History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Finding Mr. Clifford
Finding Mr. Clifford
It may be of interest to Atlantic Cable website visitors to learn how much research goes into some of the articles on the site. Here I’ll describe in detail how a mention of a name in an auction catalogue led to a research project of many months and the uncovering of the previously unrecorded story of one of the significant figures in the Victorian cable industry. The result of this research may be seen on the main page for Henry Clifford.
January 10th, 2008. The entry in the Picture Sale catalogue from an auction house in Cornwall read simply:
There was no illustration in the catalogue, but the artist’s name sounded familiar, and a cable ship with paddle wheels could only be the Great Eastern. I requested an image of the lot from the auction house and started my research.
The first search I always do is of the Atlantic Cable website itself, as many names are noted there in passing. This gave a number of hits on Clifford, reminding me that he was the assistant to Charles Bright on the early Atlantic cable expeditions, and to Samuel Canning on the later ones. He was the mechanical engineer largely responsible for the design and operation of the cable-laying machinery on the Agamemnon, Niagara, and Great Eastern.
Now I knew who H. Clifford was, and his full name - Henry Clifford.
The arrival by email of a photograph of Lot 97 confirmed that the ship was the Great Eastern, and I had already found from my research that Clifford had sailed on the ship on the Atlantic cable expeditions of 1865, 1866, and 1869.
I left an absentee bid on the painting, but the auction was not for another two weeks. I was eventually the successful bidder, but while waiting for the auction to close I continued my research.
Searching the web gave a pointer to an image at the National Maritime Museum’s website of an oil painting by Henry Clifford titled at the time The Cable Ship (now revised to The steamship Great Eastern laying the first successful Atlantic cable).
The steamship Great Eastern laying the first successful Atlantic cable
On later personal inspection the painting was found to have a plate bearing the inscription:
The “Great Eastern” Laying the
As may be seen from the images, the NMM painting is almost identical to the image of the auction lot, although the NMM painting is an oil and about four times the size.
I believe that the smaller study or rough was made by Clifford while on board the Great Eastern, and he painted the finished oil when he returned home to England. The Great Eastern was evidently one of his favourite subjects, as he painted several oils of the ship.
The NMM (in Greenwich, London) also has an 1890 photograph of Clifford in which he is captioned “Father.” This photograph was taken outside the Greenwich works of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co., where the NMM notes that “Henry Clifford was chief of Telegraph Construction from 1864 until 1893.”
Checking the NMM on-line catalogue, I found that the museum had three further oil paintings by Clifford, and also a number of watercolours and sketches. I made a note to request a viewing of these items on my next visit to London, planned for March 2008, just a few weeks away.
As Clifford’s work was represented at the NMM, I wondered if he might be listed in the standard reference books of painters. At one of my local libraries I found entries for him in Dictionary of Sea Painters and Dictionary of Victorian Painters. Neither had a great deal of information , but Victorian Painters noted that he had “exhibited one landscape watercolour at NWS, and one elsewhere.” NWS was the New Watercolour Society, founded in London in 1832, which later became the Royal Institute of Watercolour Artists and continues in existence today.
Victorian Painters also had an entry for Henry Charles Clifford, R.B.A., 1861-1947, as a “painter of landscapes and village scenes,” and I later discovered that he was Henry Clifford’s eldest son.
The next project was to find more information on Henry Clifford’s work on the Atlantic cable expeditions.
I have an extensive library of cable books and ephemera, but searching through them can be a tedious task. Fortunately, Google Book Search continues to index the world’s great libraries, and many books on cable history can be found there. Searching Google Books for Clifford gave me a quick reference to some of my own books, and to others I had previously been unaware of.
In Willoughby Smith’s 1891 book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy I found a composite sketch by Henry O’Neil of the various personalities on board Great Eastern in 1865, first published in the shipboard newspaper.
One of O’Neil’s sketches is of H. Clifford, and looking it at it again for the first time in many years, I made a connection with an unidentified photograph published in another book in my collection: 1865’s The Atlantic Telegraph: Its History, from the Commencement of the Undertaking in 1854, to the Return of the “Great Eastern” in 1865.
