History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
My maternal grandfather, Albert Crutchley Newsome, was always known as “Alf” to distinguish him from his father, who had the same name. Alf was born in Southampton (So’ton) in 1868. His father was a Mariner; so I suppose it didn’t suprise anybody when Alf, at the age of seventeen, went to sea himself as a Cabin Boy. His first voyage was on the SS Stockholm City to Boston. He subsequently sailed (always as a ship’s steward of some kind) many times to Cape Town, and various ports in Australia and the east coast of the United States.
All this is known from details on some 40 certificates of discharge (in the possession of my cousin in Australia), recording Alf Newsome’s voyages between 1886 and 1901.
In 1889, at the age of twenty and having been “at sea” for less than three years, Alf signed on as an Officer’s Servant and gained his first experience on a cable ship, the Silvertown, which sailed from London in March 1889 for the purposes of cable laying. The ship laid two cables that year: Mossamedes - Benguela - Luanda for the Eastern & South African Telegraph Co., and Bonny, Nigeria - Island of Principe, for the West African Telegraph Co.
The Silvertown returned to London at the end of the cable expedition and Alf signed off on 7th July 1889.
Now for a little history, to set the scene for a major event in Alf Newsome’s life. About the year 1859, William Thomas Henley established a cable works on the north side of the river Thames at a place that had only about that time become known as North Woolwich... “We are accustomed to hear of the rapid growth of cities in America and the colonies, yet few equal the marvellous development which has been going on,as it were, beneath our very eyes” . I realise here that I am repeating something that we already know. But perhaps it is not known that W.T. Henley built adjacent to his cable works small houses to accommodate some of his workers. These two rows of houses facing each other were given the address of Victoria Street, North Woolwich, Kent.
Some thirty three years later, North Woolwich was a cosmopolitan area and a hive of industry and commerce. At this time the 23-year-old Alf Newsome, now on ships of the Union Castle Line, had made eight three-month voyages from the nearby Royal Docks to Cape Town. (He was destined to make ten more such trips).
Whilst Alf was sailing in and out of London, at the same time (around 1890), just outside the docks in Victoria Street, in one of Mr. Henley’s houses there lived a widower named Edwin Crutchley and his daughter of about 18 years, Leonora. Edwin Crutchley was employed as a “Wire Drawer” at the Henley Cable Works. Somehow, obviously, the paths of Albert Newsome and Leonora Crutchley crossed, for in June 1892 they were married. Alf, for some reason, took “Nolly’s” surname as his second name and therefter always signed himself “A.C. Newsome” .
Albert and Leonora had been married for some three years, during which time he had continued his trips to South Africa, when in 1895 he joined the CS Dacia. Until I saw Alf’s discharge certificates I had always thought that it was because he served on cable ships that he met my grandmother. It now seems that the reverse is the case.
Alf signed on the CS Dacia in October 1895 as a Second Steward/Storekeeper, on which occasion he sailed to Tenerife. Between then and January 1901 Alf made four short duration voyages on the Dacia, which was engaged around the Canary Islands for the purposes of cable laying and cable repairs.
His final recorded trip in this period was to New York, as Chief Steward on the SS Mexican in 1901 where he was discharged. Based in Galveston, the ship performed maintenance work for the Mexican Telegraph Company, whose first cables had been laid by cable ships Dacia and International. It’s not recorded how long Alf stayed in New York after leaving the Mexican, nor how he returned to England.
These documents were in the possession of Alf’s son Herbert Newsome, a seaman himself and torpedoed twice, and have come down in the family.
After this there is no more official documentation recording Albert Crutchley Newsome’s career, but three photos belonging to him, (of a tropical atoll showing palm trees that appear to be growing out of the sea) and which are marked, Cocos Islands. There was a cable station on Direction Island in the Cocos. So was Alf there? We may never know.
However, some time around 1905, Alf joined the Eastern Telegraph Company’s Cable Ship Electra.
The following photographs are from a small album, about 9” x 9”, which belonged to Alf Newsome. The album, entitled “Impressions of People and Places” has tiny higgledy-piggledy photographs on its pages, mainly of his family, but dispersed amongst them are pictures from his cable voyages. What I “know” about them is what I have been told over the years, because sadly there are no captions, save for a few written in faint pencil in Alf’s hand. They are very hard to read, so when I put names to a photo it is my transcription, but I think correct.
This photo from Suez is my favourite picture from Alf Newsome’s album! It is a complete photo of postcard size and although faded, it captures the esprit de corps that existed between these men on cable ships. They had to live together at sea for weeks on end, often not sailing like normal mariners, but anchored hundreds of miles offshore going about their business.
Apparently the deck officers of the Electra always donned the fez when they entered the Suez Canal. In North Africa a fez was (and still is) an emblem of authority and commanded respect to its wearer and conversely showed respect towards the natives.
These two small water colours are painted on scraps of brown paper, and I imagine that they were done by a crew member of the Electra perhaps when there was time to kill.
The next document I have is a letter from Alf which he wrote from Aden whilst on board the CS Electra in 1908. The letter is written to a Mr. Fred Davis; the two men and their wives were one time next-door-neighbours who became good friends. This letter gives a little insight into the life of a cable ship crew member, which I find interesting in its simplicity. I wonder what Alf would have thought if he knew that strangers across the world (which includes me) were reading his letters 100 years later!
