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

Robert Langley Boyd

Introduction: John Boyd shares this information on his great uncle, Robert Langley Boyd, who received his master's certificate in 1890 and served on cableships for 29 years, a good part of his long career.

--Bill Burns

Robert Langley Boyd

John Boyd writes:

Robert Langley Boyd

My great uncle Robert Langley Boyd (1864-1936) died long before I was born, but I knew that he had been master of a cable laying ship.

Although I have mislaid the source, I did find out (presumably from an obituary) that he was described as: “Retired Commander, Eastern Telegraph Company. Member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Younger Brother of Trinity House.”

There is also a website reference “Notice of the estate of the late Robert Boyd, former captain of the Eastern Telegraph Cable ship, the Cambria, 21 Aug 1936” (Durham University Library - Catalogue of the papers of G.R. Storrar)

I inherited an envelope containing some small photographs, apparently sent by a relative as a memento of Robert Boyd, showing the wreckage of the SMS Emden. As the 1914 Emden incident occurred in the Cocos Islands, which was an important communications station, I wondered whether Robert might have been posted there at the time, and possibly taken the photos himself.

I already knew something of Robert Boyd’s family history, and have now found out many details of his time at sea, thanks to information provided by Bill Burns of this website and Charlotte Dando of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. They give an indication of the breadth of experience gained in his early years at sea – sailing to Australia and New Zealand in square-riggers; being showered with dust and pumice from the eruption of Krakatoa; shipwrecked off the Scillies – which must have been an invaluable grounding for his later career on cable ships.

Robert’s father had a grocery business and also ran a pub named the “George Peabody” in Shadwell High Street, near the London docks, until his death in 1874.   His widow, whose own father had been a master mariner, continued running the pub until the 1890s.  

Robert went to sea in 1879 at the age of 14, spending two years as a ship’s boy, and was then an apprentice for three years before becoming an AB when aged 19.   He gained certificates as 2nd Mate (square rigged) in 1887, 1st Mate (fore-and-aft rigged) in 1889, and Master in 1890.

Robert’s first voyage was a year spent on the “Clodian”, a 480 ton barque built around 1870 and trading between UK and Australia.

He then sailed on “The Lord Warden”, a 1237 ton wooden ship built in Sunderland in 1862, and again trading with Australia.   The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a lithograph of this ship.

His next three and a half years were spent on the “Norham Castle”.   She was a 698 ton iron barque, built in Glasgow in 1869 as a tea clipper for the trade with China, and later sailing with mixed cargoes to Australia and New Zealand.   There is a description of the vessel in “White Wings, Vol I.  Fifty years of sail in the New Zealand trade, 1850 TO 1900”.

The State Library of Victoria has an engraving showing The barque Norham Castle abandoned by the steam tug Mystery off Newcastle, NSW, an incident that had occurred in 1875, before Robert joined her.  The tug was forced to cast off when a violent gale arose, but the barque rode out the storm and reached her destination safely a few days later.

As Robert sailed on the “Norham Castle” from 1881 to 1884, he was presumably aboard in August 1883 when the vessel passed near Sumatra as Krakatoa erupted.   The captain wrote in his log:

 “A fearful explosion.  A frightful sound.  I am writing this in pitch darkness.  We are under a continual rain of pumice-stone and dust.  So violent are the explosions that the eardrums of over half my crew have been shattered.  My last thoughts are with my dear wife.  I am convinced that the Day of Judgment has come.&rdquo.

Robert then spent six months on the SS “Bothwell Castle”, 1652 tons, built on Tees-side in 1881, before joining the SS “Sussex” at the end of October 1885, bound for Baltimore.   His service on this vessel came to an end just six weeks later, on 17 December 1885, when she struck the Maiden Bower Rock off the Scilly Isles and was lost.

He spent 14 months on the “Clynder”, a 1117 ton barque that traded between UK and NewZealand.   She was wrecked some years later in the Solway Firth.

Having gained his 2nd Mate’s certificate, he sailed for ten weeks on the Volande (838 tons), six months on the SS “Saffi” (608 tons) and three months on the SS “Sam Weller” (964 tons, built on Tyneside in 1874).   Tyne and Wear Archives have a general arrangement plan of the “Sam Weller”.

His next two years were spent on the SS “Durham” (1143 tons), a painting of which is in the Hull Maritime Museum .

In December 1890 Robert Langley Boyd was certified as Master by the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade:

After a period with the shipping company Forwood Brothers, he joined the Eastern Telegraph Company in January 1892, at the age of 27, and served with the company on cable ships for the next 29 years.

And those pictures of the Emden?   Well, when the naval action took place in 1914 Robert Boyd was on the CS “Cambria”, repairing and laying cables in the Red Sea and off the coast of Africa, so it seems that somebody else must have taken the photos, and their source remains a mystery.

Robert Langley Boyd  -  Service at sea, 1879-1891

Vessel

Dates

Rank

“Clodian”, barque, 480t

May 1879-May 1880

Boy

“The Lord Warden”, ship, 1237t

Aug 1880-May 1881

Boy

“Norham Castle”, barque, 698t

May 1881-Nov 1884

Apprentice / AB

“Bothwell Castle”, SS, 1652t

Jan 1885-Aug 1885

 

“Sussex”, SS, 1843t

Oct 1885-Dec 1885

AB

“Clynder”, barque, 1117t

Feb 1886-Apr 1887

AB

“Volande”, sch, 838t

Sep 1887-Nov 1887

2nd Mate

“Saffi”, SS, 608t

Dec 1887-May 1888

2nd Mate

“Sam Weller”, SS, 964t

Jul 1888-Oct 1888

2nd Mate

“Durham”, SS, 1143t

Nov 1888-Oct 1890

3rd Mate / 2nd Mate / 1st Mate

Forwood Brothers, vessels not known

Nov 1890-Dec 1891

2nd Officer


Robert Langley Boyd  -  Service with Eastern Telegraph Company, 1892-1921

Vessel

Dates

Rank

Months duty at different
Eastern Telegraph Co stations

London

Plymouth

Gibraltar

Red Sea

East Coast

West Coast

CS “John Pender”

Jan 1892-Feb 1894

4th Officer / 3rd Officer

29

 

26

26

 

26

CS “Duplex”

Mar 1894-Aug 1896

2nd Officer

CS “Electra”

Sep 1896-Dec 1901

2nd Officer / 1st Officer / Chief Officer

CS “Mirror”

Dec 1901-Jun 1904

Chief Officer

8

14

5

 

 

 

CS “Britannia”

Jun 1904-Aug 1904

Chief Officer

 

 

1

 

 

1

CS “Duplex”

Aug 1904-Feb 1906

Chief Officer

2

1

8

6

 

 

CS “Levant”

Feb 1906-Jun 1907

Chief Officer

 

 

16

 

 

 

CS “Britannia”

Jun 1907-Jan 1910

Chief Officer / Commander

 

 

5

 

 

24

CS “Electra”

Jul 1910-Oct 1910

Commander

1

 

 

3

 

 

CS “Duplex”

Nov 1910-May 1913

Commander

 

 

 

11

20

 

CS “Cambria”

Nov 1913-Jan 1919

Commander

 

 

 

56

 

 

CS “Britannia”

Jan 1919-Jan 1921

Commander

 

 

 

 

 

24

Last revised: 12 October, 2012

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