The Channel Islands cables and international communications networks

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A large crowd witnessed the opening of the CI Telegraph Company offices in 1858
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This article by Donard de Cogan was first published in the 1998 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


International communications by means of cable telegraphs was an opportune technology in the early Victorian era. The industrial revolution had brought about faster transport and more efficient industrial processes. Merchants needed to buy raw materials and to sell products in ways which maximised profits.

From the moment that a practical telegraph was demonstrated, land networks grew quickly and cable telegraphs followed. The first significant cable link was between Britain and France in 1851. The subsequent expansion was largely driven by imperial rivalry, which was to be a dominant feature right up to the First World War; access to and control of information was a key element of imperial power.

Unlike most of the rest of Europe, British telegraphs were initially funded by private enterprise and were dominated by the Electric Telegraph Company, later to become the Electric and International Telegraph Company, when they gained their first cable.

Telegraphs were an entrepreneurial activity requiring a heavy initial capital. Their expansion mirrored that of the railway network and we frequently see the same investors in both. We also see local communities actively encouraging railways and telegraphs to come to them so that they could participate in the benefits.

The Channel Islands Telegraph Company was one such enterprise, being largely funded by Jersey and Guernsey money. Its cable was installed in 1858 amidst pomp and rejoicing but, like many laid at about that time, it did not last long. This paper discusses the history of the cable in the wider context of the early development of international telegraph communications. It relates events from the viewpoint of some who were involved with the installation, operation and maintenance of the cable and concludes with an outline of the subsequent history of international cable communications with the Channel Islands.

Primary sources

Much of what has been written about the Channel Islands telegraph has been largely based on newspaper and other reports at the time. There are, however, previously unexplored writings by two authors, Preece and Graves, who were intimately involved with the venture.

William Henry Preece (1834- ) received his electrical education under Michael Faraday. In 1853 he was employed by the Electric and International Telegraph Company and in 1856 became superintendent of the Southern District, based at Southampton.

When the EITC entered an agreement with the Channel Islands Telegraph Company to handle its traffic on the mainland, Preece assumed the additional responsibility of engineer to that company. His various reports provide an important background to this history.

The first document records that the cable ran from Portland to Alderney (57.5 miles), thence to Guernsey (18.25 miles) and finally to Jersey (17.24 miles). The route had been dictated by the Government.

The other source of information has only recently come to light. James Graves, who for the short life of that cable was clerk-in-charge at the Telegraph Office in Jersey was a copious, if intermittent, chronicler and several part-autobiographies exist. There are two relevant documents which are still in the possession of his family. His personal autobiography provides a comprehensive coverage from his childhood up to about 1866. His technical autobiography gives an outline coverage of the earlier period, but is one of the most comprehensive sources of detail of his subsequent career.

Graves was born near Cambridge in 1833 and planned a career in teaching (in 1871 his brother became first president of the National Union of Elementary Teachers, now the NUT). However, as a result of the change-over from the monitorial system to fully trained teachers, he was made redundant. In 1852 he entered the new technology, telegraphy, and was trained and employed by the EITC. His first posting was in Southampton where he worked under W H Preece.

Graves did well at Southampton. He oversaw the opening of the printing telegraph from Southampton to London in the beginning of March 1853, from Portsmouth to London in early 1854, and also the telegraph from Southampton to Hurst Castle and the Isle of Wight in June 1854. Having taught himself French during this period, he was moved back to the 'foreign gallery' in the headquarters of the Electric and International Telegraph Company at Lothbury in London.

In his writings he records that at about this time a company was formed bearing the title of The Channel Islands Telegraph Company for the purpose of connecting the Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney with England, at Portland near Weymouth.

”Preferring the sea air to that of London, I sought for an appointment at one of the Channel Islands stations, and succeeded in my suit. I received orders to go to Jersey on 3 August 1858 to assist in signalling during the laying down of the cable, but on arrival there I found the contractors (Messrs Newall and Co) had supplied their own signal clerks for that purpose. I accordingly returned to London the following day (my 25th birthday).”
The first telegraphic message to Queen Victoria

Final orders for Graves' departure to Jersey were received on 4 September. Together with his family he travelled down from London to Southampton on the evening of Monday, 6 September in company with D P Gamble (Superintendent of the London district and also secretary of the Channel Islands Telegraph Company) and others who were either connected with the company or with the contractors. At midnight they embarked on the mail steamer Courier (Captain Goodridge). It was not a pleasant journey as is recorded:

