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

Grace Markham and the
Great Northern Telegraph Company

Introduction: Grace Markham (née Cowdery), now in her eighties, shares this story of working for the Great Northern Telegraph Company in London during World War II, extracted from her memoirs.

Grace writes: “Many is the time I wished I had asked my parents or grandparents about certain things. Unfortunately by the time we have reached the age of being interested in those things the people who could probably have filled in the gaps have all died and we have missed the opportunity of finding out. So if I seem to be spending a lot of time on what may seem like trivia in this story, it's because I think it is better to have it and not need it than the other way around.”

--Bill Burns

The Great Northern Telegraph Company

THE NEW JOB

I started work at my new place of employment in 1943. It was in the City so I had to use the bus and/or train each day, and the firm was The Great Northern Telegraph Company (of Denmark) Ltd. As the name suggests, this was a Danish company.

Non-Londoners sometimes misunderstand the meaning of "The City". It has nothing to do with the West End or other areas of Greater London. The City is the square mile around St. Paul's and is the financial hub. To say that someone is "Something in the City" means that they are in banking or insurance or accounting or angling for a Knighthood. That sort of thing.

Before the war almost all of the employees were Danish men. Some of the older ones were still there but all the younger ones had gone into the services, mostly as airmen.

The Danish Air Force wasn’t represented in England during the war and so these gorgeous young Adonises joined the Norwegian Air Force. When they were on leave, having I presume no families in England to visit they would come to see their old work mates. They were all tall, blonde and blue-eyed, wearing the light blue uniform and their pilot’s wings with the little red, white and blue roundel of the Norwegian Air Force on their caps.. We girls thought we had gone to heaven each time they came visiting, they were really gorgeous. I won’t pretend that they were unaware of the effect they had on us.

Grace Cowdery
(now Markham)
February 1943

And so the poor old GNT was forced to take what labour it could get. Not only was that labour English but English girls!!! What a comedown.

Before the war the Danish men had had to complete a two year course to become qualified telegraphists. We girls were expected to manage it in six months. We did.

Actually the Danes were quite nice and we got on very well with them. They are very formal. No first names were ever used in those days in any office so we were always called Miss So and So. In fact even girls in those days didn’t use first names with each other until after a certain time of friendliness it was suggested that the other person do so. The Danes were very proper and respectful. At every possible opportunity, Christmas, Easter, the suggestion of a battle victory they would all go round the station shaking hands with everyone, very formally with a little click of the heels and a bow. It was rather nice.

Twelve sixteen year old girls were taken on and we were split into two teams of six each. We always had our instruction together in the same room and so became very friendly, both at work and outside. They were bright happy girls and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them.

To explain the work we did I must go into quite a bit of detail as telegraphic communication today is on a historic par with stagecoach transportation and unless I explain fully how things worked you will have no idea how a telegraph station operated. All the things we did are no longer used but I think it’s a great shame if it is all forgotten as it used to be a very important means of communication and vital to the war and the type of life we led at that time.

The area where the cables were despatched and received was known as the station, it took us six months to graduate to that holy of holies. The station never shut down, it operated every hour of every day but until we went into the station we worked ordinary office hours, 9 am. to 5 p.m. 5 days per week.

In the room where we learnt our skills there was a narrow table with three keyboard machines down each side. Six of us would sit there and learn to touch type while the other six were at another table learning the Morse Code. Every hour or so we would change places. The machines had metal plates over them so that we couldn’t see our fingers and therefore had to rely on our sense of touch to type accurately. Although the machines had a typewriter-type keyboard they were actually perforating machines. Instead of recording on a flat sheet of paper it came out of the machine by means of a half-inch wide tape, the text being not printed but punched into the tape.

Morse Code is a series of dots and dashes, known to us as dits and dahs and the holes punched in the tape represented those dits and dahs. At first it looked to us as complicated as Chinese but after a while we learned to read the tape as quickly and easily as we could read typed English. The dits and dahs were punched either side of the central row of holes which were slightly smaller and constant. This row of holes enabled the tape to be fed into a transmitter, the centre row of holes latched onto a spiked wheel while little needles felt for the holes on either side, to transmit a dot or a dash. The signals were then transmitted as Morse Code in the same way as they would have been if the sender was using a key or buzzer, the way you see them doing it in films.

