Development of the Telegraph – Sally Jenkinson

By Sally Jenkinson


The Enderbys sold their property in East Greenwich in 1854 and the following year it was taken over by Glass Elliott, a company that owned a wire rope factory nearby at Morden Wharf. Glass Elliott were expanding rapidly as they became involved with the production of cable for a new technology, the electric telegraph.

By this time the potential of telegraphy had been tested for over half a century. The first land telegraph had been laid in Spain over a distance of twenty six miles as long ago as 1798 and during the early part of the nineteenth century experiments were carried out in many parts of the world. The Victorian zeal for scientific developments and new inventions was not confined to England alone. In the 1840s Colonel Colt, patentee of the famous revolver, laid cables from New York to Brooklyn and from Long Island to Coney Island, and an insulated wire had been hauled across the Hooghly River at Calcutta by the Superintendant of Electric Telegraphs in India.

In order to lay cables successfully under water they had to be covered with a suitable insulating material and a new discovery, gutta percha was found to be ideally suited to such a purpose. It was first described in 1843 by Dr. Montgomerie who was stationed in Singapore, a new outpost of the vast British Empire. He had found the gutta percha tree in “a place much infected by tigers, to which it is necessary to proceed on foot,” and wrote a detailed account of it which was shown to the Royal Society of Arts. Many important scientists and business men at- tended the meeting, among them two who are famous for their experiments with electricity, Michael Faraday and William Siemens. They felt that gutta percha which was impervious to water might prove very useful as an insulator of electric current. The following year Dr. Montgomerie himself came to England bringing samples of his new product. He considered the gum from the gutta percha tree would be similar but superior to rubber for various manufacturing purposes and gave some to Thomas Hancock, the partner of the waterproof clothing manufacturer,Charles Mackintosh. Thomas Hancock’s brother Charles was both a successful artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy and an inventor. At that time he was working on an invention for bungs and bottle stoppers made out of ground cork, held together by treacle, glue and caoutchouc (rubber); He incorporated gutta percha in his specification for the patent. The product was successful and the following year an Irish chemist. Henry Bewley, joined him i’-‘ forming The Gutta Percha Company.

Gutta percha can be considered as the first really useful plastic. Its wide potential was seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where its industrial use for tubing and insulation could be viewed alongside a wide range of domestic articles. Among other things it was used for inkstands, shoe soles, shaving brush trays, mourning card frames, chessmen which would not break “even if thrown-i violently on the ground” and “small and cheap Railway Conversation Tubes”. These made it possible “to converse with ease and pleasure, whilst travelling, notwithstanding the noise of the train. This can be done in so soft a whisper as not to be overheard even by a fellow traveller. They are portable and will coil UD so as to be niaced inside the hat.”


Charles Hancock and Henry Bewley developed a process for making gutta percha tubing by extrusion and adapted it into a wire covering machine, suitable for the production of cables. In 1846 the first Electric Telegraph Company in this country was founded, connecting Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool and from then on progress was rapid. By 1849 two miles of cable insulated with gutta percha had been tested under water and it was possible to exchange messages between London and ships at sea. Within a year work had started on a cable under the channel to link England and France.

The Gutta Percha Company completed the order for “twenty five nautical miles of No.14 Birmingham gauge copper wire covered with great care in gutta percha to ^inch diameter.” When completed the cable was loaded on to the steam tug “Goliath” and laid from Cap Griz Nez to Dover. After several trials and in spite of much scepticism from the general public the cable was ready to transmit signals by August, 1850. The first electric message was sent across the channel to Louis Napoleon but unfortunately it was it was undecipherable so this attempt ended in failure.

There was no fault in the cable; it was the transmitting and receiving apparatus that was defective. If the messages had been sent out more slowly there would have been no problem in understanding them. Fortunately enough people still had faith in the project to finance another attempt the following year. By November 1851, after various trials and tribulations everything was complete and on the 13th of the month the first messages came through clearly. On this occasion the London Stock Exchange received the opening and closing prices from Paris amid much celebration.

From then on the progress of submarine telegraphy was assured and so were the fortunes of those involved with it. Both Glass Elliott, manufacturing the copper wire core, and the Gutta Percha Company, producing the insulated covering, expanded rapidly. As so often happens, military requirements accelerated scientific development and during the Crimean War four hundred nautical miles of cable was laid from Varna to Balaclava at very short notice. It was known as the Black Sea Cable and used to great advantage for a year or so.