”We had not been long at sea before my wife, child and myself were all taken with a dreadful sea-sickness, having a very rough passage which retarded our progress so much that the steamer did not arrive in Jersey until full three hours behind her usual time in favourable circumstances, making our sea passing in 13 hours.
”Notwithstanding the rough and fatigued state I was in, I was immediately called to the office to put the electric telegraph into operation and make a few preliminary arrangements and enquiries previous to the dispatch of messages. On arrival at the office (after having taken a little nourishment at the Hotel du Havre) I found it filled with the elite of Jersey, together with the officials of the islands and town of St Helier. The office was literally crammed with ladies and gentlemen, all in anxious anticipation of the first message being transmitted across the Channel to England.
”In the morning the Governor, judges, aristocracy, ministers, honorary police and a band of soldiers formed a procession through the town and having paraded the principal streets, proceeded to the office at about two o'clock, where they entered and partook of refreshments. The Governor of the Island then handed me (on a crimson velvet cushion) a message to be forwarded to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, being the first official message forwarded to England by the new line.
”Her Majesty being in Scotland, the message had to be retransmitted from London, which caused it to arrive at a rather late hour in the evening at Holyrood Palace, but notwithstanding the lateness of the evening, Her Majesty dispatched her reply that same night, but as we little expected to receive it that evening, we closed our office, so that it was not until early the next morning that we received Her most gracious reply, which gave the most heartfelt satisfaction to the whole of the inhabitants.
”Copies of the original message with the reply were printed, posted and circulated all over the Island and it is worthy of note, how beautifully and appropriately Her Majesty's reply was worded, being expressive of the previous loyalty and devotedness of the Islanders and her confidence in them for the future.
”I here append a verbatim copy of the people's message, together with Her Majesty's Gracious Reply to the same - the former was dispatched and the latter received by myself.
”The fetes in the town of St Heliers were carried out with a spirit of enthusiasm never before equalled - almost every house vied with each other to decorate and illumine their premises the most - flags and banners with appropriate mottoes and wreaths and garlands were stretched across the streets in every direction. In the evening the illuminations were magnificent.
”Bands played at Charing Cross, and other places rendered the scene most enlivening. Fire balloons were sent up at intervals from a triumphal arch at Charing Cross and at the ascent of each vociferous cheers filled the air proceeding from the mouths of the assembled multitude on all sides. This same evening at the Pomme d'or Hotel a banquet was given to the aristocracy and at the Queen's Assembly Rooms another was given to ‘the People’ every one at each place enjoying himself or herself to their hearts' content.

At this point Graves reminds the reader that a full description of the opening of the cable can be found in his ’’Topographical Guide to Jersey’’ which was published in 1859 by C Le Feuvre, Beresford Street, St Helier,Jersey.

On 9 September 1858 the line was officially opened to the public and business commenced.

Graves describes the premises:

”The office is situated at the corner of Church Street and Library Place, near the Royal Square and forms a corner house, the ground floor being fitted up very comfortably for the offices and the upper part of the house appropriated for the use of the clerks (myself and another, a Mr Meyer), I taking the first and he the second floor where we lived very comfortably together, after having been put to considerable expense in furnishing our portion of the house, the rooms being so much larger than any we had previously occupied. Out of a limited income (altho' raised to 30s per week) we found it a long time before we could thoroughly recover this financial drawback.
”The office was open officially from 8 am to 8 pm but staff were liable to be called up at all hours of the night to forward messages upon the extra payment of one shilling.
”After we had been there some time the Submarine Telegraph Company laid a cable from Jersey to France, and the office was divided into two to accommodate the two companies, but separated from each other, Mr C Gerhardi being appointed as their clerk-in-charge, and being allocated a portion of the house as residence.“

There was some question as to the competence of Mr Meyer, chief of the Jersey station, and on 14 January 1859 Graves found himself in charge of the station at 40s per week with A C Dubois as assistant operator. During this time we see Graves displaying the beginnings of electrical engineering skills which were to be an important part of his career development. He writes:

”About this time (January 1859) I invented an alarm bell to be worked in conjunction with the ordinary telegraphic instrument for the purpose of giving the clerk notice when his machine required winding up, and thereby avoiding the inconvenience of the machine stopping in the middle of a dispatch - an advantage, the value of which can only be estimated by those who by experience know the want of it. I had it attached to the machine at Jersey and found it answered admirably. I forwarded to the engineer of the company my drawings of it, that he might lay them before the managing directors - I heard subsequently that the company intended to have some made upon the principle of my invention.
”Within a short time the telegraph was being put to other uses. In the month of September 1860 the Board of Trade made arrangements for the establishment of a meteorological station at Jersey with a view to warning the seafaring population of approaching storms. After some correspondence, instruments (barometers and thermometers) were forwarded to me and I was appointed agent for Jersey - and during the time the line of telegraphic communication was intact I forwarded every morning a report by wire to the Board of Trade, which was with others published in the ‘’Times’’, ‘’Shipping Gazette’’ and ‘’Globe’’ newspapers.
”A little time afterwards Signal Shapes were furnished and after some little trouble I made arrangements with the Lieut-Governor (Major-General Douglas) for the use of the signal staff at Fort Regent for hoisting the signals when a gale was anticipated.”

Graves was paid 3s per week by the Board of Trade for taking and transmitting the daily weather observations.

Queen Victoria's reply


There were major problems with the cable. One docurnent records that the shore end of the cable in Jersey was broken by the force of the waves in January 1859. This was speedily repaired and strengthened and each other shore end of the cable was secured (something that should have been done in the first place). The line then worked intermittently until April when the cable broke 3.75 miles from Portland, having been completely severed by abrasion upon the sharp edge of a rock.

These problems did provide an opportunity for Graves to demonstrate his skills as an electrical engineer:

”The Channel Islands telegraph cable proved a most unfortunate one. Scarcely had the company established themselves than breakdown commenced, the breakages totally absorbing the receipts in effecting the repairs. These frequent breakdowns of the cable on either one or other of the three sections, Weymouth to Alderney, Alderney to Guernsey or Guernsey to Jersey gave me an opportunity of studying the nature of cable faults and the methods of testing for their locality; and necessity being the mother of invention and having no testing apparatus at the station, I manufactured my own testing galvanometer (a horizontal needle, with silk fibre suspension) and also my own resistance coils, which for want of German silver or platinum silver wire were made of copper wire, silk covered and in the absence of a standard unit.
”I based them upon a mile of the cable under my charge, and rough and ready as were these materials, I localised several faults which occurred in the short sections with them - reporting the results to the Southampton superintendent, who usually came afterwards with proper appliances to verify these results. I thus obtained great experience in the practice of testing and repairing submarine cables and, by dint of great perserverence, endeavoured to improve myself in electrical knowledge and to gain what information I could from every available source, resting well assured that it would be useful to me at some future time.
”Thus I continued to work perserveringly in my business - endeavouring by all means to promote the interests of the company.”

It is obvious that there was a significant improvement in the accuracy of fault location during this period. These frequent interruptions had other, more serious consequences: The constant and numerous failures of this line of telegraph, more especially between the Islands, in consequence of the rocky nature of the bottom of the sea in those parts gave rise to the following letter from the Board of Trade:

”Sir, I thank you for your obliging attention in sending meteorological notices of interest to this office – all of which have been duly received. I regret that local difficulties near Jersey have compelled the Board of Trade to relinquish a meteorological station at that place, where your cooperation has been so zealous and efficient.
”I remain, Sir, your obedient servant: Robert FitzRoy”
”I lost no time in replying to the above letter and represented why for several reasons Jersey should be retained as a signal station if not for an observing station and requesting the Board to consider the matter.

On 15 March I was favoured with the following reply:

”Sir, I acknowledge and thank you for your letter dated the 13th instant. As your argument and reasons seem sound and satisfactory (assuredly not presumptuous) the Meteorological Department will include Jersey amongst the places to be warned, though Alderney will suit our purpose better for Meteorological Observations and their transmission regularly to London. Will you therefore be good enough to retain the signals now in your charge? and others shall be sent hence to Alderney.
”I am, Sir, your obedient servant: Robert FitzRoy
”Thus it will be seen that I succeeded in securing the establishment of a Storm Warning Signal Station at Jersey after the Board of Trade had relinquished their intention of doing so.”

