History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Captain Robert Charles Halpin, FRGS
Robert Charles Halpin was born on 16 February 1836 in Wicklow Town, County Wicklow, Ireland, the thirteenth and last child of Innkeeper James Halpin and his wife Anne. James was the owner of ‘The Bridge House Inn’ a large building erected in 1702. The business was profitable as evidenced by the later successes of their offspring. The eldest surviving son Eaton became a solicitor, George and Stopford became surgeons, while the remaining three sons, Thomas, Richard and Robert became Master Mariners. The surviving daughters, it is said, married “well.”APPRENTICESHIP
Although Halpin attended the local school no doubt he learned a great deal from the seamen that called in at Wicklow, visiting his fathers Inn. Though most were either fishermen or those trading with the mainland, there were occasionally more exciting visitors, one such ship being the Briton engaged in transporting goods to Canada and bringing back cargoes of timber. This was the ship in which Halpin was to begin his career. On 27 March 1847, a month past his 11th birthday, Halpin signed indentures for a seven year apprenticeship. Though the log of his first Atlantic voyage is missing that of the second exists. The Briton sailed from Wicklow on 18 August 1847 and arrived in Quebec on 14 October, where three of the crew jumped ship, a not uncommon occurrence. The Briton returned to Gloucester arriving there on 13 November, where after discharging her cargo of timber she was laid up for the Winter. Sailing vessels didn’t cross the Atlantic between the months of November and April, so two Atlantic crossings was the norm for such vessels.
So it went on until 1850 the first outward voyage started from London, where the ship had been laid up the previous year and on the inward trip offloaded her cargo at Gloucester. The second outward voyage began on 5 August 1850 and for reasons unknown it took ninety two days to reach Quebec. A swift turn round the Briton left Quebec two weeks after arriving and made good time on the return trip. Running into a storm off the Cornish coast Captain Lightfoot made for the ‘Creek,’ near Bude for shelter, but the ship grounded. It was hoped to float her off at the next high tide, before that could happen the vessel broke up. Fortunately none of the crew was lost.
With three years of his apprenticeship to run Halpin signed aboard another ship owned by Thomas Lighfoot, the Henry Tanner a 388 ton barque built in Sunderland in 1834 which at that time was also employed on the Canadian run. The two return trips to Quebec in 1851 were the last made by the ship. In March 1852 Halpin once again signed on aboard the Henry Tanner, this time with a difference, it was for a voyage to South Australia. When the ship docked in Port Adelaide, ten of the crew, eight men and two apprentices jumped ship and this may in part account for the length of time the vessel spent in port. Eventually the crew was brought up to strength and the ship headed home. On arrival in England, the Captain George Vaggers, wrote Halpin a testimonial detailing his voyages and experience and with this released him from his apprenticeship.MASTER OF HIS OWN DESTINY
Halpin was now free to decide his own future and he applied to A. & C. Taylor of Dublin and was given a position as 3rd mate aboard the Boomerang. The vessel 1540 tons was built in Quebec and was used to transport wool from Australia to England. On completion of the first voyage aboard Boomerang, both he and Captain Flynn transferred to another company ship the Salem, which was also used in transporting wool. Again Halpin completed just one return voyage and on arrival in England Captain Flynn recommended him to the Board of Trade for a certificate of competency.
Captain McClean, RN wrote to Halpin
Until now Halpin had served on sailing ships, but he believed that steam was the future and with this in mind he applied to J. Alexander of Liverpool who offered him the position of 1st Officer aboard the SS Khersonese, commanded by Captain Thomas. During his service aboard SS Khersonese, Alexander’s took delivery of another ship the Circassian, Captain Thomas recommended Halpin for the Captaincy and the company agreed. For the next two years Halpin commanded the ship and voyaged to South America, India and wherever British troops served the Empire.ATLANTIC STEAM NAVIGATION COMPANY
The Atlantic Steam Navigation Company, also known as the Galway Line, was formed in 1858 and was based in the port of Galway. Halpin joined the company and although only 22 years old was given command of the 1000 ton SS Propellor. Three months later he transferred his command to a ship he had served on previously, the Circassian, purchased from J. Alexander of Liverpool. He completed three round trips to New York and was then detailed to collect the SS Argo from London, the company’s latest purchase.
