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Morse code, semaphore, and weather lore from animals

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 13, 2014

By John Workman

  • A "buzzer"

  • The signal book for Boy Scouts

  • Prepare to signal, dash, dot

  • Front cover of the Girl Guide book

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THE Boy Scouts and Girl Guides are institutions for the youth of the day that have been in existence for over a century, and Bugle readers may well have memories of their own, for instance being part of a troupe in days gone by.

This feature about the scouts and guides was prompted by Stan Warner of Bloxwich who provided us with two books that have been in his possession for many years, "The Boy Scouts Complete Signalling Instructor" and "Hints on Girl Guide Tests".

The Girl Guides book was published during the Second World War and the opening page leads with the heading "War Time Shortened Second Class Test". It was first printed in 1939, but was revised in 1940 presumably due to the outbreak of war, making it at least 74 years old. The Scouts' book which Stan has had from new, was first printed in 1940, with later reprints of a revised version, the last one being published in 1947.

Signalling has always played an important role in scouting, and during the war when the outcome of the hostilities was still uncertain, there was probably an increased emphasis placed on this discipline, and both books teach how to learn Morse code and Semaphore as a means of communication. Stan told us, "These books take me back to my youth. The Boy Scouts book belonged to me and the other I inherited along the way, and I still have a dummy key that was used to transmit Morse code, but I don't think I ever used it in anger."

An extract from the book about the dummy key is as follows. "The sound it makes is similar to that of a telegraph sender. If a scout can master the use of the dummy key to send and receive Morse signals, he will not find much difficulty in sending and reading by lamp, heliograph or buzzer.

When sending, the knob should be held with the thumb and first two fingers, the key being depressed evenly and to its full extent for dots as well as dashes; the fingers should not leave the knob, but by relaxing the pressure the spring should be allowed to pull the key back to its normal position."

The Morse code was universal in its application, as the following extract, although stereotypical of the 1940s, suggests. "Morse is practically unlimited in its application to everyday life. The locomotive driver with his engine whistle, the road man with his red flag, the schoolboy with his torch or the schoolgirl with her knitting needles can all if they wish communicate with someone else by means of the Morse code."

The system of flag Semaphore is very well illustrated in both books and is described as the telegraphy system conveying information from a distance by means of visual signals by hand held flags.

Although the Boy Scouts' book was specifically written as a "Complete Signalling Instructor", it also contained an item about weather lore and in particular weather signs from animals and birds, etc.

Weather lore is an unofficial science, a body of informal folklore related to the prediction of the weather such as "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight, red sky in the morning shepherd's warning", a saying that is probably well known to Bugle readers. But weather signs from animals may not be so familiar and as a result they have probably been lost in the mists of time.

"Cattle caper about before rain; dogs sniff the air before a change of weather; grazing horses shelter for a shower but go on eating if the rain is prolonged; all birds fly lower when rain is coming; swallows flying high indicate fine weather, but flying low they indicate rain; peacocks scream before rain; crows fly up from their nests and circle round before rain, and the more noise they make the greater the coming storm.

"Sparrows become excited and chirp continuously before a rain storm; perching birds perch on lower branches before a storm; cormorant at the mouth of a river foretell a heavy storm from the sea; bats flying late mean a good day tomorrow; fish are very sensitive to weather changes, particularly thunder, and when they dart about a great deal it indicates a change, probably rain; cobwebs in the morning covered with dewdrops mean hot weather coming or continuing; smoke in the morning sinks before rain, but if it goes straight up it will a fine day."

Have you ever experienced the use of Morse code and Semaphore, or, if you were in the scouts or guides, can you remember any other disciplines that you were taught that have held you in good stead throughout your life? If you have a tale to tell or an anecdote to share, please contact Bugle House 01384 567678 or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk.

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