At about this time Glass Elliott turned over their wire rope factory at Morden Wharf to cable manufacture and took over the Enderby site. East Greenwich was still quite rural at that time and the premises included gardens and grazing meadows. To begin with Glass Elliott shared the factory with a rival firm of cable makers, W.T.Henley, but this was not a satisfactory arrangement and Henley soon moved away to North Woolwich.


Over the next few years telegraph systems proved their worth all over the world and increasingly ambitious schemes were undertaken. Soon plans were under way to lay a cable under the Atlantic and thereby link Europe to the New World. A retired business man by the name of Cyrus West Field was the driving force behind this tremendous undertaking. He persuaded the British and American governments to put money into the venture and raised the rest from British merchants and his own pocket. Two and a half thousand miles of cable were required to link Ireland with Newfoundland; half of this was supplied by Glass Elliott and the rest came from a company in Birkenhead. The work went ahead throughout 1857 and the following year it was tested. Its inauguration was celebrated by a message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan of the United States. She described the cable as “an additional link between nations whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.”

The President replied that it was “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle,” and expressed the hope that it would become “an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilisation, liberty and law throughout the world.” The cable was acclaimed as a triumph of modern engineering but its success was short lived. The insulation proved inadequate and the signals started to fade after about a month. The problem was investigated by the scientist William Thomson who was employed on both this and the later attempts at laying an Atlantic telegraph. He was later to become Lord Kelvin and is now best remembered for the system of measurement of absolute heat that bears his name, the Kelvin scale. In the 1850s he was working on electric currents in cables and he developed a “Mirror Galvanometer” which was far more sensitive in detecting fluctuations than any instruments then in use.

A government committee was formed to enquire into the failure of the Atlantic Telegraph. More stringent testing of the cable was declared necessary and it was proposed that in future the core should be coiled under water in tanks and kept under continual electric test. Large pits were constructed for this purpose at Greenwich and can be seen in a contemporary print.

Several years passed before it was possible to make another attempt on the Atlantic. It was impossible to get backing from America where the Civil War was being fought to its bitter conclusion and British enterprise was focussed on the construction of the Suez Canal. But the potential of submarine telegraphy had been-‘established and throughout the rest of the world the industry developed fast. Cables were laid under the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Mediterranean and as far away as the Indian Ocean. By the end of the 1850s there were over 14,000 miles of cable in use and over 1,000 tons of gutta percha were imported each year.

Cyrus Field continued to plan for the next attempt on the Atlantic Telegraph and in 1862 Glass Elliott submitted tenders for the cable. Two years later they amalgamated with the Gutta Percha Company to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, acting on the principle that a concerted effort under one control was necessary for a project on such a grand scale. Over two and a half thousand miles of cable were required and as they had to be tested under water the works at Greenwich had to be remodelled to meet these requirements. Eight enormous tanks were installed; each one was twelve foot deep and thirty four foot in diameter. They can be seen clearly on the map of 1869.

The weight of the new cable was so massive that a very large ship was needed to carry it. At that time the largest vessel in the world was the Great Eastern, the last of Brunei’s great engineering feats, which had been launched from the Isle of Dogs in the same year as the previous abortive attempt on the Atlantic Telegraph. A member of the board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, Daniel Gooch, was also a director of the company that floated the Great Eastern and he was able to arrange that this mighty ‘ ship, known as the Leviathan, should be adapted to lay the cable. Three huge tanks were installed on board, each one fifty one i feet in diameter and twenty feet deep, enough to hold the two and a half thousand feet of cable from Greenwich. This cable had been loaded on to the Great Eastern while she lay at anchor moored off Sheerness. The whole project took place in a blaze of publicity and was claimed to be “the greatest undertaking of modern times.” In May 1865 the Prince of Wales visited the Great Eastern to see the work in progress and the book of the journey, “The Atlantic Telegraph” by W.H.Russell was specially dedicated to him. It is written with a profusion of purple passages and gives a vivid and dramatic account of the voyage.

