The Gunpowder Depot

The dramatic buildings of the ‘World Heritage’ site area in Greenwich are very well known – the Queens House, the Royal Observatory and the riverside buildings of the old Royal Hospital, now Greenwich University. Very few people know that there was once another grand government building further down river – on the way to where the Millennium Dome has recently been built.

A drawing of the building was published in 1794 – although the scene it shows was probably about fifty years old. It was a very plain, very austere, building, with no windows on the outside and it faced the river. It had a flat roof and inside was a courtyard – what windows there were looked on to it. At the back of the main building were some houses and a low square building with a strange twisted spire. On the riverside stood huge ornamental gates leading onto two large jetties. What would we think of this grim seventeenth century building if it had survived to today? No doubt we would be very proud of it, but would we like it?

The whole complex was of great national importance because it handled all the gunpowder used by the navy. Many ships, and even more supply ship, had to call at the jetty to pick up barrels of explosives to be used in times of war. Before around 1700 all the gunpowder used in naval guns was stored in the Tower of London. Civil Servants of the day began to think that this was rather dangerous and so they hit upon the idea of building a special depot at Greenwich where – out on the marshes – it would be away from other buildings and where the powder could easily be transported safely on the river. The Greenwich building was very carefully constructed so to minimse any damage should an explosion take place.

Gunpowder was made by private contractors in special mills located all round the south of England. Anyone interested today can visit the Great Chart Water Mill at Faversham and see how gunpowder was made there by traditional means until the early part of the twentieth century. All of the powder made and bought by the Government was taken to Greenwich, by boat, where it was tested – the twisted spire at the back of the building was part of the safety arrangements to contain the blast should there be an accident. The was then distributed to supply ships – as time went on Greenwich powder found its way all over the world.

The men who tested the powder at Greenwich were all specially skilled and trained workmen. They had ‘proper’ jobs in the Government service with pensions when they were too old to continue. They were provided with special safety clothing – with nothing which could make a spark or pockets where matches could be hidden.

The double jetty and riverside wharf was very busy with a continuous stream of ships delivering and collecting powder. Careful records were kept by the clerks at the depot which show that Greenwich powder went to places like Nova Scotia and Antiqua as well as to all the naval garrisons around the English coast – Chatham, Portsmouth, Sheerness and so on. The gunpowder laden ships leaving Greenwich were supposed to have a special escort as they travelled down river but the need for economy meant that these escort vessels were soon abandoned. Lookouts were stationed at Erith and Gravesend and they were supposed to watch out and see when the powder boats went past – if they didn’t turn up then there must have been an explosion upstream! Happily this never seems to have happened and it would have been a major disaster had it done so. In the nineteenth century a gunpowder explosion at Erith breached the sea wall and led to a terrible race by hundreds if soldiers and workmen to rebuild it against the incoming tide.

The trouble with the Greenwich gunpowder depot was that local people were not impressed by all the safety arrangements. Although there is no record of any accident locals, understandably, didn’t want to wait for one to happen.! Over the years they sent a number of petitions to the government about it –and they pointed out that ‘the superb building the Royal Hospital for Seamen’ would not benefit from blown up by gunpowder! Eventually the government agreed and the depot was closed in the 1770s. It was rebuilt down river at Purfleet – where a great many of the original buildings can still be seen as features on a new housing estate.

The Greenwich depot was pulled down and the site sold off. In due course a rope works and then a cable factory was built there – it is now under part of the Alcatel factory in Blackwall Lane. We are so careless of our past that there is no sign or information on the Greenwich riverside to show where the great gunpowder depot once stood. You can find the site by walking down river from the Cutty Sark Pub until you get to the rather grand ‘Enderby House’ which stands behind security fencing on the riverside. On the right just a gateway in the fence starts is some sluice gear beside the path. This marks the line of the mediaeval drainage ditch –‘Bendish sluice’ which once ran along the side of the powder depot. From here you can see a great sweep of river, between Deptford and Blackwall. Imagine it two hundred and fifty years ago – busy with boats and everyone one of them laden with potential danger and death.

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Greenwich Gunpowder depot – identifying the site

gunpowder depot plan
The site shown on a deed in the Morden College collection


Peter Guillery’s recent excellent work on the Purfleet gunpowder depot contains some brief information about its predecessor at Greenwich. One point on which I was not happy was his statement that this was sited on what has since become Piper’s Wharf. The reason for my disquiet was to do with land ownership. The major landowner for that area of Greenwich is a local charity. Morden College. While Piper’s wharf was theirs, an ex-Government site would not have been in their ownership, unless there had been a reversionary clause. I do not entirely rule out that Morden College may not have reserved some rights over the site but, because the Government had been able to dispose of it in 1803, it is probable that any lease was a very long one. The main candidate was the very large site, taken over by the Enderby family in the early 1830s and which is today within the Alcatel/STC site. This identification of the gunpowder depot site with Enderby’s can be confirmed by a deed of 1839 in the Kent County Archive (Coles Child Collection), which refers to “land belonging to the Board of Ordnance, formerly the Old Magazine, and now in the use of Messrs Enderby”.

One of the most interesting features on the Greenwich riverside is Enderby House. This was built around 1840 and is said to have been a family home. It is now used as offices by Alcatel and remains as an interesting reminder of the whaling trade. In front of it and slightly up river, some cable winding machinery stands on a jetty and recalls the site’s associations with cable making

A closer identification of the exact site of the gunpowder depot can be attempted with the help of a plan dated as 1717, in the Morden College archive (see below). Walking downstream today the bulk of “Enderby’s Wharf” is passed with a large industrial building inland. The next landward building is Enderby House with another, more truncated jetty in the river. Between the two jetties a “causeway” is marked. This causeway in fact consists of a set of steps going down into the river and at low tide this extends to a (possibly concrete) ramp, which continues into a deep channel. From underneath this ramp – clearly to be seen at low water – a sluice emerges. A sluice is marked on the 1840s Tithe Map. If it is taken that the sluice has not moved, then it can be equated with the sluice on the 1717 plan. The “bridge” can then be identified with the truncated jetty – the date of which is not known but it is not shown until the 1890s OS map. It then seems that Enderby House is the site of the gunpowder depot. [The grid reference is TQ 3914 7876.] I am aware that this identification is based on guesswork. I have not consulted either the Thames Conservators nor the Sewer records and they may well throw a different light on the problem The deeds of the Enderby site have not been located and are most probably unavailable with Alcatel. It would make sense however to have put Enderby House on what was probably a good foundation in the middle of a marsh and it would have made even more sense to have used an existing jetty. The Alcatel site is “security” and it does not seem possible to get into Enderby House. It seems likely that an archaeological survey is likely to be undertaken on the foreshore here and it will be important to alert the archaeologists on this point.

The site of the Government Gunpowder depot shown on a plan from Morden College. It will be seen that the area marked ‘C’ equals the plot shown as K3 on the Skinner Plan.

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In 1694 two government officials thought that it might be a good idea to use the Greenwich peninsula for a gunpowder store. This was, in effect, the first industrial site on the marsh. They were concerned about the affects of keeping a vast amount of gunpowder in the Tower of London and they thought that it might be safer in Greenwich. Greenwich residents, as we will see, thought it might be safer somewhere else – – preferably a long way from them

At that time the storage and distribution of gunpowder was managed by what was called the Ordnance Office. Along with much other military equipment they had kept it in the Tower of London but by the seventeenth century it was seen that this practice was both dangerous and inefficient. Powder was received from the manufacturers by water transport, tested and then distributed – so what was needed was a remote riverside site near London. Greenwich must have seemed ideal. There was a large and nasty marsh with nothing on it, which was conveniently near a large complex of government buildings.

In making their recommendations to the Government in October 1694 Thomas Littleton and his colleague stressed that the decision had to be made quickly. It was important, they said, that the money for the project should be allocated before ‘Admiral Russell’ returns from the Straights’. Edward Russell was the newly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and perhaps someone who understands the seventeenth century naval mind better than I do could explain why the decision had to be made so quickly in his absence.

The site chosen for the gunpowder depot was on the west bank of the Greenwich peninsula. It was well within sight of the complex of buildings connected with Government – the Royal Naval College was currently under construction – but comfortably far away. The land was acquired from Francis Peyton and was sited alongside Bendish sluice – one of the many drainage ditches, which intersect the marsh. It would need 68,756 yards of digging – presumably for foundations in the marsh – or was there to be a moat? – and 1,733 yards of ‘filling up’

The depot was built to the highest standards. The main building was a ‘proof house’ where the work was done and the gunpowder was tested for quality. This was a large featureless square building around a central quadrangle. For this was originally specified ‘401 roods of brickwork’ which would cost £2,306 15s. The floors would be laid on ‘oake joysts’ with the two middle floors of ‘good yellow dram timber’ – that is timber from Drammem in Norway. There were to be ten doors and fifty windows all with shutters. The location of all these windows is puzzling because the only drawing shows a large, almost windowless structure with a smaller building to the side with only three windows. Did the other 40 or so all face into the internal space?

The gunpowder was to be protected from damp by special arrangements, which appear to be referring to an internal false wall – ‘whole doals at a distance from the walls’. It does however seem to be a remarkably substantial building to house explosives. There is no apparent mention of a roof and the drawing only shows a parapet. The original specification was for three courses of tiles ‘laid in loome” on the upper floors and perhaps this means the roof or the parapet. Was there perhaps some arrangement with the roof to allow for possible accidents? Readers of By-gone Kent may remember an account (February 1985) of an explosion on a barge near the powder magazine at Erith. It recorded a terrible scene of devastation with windows broken ten miles away – and, most importantly, a huge breach in the sea wall The site at Greenwich seems to have been remarkably lucky.

