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

Not Another Hero:
The Eastern Telegraph Company’s Creation
of the Soldier Hero and Company Man

by Wendy Gagen

The Connecting Cornwall Project 1870-1918

From the outset, this Arts and Humanity Research Council funded project was a collaborative affair between Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (David Dawson, Robert Chester, Alan Renton and Charlotte Dando) and the University of Exeter (Dr Richard Noakes, Prof. Alan Booth and Dr Wendy Gagen). This partnership explored the unique Cable and Wireless archive at the museum and formed the basis of an exhibition, guidebook, published papers, symposia and digitised material. It covered the history of submarine telecommunications between 1870-1918 and focused on the areas of Cornwall, business, technology, empire, the exotic and the First World War.

Before coming to the project, Wendy Gagen had a research background that focused on masculinity, disability and the First World War. This project expanded her work and she considered the lives and gender identity of submarine telegraphers working around the globe.

A fuller version of this research is available in these publications:

Wendy Gagen, ‘Not another hero: The Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies’ Creation of the Heroic Company Man’, in Stephen McVeigh and Nicola Cooper (eds.), Men After War, London: Routledge, 2013, pp.92-110.

Wendy Gagen, ‘The “Manly Telegrapher”: The fashioning of a gendered company culture in the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies’, in M. Michaela Hampf and Simone Muller-Pohl (eds.), Global Communication Electric: Business, News and Politics in the World of Telegraphy, New York: Campus Verlag, 2013, pp.170-196.


Editor's Note: Wendy Gagen’s paper on this subject was originally on the website of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, but was removed during a site update. I’m pleased to be able to reproduce it here.

Further information on the Eastern Telegraph Company’s wartime service badge can be found on this page.

--Bill Burns

 

 


 

The Eastern Telegraph Company’s Creation of
the Soldier Hero and Company Man
by Wendy Gagen

In 1922, the in-house magazine, The Zodiac, printed a letter of complaint concerning an article about the ex-servicemen’s dinner held by the Eastern and Associated Cable Companies for men who had returned to the company from the First World War. It was written by a cableman who had never seen active service. He wrote:

“A great regret in the lives of each one of us is, and always will be, that we were, by the unique nature of our duty, prevented from taking a more active though possibly not less important part in the service of our country during the war...There was very little glory or recognition.” 1

This quote indicates the level of unease felt by cablemen who never experienced active service, their belief that their wartime work had value, but also their discomfort at the company’s decision to celebrate ex-servicemen. Behind this expression of unease is the cableman’s gender identity that was embedded in the idea of the hero.

What I want to do in this article is explore how a company and its employees shaped, and were shaped by, the notion of the hero and soldier hero. Through the use of various business and personal material surrounding a group of our interrelated submarine telegraph companies, I want to connect with the tensions and dynamism inherent in the construction or negotiation of masculinities. Wrapped up within this is the relationship between how one becomes disabled and how an individual is treated. This is most certainly a work under construction and I would appreciate your thoughts.

TELEGRAPHY AND COMPANY CULTURE (HEALTH)

At the centre of this project are the Eastern Telegraph Company and its associated companies. The success of these connected companies was due to their business acumen, ability to control the cables, where they were laid, and most importantly the creation of an all-pervading company culture. And it is via an exploration of company culture that I wish to explore gender identity. By considering the nature of company culture before and after the First World War, I hope to show that whilst company culture created the cableman hero, war destabilised this identity. Both the company and the cablemen tried to readjust their sense of the masculine and the self in order to function as a company and as cablemen. However, it was no easy transition.

Creating a cohesive company culture was imperative when trying to run a business that traversed the globe. Men were trained and progressed from probationers to clerks from a young age. They worked around the world, often staying in one place for years at a time. They were paid very handsomely and the company was prepared to pay for travel, health care, furniture, bonuses, and the like. Structurally the company was certainly patriarchal and run on militaristic lines. Cohesion was achieved by creating a piece of England at each far-flung station and a connection with  Englishness was maintained through The Zodiac—a company magazine written by cablemen but endorsed by the company, and also via sport, amateur dramatics and other leisure activities. It was important to maintain this lifestyle as the isolation, boredom, and odd hours could be problematic for the employees and, of course, the business. Whilst the company supported those it employed, men had to fit both physically and mentally for this job. In the rules and regulations it stated the type of man they wanted:

