History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Life on Cableships in the 1950s
MIKE BONDS - LIFE ON CABLESHIPS IN THE 1950s
From my previous experience of sailing with PSNCo it was something of a culture shock when I joined Cable and Wireless with a brand new 2nd Mate’s Certificate in 1953, and I remained with them until retirement 37 years later. To my amazement my first appointment was to CS Edward Wilshaw, then newly built, at the Coronation Spithead Review! Unfortunately the 4th Officer of another ship with the quaint name of CS Lady Denison Pender developed appendicitis and I consequently had to make a pierhead jump to this ship at Falmouth, just a few miles from my home.
With her clipper bow she was like an old time steam yacht, just 280 ft. overall and 1850 gross tons (see photograph below). At the gangway I was met by a very smart quartermaster, all dressed up in a sailor suit, and bags taken to my cabin. I was introduced to the Captain - always known on cable ships as "The Commander" - and was impressed by the general appearance of the ship internally - all teak and brass, and very well cared for.
The LDP, as she was known, was then based temporarily at Gibraltar whilst her sister ship, CS Mirror (2), also shown in the painting at the bottom of this page, was undergoing refit. I spent a year on her before transferring to CS Stanley Angwin at Singapore.
Cable and Wireless in those days was Government owned, and, although little heard of in the UK, was a very large company basically running the telecommunications of the then fast-diminishing British Empire. The main forerunner of C&W was the Eastern Telegraph Company which dated back to the laying of the first cables across the Atlantic in the 1860s and the spread of a vast network of telegraph cable linking most of the countries of the British Empire. In the 1930s radio was becoming more dominant and because of the strategic importance of keeping the cable network going, the Government brought about the formation of Cable and Wireless Ltd. - the wireless part being the operating arm of the Marconi Company.
When I joined, the Company owned six cable repair ships, based at Gibraltar, Singapore, Mombasa, Rio and St. Lucia - all employed keeping the then ageing telegraph cable system going. One ship was employed relieving the others in turn for 4 yearly refit back in the UK.
The Conditions of Service were excellent but promotion was very slow. We were then on two year commissions with four months leave between commissions. Promotion to 2nd Officer was subject to vacancy and only after getting a Master’s F.G. Certificate. At that point Married Privileges were allowed! The Company provided housing at the Base Port and all travelling and furnishing costs were paid for. There was a very good Pension Scheme and a generous Education Assistance Scheme to cover boarding school education of older children. Any Income Tax whatsoever arising was paid for by the Company.
There was a very large crew. In all the complement was close on 100, including just over 20 officers. There were three deck watch keepers and the Commander and Chief Officer. The Second Officer was responsible for navigation with its special demands on cable operations. As well as engineers and electricians, we carried three cable engineers, a doctor and a purser. Also there was an array of petty officers including jointers and deck engine drivers. The crew, on the Gib. based ship were all Galicians, mostly from the same village near Vigo. They were fisherman stock, very loyal and hard working with jobs handed down from father to son. The deck crew were fine seamen, adept at manning small boats, splicing, stoppering etc.—all part and parcel of cable work.
Living conditions on board were primitive but genteel. We had stewards at our beck and call—just press a “tit” and one would come to your cabin at any time. No running water, the steward would bring a jug of hot water for use with the compactum which was a cabinet with a basin which allowed tilting of the dirty water into a container underneath. My cabin on the LDP was right aft over the starboard propeller. I remember the settee was at right angles with the bunk and to stretch out on it you had to stick your legs into a specially fitted cupboard under the bunk! The shower, which sometimes emitted just steam, was on the deck above and to get to it one had to flit through the dining saloon—hopefully at the right moment.
About one hour before dinner we would assemble in the smoking room (separated by a curtain from the dining saloon) for “Gin Club”. This was run by the Officers' Mess and tots worked out at a few old pence a go—the old hands were on “pink” gins the mixing of which was a great art. In warmer climes the Gin Club sessions were held under the awnings on the quarter deck—all very pleasant. The Commander would sometimes attend as a guest and we would all stand until he sat down!—how times have changed.
After my first commission of two years I went back to Warsash to study for Mates and then a full tour of two years on the dear old Mirror (named after a piece of telegraph cable testing apparatus—the Mirror Galvanometer) based at Gibraltar again. Back to Warsash for Masters, which I acquired at the end of 1957. Then it was back to the Mirror again, this time at my own request as I had by then met my future wife whose father was on the C&W shore staff in Gibraltar. I served a total of six years on this ship between 1955 and 1961 ending up as Chief Officer.
