Escher.gif (426 bytes)

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

CS Monarch (1)
by Steven Roberts


Monarch was built in 1830 by Pearsons of Thorne, inland south-west of Hull, for William Batchelor Brownlow and William Hunt Pearson, trading as the Hull Steam Packet Company. She had a wooden hull and side-lever engines driving paddle-wheels. Monarch was 512 tons gross, 295 tons register, 156ft 3ins long overall, 19ft 9ins in breadth and 14ft 6ins depth of hold, with a crew of eighteen. Her two-cylinder engines achieved 130nhp. She had been employed by Brownlow & Pearson on the Hull to Hamburg route from April 10, 1830 for 23 years until sold to the Electric Telegraph Company.

The vessel was acquired by the Company on May 14, 1853, re-registered in London as No 18,604, with flag identity MNLF, and fitted-out to lay and repair underwater cables, with cable brakes, buoys, anchors, sheaves and winches. Monarch was fitted with the first picking-up machine, and became the first vessel to grapple for a lost cable and successfully carry out a repair at sea. The original on-board electrical instrumentation consisted of a vertical galvanometer in gimbals and a single-needle instrument for speaking to shore. Her home port was Lowestoft.

It was the Company’s assistant engineer, Frederick Charles Webb, who searched out the Monarch, when she still belonged to Brownlow & Pearson of Hull, and arranged for the equipping for her new role. He selected her as she had holds less interfered with by beams than anything of the size he had been able to find. The price was £6,200, paid to the owner Pearson in cash, much to the distress of T C Bennet, the Electric’s accountant, who had to hand the money over in person on the dockside in Hull.

F C Webb gave an account of his five years working with the steamer in the Electrician magazine in May 1884. “The old Monarch, if she could not go fast—about seven and a half knots was her fastest, if I recollect right—could creak to perfection (she was a wooden ship, and twenty-three years old when we bought her). She used to begin with a deep groan below the deepest growl of a Lablache, or a Formes, and then slur up to a note an octave higher than the highest note of a Patti.” Webb had a musical bent and clearly knew the opera singers of the day.

Webb continued “During the four years I gradually organised the system of buoys, mushroom anchors, bridles, grapnels, &c, which, with the picking up gear and brake, caused the Monarch to be the first ship regularly equipped for cable repairing, and she may consequently be fairly considered the father [surely that should be the ‘Mother’? SR] of the fleet of repairing steamers”.

The first brake was installed by R.S. Newall and Co for the laying of the Electric company’s Holland cables in 1853. “This was a drum brake with a ‘fleeting knife’, which Mr. Newall had previously employed”. Shortly afterwards Webb designed his own improved drum brake, similar to Newall’s but with three rollers to form the feed guide, and fitted to Monarch.

In 1858 Webb described and illustrated the brake equipment on Monarch:

The figure “represents the break on this principle, designed and used by the Author, in the North Sea and Irish Channel. In this case, the break-strap pressed directly upon the casting, producing friction of iron against iron; but in others, wooden blocks have been inserted round the drum. In laying several of the heavy cables, two breaks have been employed, one before the other, and each with two break-straps. The cable is guided on to the drum by various means. The Author has adopted three rollers, which can be adjusted so as to leave an opening suitable to any size of rope. They are also so arranged, that should a kink, or any other small obstacle, present itself, they will open, and allow it to pass.”

Drum break as used on board the “Monarch”

The first picking-up gear was also added to Monarch’s equipment by R S Newall when he chartered her from the Electric company to recover the Donaghadee to Port Patrick cable of the competitive Magnetic telegraph Company in 1853. This was “the first picking up gear ever used, consisting of two grooved drums geared together by a pinion and a bow sheave between two baulks of timber.” The bow sheave was 6 feet in diameter, narrow, with wrought-iron spokes. The only guide for the cable was formed by the timbers extending beyond the sheave, and a bolt passed through to keep the cable in.

Newall also used Monarch to lay the Portpatrick-Donaghadee cable for the British Telegraph Company in June 1854.

 This extemporised gear was replaced in October 1854 by a much more sophisticated Picking-up Machine devised by F C Webb. This “consisted of a single drum with fleeting knife, and this formed the first example of the picking-up machines which, with some improvements, such as overhanging drum and hauling-off gear, are used at the present day”. A wrought-iron guide shield under the timbers of the bow sheave, this was later replaced by a casting.

Picking up apparatus use for the Hague cables

From then until at least 1857, when Webb left the Electric Telegraph Company, Monarch was the only vessel equipped to pick up and repair cable at sea. In fact “no other picking-up gear had been made by any firm or company”.

During the years between 1854 and 1857 the system of buoys, mushroom anchors, bridles, grapnels, and so forth to be used in cable work worldwide were perfected in Monarch, as well as the use of sheaves secured at the bow to under-run cables for inspection and repair.

In November 1855, for example, Monarch was able pick up and wind one of the Hague cables on board as she proceeded along its course and until the broken end was arrived at. She then laid down buoys in case of disruption by bad weather and grappled for the other end. For the first time, “the cable could thus be cut, and left when bad weather came on”.

Buoying an end

To undertake this Monarch was fitted with: “A piece of machinery, with a drum, 6 feet in diameter, for winding in the cable, Fig. 34, was fixed on deck abreast of the foremast. This was worked by a 4½ hp engine. A sheave, 3 feet in diameter, was fitted over the bows, between two balks of timber, 12 inches square. The cable was led in over this sheave, made three turns round the drum, and was then led away into the hold.”

For almost all of her cable-laying life Monarch was under the command of Captain James Blacklock, who in addition to his duties as master mariner became, in the late 1860s, the Company’s Submarine Engineer. He was a Scotsman, from Kirkcudbright, born 1821, obtaining his steamship master’s certificate in 1854. After handling Monarch’s operations for sixteen years, in April 1870, Blacklock was appointed to replace Sir James Anderson as Marine Superintendent of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, managing its maritime affairs. He died in 1883.

The Electric Telegraph Company was the only domestic firm that owned its own cable-ship. In addition to laying or re-laying and repairing the Company’s Tay, Firth, Isle of Wight, Holland and Ireland cables, Monarch, with all of her specialised equipment, was occasionally chartered to the Submarine Telegraph and the Magnetic Telegraph companies in the 1850s to repair their underwater circuits.

She was kept in constant service by the Electric Telegraph Company from her purchase in 1853 until 1870, passing into the hands of the Post Office. Monarch laid her last cable between Port Kale in Dumfries and Donaghadee in Ulster during 1870 for her new owners. She was then sold out and almost immediately broken-up, after 40 years work at sea. 


1853 Firth of Forth, Firth of Tay, and the Solent
1853-54 Orfordness, England - Scheveningen, Holland
1853-55 Anglo-Dutch cables
1854 Portpatrick, Scotland - Donaghadee/Whitehead. Ireland
1854 Holyhead, Wales - Howth, Ireland (failed)
1854 Hurst Castle - Keyhaven
1855 Holyhead, Wales - Howth, Ireland
1859-60 Channel Islands cable repairs
1870 Port Kale, Scotland - Donaghadee, Ireland 1

Last revised: 23 June, 2016

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: