Transatlantic Telegraphs: Cable Souvenirs in Southwark

This year I’ve been doing some more research at the Cuming Museum into a particularly fascinating group of objects from their collections. The research is still ongoing, but here's what I've got so far...

These items are a bit different to the relics I’ve written about before, but they are still ‘memorials' in some sense of the word, as they commemorate one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century - the successful laying of telegraph cable between Britain and America. The commemorative souvenirs in the Cuming Museum’s collections testify not only to what a huge technical achievement this was, but also to how Victorian Britons understood it as an extraordinary, historic event which warranted celebrating - and to which they were connected.
The Atlantic cable, successfully laid in August 1858 after a series of failed attempts, allowed communication between the UK and the US at a speed that, just years before, was unimaginable. It went from Valentia Island, off the west coast of Ireland, to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, a distance of around 2000 miles. The transmission of the first messages was a world-changing event, and there was great jubilation on both sides of the Atlantic. 

In America, the event was marked by much celebration and ceremony, with gun salutes in Boston and New York, special church services nationwide, and parades, one of which came close to burning down New York’s City Hall in its unchecked exuberance. Britain’s celebrations were somewhat less animated, however, and The Times reported that 

All this time we did not ring a bell, or let off a squib, or light a kitchen dip, or even walk out into the streets, or do anything whatever in honour of the event. In all England we believe that not one man congratulated his neighbour about it. We were all pleased in our own quiet fashion (August 31st, 1858). 

So far, so British. But the commemorative cable items in the Cuming Museum do suggest that the British people wanted to mark the success of the cable in some way. These objects contain pieces of the surplus cable which was sliced up to be sold as souvenirs. This suggests that people were keen to feel materially connected to these world-changing events, by carrying or possessing pieces of the actual cable destined for the Atlantic.

Atlantic cable mounted as a watch trinket. (C12464) 

Atlantic cable mounted as watch fob (C13057)

These two items are watch fobs or trinkets, which would have been attached to pocket watches. They are made from pieces of the 1858 cable, which was comprised of 7 strands of copper wire (these can be seen in the centre) covered with a resin called Gutta Percha. It was then covered with treated jute yarn before being surrounded by 18 strands, each composed of seven iron wires (the silver dots that you can see around the edge). After 1858, the design of cables changed, so we can be certain that these souvenirs are made from remnants of the 1858 cable, the first one laid successfully.

Trade in leftover cable began soon after it was successfully laid. In America, the jewellery makers Tiffany & Co. sold small pieces bearing brass labels for fifty cents each. Souvenirs were for sale in Britain, too. The first advertisements for these items appeared in the Illustrated London News on August 14th, 9 days after the successful laying of the cable. They were being sold by Edwards and Jones, of 161 Regent Street, jewellers, antique dealers, and traders in leather goods, for 12 and a half shillings for silver gilt, and 21 shillings for gold (the equivalent of about £27 and £45 today, respectively).

In Liverpool, John R. Isaac was also selling pieces of the cable which he had fashioned into ‘desk seals, handles, and paper knives. Isaac, an artist, engraver and printer, was greatly interested in maritime history and produced a series of lithographs about the 1857 voyage which he also sold as a book.

We can’t be sure which jeweller or maker was responsible for mounting the two pieces of the 1858 cable which are in the Cuming Museum, but we know that Richard and Henry Cuming, the Victorian father and son on whose personal collection the museum is founded, themselves collected the first example shown above, labelled it, and added it to their collections, probably in 1865. The second one was a later addition to the museum; it was donated by a Southwark Councillor, JW Carter Taylor, in December 1927.

Unfortunately, the success of the cable was short lived. Less than a month after it had started working, the cable suddenly stopped. It had deteriorated due to the large electrical currents being sent through it, and in the US, Tiffany’s were left with thousands of unsold pieces of cable as interest in the souvenirs dropped off sharply. In the UK, J&S Johnsons began to sell pieces of the failed cable for only one shilling each (about £2).

The use of a large amount of public money in these failures meant that an inquiry was held into the causes of the cable’s failure, and it was some time before sufficient money could be raised, and confidence restored in the project, for a further attempt to be made. This was in 1865. Although the new cable was better and stronger, it snapped, and was lost under the sea only 600 miles short of its destination in Newfoundland. More cable was manufactured and in 1866, a further attempt was made which not only successfully laid the cable but also retrieved the lost cable from the year before, and this was also connected. Further cables were subsequently connected and before long, fast communication across the ocean between the UK and US became commonplace.

Section of 1865 cable collected from sea bed (C13406).

This is a piece of the lost cable from 1865 that was, as the inscription on the mounting says, dredged up from a depth of over 2 and a half miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in 1866. It seems that despite the earlier failures of the Atlantic cables, there was still a desire to commemorate these engineering feats, and this piece of cable has been helpfully inscribed with its own history.

These objects are, of course, fascinating in their own right, both from a technical perspective and because of the reverberations through Victorian culture that this change in communications technology brought about. Their stories can also help us to learn more about the history of the Cuming Museum and the Southwark area, as many were donated to the museum by local people.

The mounted portion of the 1865 cable above was given to the Cuming Museum in 1929 by Mr John Love, a soap-maker who lived in Bedford Street in Southwark with his wife, Gladys Lily Love. Along with the portion of cable, Love donated a cigarette holder, made of meerschaum, and decorated with tiny carvings of running horses.

His family had lived in Southwark for generations - his grandfather Thomas Love was a coppersmith, born in 1845, and his father, Nathaniel Love, born around 1880, worked as a coffee stall assistant. Nathaniel Love married his wife Grace in 1899 and they lived together in Chatham Street, just off the Old Kent Road. It’s likely that when John Love was born, some time around 1902, he was born at home, in Southwark.

John’s father Nathaniel died in 1929, and about the same time that his death was registered, John donated the cable portion and the cigarette holder to the Cuming Museum. It seems reasonable to infer that the two items had belonged to Nathaniel. John must have felt that the items were precious and worth keeping, but perhaps he didn’t know what to do with them at home. The museum provided a place for him to deposit them - perhaps he was hoping that they’d be cared for and preserved, or that they might interest local people who came to visit.

How did Nathaniel Love come to possess the mounted portion of the 1865 Atlantic cable? Perhaps it was passed to him by his father Thomas. His work as a coppersmith may well have put him into contact with the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, who produced the 1865 cable, and were based in Greenwich. That’s the next bit of my research. Hopefully I can find out a bit more about how the people of Southwark are connected to these world-changing events.

Many thanks to Bill Burns of the Atlantic Cable website for his help identifying the Cuming Museum’s artefacts.

Further reading

  • Bill Burns’ website covers just about everything you could ever wish to know about the history of the Atlantic telegraph cable, including lots about cable souvenirs
  • As part of their Information Age gallery, the Science Museum have a large display about the Atlantic Cable, and you can read their article on the subject here.
  • Useful summary of Atlantic cable events from Professor Nigel Linge at Salford.
  • Online edition of Bern Dibner's The Atlantic Cable, an authority on the subject, first published in 1959.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog. I note that the first use of 'to cable' documented in the OED is from 1871, and appears in Maximilian Schele de Vere 'Americanisms: the English of the New World' 1872, New York.