History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Early British Domestic Cables
A short history of the original telegraph cables between Britain and its offshore islands. For the purpose of clarity these cables are divided into three areas: Ireland (Northern route, Dublin route, Southern route), the Islands (Wight, Channel, Anglesey, Man, Scilly, Orkney & Shetlands) and the Estuaries (Forth, Tay, Clyde, Humber).
Context: There have been many histories of the great underwater telegraph cables that were laid in the nineteenth century; from the pioneering Submarine Telegraph across the English Channel in 1851 to the heroic efforts to span the Atlantic and other great oceans. As is often said, “history is written by the victors” and in the telegraph business of the nineteenth century this was never truer. There were a large number of early underwater cables laid in the 1840s and 1850s that have passed without comment, many because they were immediate failures or their promoters and engineers chose to remain silent, many others simply because their significance was unrecognised. In this the smaller but equally vital successes of the early, shorter cables that connected Britain with its many offshore islands have been sorely neglected. For example, the struggle to connect Britain and Ireland in the early 1850s is confused by misreporting and by partial recollections made many years later.
Precursors: One neglected cable pioneer is Charles Samuel West. He had contemplated an ocean submarine cable as long ago as 1838. West was experimenting with underwater insulation from then until 1841, when he had settled on india-rubber as the best possible material.
By late 1845 Charles West and his partner, Captain W J Taylor, had gathered interest from people such as Charles Dickens, the novelist, and Joseph Paxton, the engineer, in submarine telegraphs.
Believing that they had sufficient support to raise the capital needed for construction, in January 1846 West & Taylor gained permission of the Admiralty for the laying of submarine telegraphs between Britain and France and between Britain and France. To this they added, in April of that year, the authority of the French interior ministry and navy to land a cable in France.
In pursuance of this ambition the Admiralty allowed him to experiment with transmitting messages over a 800 yard long telegraph cable laid between two of its ships, HMS Pique and HMS Blake during 1845, supervised by William John Hay, the Admiralty Chemist and principle scientific authority, using a simple galvanometer and five galvanic cells. Impressed with this the Admiralty then commissioned West to lay the very first successful underwater telegraph cable in July 1846 – it connected the Admiralty’s land line from London to Gosport, which ended at the Royal Clarence Dockyard, one mile across the harbour with the Admiral’s House, its fleet headquarters in Portsmouth. Not much is known about the cable’s manufacture: it possessed a single copper core insulated with india-rubber and protected by thick hemp rope; it may have been manufactured at the navy rope-works. It was wholly successful and was still in use in 1860.
Inspired by these successes, West & Taylor approached the year-old Electric Telegraph Company on October 7 1847, with an offer to construct a submarine cable between Dover in England and Cap Griz Nez in France and to lease it to them for an annual rent of 15% of its estimated cost, £6,000. It was to be a four-core circuit insulated with india-rubber and protected from abrasion, wear and tear by armour of plaited iron wire. The Company would work the cable from its new inland circuits in England and Scotland to the Calais shore, where the French télégraphe aérien would take the messages onward.
The Electric agreed these terms but had to negotiate a wayleave of the South Eastern Railway who, of all the existing Cooke & Wheatstone licensees, had refused to surrender their line side circuits to the Company. The negotiations with the railway were prolonged; the telegraph company had over-extended its capital; another concern stepped in and acquired a monopoly concession of the French government. The opportunity to use tried and tested technology to create the first long underwater telegraph cable was lost.
It wasn’t until February 1849 that the Electric Telegraph Company laid its first underwater cable across a dock in Hull to connect its railway circuit with its town centre office. It had two copper cores insulated with india-rubber and was armoured. It was probably engineered by Charles West, and with the core made by S W Silver & Company – no one else claimed the priority.
However, in July 1850 Charles West was in the Queen’s Bench Prison for debt as a “manufacturer of insulated wire for electric telegraph”. Although he continued to advocate india-rubber insulation for underwater cables for many more years, including a promotion with Silver in 1859 of his Patent Caoutchouc Insulator, he did not manage to lay any further telegraphs. Such is the common fate of pioneers.How they worked the cables: Of the two principal owners of domestic cables, the Electric Telegraph Company worked its long underwater circuits with the American telegraph on a single wire; whilst the Magnetic Telegraph Company originally used Henley’s magneto telegraph with two wires, and then Bright’s galvanic bell apparatus on a single wire on its submarine cables.
a) THE NORTHERN ROUTE – Port Patrick, Scotland, to Donaghadee, Ireland (21 miles)
May 20, 1852 - Electric Telegraph Company of Ireland - Cable 1 of 2
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.
October 9, 1852 - English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company - Cable 1 of 2
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.
May 23, 1853 - English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company – Cable 2of 2
The Magnetic company also was constructing an underground six-core circuit from Carlisle to Dumfries and Port Patrick in May 1853.
November 21 - 26, 1853 – Electric Telegraph Company of Ireland – Cable 2 of 2
June 2, 1854 – British Telegraph Company
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).
b) THE DUBLIN ROUTE – Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales, to Howth, Ireland (68 miles)
Irish Sub-Marine Telegraph Company
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.
June 1, 1852 – R S Newall & Company
September 4 & 5, 1854 - International Telegraph Company
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 weighed two tons to the mile, and was laid in September 1854 by the International Telegraph Company’s cable steamer, Monarch.
