The Telegraph Museum
‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth, in forty minutes’, says Shakespeare’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well, early telegraph messages weren’t quite so fast: a message from Queen Victoria to the US President, for instance, comprising just 98 words, took 19 hours to send. But things improved, and soon Puck’s fantasy became the Victorians’ reality – as Martyn Oliver discovers.
Between Logan Rock and Minack Point, almost at the very furthest tip of Cornwall, lie the beautiful crescent-shaped beaches of Porthcurno Bay. Today, the Rock, the Bay and Minack’s open-air theatre are magnets for visitors. But the white sands hide a secret. Buried beneath them were the submarine telegraph cables that once linked Britain to the rest of the world.
A gleaming white building a couple of hundred yards from the water’s edge is the home of Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, and there – and, more importantly, in the underground tunnels bored into the side of the cliffs behind the Museum – you’ll find the history of what can best be described as the Victorian Internet.
At the top of Porthcurno Beach is the prosaically named Cable Hut, the terminal point for a network of cables that once kept Great Britain in touch with the outposts of Empire. Most of the cables that crossed the beach have since been removed, for ‘health and safety’ reasons, but at one time they formed a skein of tenuous but vital links with countries as far away as India, Australia and the USA.
There had been several attempts to lay the new-fangled telegraph cables beneath the waters around Britain’s shores during mid-nineteenth century. Some had been defeated by porous insulation, others by seasickness. Several had succeeded, and from the 1850s undersea cable links were established, for instance, between Dover and Ostende in Belgium, Orfordness and Haarlem in the Netherlands, and Newbiggin and Sondervig in Denmark. But the Victorians had their sights set further afield, and in February 1870 Brunel’s passenger liner the Great Eastern, in her new incarnation as a cable ship, left Bombay to lay almost 3000 miles of cable to Aden and Suez, on behalf of the British-Indian Submarine Telegraph Co. Other cable ships took over in the Mediterranean, and by June of the same year the cable had reached the coast of Cornwall at Porthcurno.
More routes followed, and eventually fourteen separate underwater cables came ashore and were terminated in Porthcurno’s Cable Hut. Seven of the terminators remain, bearing exotic labels such as Gibraltar, Old Vigo, St John’s, Newfoundland and Fayal in the Azores. From the Hut, landlines carried the telegraph signals to and from a Cable Station in Porthcurno village, where operators worked round the clock to transmit and receive the Empire’s business.
During the Second World War, the Cable Station was obviously vulnerable to enemy attack, and in 1940 200 Cornish tin miners excavated two adjacent tunnels in the rock face behind the station, whose entrances were protected by armour-plated doors. Staff and equipment were transferred to the tunnels, and operations continued there in relative safety until the Station closed in 1970. Cable and Wireless, the successor to the pioneering cable engineers of the nineteenth century, continued to run an engineering training school at Porthcurno up to 1993, when the Telegraph Museum was established.
As well as telling the story of undersea communication to thousands of visitors each year, the Telegraph Museum is also an important centre for historical research. Much of the Cable Station building is given over to archives and workshops, and is closed to the public, though there is a small but fascinating local history room on the ground floor and a larger activity centre for young people upstairs. But the gems of the Museum’s exhibits are found in the tunnels behind the bombproof doors. One-time Cable and Wireless employees give informal talks about Porthcurno’s history, demonstrating some of the earliest pieces of telegraph machinery. There are cable-laying and cable construction displays, and operators’ workstations are maintained exactly as they were when the Station was functioning. And for those visitors sound in wind and limb, there is the chance to climb the 120-step escape stairway to a secret exit high on the clifftop.
The journey to the very tip of Cornwall is a long one, but one that’s well worth making. The Telegraph Museum at Porthcurno is certainly a significant early milestone on the Information Superhighway.