Chapter 5 – The Atlantic Cable

cable gear at enderby wharf
Cable gear at Enderby Wharf. Picture with thanks to Sally Jenkinson

The cable is a big subject and has been well covered in numerous works. Some of the ones used here include: Kieve (see above), John Merrett, Three Miles Deep, Hamish Hamilton, 1958, Telcon Story, Telcon. n.d, K.R.Haigh, Cableships, STC, One Hundred Years of STC, STC 1983, Hugh Barty-King, Girdle Round the Earth, London, 1979, Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, London, 1998, Daphne D.C.Pochin Mold, Valentia, Dublin, 1978, Peter Young, Power of Speech, London, 1983 and a number of web sites including that of Cable & Wireless, and that of the Heart’s Content Museum. Since the book was written Alcatel have produced ‘Greenwich. Centre for global telecommunications from 1850′ by Steve Hill and Alan Jeal, Alcatel, 2000. An American TV documentary shown on Discovery Channel TV made a number of references to conditions in the Greenwich factory – but correspondence asking them for sources has gone unanswered. References not given below in pp. 54-67 are taken from these, but predominantly from Merrett and Telcon Story. Also please note Bill Burns comprehensive web site

Enderby Wharf has been identified with the laying of the Atlantic Cable. However, the story starts on a site a few hundred yards further north – Morden Wharf. In the 1830s Morden College began to parcel out sites to those who were willing to develop them and a large site, including both that now covered by the Amylum Works as well as the area of Morden Wharf, was let to a Charles Holcombe. (Morden College Archive deed collection). He began to sub-let areas within this site to ‘suitable’ industrial tenants. One of these was a cable maker, William Kuper.


The story of the development and laying of telegraph cables is complicated and involves many people and companies. This account is limited to the aspects relevant to cable manufacture in Greenwich. In the early 1850s technology was sufficiently far advanced to lay a telegraph cable between England and France. Cable making itself had been developed by a number of inventors working for different manufacturers. In particular, the use of gutta percha, a rubber like substance obtained from trees in Malaya and only recently discovered, had been developed by a specialist firm – The Gutta Percha Company. Most of the development work had been done in east and north east London – not, as yet, in Greenwich, despite the work done by the Enderbys. The first cables were made of twisted wires in a similar way to the ‘wire rope’, used for haulage in mines and quarries. An early manufacturer of wire rope, and later cable, was William Kuper and Co. whose works was alongside the Surrey Canal in Camberwell.

Cable manufacture was still in its early stages and before undersea cables could be made considerable difficulties had to be overcome – the first attempts were not a success. Kuper received some of the sub-contract work for the second attempt and, since it was successful, more orders followed.


richard attwood glass
Richard Attwood Glass from Illustrated London News

George Elliott was a mining engineer (William D. Lawson, Tyneside Celebrities, Newcastle, 1873) working for the Marquis of Londonderry whose pits in the Durham coalfield were a major supplier of coal to Greenwich industries.(A great deal of coal came to Greenwich from the Durham coalfield, largely owned by Lord Londonderry). He had worked in an advisory capacity at Newall’s at whose Gateshead cable works most of the telegraph cables laid up to then had been made. Elliott became Kuper’s agent and could provide the expertise to make the company financially viable and at the same time help them move to a new Greenwich factory, at Morden Wharf East. They took possession of a new building which Holcombe had erected, of a ‘sound and substantial character‘ as Morden College had specified.

George Elliott. From Newcastle Worthies

Soon after moving to Greenwich, Elliott took over Kuper’s completely together with Richard Attwood Glass – they called the new firm Glass Elliott. Elliott went on to become MP for Newcastle, and Glass became Secretary of the Stock Exchange. (This information is contained in a report in Kentish Mercury, 1868). At Morden Wharf their first commission was to make the cable for a submarine link between Northern Italy and Corsica and for this they made sheathing to cover a core already made by the Gutta Percha Company at Wharf Road in Islington.

The manufacture of this Italian cable was a success and it was laid under the sea by the SS Persian. The next cable was destined for a link across the Cabot Strait in America. Problems were encountered in loading the cable onto the ship from Morden Wharf and, to deal with this, cable pits were dug in which the cable was coiled up and tested underwater while it was still in storage.


cable tanks
The Atlantic Cable at Morden Wharf. The cable is coiled in special tanks. Picture from Illustrated London News
examing cables glass elliott
Finishing manufacture of the Atlantic Cable at Morden Wharf. Picture from Illustrated London News

Contemporary drawings (the making of the Atlantic cable is lavishly illustrated, particularly in contemporary Illustrated London News. It may that a subject near home had its conveniences! (cf. Neil Rhind, ‘Fine Lines’, The Guide, August 2000) show the works at Morden Wharf with ‘Glass Elliot, Submarine Cables’ written on the roof of the main buildings, at an angle so as to be seen from the River. They also show two pits lined with bricks, and a bridge in-between with arched drainage ducts underneath. From these coiled cables could be loaded on to the ship. While techniques for handling the cable were perfected, survey work went on for the laying of the Atlantic Telegraph cable. For this a new company – The Atlantic Telegraph Company – was set up in 1856. The provision of a telegraph link between the old and new worlds was seen as something of paramount importance – and there was great excitement about it since it was recognised that overnight it could change the way in which business and society were organised. Interest by the public was enormous on both sides of the Atlantic.

