History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Cable King
by Stewart Ash

The Cable King

As many readers will know, 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first successful telegraph cables to be laid across the Atlantic. The 1866 cable was completed between Valentia, Ireland and Heart’s Content, Newfoundland on 27th July and just six weeks later, on the 8th September 1866, the 1865 cable was finally completed. Celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic have commemorated this historic event. However, there is another anniversary that is arguably more significant for the submarine cable industry. 2016 is the bi-centennial anniversary of the birth of the man who probably did more than any other individual to make the Atlantic Telegraph a success. He then went on to found a submarine telegraph cable empire that encircled the earth, and earned himself the epithet ‘Cable King’ before his death. That man was John Pender (1816-96).

John Pender was born on 10th September 1816 in the village of Bonhill in the Vale of Leven, just 24 miles to the northwest of Glasgow. He was the middle child of seven of James Pender and Marion née Mason. In 1810 the Penders had moved from Campsie in Stirling to Bonhill so that James could take up a job in one of the printing and bleaching businesses that had grown up in the area. John Pender’s obituary, published in the Dumbarton Herald in July 1896, indicates that James worked at the Bonhill Printworks known as ‘Wee Field’. The family lived in a cottage on Burn Street and from 1823 John attended the village school, also in Burn Street. He apparently showed a natural aptitude towards mathematics and drawing.

Wee Field’ Bonhill 1830

Burn Street Bonhill

Sometime between 1824 and 1829, the Pender family moved to the Gorbals, which at that time was an area of up-market residences for the merchant classes, a mile or so outside the city of Glasgow to the south of the river Clyde. This was the boom period for the Gorbals, and moving there at that time suggests a significant rise in the Pender family fortunes. John was sent to Glasgow High School to continue his education. Unfortunately, all of the early nineteenth-century records of the school were destroyed in a fire some years ago and no details of his academic performance have survived.

John left school at the age of 14 and took up an apprenticeship as a ‘Pattern Maker’ at Croftengea, one of the Bonhill calico print works. In 1835 Croftengea became John Orr Ewing & Co, when it was taken over by John Orr Ewing (1809-78) and Robert Alexander, and they began producing ‘Turkey Red’ dyed products. John Orr Ewing was a business associate and friend of James Pender and, on John Pender’s completion of his apprenticeship in 1837, Orr Ewing facilitated his advancement into a management position. A report of 1839 in the New Statistical Account of Scotland described the company as employing 192 men, 142 women and 104 children, with an output of close to three million yards of printed goods per year.

John Pender married Marion Cairns, the daughter of a Glasgow tailor, on 20th November 1840. The parish records give his profession as ‘Calico Printer’. Marion quickly presented John with a son, James, born in Bonhill on 28th September 1841. However, she died just a few weeks later on the 16th December, her twenty-second birthday. The cause of her death is unrecorded but it was most likely due to complications related to the birth of her son.

Croftengea Bonhill

The business of John Orr Ewing & Co thrived and expanded, their Turkey Red products selling in Glasgow and Manchester, the centre of a growing export trade to China and India. John Orr Ewing was making a fortune! In late 1843 he decided to retire and sell his shares in the business to his partner, which he finally did in 1845. The two Johns would become lifelong friends, and it was Orr Ewing’s decision to quit the business, combined with the recent loss of his wife, that encouraged Pender to make a new start by moving to Manchester and start making money for himself.

In January 1844, he set up his own business, John Pender & Co ‘Commission Agents’, with offices at 20 David Street, and took up residence at Grove House in Higher Broughton, then a small township to the north of the city. The detached house was on the main Manchester road, and he lived there with his two year old son James and his youngest sister Marion, who was his housekeeper.

Over the next few years John Pender & Co flourished and John moved his offices to 29 Dale Street and his residence to Bredbury Hall in Stockport. On 12 June 1851 he married Emma Denison (1816-90), an heiress from Daybrook in Nottingham, whose ancestry can be traced back to mid-sixteenth-century landed gentry. Emma encouraged John to diversify his investments and so when the English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co was launched in Liverpool on 10th June 1852, she suggested that he should take a major stake in the company. On 23rd May the following year, the chief engineer of the Magnetic, Charles Tilston Bright (1832-88), oversaw the installation of the first successful cable across the Irish Sea from Port Patrick to Donaghadee and a telegraph service between London and Dublin was then set up. Pender closely followed the development of this service and it was this that stimulated his life-long interest in the electric telegraph.