This book has four uncaptioned tipped-in photographs. I had previously identified three of them as Cyrus Field, William Thomson and Samuel Canning, and by comparison with O’Neil’s sketch it was immediately evident that the fourth photograph was of Henry Clifford.
Now I had a good photograph of him, but what of Clifford’s life and work?
In John Mullaly’s 1858 book on the early Atlantic cable expeditions, The Laying of the Cable, or the Ocean Telegraph, is this description of Henry Clifford:
This was a good start, and I found further information on Henry Clifford in Charles Bright’s 1898 biography of his father, Sir Charles Tilston Bright. Cllifford had worked under Bright on the 1857 and 1858 Atlantic cable projects.
The full text of The Life Story of Sir Charles Tilston Bright, Civil Engineer is available from Google, and searching within the book for Clifford’s name revealed that Henry was a cousin of Charles Bright’s wife, Hannah Taylor, and had been introduced to the cable project through this family connection. Hannah is described in the biography as “Miss Taylor, daughter of John Taylor of Bellevue, Kingston-upon-Hull” - did this mean that Henry Clifford might also have a Hull connection?
Bright’s book also has a number of references to Henry Clifford’s artwork, the only source for this information in any of the cable literature. The first mention is in a letter written at Valentia, Ireland, in October 1857, by Charles Bright to his wife:
The biography also includes reproductions of a number of Clifford’s drawings and paintings, and it’s evident that Henry made sketches and watercolours both on land and at sea while he was on cable expeditions. Some of these scenes of the early Atlantic cable voyages looked familiar, and turning to the Illustrated London News for 1858, I found a group of illustrations credited as:
One of these, the view of the Agamemnon in the horrendous storm which almost wrecked the ship, is almost identical to the reproduction of a painting credited to Clifford in Bright’s book:
Clifford remained a close friend of the Brights for many years; the biography notes that in 1888 he was one of the mourners at the funeral of Sir Charles Bright, on May 7th of that year.
For much of the Victorian era the cable industry was quite newsworthy, and useful information can often be found in newspaper archives of the time. The New York Public Library has a subscription to the historical archives of The Times of London, so on my next visit to Manhattan I searched there for Henry Clifford. I found a number of references to the same events described in books about the Atlantic cable, but also several short pieces about cable expeditions of which Henry Clifford was a member. Details of these are in the main article on Clifford.
There were also articles in The Times about two events of which I had no prior knowledge:
One story, in 1886, was about an electric lighting installation made at Paddington Station in London. This was described by The Times as “The first practical example of electric lighting from a central station.” The installation was undertaken by the company of which Clifford was chief engineer, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co., which by then also had an electric light department. Telcon supplied three 2,000 ampere direct current dynamos and 4,115 Swan glow lamps for the installation, and Clifford along with other dignitaries made a tour of inspection on May 17th, 1886.
Then in 1896, after his retirement, Clifford wrote a letter to The Times about a proposed Memorial to celebrate the upcoming jubilee of submarine telegraphy in 1901, correcting, as one who was there in the beginning, some mis-statements from others who were not.
Having now exhausted all the readily-accessible printed references, I turned to the birth, marriage, death, and census records of Great Britain, available on line through my local library. This revealed a good amount of information on Henry Clifford’s personal life, including his birth at Hull on 27 October 1821, his death at age 83 at Lewisham in 1905, and his place of residence, occupation, and family details every ten years in between. One item of interest was the entry in the 1841 Scottish census, which recorded Henry Clifford at age 19 living in Aberdeen and working as an engineering apprentice.
A few days after the success of my bid on the Clifford Great Eastern painting, I searched eBay for “H. Clifford.” To my surprise, a match came up for a small watercolour of a coastal scene, signed H. Clifford and titled in pencil on the mat: “Marabut. 4 P.M. Sep 21 1861”. On the back of the watercolour was mounted a photograph of the 1871 Java - Port Darwin cable being landed in Australia, so I assumed that the watercolour also had a cable industry connection.
