History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Fenton, Hyde & Company
Fenton, Hyde & Company: the mystery cable maker
One of the minor mysteries of the telegraph is the laying of the cable from Holyhead in Anglesey, North Wales, to Howth, near Dublin, Ireland, between September 4 and 5, 1854.
The mystery lies not in its origination—it was commissioned by the International Telegraph Company to connect Dublin with the wires of the Electric Telegraph Company along the railway from Holyhead to London—but in who manufactured it.
By the standards of the time it was a long submarine circuit, 65 miles, when the previous “record” was around 22 miles. The telegraph company had ordered the cable from R S Newall & Company of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who had made the first Cross-Channel telegraph in 1851, but Newall was busy with other projects and sub-contracted the work to the little known firm of “Fenton, Hyde & Company”.
The key individual in this firm was Hugh Fenton, born it seems in London in 1827. In his twenties he was a colliery agent, managing pits in Lancashire. By 1852 he had set up with Frederick Hyde as “wire rope manufacturers” in Queen’s Ferry, Flintshire, where he also had an interest in the coal pits. The connection between collieries and iron wire cable is a long one, the pits were the largest market for metallic cable invention in the 1830s.
Fenton, Hyde & Company contracted in 1854 to take the gutta-percha insulated copper core of the cable and “armour” it with a spiral winding of iron wires, protecting it against abrasion and other elements of the ocean. The cable was laid using CS Monarch (1) but the expedition ended in failure.
Although a mere sub-contractor, Fenton entered into the telegraph cable making business with some enthusiasm. In competition with Newall he devised new cable-laying machinery to be used on the Holyhead to Howth circuit. He also, in consultation with the telegraph company’s assistant engineer, Frederick Charles Webb, installed a brick and cement tank in which to test the entire length of the cable under water before it was laid. This testing procedure was not used again until after the failure of the Atlantic cable in 1858.
It is surprising that such an enterprising individual as Hugh Fenton did not manage to challenge the cable-armouring duopoly of R S Newall in Newcastle and Glass, Elliot & Company in London. It has to be said that Newall was particularly litigious over his perceived inventions in wire rope and telegraph cables, so may have suppressed Fenton’s interest.
The association with Hyde was dissolved in July 1855 and Fenton found a new partner. From then until February 11, 1859 the firm traded as Davis, Fenton & Company, wire rope manufacturers, of Queen’s Ferry, Flintshire, with William Davis as partner. A much larger partnership was then instituted with finance from the Lancashire coal owners; this was called Whaley, Burrows & Fenton, adding to the works at Queen’s Ferry a wire drawing plant as well as wire rope making. There were four partners: Thomas Whaley, a Wigan coal owner, James Burrows, a colliery engineer from Wigan, Hugh Fenton, and James Whaley, the manager of the rope works. James Whaley dropped out in September 1862.
Whaley, Burrows & Fenton, wire rope manufacturers and wire drawers, then had some degree of prosperity. They exhibited at the Industrial Exhibition in South Kensington in 1862, showing winding drums, wire ropes and cables.
Clearly not abandoning interest in electric communication, Hugh Fenton and William Stubbs, a civil engineer, obtained Patent No 2,238 on August 9, 1862 for “improvements in telegraph wires”. This was an elaborate process “proposing a protective coating for iron telegraph wires by immersion of the wire in a bath of copper sulphate solution, followed by a coating of asphalt or black varnish applied in a molten state.” The wire was then passed through a die or draw plate to finish it.
Fenton went up in the world and became a member of the Society of Arts in London during December 1862. He also rented or leased, about this time, Aston Hall, between its occupation by Admiral Sir James Dundas, the naval commander in the Black Sea during the Crimea war, and that of William Gladstone MP in 1869. Hugh Fenton had a wife, Elizabeth, and two daughters, Florence and Lizzie. However throughout his life he contrived to avoid the Census Taker, so little else is recorded in regard to his family.
As Hugh Fenton & Company, he had possession of the Aston Hall colliery, a large partnership of seven individuals including Fenton’s brother, in neighbouring Hawarden in Flint. He sponsored a branch railway to give access to the colliery.
On May 1, 1864 the firm was reorganised as the “Queen’s Ferry Wire Rope Company”. The Wigan coal connection was replaced by John Holden of Liverpool, a rope-maker, and Samuel Edwards, also a Liverpool rope-maker. Edwards became manager of the works.
On June 16, in the financial “melt-down” year of 1866, the Queen’s Ferry Wire Rope Company was placed in administrative bankruptcy and all its assets sold off for the benefit of its creditors. The Aston Hall Colliery had been reorganised in February 1866 and was to be sold, along with the surrounding estate, to William Gladstone, Hawarden’s Member of Parliament, and future Prime Minister of England.
Hugh Fenton, then aged 39, now vanishes from recorded history. It is possible that he and his family moved to Scotland, but he certainly ceased to engage in business from then on.
Last revised: 21 June, 2010