Plans show that the central building had with two wings at each side – one of which is shown in the drawing. It has an end chimney and a strange looking spire on the roof. Were there two buildings like this – one on each side? An ‘ayry’ is mentioned – this means a high nest – with ‘120 feet of molding’. Does this describe the spire?

Perhaps, more realistically, it is impossible to reconcile estimates for a building – drawn up to get agreement from a government department – with a drawing done a hundred years later when it was out of use for its original purpose and had, no doubt, undergone many changes.

The gunpowder itself was made at mills throughout the south east of England. Some of these mills – like, for instance, those at Faversham – and to a certain extent those at Chilworth and at Dartford – have been excavated and restored with exhibitions mounted so that visitors can see how the old mills worked. However romantic they may look today they were once dangerous armaments factories where weapons were made, sometimes in very secretive conditions. The powder they made was bought by the Government +and transported to the magazine at Greenwich by only water transport – as far as possible.. Once there it was tested and then distributed to the ships, which would supply the navy. Any powder, which failed the testing process, had to be removed by the makers. In addition any powder damaged in store – perhaps it had become wet while it was at sea – was returned to Greenwich and passed back to the manufacturers to be reworked.

This reliance on water transport meant that the wharfage arrangements at the riverside were most important – it would be a very busy area with some large vessels calling. There was a ‘wharf for the ships to call at – they referred to it as ‘the bridge. To get to it there were two pairs of gates to the waterside. A plan shows an extensive double jetty leading out from the depot itself. The jetty had a widened end and a series of structures in the river down the length of it – are these the ’30 fenders of ironworks’ mentioned in the estimates?

It is possible of course that there was already a jetty in place on this part of the riverside. Had there been anyone structure on the site before? It seems unlikely that anything had previously been built there although a waterman had to be evicted from the site before work could start – so perhaps there was something already in place.

Where exactly was the gunpowder depot along the Greenwich waterside Oliver Hogg, who wrote the history of the Woolwich armaments complex in 1963 thought it was sited on Piper’s Wharf. This is unlikely since Piper’s, now as in the eighteenth century, is owned by the major local landholder, Morden College – surely an ex-Government site would be in other hands.

The site of the depot can be identified from records in the Kent County Archive as that now owned by Alcatel – formerly Enderby’s Wharf. In the 1840s the Enderby family built a riverside house there and this still stands. On the river bank, opposite the house, are some steps, which lead to a concrete ramp which seems to cover the exit of a sluice. Inland, behind the riverside path, is more evidence in the shape of what seem to be the penstock controls. Is this drainage outlet the old Bendish Sluice that once formed the southern boundary of the gunpowder depot? A sluice is shown here on old maps, but not on the modern OS – yet it is clearly still there. Plans of the depot show the sluice emerging in the river under something described as ‘landing place’ – was this another jetty alongside the main ‘bridge’. Does it have anything to do with the ‘causeway’ marked here on some maps? Standing on the riverside alongside the sluice it is very tempting to turn to your right and imagine that Enderby House is the gunpowder depot and Alcatel’s truncated jetty the site of the ‘magazine bridge’. This is pure guesswork – yet it would be interesting to know if any proposed archaeological work on the foreshore here might throw up remains of a seventeenth century jetty.

The ships that called at the jetty to be engaged in the gunpowder trade were recruited as the result of advertisements in the press. Someone from the Office of Ordnance would inspect each ship to see that it was suitable and had means to keep the powder dry while in transit. Such vessels were supposed to travel downriver in convoy – although it appears that often garrisons down river at Woolwich and Gravesend were simply asked to watch out for the powder-laden boats as they passed. There are records which show, for instance, details of the sloop Faversham or the Charming Betsey which carried cargoes perhaps to Plymouth or as far as the Channel Islands.
By the 1750s there were increased calls for powder as conflicts around the world began to escalate. Supplies were sent to the outport magazines at Portsmouth, Chatham, Plymouth, Sheerness, Upnor, Woolwich, Gravesend and Tilbury and to garrisons at Berwick, Edinburgh, Stirling, Fort William, Carlisle, Pendennis, Hull, Chester, Jersey and Guernsey, as well as to bases at far away places like Minorca, Antigua, Jamaica and Nova Scotia. More powder went to Woolwich and the Tower of London for official purposes like training and fireworks.

All of this means that thousands of barrels of explosives were passing through Greenwich depot every year. It has been suggested that in the 1750s, for instance, apart from some imported Dutch powder (estimated at about a third issued to each ship) all powder for both Army and Navy passed through Greenwich. It all had to be issued with the Board of Ordnance’s written permission.

Such orders must have meant that many clerks were engaged in administration at Greenwich in addition to the many skilled workers who undertook the testing of the powder. Labourers on site were ‘settled labourers’ – that is men with a permanent job in the government service and were no doubt trusted to undertake such dangerous and specialised work. They had to wear special clothing on site and there are records for such items as ‘calfskin leather aprons’ and ‘worn pumps’. In charge were two ‘proof masters’ and a storekeeper who seems to have lived on site. His house was slightly to the north of the main depot and is clearly shown as a single storey building with a porch and what seem to be double doors – or perhaps it is the outhouse. In 1754 the storekeeper was a Robert Furnis who had been replaced by 1770 with Charles Newton.
It is fair to say however that local residents did not appreciate the presence of this large store of explosives on their doorsteps, Representations were, made to Parliament as early as 1718 and in 1750 petition was presented. This said – with a great deal of tactful concern for other Government buildings and the navy –

Reason for removing the Magazine of Gunpowder at Greenwich to some more convenient place and further Distance from the said Town and the Cities of London and Westminster.
The apparent Danger the said Magazine is exposed to, of being blown up by Treachery, lightning and other Accidents, arising from its present defenceless Situation and ruinous condition, and the extensive and scare repairable Damage with which the Explosion of perhaps 6 or 8,000 barrels of powder must be attended, cannot but cause terrible apprehensions to all who seriously consider it.
I. The Inhabitants of the Town of Greenwich, and the places adjacent must suffer inconceivably in their Lives and Properties, from the Destruction of the Royal Palace, and that superb building the Royal Hospital for Seamen, the much to be dreaded consequence of such an Explosion. And who will pretend To say how much his Majesty’s Dockyards and Storehouses both at Deptford and Woolwich, and even the Cities of London and Westminster, may be affected by it.
II .The Banks of the River, not only on the Kentish side, but also on the Essex shore, would be so demolished by the shock, as greatly to obstruct the Navigation if the River; and many ships sailing, or at anchor would in all probably be destroyed.

The Government sent four men to investigate the situation – William Skinner, John Peter Desmaretz, Justly Watson and Archibald Patoun. They thought that the Greenwich Depot did indeed present a risk and suggested the magazine be moved to Purfleet, A Bill to enable this work to be done and to pull down the Greenwich magazine then went through Parliament – the text of which implied that it was semi-derelict. It was ‘improperly and dangerously situated.’ and despite the care taken to support it that ‘the said magazine is utterly incapable of being effectually repaired’. It makes you wonder if that there had, in fact, been some sort of accident there.

The last powder was received at Greenwich in 1768 and the depot closed soon after. By then it had been decided to ignore Parliament’s instructions and it was thought uneconomic to pull it down. The workers were all sent to the new depot at Purfleet except Robert Dyer, who was to ill to attend the Ordnance Board meeting at which made this decision was made. He was superannuated, and was the last man to work on site.

What happened to the buildings next is not clear. Were they used for something else or did they just fall down? The drawing, dated 1794 seems to show it in good repair. There is a very neat looking fence all round it and the prominent drains look fine – nothing growing out of them!. The buildings are then said to have been sold, some thirty years later, to Henry Vansittart. This was most probably the Admiral and relation of Lord Bexley – there is probably something more to be uncovered here. What he did with the site is not known until, at some time before 1839, it was taken over by the Enderbys.

An echo of the public disquiet about the works was made in 1815 when another such magazine was planned – by an unspecified body – for Charlton. A petition was quickly put together pointing out the relief felt by local people that the old magazine had closed. They didn’t want another one!

One small reminder of the depot remained in Greenwich for the next fifty years. In 1846 a pub in East Street (today’s Eastney Street) was burnt to the ground. It was a dreadful fire – one bedridden old lady was only rescued through the ‘bold daring of a young sailor’. The pub’s name was the ‘Royal Magazine’. All you can say really, is that it’s a good job it was the pub that caught fire rather than the depot itself!

The number of references and thanks due for this article are almost too numerous to mention. It has been compiled from records in a large number of archives – LB Greenwich, KCC, PRO and Morden College. I would like to mention, in particular, Jenny West’s ‘Gunpowder, Government, and War in the Mid-Eighteenth Century’ (RHS Studies in History 63. 1991). I would also like to thank Peter Guillery, Professor Alan Crocker, Glynis Crocker and other members of the Gunpowder Mills Study Group

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The Enderby Family of Enderby Wharf by Sally Jenkinson

( basic text from Enderby Wharf by Sally Jenkinson, Published Gordon Teachers Centre. Plus some additions)

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The map of Antarctica shows names linked to the whaling firm of Samuel Enderby and Sons, which occupied the site in the early nineteenth century – the Auckland Islands, Balleny Islands, the Weddell Sea, Enderby Land, Mount Biscoe. The company was so well known in its day that Herman Melville in “Moby Dick” says “in my poor whaleman’s opinion the whaling house of Enderby and Sons comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest.”

Samuel Enderby

The first Samuel Enderby was born in 1717 and apprenticed as a cooper. Later he bceame the partners of an oil merchant called Charles Buxton and he married Buxton’s daughter in 1752. In 1775 he took over the business and in the same year began to fit out ships for hunting the sperm whale. Hi ships were registered in both London and Boston and it is said that the famous consignment of tea that caused the Boston Tea Party was carried in his ships. The embargo on the British merchant navy in the ensuing War of Independence cut Enderby off from his normal trade routes so he then began to send ships off to the largely uncharted whaling grounds of the Southern oceans and the Pacific.

