It all started in Ireland……… another story about Greenwich manufactured submarine telegraph cables
by Allan Green
About 20 years ago on a business trip to Ireland I had the good fortune to stay in a very pleasant country hotel in Co Wicklow and there started an interest that has, in the past two years been rekindled. One of the benefits of business travel was sometimes (probably less so today) the opportunity to stay in some very nice hotels where comfort and good food might be found after a hard days work. “Tinakilly House” was, and still is, a luxury hotel and restaurant (See Ref 1) and it has an interesting history which I was unaware of until I arrived there.
Captain Robert Halpin was First Officer and Navigator of the “Great Eastern” when she was purchased to lay the Atlantic Cable and he built “Tinakilly House” at Rathnew near Wicklow town around 1870. In 1868 he was made Captain of the “Great Eastern” and during his service laid many thousands of miles of cable around the world. Almost all that cable had been manufactured by Telcon (Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co Ltd). It is reported that the British Government gave Halpin the money in ”thanks for his great contribution to world communications and trade “ (Ref2)
Arriving at “Tinakilly House” I spotted a cabinet in the entrance hall housing a substantial looking piece of cable and the owner, William Power, later told me the history of the house and the cable which was part of the shore-end of the first French Atlantic cable. See photograph of myself (taken after a very good dinner and a bottle or two of good wine), together with the cable and William Power.
For more than 30 years electrical wires and cables was my business life with the Alcatel Cable Group though quite unconnected with the Greenwich factory or indeed with submarine cables at all. I was based in the UK for most of the time and responsible for the Group’s aerospace and electronics wires and cables, which were manufactured in France. From the point of view of size and weight these miniature, wires were about as far away as one can get from submarine telegraph cables. Both types do, however, have one very important thing in common. That is the need for the highest possible standards of performance and reliability (We do not have to spell-out the consequences of failure in the 100 miles or more of complex wires and cables which go into a large airliner today)
Failure of those 19th century submarine cables perhaps 2 miles down in mid Atlantic was not likely to have been life-threatening but it would have presented significant loss of revenue for the emerging Telegraph Companies to say nothing of the engineering challenges to locate the fault, haul up the cable and effect repairs. How those early cables were designed and made to meet the needs of the rapidly developing telegraph technology is a fascinating story. They had to withstand the severe rigours of laying, the deep-sea environment, the rocky shores and many other hazards both natural and man-made. Putting together that story has been the object of my studies for the first 2 years of my retirement and is very much an ongoing interest.
To-date those studies have taken me to many places in search of submarine telegraph cables history.
In Greenwich to Alcatel Submarine Networks where unfortunately little remains of their early cable manufacturing days and the National Maritime Museum where in the Caird Library there is much useful material (Including the Telcon archive which is not yet fully catalogued) and many of the early books on telegraphy and cables. The Science Museum in Kensington has a very interesting and well-preserved collection of samples of early cables and telegraph equipment but not on public display. The Science Museum and Imperial College Library has many useful archives related to cables and cable laying as well as an excellent collection of early books. Also on my quest for information the Archives of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in London, Special Collections at University of Bristol Library, Tyne & Wear Museums and my “local” Reading University Library have proved fruitful.
However, the “Jewel in the Crown” when it comes to studying the early history of telegraphy, is the Museum of Submarine Telegraphy and Cable & Wireless Archives at Porthcurno near Penzance. From 1870 up to the present day Porthcurno has been the landing point for many submarine telegraph and telephone cables. Covering a period of around 100 years the telegraph cables, all of them no longer in use have run up the beach to the cable-hut and on to the Telegraph Station, which was the hub of the world’s largest communications network.. The Eastern Telegraph Company (“The Eastern”) later to become Cable and Wireless was truly the world’s first “Internet” That station today houses the Museum and archives. During bad storms the beach at Porthcurno is heavily scoured by the waves and sand is displaced, sometimes to a great depth to reveal sections and broken protruding ends of the old cables. Being a public beach and a very pleasant holiday area these old cables can present a safety hazard and are cleared by contractors as and when they become exposed..
The cut lengths of cable dating from around 1870 up to 1950 are retained by the Museum who has kindly allowed me to cut samples for in depth study. This work is on going at the moment on 4 quite different cable samples. All these were certainly made in Greenwich or local area either by Telcon, Henley’s, Johnson & Phillips or The India Rubber, Gutta Percha, and Telegraph Works Company, Limited. Finding that cable sample in “Tinakilly House” and researching its history, together with the story of the “Great Eastern” was how it all started. The cable was made in Greenwich, the ship that laid it built up the river at Milwall but for me the story began in Ireland and for the past 20 years has been very much on the back burner. For those interested in the story of the “Great Eastern” I recommend a book titled “ The Great Iron Ship”. (Ref 3.)
Some work has yet to be done before my story of the four “ Porthcurno cables” is complete but I hope that before the end of the year I shall have the opportunity to tell you more about them……the jigsaw is far from complete and I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has information, of any kind about the local cable manufacturers mentioned above and also about cables made by the two other locals, Siemens and Hoopers.
1. “Tinakilly House“, Rathnew, County Wicklow Ireland. Phone 00 353 404 69274. I am pleased to hear that William Power is still around but understand that the hotel is now managed by his son and daughter-in-law.
2. Rees. Jim “The Life of Captain Robert Halpin”. Arklow, County Wicklow. Dee-Jay Publications . Also summary information on the hotel web-site : www.tinakilly.ie
3. Dugan. James. “The Great Iron Ship “ London. 1953. Hamish Hamilton Ltd