History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
The Company’s engineer, Charles West, surveyed the landing places in Anglesey and Ireland and commissioned an experimental cable of this own design, consisting of four cores insulated with india-rubber covered in spun yarn and armoured with plaited iron wire early in 1852. There were twelve plaits, each of six closely-woven No 15 BWG galvanized iron wires. It had the advantages that it could not untwist or form kinks; its disadvantage was that it could not be coiled but had to be stored in straight lengths. The armour was manufactured by Binks & Stephenson, makers of patent wire-rope, 17 West Ferry Road, Millwall. This was abandoned during manufacture, with 2¾ miles having been produced, and retained by the makers. “West’s Cable”, as became known, was inherited along with the other assets of the Irish Sub-Marine company by the International Telegraph Company and parts used for the short Isle of Wight cable in 1853.
The hyphen in the Company’s title is deliberate. It should not be confused with the “Irish Channel Submarine Telegraph Company”, a title used by the Electric Telegraph Company of Ireland for a short time in 1853, which made cables on the Northern route
With the row between the Irish Sub-Marine Telegraph Company and Charles West continuing, the contractor R S Newall unilaterally commenced manufacture of a new single-cored cable, insulated by the Gutta-Percha Company in April 1852, to the design of the engineer Thomas Allen, finishing it in the extraordinarily short time of four weeks. It was also extraordinarily light, weighing just 1 ton per mile, compared with 7 tons a mile for the original, successful Dover to Calais cable. It was laid in eighteen hours by the chartered steamer Britannia under Captain Browne, escorted by HMS Prospero, the guard-ship from Pembroke navy yard, under Captain Beechy RN. It was completed from Holyhead to Howth and connected with the Irish Sub-Marine Telegraph Company’s and the Electric Telegraph Company’s land lines but failed after three days’ operation.
This company, originally known as the “Irish Channel Submarine Telegraph Company”, started to lay the first cable between Scotland and Ireland on July 18, 1852. The steamer Reliance under Captain Edward Hawes RN, accompanied by a steam tug from Belfast, carrying twenty-five miles of underwater cable, successfully laid and electrically-tested seven miles of wire out from Port Patrick on the English coast. Strong sea currents disrupted laying and the cable-end was attached to a buoy; the steamer then returned home.
On Saturday, July 24, 1852 the Reliance returned to retrieve the cable-end, which the crew did with difficulty as the cable had fouled an old anchor. The ends were joined and the vessel continued towards Donaghadee laying a further fifteen miles. It reached Ireland at ten o’clock at night in heavy gales. The cable was tested, found electrically sound and, then as it was not possible to land it, buoyed-off in the sea.
The Ireland company’s cable was described by Charles Bright, working for the competitive English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company in 1854, as being of two copper wire cores insulated with gutta-percha, protected by a thick covering of hemp, without metallic armour. The gutta-percha insulation was made by Christopher Nickels & Company, of Lambeth, who also made the Company’s land-lines. It is not currently known who manufactured the hemp rope covering but W L Gilpin of London was the contractor.
The cable was to have armoured shore-ends manufactured by W Küper & Company (soon to become Glass, Elliot & Co.) but these were never made. Although still buoyed in the waters off at Donaghadee and Port Patrick in December 1852 the main length of the hemp-protected cable was said to be sound, but it was never worked for messages.
Before commencing the cable works the Ireland company had already laid a two-core roadside underground cable from Dumfries to the west coast of Scotland. It used Dering’s single-needle telegraph in its circuits.
The six-core cable was manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company of London and armoured and laid by R S Newall & Company of Gateshead. Twenty-five miles of completed cable were loaded aboard the contractor’s steamer Britannia, of this length four miles were regarded as a contingency. It was to run from Mora Bay in Scotland to Donaghadee Harbour. After an abortive start late in September, laying commenced on October 9, 1852 in severe weather, after paying-out sixteen miles the contractor was forced to cut the cable as the seas threatened the safety of the steamer.
R S Newall returned to Port Patrick with the Britannia in June 1854 and, overcoming immense difficulties, recovered the sixteen miles of old cable over a period of four days. It was found on testing to be electrically sound.
The six-core cable was once again manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company of London and armoured and laid by R S Newall & Company of Gateshead. The contractor’s steamer William Hutt was accompanied by the tugs Conqueror and Wizard acting as guard boats, and successfully laid the twenty-four miles of cable from a point two miles south of Donaghadee to Mora Bay, a little to the north of Port Patrick. It cost £13,000 to complete.
The Magnetic company also was constructing an underground roadside six-core circuit from Carlisle to Dumfries and Port Patrick in May 1853, to connect the cable with the rest of England and Scotland.
Engineered to the unusual standards dictated by the amateur electrical engineer G E Dering, this single-core wire was manufactured by Robert Cocker & Company of Aston, Birmingham, and covered with tar at Belfast. It was to be laid by the contractor, W L Gilpin of London, using the steamer Albion between Ballycopeland Bay near Donaghadee and Port of Spittal, south of Port Patrick, escorted by HMS Asp, a survey vessel. There were 28 miles of wire on board, this broke several times during paying out between November 21 and 26, 1853 and was abandoned after twelve miles had been laid.
The two-core underground cables that the Ireland company successfully laid from Port Patrick to Dumfries in Scotland and from Donaghadee to Belfast and Dublin in Ireland were abandoned in 1856.
