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

Leonard Francis Ellis
by Brian Ellis

Introduction: Brian Ellis’s father, Leonard Francis Ellis, went to sea as an apprentice in 1922, and after serving on a variety of merchant ships he spent two years on the cable ships Dominia and Faraday (2).

Brian shares here some photographs and stories from his father’s time in the cable industry, which included a 74-day voyage on CS Faraday (2) making repairs after the 1929 undersea earthquake. Another accound of this voyage may be read on the Cable Stories page for Alexander Murdoch.

--Bill Burns

Brian writes:

My father, Leonard Francis Ellis, had a rough but interesting early life. He was born in Islington, London, in 1908, but when Leonard was aged two his father died. He also developed a chest problem and his mother was advised by a doctor to get him away from the smogs of London and out into the country. As a result he was sent to live on a farm in Buckinghamshire.

L.F. Ellis aged 15 (1923)

When Leonard was ten his mother sent him away from the farm to J.A. Gibbs Nautical School in Penarth, South Wales. He left this school in 1922, aged fourteen, and started an apprenticeship, serving four years as an apprentice seaman on the SS Rhymney out of Cardiff. He was paid in total the sum of £60 for the four years!

On finishing his apprenticeship he worked on the SS Treherbert, also out of Cardiff, before working on the following Union-Castle Line ships: the RMS Grantully Castle, the RMS Llanstephan Castle, and the RMS Dunluce Castle.*

From around 1929-31 he served on the cable ships CS Faraday (2) and CS Dominia. In December 1931 he married my mother, and, deciding that life at sea was no longer suitable for him as a married man, he took a land job.

That should have been the end of his time at sea, but then in 1939 the Second World War started. At thirty-one he was too old to be called up for service, but he volunteered at the local RAF recruiting station.

The recruiting officer suggested that with his maritime experience, Leonard would be most suitable for boat crew, and he spent the rest of the war serving on an RAF High Speed Rescue launch, No. 2559. This launch appeared in the 1950s film The Sea Shall Not Have Them. This was the start of another sea adventure, and there are too many stories from this period to relate here.

My father passed away in 1991 aged 82. Some people thought that he still walked with the roll of the ship; I guess the sea had never really left him.

—Brian Ellis, August 2008

*Bill Glover notes that the Union-Castle ships took supplies and personnel to the cable stations at Ascension and St Helena.


Photographs from Leonard Ellis’s Album

CS Faraday refueling at St John’s, Newfoundland, 1929

CS Faraday boat crew approaching buoy in North Atlantic
Detail of boat

Stripping buoy holding cable

Leonard Ellis in boat, fourth from bow

Our boat crew about to release cable buoy, North Atlantic 1929.
Man on the buoy was stripping gear off and handing it to us
in the boat. He got 10/- a month extra for this job.

Cable coming from bottom of Atlantic to be repaired, depth about two and a half miles. CS Faraday

Cable passing under machine for telling strain on cable

CS Faraday off Newfoundland

Over the bow, releasing cable from grapnel to bring inboard, CS Faraday

CS Faraday. Looking aft from the bridge,
St John’s, Newfoundland

CS Faraday foredeck. The buoys on the deck were used to mark
positions and buoy cable, often in over 2 miles depth of water.

[two views from damaged photograph]

CS John W Mackay. Speck in water by the bow is our small boat,
sent over to get our mail and fresh stores. North Atlantic, 1929.

CS Lord Kelvin delivering our mail. North Atlantic, 1929.


Life on board a working cable ship in the North Atlantic winter was often grueling and dangerous. These newspaper clippings from Leonard Ellis’s album tells the tale of a voyage on CS Faraday to repair cables damaged by an undersea earthquake in November 1929.

TREMORS ARE EXPERIENCED BY CABLEMEN

Third largest cable ship in the world, the S.S. Faraday, in from repair work in the ’quake zone, docked at Imperoyal [Nova Scotia] this morning.

