Friday 28 February 2020

The 1870 Cable to India

The 1870 Cable to India.

This June will mark the 150thanniversary of the opening for commercial service of the first submarine telegraph cable to India, connecting London with Bombay (Mumbai) and on to Calcutta (Kolkata).  The UK end of the cable was landed in England by the Investigator at Porth Curnow Bay on 6 June 1870.

Investigator landing the shore end in Porth Curnow Bay

This landmark system was the start of a global network of submarine telegraph cables that were built by the Eastern & Associated Telegraph Companies, a group which eventually became Cable & Wireless (C & W).  Porthcurno as it is now known,became the most important cable station in the world as well as C & W’s training college.  It was also a vital communications centre during WWII.  The cable station is now a world class museum and archive PK Porthcurno is planning a series of events in June this year to commemorate this landmark cable system.
You might ask what this has to do with the industrial history of Greenwich, and the answer is quite a lot!
Soon after the Telegraph Construction &Maintenance Co (Telcon) had successfully installed the 1865 and 1866 Atlantic telegraph cables, they approached the British Government with a plan for a cable to India, but the Government was not inclined to fund it.   At that time John Pender (1816-96) was Chairman of Telcon, but in 1868 he stood down in favour of his close friend, Sir Daniel Gooch, Baronet (1816-1889),and the pair of them set about promoting the cable to India.  Over the next two years John Pender founded three limited liability operating companies, and he and Gooch invested in them.  The Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company (founded 18 May 1868) would link Italy, Malta and Egypt; the British-Indian Submarine Telegraph Company (October 1869) would connect Bombay to Aden and then Suez; and the Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company (16 June 1869) would complete the line to England via Carcavelos (near Lisbon, Portugal).  The landing in England was planned initially for Falmouth, but due to concerns over damage to the cable that might be caused by ships’ anchors in the busy port, it was moved to Porth Curnow Bay.

Map of the 1870 Cable System
John Pender was the chairman of two of these operating companies and a director of the Mediterranean company, chaired by Lord William Hay (1826-1911).  All three companies placed contracts with Telcon to make and install the cables.  Up until 1895 Telcon had two factory sites on the Greenwich Peninsula:the original Glass, Elliot site at Morden Wharf, and the much larger Enderby Wharf site.  Between June 1868 and May 1870, the vast majority of the cable was made on these two sites, but to meet the project timescales, some of the manufacture for the Malta to UK system was subcontracted to W T Henley’s Telegraph Works at North Woolwich.  

Telcon was entirely responsible for the laying and commissioning of the three systems, and they used six ships to complete the work: Chiltern, Great Eastern, Hawk, Hibernia, William Cory & Scanderia.  All but the SS Great Eastern loaded their cable from Enderby & Morden Wharves.   The Great Eastern was too big to come up the Thames to Greenwich, so she was moored at Sheerness and the cable was transferred from the factories to her in hulks, 150nm at a time.To keep the temperature of the cable in her tanks down, in 1869 Great Eastern’s hull and funnels had been painted white, and this was refreshed for this voyage to lay cable in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

SS Great EasternPainted White 1869

The final splice of the last leg of the system between England and Portugal was completed by Hibernia on 8 June 1870.   John Pender was in the temporary cable hut on the beach at Porth Curnow with Sir Samuel Canning (1823-1908),the Chief Engineer of Telcon, to dictate the first test message to be sent over his system to Bombay.

Sketch by Robert Dudley (1826-1909)

The service from London to Bombay and Calcutta opened to the public on 23 June 1870. That evening, to celebrate his remarkable success, John Pender hosted a soirĂ©e at his London residence,18 Arlington Street, marking the inauguration of the first wholly British owned London to India telegraph service.  The guest of honour was His Royal Highness Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, whose presence had been arranged by Pender’s wife Emma (1816-90).The entertainment included demonstrations of modern telegraphy by Cromwell Fleetwood Varley (1828-83), in which the guests were invited to have messages telegraphed to Bombay, Calcutta and New York, receiving replies in less than fifteen minutes.  As a talking point, the grapnel that Great Eastern used to recover the 1865 Atlantic cable was suspended from a balcony above the guests.  The guest list included over one hundred dignitaries and the entire event was captured in a 68-page souvenir booklet.  It was also covered a week later in the Illustrated London News, whose article included a detailed engraving of the gathering, which was held in Pender’s main reception room.

Inaugural Soiree at 18 Arlington Street

John Pender went on to merge these operating companies to form the Eastern Telegraph Co in 1872, and together with Daniel Gooch developed his network using limited liability companies for each new project.  These were brought together into the Eastern & Associated Telegraph Companies in 1902 and they merged with Marconi Wireless Telephone in 1929 to form Imperial & International Communications Ltd, which changed its name Cable & Wireless in 1934.   Even though C & W was nationalised by the Labour Government in January 1946, four generations of John Pender’s family ran these organisations until 1965.   John Pender never sold his stake in Telcon, and when Daniel Gooch died, Pender’s eldest son, James Pender (1841-1921), became a board director to retaining the family influence.  On James’ death he was replaced by John Pender’s youngest grandson, Henry Denison-Pender (1884-1967), who remained a board member until Telcon merged with BICC on 5 February 1959, when he retired.
If you want to learn more about this world-changing project, there will be a talk on the subject at the GIHS meeting on Tuesday 14 April.  In the meantime, to read more on the subject there will be articles in the current and March issues of SubTel Forum and for those of you who subscribe to the Journal of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals, there will be a more detailed article in the March edition on the management and implementation of this important cable system.

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