These early voyages are described in Moby Dick: – “In 1778 a fine ship, the Amelia, fitted out for the express purpose and at the sole charge of the vigorous Enderbys, boldly rounded Cape Horn, and was the first among the nations to lower a whale boat of any sort in the great South Sea. The voyage was a skilful and lucky one; and returning to her berth with her hold full of the precious sperm, the Amelia’s example was soon followed by other ships, English and American, and thus the vast Sperm Whale grounds of the Pacific were thrown open. But not content with this good deed, the indefatigable house again bestirred itself; Samuel and all his sons – how many, their mother only knows – and under their immediate auspices, and partly, I think, at their expense, the British government was induced to send the sloop -of war Rattler on a whaling voyage of discovery to the South Sea. Commanded by a naval Post-captain, the Rattler made a rattling voyage of it and did some service; how much does not appear. But this is not all. In 1819 the same house fitted out a discovery whale ship of their own, to go on a testing cruise to the remote waters of Japan. That ship – well called the Siren – made a noble experimental cruise; and it was thus that the great Japanese Whaling Ground first became generally known.”

The Dictionary of National Biography gives a later date, 1789, for the voyage of the “Amelia” and gives more detail of the “Rattler”; she was under the command of Lieutenant James Colnett, R.N. Who was commanded to survey whaling grounds in the South Pacific? The voyage lasted from January 1793 to November 1794 and made a survey of the Galapagos Islands.

Enderby’s ships were also used to carry convicts out to the penal colony in Australia. He tried to persuade the government to use his ships for this purpose on a regular basis, but without success. However in 1800 permission was obtained for them to carry supplies to the colony on their outward voyage and we read that the “Greenwich” reached Sydney in May 1801 with cargoes “well adapted to the inhabitants”.

There was good money to be had from whaling in those days. Between 1750 and 1788 Britain paid her whalemen bounties of over £1,000,000. Samuel Enderby himself became a man of considerable wealth. By 1790 he estimated that he controlled sixty-eight whalers all engaged in the Southern Fishery trade. He had estates in Lewisham, Bermondsey, Eltham and Lee and lived in an impressive home in Blackheath, Crooms Hill House. In 1787 he made his sons Charles and Samuel partners in the company and a few years later they were joined by his younger son, George. In his will he was able to leave them each £8,000 in “ships, debts, goods, wares, merchandise or otherwise.” Samuel Enderby II After his death in 1797 his sons and later his grandsons continued to run the company on the same lines, encouraging their captains to discover more of the great uncharted seas of the Antarctic.

The second Samuel Enderby had a large family, five sons and three daughters. It is worth noting that his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who married Henry William Gordon at St. Alphege’s Church in 1817, became the mother of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum.

Three of Samuel’s sons Henry, Charles and George carried on the family business after his death in 1829. They found the premises at St. Paul’s Wharf in Lower Thames Street which the family had occupied for about 80 years were now too small for their needs and moved the firm to Great St. Helen’s in the City. At much the same time they started to set up a rope and sail manufactory on the undeveloped fields of East Greenwich.

In earlier days ropes had been made by hand with the aid of horses to form and lay the ropes but during the first half of the nineteenth century the process was mechanised. The Enderby’s property can be seen on the map of 1835. The ropewalk, a long narrow building through which the full length of rope could be taken in one stretch, stands out clearly. Enderby House, close by on the riverfront, was built at about this time and still stands: it is now owned by S.T.C.

Fire at Enderby Wharf
Much of the premises were destroyed by a big fire in 1845. The Illustrated London News gave a full account of the disaster which included a detailed description of the property and so it is worth quoting in full: – “About eight o’clock, on Sunday evening, the extensive premises belonging to Messrs. Charles. Henry and George Enderby, patent rope, twine and canvas manufacturers, at East Greenwich, were discovered’. – to be on fire. The flames were first observed from without, in the ropewalk at the rear of the factory, which was a strong brick building of about 100 feet long by forty feet deep. It was not till daybreak on Monday morning that the fire- men could extinguish the flames, when a scene of the utmost desolation presented itself. Of the main factory, which faced the Thames, and was the most prominent object on that bank of the river between Greenwich Hospital and Woolwich, nothing remained but its lofty walls, which in the course of the day were blown down with tremendous force by the wind. The machinery it contained was most extensive, and its immense value can be better judged from the fact that its completion has occupied a space of ten years. The whole of it was destroyed. It is proved that flames were first seen raging in the storeroom in the rope manufactory, which was detached from the main building, where there had not been a light for several weeks. There was a considerable quantity of manufactured goods deposited there, which was seen, perfectly safe a few hours before the outbreak. The supposition is, therefore, that the fire either arose firefrom spontaneous combustion or was wilfully caused by some incendiary. The factory, or waterside premises, containing joiners’ workshops, spinning, card and loom rooms, is completely destroyed. The hemp and spinning rooms over the engine and boiler house are burned out and the iron roof has fallen in. The engine room beneath is considerably damaged. The weaving workshops, fronting the factory, are greatly damaged; the roof has been partly demolished by the falling of the opposite walls. They contained twelve weaving looms, worked by machinery, which are all damaged. The dwelling house of Mr. Enderby, on the north side of the factory, is much damaged by fire, and most of the furniture and its contents destroyed; as are also the stores at the back, and part of the rope manufactory. The rope gallery, adjoining the manufactory, is a quarter of a mile in length; about 100 feet is gone, and but for the firemen cutting off the communication, the whole would have been levelled to the ground.

Unhappily, upwards of 250 workmen are thrown out of employment by this calamitous event. The exertions made by the military, parochial and other authorities, as well as by the neighbours and work- people, during the conflagration were very efficient in saving much valuable property. The loss to the worthy proprietors, we are happy to add, is well covered by insurances.”

Charles Enderby

Of the three Enderby brothers it was Charles who played the greatest part in carrying on the family’s reputation for encouraging exploration. He was one of the original members of the Royal Geographical Society when it was founded in 1830 and took an active interest in its affairs over the next forty years. He was fascinated by the Antarctic and set up further voyages to the southern oceans. The most important one was the circumnavigation of Antarctica undertaken by John Biscoe between 1830 and 1833; he was the first man to confirm that it really was a continent. Charles was motivated by scientific interest and patriotism rather than hope of profit and these expeditions, although of great geographic value, placed an enormous strain on the Enderbys ‘ fortunes at a time when the British whaling industry was dwindling in the face of American competition. For a few short years there was good money to be made from sealing round the South Shetland Islands, south of the Falkland Islands: when they were first surveyed in 1819 seals were found in multitudes but within three short years they had been indiscriminately slaughtered in such vast quantities that sealing in those waters ceased to be a viable financial proposition.

The Auckland Islands

In 1847, in the hope of reviving their flagging fortunes, the Enderbys obtained from Parliament a concession for the exclusive possession of the Auckland Islands as a whaling station and set up the Southern Whale Fishery Company. Meetings with the Enderbys at this time are recorded in a book by R. McCormick. He writes: “Thursday January 4th 1849. Charles Enderby, who is going out to the Auckland Islands to establish a fishery there, had a long conversation with me on these is- lands asking me if I had any drawings of them. which I promised to furnish him with. He gave me an invitation to dinner to meet some friends interested in the subject.”

He later describes a dinner at Enderby House: -“On the day after my return -from town late in the evening I found Mr. George Enderby awaiting my return at my lodgings, to ask me to come on Wednesday next to their dinner, and at 6 p.m. on the 17th eight of us sat down, including the two brothers, at the octagonal table in an octagonal shaped room. I sat next to Colonel Colquhoun, having Professor Airy, the Astronomer Royal, opposite to me. Mr. Charles Enderby showed us a New Zealand Tui, or parson bird, in a glass case, which he had kept alive in England for two years. He also showed me a bedstead of King Henry VIII and Ann of Cleves in fine state of preservation, bearing the date on an inscription at its head curiously carved and inlaid throughout in the old English style. It had been for a century in the possession of Enderby’s family, having belonged to his grandfather.”

In the first few years after the Auckland Islands had been discovered by one of Samuel Enderby’s men. Captain Bristow, at the beginning of the century, the islands had provided a plentiful supply of seals. Eleven thousand skins were taken on the first visit alone but the animals were slaughtered in such multitudes that the industry collapsed rapidly and the islands were left deserted for many years. In 1841 it was suggested that the Aucklands might make a penal colony, but the Secretary of State for Colonies decided that it was too wet and damp. The following year a group of Maoris landed there in canoes. They were still there when the three hundred Enderby settlers arrived in 1850. The colony was intended to be a centre for shore-based whaling, ship repair and refitting and the provision of fresh meat and vegetables, but the results were disastrous. The sun rarely shone, gales alternated with fogs and the sour peaty soil produced no crops so the settlers soon became disillusioned.

The colony was abandoned in 1852 and two years later Charles Enderby dissolved the Southern Whale Fishery Company. In the same year the Enderbys sold their premises in Greenwich. Although they had continued to occupy Enderby House they had never re-opened the rope and sail works after the disastrous fire of 1845.

The Voyages of Enderby Ships

1778 THE EMILIA The first ship to catch sperm whale in the Pacific and to return by rounding the Horn.
1793 THE RATTLER Surveyed the Galapagos Islands.
1801 THE GREENWICH Carried goods to the penal colonies in Australia.
1805 THE OCEAN Captain Bristow discovered the Auckland Islands but was unable to land. In 1807 he returned and took possession of the islands for Britain.
1808 THE SWAN Captain Lindsay sighted land in latitude 54°24’South and longitude 31 15’ East whilst on a sealing trip, but could not approach the island because of the ice.
1819 THE SIREN Found whaling ground in the unknown waters around Japan.
1822 THE JANE AND THE BEAUFOY Captain James Weddell established a record for the furthest voyage south – 74°15′ in the perilous ice bound sea that bears his name.
1825 SPRIGHTLY Captain Norris rediscovered Bouvetoya Land while on a sealing voyage and hoisted the Union Jack there.
1833 Captain John Biscoe circumnavigated Antarctica. Enderby Land, Adelaide Island and Mount Biscoe received their names from this voyage.
1839 Captain John Balleny sighted the Balleny Islands.