By the end of June all the preparations were complete and the ship set sail from the Medway laden with seven thousand tons of cable, two thousand tons of iron tanks and seven thousand tons of coal. The first port of call was Ireland where the British end of the cable was to be laid from the shores of Foilhummerum near Valentia. The local people awaited the event with eager anticipation as Russell noted:- “On the plateau between the station and the cliff, day after day, hundreds of country people assembled and remained watching, with exemplary patience for the Big Ship. They came from the mainland across Port Magee, or flocked in all kinds of boats from points along the coast, dressed in their best…. a few yachts came round from Fork and Bantry…. Tents were soon improvised by the. “aid of sails, some cloths of canvas and oars and boathooks, inside which buccolic refreshments could be obtained. Mighty pots of potatoes seethed over peat fires outside, and the reek from within came forth strongly suggestive of whisky and bacon…. Nor was music wanting. The fiddler and the piper…. seated on a bank, played planxty and jig.” However there was “painful evidence” of the “vices of civilisation… the spirit of gambling and gourmandise.” But the Great Eastern was not to be seen because she stayed out at sea while two smaller ships, the Hawk and Caroline, went into Valentia with the cable. The crowd, however, were not too upset because:-

“All that related to the Cable…. possessed the utmost interest for the country people, simply because the Cable went westwards across the ocean to the home of their hopes.”

To these people the cable was seen as a link with all those friends and relations who had left famine stricken Ireland to start a fresh life in the New World. Daniel Gooch was a passenger on board the Great Eastern and he kept a diary of the voyage which complements Russell’s account. At the beginning of the voyage everyone was full of confidence and the weather smiled on them. On the 23rd of July Russell declared that “as the sun set a broad stream of golden light was thrown across the smooth billows…. as if to indicate and illumine the path marked out by the hand of heaven.” But the next day Gooch wrote “what a change a few hours may make in our hopes, our confidence”. In the early hours of the morning the ship had to stop because Thomson’s galvanometer had detected a fault and it was necessary to pick up the cable until the defective portion was reached and cut out. Upon examination it was found that a broken wire had penetrated to the core; five days later the same thing happened again and this time the cable was picked up from a depth of two thousand fathoms. On testing the cable it was found that a piece of iron wire had been driven through the centre of the coil and there was suspicion that it was not just an accident but the “demonstration of a villainous design.” From then on it was agreed that “gentle- men” on board ship should supervise the work in the tanks.

The clear skies of the early days of the voyage now gave way to thick fog and a steady drizzle as the ship approached the half way point. Then on Wednesday, the 1st of August, with only two more days to go, there was a calamity. A broken wire in the cable had not been detected and paying out of the cable had continued. When the fault was eventually discovered the long and tedious process of picking up the cable began again. Some people thought it was an accident though others suspected sabotage. But whatever the cause, fate had now turned against the venture and one thing went wrong after another. The cable had to be pulled up at an angle and it chafed on the side of the ship. When the wind changed the strain became too much and the cable snapped. The disappointment was intense:- “The cable gone! gone for ever down in that fearful depth! It was enough to move one to tears… The tortured strands – the torn wire – the lacerated core…. pity as if it were some sentient creature which had been thus mutilated and dragged asunder.” Attempts were made to fish up the end of the cable from the bed of the Atlantic at a depth of 15,000 feet. The grapnel, two five armed anchors with sharply curved and tapering flukes, was lowered and dragged across the path of the cable until increased pressure on. the dynamometer indicated that it had been caught.

The strain of raising the end of the cable was enormous and after a few hours the head of a swivel pin that was controlling the winding snapped off and the line sank down to the bottom. The mist “closed in again and the Great Eastern began to drift in the thick fog. Time after time men tried to retrieve the cable but it was a daunting task. On August 4th the line broke as it was being lowered and the next day work was halted by adverse winds followed by fog, rain and drizzle. A more promising start was made on August 7th; the cable was caught and about a thousand fathoms of the wire rope was recovered and coiled on deck before the strain became too great and it broke once more. The weather was still contrary; this time high winds prevented further work. The line was lowered for the last time on August llth; by then it was “a thing of shreds and patches”. It caught the cable successfully and as it was wound in “every jar of the machinery, every shackle that passed the drum, every clank, made their hearts leap into their mouths.” When the wire once more broke under the strain the Atlantic Telegraph Company finally admitted defeat and the Great Eastern turned for home.

