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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

1869-70 Scilly Isles Cables

The Scilly Island Telegraph Company was promoted in spring 1869 by William Hope, William Morris and William Rowett trading as Ashurst, Morris & Company, 8 Old Jewry, London, after the Post Office, then taking over the national telegraph system, refused to make it.

It was intended to connect Cornwall with the Islands and to two lighthouses off the Scillies. Only the main cable was made; from Land’s End, the westernmost tip of Cornwall, to St Mary’s, the principal town of the Scilly Islands, on September 23, 1869 using the chartered steamer Fusilier. It was to the patent of William Rowett, constructed with a hemp outer and no iron armour by R S Newall.  It was 31 miles long, according to the newspapers, and completed on Saturday, September 25, 1869 with the first message to England being sent on the following day.  

Rowett obtained his patent for the hemp-covered cable and wrote a pamphlet advocating his ideas in 1858. He had unsuccessfully promoted a trans-Atlantic cable between France and America between 1860 and 1865.

The hemp cable very quickly failed and Nathaniel Holmes, the electrician and engineer of the Great Northern Telegraph Company, was employed to inspect and repair it during April 1870. This was a temporary measure; Holmes and the Scilly Islands company commissioned W T Henley’s Telegraph Works Company to make and lay an armoured replacement cable between the Scillies and Cornwall. This cable was completed by CS Caroline and had a system length of 27 nm.

The first message on the new circuit was sent on Monday, June 20 1870. The message rate was 2s 6d for twenty words between St Mary’s, Scilly Islands, and Penzance, Cornwall, plus the mainland tariff for other destinations.

The GPO took over the assets of Scilly Islands Telegraph Company on April 24, 1879 and the national 1s for twenty word rate then applied to all messages from the Scillies.

The Illustrated London News reported on the landing of the 1870 cable at Land's End in its issue of 9 July of that year:


A view of the landing-place of the electric telegraph cable at St. Mary's, in the Scilly Isles, whereby a communication was established with the coast of Cornwall, appeared in our Journal of Oct. 9. Zawn Reeth, or the Red Cave, a picturesque recess of Millbay, a mile and a half south of the Land's End, is the place where the other shore end has been landed. This work was completed on June 21 by the steamer Caroline. Our Engraving, from a sketch of the place taken on that day, shows the telegraph office hut on the top of the cliff, up to which the cable was dragged, and the poles along which the landward wire to Botallack is stretched. The Land's End is seen in the distance. From Zawn Reeth to St. Mary's the distance is about twenty-five miles, and the sea has an average depth of forty fathoms, with a bottom of fine sand. The Scilly Islands telegraph, with the line across the mouth of the British Channel, to the telegraph-ship Brisk, which is stationed at moorings midway between Cornwall and Brittany, will prove of great utility to the owners and masters of vessels arriving or departing, as it will furnish the means of promptly announcing whatever accidents may have occurred.

Zawn Reeth, Near the Land's-End, the Landing-Place
of the Scilly Islands Telegraph Cable
(Illustrated London News, 9 July 1870)

This drawing is almost certainly by Robert Dudley, who was a Special Artist for the Illustrated London News. At that same time he was in Cornwall drawing scenes of the landing of the cable from Portugal to Porthcurno.

Last revised: 14 March, 2016

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