Captain John Biscoe

All the long voyages to the uncharted waters of the Antarctic were extremely perilous and demanded qualities of great courage and endurance from the captains and their men. The hazards of these icy seas are graphically recorded in Captain John Biscoe’s journal. He prepared two copies of it for Charles Enderby; one was presented to the Royal Geographical Society and the other was given to the British Museum. Captain Biscoe set off from Gravesend in January 1830 on the brig “Tula” accompanied by the cutter “Lively”. It now seems amazing that such small ships should have undertaken such a voyage; the “Tula” was only twenty-two and a half metres long and the “Lively” was much smaller than that. After about four months they reached the Falkland Islands where they searched unsuccessfully for seals and then they headed further south, crossing the Antarctic Circle on January 22nd 1831. They continued south for another week before turning east when their way became blocked by ice. For nearly a month they skirted the pack ice and the towering icebergs until they had a clear sight of the unknown continent. Captain Biscoe wrote in his log: – “4p.m. saw several hummocks to the southward, which much resembled tops of mountains, and at 6p.m. clearly distinguished it to be land, and to considerable extent: to my great satisfaction what we had first seen being the black tops of mountains showing themselves through the snow on the lower land, which however appeared to be a great distance off, and completely beset with snow, field ice and icebergs. The body of the land bearing South East.

Enderby Land was the name he gave to his discovery. Further along the coast he saw land which he named Cape Ann but which is now Known as Mount Biscoe. At the beginning of March the weather turned nasty: the icy winds whipped up to hurricane force in a storm, which raged for five days. The two ships lost sight of each other as the Tula was blown more than a hundred miles off course to the northwest. It was March 16th before the wind dropped enough to allow Biscoe to turn south again. He continued to sail eastward round the continent but by the beginning of April neither his ship nor his men were in any condition to continue nor the bitter Antarctic winter was drawing in. He was forced to alter course and head for New Zealand. Scurvy was taking its toll of his exhausted crew and the last stage of the journey became a nightmare. The carpenter died on April 23rd and within a few days only Biscoe, three men and a boy were in any condition to handle the ship. It was essential that they reached port as soon as possible so Biscoe changed course again and made for Hobart in Tasmania. By the time they arrived there another member of the crew had died and the rest were dangerously ill. The little cutter Lively fared even worse than the Tula. Of the original crew of ten only three survived the appalling conditions. After the ships were separated in the storm the Captain tried to make for Hobart but was blown off course and eventually reached land on an uninhabited part of the Australian coast. A contemporary account tells of their suffering: – “So dreadful was the situation of these unfortunate men that the bodies of two of the number who died below deck could not be got up for several days to be thrown overboard, the survivors being so reduced by sickness and infirmity as to be totally unable to perform the painful and distressing task.  At last the master, partially recovering his strength, contrived to make a rope fast round their bodies, and by the help of the tackle succeeded in hauling first one and then the other and launching them into the deep.” While the three survivors were ashore trying to regain their strength another misfortune struck. The Lively dragged her anchor and was blown out of sight into an inlet. The men must have been in despair as they searched to find her. It took them several weeks to do so and then they had to struggle to get her afloat. Eventually they were able to put to sea again and they eventually reached Hobart at the beginning of September. Captain Biscoe was amazed when the Lively arrived at Hobart just as he was preparing to set off on another Antarctic voyage. He waited for a good month until the little ship and her men were fit and ready to join him and then they set sail again. After three months cruising round New Zealand in an unsuccessful search for seals they headed south and east on another voyage of exploration. In February he sighted more unknown land, which Biscoe called Adelaide Island after the Queen. As he sailed on eastwards he passed the group of islands that now bears his name and eventually reached a point where the men were able to pull ashore towards the mainland. From there they headed for the South Shetlands and so completed their circumnavigation of the continent. The Lively was lost soon after this; she was wrecked off the Falklands as Biscoe headed in for repairs. In spite of all he had gone through Biscoe was still prepared to spend another season in southern waters in hope of making a profitable catch but his men had had enough and one by one they deserted.

The Royal Geographical Society awarded Biscoe its highest honours, in recognition of his achievements but that proved little compensation for the irrevocable damage to his health from the hardships of his voyage. Within ten years he died destitute and an appeal was launched to raise money to provide for his widow and four children.

The Balleny Islands
A contemporary account describes the discovery of the Balleny Islands in 1839: – “they got abreast of the eastern island…. The cutter’s boat went ashore, though there was no landing or beach; but for the bare rocks whence the ice- bergs had broken, it would not have been known for land at first; still, as they stood in for it, smoke was plainly seen rising from its peaks. Its stone, or rather cinders, also prove this island to be volcanic: the cliffs are perpendicular, and what would probably have been valley and beaches, are occupied by solid blocks of ice…. On the 13th were seen numerous whales, penguins, a few Cape pigeons, and a small white bird: but no albatrosses nor mollymawks. P.M. came on a thick fog; but many whales and seals were seen, with icebergs and drift ice.”

Return to Enderby Wharf

The Enderby Settlement diaries – review by Barbara Ludlow


Many people are familiar with Enderby House, Enderby Wharf and Enderby Street in East Greenwich but until now little has been known about the ill-fated expedition to the Auckland Islands, one of which is called Enderby Island. In 1849 Charles Enderby of Greenwich left Plymouth in the Samuel Enderby whaling ship hoping to found a prosperous whaling station in this newly created British Colony to the south of New Zealand. Why? you may ask, did the senior partner of a once very successful shipping and whaling business go to a distant part of the world where there was nothing and worse, to put it mildly, the climate is not good.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Enderbys were looking for new whaling grounds and began exploring the southern oceans. Whales were scare in northern seas and the raw material which produced Enderby’s barrels of oil was much farther away from their base in London. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Enderby captains such as Bristow, the discoverer of the Auckland Islands in 1805/6 were away for several years but not returning with enough oil to cover the cost of the trip. As the whaling ships went towards and into the Antarctic seas the cost of strengthening each vessel began to eat into profits, but Samuel Enderby and his son Charles were excited by and committed to exploration.

At the beginning of the 1830s Charles Enderby, who had become the senior partner in 1829, established a rope works and sail making factory on Greenwich Marsh, the site today of Enderby Wharf and Alcatel. Charles had a house built on the riverside by his works and it became both workplace and home for him. His brothers George and Henry did not live there for long. In 1837 Charles was approved to make a waterproof rope covering for telegraph wire but unfortunately failed in this enterprise as water seeped through the hemp. However, whilst he entertained explorers and scientists at Enderby House and listened to some glowing descriptions of places like the Auckland Islands, he put much effort into making the Greenwich rope works a success.

All this came to an end when on 8th March 1845 the majority of the East Greenwich works went up in flames. The damage to everything was extensive. This was a disaster for the company as they were not as prosperous as they had been and Charles set about seeking a way to revive their fortunes. He put forward the ideas of promoting a new whaling company with the help of the British Government. Alarmed at the decline of the nation’s whaling industry the Government was eager to help.

In 1847 Sir James Ross, the famous Antarctic explorer, totally backed Charles Enderby’s choice of the Auckland Island as a fixed whaling station and in 1849 the Southern Whale Fishery company was granted a Royal Charter. Charles was appointed the company’s resident Chief Commissioner and the Crown conferred the office of Lieutenant Governor of the Auckland Islands on him. No doubt he wondered what honour would be bestowed upon him if the station were successful – Sir Charles Enderby or Lord Enderby of Greenwich?

The family fortunes were certainly in the balance as Charles sailed out of Plymouth on 18th August 1849. In October 1849 the following appeared in the Times ‘Messrs Charles Henry and George Enderby for many years connected with the whaling trade and lately engaged on a large scale as rope manufacturers at Greenwich, have announced themselves unable to meet their engagements. The general liabilities of the house are extremely small but it is feared that various members of the family will suffer severely.’ The paper also predicted that the Southern Whales Fishery Company could be nothing but an advantage to the Enderby firm, Alas this was not so.

The colony only lasted a few years and by 1852 the Southern Whales Fishery Co, was facing financial disaster. For Charles it was also a personal disaster. His Assistant Commissioner, William Mackworth, age 25 years (Charles was 52 when he left England) tended to hold Enderby in disdain, declaring that he could not manage personnel, settlers,or the whaling. Eventually the company sent Special Commissioners to take over from Charles in December 1851. They were back there to wind up the company and Charles had reverted back to being called ‘Mr. Enderby’ instead of ‘His Excellency’. On 27th January 1852 Enderby was made to resign as Lt. Governor but he became angry over this and declared ‘ he was determined to shooter either Mackworth or any other man attempting to remove him or his effects by force’ . The Special Commissioner threatened to put Enderby in irons. In the end Charles Enderby took them to court in Wellington and eventually the whole affair became the subject of two detailed Parliamentary Papers. Charles Enderby returned to England in July 1853 and the firm of Enderby Brothers was formally wound up in 1854. Charles died in Fulham on 30th August 1876 in an ‘impecunious state’.

The diaries of William Mackworth, Assistant Commissioner and William Munce, Company Accountant, start on 1st January 1850 and finish on 13th August 1852. They have now been published in New Zealand. As well as a complete transcription of the diaries there are excellent chapters on all aspects of the Auckland Islands settlement. This 288 page book is well priced and contains 32 plates plus maps and plans.

