, “Take over this wheel.”

The rope repairer took the telescope the mate proffered then clambered up the rigging to lay along the mainyard, glass to eye. The passengers and crew on deck below talked in excited voices, waiting for an announcement from the man above. Then, “I can see the ensign. It’s one of ours,” the man shouted down to the gathering crowd on deck.

The deck erupted. The first mate gave more orders to the crew. “You, run for the captain. And you there, get the signal flags ready.”

“Which way is it going?” a passenger said to the mate “Do you think we’ll be able to send letters home?” Those on board the William Money had seen several ships recently, but none were close enough to signal.

Captain Buckley arrived on the main deck at the same time as a crewman dragged out canvas bags of signal flags from a poop deck locker. These flags were patterned and coloured, each one representing a number or a particular purpose, for example, “a message follows.” Combinations of numerals were used to represent the names of ships, ports and a selection of messages. All merchant ships used the same code as depicted in the “Code of Signals” written by Captain Frederick Marryat.

Code of Signals 1847

Code of Signals 1847

This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

Signal Flags - Illustration from journal of Arthur Wilcox Manning

Signal Flags – Illustration from journal of Arthur Wilcox Manning

The sailor on the mainyard called down a series of numbers corresponding to the flags he could see through the telescope. The first mate thumbed through Captain Marryat’s signal book. “It’s the John Moore”, he said, once he had matched the ship to the code.

“The rendezvous flag is up,” said the spotter. The crowd of passengers mingled below him, impatient to hear the latest numbers, which would indicate the port the ship had just sailed from.

The observer aloft called another set of numbers. “Bombay,” said the mate.

“Where to? Where?” someone yelled up to the sailor. Others clamoured around the mate, waiting for the next code to be relayed.

Meanwhile, Captain Buckley took over the wheel and directed crew in the task of hoisting the William Money’s own identifying flags. They were huge, six feet by eight, and took considerable effort to attach to the halyard and raise.

The man on the mainyard reported the new message. “Four, nought, three, six.” As each number was communicated to the increasing throng, the first mate flipped the pages of the signal book. “Liverpool,” he shouted, once he heard the fourth number. There was a cheer from the passengers.

“Get a boat ready,” said the captain. The crew chased Richard, James and Mary Ann from their perch and organised ropes and pulleys, waiting for Captain Buckley’s next command.

Richard searched amongst the crowd for his Uncle William. “Uncle Will,” Richard said, once he found his relative, “you need to finish that letter ‘ee are writing. Mother will surely want to get news back to Uncle Cyprian. Can ‘ee tell him about the turtle we saw yesterday?” William Nicholls was the only one in the extended Grenfell family who could write.

William smiled at Richard’s eagerness. “Yes, I know. I be goin’ down to see her dreckly. Let’s find out if the ship can take ‘em first.”

“A message,” hollered the sailor from aloft. The people on deck quietened. “Two, eight, six, one.”

The first mate again leafed through the all-important signal book. He looked up at the passengers, barely able to hide his grin. “Have you any letters for England.”

Part of Code of Signals showing some messages

Part of Code of Signals showing some messages

This caused chaos. People went below or pulled notepaper from their pockets. Soon, many were writing to their loved ones or dictating messages to chosen scribes. The boredom of the previous weeks was forgotten as they recalled the highs and lows.

They had seen turtles, porpoises and abundant fish. A man broke his arm. A baby died. There was tension between Doctor Kemball and the crew as the doctor tried to uphold good morals. The sailors had fraternised with the young, single women. Eventually he had banned the two groups from even talking to each other. One evening, a sailor had dressed as a woman and paraded around the deck on the arm of another. They encircled the captain and the doctor with much laughing, whooping and clapping from the others on deck. A week later, two crew found themselves in irons for again talking to the young women.

In all the excitement of the letter writing, Mary Ann Grenfell and Thomas Nankervis stole a few, precious moments by themselves.

The crew lowered a ship’s boat, and the oarsmen made their way to the John Moore with the valuable mailbag.

This  carries on from a previous blog post – Crossing the Line.

Book of Memorandum – By James Menzies 1848

Manning, Arthur Wilcox, Journal of a Voyage from Plymouth to Sydney on the Earl Grey, 1839-1840 MLMSS 7390

Marryat, Frederick, A code of signals for the use of vessels employed in the merchant service, J.M. Richardson, London, 1847, downloaded from Internet Archive –

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Richard Grenfell (1839-1909)
Parents: Richard Grenfell and Ann Warren Nicholls
Spouse: Sarah Eleanor (“Ellen”) Pryor (1849-1916)
Spouse’s Parents: Joseph Pryor (1810-1883)and Ann Hosking(abt1810-1861)
Surnames: Grenfell, Nicholls, Pryor, Hosking, Willis
Relationship to Shelley: great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather) Richard is Shelley’s 2x great grandfather

  1. Richard Grenfell (1839-1909) great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather)
  2. Emmeline Dulcinea Ann Grenfell (1874-1956) (great grandmother)
  3. Olive Ann Willis (1896-1970) (grandmother)
  4. Father
  5. Shelley
This entry was posted in Bennett Ancestors, Shelley's Ancestors and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Signals at Sea

  1. cannyoung says:

    Another great post, Shelley. So evident the research you have put into the details.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You paint a really vivid picture of life at sea.


  3. kindredpast says:

    Great writing! Thoroughly enjoy the way you present your material.


  4. You convey so well in your colourful account what life was like aboard the ship. I particularly like your concept of the Genealogy Snapshot box.


  5. Pingback: Crossing the Line | Shelley's Family Histories and Mysteries

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