“He must be in good health and free from any physical defect of body, impediment of speech, defect of sight or hearing, and also from any predisposition to constitutional or hereditary disease, epileptic or other fits, or weakness of any kind...” 2

There is evidence that men were put aside when their health deteriorated, such as Gerald Mullett, Cornwallis Smith and Sydney Ressant. Rules and Regulations documents discuss this position more clearly and record that medical assistance would be given for those who became sick or injured at work and that if such men needed a respite they would be allowed six months to recuperate. If they were still unable to fulfil their obligations they would be let go. 3 This happened to Bertram King in 1912 as he suffered from TB. 4  For those who continued in good health, company culture, geographic isolation, and the nature of the work meant that being a company man or cableman was very much central to their identity. 

Anthony Easthorpe has suggested that “masculinity tries to stay invisible by passing itself off as normal and universal”. 5 Whilst normatively was often merely an expression of white, male middle classness, it creates an illusion that masculinity is stable and somehow quiet. In truth masculinity is dynamic and performative. Moreover, it would be better to express gender identity as identities and masculinities. 

CABLEMEN AS HEROES

The nature of submarine telegraphy meant that men had to live and work in exotic, isolated, and often dangerous places. Much like wartime experiences, men’s lives could be extreme. Laying new cables and building stations of course meant lengthy negotiations with various governments. But on the ground, cablemen on so-called ‘expeditions’, had to undergo many challenges and dangers to set up new sites. Even when the sites were working, cablemen were caught up in a variety of dangerous experiences such as natural disasters, disease and local hostilities. One such was the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, where cablemen eventually fled Alexandria to continue working the cables from off shore. Such experiences were reported on for the delectation of other cablemen in the Zodiac and the 1913 hostilities in China offered a heroic narrative at the death of old employee, Mr Grant, killed in the service of the Chinese Telegraph Administration. I quote:

“One Mongol described how Grant was bound before he was shot, and how he jeered at them because so great a number found it necessary to tie up a single man. The Mongols said they would soon stop him laughing, and twenty men were lined up with rifles. Grant continued to laugh at them and shouted just before the volley was fired at him, “You may kill me, but you can never frighten me.” 6

"An afternoon’s guinea fowl shoot in St. Vincent"
Blair.  Tuckett.  The Bag.
Photo by F.H. Greatrix

The Zodiac
(vol. V1, 1913), p.112.

Such a narrative is straight out of an adventure story, and this type of heroic narrative can be found throughout the Zodiac. The idea of the heroic cableman was also evident in everyday leisure activities.  Tales of unknown places, poems, exotic flora and fauna and most importantly as a hunting and shooting man, the cableman created an image of himself as the imperial adventurer.

This follows Graham Dawson’s assertion of fantasy identities that are lived out or experience rationalised to fit a powerful narrative. 7  As he suggests “masculinity is lived out in the flesh but fashioned in the imagination.”  In this case the dominant or hegemonic masculinity at play is based within a fantasy story-book hero. As John Mackenzie’s  and Helen Kantikar’s work on imperialism and popular culture has shown, young middle-class men were steeped in a schooling and literature that expressed a masculinity to strive for that was active, a sportsman, chivalrous, English, and there to civilise and inhabit foreign lands. By framing themselves this way they helped to create a type of normative masculinity for cablemen, supporting ties between fellow cablemen that helped solidify the company. This ideal was best expressed in this poem written for The Zodiac in 1912:

            Cable (K)nights

Tis not to tell of gory deeds
I now take up my pen,
But just of work for mankind’s needs,
And how ’tis done by men.

By men who,—though unknown to fame,—
Do noble works at times,
And where they are, they “play the game”
In home or foreign climes...

And so it is throughout the world
Each man but does his best,|
A fighting band with flag unfurled,
Who well can stand each test...

So when you seen your paper through
Just think but now and then
Of battles that are fought for you
By those same Cablemen.

By Crispian, La Perouse
The Zodiac (vol. 5, 1912), p.81.