I shall never walk past Enderby House again without thinking of Charles and his dreams of creating a new whaling station in the Auckland Islands. Little did he know that it would all end in tears.

The book is edited by Dingwall, Fraser, Gregory and Robertson and is limited to 1,000 hand numbered copies. It is published by Wild Press, PO Box 12397, Wellington NZ and Wordsell Press PO Box 51168 Pakuranga, Auckland, NZ. Price £25 postage and packing included. ISBN 1 87245 01

Return to The Enderbys and their work

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

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Return to Telegraph cables at Enderbys

Copperas and Vitriol

The old site of the gunpowder works became known as ‘Crown Land’. In 1800 this was leased to a George Moor as a vitriol works. A Bleach House is also shown. By 1700 there were copperas works in the Greenwich and Deptford areas. A Greenwich property list of 1695 notes that a site has been ‘lately converted to a copperas works’. This was owned by a Sir Samuel Thompson at was at the end of Lamb Lane in central Greenwich. At around the same date a passage is marked on a deed from the Greenwich Vicarage Garden to The Copperas House’ near Deptford Creek.

By 1718 it seems likely that these works were associated with a Joseph Moore and eighty years later a George Moor. He may the man who held farmlands on the Greenwich Peninsula and was probably a relation of Thomas Moore of Coombe Farm at Westcombe. It may be that around 1800 George Moore attempted to open another copperas works on the Peninsula in the area where the Government gunpowder works had been – today the site of the Alcatel factory.

The manufacture of copperas is usually associated with vitriol production and in 1800 George Moor is listed as having a vitriol works on ‘Crown Land’. He also held nearby Morden College land and Norfolk College land – making together a package of land which more or less equals the sites later owned by the Enderby family.

By 1832 the vitriol works was in the ownership of a Lewis Price & Co.

Vitrol manufacture has also been associated with bleach – indeed large areas of open field could be used to peg out material which had treated with acid in order to whiten it. This then might explain the note ‘Bleaching House’ on a Morden College plan of 1846. This is shown just beyond the western end of Bendish Marsh and might be near the, otherwise mysterious, Salution House.

In 1770 Henry Vansittart is noted in connection with a ‘whiters house’ in the area.

Mary Mills. The Early East London Gas Industry And Its Waste Products

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Closing date for the gunpowder magazine


Peter Jenkins of the Surrey Industrial History Group has provided detailed information which clarifies the date when the Greenwich gunpowder magazine was closed and demolished. A print of this magazine together with some notes by Wayne Cocroft appeared in Gunpowder Mills Study Group Newsletter 19, p 26. Mary Mills then wrote an article on the location of the magazine in Newsletter 21, pp 7-8 and there was a review of an article by Mary about the history of the  magazine, which included the same print, in Newsletter 22, p 25. Wayne thought that the print dated from the 1730s but Mary gave a date of 1794, although the costumes worn by figures in the foreground appeared to be earlier. Wayne said that the magazine closed in the 1760s and Mary in 1768.

Peter Jenkins has examined documents in Class WO 47 at the Public Record Office. This is a large and far from homogeneous class. The piece numbers in the range 34-120 are described as “Minutes, Surveyor-General” and cover the period 1749-1792. They are volumes, kept at the Surveyor-General’s office, representing his activities in executing the Board’s decisions. However the evidence does not establish them as a complete record of the Board’s

WO 47/77 Jan-Jun 1771

Feb 13, p 125: “Ordered that Lighters be sent to carry the Building Materials from Greenwich Magazine to Woolwich and that if any Store remains there they be sent to the Tower.” Apr 16, p 320: “Mr Newton Storekeeper at Greenwich Magazine having reported in his letter of the 8th pursuant to an order of the 5th instant that the Magazine and Proof House are entirely down and that there remains only the Office, part of the Guard Room, and the Stage and Bridge Standing and that there still remains a great quantity of Brick & old Timber to be sent to Woolwich which are daily sending lighters.”

Apr 24 & 25, p 340: “Mr Harwell reports that all the Greenwich magazine will be taken down and material sent away in about 3 weeks time.”
WO 47/81 Jan-Jun 1773

May 4, p 378: “Ordered that the letter from Mr John Lamb Deputy Expenditor, of 28th ult relating to the assessments on the Landholders for repairing the Walls and Banks of the River Thames, and desiring that the same may be paid for 1771 & 1772 for the Land belonging to the Late Powder magazine at Greenwich be referred to Mr Newton to report, when he quitted the Land, and all that he knows relating to what is set forth.” It seems conclusive that the magazine and proof house were demolished in 1771, probably by the end of May.

The page references in the above transcripts are hand-written ones and not printed ones

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Greenwich Centre for Global Telecommunications


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By Steve Hill and Alan Jeal








fiddler in colour

The history of submarine cable is about to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first international telegraph cable.

As a tribute to all those people who have been involved in the development, manufacture and deployment of submarine cable systems, this paper has been put together as a brief reminder of their dedication which has led to the global success story of cables. This success initially centred around Greenwich but, as will be seen, other locations, notably Woolwich and Erith, have all played major parts in the overall story.

The Greenwich site graduated from a rope factory in the early 1800s into communications in the late 1840s thanks to the development of the telegraph and the desire to communicate with other countries not connected by land. Today the Alcatel site is the location for one of the leading telecoms exporters in the UK.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the site has continued to be home to world leaders in undersea communications. In recent years the site occupants have won the Queen’s Award to Industry six times; four times for Export and twice for Technological achievement. The site was reclaimed from marshland and Bendish Sluice runs through it. The sluice exits through a flap valve in the sea wall. About 10 years ago the valve stuck and with the rising tide of the river parts of the site, including the basement of Enderby House, were flooded. To this day the site has scavenger pumps continually running to keep it relatively dry.

This paper briefly traces the history of the site and the achievements of the dedicated engineers who have, and are still, playing a key role in the global communications revolution.

Greenwich and the Telegraph from 1840 to 1890

The Greenwich Peninsula was a major centre for industry. As far as the development of the cable industry is concerned, good transport via the river probably accounted for this. The area also had a lot of industrial coal tar available and it is interesting to note that a lot of this is used on the armour wires around the cable.

It is believed that Charles Enderby moved to the newly constructed Enderby House on the present site in about 1830. The house is preserved on the site to this day and is a listed building. From the octagonal room on the first floor the Enderbys possibly controlled their Antarctic whaling fleet.

At the same time the Enderbys began to set up a rope and sail-making factory on the undeveloped fields of East Greenwich. The map of 1835 clearly shows the ropewalk, a long narrow building through which a long length of rope could be taken in one stretch.
In 1837 the Enderby brothers were approached by the pioneer inventor of the telegraph, William Cooke for help in developing specially insulated ropes for use as telegraph cables. This was for the first experiments in which Cooke wanted to establish an electric telegraph across the Thames. As far as we can tell this was not developed further at that time.

The Enderby Hemp and Rope works was destroyed by fire in 1845 and never re-opened
William Kuper had been granted rights to develop the Morden Wharf site (just along the river from Enderby Wharf) and some of the early attempts at undersea cable manufacture were carried out here. These were probably based on hemp impregnated with tar for insulation.

Key to the future development of submarine cables was the availability of a new insulator, gutta percha. The Gutta Percha Company was set up in 1845. Dr William Montgomerie, who was on the staff of the Governor of Singapore, noted that the Malaysian natives were using a rubber-like substance that they obtained from a local tree and he wrote a long paper on the properties of the substance and its uses.

The gutta percha was sliced up and used to mould a whole range of items from ornaments to golf balls and buckets.

The new material could be moulded into shapes at high temperature and when cooled solidified. It was in fact an early type of plastic.

It was the pioneering physicist Michael Faraday who suggested the use of gutta percha as an electrical insulator. By 1849 two miles of gutta percha insulated undersea cable had been tested and schemes were proposed to provide a telegraph cable between the UK and France.

The Gutta Percha Company received an order for 25 nautical miles (nm) of cable for the first link to France. Some of the cable was delivered to the Kuper works for armouring. The cable was laid in 1850 but was a failure because of a then unknown effect called induction, which jumbled up the messages so that they could not be deciphered. The cable which, as far as we can tell, was made from copper wire covered by gutta percha had to be weighted to keep it submerged. These weights probably contributed to its premature insulation failure. The cable was abandoned and left to the mercy of fishermen who thought that they had hooked a new kind of seaweed stuffed with gold!

A second attempt in 1851 using armoured cable was more successful and cross-Channel communications were established. This cable had four cores for more than one message path. The cable landed at Sangatte where today there is the Channel Tunnel terminal!!

Glass and Elliot took over the Morden Wharf site about this time from the original owner William Kuper and their first commission was to make a cable for installation between Northern Italy and Corsica using gutta percha insulation. In 1854 they purchased the Enderby Wharf site from the Enderby family.

Initially, Enderby Wharf was shared with the WT Henley Telegraph Works Company. Henley was also in the submarine cable manufacturing business but the association of the two companies on the same site proved unworkable and Henley moved to North Woolwich where the company continued to make undersea telegraph cables, albeit in small quantities, until the end of the century.

With the success of the cables laid at this time it was inevitable that attention should focus on the possibility of laying a cable across the Atlantic. As we shall see with every new technology the measure of its success has been, “Can we use it across the Atlantic?”
Cyrus West Field, a retired businessman, persuaded the British and US governments to put money into the venture of a transatlantic cable and raised the rest from British merchants.

A total of 2500 nm of cable were required and half of this was made at Greenwich by Glass Elliot.

The HMS Agamemnon (lent by the UK government as its contribution to the project) laid the first cable across the Atlantic in 1857 but unfortunately it broke in mid-ocean. Grappling techniques to recover cable were not perfected at this time and so the cable was abandoned.

Work on a second cable started immediately and was completed in August 1858 after many setbacks. These included storms, that nearly destroyed the ship, and several cable insulation faults, which had to be repaired en route.

