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

Eastbourne Cables

France was the destination of the first two submarine cables ever laid, in 1850 and 1851 from Dover to Calais. The country’s close proximity to Britain no doubt influenced its choice as the destination of these first connections, but France was an important center of commerce and politics and many other cables followed.

This page will eventually show the history of all the cables laid to France from the Sussex coast around Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, between 1861 and 1979.

“Beachy Head” was often used to describe the English landing point of the cables, particularly in French documents, even though no cables landed at Beachy Head itself.

This map shows the primary landing points: Hope Gap (Cuckmere Haven), Birling Gap, and Holywell (Eastbourne). Click on the link below for a larger map, or zoom in on each marker to see the local terrain.

View Eastbourne Cables in a larger map

CABLES

1861 Beachy Head - Puy, Dieppe, France.
UK end moved to Holywell, Eastbourne, in 1922?
Submarine Telegraph Company. Gutta Percha Co supplied the core. - Glass Elliot & Co Also listed as Newhaven or Birling Gap - Dieppe.
The cable was made in 1854 for a line between Sardinia and Algiers; part of it was lost in an unsuccessful attempt to carry out the laying, and the remainder (including recovered cable) was laid across the Channel in 1861. By that time, only four of its six conductors were in working order.
The cable was renewed with 20 miles of new cable in 1874
1870 Birling Gap ‑ Cap d'Antifer Submarine Telegraph Company. Cable made by W.T. Henley Listed as Beachy Head - Le Havre or Antifer.
Six conductors.
Statistics of Telegraphy (1872) lists the route on one page as to Antifer, and on another as to Havre, but 1904 and 1922 maps show the cable landing at Cap d'Antifer
1900 Cuckmere - Le Havre Anglo-American. Taken over by Western Union in 1912 Single conductor. This cable was licensed by the French PTT solely as a link in Anglo's transatlantic circuit
1914 Birling Gap - St. Nazaire, France   German cable of 1896 from Borkum - Vigo cut and diverted to this route.
Admiralty chart 26750 of 1940 gives the date of this diversion as 1914. However, another source (Haigh) has this: "In 1924 the Eastern Telegraph Company in conjunction with the German Atlantic Telegraph Company diverted the German 1896 Borkum ‑ Vigo cable into Dumpton Gap."
1917 Cuckmere ‑ Cap d'Antifer GPO Listed as Cuckmere ‑ Le Havre #1.
Four conductors
1918 Cuckmere ‑ Cap d'Antifer GPO Listed as Cuckmere ‑ Le Havre #2.
Four conductors.
1944 Cuckmere - ?   Telcothene cable, laid from Hope Gap in February 1944 in advance of D-Day.
1945 Cuckmere - Dieppe GPO First commercial Telcothene carrier telephone cable.
1976 Cuckmere - Graye-sur-Mer, Courseulles, France GPO - French PTT

Listed as Eastbourne - Courseulles.
108 nm. 25 MHz system, 3440 circuits. Withdrawn from service 1 January 1993.
A published record [1984 World's Submarine Telegraph Systems] for this cable gives the English landing point as Cuckmere, and provides geographical coordinates which also place it there.

1979 Eastbourne - St Valery en Caux, France GPO - French PTT 60 nm. 25 MHz system, 4200 circuits.
A published record [as above] for this cable gives the English landing point as Cuckmere, but provides geographical coordinates which place it at Holywell, Eastbourne.

John Murrell took photographs of a cable at Cuckmere in 2010. He writes:

The cable appears to be a single coax. I believe the terminal equipment was in the building shown on the OS maps as Telephone Exchange on the outskirts of Seaford close to the road leading to Seaford Head. While this is still marked as Tel Exc I have been informed it is now used as a store by the local Girl Guides.

Three images above courtesy of and copyright © 2015 John Murrell

The exposed cable appears to have polythene insulation, which would suggest that it may be the 1945 Cuckmere-Dieppe cable. The location of the “Telephone Exchange” is shown at the red marker on the map above. Rather than being an exchange, the building was more likely a cable hut where the undersea cable was terminated and connected to the onbound land line.


 

CABLES CUT IN WORLD WAR II

In May 1940, Operation Quixote was deployed off the coast of Norfolk to cut the six cables between the East Coast of England and the German islands of Borkum and Nordeney. The ships involved were the destroyers HMS Jackal, Jaguar, and Javelin, each of which escorted two of HM Trawlers Grampian, Pelton, James Lay, Milford Queen, Milford Princess and Cape Melville in cutting the cables in three groups.

A signal from the Admiralty dated 12 June 1940 ordered that four other cables which had not been cut during ‘Quixote’ should now be dealt with as they had only been cut on the beach. One of those cut on the beach was the “Holywell – Dieppe Telegraph Cable (1861/1922)”; the three others ran from Cuckmere to Le Havre and had been laid in 1900 (Western Union), 1917 and 1918.

According to contemporary news accounts, the 1861 cable from Dieppe was landed at Birling Gap, Beachy Head. Research continues on the report above listing it as being cut at Holywell, several miles east of Birling Gap. It is possible that the cable landing site was moved to Holywell around 1922 because of severe cliff erosion at Birling Gap.

A major cliff fall is reported to have occurred on 13 April 1914 at Went Hill, one of the “Seven Sisters,” immediately to the east of Birling Gap. Newpaper stories at the time recorded that the clifftop path, formerly thirty feet from the edge of the cliff, had completely disappeared after the fall.
[Coastal Chalk Cliff Instability, Rory N. Mortimore, A. Duperret, Geological Society, 2004, pp. 89-97]

 

Last revised: 11 September, 2020

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