The six-core cable was manufactured by the Gutta Percha Company of London and armoured and laid by R S Newall & Company of Gateshead to the same pattern as that used by the Magnetic company in 1853. The steamer Monarch, chartered from the International Telegraph Company by R S Newall, accompanied by the tugs Wizard and Conqueror, successfully laid the twenty-seven mile cable from Port Patrick to Whitehead, near Donaghadee, on June 2, 1854.
To connect with its domestic network the British Telegraph Company laid an underground circuit from Whitehead to Carrickfergus for Belfast, and another to Stranraer and Ayr for Glasgow in 1855. The connection to Dumfries for London was not completed until March 1855. It used Highton’s single needle telegraph in its circuits.
The Magnetic and British companies merged in 1857 to form the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company, the combined firm then possessed two cables from Port Patrick to Donaghadee, with three magneto circuits and six galvanic circuits. This capacity gave the new company a virtual monopoly of traffic to Ireland for several years as the competition had only two circuits to the city of Dublin (see below).
The Electric Telegraph Company bought out the Irish Sub-Marine Telegraph Company and its rights for the direct cable to Dublin on September 25, 1852, and commissioned its subsidiary the International Telegraph Company, that worked the underwater lines to Holland, to complete the project, connecting its English circuits with Dublin.
The first successful Holyhead to Howth cable was supervised by Edwin Clark, chief engineer of the Electric Telegraph Company. It was a single-cored circuit insulated with gutta-percha and was to be armoured with iron wire by R S Newall & Company, who, through pressure of work, had to subcontract the armouring to the competitive wire-rope makers, Fenton, Hyde & Company. It was lightweight, weighing two tons to the mile, and was laid in September 1854 by the International Telegraph Company’s cable steamer, Monarch.
A second cable to Ireland to deal with the volume of business direct to Dublin was almost immediately required. Edwin Clark was again the engineer, and the cable specifications were unchanged from the previous year, however R S Newall & Co. undertook the armouring themselves. Once again the Monarch was used to undertake the works.
The two Holyhead to Howth cables failed in 1859
The Electric company was in no great hurry to replace its Holyhead to Howth cable; for several years from 1854 the company had only one office in Ireland, in Dublin city; only extending into the rest of the island in the mid 1860s. The bulk of the Irish business was in the hands of it chief competitor, the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company.
It delayed for two years and even then resorted to the expedient of using the single core lightweight cable salvaged from its Orfordness to Scheveningen (East Anglia to Holland) circuits that Monarch had raised in 1859. The recycled material had a single core and had been manufactured by R S Newall in 1854, weighing two tons per mile, as with the two cables it was to replace.
It was laid by their ship Monarch in 1861 from Balscaddon Bay at Howth, near Dublin, to Rhosneigr on the west coast of Anglesey. The change of landing place in Wales was intended to avoid anchor damage from steamers entering the busy harbour at Holyhead. The Dublin end was buoyed in the bay to warn ships of its presence. Neither of these changes worked; the Rhosneigr end had to be repaired due to abrasion in November 1862 and the Howth end in the following year. It finally failed completely in 1865.
This cable, running from Abermawr in Wales and Greenore Point, near Wexford, was promoted by the Electric Telegraph Company, who was to work it, to connect with the towns of southern Ireland and with the cable end of the Atlantic Telegraph to New York. It was a four-core cable, insulated with india-rubber by S W Silver & Company of Silvertown, London, and armoured with iron wire by Glass, Elliot & Company of London, who laid the cable from the chartered steamer Berwick. Silver also provided their patent ebonite insulators for the overhead land lines. Its engineer was Nathaniel John Holmes, his first cable project.
The South-of-Ireland company erected sixty-miles of overhead wires from Wexford to Cork and from Abermawr to Milford in South Wales, where they connected with circuits on the Great Western Railway to London. As part of its Wexford to Cork line the company ran short cables across Blackwater Harbour at Youghal and across Cork harbour to Queenstown. It also worked a separate marine telegraph from Roche’s Point in Cork harbour to collect news and cargo information from passing steamers to forward by its Abermawr cable to Liverpool.
With the failure, once again, of its route to Dublin from Anglesey (see below) during 1865 the Electric company finally adopted the Northern Route from Britain to Ireland. Early in 1866 it announced at its annual meeting the construction of a cable from Port Patrick to Donaghadee. In the event, in June 1866 its cable steamer Monarch laid a massive six-core cable weighing ten tons to the mile from Killantringan in Wigtownshire, near Port Patrick, to Whitehead, near Donaghadee in County Antrim. It connected with the Electric company’s circuits on the Portpatrick Railway to Dumfries and Carlisle, hence into England.
This was the last domestic cable laid by the telegraph companies between Britain and Ireland and lasted into the 1890s.
A bill to nationalize the domestic cable companies was introduced in Parliament on 1 April 1868, and after passage the date of nationalization was set as 1 January 1870. The Post Office having failed to meet this deadline, the takeover was finally effected as of 5 February 1870.
Following the takeover, all subsequent domestic cables were laid and maintained by the Post Office, although international cables remained the responsibility of private companies.
As can be seen from the many cables laid on various routes in the early years of the submarine cable industry, Ireland was an important destination. As all the early Atlantic cables landed on Ireland's west coast, the onward connection to the British mainland became even more significant after 1858.
Details of the cables laid after nationalization may be seen in the extracts from Bill Glover's Cable Timeline below. Entries highlighted in light green are sections of transatlantic routes, owned and operated by private companies as noted above.
|Anglo-Irish Cables 1870-2010|
Last revised: 21 March, 2019