Graves departs

Graves' technical skills as an electrical engineer began to be recognised:

”I was called to go to Guernsey to act as electrician on board the company's steamship Monarch during the temporary absence of Mr G E Preece on a trial in London respecting the wilful injury of the Zandvoort and Dunwich telegraph cable while being laid, by a man in the employ of Messrs Newall & Co, who had also obtained employment from the contractors, the complainants, Messrs Glass Elliott & Co.
”The Monarch at this time was engaged repairing the Channel Islands Cable between Alderney and Guernsey. During the time we were repairing this cable I completed the manufacture of a differential galvanometer used for measuring distances in breaks of cables and both during these operations and ever after at Jersey all my tests and experiments were made with my own instrument.”

This work was obviously done well and within a short time Graves was offered the permanent position of electrician (45s per week) on the Monarch with a duty to supervise the repairs and electrical testing of the various cables belonging to the company. There was some obvious reluctance with his family now settled in Jersey.

”When this situation was first offered me I doubted whether to accept it as I was very comfortable at Jersey, but as the Channel Islands Telegraph Company appeared to be near its end, I determined upon the advice of the Chief Engineer (W H Preece), to accept the certainty in preference to the uncertainty. Nevertheless, having made so many friends in Jersey and having become so attached to the Island.”

He accepted the post, which was confirmed on 2 May 1861:

”As the time approached for my departure I addressed a farewell letter to the editors of the local journals (with whom I had done a great deal of business in the supply of telegraphic intelligence) to which they gave publicity, adding their own comments thereon. The letter I sent them was as follows:
St Heliers
29 April 1861
Dear Sir,
”Having been appointed electrician on board the company's steamer Monarch I regret to have to inform you that the natural consequences of the above appointment necessarily compel my departure from Jersey about the end of the present week. After having been connected with you and with the Jersey public for nearly three years, it will be with a feeling of reluctance that I shall quit the shores of this picturesque Island. During my stay with you I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to give satisfaction to the public as well as to my employers; and how far I have succeeded in doing so let public opinion decide.
”I am happy to say I shall be succeeded by Mr G Field, one of my early acquaintances in telegraphic life, and one who I have reason to believe will conscientiously discharge the duties imposed upon him. I regret that the cable has during my sojourn here been so unfortunate; but when the history of telegraphic cables is thoroughly considered, it is a consolation to know that the Channel Islands cable has not been the only one by far which has suffered numerous disasters, whilst many have proved entire failures.”

Retrospective view

The Channel Islands cables were an unfortunate casualty of the effects of a new technology placing excessive demands on existing materials. A mechanical or civil engineer can continuously monitor the behaviour of their creations, but cables were something new. Electricity was not really understood, and there were those who doubted that conduction was possible at great depths. Lessons about the mechanical strength of cables, their electrical isolation and mechanical protection had to be learnt by trial and costly error.

The first cable laid between Ulster and Scotland was too heavy and ran out too quickly; it didn't make the distance. The first cable laid between Holyhead and Dublin was too light and floated in the water. Cables laid in the Red Sea were quickly damaged by marine worms and the addition of sand to the insulator ("to blunt their teeth") was futile.

There were also technical, procedural and contractual factors. At the time of the laying of the Channel Islands cable, the nature of the contract meant that the cable layer was paid for the job. It was obviously in his interests to lay a cable with the minimum slack, so that the laid cable was under tension over its entire length and there was the possibility that it might not follow the contours of the sea bed.

In short, the life expectancy of cables laid during this period was depressingly short and nowhere was this accumulation of ignorance more vividly demonstrated that in the sad saga of the 1857-58 transatlantic cable. This disaster probably overshadowed any thoughts of a new Channel Island link. Indeed, the damage to Government confidence was such that it caused the Treasury to block any further government funding of telegraph ventures and it was only towards the end of the century that wider political and imperial pressures wrought a change in this policy.

As a result of the bad publicity and the major loss of public funds on the Atlantic and Red Sea ventures, the Government appointed a commission of enquiry in 1859. It was recognised that among the members of this commission were some of the most eminent scientists and engineers of the time.

The recommendations which were published in 1861 did much to allay public fear. One of the consequences was a change in the nature of the contract between cable company and cable layer. Specifications were tightened. The route was prescribed, as was the percentage of cable slack. A system of quality control was introduced and the cable layer was required to provide a reasonable guarantee of freedom from failures during an interim period.

Confidence was restored and the basic principles of best practice were summarised by Charles Bright in a book which ran to many editions.

International expansion

If the technology of cable laying had been mature in 1858 then all the recommendations of the Royal Commission would already have been in place. The first Channel Islands telegraph would have remained in operation and Graves might have stayed in Jersey. His career would certainly have progressed quite differently, and perhaps this author would not have had access to such a wonderful body of writings. As it was, he was involved with the onshore testing during the laying of the 1865 transatlantic cable.