However the company had not lost faith in an Atlantic cable and plans were made straight away for the next voyage. At the end of his book Russell wrote that the Great Eastern was “now undergoing alterations which will render her absolutely perfect for the purpose of laying the new cable”, and by joining the Old World with the New would “confer unnumbered blessings on the nations which the ocean has so long divided, and add to the
greatness and power which the empire has achieved by the energy, enterprise and perseverance of our countrymen, directed by Providence, to the promotion of the welfare and happiness of mankind.” Preparations were swift and the Great Eastern was ready to set out again by June of the following year. This time there was a high level of security on board because of fears of sabotage and the weather stayed good throughout the voyage. The men had started paying out the cable on Friday, July 13th (obviously they were not superstitious), and a fortnight later the Great Eastern reached her American destination. Heart’s Content Bay, with her mission accomplished successfully. Daniel Gooch wrote that “there was the wildest excitement I have ever witnessed. All seemed mad with joy, jumping into the water and shouting as though they wished the sound to be heard in Washington.”

When Uie cable end was actually brought ashore and taken up to the house that had been built to receive it another scene of celebration took place as the cable hands held up the cable and danced round it. cheering,


A period of steady growth and consolidation for the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company followed the heady excitement of the Atlantic cable. A network of cables was steadily being built up around the globe including, to the east, one from Suez via Aden to Bombay and, to the west, one from Lisbon to Brazil. Technical advances facilitated a better service when improved methods of processing gutta percha were introduced and by 1880 a standard type of cable was established. At about this time Telcon bought their own cable laying ships which gave the company greater control over its operations. One of their vessels, the “Calabria” was chartered by the government for the conveyance of troops and equipment to trouble spots of the British Empire: in India we were fighting the Afghans and in Africa the Zulus. Further diversification took place when J.E.H. Gordon joined the company in 1882. He designed and constructed what was then the world’s largest electric generator to illuminate the factory at East Greenwich.
Daniel Gooch, who was so closely involved with the Atlantic .Telegraph project was now chairman of the board of Telcon and also of the Great Western Railway (like the Great Eastern, one of Brunei’s major achievements). He was so impressed by the potential of electric light that he set up a power house in West London to light Paddington Station, the Great Western Hotel and Royal Oak and Westbourne Park stations and goods yards. The wiring was of course insulated with gutta percha and the results were so successful that the system was in use for over twenty years until it was finally superseded by the Park Royal power station in 1907.

The end of the nineteenth century was marked by the introduction of a new method of communication which would soon compete with the telegraph. This was the telephone which had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in America in 1876 but was slow to gain wide acceptance in this country. Telcon experimented with the new technology and in 1896 they applied for their first patent connected with submarine telephone systems. Within a few years the Post Office had installed a telephone link across the Solent and another under the Irish Sea. Telcon supplied the cable for both of these and also for the first telephone cable that was laid in the English Channel in 1912. When Word War 1 broke out in 1914 the army had a desperate need for field telephones and Telcon supplied 16,000 miles of “trench cable”.

The continual demand for gutta percha began to outstrip the supply. Over a thousand tons a year were needed and because it was quicker to fell the trees than to strip the bark deforestation seriously depleted the once abundant supplies. This caused an inflation in the price of the raw gutta percha with the result that plantations were established in Malaya in 1915 and in the search for an alternative substance “balata” was introduced from trees in the Amazon jungle. A major development in the communications industry had come with the introduction of wireless telegraphy in the thirties. This of course had an adverse effect on the fortunes of all the cable manufacturers at the very time when the Depression was already affecting their business and many of the workers were laid off. As orders fell nationwide companies were forced to close down and only two were left, Telcon and Siemens Brothers, based nearby at Woolwich. In 1935 they agreed to pool their resources. A jointly owned company was formed. Submarine Cables Limited, with all the cable manufactured at the Greenwich works.