This identity was not limited to those within the company either. On a visit in 1900 to Porthcurno before the Great War, the War Office stated, concerning censorship and protecting the nation:

“The staff of this company is recruited largely from clergymen’s and doctor’s sons, who are  keen about football and cricket, and would probably prove good fighting men on an emergency.” 8

The conduit for this ideal was often The Zodiac, but there is evidence that men wrote privately of their connection with this heroic ideal. John Norman, stuck in St Vincent throughout the war, wrote of his desire to be, “... a pioneer in one of the Dominions...how one longs for the open air life and the fight against nature which develops one’s manhood.” 9 Such an identity was further hardened by their geographical isolation, physically experienced but internalised by collectively calling themselves the Exiles. 

By the beginning of the First World War, Eastern Telegraph cablemen had a strong identity as set apart, adventurous, supporting the empire, part of a group and of course as heroic. When war broke out this identity was to lose cohesion and cause anxiety for the cablemen and the company.

WARTIME TENSIONS AND TRYING TO BE A HERO (WAR AS A TIME TO TEST MANHOOD)

As war broke out it was unsurprising that many of the cablemen wanted to join up and be part of this new adventure. But it was soon acknowledged that the submarine telegraph system was essential to both the war effort and trade.  And as cablemen were seen as vital to keep communications open, their trade was closed for recruiting. 10  This was not the last word, however, as men could get permission from the company or resign from the service. For those who did join up the company was generous.  In August 1914 the companies declared in The Zodiac that:

... “The Eastern And Associated Telegraph Companies have resolved to pay full salary to all employees at Head Office who have joined or may join His Majesty’s Forces, to reinstate them on the conclusion of their military service, and to secure to them the seniority which they would have obtained by uninterrupted work for the Companies.” 11 

This decision was eventually extended to all who had joined up, and shows the companies in a supportive light. But they were also aware of the feelings of men who remained at their telegraphic posts. The company further stated that:

“The skilled operating staffs of the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies are now on War Duty, keeping wires at work in every part of the world, and being indispensable to their country, they cannot leave their instruments for the more adventurous career of the soldier, as many would wish to do.”

The company tried to mitigate this issue through war bonuses of between ten and fifty percent of their wages, in part due to economic hardship but also in realisation of the danger men faced in their day-to-day work. This became apparent when cable ship mariners on a different contractual rate complained that they did not receive such payments, as they also underwent such dangers and risks as other employees. Whilst pay was one way to alleviate tensions, the company made badges in an attempt to create more visual ways to allay concerns and to show the home front that such men were not cowards. These so-called private badges were agreed to by the Army Council and were to have the telegraph cable service clearly labelled on them. 

Whilst the company had long since sought to create cohesion through company culture and a heroic cableman identity, it was only possible through the tacit agreement and support of their employees. In peacetime this identity was a useful tool. It would of course come under tension at times when it was in competition with other more dominant heroic narratives, such as the soldier hero. Much has been said about the soldier being the ultimate heroic ideal in this period and as such the substitution of the imperial adventurer for the soldier hero was going to be a cause of real tension for cablemen. 

TENSIONS AS NOT FIGHTERS

In August 1915 a clerk naming himself Punch, from St Vincent, wrote in the Zodiac

“‘On the roll of honour’ is an expression usually ascribed to those men who have done brave deeds, received wounds, or lost their lives whilst fighting for their country. It might also be applied to those who stay at home and do the work required of them...It is infinitely more difficult to many of us to go through the daily routine of ordinary life to the best of one’s ability than to fight for one’s country!” 12

This cableman at St Vincent highlights the clear tension between wanting to fight and having to work.  But it is the attempt to justify and even elevate their work above combat that stands out. Such opinions, although widespread, did not stop cablemen or the company valorising the experience of colleagues who had joined up. Every edition of the Zodiac kept readers abreast of their colleagues’ progress through the war. Details of service were accompanied by tales of laying lines under fire. It is little wonder that it got under the cablemen’s skin and that they tried to mirror war tales with their daring brushes with war. One of the most famous company tales was the German attack on the cable station at the Cocos Islands. This narrative was found in numerous incarnations and at numerous periods in the Zodiac.