June 13 & 14, 1855 - International Telegraph Company
The first Holyhead to Howth cable failed in 1858 and the Electric Telegraph Company immediately commissioned the Gutta-Percha Company and Glass, Elliot & Co. to make a replacement, which it laid, using the Monarch once more, in 1859
For several years from 1854 the Electric Telegraph Company had only one office in Ireland, in Dublin city; only extending into the rest of the island in the late 1860s.
c) THE SOUTHERN ROUTE – Abermawr, West Wales, to Wexford, Ireland (62 miles)
March 1862 - The London & South-of-Ireland Direct Telegraph Company
Isle of Wight, October 14, 1853 (1¾ underwater miles) – This early cable and its associated land lines were opened from Southampton to Osborne House, the Queen’s residence on the Isle of Wight, was opened on October 14, 1853. It worked in concert with the circuits of the Electric Telegraph Company. The construction was unusual in that it comprised a cable from Keyhaven to Hurst Castle buried three feet under sea mud along a long spit, and a true underwater cable from Hurst Castle to Sconce Point, one-and-three-quarter miles in length. There was another underwater cable on the line under the river Yar at Yarmouth. The cable utilised Charles West’s india-rubber insulation and “plaited iron wire” armour, and was laid by the International Telegraph Company’s cable vessel, the 530 ton Monarch. The busy nature of the sea-way leading out of Southampton to the Atlantic was such that the cable needed continual repair from anchor damage.
The Electric Telegraph Company laid a second cable from Hurst Castle to Sconce Point during 1867.
Channel Islands, September 7, 1858 (123 miles) – This was the longest domestic underwater cable, running from Weymouth in England across the Channel to the islands of Alderney, Jersey and Guernsey, off the French coast. It was completed on September 7, 1858. The cable was engineered by William Preece, submarine electrician of the International Telegraph Company, for the Channel Island Telegraph Company. The single-core cable was constructed by the Gutta-Percha Company and R S Newall & Company and laid by Newall from the chartered steamer Elba. The cable failed in June 1861 after a long series of repairs. It worked in concert with the Electric Telegraph Company.
The Submarine Telegraph Company had Glass Elliot & Company lay a competitive circuit between Brittany in France and Jersey in January 1859, routing messages via Paris, Calais and Dover to London. When the direct cable failed in 1861 this became the sole route.
Anglesey, July 9, 1859 - The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board replaced their seventy mile long optical marine telegraph between Liverpool and Holyhead with a private electric telegraph in 1859. It had three cables, totalling 25 miles, connected by intermediate land lines, from Liverpool to Birkenhead across the Mersey, Hilbre Island to the Point of Air, and the Great Orme’s Head to the lighthouse at Point Lynas on Anglesey, where port-bound ships were reported to the docks. The cables consisted of two cores, insulated by the Gutta-Percha Company, armoured and laid by Glass, Elliot & Company of London using the chartered steamer Resolute. The cables were severely damaged by ships’ anchors in a storm early in their service and were taken up.
Isle of Man, August, 1859 (36 miles) - The Isle of Man Electric Telegraph Company, subsequently incorporated by authority of the Tynwald, the Manx Parliament, on August 10, 1860, commissioned a cable, with a single core insulated by the Gutta-Percha Company, armoured and laid by Glass Elliot & Company, in August, 1859 from Point Cranstal, four miles north of Ramsey, IoM, to Saint Bees Head in Cumberland, England, using the chartered steamer Resolute. The Manx company also owned twenty miles of land line connecting the cable with the insular towns of Ramsey and Douglas. It worked in concert with the Electric Telegraph Company in England.
Scilly Islands, September 23, 1869 (27 or 31 miles) - 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. 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 words rate then applied to all messages from the Scillies.
Orkney & Shetland Islands, 1870 (280 miles) - The Orkney & Shetland Islands Telegraph Company was a local island promotion and it employed Nathaniel John Holmes of London as electrician and engineer. The Islands company employed Siemens Brothers of London to successfully lay a 280 mile line from the town of Wick and the coast station of Voe in Caithness in the far north of Scotland through Orkney to Boddam and on to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1870. It worked in concert with the Electric Telegraph Company.
Channel Islands, November 8, 1870. The Jersey & Guernsey Telegraph Company laid a long cable from Start Point near Dartmouth in Devon to Guernsey, with short lengths between the islands to replace the failed circuits of the Channel Island Telegraph Company laid in 1859. It was engineered by W H Preece, freelancing from his job as engineer to the Post Office Telegraphs. The long cable was made by W T Henley’s Telegraph Works Company, and the inter-island ones by the India Rubber, Gutta-Percha and Telegraph Works Company.
The new Channel Islands cable was taken over by the Post Office in August 1872.
December 22, 1853, River Forth (5 miles)
Bristol Channel, 1862 – Glass Elliot & Co, Resolute.
It used the Universal telegraph in its circuits.
River Humber, 1867 –The Electric Telegraph Company had a short cable laid across the Humber from Kingston-upon-Hull to New Holland in 1867 to connect with Great Grimsby in Lincolnshire. This was the last major domestic expenditure on submarine works that the Company undertook before the government took over the telegraphs; so close to the site of its first venture underwater in Hull twenty years previously.
Author’s note: I have shamelessly pillaged the Atlantic Cable website for sources and references; filling in any gaps and adding some new material from my own researches. My thanks go to Bill Glover for all his hard work in preparing the original Cable Time Line.
I hope that someone else will extend the story through the days of the Post Office Telegraphs.
To read Steve Roberts' story of the Domestic Cables in context with the British telegraph companies of the time, see his Distant Writing website.
Last revised: 6 November, 2015