It was found that telephone lines that were laid over great distances required cable with very low electrical losses and laboratory experiments were carried out to find a more sophisticated insulating material than the simple gutta percha which had been so successfully used for over seventy years. Two products were found, K-gutta, a combination of gutta percha and balata, and Paragutta, made from protein free rubber and resin free balata, but both of these were soon superceded by a new product developed by the expanding plastics industry. Research chemists at I.C.I. had developed polythene in 1933 and within five years it had been adapted for cable insulation in the form of Telcothene. It proved indispensible during the war years when the supply of gutta percha was cut off because of the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

With the outbreak of World War II industry throughout the country was adapted to help the war effort. The metallurgical section of Telcon provided alloys which were important components of mines, torpedoes, field radios and telephones. The works were kept open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week during these years and there was a twelvefold increase in the output of the metals department. The first major order for a Telcothene insulated cable was completed for the Admiralty in 1940 and Telcon cables were important in the development of radar. In spite of the blitz and the heavy bombing of dockland the works at Greenwich were in full use throughout the war. As plans for the Normandy invasion took shape stocks of submarine telephone cable were manufactured and stored at strategic points along the coast ready to provide good communications between headquarters and bridgeheads. When the troops landed they also needed a sure supply of petrol and to provide for that “PLUTO” (pipe line under the ocean) was planned. Telcon was one of the firms involved in the project and provided a hundred and fifty miles of pipe at very short notice.


In the post war years the transatlantic telephone became a reality; ninety years after the completion of the Atlantic telegraph the G.P.O. and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company combined to install the first Atlantic telephone link. Submarine Cables provided over ninety per cent of the cable. The success of this was so phenomenal that immediate plans were made for a second cable, this time with French and German participation in addition to the British and American partnership. Again Submarine Cables provided a major part of the main cable. The work on the rigid two way repeaters was divided between Submarine Cables and Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd. Not long after this Standard Telephones and Cables took over Submarine Cables. In 1966 the entire shareholding of Submarine Cables came under the control of A.E.I, who sold it to S.T.C. four years later as part of the rationalisation following the merger of G.E.C., A.E.I, and English Electric. S.T.C. have over a h ndred years experience in telephonic  communication. Mr.J.E.Kingsbury opened their first office in London in 1883 for the sale of telephones made by the Wastern Electric Company. As the demand for telephones grew a factory for the manufacture of telephone apparatus was opened in North Woolwich in 1898. Throughout the years the company provided many large land installations all over the world but where submarine systems were installed using their telephone apparatus the cable had been provided by Telcon, Siemens or Submarine Cables. It was not until 195 that they opened a factory specifically for the manufacture o submarine cables, next to a deep water berth in Southampton. V, n S.T.C. purchased the share capital of Submarine Cables in 1970 it became the only British company in the submarine cable industry.

After the merger of S.T.C. and Submarine Cables a program e of rationalisation of the production facilities was initiated. Cable manufacture was concentrated at Southampton and repeater work from S.T.C.’s plant at Woolwich and Submarine Cable’s factory at Erith was moved to Greenwich where all the old cable machinery, some of it dating back to the days of the Great Eastern, is ripped out and the whole factory rebuilt and equipped. Modern electronic and computer based technology has brov.-rht many changes to the rapidly expanding telecommunications indu .ry of the eighties. In 1984 the largest ever single submarine cable programme was completed. It stretches .over eight thousand miles across the Pacific to link Australia, New Zealand and Canada via Hawaii, Fiji and the Norfolk Islands and carries all types of telecommunication traffic including telephone, telex, facsimileand data. In all, thirteen nations were in volved in the under- taking and S.T.C. were awarded a £170 million contract for the major high capacity part of the system from Canada to Australia.

S.T.C. has pioneered work on fibre optical and underwater optical systems and constructed the world’s first international link using this advanced technology connecting Britain and Belgium in 1985.

Throughout all these changes Enderby House has remained in use. In 1978 S.T.C.’s Submarine Systems division repaired and restored the building and the splendid octagonal room on the first floor is still used for board meetings. Gazing from its large bay window at the panoramic view of the river you can think. back over a hundred and fifty years from the time when the Enderby brothers set up their rope and sail manufactory on the deserted marshes to the excitement of the preparations for the Atlantic Telegraph and on to the tremendous scientific advances of recent years pioneered by the present owners, S.T.C..

Originally published by the Gordon Teachers Centre and reproduced with permission

Return to Enderby Wharf

Return to Telegraph cables at Enderbys


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