In short the story goes that the German ship, the Emden, landed at Cocos and a landing party found the cable station and smashed the equipment and cable. The cablemen were taken hostage for a while before the Emden came under siege by two ships earlier signalled by the cablemen. Some of the Germans were stranded on shore, but then stole a schooner and sailed off.  The cablemen quickly re-established telegraphic communication through cobbling together their machines and reconnecting the cable. The Zodiac narrative also stated that: 

“The men who perform these unostentatious miracles ... On desolate little islands, in remote alien cities, they lead the loneliest of lives. For conversation, they must talk across the wires to colleagues, possibly equally lonely, a thousand miles away. They know as soon as kings and mighty ones what is happening in the great world from which they are exiles; but they keep the charge with an honour as strict as their devotion.” 13

Whilst the company had a vested interest in promoting self-belief and dispelling tension to maintain the telegraph service, they were clearly aware of how the men felt. By proclaiming their wartime heroics and asserting the action they had experienced they tried to mitigate the fact they never wore khaki. However, this tension was not to be dispelled in stories and badges, and as the war drew to a close returning soldiers were to become a problem. 

INJURED IN WAR AND KEEPING THE MAIMED ON

It is clear that the telegraph service was a physically and mentally challenging job for many men, and from the beginning the companies had asserted that only the fittest men would be employed. Men who were injured in service were firmly to be discharged. But as the war drew on it was clear that many of their number had been injured and suffered a variety of injuries, diseases and mental health issues. In light of this the company reworked their original position and stated:

“With regard to the members who through wounds or other causes have been rendered physically unfit to resume their former occupation in the company each case will be specially dealt with on recommendation of the Managing Director.” 14

There is little evidence that any man was discharged; rather the opposite. One case was minuted by the Board where O.J. Young, who was invalided out of the services, be given a weekly grant and costs of special treatment. 15 Unfortunately, we have no evidence as to Young’s condition.  Many other men disabled in the war who held a disability pension were re-employed. Men such as Mr C. Falcnar Stewart who was gassed, burnt and shot in his ankles. Stanley Crisp, who lost the use of one arm, and continued to receive a disability pension. A.G. Goodall who was gassed, and had neurasthenia. And Maurice Orange, pensioned due to gunshot wounds. 

2/Lt A.G. Goodall (Bob) R.A.
(Eastern Accountant’s Dept.

The Zodiac
(vol.10, 1918), p.229.

Pte. M. Orange L.R.B.
(Western Co.)

The Zodiac
(vol.8, 1915), p.258.

Most of these men were re-deployed at Head Office, which best suited their health. But it is clear that this was a distinct change of policy by the company.  

Of course guilt played a part in re-employing men whom they would have dismissed before the war, but it can be suggested that the image of the soldier hero and the fact that such heroism was fundamental to company culture meant that the company could no longer discard certain categories of the disabled. In contrast to this, there remained a company policy whereby those who were partially or totally incapacitated due to cable work would be let go, although they would receive a pension for a maximum of twenty years. But those who sustained a “mere mechanical incapacity”, such as operators, were to receive nothing. 16  It seems that how one was disabled was of paramount importance.

CONCLUSIONS

The Eastern Telegraph Company and its associated companies created a company culture that was tacitly agreed upon and indeed built upon by the cablemen that worked the cables around the world. Part of this identity was a wholehearted embrace of the imperial adventurer and hero. Such an identity was compounded by the isolation experienced by the self-titled exiles and the sharing of stories that helped to shape new generations of cablemen. This aspect of the independent masculine hero was expressed via company policy, daily living and the in-house company magazine. Men unfit for this life were not to remain in this most masculine of employments and were given six months to get fit or pensioned off. 

Gender identity is never static, and with the coming of the war such a clearly defined ideal was to come under strain. Once the epitome of masculinity, cablemen unable to join the fray were now confronted by the soldier hero. The men reacted in two ways. Firstly, they valorised those who went to war. Secondly, and most interestingly, they justified their wartime experience by trying to reconcile their behaviour with this soldier hero image. The company itself was not immune to this tension and whilst they supported their enlisted colleagues they also supported the cableman who remained at work. Finally, the company re-employed men who were disabled in the war, contrary to their pre-war declaration to only employ the fit and healthy. In one sense this was borne out of guilt, but such guilt also carried the notion that such men were injured in a heroic fashion and were worthy of special treatment. 