In this letter to Fred Davis Alf Newsome mentioned that after the Aden - Bombay cable had been repaired the crew of the CS Electra expected to be “packed off” to Mombassa to repair the Zanzibar cable: because “the CS Sherard Osborn is broken down with a broken shaft” . That indeed appears to be what happened. Here is a post card (albeit of Aden), dated March 1908, that Alf posted to Fred from Mombassa.
There are two more letters written by Albert Crutchley Newsome, the Chief Steward or Purser on board the the Eastern Telegraph Company’s cable ship Electra. Whilst they are naturally of a personal nature, they convey the joy, sadness, and worries that people have normally, but which on board an anchored ship hundreds of miles from land, are amplified by the frustration of not being able to do anything about them.
The next letter from Alf to his good friend Fred is an example. This letter is coincidentally written exactly a year after the one above. The CS Electra is again hundreds of miles off Aden, repairing the Aden- Bombay submarine telegraph cable, and at home the annual dance is giving Alf much concern, because Mr E. Dallibar seems to be up to his tricks again.(I have no doubt that the man was a Cad and a Bounder and grandmother Nollie was lucky not to have been tied to a railway line somewhere).
Bob, as you have probably guessed, was Alf’s dog. He didn’t ask for a picture of his wife! The word “Mareish” (it could be Marlish) I don’t know and can’t find it in my dictionary, I can only think it is jargon for “sea sick” or more likely “sick of the sea”. It’s a wonder Alf didn’t jump overboard !
Here is a post card to Alf’s friend Fred Davis, written from Perim on 27th November 1910.
It’s strange that Alf should challenge the reader to “find yours truly on the other side” because my cousin Lavinia has marked the man sitting at the centre of the group as Alf Newsome. I am therefore at variance with her because I have no doubt that Alf is the man with the moustache standing behind. What would a steward be doing in the centre of such a photograph? Unless of course they were all stewards. Would there be that many stewards on such a small vessel? What I like about this picture though, is the crew member standing behind the group watching the picture being taken. He appears to be dressed in a quite modern fashion, in a sweat shirt, belt and tailored slacks. Over that man’s right shoulder (in the far distance) is another crewman watching.
The year 1911 was “Coronation Year” when King George V was crowned. Whether it was as a celebration of this event I don’t know, but in August that year Albert (Alf) Newsome, the Chief Steward of the Eastern Telegraph Company’s, cable ship Electra, was joined in Egypt by his wife Leonora ( Noll or Nollie).
I don’t know who financed Nollie’s trip to Egypt, but I would I have thought it beyond the realms of Alf’s income to do so. Perhaps she was invited by the Company, or it may have subsidised the cost of travel. I don’t know if other wives were included, but I think of the two-part photos of officers in their white uniforms sitting on the deck with a glimpse of well dressed women behind. Perhaps a special occasion for a special event!
In those days not many ordinary people were able to make such an exotic trip. Nollie must have been thrilled and awestruck. At the time Nollie was 39 and Alf 43: they had four children, my mother being the youngest, born in 1906.
It is only as a result of this photo (and a later discovery of a letter written by Alf), that I know that Nollie went to Egypt at all. By the time I started to ask questions about it none of their children could tell me anything. I never knew Nollie, my grandmother; she died Christmas Eve 1937 and I was born five days later.
How long Leonora Newsome was in Egypt with her husband I don’t know, but it must have been a great adventure for her. They spent most of their time in Cairo and stayed at the Eden Palace Hotel, apparantly not far from the pyramids.
However their time together soon came to an end, and they parted, Nollie returning to England and Alf resuming his duties on the Electra. A few days later Alf wrote a short reminiscent letter to Nollie in which he addressed her as “Fairest Egyptian”.
Polly, mentioned in the letter, was an African Grey parrot that Alf bought for his children whilst Nollie and he were in Cairo. Polly lived for many years afterwards and learned to speak very well.
On 16th September 1911 Alf sent a postcard to his son Herbert, written on board the CS Electra at the Seychelles and posted from there.
In his letter to Nollie Alf had said that he was “far from feeling up to the mark” ; but who would have predicted the sad turn of events that were to follow less than two months later, which were conveyed to Leonora in a letter from the Company Secretary of the Eastern Telegraph Company, London.
Albert Crutchley Newsome, aged 43, Chief Steward/Purser of the Cable Ship Electra was dead. Alf and Nollie’s sojourn in Egypt turned out to be their last time together.
Alf Newsome was buried in Aden on 1st October 1911. The only member of the family ever to visit Alf’s grave was his son, Herbert Crutchley Newsome, who by this time was a mariner himself, an Engineer Officer with the British India Line. Bert took this photo after his ship made an unscheduled stop at Aden in the early thirties. I wonder if the cemetery, let alone the grave, is still there!
As a footnote: not very long after Alf died his best friend, Fred Davis, lost his wife, and a respectful while later Fred married Leonora. They were together for many years and Fred or “Davo”, as he was known, was a much-loved stepfather to my mother and the other children.
—David Hall, August 2007
Last revised: 12 December, 2018