Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

Silvertown and Neighbourhood
by Archer Philip Crouch

Introduction: Archer Crouch wrote a number of books and articles on cable laying, based on his work with the India-rubber, Gutta-percha, and Telegraph Works Company of Silvertown, London. In 1900 his book on the history of the area was published by Thomas Burleigh; here I have extracted passages of interest to cable historians.

The book is illustrated with photographs of cable ships and cable laying by C.R. Wylie and E. Raymond-Barker, all of which are reproduced here.

--Bill Burns
Silvertown and Neighbourhood
(including East and West Ham)
A Retrospect
by Archer Philip Crouch

Silvertown, so called from Mr. Silver’s factory, now the property of the India-rubber, Gutta-percha, and Telegraph Works Company, Limited, is an outlying district of the Borough of West Ham, forming part of an island cut off by the Victoria and Albert Docks on the west, north, and east, and by the River Thames on the south. In the year 1850 Silvertown did not exist, and West Ham was a small and practically unknown suburban district in the east of London, with barely 18,000 inhabitants. In 1900 Silvertown has the population of a fairly large country town, and West Ham, created a borough within the last few years, boasts of some 300,000 inhabitants, being the eighth largest town in England, and exceeding the population of several European capitals. The record of such a marvellous growth may not be devoid of interest.

The borough of West Ham, and the urban district of East Ham—a modern village of nearly 90,000 inhabitants— occupy, with the exception of two small portions in the south-east corner belonging respectively to Kent and Barking, the whole of the space between the River Lea and the River Roding. On the north they are bounded by Leyton and Wanstead; on the south by the River Thames.

No other firm joined the shipbuilding yard on the river front, between Bow Creek and Barking Creek, till 1851, when two brothers named Howard bought a couple of acres in the centre of the property, which now belongs to the India-rubber, Gutta-percha, and Telegraph Works Co., Limited. On these two acres they built a glass factory and a wharf, at which to load schooners with the goods they manufactured. In 1852, S. W. Silver and Co., the well-known outfitters in Cornhill, removed their waterproofing works from Greenwich to some land adjacent to Howard’s factory. The first purchase was a single acre, but five more were soon added, and when the Howards shortly failed, the two acres belonging to them were also secured. There were still no roads, and the only way to reach the works was by the river wall from North Woolwich or Barking Road.

In 1855 a great change came over the neighbourhood, by the opening of the Victoria Docks. They extended from their entrance near Bow Creek to within half a mile of S. W. Silver’s Works. At the same time the loop line to the north of the Docks was made, and stations built at Tidal Basin and Custom House. The old line, for which a Swing Bridge was erected across the Dock entrance, remained in use for goods traffic only.

Messrs. Silver’s works had by this time increased to such an extent, and had gathered round them so many residents, as to justify the name of Silvertown being given to the district of which they formed the centre. Beginning with waterproof clothing and belting for machinery, the manufacture of other kinds of rubber goods, including ebonite, was soon undertaken. Ebonite is hardened rubber, made by prolonging or intensifying the curing or vulcanising process. “The method of its manufacture was discovered,” Colonel Silver says, “in a curious manner. Hollow india-rubber balls are made out of sheet rubber, cut in two sections and inflated by oxalic acid in a bath of melted sulphur. During the process one of the balls fell unnoticed to the bottom of the bath. When found at the end of the week it had hardened into ebonite.”

Ebonite is an invaluable substance. Its qualities are hardness, elasticity and non-porosity It has replaced wood in numberless articles, because it does not warp with moisture. Before its discovery vinegar manufacturers had constant trouble from the corrosion of their metal pumps and pipes. Now all their utensils are made of ebonite, on which vinegar has no effect. On account of its resistance to chemical action, it is indispensable in the laboratory, and its electrical non-conductivity makes it invaluable as the basis of all electrical instruments.