There is absolutely no doubt that a tremendous upheaval of the ocean’s bed took place 300 miles east of Halifax and extending over an area of 200 square miles during the earthquake of November 18th, declared officers of the cable steamer Faraday here this morning. For the first time the exact location and extent of the upheaval was defined. Supporting their theory the officers brought back specimens of red clay, believed to be of volcanic nature, grey clay and bits of granite picked up from the ocean’s bed. These, it is understood, will be examined by geologists at Halifax.

BOTTOM RE-SETTLING?

Slight tremors experienced over the location of the earthquake were experienced two weeks ago. This is believed to have been caused by the re-settling of the bottom. Broken cables were traced, buried, twisted and broken beyond repair for a distance of 60 miles.

No changes were reported in the depth of the ocean, it being pointed out that as the ship worked in from 200 to 1,600 fathoms, only a very great variation would be noticeable.

Leaving London on Nov. 26, the ship has since been engaged on repair work.


The Star, January 7th 1930.

ADVENTURES ON A CABLE SHIP.

Waves 60 Feet High, Icebergs And Hurricanes.

VOYAGE OF THRILLS.

Waves 60ft. high, icebergs, ice-floes and winds of hurricane force were some of the obstacles encountered by the British cable ship Faraday; which returned to London to day after 2 1/2 months in the North Atlantic.

The Faraday left London in the middle of November to repair cables belonging to the Commercial Cable Company that were broken by the American earthquake. Her voyage was a long series of mishaps. Many times during the furious gales which swept over the Atlantic she had to stop grappling for the broken cables and fight for her life. Cables were fished up from the bed of the ocean two miles below, only to be lost again to the mountainous seas.

His Roughest Trip.

“It was the roughest trip I have ever been on,” one of the officers told a “Star” reporter who went on board the Faraday soon after she docked to-day.

“For two and a half Months we were buffeted about in the Atlantic, and the only time we saw land was when we ran out of fuel and had to make for Halifax. When it was not blowing a gale, there was a fog or a blizzard.

“Nearly half the time we were out it was impossible to do anything, and for days on end we were hove to. Time and again we picked up the broken end of a cable, but lost it, or were forced to make it fast to a buoy and run for safety.

“Our bad luck started almost as soon as the voyage began, when one of the engineers got badly burnt in an accident in the engine-room, and had to be put ashore at Plymouth.

Giant Iceberg.

“One day, when we were nearing Newfoundland, where the broken cables were, we ran perilously close to a giant iceberg. When we reached a spot about 300 miles east of Sable Island, we fished for three days for a broken end of cable, without luck. At last we hooked it, only to find that the earthquake had buried it for miles, and that it was impossible to bring it to the surface.

“We grappled again at another point, and, after three days got the broken end to the surface, but wind of hurricane force blew up, and the cable had to be dropped.

“Buoys that we put out to mark the spots were swept away repeatedly. We lost so many this way that we had to go to another cable ship on the grounds for fresh supplies.

“Once, after several days’ fishing, we brought a cable to the surface only to find that it was a loose end.

Ran Out of Food.

“We ran out of food supplies, and had to go to another shop for them, encountering every difficulty imaginable. Yet, chiefly owing to the wonderful seamanship of the captain, we were able to retain two broken ends and splice new cable on to them. At one spot we laid 75 miles of new cable, and joined it to the other broken end.

“Coming home, when we thought our troubles were over, we encountered the worst weather of the trip The seas were 60-feet high, so that when the ship was down in a trough the tops of the waves came up to the crow’s nest. To make matters worse one night we suddenly found ourselves in a thick ice-floe. It was three days before we got out of it.”


After leaving CS Faraday (2), Leonard Ellis made his last cable voyages on CS Dominia in 1930.

CS Dominia. Last trip, laid cable from La Pan, Belgium, to Lisbon, Portugal. Then to Dutch West Indies, from Curacao to Venezuela, then Colombia, Aruba and Curacao.

The Belgium-Portugal cable was laid for Italcable.

The South American cables were for All America Cables:
Willemstad, Curacao to La Guayra, Venezuela;
Willemstad, Curacao to Aruba, Dutch West Indies;
Aruba to Maracaibo, Venezuela, to Barranquilla, Colombia.

Copyright © 2008 Brian Ellis & FTL Design

Last revised: 4 March, 2015

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