Pender’s textile business continued to grow and by 1856 he had sold Bredbury Hall and moved to the larger estate of Crumpsall Hall on the Middleton Road to the northwest of Manchester. His family then comprised Emma and James plus Henry Denison Pender (b. 8th Oct 1852), Anne Denison Pender (b. 9th Nov 1853) and John Denison Pender (b. 10th Oct 1855).

Crumpsall Hall c.1850

John Pender c.1855

In October 1856, John Watkins Brett (1805-63), Charles Tilston Bright and Cyrus W Field (1819-92) came to Liverpool and Manchester promoting the Atlantic Telegraph Company and Pender was one of the first to take shares in this company. Although he was appointed a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Co he did not take a leading role in the project at this stage. At the end of that year his last child, Marion Denison Pender (b. 4th Dec 1856), was born at Crumpsall Hall. The following year Pender was appointed Chairman of the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co, which took over the English & Irish company and would provide a vital link for the Atlantic Telegraph.

Pender appears to have had very little to do directly with the 1857 attempt and 1858 failed Atlantic Telegraph cable. When the joint British Government and Atlantic Telegraph Co investigation report was published in April 1861, Pender was focused on his textiles business—the early days of the American Civil War (12th April 1861-9th May 1865) had created a cotton famine in Manchester and alternative sources had to be found.

On the 12th December 1862, John Pender was elected Liberal MP for Totnes in a by-election and in order to undertake his parliamentary responsibilities, he purchased a London residence at 18 Arlington Street.

It was Richard Atwood Glass (1820-73) who recognised that if an Atlantic Telegraph was to be successful it would need a single company responsible for all aspects of the project. Unfortunately, Glass did not have the standing or reputation to make this happen. However, in late 1863 he shared his thoughts with Cyrus Field and Field took the idea to Pender.  Pender believed such a thing could be possible, so he took on the task. He was re-appointed as a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Co on 17th March 1864, and then oversaw a merger between the Gutta Percha Co and Glass, Elliot & Co. On 4th April 1864 the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co, almost always known as Telcon, was formed, with Pender as its first Chairman. To achieve this outcome Pender had put up a personal guarantee of £250K. One month later Telcon was awarded the contract for a new Atlantic Telegraph.

As part of Pender’s grand plan, on 14th January 1864 a consortium led by Daniel Gooch (1816-89), and Thomas Brassey (1805-70), supported by John Pender, purchased Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-59) ship, the SS Great Eastern, at auction in Liverpool for £25,000. A new company, the Great Eastern Steamship Co, was established with Gooch as chairman and Pender and Brassey as directors. The ship was converted for cable work and as part of the refit one of her five funnels (second from the stern) was removed to make way for a cable tank. She was then chartered to Telcon for £50,000 worth of Telcon’s shares.

The SS Great Eastern 1865, by Henry Clifford (1821-1905)

As is well known, the 1865 cable lay failed when the cable parted just 600 nautical miles short of Newfoundland. Daniel Gooch was on board, and on the return passage he wrote a letter to a friend expressing confidence that they would return the following year and complete the task. Prior to the Great Eastern sailing from Sheerness on 15th July, John Pender had been on the hustings and had been re-elected as the member for Totnes at the General Election on 12th July.

To Gooch’s disappointment, the Atlantic Cable Company was fully extended. New capital was required to keep the dream alive, and because of the American Civil War none could be expected from America. Once again, it was Daniel Gooch and John Pender who answered the call. They raised £600K of new investment, co-founding the Anglo-American Telegraph Company in March 1866. Both became directors of this new company, and Richard Atwood Glass was appointed as its first Chairman. This company took over Cyrus Field’s New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company, appointing Field as a non-executive director. Unsurprisingly, a contract to build a new Atlantic cable was given to Telcon; the fee for this was paid in Anglo-American shares.

The SS Great Eastern sailed from Sheerness on 30th June 1866, and to confound long-held superstitions, the lay from Valentia commenced on Friday the thirteenth, with the well-known outcome, described earlier.