Whilst on this ship I really learnt the trade of how to lay and repair submarine cable. The old telegraph system was ageing and repairs and planned renewals were very frequent. We sallied forth from Gib at a few hours notice and spent most of our time out at sea usually in the Western Approaches with occasional trips into the Med as far as Alexandria. A typical straightforward repair on the Continental Shelf might take about two days to complete depending on the weather situation. Breaks in these depths were usually caused by trawlers however breaks or faults in deep water caused by abrasion, mud slides or sheer old age were a different kettle of fish and could take weeks to complete.
We would spend days hove-to waiting for a lull in the weather and sometimes the weather would turn nasty in the middle of a job when we had no option but to carry on. With cable at the bows, the conning position with engine room telegraphs etc. was up in the bows and we would just have to hold tight and get the occasional ducking when the bows dipped under!
Navigation was exacting of course. This was in the days before Satnav and we took great pride in the accuracy of our star sights. The first task was to lay a mark buoy and then fix its position by sextant over the course of the repair. The 2nd Officer was in charge of this and was assisted by the 3rd and 4th Officers. All three would take sights together and it was usually possible to fix the position of the buoy to within a mile or so. Once we knew approximately where we were relative to the estimated fault position (determined by tests from the shore terminals), grappling would commence at a point three or four times the depth of water from the line of cable.
I will not go into the details of cable repair techniques here but grappling, particularly in deep water, was an art in itself. To ensure hooking, grappling speed had to be kept at about one knot or less and the grapnels trailed sometimes several miles astern on heavy hemp covered steel rope. The speed was very critical with position fixing every few minutes by range and bearing from the mark buoy. In those days radar for positioning was a bit dodgy and often we had to rely on an optical range finder sited on the monkey island—no easy task to use at ranges of 5 or 6 miles from a moving platform! We also had to keep our eyes glued on the dynamometer (grappling strain meter) for signs of hooking the cable.
A lot of my time on CS Mirror was spent with a Commander who believed in letting his officers "have a go". I became quite experienced in laying and recovering buoys, controlling cable pay-outs and all the other cable handling requirements. Later as Chief Officer I sometimes looked after most of the practical seamanship and ship handling aspects of a repair. In Gibraltar we had a pilotage exemption and I was often allowed to dock or undock the ship under the Commander’s watchful eye. This overall experience was of course extremely valuable and gave me a solid basis for continuing my career in other directions.
CS Mirror was finally scrapped in 1964 after 41 years service, 30 of which had been as the Gibraltar station ship. I left her with some misgivings in 1961 when I was transferred to the UK based staff to look after the route planning and surveys for the Commonwealth Telephone Cable System which was then beginning to be implemented. By then we had a laying ship—CS Mercury, and I spent a good few years on laying operations or on surveys using a variety of vessels, sometimes our own and sometimes chartered in. My wife and I had a family by then and we had to put up with long absences, unlike my former colleagues on the repair ships who, with the advent of new, mainly fault free telephone cable systems, spent most of their time in port.
Later, with Company sponsorship, I obtained engineering qualifications leading to Chartered Engineer and in 1978 became a Group Manager with responsibility for the engineering of submarine cable projects. In 1982 we became the first of the Government owned bodies to be privatised and hence from then on everything became profit orientated. These were exciting times—I was privileged to help form Cable and Wireless (Marine) Ltd. as a General Manager and later as Board Director. We transformed ourselves from being a Company overhead to a highly profitable commercial organisation providing world wide cable laying and maintenance services. This period coincided with the advent of submarine optical fibre cable systems and an upsurge in cable laying. By the time I retired we had a fleet of eight ships including two large cable layers and were responsible for laying and maintenance of well over half of the world wide network of cables.
From the above you will see why I have such fond memories of CS Mirror and the six years I spent on her, working out from her Gibraltar base in the 1950s and early 60s. This led to my wife giving me this painting of her on my 72nd birthday:
The Artist is Chris Seymour, a friend of ours and a history teacher at one of the local grammar schools. He is a Marine Historian and the subject of his Ph.D was, I believe, Victorian Naval Construction—so he knows all about ship design. He would welcome new commissions, so if anyone is interested they can contact him on 01892 652023. All he needs to work from is a good photograph, which can be black and white, plus information on the house colours. The cost, for oils on a 16" by 12" board, is about £75.
Text copyright © 2006 Mike Bonds
Last revised: 21 December, 2019