Messages could be sent at a rate of only a few words a minute because of the long length of cable which tended to smear the dots and dashes. This meant that long (relatively) intervals were required between the dots and dashes so that the operator could be sure that he had decoded the pulse correctly.

A few messages were sent in August 1858 including an exchange between Queen Victoria and the US President of the time, President Buchanan. A notable message cancelling a request to send two regiments from Canada to Kashmir India as the crisis was over, saved the British Government £50,000 – about 25 of the cable cost. The success of the cable was short-lived as, after only two months, the signal became so weak that it became unusable. It was not helped by the application of 3000V pulses from the induction coils developed by Wildeman Whitehouse one of the engineers working on the cable which further affected the insulation

Lord Kelvin (then William Thomson), was assigned the task of investigating the failure of the transatlantic cable. He proposed that more stringent testing was necessary and to that end large underwater tanks were constructed on the Enderby Wharf site so that the cables could be coiled and continuously electrically tested. These tanks provided more stable temperature conditions for storage of the completed cable lengths before loading onto the ship. By 1862 a new and improved cable design was available and proposals for a third attempt were put in hand.

About this time, 1864, Glass Elliot and the Gutta Percha Company merged to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) and offered to make the new transatlantic cable at Greenwich.

The finished cable was bigger and heavier than the previous attempts and a bigger ship would be required to lay it. Three types of cable were made for different depths of water. The solution for the cable-laying vessel was found with the Great Eastern, designed and built by Brunel. This ship had not been a success for general shipping but was ideally suited for cable- laying.

The cable was loaded from the factory into a small vessel and transferred to the Great Eastern at Sheerness.

Laying the cable began in July 1865 and 1186 nm were laid successfully but imagine the disappointment when 717 miles from Hearts Content in Newfoundland, the cable broke and all attempts at recovery were fruitless. Once again the cable was abandoned on the seabed.

Further plans were made, for a fourth attempt, using Glass Elliot cable made in Greenwich and on 27 July 1866 successful communication was established once again between Valentia in Ireland and Newfoundland.

The Great Eastern then went back to look for the broken ends of the cable from the previous attempt. On 2 September the telegraph instruments at the Valentia end of the cable began to move as the two ends of the cable were joined.

There were two cables now connecting the New World to Europe!!

The success of the Atlantic cable promoted a steady growth in the deployment of the undersea telegraph business and by 1874 a further three Atlantic cables were laid by the Great Eastern for Telcon.

A further five transatlantic telegraph cables were also made by Telcon before the end of the century. Cables linking the Commonwealth were rapidly installed and the RED ROUTE telegraph cable network, linking all the major commonwealth countries, was completed by 1902. Telcon played a major part in this achievement and can be classed as a truly global company at this time.

Sending and receiving techniques were improved and up to 50 words per minute could be achieved. From 1850 to the widespread introduction of telephone cables in the mid 20th century, Telcon in Greenwich was involved in the manufacture of some 130,000 nm of cable (enough to go 6 times round the earth).

To provide for installation and maintenance of these cables, the cable makers also purchased and maintained a fleet of cableships. From 1866 to 1935 Telcon owned and operated a total of 18 different laying vessels. One, the Colonia, laid more telegraph cable than any other ship in the fleet. In more recent times the Ocean Layer was notable because of a fire which destroyed the ship whilst she was laying a cable in 1959. The company’s last cableship, the John W Mackay, was moored at Greenwich until 1988. Te vessel laid its last cable in 1975 between Australia and Papua New Guinea before being retired as unseaworthy after 55 years of sterling work. The vessel (now owned by STC – more later) was sold for the princely sum of £1 to The John W Mackay Trust in 1989.

The plan was to preserve the vessel as a working example of British technology. As a matter of interest, prior to selling the vessel to the Trust, consideration had been given to selling the ship as scrap for medical instruments. The reason for this was that the ship had been built before any nuclear explosions had taken place and therefore the metal was considered ‘pure’ and free of radioactivity. Unfortunately, the John W Mackay Trust did not prosper and the last we heard of the vessel was when she lost her tow in the Bay of Biscay en route to Turkey. She is believed to have sunk so perhaps she was unseaworthy!
Loading of the cable onto the laying vessels was achieved directly from the factory and even today if you amble along the river walk you can see that some of the loading gantries remain. Looking at rite 1891 accounts the company was worth about £1 million.

The Early Telephone Era 1890 to 1950

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone which changed all our lives. Initially its acceptance was slow in the UK but in 1891 Siemens Brothers, based at Woolwich, supplied the first cross-Channel telephone cable. Telcon applied for their first patent in undersea telephone cables in 1896 and laid the first telephone cables across the Solent and the Irish Sea. These cables were made at Greenwich on the Enderby site as the Morden Wharf site had been run down and abandoned in 1895.

The distance over which a telephone conversation could be made was limited because of the loss of the cable. To improve this a technique known as loading was developed, first on land routes and then on submarine cables. The technique required the addition of magnetic tape into the cable construction. The first cross-Channel telephone cable of this type was supplied by Telcon in 1912.

This technique was also applied to telegraph cables and by 1924 transatlantic cables supplied by Telcon achieved 1500 words per minute. Further developments in magnetic tape technology increased the capacity to 3000 words per minute in 1928.

The industry continued to innovate and the addition of a copper outer conductor to telephone cables to reduce the resistance of the sea return path increased the transmission distance still further. This development was the direct precursor to coaxial cable design upon which the industry thrived in more recent times. Gutta percha was still used for insulation. Major investment in new equipment for processing the material, such as hydraulic cleaning and vacuum- drying, improved the overall performance of cables made during this period.

The site processed large quantities of wire used for strengthening the cables and it also continued to armour large quantities of cable for submarine use.

Still the majority of cables carried only one telephone conversation although Siemens brothers developed the first multi-cored submarine telephone cable at Woolwich with loading – a technical feat unmatched at the time.

The invention of thermionic tubes (commonly known as valves) meant that not only could speech signals be amplified but also carrier frequencies could be used to carry several simultaneous conversations over a single cable. To receive a particular conversation you tuned into the right frequency like you do on a radio.

This technique together with the coaxial cable technology already developed rendered loading of cables unnecessary. Telcon at Greenwich still used gutta percha insulation and was the first to manufacture submarine coaxial cables in the UK. Similar cables were also being produced in America. The invention of the thermionic tube also brought about an increase in the development of ‘wireless’ telegraphy. The first successful transatlantic telephone call using this technology was made in 1923 from the Western Electric (later STC) laboratory in Southgate. Between 1930 and 1935 wireless telegraphy led to the decline of the telephone cable companies with falling orders as a lot of the traditional cable telephone traffic was now being sent by radio.

In 1935 the only two remaining submarine cable companies in the UK, Siemens and Telcon, agreed to pool their resources and form a jointly owned company, Submarine Cables Limited (SCL), to be based at the Greenwich works of Telcon. The development and deployment of co-axial cables was soon to undergo its next growth phase thanks to a new insulator developed by ICI in 1933. The new insulator was based on the discovery of polyethylene and offered much lower signal loss than cables made with gutta percha. This meant that higher and higher frequencies could be used on the cable which in turn meant more and more simultaneous conversations on a single cable. At first only minute quantities of the material were available but by 1937 a small amount was made available for experimental use. In 1939, after extended research by the SCL engineers at Greenwich, a trial polyethylene cable of 1 nm was made.

Then came the Second World War years during which some 1000 nm of cable were made by Telcon and laid around the British Isles and unoccupied parts of Europe. In addition nearly 1000 miles of coaxial cable were accumulated for D-Day together with a large amount of gutta percha telegraph cable. In spite of heavy bombing of the docklands area the Greenwich works kept in full production throughout the war, 24 hours a day seven days a week, although it was damaged the day before the Duke of Kent visited the site.
The site was also the leading location manufacturing Telcothene, the SCL trade name for polythene covered cables, which were a key part of the new radar installations that sprang up during the war. SCL continued to be a major supplier of telephone cable until 1950 when intercontinental telephone traffic – still being largely carried by radio – was to undergo a major new innovation.

The Modern Era 1950 to 1985

The advantage of repeaters, or relays, for receiving weak signals and re-transmitting them with renewed strength were of course realised very early in submarine cable history That is why so many small islands, unimportant in themselves, were used as telegraph relay stations. The application of electronics to repeatered telephone cables was about to take off.

A repeatered submarine cable would include amplifiers spliced at intervals along the cable. These would be powered from the cable ends using a power feeding equipment. The telephone traffic would be assembled into the right packages and transmitted along the cable also from each end.

With the development of stable electronic amplifiers, and particularly the introduction of negative feedback amplifiers by HS Black in 1934, it became possible to consider laying broadband repeaters with valve amplifiers in the submarine cable.

This was not without difficulty as protection would be required for the electronics to withstand the sea- bottom pressures and reliable components would be needed to ensure long and fault-free operation without the need for maintenance.

Two techniques were developed initially for protecting the electronics. A rigid repeater in a steel housing was developed by the British Post Office and first inserted in a cable between Anglesey and the Isle of Man in 1943. The cables came out of the same end of the repeater, which made laying both difficult and slow as the repeater had to be lowered over the side of the ship.

In America work by Bell Telephone Laboratories concentrated on producing a flexible repeater contained under a bulge in the armour wires of the cable suitable for deep water and capable of being laid on the sea-bottom by the normal telegraph cable- laying gear of a cableship. With this technique only one way amplification could be provided because of the space restrictions.

The scene was now set for the development of long distance, high capacity repeatered submarine cable systems, capable of spanning transoceanic distances. Starting at about 40 circuits on a single cable the technology in 1978 was placing up to 5520 circuits on a single cable!