The growth of Messrs. Silver’s works was so satisfactory that in 1864 a prospectus was issued for converting the business into a company, under the title of “Silver’s India-rubber Works and Telegraph Cable Company, Limited.” On the Provisional Committee, amongst other well-known names, were those of Sam Mendel of Manchester, and William Fenton of the Great Western Railway. Colonel H. A. Silver and J. W. Willans were the first managing directors, but they retired a year after the formation of the company, and Mr. Mathew Gray became sole managing director. The india-rubber and gutta-percha departments had been under separate management from the time that Mr. Hancock, gutta-percha manufacturer at Smithfield, amalgamated with Messrs. Silvers, and brought his own engineers and workmen with him. The two departments were now put under the sole direction of Mr. Mathew Gray, and it is to his untiring energy and excellent capacity for business that the firm owes its present prosperous position.

Mr. Gray soon turned his attention to the manufacture of submarine cables, and in 1867, only a year after the laying of the first successful Atlantic cable, he obtained an order from the Western Union Telegraph Company of America for a cable to connect Key West, the southernmost point of the United States, with Havana. Sir Charles Bright, who laid the first though unsuccessful Atlantic cable in 1858, was the engineer selected by the company to carry out their contract.

The cable between Havana and Key West, which was the first to be made and laid by the company, is still working, in spite of having been immersed thirty-one years in the water. It was repaired as recently as 1899 by S.S. Dacia. The Dacia, built in the early sixties for the Mediterranean fruit trade, was acquired in 1869 by Sir Charles Bright. In order to increase her carrying capacity he lengthened her by 40 feet cutting her in two and inserting that amount of hull at her waist. She was purchased by the Silvertown Company in 1870. The Dacia is the doyen of cable ships, and her cable machinery, though designed and made so many years ago, is still as good as that of any cable ship afloat.

In 1870-71 followed the West India and Panama cables, which, owing to the rocky character of the sea bottom, gave a great deal of trouble in the laying. Yellow fever also attacked the ship, every fifth man on board succumbing to it. A more pleasant task was the laying of the Algiers-Marseilles cable for the French Government in 1871, and the Lizard-Bilbao cable in 1872.

About this time the company acquired S.S. International, and fitted her with cable tanks and the requisite machinery.

The first cable she laid was in 1870, between the Channel Islands and the English coast. In 1899, having retired from active service for several years, the International was sold to a Frenchman, who tried to tow her to Boulogne. But a fresh breeze sprang up, the hawser parted, and the old ship went ashore at Beachy Head, at the very spot from which she had laid one of her first cables. Her bare ribs now gaze regretfully upon the scene of her early labours.

In 1875-6 the West Coast of America cables, a total of some 1,700 knots, were laid. On the way out the Dacia met, anchored in Smyth’s Channel, the Sunbeam, then on the voyage with which Lady Brassey has familiarised the world. The encounter is described in the pages of her book. Smaller cables in such different quarters of the globe as the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Florida, and the Canadian coast followed, and then the company received an order for over 3,000 knots of cable to be laid on the West Coast of Central and South America.

Cable Steamship “Silvertown” at Passage, Queenstown

To execute this order the telegraph steamship Hooper was acquired from Messrs. Hooper, telegraph engineers, and re-christened the Silvertown. She was the first ship to be designed expressly as a cable ship. The story is that the cable engineer responsible for her drew three circles representing the diameter and depth of the cable tanks he wanted, and the naval architect was instructed to build a ship around them. When launched she was, with the exception of the Great Eastern, the largest cargo ship afloat, and her cable tanks were actually one third larger than those of the leviathan. In the intervals between cable laying the Silvertown has carried general cargo, and on one occasion brought from New Orleans the largest load of grain that has ever crossed the Atlantic. It was at the end of this voyage that a paltry 300 tons of sugar could not be found, till a supercargo stumbled accidentally upon them in one of her capacious pockets. During the Chilian Civil War in 1891, she was present at the bombardment of Iquique, and gave a temporary home to a number of English women and children who were driven from the town.