Initially I had thought that Marabut referred to the town of that name on the Moroccan coast in the Straits of Gibraltar. However I subsequently acquired another similar watercolour with the same date which had a pencil note on the back: “139.1 Nauts from Ras al Milhr”, and from this I was able to determine the location, a point near Derna on the Libyan coast, about midway between Alexandria and Benghazi.
According to the Bright biography, in the latter part of 1861 Clifford represented Glass Elliot & Co for the laying of the Malta-Alexandria cable. A letter in the Times from its Malta correspondent, datelined Valetta, September 17th, reported that CS Rangoon, with Clifford, Canning, and De Sauty on board, commenced laying the section of the cable from Alexandria to Bengazi on 15 September. It was while on this expedition, six days and 140 nautical miles from Alexandria, that Clifford painted the watercolours while on board Rangoon.
Checking the seller’s other lots on eBay, I found two further watercolours with similar content. One had a title: “Pantellaria” (an island in the Mediterranean), but the mount had been trimmed and it had only a partial date of Nov 2nd 187? and a partial signature of “H.H.?”. The third watercolour was unsigned, but had a title on the back: “The Phare, Alexandria”. So all three scenes were in the Mediterranean, but the seller in England could tell me only that the watercolours had come from the same source, accompanied by a few oils on card signed Clifford and dated in the 1960s.
I bought the three watercolours, and they arrived in New York in early February 2008. The Clifford signature on Marabut exactly matched that on his Great Eastern painting, but the title and truncated “H.H.?” signature on the Pantellaria piece were in a quite different script, and I was unable to make any determination of the artist.
I had by now exhausted the readily accessible sources of information. but periodically searched the web for mentions of Henry Clifford. In March 2008, shortly before I was to leave for England, I found an archived article dated 12th November 2002 from This is Local London (an on-line compendium of 40 local newspapers.)
According to the article, earlier in 2002 Sir Charles Tilston Bright’s grave had been re-discovered at St Nicholas Church in Chiswick at the instigation of Bright’s great-great-grandson, Barry Gittins. Subsequently, an exhibition on Bright’s cable industry career had been mounted at the church, and one of the members there, Liz Crocker, told the paper:
Here was a direct link to one of Henry Clifford’s descendants, even though Elizabeth Clifford was reported as deceased. I could find no email address for the church, but a further search produced a street address for Liz Crocker, and I wrote her a letter requesting more information and giving her my email address and UK contact information.
Just two days before my departure, I received an email from Elizabeth Clifford’s daughter, Jacy Wall. I was sad to learn from Jacy that Liz Crocker had died in 2007; however, Mrs. Crocker’s husband John had been kind enough to forward my letter to the St Nicholas archive group and to Jacy.
Jacy gave me some most interesting and useful information. While she herself had only a few items from Henry Clifford, she told me that her late uncle Henry Dalton “Tony” Clifford (Henry Clifford’s grandson) had written an unpublished history of his grandfather, based on the family archive of letters, documents, and artifacts in his possession. Upon his death in 1991 this material had gone to the National Maritime Museum and to the Maritime Museum in Hull, the city where Henry Clifford was born.
On March 21st, shortly after my arrival in London, I also received an email from Jane Watson, Keeper of the Archives at Chiswick Parish Church of St Nicholas. She sent me an article on the finding of Charles Bright’s grave, and invited me to visit the Archives at the church while I was in England. I made an appointment with her for April 7th.
[Editor’s note, January 2022: This detailed article by Jane Watson, titled "Chiswick’s unsung hero: Sir Charles Tilston Bright," was published in the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal, 12, 2003, and has recently been made available on the website of the Local History Society.]
Pursuing the Hull connection, I emailed the Maritime Museum there, and on March 25th received a reply from Arthur Credland, the Keeper of Maritime History at the museum:
I arranged to visit the museum on March 28th, and my wife and I made the hundred mile drive from Manchester to Hull that morning. We received a cordial reception from Arthur Credland, and he retrieved the Henry Clifford material for us.