A number of the key men involved in the Atlantic Telegraph were recognised by Queen Victoria for their contribution to the success of this massive undertaking. Captain James Anderson (1824-93), commander of the SS Great Eastern, Richard Attwood Glass, the managing director, and Samuel Canning (1823-1908), the chief engineer of Telcon, were knighted. Daniel Gooch and Curtis Miranda Lampson (1806­85) were created baronets. Lampson was originally an American from New Haven, Vermont but had become a naturalised British citizen in 1849. He had joined the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1856, becoming its vice-chairman then in 1866 he became a director of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company. Although the contribution of Cyrus Field was recognised and greatly appreciated, it was considered inappropriate to offer an American citizen an English honour.

Despite his pivotal role in the final success of the Atlantic Telegraph, John Pender received no recognition whatsoever. He was chairman of the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co, founded and was Chairman of Telcon, a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Co, founder and director of the Anglo-American Telegraph Co and was also on the board of the Great Eastern Steamship Co. He had taken more financial risk and almost certainly done more than any other individual to ensure the success of this project but no rewards came his way.

Why this should have occurred has never been made public but it was almost certainly due to the Totnes General Election. Shortly after the election, a petition alleging corrupt practices was brought by John Earle Lloyd and Edmund Tucker. This led to a House of Commons Select Committee hearing under the chairmanship of Edward Pleydell Bouverie (1818-89). Evidence was heard from 16-23 March 1866 and the outcome was that John Pender’s election was declared void, and in addition, he was found guilty of bribery by offering Robert Harris, a local blacksmith and Conservative agent, a position worth £300 per year if he voted for him.

This type of vote buying was common practice in a number of so called ‘Rotten' or 'Pocket' Boroughs at that time. Although Pender strenuously denied these accusations and Harris was exposed as a convicted perjurer, the political mood was for clamping down on such electoral practices. On 6th June 1866 Queen Victoria ordered a Royal Commission to look into electoral corruption at the Great Yarmouth, Lancaster, Reigate and Totnes elections. The commission finally reported in March 1867; the report was a precursor to Benjamin Disraeli’s (1804-81) Reform Act of 1867, under which Totnes was disenfranchised in 1868. The Queen’s honours for the Atlantic Telegraph were made public on 15th November 1866, so it would have been impossible for Pender’s key role to have been acknowledged by the Queen at that time.

In 1868, Pender stood down as chairman of Telcon and set about building the submarine cable empire that would become the Eastern & Associated Telegraph Companies. By 1870 England was connected to India, and from June 1872 messages could be sent from London to Sydney over Pender’s cables.

John Pender c.1870

Soiree at 18 Arlington Street
2nd July 1870

In January 1873 John Pender sold his Crumpsall Hall estate and the family moved to Arlington Street. The entire contents of the house were sold at auction, promoting speculation in the newspapers that Pender was a ruined man. The truth was that both Arlington Street and Minard Castle, his summer estate on the northwest bank of Loch Fyne in Argyll, were fully furnished and there was no room at either place for the extra furniture. Pender sold the Minard Castle estate at the end of 1875 and on 16th May 1876 he took out a 21-year lease on Foots Cray Place, a Palladian mansion in Kent, owned by Coleraine Robert Vansittart (1833-86).

Over the next few years his contribution to subsea telegraphy was recognised by many countries around the world, but it wasn’t until 1888 that it was finally acknowledged in Britain, when he was made Knight Commander of St Michael & St George (KCMG). He was later elevated to Grand Cross of St Michael & St George (GCMG) in 1892. Interestingly, these awards were both granted while Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil (1830-1903), 3rd Marquis of Salisbury was Prime Minister. Cecil’s London residence was at 20 Arlington Street, next door to Pender!

Foots Cray Place

Sir John Pender c.1890

Sir John Pender died at Foots Cray Place on 7th July 1896 and is buried in All Saints’ churchyard, Foots Cray, alongside his second wife Emma (d. 8th July 1890) and his son Henry (d. 13th January 1881).  There is strong circumstantial evidence in the family papers to suggest that he was soon to be created Baron, but he died before Queen Victoria could sign the warrant.

Unquestionably, John Pender was a major (if not the greatest) contributor to the success of the Atlantic Telegraph. In building his empire he did more for submarine cables than any other man and undoubtedly deserved the title ‘Cable King’. His cable empire became Cable & Wireless, a name that like John Pender has now been consigned to history after the takeover of Cable & Wireless Communications by Liberty Global plc.


Article text copyright © 2016 Stewart Ash


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Last revised: 23 September, 2016

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