About to let go Buoy off s.s. “Silvertown”

A fourth cable-ship, the Buccaneer, was acquired by the company in 1885. Though only a small vessel, she has done a good deal of useful work in water too shallow for larger ships, and also in repairs.

Testing-room on board s.s. “Buccaneer”

In much the same way as Silvertown owes its existence to Mr. Silver’s works, the growth of North Woolwich is identified with Mr. Henley’s works. Mr. W. T. Henley was born at Midhurst in 1814, and began life as a leather dresser. In 1830 he came to London and took the situation of a light porter at a silk mercer’s in Cheapside. He then worked for five years in the Docks, during which he taught himself the use of tools and made electrical instruments. This brought him at the age of 24 to the notice of Wheatstone, who engaged his services. Whilst working with him, Mr. Henley invented a magnetic telegraph, subsequently promoting a company, which purchased the patent for £68,000 in cash and shares. This company laid underground lines from London to Carlisle, and from Dublin to Belfast, in opposition to the old Electric Company.

In 1853, one year after Mr. Silver had bought his land at Silvertown, Mr. Henley acquired twelve acres at North Woolwich, on which he built works for the manufacture of submarine cables and electrical apparatus generally. Four years later he obtained the contract for a cable between India and Ceylon, and in 1865 laid the shore end of the successful Atlantic cable at Valencia, handing over the seaward end to be spliced on board the Great Eastern. The works were very successful till Mr. Henley attempted to draw his own sheathing wire, an undertaking in which he could not compete with northern firms on account of the cost of coal. The business failed and a company was formed, Mr. Henley becoming manager of the submarine department. He died in 1882. In 1874 North Woolwich suffered severely in the wreck of Henley’s telegraph steamer La Plata, only 17 lives being saved out of a total of 75 on board.

Messrs. Campbell, Johnstone and Co. were venturesome enough in the early sixties to set up a shipbuilding yard on the eastern side of Messrs. Silver’s works. Here H.M.S. Resistance, the fourth ironclad ordered by the navy, was built, but the work by which the yard will be chiefly remembered was the Bermuda Floating Dock. The porous nature of the rock of which Bermuda is composed rendered a land dock impossible, and a floating dock was therefore ordered. Mr. James Campbell, senior partner in the firm, who had been engaged in the erection of the Menai Tubular Bridge, prepared and patented the plans, which were adapted by Colonel Clarke, R.E., for the special requirements of Bermuda Harbour.

The Bermuda Dock, besides being far larger than any other floating dock of the time, was the only one put together in England, those at Sargon, Carthagena, Cadiz, and Callao having been sent out in sections. With a length of 381 feet and an inside width of 84 feet, she was designed to take ironclads of 10,000 tons displacement. She is now only the seventh largest floating dock in the world, one at Hamburg being no less than 560 feet long and 88 feet wide.

A great deal of interest was taken in the building of the Bermuda Dock, which commenced in August, 1866, and both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge came down to inspect her. The launch was announced for September 2, 1868, and a distinguished company were invited to witness it. Unfortunately the dock, which had a dead weight of some 10,000 tons, refused to move, and after many vain efforts to set her going, the attempt was abandoned for the day. There was no reason, however, why the lunch which had been prepared in honour of the occasion should not be eaten, and this function, at any rate, passed off successfully, those who had come with readymade speeches skilfully adapting them to the altered circumstances.