The core for the first Atlantic cable was made by the Gutta Percha Company and the job of making the sheathing was shared between Glass Elliott, in Greenwich, and Newall in Birkenhead. The sheathing used eighteen stranded wires woven around a core separated by hemp soaked in tar, pitch and linseed oil. This system is said to have been designed by Brunel and it needed enough wire to encircle the earth three times. The cable was to be made in 1,200 pieces, each two miles long, which were then spliced into eight lengths of 300 miles each. Work began on 19th December 1856. Unfortunately it turned out that the cable made in Birkenhead had a right-handed twist, while Glass Elliott, who had thought the cable would be twisted when it was coiled, gave theirs a left-handed twist. This, and other problems, took time to sort out.

It was necessary to design a new method of paying the cable out from the ships into the sea. This was to allow control over the speed of the cable as it left the ship, and so that it could be stowed efficiently.

A recording machine was installed on board the cable ship to check how much cable had been laid.

Half the cable was to be laid from Valentia, the westernmost point in Britain on the Irish coast and the other half from America. The Greenwich made cable went into the British ship, Agamemnon. She was an old ‘wooden walled ship of the line‘ with ninety-one guns, and had been the flagship at the bombardment of Sevastopol. That the Government lent her for the project demonstrated quite clearly the level of their backing for this apparently private project. The cable was loaded from Greenwich in July 1857 and coiled into Agamemnon’s hold by sailors sitting on stools.

Agamemnon and the cable had a magnificent send off with a garden-party in Erith for the crew and Glass Elliot’s workmen But, despite everyone’s hopes, the attempt was a failure. The cable broke in mid-Atlantic and was lost. The cable makers went back to Greenwich to start work again.


Glass Elliott had wanted to expand beyond Morden Wharf since 1857. Together with another cable manufacturer, W.T.Henley, they took over the Enderby site, including the ropewalk (which was to remain on site for many years to come).

In 1858 ‘Messrs Henley’ asked the River Commissioners (Thames Conservancy Minutes as quoted (Museum in Docklands archive) for permission to deepen the River so that steamers could embark and cables be loaded but Henley soon moved out to another site at North Woolwich.

Three years later Glass Elliott alone asked for permission to build a causeway at Enderby’s together with another at the ‘telegraph works’ – still at Morden Wharf. So the long occupation of Enderby Wharf by Glass Elliott and their successors began, but for some years Morden Wharf continued to be used.


Glass Elliott was contracted to make the cable for the second attempt in the Atlantic. Once again the cable was loaded onto Agamemnon and, despite many difficulties, it was successfully laid by 5th August 1858 – to rapturous acclaim in the press. Sadly the connection lasted just two months and by October nothing could be transmitted through it. Once again the cable makers returned to Greenwich and, in 1862, were ready to try again. Glass Elliott’s technicians had designed a new and improved cable for the next attempt.


In April 1864 Glass Elliott merged with the Gutta Percha Company, who made the core of the new cables. This company was called the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co., with Sir John Pender as Chairman and with Richard Glass as Managing Director. (A very great deal has been written about the Great Eastern, so much indeed and so well known is her link with the cable, that a casual walk along the Greenwich riverside in the area of Enderby’s Wharf will often lead to a chat with a stranger who is knows about the Great Eastern and the cable.) They immediately offered to make and lay a new Atlantic cable. This time it would be more robustly constructed, heavier, and nearly double the diameter. There would be seven strands of high purity copper, six of them twisted round the seventh and there would be four layers of gutta percha. Between the copper and the gutta percha there would be a layer of resin and Stockholm Tar. As it was made, inch by inch, it was closely inspected – a break would mean another expensive disaster. The new cable was so big and heavy that Agamemnon could not carry it and it was thought three ships would be needed.


great eastern off sheerness
Great Eastern off Sheerness. From The Atlantic Cable illustrated.

The solution came in the shape of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enormous and unpopular ship, the Great Eastern. Launched seven years before from Millwall and, known as ‘The Leviathan’, she was designed to be bigger and more powerful than any ship before her. She had failed as a passenger liner and was thus bought very cheaply by Brunel’s friend, Daniel Gooch, while he was a director of Great Western Railway Company. He promptly joined the Board of the Telegraph Construction Company and offered Great Eastern to them for free. A very great deal has been written about the Great Eastern, so much indeed and so well known is her link with the cable, that a casual walk along the Greenwich riverside in the area of Enderby’s Wharf will often lead to a chat with a stranger who is knows about the Great Eastern and the cable.