The SS Argo left on its maiden voyage with a full complement of passengers. The ship called at St. Johns and then New York. Twelve days later, 23 June, the ship was heading for Galway via St Johns, where the passengers of the paddle steamer Edinburgh were waiting after their ship had hit an iceberg, but remained afloat. In the early hours of 28 June land was sighted and the Newfoundland pilot on board identified it as Cape Pine. At around 5.30 am a schooner appeared out of the mist and action was taken to avoid a collision. Halpin asked the schooner crew their position, but disbelieved their reply. About ten minutes after this encounter lookouts saw breakers both ahead and on the port bow, though orders were given to avoid running aground the Argo struck. There was no loss of life but the ship broke up. Halpin returned to face an inquiry into the loss, the result of which his Masters Certificate was suspended for nine months.FOREIGN SHIPS AND PORTS
While his suspension prevented him from being Captain aboard British ships it did not prevent him from occupying such a position aboard a foreign vessel. In 1860 he commanded two Spanish troop ships Isla de Cuba and Isla de Puerto Rico which carried troops to Spanish territories in South America. The following vessels were all blockade runners during the American Civil War.
His next recorded appointment was on 11 June 1862 as Captain of the SS Ouachita a 286 ton steamer, which made one unsuccessful run being captured by Union forces on 14 October 1862 off South Carolina. The ship was owned by London merchant, Thomas Stirling Begbie. Begbie owned or operated for others, more blockade runners than anyone else during the period 1862 - 1865. E. Padden of New Brunswick was possibly a shipping agent who provided crews for such ships. Later in the year Halpin took the same position aboard SS Harriet Pinckney a 714 ton steam brig was owned by the Confederate States which was used to transport goods between England and the West Indies. In March 1863 he moved to the SS Eugenie a 239 ton steamer owned by the Ordnance Bureau of the Confederate States Army. This vessel made ten successful runs between May 1863 and January 1864, then returned to Liverpool. His next ship was the SS Emily a 355 ton steamer, owned by Thomas Stirling Begbie, it made one unsuccessful voyage being sunk off Wilmington, North Carolina, on 9 February 1864. His last known ship of this period was the SS Virgin, 442 ton steamer, owned by the European Trading Company (created by the Schroeder and Erlanger banks), it made one successful voyage in July 1864 and was sold to the Confederate States in August 1864, after being blockaded in Mobile. Later renamed the Virginius it ran guns to Cuban revolutionaries. Captured by the Spanish in 1873 the captain and crew were hanged.GREAT EASTERN
One voyage on the SS Delaware followed before he joined the Great Eastern as 1st Officer on 22 June 1865. It was a position he was to hold for the 1865 and 1866 cable expeditions. He was not on board during the disastrous Paris Exhibition voyages. Following the completion of the 1866 cable expedition he had asked Captain Anderson for a reference regarding his time on the ship. Two years on he was Captain of the SS Hawk, when offered the Captaincy of the Great Eastern for the French cable expedition of 1869. Laying commenced on 21 June and was completed as far as St Pierre on 13 July. The first telegram from the Governor to the Emperor was sent the following day. Leaving the other ships in the fleet to complete the cable to Duxbury Great Eastern left for England arriving in Portland on 25 July.
The next cable expedition was the laying of the Bombay-Aden cable. Great Eastern left Portland on 6 November 1869. Prior to leaving Halpin had had the hull painted white which reduced the temperature in the ship by eight degrees. Laying of the Bombay - Aden cable commenced on 14 February 1870 and Aden was reached on 27 February.
It was to be another three years before another cable was laid by the Great Eastern. La Société du Câble Transatlantique Française had made plans to lay another cable between Brest and St. Pierre, but in 1873 the company was taken over by the Anglo American Telegraph Company and so the route of the cable was changed to Valentia - Hearts Content. Laying commenced on 14 June 1873 and was completed on 27 June.