The Bermuda Dock was finally launched without much trouble, in which respect she was more lucky than H.M.S. Northumberland, which, together with the Warrior, towed her to Madeira. The Northumberland, built by Mr. Mare’s Millwall Company, required four weeks’ continuous work, day and night, to launch her, and cost £12,000 in the process. Still more unfortunate was the Great Eastern, the launch of which was attempted on November 3, 1857, and not accomplished till January 31, 1858

In the case of the Great Eastern, the failure was attributed by Mr. Scott Russell, the builder, to the fact that Brunel, the designer, who was a strong believer in iron, insisted on laying down iron ways instead of wooden ways, on which to launch her. The ship slid a few feet till the lubricating grease was expended, and then iron bit iron, like the wheels of a locomotive on the rails. Though the incline was 1 in 12, it took nearly three months, with some thousands of tons pressure from hydraulic rams, to force her down to the water. The reason for launching her broadside, was that if she had been built end on, her great length would have carried the fore part of her keel some thirty feet above the ground level, and a good distance inland beyond the limits of the builders’ premises.

In 1864, the Great Eastern was bought by Glass, Elliot & Co., and two years later laid the first successful Atlantic cable. The French Atlantic cable followed in 1869, and the fourth and fifth cables in 1873 and 1874 respectively. In 1885 she was sold for £26,200, and kept on show in the Mersey till October 12, 1886. Finally, this magnificent ship, which cost £732,000 to build, was knocked down to Henry Bath & Sons, metal brokers, for £16,500—less than a fortieth of her original value—and broken up by them.

Lowering Steam Launch from s.s. “Silvertown”

A brief survey of the position of the India-rubber, Gutta-percha and Telegraph Works Co., Ltd., who now employ between 2,700 and 3,000 men, must conclude this account of the various firms at Silvertown. The work of the Submarine Cable Department since 1883 includes the connecting of the Canary Islands with each other and with Cadiz. In 1885-89 the Cape Verde Islands and all the important towns on the West Coast of Africa as far as Mossamedes were put into communication with Europe, the connecting link from Mossamedes to Cape Town providing a much needed alternative route to the Cape. The cable system on both the East and West Coasts of America was extended in 1890-91, and in 1892 an Atlantic cable was laid from St. Louis, Senegal, via the island of Fernando Noronha, to Pernambuco in Brazil. In 1897-98 the company laid the new French Atlantic cable from Brest to Cape Cod, the longest cable in the world, being 2,800 nautical miles in length. The total amount of cable made at Silvertown is approximately forty thousand miles.

Landing Shore End at Bacton, Norfolk [1896]

The laying of a cable entails a good deal more work than the mere steaming from one to the other of the two stations which are to be connected by it. During each step in the manufacture—the covering with gutta-percha of the copper wire or conductor, through which the electric current passes, and the sheathing with steel wires of the core thus made—constant tests are taken. Before laying, the intended route is carefully sounded, to discover any irregularities in the sea bottom which would be injurious to the cable. The sounder is lowered at the end of a long coil of fine pianoforte wire, wound on a drum, the heavy shot used for sinking it being automatically released on reaching the bottom so as to facilitate the recovery of the sounder. The number of revolutions of the drum, recorded by an index attached to it, gives the depth to which the sounder has sunk.

Horses hauling Cable ashore at Bacton, Norfolk [1896]

On reaching the spot where the cable is to be landed, sheaved wheels are fixed on the beach, and a line passing round them and back to the ship hauls the end of the cable, floated by large india-rubber balloons, to the shore. The end is taken into a cable hut furnished with electrical instruments, and during the laying electricians remain in the hut to keep up communication day and night with the ship. In a depth of 2,000 fathoms, the cable takes about 3 hours to sink, so that if a ship is paying out at the rate of 9 knots an hour, the distance from the vessel to the spot where the cable reaches the bottom, is no less than 27 nautical miles.

Considerable skill is required for cable repairing, The fault is first localised by an electrician in a cable hut at one of the ends. The calculated distance to the fault— which is less than the length of cable to the fault, for the cable has a certain percentage of slack—is given to the captain, who must be an experienced navigator to bring his ship in mid-ocean to the required spot. A mark buoy is then lowered, and the work of grappling commences. If the depth is great, a cutting grapnel is often used, so that the cable may be recovered in two separate loose ends, instead of incurring the strain of bringing a bight of it up to the surface. The end of the sound piece of cable is buoyed, the fault is cut out of the other, and a new piece spliced in between the two points.