He acted as quality controller on behalf of the Atlantic Telegraph Company during the manufacture of the 1866 transatlantic cable. In August 1866 he was appointed superintendent of the Valentia Island cable station on the south-west coast of Ireland and held the post until his retirement in 1909.

During this time there was a phenomenal expansion in world communications. In the period 1866-72 press traffic represented 28 per cent of all international telegrams, while it represented 59 per cent of United Kingdom inland traffic. 56 per cent of the international telegrams were commercial, as against 34 per cent of the inland service. In each case, government and general public messages made up the rest.

As the century progressed the situation changed even more. Kieve states that "the cable companies made their greatest impact on the international money markets; funds flowed across Europe and the world”.

The Channel Islands

In spite of the loss of their cable, the Channel Islands were not entirely cut off from the expansion in world communications. There had been a connection to France in 1860. The movement to nationalise the UK inland telegraphs came to fruition in 1870 when they were brought under the control of the Post Office. W H Preece was appointed Electrician-in-Chief in 1877 and was Engineer-in-Chief from 1892 until his retirement in 1899.

From the moment of nationalisation the Channel Islands have never been outside the world communications network. One of the first acts by the Post Office was to lay a cable from Dartmouth to Guernsey and from Guernsey to Alderney. A cable between Jersey and France was laid in 1880 and cable between Guernsey and Compass Cove was laid in 1884.

The subsequent history can then be gleaned from two significant sources. According to the history of Guernsey Telecoms, a part of one of the Germany-Azores cables was utilised to provide a UK-Guernsey-Jersey telegraph link in 1931. The entire German network had been disconnected in August 1914 and formed part of the war reparations at the Treaty of Versailles.

The first telephone cable to the Channel Islands was laid in 1938. It was a coaxial structure with paragutta insulation and must be seen as something quite different from any previous technology. Instead of the normal telegraph signals, this carried a single (and probably not very good) voice channel. It was duplicated by another cable which was laid by the Post Office cableship Ariel in 1940.

During the war there had been several significant technological advances which created new possibilities for telephone communications. The first was the invention of polythene which, as an excellent insulator, allowed cables to carry more, better quality voice channels. The other was reliable valve amplifiers which could be used to regenerate signals before they became too weak. These were placed inside submerged repeaters which were connected at intervals along the cable. The first transatlantic telephone cable (TAT-I) was laid in 1957 and had 49 voice channels. The Bournemouth-Jersey cable of 1968 had ten submerged repeaters.

The advent of transistors truly changed the nature of cable communications. Here was a truly reliable component which did not require high voltages or heavy currents to drive it. In 1968 Submarine Cables Ltd manufactured a new cable (known as UK-CI-4) which was laid by the Post Office cableship Alert between Christchurch (Dorset) and Jersey. It had 13 transistorised repeaters and provided 480 voice channels. This was followed by UK-CI-5 in 1972, which was laid between Tuckton Bridge and. St Peter Port. The final analogue cable UK-CI-6 was installed in 1982.

Just as the coaxial telephone cable replaced the telegraph cable, so the new technology of optical fibre cables rendered coaxial cables obselete. Like the telegraph, they use digital signals, but of course the transmission rate is billions of times greater. The first optical fibre cables were laid in 1986. The Channel Islands were not far behind. UK-CI-7, an optical fibre cable, was laid in 1989 (TAT-8, the first trans-Atlantic optical fibre cable, was laid the previous year). Initially UK-CI-7 had 1,920 voice channels, but there was the potential for a fortyfold increase in this capacity. Thus, in spite of having 1,380 voice channels, UK-CI-5 was deemed obsolete and was removed in 1991. The links between Britain and the Channel Islands were further enhanced by two optical fibre cables (UK-CI-8 and Guernsey-Jersey-4) which were laid in 1994.


When this author first gained access to the writigs of James Grave, TAT-8 was at the planning stage. We are now at TAT-12/TAT-13, a transatlantic ring network which provides subscribers with an 'uninterruptible' link. When he first discussed this article with the editor of this journal the internet had not yet been conceived. Now, we have ISDN, video conferencing and the World Wide Web. The founding fathers of the Channel Islands telegraphs could not have dreamed of the evolutionary process which they initiated. We can only wonder at what the future will bring for us.

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