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


Introduction: Goliath should perhaps be the most famous of the cableships, having laid the first ever international submarine cable from England to France in 1850. But despite that, for the last 160 years almost nothing has been known of the ship, even the name being spelled both Goliath and Goliah.

This page on the ship is a work in progress, with contributions by David Asprey, Bill Glover, and Steven Roberts. If any site visitor has further information on Goliath please email me.

-- Bill Burns


Laying the 1850 Channel cable

While Goliath is now the common spelling of the biblical figure’s name, this was not always the case, and the two spellings were interchangeable for many years. This is perhaps what led to the confusion over the name of the ship used to lay the cable.

Contemporary accounts of the laying of the 1850 Channel cable spell the name both ways, and both versions appear in illustrations of the time. There are no photographs of the ship, only drawings, leaving the interpretation of the name open to the artist.

Goliath was shown laying the 1850 Channel cable on a stamp from Rwanda in 1977:

Both illustrations above are based on an original woodcut published in the Illustrated London News in 1850:

Goliath paying out the cable

Written accounts by John Watkins Brett, one of the principals of the 1850 company, and Frederick Charles Webb, also present at the laying, give the name as Goliath, although both reports were published several years after the event.

There is one other mention of Goliath in the cable history: a steam tug of this name was used to tow CS Monarch at the beginning of the Orfordness - Scheveningen cable lay in 1853.

Steven Roberts has researched ships named Goliath or Goliah from the period around the 1850s, and believes that this is the most likely candidate for the cable layer:

“Goliah” Registered London. Date of Registry 9 December 1846. Registered Owners, Shipowners’ Towing Company. Length 103 ft. Breadth 17 ft 3 ths. Tonnage exclusive of Engine Room 44, Gross Tonnage 119

Source: “A Return, in a Tabular Form, of the Registered Steam Vessels of the United Kingdom on the 1st day of January 1849”, a list of 1,113 vessels prepared by the Registrar of Shipping for the Select Committee on the the Steam Navy. Note that “ths” represents “tenths”, or decimal feet.


GOLIATH. Built 1846. Wood paddle tug. ON4374. 100hp. Callsign JCGP. 1846 Owners: Ship-owners’ Towing Co., London. 1858 Company in liquidation, no further trace.

Source: Thames Tugs website.

Unfortunately, the 1851 Mercantile Navy List exempts tugs that didn’t carry passengers from the steam register, so this list has no entry for Goliath.

A steamer named Goliath, having a registered tonnage of 44 and an engine horsepower of 100, appears in the Mercantile Navy Lists of 1861 and 1864, with a home port of London. The small registered tonnage (measured/calculated from what is left after removing engine and coal spaces) and the large horsepower indicates that this was a tug.

David Asprey provides these details:

Official Number 4374 paddle tug
119 GRT (Gross Register Tonnage) 44 NRT (Net Register Tonnage).
103.0 x 17.3 x 10.0ft
Built 1846, Stephen Wood, at South Shore, Gateshead (wood hull).

1846 (9 Dec) The Ship Owners’ Towing Co, London (reg. London) as GOLIATH
1851 re-registered (later allocated ON 4374)
1856 (29 Sep) sold to Alexander, John & William Mace and George Brook, Poplar
(12/1856-5/1859 mortgaged to Thomas Challis, Holloway)
3/1860 total loss

Steve Roberts continues:

Note that while Goliath appears in the numerical classification of the Mercantile Navy List of 1864, it is not in the alphabetical ship list of the same edition. It looks as if the editors missed removing the lost tug from both lists as they should have.

There was only one other Goliath of the time; an 80-ton steamer, in HM service, with flag code GRQF, that appears in 1864.

Regarding the “no T” Goliahs: There were four in the period from 1850 to 1867 according to the Mercantile Navy Lists. Two were sailing vessels, out of Liverpool and Cowes. Of the two steamers, Goliah of Leith in Scotland, register 7735, was 22 tons and 30hp, and Goliah of Shields by Newcastle on Tyne, register 8945, was 13 tons and 33hp.  

The latter two were obviously tugs but seem of far too small a tonnage to carry the cable reel. In addition, Leith is a long way from Dover, and Shields (where all tugboats come from) was a huge coal port and could keep their Goliah busy.

The locations where Goliath is recorded in cable operations—1850 at Dover and 1853 at Orfordness—are both within easy reach of London, and this would have been the likely origin of a chartered tug in each case. The evidence points to the 1846 wood paddle tug of that name as being the ship used by the cable companies in those years.

Last revised: 23 January, 2014

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