The tape came out of the machine on the lefthand side and fell into a bucket. When the bucket was full, or that particular group of cables finished, the bucket would be removed and taken to the transmitting machines. Naturally, the tapes were all 'upside-down' so had to be transferred into another bucket so they would be the right way up. This was done manually, to what seemed like miles of tape. So much high tech stuff of the times, yet we used buckets and manhandling for this process. If mistakes were typed onto the tape we could correct them by breaking the tape, removing the error and joining it again with a special correcting tape which had the appropriate running holes down the middle.

This is what the perforated tape looked like:

Very often if atmospheric conditions were bad or if there was an air raid in progress the signals would be garbled and would need to be re-sent. This could be done easily by running the perforated tape through the transmitter again. We had to learn to transmit by the buzzer of course. If ever someone was going to suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury I think a Sparks would be that person but I never heard of such a thing in those days.

There were so many different functions involved, not just typing or sitting for hours at a buzzer. Sometimes we had a bucketful of printed tape to be stuck to the cable forms, the way we mostly expect a cable or telegram to be delivered to us. The tape ran through a pot containing paste or glue and we had a super-duper state-of-the-art little brass contraption, with an inch-square flat piece that fitted on the left thumb. We pulled the tape along with the right hand to the right hand side of the form, gently pressing down with our brass thing and tearing off then starting another strip underneath, to the end of the cable. This was not a challenging operation and I daresay a monkey could have been trained to do it, although not a left-handed one.

Sometimes if receiving conditions were very bad we used another kind of tape which was known as the undulating tape. This machine had a little inky needle that ran in a continuous line along the tape writing a long dash or a little dot and once again we learned to read the undulating tape like a book.

This is what the undulating tape looked like:

We became so familiar with it that we could sometimes read the dits and dahs even when they had been distorted in transmission. We had special typewriters, with the undulating tape running along in front of us, and we would translate the signals and type them into plain language on the telegraph forms as the taped dots and dashes went past. I was going to say that we would type in plain English but in point of fact it was very seldom plain English as we handled lots of foreign language cables as well as coded ones.

We had geography lessons as we were expected to know not only every country and every capital city but all the major cities throughout the world and many others besides. This would-be traveller simply loved the geography sessions. but after a couple of lessons I was rarely asked to point out a particular place as I always knew the answer, having always been fascinated by maps.

In actual fact I couldn't see the necessity for this. We really didn't need to know where our cables were going as long as they were addressed properly and transmitted correctly. And if there was ever any doubt as to a placename we could always check it in the nomenclature which, we were given to understand, contained the names of every place, even to the remotest villages anywhere in the world.

There were many cable companies at that stage: The Commercial Cable Company, Western Union, Cable and Wireless, The Post Office and others but The Great Northern was considered to be the crème de la crème. Anyone who had been trained by the GNT would have been snapped up by those other companies. They were extremely efficient and had an incredibly high standard. If anyone made three mistakes in a year they were sacked.

Cables always had fifty words to a page which made it comparatively easy to locate an error to get it corrected. For instance it may be garbled somewhere and we could ask for a repeat of words 19, 20, 21 of page 32. Press cables had thousands of words and many pages but we were always able to locate and amend the error fairly quickly.

We were right in the middle of a world war and so many countries were in enemy hands yet it was surprising how much contact we had with other places. The GNT being Danish had a lot of interest in Scandinavian traffic, therefore we sent a lot of our cables via Stockholm in neutral Sweden. We dealt with North and South America and Spain, and we transmitted a lot of stuff to Moscow that was almost always in code, so we had a lot of outside contacts.

We all had to go to a Solicitor’s office and sign a Secrecy Agreement as we were handling a lot of sensitive material. The cables were numbered, dated, time-stamped and initialled time and again by everyone who handled them so it was virtually impossible to lose or delay any item that came into the station.

The cables were all rated according to their urgency. Government cables got top priority; they all had a red sticker attached. They were all in five-letter or five-figure code so it was imperative that our typing was accurate. Cables were always fifty words to a page which made it easy to check up on garbled messages. For instance we could signal RQ, meaning request, for repeat of say, sixth and seventh words of page nine. Everything in any cable that wasn't in ordinary language, i.e. house numbers, initials, amounts of money and so on had to be repeated at the end of the cable, otherwise if the message became garbled there was no means of knowing whether they were right or wrong. Consequently all the coded cables had to be repeated in their entirety so that any discrepancy could be checked up on, sometimes hundreds and hundreds of words.