Relaxation on the Cable Steampship “Silvertown” (Deck Quoits)

The other departments of the Silvertown Telegraph Works have enjoyed a steady flow of work. Amongst the countless purposes to which india-rubber is now applied, the earliest one on record still figures prominently. India-rubber balls are as much in demand amongst English boys as they were amongst the natives of Hayti when Columbus interrupted their sport by landing on their shores four centuries ago. In England, however, the first use to which the new material was put when introduced in 1772, was the rubbing out of pencil marks. In fact, india-rubber owes its name to what is now one of its smallest and least important functions.

Every kind of rubber ball is made at Silvertown. In point of numbers tennis balls head the list, though footballs show the respectable total of 600,000 in a season. The well-known Silvertown golf-ball, of course, outnumbers both together, but then it is made of gutta-percha, and not India-rubber.

India-rubber was first used to make clothing waterproof in 1820 by Mr. Macintosh, a Scotchman, whose name a grateful, but misinformed, southern public perpetuate in Mackintosh. Rubber, in the form of elastic, enters into various articles of attire. It is the best material for tobacco pouches, and in the house it is to be found in rubber draught tubing for doors and windows, rubber sprays for scent bottles, rubber bands for papers, and rubber rings for aerated water bottles. In the form of ebonite it supplies buttons, combs, paper-knives, pens, thimbles, and scores of fancy articles, while ebonite screw stoppers for beer and lemonade bottles are stamped out by the hundred gross at Silvertown.

There is hardly a sport in which rubber or gutta-percha is not represented. Cycling would be a poor recreation without pneumatic tyres, and Silvertown manufactures the well-known Palmer pattern. The works provide the angler with his waterproof leggings, the yachtsman with his rubber sea boots, and the sportsman with an ebonite heel-plate for his gun. The tennis player is only half equipped with tennis balls, for rubber-soled shoes are quite as indispensable. The hunting-man wears a waterproof cover coat, and the cricketer has rubber guards on the back of his batting gloves. Billiards would be impossible without rubber cushions, the cues are supported on ebonite rests, and even the driver of a coach and four carries a whip with a gutta-percha lash.

It is difficult to conceive how business could be carried on without india-rubber and gutta-percha goods. Engines, in addition to rubber valves and washers, require rubber belting to transmit their energy. Railway carriages are fitted with rubber buffers, and vacuum brakes are worked with flexible rubber tubes. The Silvertown works provide everything to do with electricity; batteries, instruments, and leads for telegraphic communication, and dynamos for electric light. A modern steamer is full of its goods. Rubber hoses pour water on its decks, and rubber squeegees drive it off again. Rubber mats stand at the top of the companion ways, and rubber tesselated pavement adorns the bathrooms. Electric bell-pushes are to be found in the cabins, electric bells in the stewards’ quarters, and electric dynamos provide the electric lamps with light. Nervous passengers would do well to take the rubber pocket swimming collar, which can be dropped over the head and inflated in half-a-minute, and which when not in use occupies but a small space in the pocket.

In war time torpedoes manufactured by the company protect our harbours, and their cables give intimation of the movements of the enemy. Correspondents find the usefulness of waterproof knapsacks and hold-alls, nor do they despise the folding rubber bath. Photographers require ebonite trays, dippers, funnels and cups to develop and print their pictures. Telephones and electric bells are invaluable to connect the trenches round a beleaguered town.

The medical corps is supplied with bandages, hospital sheeting, rubber water bottles, cushions, pillows and beds. Ebonite forms the base of numberless medical instruments. But the brighter side of war is not neglected, and in the regimental bands ebonite bassoons, clarionets, oboes and piccolos help to cheer the soldier on his march, and after victory to make his pulse beat more quickly to the familiar, but well-loved, air, “God Save the Queen.”

Last revised: 25 October, 2011

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: