Signal Codes Employed During the Napoleonic Wars

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      I am currently in the preliminary stages of an honours year dissertation based on military intelligence during the Napoleonic Wars, largely focusing on the Peninsular War.
      However, I would like to have a section focusing on the naval involvement. The main area I have come across so far is the use of the Popham signal code, operated by seamen, for transferring messages across land in Iberia but also the importance of recognising ships and the employment of the ‘private signal’ at sea in the period.
      My knowledge of Naval history is currently limited (but growing!), mostly the affairs of [the fictional] Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower, and I am struggling to find much that covers the topic in depth. If anyone is able to point me towards suitable books or sources on the employment of naval code and flag systems (on land or at sea) it would be much appreciated.

      Frank Scott

        As a starting point there is the biography by Hugh Popham, A Damned Cunning Fellow: the eventful life of Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham, KCB, KCH, KM, FRS, 1762-1820, Twyadreath 1991, 2nd edition 2002 (ISBN 0-9516758-0-X).
        The first edition of Sir Home Popham’s Telegraphic Signals, or Marine Vocabulary; with observations on Signal Flags, and the best mode of applying them was published in 1800, and there were several editions or revisions thereafter, all of which should be in the Admiralty Library [Naval Historical Branch, Portsmouth]. [The British Library has only the 1812 edition, St Pancras Reading Rooms shelfmark 6756.d.19].
        For Popham’s work in Spain, you should consult The Keith Papers, vol 3 (1803-1815), Navy Records Society 1955, ed. Christopher Lloyd.

        P. H

          You may find a little help in: Richard Deacon, A History of the British Secret Service (London and New York, 1969) [revised edition, British Secret Service, London 1991].


            Three more books which discuss British signal codes at this period are:
            Brian Tunstall, Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail : the evolution of fighting tactics 1650-1815, edited Nicholas Tracy (1990);
            Mark Urban, The Man who broke Napoleon’s Code : the story of George Scovell (2002);
            Steven E Maffeo, Most Secret and Confidential : intelligence in the age of Nelson (2000).

            The late Brian Tunstall’s book covers signal codes throughout the Georgian era in depth and specifically in relation to the evolution of the command and control of fighting tactics in major European navies. This thoroughly researched book on a narrow but important field of enquiry should not be confused with Bernard Ireland’s excellent book with the same main title (2000) which deals with the title’s subject in a much broader vein but has little of interest to this specific topic.
            Mark Urban’s book is well-researched and well written; on the basis of the title it bears little relation to the Topic here, but has some useful information on naval codes in the Peninsular War.
            I must declare an interest before I recommend Commander Maffeo’s book; I know Steve but that should not preclude me from encouraging researchers in this field to consult his book, as it covers a wide range of naval codes and encryption in the relevant period. Written by a US naval officer well versed in the field of encryption and from good research, this book suffers slightly, as has been stated in several reviews, from Steve’s (deliberately undertaken) conceit of bringing in fictional characters from time to time (notably Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey) as if they were historical naval officers.

            I have also undertaken recent research into intelligence in Iberia during the Peninsular War, specifically in respect of the Royal Navy on the coast of Catalonia (not signals and codes but direct espionage). My published essays which directly or indirectly cover that research are:
            ‘A Place of Considerable Importance : Lord Cochrane at the Siege of Rosas 1808’, The Mariner’s Mirror, vol 95 no 4 (November 2009), pp400-428; this article is available online (with the Society’s permission) in the Oxford University Research Archive at:
            ‘In Search of Nelson’s Spy : a research case study’, Trafalgar Chronicle, number 19 (October 2009), pp1-15; this article is also available online in the Oxford University Research Archive at:

            My research continues and will be published in a monograph about ‘Nelson’s spy’, Edward Gayner, later this year. If the correspondent wishes, please email me directly about this.

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