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

Some Scottish Cable Huts (1899)
by John G. Bell

Introduction: This article on cable huts near Port Patrick, Scotland, is from the July 1899 issue of St Martin's-Le-Grand, the “unofficial” quarterly magazine of the British Post Office.

Where the author writes in his third paragraph “the purchase of the telephones by the State”, he of course means “telegraphs” as the takeover of the private companies by the Post Office occurred in 1870, some time before the invention of the telephone.

The cable huts at Port Kail (Killantringan) survive virtually unaltered 110 years later, as is evident from the recent photograph I have added to the article. See this page on the Killantringan cable hut for further information. The Knock cable hut was less fortunate, as may be seen at the end of this page.

--Bill Burns

Some Scottish Cable Huts

T  

would be difficult to find a more picturesque situation for a cable hut than Port Kail Bay, between Port Patrick and Corsewall Point, on the Wigtownshire coast of the Irish Channel. This bay forms the approach to the well known and much admired Dunskey Glen, and it appears tolerably clear that those responsible for the landing of the first successful cable across the Channel from Ireland had an eye to the scenic beauty of the place. Standing on the high and precipitous cliffs on either side of the bay, a magnificent view is obtained of the whole Channel, with the outline of the Irish coast clearly discernible for a great distance.

Port-of-Spittal Bay

The initial attempt at telegraphic intercourse between the mainlands of Scotland and Ireland was made eight years previous to the laying of the first Atlantic cable between England and America, the points of landing selected being Port-of-Spittal Bay, on the Wigtownshire coast of Scotland, and Donaghadee on the Irish side. Viewed from the present-time efficiency which has been attained in the manufacture of submarine cables, this early effort appears to have been somewhat crude. The value of a cable depends on its mechanical strength, as well as on its speed or capability of doing work, so that an outer covering of hemp was hardly the best material to use as a means of providing against the heavy strain on the conductors. It is with small wonder, then, we learn that the cable parted when within five miles of the Scotch shore, owing to the heavy strain on the hemp covering compelling it to stretch so much that the wires broke. A second attempt with an iron wire-bound cable some time later also proved futile, and it was not until 1854 that the first cable was successfully laid from Black Head, at the entrance to Belfast Lough, to Sandeel Bay, about one and a-quarter miles north of Port Patrick Harbour, and some two hundred yards from the present site of Port Kail cable station. A portion of this cable is still to be seen lying on the shingly beach. It does not appear to have been a telegraphic success, for in 1857 another cable was laid to March Howe, a point further north. This has also disappeared, for the piles of the wooden hut are all that now remain to mark the spot of its utility. The disused whinstone hut at Killantringan also points to one of the early triumphs in marine telegraphy. All further trace of the first attempts to bridge the Irish Channel have disappeared, however, save for the disused cables to be seen lying at various points along the shore.

Previous to the purchase of the telephones by the State [in 1870], one hut was found to be sufficient for the accommodation of the two four-wire telegraph cables stretching from Donaghadee, and Whitehead in Belfast Lough, to Port Kail, the distances being twenty-three and a-half knots and twenty-five and a-half knots respectively. The laying of a four-wire telephone cable in 1893 rendered additional accommodation necessary, however, and this was furnished by the erection of a second hut, which has been joined to the first in a neat form, as shown in the accompanying illustration.

Port Kail Huts

The cable huts in 2009
Photograph courtesy of Jim Deans

The two huts are substantially built, and, as will be readily seen, are also of an attractive appearance and in harmony with their charming surroundings. The lines passing through these huts consist of the following, viz.:-

Telegraph LV BE 1
"   MR BE 1
"   GW BE 2
"   GW DN
"   GW LD
"   LS BE
"   TS BE 135
"   TS BE 2o7
Telephone CE BE
"   GW BE

Knock Hut stands three miles to the north of Port Patrick, and is somewhat difficult of approach, being situated at the base of a precipitous cliff, the foothold on which in frosty weather is rendered very unsafe. This hut is hardly so ornamental as its neighbours, but it is nevertheless a substantial structure, and well adapted to withstand the great storms which sometimes rage along these shores.

Knock Hut

It is a very imposing sight during these storms to watch the huge waves being churned into mountains of foam as they hurl themselves upon the rocks with all the force of their seemingly resistless fury. Some years ago a quarter of a million of money was spent by the Government in an attempt to erect suitable harbourage at Port Patrick with a view to shorten the sea route to Ireland, but the idea had to be abandoned, as it was found impracticable. Huge blocks of masonry, weighing several tons, with ponderous iron stanchions all twisted and broken, is an evidence of the severity of the awful tempests with which our gallant little craft, the Civil Service Lifeboat, has sometimes to contend, for many an unhappy bark has foundered on these shores.

Dumfries. John G. Bell.
 

Photographer Jim Deans reports that according to a former GPO employee, the Knock cable hut was destroyed in 1984 or 1985 by the hillside behind it coming down. Some materials were salvaged at the time, and the remains can still be seen amid the undergrowth.

The remains of the Knock cable hut, June 2010
Photographs courtesy of Jim Deans

Last revised: 13 June, 2010

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