There was even greater interest in this new, third, cable and the Prince of Wales visited Greenwich to see it being manufactured. He sent a message through the 1,400 miles then being tested in the factory – ‘I wish success to the Atlantic Cable‘.

visit of prince of wales ge 24 5 1865 in colour
Visit of the Prince of Wales to see manufacture of the Atlantic Cable. From Atlantic Cable.

It took eight months to make the new cable and two weeks to load it into Great Eastern. The ship was so big that she could not be brought alongside Enderby Wharf and every bit of cable had to be ferried out to her. She left Greenwich for Valentia on 15th July 1865 carrying 21,000 tons dead-weight.

When they were 948 miles from Valentia and 717 miles from their destination, Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, the cable was once more lost overboard. Four times the cable was found on the ocean bottom, and four times it slipped away again. Then storms set in and the cable was thought to be lost. For a while, in England, it was also believed that the Great Eastern herself had gone down – once the cable was lost no messages could be got back. Once again, the cable makers went back to Greenwich.


The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co. made yet another new cable, which was finished in 1866. Once again they loaded the Great Eastern and once again she left the Thames for Valentia. The bands on shore played ‘Goodbye Sweetheart‘ as she left with 2,730 miles of cable. This time, on 27th July, she reached Heart’s Content and the cable was laid at last.

Great Eastern then went back to look for the broken cable lost in the previous attempt. There was no way to contact the ship once she had left but on 2nd of September instruments at the Valentia end of the broken cable began to move. Workers on board Great Eastern had found the broken end two miles down, brought it up, and it too was now connected. Within a few moments, both Europe and America knew where Great Eastern was and what she had done. It is one of the defining moments of the modern world.

listening to rejoined 1865 cable at valentia
Listening to the rejoined cable in Valentia in 1865. One of the key moments in the formation of the world of communications. Picture Illustrated London News.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Atlantic cable and the ‘profound transformation’ to which it led. Kynaston, a historian of the City of London has said that ‘despite the romance of the workshop of the world … it is in the under-publicised accounts department that the long-term future held sway‘. (David Kynaston, The City of London,  London, 1994)  The telegraph was a major agent of change and an instrument whose importance was not lost on City business interests, which controlled land on the Greenwich Peninsula and the companies, which made and laid the cable. The Stock Exchange was transformed by it, and by 1871 ‘trading on exchanges in New York and London were effectively integrated‘.Within another two years connections were made to Tokyo and Melbourne and world markets were shifting towards globalisation.

At the end of the twentieth century there is much talk about the global communications revolution. The real revolution came a hundred and thirty years ago when wires twisted on Greenwich marsh crackled into life on the sea bed. It is said that for many years one of the Great Eastern’s masts stood on Enderby Wharf as a reminder of what had been achieved. It was a special wooden mast that held a compass overhead above the magnetic field of the ship.(info. Pat O’Driscoll) It disappeared in 1965 – where is it now?

Of all the sites involved with the cable only one has an exhibition to show what happened – at Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.


There is no space here to outline all the changes in the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company and the Greenwich works. Between the 1870s and the present day there have, obviously, been many take-overs and structural changes. The international nature of the business can be illustrated – grimly – by the murder in 1908 of their Chief Engineer, Mr.Tom London, in Mombassa where the cable ship Columba had docked. (Report in Kentish
Mercury January  1908.)

For a while the numerous cable companies made up a major Thameside industry – most are gone, but the Greenwich works remains. The need for technology for the transfer of information is as strong as ever.

Enderby House is still on the riverside. Alongside it is an office building with decorative cable and gutta percha motifs above the lintels and around the door. The wharf is no longer used, and the ‘dolphins’ at which the cable ships were loaded are gone. The John W. Mackay, a cable ship preserved there for many years has apparently now been broken up. On the jetty itself cable-loading gear still stands, unmarked, but for the moment preserved as a monument.

(Enderby House has stood unused and vandaised for the past five or so years. Its future is not known and English Heritage consider it to be’at risk.  John W.Mackay’ – it is understood the ship was passed to a Trust in Glasgow who sold it. It was subsequently wrecked. The Cable Gear and jetties, In the mid 2000a the two jetties were been extensively renovated by Alcatel together with the Groundwork Trust. The smaller jetty was been grassed over, and a boat placed on the larger one, together with new fencing and some interpretative material.  Since then although The Cable Gear and jetty still stand following the sale of the riverside by Alcatel it is unclear who owns it – since the developer denies having bought it. Its future and care are unknown although it is understood Alcatel keep a watching brief on it. Other items put on the site by Groundwork have vanished. A sculpture on the steps above Bendish Sluice has recently received some attention in the local media)

festival of britain ad
Telcon advertisement for the Festival of Britain 1951

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