The co-operation of SCL with the BPO on cable and repeater design and manufacture was strengthened by the entry into the market of Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd (STC).

STC was inaugurated in 1883 with the opening of a London office of the Western Electric Company (W.E.Co) for the sale of telephones. W.E.Co purchased the North Woolwich site in January 1898 from the ailing Fowler-Waring Cables Company for £87,000. By 1909 the site employed 1,000 people. This site was just across the road from the WT Henley factory (mentioned previously) and continued to make a wide range of telephone cables until its closure in 1977.

The company was named STC in 1925 and in the 1920s and 1930s was a supplier of equipment for submarine cable systems. STC had overall responsibility for a number of cable systems and sourced cable from Siemens or Telcon. Entering the repeatered cable market in 1950, STC supplied repeaters for the system between the Netherlands and Denmark. The four repeaters for this system were made in an open shed on the site with ordinary components! This system was followed in 1954 by the UK-Norway system for which the repeaters were made in clean area conditions. Woolwich was the home of the STC transmission divisions until the landline division moved to Basildon in 1963 and the microwave division moved to St Mary Cray in 1965.

The first transatlantic repeatered submarine cable was a joint project involving SCL, STC and Bell Telephone and initial discussions started in 1952. SCL anticipated that it might be required to provide a large proportion of the submarine cable and began building a new factory at Erith in 1953. The factory was designed to store 2400 nm of cable (enough to cross the Atlantic). To allow loading of cable into the largest cableships available, the river was dredged and new wharves built. The cable-making equipment was electronically controlled for the first time. The new cable called TAT-1, supporting 36 simultaneous telephone conversations, went into service in 1956 and was an immediate success. In this system were almost 400 nm of cable manufactured at the Greenwich and Erith factories. This was followed in 1959 with a second cable for which SCL supplied 2000 nm. Up to this time the coaxial cables were based on the old telegraph cable design which incorporated external armour wires to provide strength to the cable. In 1951 the BPO proposed a new lightweight cable design whereby the cable strength was concentrated at the centre of the cable.

This cable was successfully trialled between 1956 and 1958 and was selected for the first cable to be laid from Europe to Canada known as CANTAT (CANada Transatlantic Telephone).

The cable for this system was made at Greenwich and Erith with repeaters from SCL and STC. The system was in service in 1961 and had a capacity of 80 circuits and was notable for two reasons. The repeater had cable entries at each end so could be laid with the cable in a continuous operation and also contained two-way amplification so requiring only one cable for both directions.

About this time STC realised the importance of supplying complete systems and opened their own cable factory in Southampton in 1956.

There now followed a period of growth in repeatered cable systems over the next 10 years with SCL and STC operating from sites just across the river from each other. The rivalry at the technical and marketing levels was intense. SCL was now owned by the UK electronics giant AEI. In 1970 as part of the rationalisation process within AEI the submarine cable business was sold to STC. Thus STC became the sole UK supplier of submarine cable systems and one of only four in the world.

With the rationalisation of the UK industry into a single company the cable factory at Erith was closed. All cable for the group was then made at Southampton and Greenwich. STC in North Woolwich became the leading site for the design, development and manufacture of repeaters. North Woolwich also made telephone cables but with a downturn in the market this activity was transferred to Newport Gwent and the site closed in 1976. All the submarine cable activity was again concentrated at Greenwich.

But there was a new threat to the business. Rockets capable of putting satellites into a synchronous orbit routinely and cheaply provided another means of communication. The communication satellite era had arrived.

The traditional communication agencies decreed that long-haul transoceanic facilities should be provided by satellite on a 50-50 basis with cable. The demise of submarine cables was widely predicted by this new technology!!

The cable industry responded with greater and greater capacities, and cheaper cost per circuit mile. However, orders did decline and the last cable was made on the Greenwich site in 1975 for the Columbus system between Venezuela and Spain. The last shipment of cable and repeaters leaving the Greenwich factory was eventful. The tugs assisting departure pulled the cableship from the dolphins and steamer off. As the cableship navigated the bend in the river around the Peninsula it became stuck on a mud bank. The tugs were recalled and the ship was towed off under the river pilot’s directions. The value of the equipment on board was several million pounds so the tugs put in a claim for salvage. They did not get it as they were technically still under contract, but it was a nice try!!

The system was inaugurated on Columbus Day 1977 – 12th October. The problem of how to use the now redundant cable storage tanks on the Greenwich site was solved by the managing director late one evening while he was walking through the factory. He had the idea of using them to rear trout! With an artesian well on site there was a good cheap supply of fresh water and with the tanks indoors the temperature would be ideal for the rapid growth of the fish. The trout grew at an astonishing rate and kept the site and the local market well supplied with fish for a long time.

During this period STC at Greenwich was the largest supplier of submarine cable systems in the world. With 97 of the total output going abroad STC was awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry for Export four times and by 1986 STC and its predecessors had manufactured and laid over 270,000 km of coaxial cable.

Optical Cables 1986 to present

In 1966 Kao and Hockham at the STC research laboratories proposed the use of optical communications networks operating on glass fibres to replace traditional copper cables.
The installation of the world’s first land-based system for the BPO in 1976 had a profound effect on the future of all telephone communication systems, including submarine cables. The first effect was a downturn in new system orders after about 1982 whilst the traditional telephone operating agencies anticipated the arrival of all optical undersea cable systems.

The Greenwich site of STC was in a unique position in the development and deployment of the new technology. With the strong lead gained from the research laboratories in the new technology and the opening of Europe’s first optical fibre production unit in Harlow by STC, the engineers at Greenwich developed the world’s first undersea optical cable and repeater. An experimental system was laid in a sea water loch in Scotland, Loch Fyne in 1980.

This experimental system showed for the first time that a fibre optic cable could be successfully manufactured and installed by a conventional cable- laying ship. Six months after the installation of the cable it was recovered and a single repeater inserted. The cable was re-laid on the loch bed. This demonstrated for the first time that fibre optic cables could be laid and subsequently recovered for repair in sea water conditions and optical signals could be regenerated underwater.

With the last copper cable system being installed in 1986, STC on the Greenwich site secured the world’s first order for an international fibre optic cable system from British Telecom, Deutsche Bundespost, and the Netherlands and Belgium PTTs. The system, known as UK-Belgium No 5, would cross the English Channel for 112 km and contain three repeaters.

Fibre optic cable has the ability to carry more than one transmission path. The old copper cables had a single transmission path and the send and receive signals were separated in frequency and could run in opposite directions along the cable. Fibre optic cables were initially designed to contain up to 6 fibres so that three could be used to carry traffic in each direction. The UK-Belgium cable, commissioned in 1986, had six fibres and the cable could carry 12,000 simultaneous two-way telephone conversations. All the electronics and optical parts of the system were designed and manufactured at the Greenwich factory using specially engineered components from the UK’s leading suppliers. Once again reliability of service was required and with the use of a large array of new components rigorous testing was employed to ensure at least 25 years of trouble-free service. More components were tested to destruction than used in the first two or three actual systems! The reliability of the components is being proven in real time now as the system is still operating after 13 years.

Once again, after the initial feasibility of the new technology had been proven on relatively short routes, inevitably the question was asked, “Can we use this new technology across the Atlantic?” A programme of co-operation between Greenwich and the US and French suppliers of submarine cables began in 1983 and led to the deployment of the first fibre optic transatlantic cable in 1988 called TAT-8. This system was developed and supplied as a result of commercial and political pressures from the owners of the system and laid the foundations for the growth of the technology in the US, France and the UK. This system had a cable capacity of just under 10,000 telephone channels.

The acceptance of the new technology was sealed and the race was on for further innovation. De-regulation of the communication service providers started about now and in the UK Cable and Wireless emerged as a rival to BT. STC on the Greenwich site unilaterally set about increasing the capacity of cables in 1986 and this resulted in the first privately sponsored transatlantic cable, PTAT-1 in 1989. This was the first complete transatlantic fibre optic cable to be supplied by a single contractor and had a cable capacity of 18,000 telephone channels.

The cable was notable because it had more service channels (these are channels that are used by the system for ‘housekeeping’) than the total capacity of the original TAT-1 system. STC was awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry for Technological achievement in 1990 for this development.

These initial systems were termed regenerative systems. Here the optical signal is received at each repeater and turned back into an electrical signal. The electrical signal is processed to remove accumulated degradations and then converted back into an optical signal before being transmitted to the next repeater.

The telephone traffic is assembled at the terminal stations into large groups and digitised to enable them to be transmitted to the submarine cable. The equipment to achieve these functions was again designed and manufactured on the Greenwich site. In addition, the repeaters have also to be provided with electrical power to enable them to operate and this is achieved by feeding electric current along the centre conductor of the cable.

For the longest systems a total system voltage of 9000 Volts has to be supplied from one end of the cable. The equipment to do this required 18 cubicles. It is fully duplicated so that there would be no interruption to the traffic in the event of a component failure over the 25-year design life of the system.

The specialised equipment to carry out this vital function was also designed and manufactured at the Greenwich site.

Cable was initially produced at the Southampton factory but as demand grew STC opened a new cable factory in the USA in Portland, Oregon. This factory was opened primarily to service the rapidly expanding Pacific and Far Eastern markets. Once again STC was awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry, this time for Export achievement in 1993. Some 97 of all manufactured products were exported.

In 1992 STC won a contract for a transatlantic system, CANTAT-3, as sole supplier. The system would have a capacity of 30,000 channels on a single fibre. This was a major increase in capacity compared to other suppliers. The cable was completed in 1994, connected 6 countries and remains the largest capacity regenerated undersea fibre optic system in commercial operation to this day

During the late 1980s a group of scientists at Southampton University combined to form the leading group in the UK on fundamental optical communications technology. This group had the concept of creating a technology for telecommunication systems that eliminated the requirement for the electrical regeneration of signals and replacing it with direct amplification of light. The concept of optical amplifiers was not new but the technology that they developed was novel and extremely simple. The concept was based on the use of a glass fibre in which minute traces of a special rare earth element called Erbium were embedded. This is termed doping. In operation this rare earth is excited with a laser and made to amplify light entering the fibre at one end.

