History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Memorabilia & Ephemera
|1866 Atlantic Cable Badges|
The Strachur Badge
This recently discovered souvenir item measures about 2" x 2" and is made of thin sheet metal, probably brass or copper. It is an embossed badge or plaque, and has the wording “LAYING THE ATLANTIC CABLE” around its border.
It was found in October 2020 on the beach at Strachur, a village on the east shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and passed on by the finder to Crown Estate Scotland. They in turn sent it to the Atlantic Cable website for further research, as it is a previously undocumented item.
The decoration across the bottom edge of the badge perhaps represents the seabed profile of the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland, with a vertical line rising on each side (clearly visible on the left side, but partially missing in the corrosion loss on the right). From later information described below, these lines are flagpoles with American and British flags, which are only faintly visible here.
As well as the wording, the border includes two symbols. The first is a double link, with two larger links connected by a smaller one, perhaps symbolizing the two continents connected by the cable.
Another symbol, somewhat like a fleur-de-lis, is at the bottom center of the border, perhaps representing a two-prong grapnel, although upside down if that is what it is supposed to be.
The main feature in the center of the badge is Great Eastern at sea. The illustration correctly shows four funnels for this period of the ship’s career, as one of the original five funnels had been removed during the conversion for cable laying in 1864.
A little way off from the big ship is a small three-masted vessel flying a flag at the stern; this would have been one of the support ships which performed operations near shore and also accompanied Great Eastern across the Atlantic while laying the cable from Valentia in Ireland to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland. This small ship appears to have a single funnel between the foremast and the main mast.
There is nothing on the badge to indicate whether it was made in 1865 or 1866. The failure of the 1865 expedition somewhat dampened the enthusiasm for souvenirs, so it is almost certain that it was produced to commemorate the successful laying of the cable in 1866.
Four Further Badges
There is a more detailed discussion of the Strachur badge at the end of this page, but a few months after the discovery made on a beach in Scotland, a badge with a similar design was found in a field in Wales by a detectorist, images of two further badges have since surfaced in my archive, and a badge found in County Durham in 2018 was located on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.
Below are images of all of the badges presently known, with the locations where they were found.
At the top left is the badge found at Strachur in October 2020.
The badge found in Wales, bottom left, has a different subject and a variation on the wording, but the overall design is the same.
While researching these recently discovered badges, I was browsing my extensive archive of historical cable material and located images of two further badges, both of the same design as the Strachur badge. The first of these had been found in 2004 by a detectorist in the county of Suffolk, about 200 miles east of the location of the Welsh find, and is at the top right above. The Unknown image at the bottom right was sent by a site visitor in 2010 with no information on its source.
Finally (for the moment at least), the images below show the front and back of another badge identical to those in the group of three above. This was discovered by a detectorist in Durham in 2018 and the images are reproduced from the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, where there is also a brief description.
As can be seen by examining the images of the Suffolk and Unknown badges, it is clear that the vertical lines at each side of these and the other badges of the same design are in fact flagpoles bearing the American and British flags. On the Strachur and Suffolk badges the American flag is at the right side, while on the Unknown and Durham badges it is at the left. This would have required two different dies in the manufacture, and I have no explanation for this variation.
The badge found in Wales has the same two symbols at the bottom as the other four badges, but shows a coil of cable in the centre instead of Great Eastern, and has the wording “ATLANTIC CABLE LAID • JULY 27th 1866” around its border. This would suggest that the four undated badges, which share many design elements with this one, can also be dated as 1866.
It is curious that of the five badges presently known, four were found by detectorists in widely separated parts of the UK.
One remaining question is, how did the badge found in Scotland end up on the beach at Strachur over 150 years after it was made?
The Atlantic cables were made in London, and Great Eastern had sailed from Sheerness, over 500 miles to the south of Loch Fyne, so it seems unlikely that anyone in this remote part of Scotland would have had any connection to the cable enterprise. However, my colleague Stewart Ash, a cable consultant and historian, suggests exactly that possibility!
Stewart recently wrote the definitive biography of Sir John Pender, “The Cable King,” one of the key figures in the 19th century cable industry in Britain. Born in Bon Hill near Glasgow in 1816, Pender became a very successful cotton merchant in Manchester and was an early investor in cable companies in the 1850s. Then in 1864, he was largely responsible for the organization and funding of the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company, formed by the merger of Glass, Elliot & Co and the Gutta Percha Company. Known as Telcon, this firm then contracted with the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1865, and the Anglo-American Company in 1866, to lay the Atlantic cables using Great Eastern.
In 1865, Pender bought Minard Castle on Loch Fyne, and many of the Atlantic Telegraph Projectors visited him there in the summers, up to and including 1875, when the Penders sold the Minard estate. The Penders had a close association with the Campbells, and in 1870 the Campbells purchased the Strachur Park estate. It seems likely that the Penders and their guests may have visited Strachur, which is on the opposite shore of Loch Fyne from Minard Castle, about eight miles northeast by boat.
Loch Fyne is open to the sea, and Pender was able to sail to and from Minard Castle in his yacht, Sunbeam. Sir William Thomson, another key figure in the cable industry, also visited the Penders at Minard in his yacht Lalla Rookh. An excursion to Strachur by boat to visit the Campbells would have been just a short sail, far easier than the 34-mile road trip. Is it then possible that the badge was lost near Strachur by one of Pender’s family or guests while visiting the Campbells?
We may never know if this is the case, or if the badge has a completely different history, but if any site visitor recognizes any of the badges shown on this page, or knows anything further about them, I would appreciate an email using the link below. I would also like to know if there is any significance to the “fleur-de-lis” and double-link symbols at the bottom of each badge.
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Last revised: 20 July, 2021