History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Bridging the Gap – News Telegraphs 1863-1870
Bridging the Gap – News Telegraphs 1863-1870
In the gap between 1858, when the first Atlantic cable was laid, and 1866, when it finally became successful, many things changed. With the ending of the taxes on newspaper and advertisements in the mid 1850s the circulation and profitability of the press had expanded enormously in Britain. The first cable had whetted the appetite of the European press for more immediate news from America; and there was the war that tore apart the fragile Union. The success or failure of the secession was, for political and economic reasons, fascinating to the reading classes of Europe. By the third year of the war the papers were desperate for American news and now were able and willing to pay for it.
The Atlantic cable itself was stalled through lack of capital, although alternative schemes were floated for a series of cables far from the war zone through Iceland and Greenland to Canada. The main source of information continued to be the regular lines of steamers that crossed from Liverpool to Halifax in Canada and to Boston and New York in America. Of these the Cunard line carried the British mails in the fastest ships, paddle steamers. In addition there was the Inman line, using slower screw steamers, also based on Liverpool, with the Allan Line and the Anchor line to Glasgow. The Hamburg America line and the North German Lloyd line to Bremen carried between them the US Mails to Europe, after the secessionist cruisers drove the American mail steamers from the seas, pausing at Southampton with that for England; the faster British ships were not trusted with American letters!
All of these steamers had to pass close to Ireland, either County Cork in the south or Ulster in the north. In Canada, off Cape Race in 1852, an ingenious newsman had devised a scheme whereby private letters and telegraph messages were collected from New York and the Canadian provinces at the last moment, secured in a watertight metal container and transferred from a boat to the passing Cunard liners bound for Europe, which slowed down and cast out a net.
During 1863 this idea took hold in London. If telegraph stations could be established on the most isolated points of Ireland out in the Atlantic, the steamers could drop canisters of news and messages overboard to be picked up and taken ashore for transmission to London and Europe, saving hours before the ships docked.
Julius Reuter was the first to see the opportunity. With his fellow Prussian William Siemens he promoted the South-Western of Ireland Telegraph Company, a sixty mile line from Cork to Crookhaven, a desolate point on the Atlantic coast. This immediately led the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company, the second largest in the country, and which dominated the Irish market, to commence its own line from Cork by way of Skibbereen to an even more desolate and exposed site on Cape Clear, on Clear Island.
The Magnetic company and Reuter raced to open the Cape Clear and Crookhaven lines; Cape Clear opened in November 1863, Crookhaven in the following month.
Eventually there were to be four coastal telegraph stations that picked up canisters for news or public messages from passing steamers: Crookhaven, worked by Reuter and the South-Western company; Cape Clear, worked by the Magnetic Telegraph Company with a cable from Clear Island to Baltimore on the mainland, and another at Roche’s Point, worked jointly by the London & South of Ireland Direct Telegraph Company and the Universal Private Telegraph Company, from Queenstown, the out-port of Cork—all these three connected by dedicated line with either the Magnetic’s or the London & South of Ireland’s offices in Cork city.
The fourth “news telegraph” was in northern Ulster working a line from Greencastle along Lough Foyle to Londonderry and also owned by the Magnetic company, it too probably opened in 1863. Crookhaven was the most successful and lasted well into the 1870s.
There was a short cable to Cape Clear island from the Irish mainland, and one mentioned in relation to Greencastle but this does not seen likely, unless it was along Lough Foyle. Crookhaven was entirely an overhead circuit. Roche’s Point Telegraph and the London & South of Ireland company had several short lengths of cable under Queenstown harbour and across Irish rivers as well its principal length connecting Wales with Ireland; they were controlled by the Electric company, the Magnetic’s chief competitor in Britain.
At Crookhaven there was a small steamer, the Marseilles, owned by Reuter, with a crew of three. They met the Cunard liners at sea. Without stopping, the liner tossed overside a large canister with messages and telegrams from America. The canisters were painted a vivid yellow topped with a flag, and Reuter’s men gathered them up with a “butterfly net”. It was dangerous work; the boat’s skipper, Michael Driscoll, fell overboard and drowned in March 1865 whilst trying to salve a container of telegrams.
The Magnetic company’s Cape Clear outpost quickly became a meteorological station and then closed in favour of Crookhaven about 1870, as did Greencastle, whose meteorological functions were moved to a station at Moville closer to Londonderry in the same year.
Roche’s Point also maintained the lighthouse for Cork, the station for pilot boats and a meteorological post. Although the telegraph was taken over by the Post Office it seems to have faded away slowly and anyway was little used for news as Cape Clear and Crookhaven were farther out in the Atlantic.
For further information on the Irish telegraph companies, see Steve's articles on Early British Domestic Cables and Anglo-Irish Cables. Steve's own website, Distant Writing, covers the history of the early British landline telegraph companies.
Last revised: 19 September, 2018