The advantage of this type of technology was that unlike electrical amplifiers the number of telephone channels it (.an carry is virtually unlimited. The limiting factors in these systems are the generation of noise and the relative strength of the signals along the system.

STC set about using this new technology initially on very short submarine cable systems. These systems are termed un-repeatered systems and are characterised by short cable links initially of up to about 120 km in length. The use of all optical amplifiers in the terminal stations could increase the length of the unrepeatered links to over 200 km at that time. The development of these amplifiers in Greenwich won a major Northern Telecom award for the engineers responsible for their introduction as well as a Queen’s Award to Industry for Technological achievement to the company in 1995. Links of 400 km are now possible with the latest technology.

Once again it was not long before there were proposals for spanning the Atlantic with large capacity systems using optical amplifiers. The optical regenerative systems had by this time progressed to TAT-9, TAT-10 and TAT-11 all carrying almost 8000 channels per fibre and the proposal was now to provide two systems, TAT-12 and TAT-13, which would carry 64,000 channels per fibre. Because of the very large capacity of each cable the effect of any damage would be disastrous to the overall transatlantic telephone business and so two cables were proposed in a ring configuration with one cable protecting the other.

Once again these systems were developed in collaboration with the US and French suppliers and commissioned in 1995. This collaboration ensured quick delivery of the technology from the feasibility stage to supply and commissioning of the complete system through the combined expertise of the three companies.

These early systems demonstrated the capability of the technology but not the events that were to unfold as we progress towards the end of the millennium. Global rationalisation and expansion of key business areas play an important part in the history of the submarine cable system industry. The three initial players in the business AT&T, SC1 and STC were followed by the French company, CI (later Alcatel) and the Japanese in the form of NEC and Fujitsu who formed a powerful national alliance. With the amalgamation of SCL and STC in 1970 there were effectively four major suppliers for a period of over 20 years.

STC, originally part of the giant US company ITT, partially floated on the UK stock market in March 1982. In October 1982 ITT reduced its ownership in STC to 35 by offering for sale another 40 of its stock. In 1987 ITT announced that it was selling its whole worldwide ownership of telecommunication companies. The remaining share of STC was sold 1 Canadian company Northern Telecom (later North and its other worldwide interests were sold to the French company Alcatel. In 1991 Nortel acquired ; the stock of STC within the UK and so the submarine cable business at Greenwich became part of the Canadian company.

Under Nortel the business prospered due to the generally high demand for submarine cable system and the de-regulation of the telecommunications industry which encouraged more and more private companies to start investing in the ownership and operation of cable systems. In 1993 Nortel decided on a rationalisation of its key business areas and decided to divest itself of the submarine system business based in Greenwich. After a protracted Monopolies and Mergers Commission enquiry the STC business was sold to Alcatel in March 1994 for approximately US$900 million and Alcatel then became the world’s leading supplier of undersea systems.

Since the amalgamation of the two businesses the supply of submarine cable systems has reached an all-time peak in terms of length of system manufactured each year, the sales value and more recently the increase in the amount of traffic that can be squeezed onto a single fibre. By the end of 1999 the total fibre optic cable supplied by Alcatel will be in excess of 230,000 km. The most recent technology advances have been based on a technique known as wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM). WDM effectively increases the number of fibres in the cable by combining traffic streams onto a single fibre. Each traffic stream has a different wavelength or colour and can be combined and separated using optical components. This is analogous to splitting white light into the colours of the rainbow using a prism.

This technology development has accelerated at an ever-increasing rate as shown by the fibre capacity capability, and projections show that this will continue.

So where is all this telephone capacity being used? A lot of you will be connected to the
Internet at home and at work.

The measured 100 million connected users in 1998 is continuing to expand at a high rate due to the reducing cost and increasing speed of today’s computers. With the vast amount of information from Web sites around the world available in your own home for the cost of a local telephone call, predictions show that the demand for international capacity will continue for the foreseeable future.

Alcatel at it’s worldwide manufacturing sites has increased it’s production capacity and has now consolidated itself as the world’s No 1 supplier of submarine cable networks.
Whilst cable is no longer manufactured on the Greenwich site repeaters, branching units and power feeding equipment for the company’s systems are still designed and built there. Development of the highly sophisticated terminal transmission equipment that assembles the telephone traffic into the right optical signal format for transmission over the submarine cable is also carried out in Greenwich. The rapid development of fibre optic cable technology is being exploited to its limit in the new equipment designs in which the young Greenwich engineers are currently engaged.

And what about the future? Well, to date, the technology has progressed from sending electrical dots and dashes over a copper cable to sending highly encrypted and error correcting laser-generated light pulses over glass fibres. The cable capacity in terms of channel connections has increased from 1 to 15 million channels!!!

From point-to-point cables we now supply multi- landing cables with built-in ring protection so that if one segment of the cable is damaged the cable link is restored automatically in a few milliseconds so that the connection is not lost. These links are predicted to grow further in capacity and become more and more sophisticated in their connectivity and operation. The early pioneers of cable development and manufacture on the Greenwich Peninsula 150 years ago would now be astounded with the achievements that have been made by their successors.

Despite the predicted demise of cable communication on two occasions, by wireless and satellite, the submarine telephone cable industry in Greenwich is alive and well. With the current placement of about four billion dollars worth of new business each year worldwide, it will continue to be so for many years to come.

It is a sobering thought to consider that the first transatlantic telegraph cable could transmit only a few words per minute whereas the new cable systems Alcatel are developing at the same Greenwich site are capable of transmitting 10 million copies of the Daily Telegraph every second!!

The dedicated people employed in Greenwich have been responsible for many “firsts” in the field of submarine cable systems and can claim to be the Global Centre for telecommunications for over 150 years.

List of Firsts
1850 First cross channel telegraph cable
1858 First transatlantic telegraph cable
1912 First loaded cross-channel telephone cable
1939 First polyethylene coaxial cable
1961 First Canada – Europe telephone cable system CANTAT
1976 Highest capacity coaxial cable system in the world installed
1980 First optical repeater installed
1983 First order for an international optical cable system
1989 First transatlantic single supplier optical regenerated system
installed PTAT-1
1995 Highest capacity optical regenerated system installed
1998 First transatlantic single supplier optically amplified system installed GEMINI

We would like to thank Dr. Mary Mills, Sally Jenkinson and the Science Museum for permission to use some of their material, and Andy Collins for compiling the presentation.

Greenwich Marsh – t he 300 years before the Dome by Mary Mills
Whaling, Rope making and the Atlantic Telegraph -Enderby Wharf by Sally Jenkinson
Submarine Telegraphy. The Grand Victorian Technology by Bernard S. Finn (Science Museum)
Cableships and Submarine Cables by K.R. Haigh
Power of Speech -A history of Standard Telephones and Cables 1883-1983 by Peter Young
The Telcon Story – One hundred and ten years of undersea telecommunications by Submarine Cables Ltd
Various publications produced over the years by Alcatel and its predecessor companies

Published Alcatel 2000 reproduced with permission

Return to Enderby Wharf


A  number of cement works were set up on the Morden College sites on the west bank of the Peninsula. These were in addition to other works makes artificial stone and ‘composition’.

AT ENDERBY WHARF – A confused situation exists on the remaining section of the old gunpowder site – K3 on the Skinner plan. On earlier Morden College plans it is shown in the ownership of ‘Calvert Clark’.. In 1838 Enderbys acquired some land from Calvert Clark – and it was, perhaps, this area.

In 1843 the tithe map shows the area in the ownership of Enderby with a cottage and garden on some of the site, but no industrial development.

By 1855 a cement works had been built on this site by a company called Winkfield Bell and by William Buckwell who had opened his ‘patent composition stone works’as well. Buckwell’s works was to last only a year, since by 1861 he was in gaol. In 1863 a James Pomeroy is shown with a cement works – and although from the listings in the rate books this appears to be to the south on Beale’s site, it may be that he had taken over Buckwell’s works. It is unlikely that he lasted very long since there no is further mention of him.

Winkfield’s works is said to have been purchased in 1866 by Jabez Hollick. Hollick was already operating a cement works to the north of this site and it maybe that he never operated the Winkfield works since by 1869 the site is shown on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘Old Concrete Works’

Even more mysteriously a map of 1867 shows ‘Greenwich Flax Works’ on site, with no sign at all of massive adjoining rope walk or cable works.

It seems likely that the cement works site was taken over by the cable company since all subsequent maps their works is shown to cover this area. However, it might noted that in all the intervening years that the works have really been extended over this part of the site – it appears to have been used for tanks and storage only.

Return to Enderby Wharf

AT MORDEN WHARF – The earliest and perhaps the longest lasting cement works came to Greenwich in 1841.  Hollick leased a site at Greenwich from Holcombe in 1849. In 1849 Hollick gave his address as Warwick Cottages which then stood at the Marsh Lane end of Morden Wharf Road. His cement works was adjacent to Morden Wharf. The works was eventually taken over by the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers before the First World War but it was still in operation by them in 1935 and the area is still sometimes known as Hollick’s Wharf in the 1990s.

Also at Morden Wharf was a cement works owned by the Staines based industrialist George Crowley Ashby. This was to the rear of Morden Wharf with no river access.

There was also a composition works belonging to Sir John Pett Lillie who erected a jetty at Morden Wharf in 1859 – since he had an agreement with Willis and Wright it seems likely that this was in fact part of the area described under Bay Wharf.

AT LOVELL’S WHARF – Cement manufacture also took place on Lovells Wharf by Rowton and Whiteway