Most of the Government cables were between Washington, Moscow, various Embassies and the US Army in London. They seemed not to have direct contact which is surprising and therefore used us as a conduit. In these days of instant communication it is difficult to understand the difficulties and time lapses experienced in those times and makes one realise just how important this particular mode of communication was.

Second priority was given to press cables, United Press, Associated Press, Reuters and so on and they had a green sticker. They were in plain language but would sometimes run into thousands of words. We knew all the news before it hit the newspapers. I was on night duty when Japan capitulated and went home knowing what had happened but unable to mention it until the news broke.

We had many different keyboards for the various functions and were in constant contact with all the Fleet Street Press agencies by way of batteries of teleprinters that were constantly punching out thousands of words for transmission—the press traffic between us was simply enormous.. We were in the middle of a war of course, had radio but no television and were hungry for news from all the war fronts so we hung on every word from the Press. Their cables could run to many hundreds or thousands of words. But at least in English.

Everything that was transmitted to us had to be initialled and timed by the sender, the receiver also had to initial and time the acknowledgement so we got to know everybody at the Embassies, in the US Army, the newspaper offices etc. by their initials. Occasionally we were forced to use the telephone for a local query and that way we knew whether the other person was male or female. We finished off every message with (say) SENT 1823 ABC and I would respond RECD 1823 GC TKS OM (or perhaps TKS OG).

TKS was obviously thanks but what about the OM or the OG? Believe it or not it stood for Old Man or Old Girl. It was quite normal speech for England at that time. Perhaps it still is. It seems really funny to me now as it seemed extraordinary then to non-British people such as the fellows in the US Army or OWI, Office of War Information, with whom we used to deal. Calling someone Old Girl or Old Man wasn’t rude at all, it was considered perfectly normal and had nothing at all to do with their age. So that’s the way we signed off all our cables. I suppose you could say it was the equivalent of saying “Thanks Mate” in Australia.

The girls all enjoyed the training and the challenge but we also had a lot of fun times together. Our instructor was a middle-aged Dane, rather proper and serious but even he had to strangle a smile occasionally at this bunch of nubile young women he was forced to spend his working day with.

We had five-minute breaks throughout the day, still in our seats but a chance to relax from the full-on training we were doing. One of the girls started telling us about a film she had just seen and this story went on in serial fashion whenever we had a five-minute break. The film was the recently released Jane Eyre, the version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. She got to the point in the story where Mr. Rochester, all emotion, says “Jane, Jane” and she put so much feeling and pathos into it that even the formal and very proper Mr. Sorenson was hard put not to betray his amusement.

Teenage girls always think they are overweight and we were no exception. We all admired anyone who was thin or even skinny. We were self conscious about our figures and imagined that we all looked like Bessie Bunters when in fact we were of just average size. The raids were going on all the time of course and on one occasion the bombs were dropping pretty close and suddenly Mr. Sorenson said "Right ladies, under the table". We just sat there, hands over mouths to conceal our smiles as it turned out we had all thought the same thing. How could six fatties like us all get under that one narrow table?

The GNT was right in the middle of the City of London, and close enough to the Thames to make it a tempting target for the Luftwaffe. The raids got more and more severe and eventually all the equipment from the station was moved into the underground shelters. They were so pushed for space that there wasn’t even enough room for all twelve girls to be trained at the one time and so we started working part time. Our groups of six worked half a day on alternate shifts, Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, change places the next week.

When our group of six did the morning shifts we had the afternoons to ourselves and instead of going home any two, three, four, five or even six of us would spend the afternoon together. A favourite thing was to go up west to the Marble Arch and into the Salad Bar of Lyons Corner House. It was summer time and there were plenty of salad vegetables of every description. No meat or fish or cheese or eggs but lots of fresh vegetables served in various ways and we all loved the Salad Bar.

Lyons Corner Houses no longer exist but they used to comprise lots of different huge rooms serving different types of food. Most of these big rooms had a string orchestra of some sort and the Salad Bar was no exception. Eight or ten extremely elderly musicians would play to us while we had our meal. As it was so noisy in there with the patrons and the music it was impossible to hear the siren so they had a big sign which was displayed on a music stand facing the diners. On one side it said ALERT and on the other ALL CLEAR. This could be changed a dozen times while we were eating. The diners could then make the choice of whether to take cover or not. If we had taken cover every time the Alert sounded we would have spent our whole lives in shelters.