As the route of the cable was much shorter than originally planned about 1000 nm of cable remained and so Anglo American had sufficient cable manufactured to lay another Atlantic cable. Laying this time commenced in Hearts Content on 26 August 1874 and was completed 10 September. It was Great Eastern’s last cable expedition.
Halpin had one final voyage as Captain of the Great Eastern when the ship was moved from Sheerness to Milford Haven.OTHER CABLE EXPEDITIONS
After the completion of the Bombay - Aden - Suez cables were laid Madras - Penang - Singapore - Batavia. Halpin was not in charge of this work but was in command of the cable fleet consisting of Edinburgh, Hibernia and Investigator which laid the cable from Port Darwin, Australia to Banjoewangi, Dutch East Indies in 1871.
Prior to the last cable to be laid by the Great Eastern, Halpin as Captain of CS Seine laid another Atlantic cable this time from Carcavelos, Portugal to Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil via Madeira and St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands in 1874. Seine, on her maiden voyage as a cable ship, laid the section from Carcavelos to Madeira. Hibernia and Edinburgh laid the section Madeira - St. Vincent. Then the above mentioned ships and Investigator were involved in laying the section St. Vincent - Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil.
In between these voyages Halpin found time to marry Jessie Munn of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Her father was a prominent business man and a member of the Legislative Assembly. The wedding took place at Christchurch, Southport, Lancashire with the Reverend Brownrigg of Wicklow officiating. Following their honeymoon the couple took up residence in Beckenham, Kent. Though this was to be their home for a number of years, in 1876 Halpin purchased at Tinakilly where he later built a house.OTHER VOYAGES
Two relatively short voyages, both in 1885 with Halpin as Captain, complete the story. One was to bring CS Seine from Birkenhead to London following the fitting of a new engine and boilers by Laird’s. The second also at Laird’s concerned CS Britannia the first cable ship, as opposed to converted vessels, built for Telcon. His wife Jessie named the vessel and Halpin brought it from Birkenhead to Wicklow, the voyage being classed as part of her sea trials. No doubt these gestures, by Telcon, were to show respect to the man who had done so much for the company over the years.LATER YEARS
The family moved to Tinakilly House around 1882 and when other duties permitted Halpin involved himself in the affairs of Wicklow Town. He was a great supporter of the Wicklow Regatta being Chairman, Judge and Committee Member at various times as well as sponsor of one of the races. In 1892 he was persuaded to stand as the Loyalist candidate in the East Wicklow constituency. Though he failed to win he continued to do all he could for Wicklow and the surrounding area.
His death was tragic: while cutting his toe nails he nicked himself, contracted gangrene and died on 20 January 1894 aged 57. To celebrate his life and achievements a monument was erected in Fitzwilliam Square, Wicklow Town, on 23 October 1897.
HALPIN MEMORIAL MEDALS
For about seventy years after Captain Robert Halpin’s death, a handsome silver medal was issued to remember the Victorian naval hero, whose story is told here by his biographer, Jim Rees.
After the captain died in 1894, following a seemingly minor accident at home, a fund was set up to pay for a monument in his home town of Wicklow in Ireland. After the fund closed, a further £397 13s came in from London. Most of this went to the Royal Alfred Aged Merchant Seamen’s Institution for a Captain Halpin cabin. In 1978 the institution – now the Royal Alfred Seafarers’ Society – moved from the Belvedere Home in Kent where the cabin was located, its residents being transferred to two other sites.
The balance of the extra donation was used to establish annual prizes for the best boy and girl swimmers at the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum (later the Royal Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage) at Snaresbrook in East London. These awards took the form of handsome cased 5cm silver medals, an example of which is illustrated here. This medal was awarded in 1905 to Edward Slater, whose details are engraved in serif capital letters around the rim. The Halpin fund was used to invest £76 13s 8d in India three per cent stock and this was enough to keep the awards going until the 1960s, by which time the investment was far too small to pay for silver medals.
For a full biography of Robert Halpin, see the book by Jim Rees, although as of 2023 this is out of print.
Last revised: 26 August, 2023