Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 38 - 1866 - King Neptune Fettered at Last

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S.s. London - Sentence of death on 200 - Amateur casual - Captain Coles - Cigar-ship - Overend and Gurney - Atlantic cables - Great Eastern finds her mission - Complete success - Array of British talent - Post Office red tape - King Neptune and the cables.

THE first event in my remembrance of 1866 was a tragedy, and a soul-stirring one. The New Year was only some ten days old when the screw steamer London, bound for Australia, was caught in a severe gale in the Bay of Biscay and foundered with the loss of about two hundred lives, only the cutter with a few survivors being picked up after a terrible experience of nearly twenty- four hours. The deeply laden steamer shipped a succession of heavy seas, by which the engine-room hatch was carried away, the engine-room inundated and the boiler fires put out. Thus rendered unmanageable, she was repeatedly pooped and some of the cabin ports burst open. The passengers and crew assembled in the saloon, where the poor captain appeared and with great emotion told the company that he and his crew had done their best; but the ship was sinking and he could hold out no hopes of saving her. Sentence of death on two hundred forlorn creatures, numbering amongst them many women and children! Fortunately it is not on many men that Fate imposes the fulfilment of such a heart-rending task.
    Resignation and fortitude characterised the behaviour of the majority. They were fortunate in having two brave ministers of religion on board, Dr. Woolley, Bishop of Sydney, and the Rev. Mr. Draper, both of whom prayed and exhorted, with soothing and calming effect, until the end. Captain Martin refused to leave in the only boat that got [-290-] away, but wished it "God speed!" and his prayer was happily answered. There must have been something very wrong about the design or construction of that engine-room hatch. As people dried their eyes they thought that here was a tragedy that ought not to have been. It bore its fruits. Engine-room hatches began to be considerably raised above deck level and strengthened and the old river-steamer style of skylight abandoned.
    January was also noted for the Amateur Casual articles of Mr. Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who, got up as a tramp, gained admittance to a casual ward - at Lambeth, I think - and there found material for some remarkably good "copy." Very soon everybody was talking about his adventures, and Old Daddy, one of his co-casuals, became quite famous, receiving attention and even personation at some of the music-halls. Had the manager of one of these had the inspiration to engage Daddy as his chairman he would certainly have scored. Greenwood's experiences constituted a good journalistic "scoop,! and led to some small reforms in casual ward administration.
    Captain Coles, designer in after-years of the ill-fated warship Captain, which, with its inventor in command, capsized off the Spanish coast with the loss of nearly all its crew, attracted attention and some ridicule by exhibiting a model of an iron tripod mast of his contrivance. Quizzed by the quidnuncs and not enthusiastically received by engineers and sailors, it is noteworthy that for a good many years past this style of mast has been standard in the American Navy and has even received exemplification in our own. Captain Coles was an able and patriotic man, Captain notwithstanding, and it is but just that this success of his should be put on record.
    The arrival in the Thames of the cigar-shaped ship built by Mr. Ross Wynan, an American millionaire, gave rise to a lawsuit for patent infringement, a British seaman, Captain Beadon, alleging that he had protected an identical design in 1852. I don't recollect how it was settled, but the cigar- ships, of which several were built, never did much to justify the great expectations formed of them. However, they [-291-] could be worked into effective pictures and accordingly plunged and fended the mighty deep a good deal on paper if nowhere else.
    The terrible bank failure of Overend and Gurney occurred in June, the liabilities being eleven millions. I saw a queue of unfortunate customers, including many women, outside the closed doors in Threadneedle Street, apparently hoping against drab dismal fact that the exhibited notice of suspended payment might in some miraculous manner become cancelled and the doors opened again. But, alas! there was no "Sesame" potent enough to influence the portals of that Robbers' Cave.
    In July was renewed, by the aid of the mighty steamer Great Eastern, the effort of 1858 to lay a telegraph line across the Atlantic. In April, 1864, the Telegraph Construction Company (still alive and prosperous in 1924) was formed for the purpose of making and laying the requisite cable, those experienced manufacturing concerns, the Guttapercha Works Company, and Glass, Elliott and Company being acquired by way of foundation, while the Great Eastern was luckily purchased for the unexpectedly small sum of 25,000. She came round to Sheerness to be fitted with cable tanks and laying machinery and sailed with the cable on July 15th, 1865. In spite of a few delays and hitches 1,200 miles had been paid out from Valentia, Ireland, when, on August 2nd, the cable broke in 2,000 fathoms - 2 miles. Grappled for and hooked several times it could not be brought to the surface, and on the 11th the disappointed expedition shaped its course for the Thames.
    The sum of 160,000 was required to repeat the attempt, which seemed at first impossible to raise after the previous failures. Daniel Gooch, the able locomotive engineer of the Great Western Railway, whose name has occurred before in these pages, who had become a director of the Telegraph Construction Company, proposed that each of the ten directors should show his faith in the enterprise by subscribing 10,000. This was done, and the 100,000 so obtained soon attracted the necessary balance from the public.