When we had finished eating we would cross the road into Hyde Park, walk down to the Serpentine and hire rowing boats. It was a beautiful summer that year and very pleasant to be out in the fresh air with friends, enjoying the park and the lake. The raids were hardly a blip in our way of living.

Sometimes when we hired our boat or boats there would be young fellows from the Forces out rowing and they would ask us to join them and we often split up and shared their boat, just for friendliness. When we landed we said goodbye and that was that.

On one occasion there were three girls in our boat and somehow we bumped into another boat with two other girls, strangers to us. One of the girls fell out of their boat, I watched her go as if in slow motion, still in a sitting position looking like a frog jumping into a pond. I quickly gave her my oar to hold on to but before you could say “knife” the other girl had jumped in to save her. We managed to get them both to shore safely. They were nurses and worked and lived in the hospital on the edge of the park which was fortunate as they had to get themselves home dripping wet.

By this time the V1 rockets had started and they would pass right over our heads as we rowed on the lake. As long as they kept going we knew we were alright. These rockets were nicknamed doodlebugs and they were shaped like aeroplanes but with no pilot of course. They had a noisy engine and a vicious looking flame coming out of the tail. As long as you could hear and see them you were safe, once the engine stopped and the flame died they would start to descend, exploding somewhere by chance, depending on the wind and direction. They came over by the hundreds, not all at once of course but constantly and we learned to live with them.

After the six months’ training we were all assessed to see if we were capable of working in the station. Of the twelve girls eight were passed and two of us were allocated to each of the four teams that covered the twenty-four hours of each day. From now on we would be working a five day shift. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the first day. 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. the second day. Third and fourth days we worked from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. The fifth day was our day off The long night shift was broken up by half an hour for a meal and a two hour rest period. Being youngest we got the worst rest period, the 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. By the time we had washed, cleaned teeth etc and tried to settle on our stretcher bed it seemed to be a quarter to one and we were being called to wash and return to the station at 1 a.m. on the dot. Absolute punctuality was demanded. We wouldn’t dare be a minute early or a minute late. The later you could go for your rest period the more chance you had of getting extra time, especially on the rare occasions when the station was fairly quiet. Only the older and more experienced ones ever got that special treatment.

By the time 8 a.m. (9 a.m. on Sundays) came round and our relief came on duty we were wide awake and in no mind to go home and catch up on sleep as we should have done. Several of us might call into a teashop and have a cup of tea. Hungry for food and light headed from lack of sleep every little thing made us giggle like idiots and people on their way to work still half asleep would look at us as if we were mad.

After working for one year in the station I went on duty one night and was congratulated on coming second. Second at what I asked as I had no idea what they were talking about. Come and look at the Notice Board they said. When I had first heard you would get sacked if you made three mistakes in a year I had wondered how they would ever find out. Now I knew. It seemed it was one person’s full-time job to check for accuracy and volume everything that was transmitted and as everything was initialled it was possible to do this. On the Notice Board was the whole list of some 150 names and mine was second from the top. The first place went to one of the experienced middle-aged Danes.

I really loved the job. It was interesting and challenging and I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. I liked the people with whom I worked but the hours started to get me down as I was never able to sleep after night duty. After two years I decided to try something else and left.

It was a really interesting phase of my life, something I would have known absolutely nothing about if I hadn’t been personally involved. What amazes me now as I look back on those years is the fact that nothing that I learned at that stage is used today. The world of communication has changed beyond recognition. That is one of the reasons I wanted to explain it in detail as it is all history now.

Here is a PS.

A few years ago, in the 90s, I happened to be in Copenhagen on a wet Sunday afternoon. I stood in the doorway of a building to shelter from the rain and casually read the residents’ names on the wall. It said The Great Northern Telegraph Company (of Denmark) Ltd. I could hardly believe it, here was Head Office. Being Sunday it was all closed of course, it was an office anyway, not a station. I would love to know what they do now that there is no more telegraphy.

—Grace Markham
February 2012

A full history of Great Northern may be found in the company's 1969 Centenary Book.

Last revised: 22 February, 2012

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