It was immediately obvious that this was a valuable resource. Henry Dalton Clifford’s family history typescript was over 200 pages; in addition there was a family album with portraits of Henry Clifford and his family, and two of Clifford’s engineering notebooks: one from 1858 when he was working on the paying-out machinery for the forthcoming Atlantic cable expedition, the other from 1859/1860. The family history was extensive, and included transcripts of Henry’s letters to his parents, and would need further study. There was also a catalogue and description of the Clifford material at Hull Trinity House, along with correspondence from Henry Dalton Clifford, which confirmed that all the cable-related documents had gone to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The material now at Hull Trinity House is mostly related to shipbuilding.
Mr Credland offered to make copies of Henry Dalton Clifford’s typescript and forward them to me by post, and gave me permission to photograph the family album and engineering notebooks. He also gave me a copy of his book; while the main subject is the Gibsons there were many family and business relationships among the Gibsons and the Cliffords, so the book includes a considerable amount of information on the Cliffords.
Scanning through the book, I found an answer to the mystery of the Pantellaria watercolour shown above:
In a section titled “The last generation: Harold Hawksworth Gibson”, Mr Credland describes how Gibson obtained a post in 1870 under Henry Clifford as a cable engineer, and notes that he twice visited the Mediterranean in that year. Now in November of 1870, Telcon laid a cable from Malta to Alexandria; Pantellaria is on this route. The watercolour is dated Nov 2nd 187? and signed HH?; from the coincidence of the partial date with Gibson’s recorded cable work in the Mediterranean, and the match of the artist’s partial signature with Gibson’s initials, I believe that the Pantellaria watercolour, and probably the one of Alexandria, are by H.H. Gibson.
After purchasing the Clifford and Gibson watercolours on eBay, I had set up an alert there for any further material related to Clifford. On our return from Hull I received a notification of an eBay listing for an item described as “a particularly well engraved seal, from the 19th C, and sporting a nicely turned hardwood handle. The matrix is oval and deeply engraved with the text H. CLIFFORD, ENGINEER, HULL.”
It seems likely that this would have been used by Clifford at his short-lived Cyclops Foundry engineering venture in Hull to emboss wax seals on documents and letters.
My bid on April 3rd was successful, and I added the seal to my collection.
Meanwhile, I had also contacted the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich to make an appointment to view Henry Clifford’s paintings. The staff there were most helpful in accommodating me on short notice, and arranged a visit for April 7th to the offsite storage facility where they hold four oil paintings and one drawing signed by Clifford, as well as some associated material.
This NMM offsite store is in an obscure location, coincidentally not far from the Telcon (now Alcatel) factory where Henry Clifford spent most of his working life in the cable industry. The Museum Stores Manager had located the four paintings for me, and on the morning of April 7th I was able to examine them and take reference photographs. Seeing Clifford’s 1866 Great Eastern painting in person at the NMM confimed my view that the small painting which started this research was a study for this final version.
I also viewed there a number of works on paper, including watercolours of Valentia from the 1857 and 1858 expeditions; a view of Maritimo Island in the Mediterranean made in 1859; an undated monochrome wash of the Great Eastern at sea; and a view of the Skelligs rocks off Valentia, sketched from Great Eastern in 1866. Although not all were signed, this collection, together with the oils, had been donated to the museum in 1947 by Alexander Clifford (Henry Clifford’s fourth son, who, as did his father, worked at Telcon, from 1896 to 1928), so it’s likely they were all by Clifford.
My final stop was at St Nicholas Church in Chiswick on the afternoon of April 7th, to meet the Keeper of the Archives, Jane Watson, and view Sir Charles Bright’s grave.
The Clifford family history has much detail on Henry’s life both before and after his involvement in the cable industry, which occupied him from 1856 until his retirement in 1892, and will eventually be the subject of another article.
On a subsequent visit to England I was able to meet Henry Clifford’s great-granddaughter, Jacy Wall, who very graciously shared the family history material which she had inherited. Some of this may be seen on the Henry Clifford biography page , and on the page on Clifford’s paintings.
The National Maritime Museum has three boxes of Henry Clifford documents, the cable-related material donated by Henry Dalton Clifford, and while the collection is not catalogued in detail, the museum’s website has some information on the items.
Last revised: 21 January, 2022