    [-292-] The Great Eastern, fitted with improved picking-up gear, left Sheerness on June 30th, 1866, and began to pay out from Valentia on July 13th. This time no hitches of moment occurred, and on the 26th the cable end was landed at the village of Heart's Content, Newfoundland, amidst fervid rejoicings. Before any cablegram (a word then unthought of) was despatched to England, the chiefs of the expedition attended a thanksgiving service at the little local church, and it may be imagined that the ceremony was not lacking in sincerity and impressiveness. Then the spot of light at Valentia began to dance and to spell out words of modest triumph and earnest congratulation, and soon the news was known to all the world reachable by telegraphs or newspapers.
    On August 9th the cable-ship (another term originating with this achievement) sailed, and on the 13th began to grapple for the lost cable of 1865. Numerous difficulties intervened, only to be overcome, and on September 2nd it was brought to the bows from a depth of 2 miles and spliced; and on the 8th the Great Eastern again entered Heart's Content and landed her second cable. And so the Eastern and Western Hemispheres were joined by two tiny channels through which could be freely transmitted and exchanged the thoughts, great or little; wishes, sentiments, hopes and fears of the civilised world.
    When I say "freely" I go perhaps beyond the mark, for messages at first cost 1 per word. Even at that price the traffic was considerable, not only from England, but likewise from the Continent and even India.
    In London, where the cable had been made, its carrier built and the enterprise financed, the varying fortunes of the expedition were followed with the closest attention, nearly every day for over two months providing its sensation or excitement, its suspense, doubt, hope or triumph. For most of the time the Great Eastern was in touch with Valentia and the nation's nerves seemed to be hooked on there to the slender but magic filament that lay peacefully on the ooze some 2 miles below the turbulent Atlantic surface.
    The expedition had been blessed with an unparalleled [-293-] galaxy of talent. Daniel Gooch had charge of the mechanical arrangements, and William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin), Cromwell Varley, Charles Bright, Willoughby Smith, Latirner Clark, all most capable experts, of the electrical. And in the commander, Captain James Anderson, formerly of the Cunard Service, had been found one who was truly a master mariner.
    In after-years I met all these doughty pioneers except Anderson. But with him I once exchanged letters. In 1886 I was organising a Telephone Exchange for Dumfries, and, finding that Sir James (as he had become) was residing in the neighbourhood, invited him to join as one of the first subscribers. The negative that be proffered was prompt and emphatic enough to prove that the old commander of the Great Eastern was still entitled to rank as a man of quarter-deck decision.
    It is a noteworthy fact that this conquest of the Atlantic was achieved by Britons. In the United States Mr. Cyrus Field, the American financier, is often cited as the person to whom success was primarily due. But, apart from a very sincere and untiring advocacy and the fact that he, as one of the ten directors, underwrote 10,000 of the company's stock, his doings were not of the most critical moment. His countrymen subscribed for comparatively few shares, and, as the cable was manufactured in London to British specifications, was laid from a London-built steamer by engineers and technicians who were all English or Scottish, and when completed was worked by instruments designed by Thomson and Varley and made in London, the share of the United States would appear not much larger than a barley-corn viewed through the wrong end of a very powerful telescope. "And that's a fact."
    In 1870 the Post Office took over the British telegraphs and the "dead hand of officialdom soon began to meddle with the Atlantic cables. One day it was found that messages from foreign parts, including India, addressed to Boston (which bad to pass over Post Office wires to get to Valentia) were being sent to Boston, Lincolnshire, and that that country station was forwarding numerous Service [-294-] messages over half the globe to say that such persons as the addressees could not be found and that the cablegrams were undelivered. After a time it transpired that the Post Office, without notice to other administrations, had determined to treat all messages for Boston that way unless the sender had added (and paid for) America, United States or Massachusetts. No such distinction was really required for delivery purposes, the character of the telegrams, which were mostly coded, sufficiently telling their tale; but there was no hesitation in deliberately holding them up for hours and days while the farce was being solemnly played out.
    F. C. Burnand introduced the cable business in a prologue to his burlesque of Black-eyed Susan, produced at the Royalty Theatre shortly after the successful termination of the expedition. King Neptune, discovered reclining on a submarine rock, disturbed by the descent of grapnels, exclaimed:
        "Good gracious me! What's this a-coming down ?
        Where are my glasses ? Let me have a look-
        Ah, now I've got my eye upon a hook !"
    But the old gentleman is pacified by the appearance of two fair sea-nymphs, who announce themselves as 'Sixty-five and 'Sixty-six (although they didn't look it), and join the cable through amidst the crackling of electrical sparks, so that the story of Black-eyed Susan and her William could be transmitted for his delectation.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924