So what does this say about war, heroes, masculinity and disability? There are some tentative conclusions we can put forward in light of cablemen’s and the company’s response to the First World War. The way in which a person becomes disabled is important in how people react to that disability. In this case the nature of onset, i.e. whether the cablemen were injured in war service or at work affected how the company reacted to them. Secondly, that although heroic narratives form part of a hegemonic masculine ideal in this period and this was used as a tool by the company to create cohesion, such an ideal was neither static nor solid. Thus, whilst the cablemen and the company had created a stable identity based on the notion of the heroic adventurer straight out of fiction, this soon came under tension when a new possibility for acting out heroic stories was denied to them. They certainly did not deny the importance of the soldier experience, but tried to negotiate it or rationalise it in light of their own wartime experiences. There is more to say on how a company created, manipulated and was hindered by hegemonic masculinities. And here hegemonic masculinities needs to be taken further than seeing it as merely a dominant form of gender, but as source of control and power. There is also more to say about the way men’s bodies performed the role of cableman in relation to their machines and their leisure activities. As Mike Roper has said in his look at managers in the 1960s, that expert knowledge supports a masculine sense of self. 17 I also think that the type of employment in the firm might make a difference to the way in which hegemonic masculinity was experienced and shaped. Finally, more work needs doing on the relational nature of gender here—women, age and race. In all of this masculinity is certainly something to be negotiated. 

This negotiation continued after the war, as the opening quote indicated. The letter writer went on in the same vein, hoping that the Zodiac would give similar prominence to cable work in war as it did to ex-servicemen. He said:

“...regarding the value of the work, and the difficulties that were faced, a record and a tradition could be evolved, which would give future and present generations in the service a certain amount of confidence and possibly a certain amount of pride.” 18

However, his wish was never really to come true, as the company and the world at large continued to valorise those who saw active service in the armed forces. In the 1920s the position was solidified for the company men, as a book commemorating those killed or who fought in action was built into the new company headquarters at Electra House. 


Notes:

1 ‘The Sign of the Mark of the Buoy’ in The Zodiac (vol. XIV, 1922) pp. 275-276.

2 Rules and regulations to be observed by the employee of The Eastern Extension Australia and China Telegraph Company, 1906. Cable and Wireless Corporate Archive, Porthcurno (hereafter cited as CWCA) DOC/CW/5/186.

3 Rules and regulations to be observed by the employee of The Eastern Extension Australia and China Telegraph Company, 1906. CWCA, DOC/CW/5/186.

4 Staff Book  No 2 Traffic Department, 1879-1920. CWCA, DOC/ETC/5/60.

5  Easthope, Anthony, What a Man’s Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture (Routledge: London: 1992) p.1.

6 ‘Death of Mr Grant’, in The Zodiac (vol. VII, 1913) p.77.

7 Dawson, G. ‘The Blond Bedouin: Lawrence of Arabia, Imperial Adventure and the Imagining of English-British Masculinity’, in Manful Assertions; Masculinities Since 1800. Eds. M. Roper and John Tosh (Routledge: London, 1991) p.114.

8 CWCA,DOC/ETC/1/4/1.

9 Diary of John Norman, 1919-1930. CWCA, DOC/ETC/5/24/1.

10  ‘Editorial’ in The Zodiac ( vol.8, 1915) p. 211. 

11  ‘Editorial’ in The Zodiac (vol. 8, 1914) p. 31. 

12  ‘Honour where honour is due! Why Not!’ in The Zodiac (vol.VIII , 1915) p. 227.

13 ‘The Emden’s Fatal Visit to Cocos’ in The Zodiac (vol.VIII, 1915) pp. 62-68.

14 Eastern Telegraph Company Board Minute Book (minute number 292/488), 1916. CWCA, DOC/ETC/1/26.

15 Eastern Telegraph Company Board Minute Book (minute number 308/515), 1916. CWCA, DOC/ETC/1/26.

16 CWCA, DOC/EEATC/5/29.

17 Roper, Michael. Masculinity and the Organization Man since 1945 (OUP: Oxford, 1994) p.126.

18 ‘The Sign of the Mark of the Buoy” in The Zodiac (vol. XIV, 1922) pp. 275-276.

Last revised: 16 February, 2016

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