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Port Cities: The working Thames - The 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship
PortCities London

The 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship

Preparing the cable and ship

Made in Greenwich

At the Greenwich Works of the Telegraph Construction and Manintenance Co.
View full size imageMembers of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co., c. 1890. © NMM
The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (an amalgamation of Glass, Elliot & Co. and the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Cable Co.) made the Atlantic cable at Greenwich in 1865.

Henry Clifford was chief of telegraph construction at that time. He is shown here (second from left) with four other men outside the works at Enderby's Wharf.

Ireland to Newfoundland

Coiling the Cable in the large tanks at the works in Greenwich.
View full size imageCoiling the cable at the Greenwich works, 1865. © NMM  
The Great Eastern was to lay the cable in one continuous length between Ireland and Newfoundland. The process began with the newly made cable being carefully coiled into large cylindrical tanks at Greenwich.

The Cable Passed From the Works into the Hulk lying in the Thames at Greenwich.
View full size imageThe cable being passed to the hulk lying in the Thames. © NMM

The completed cable was transferred from the works at Enderby's Wharf, Greenwich, to two hulks of old frigates, Amethyst and Iris, lying in the River Thames.

The 4000 km (2500 miles) of cable was made in sections of 3 km (2 miles) each and then joined together. The clever system of joining the cable gave it a breaking strain of about 7 tons.

Refitting the 'Great Eastern'

The Old Frigate with her Freight of Cable, alongside the 'Great Eastern' at Sheerness.
View full size imageLoading the cable on board the Great Eastern at Sheerness. © NMM
The Great Eastern's ornate fittings were taken out and two boilers and a funnel were removed to make room for three huge tanks to hold the coils of cable.

The Amethyst and Iris transferred the cable to the Great Eastern as she lay at a mooring at Sheerness in North Kent. This operation took more than three months. In the picture, one of the old frigates is transferring her load of cable to the Great Eastern.

Royal visitor

Coiling the cable during the visit of the Prince of Wales on 24 May 1865.
View full size imageCoiling the cable during the visit of the Prince of Wales on 24 May 1865. © NMM
On 24 May 1865, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) visited the works at Greenwich to see the last piece of the new cable being made. He then sailed to Sheerness to visit the Great Eastern.

After lunch, the party watched the work of coiling the cable into the hold. This was a tricky and carefully supervised task, as even the slightest kink could damage the cable's ability to carry a message.

Cable-laying machinery

Paying out machinery on board the Great Eastern
View full size imageThe paying out machinery. © NMM
The elaborate equipment for paying out the cable was a precise arrangement of:

  • grooved guide wheels
  • jockey wheels
  • brake straps
  • cable drums.

These all helped to keep the cable taut as it paid out over the Great Eastern's stern (rear of the ship).

Engineer next to the Cable Laying Machinery.
View full size imageThe brakeman standing by the cable laying machinery on the Great Eastern. © NMM
This tricky operation was under the supervision of a brakeman. It was his duty to keep the cable at the correct tension. He had to concentrate closely to operate the machinery efficiently. This picture gives a good view of the machinery.


Technical checks

Interior of one of the tanks on board the Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe interior of the tanks on board the Great Eastern. © NMM
In the cable tanks the smooth process of paying out the coil was constantly supervised. Technicians kept checking their instruments for the continuity of the electrical signal running through it. Any change in the electrical resistance in the cable meant a fault in the insulation or a break in the copper core.

Atlantic Telegraph Cable 1865
View full size imageThe route of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. © NMM
The European end of the 1865 Atlantic cable was on top of the remote cliffs of Foilhummerum Bay, on the island of Valentia off the west coast of Ireland. That is where it was connected to the existing landline. The American end was at Heart's Content in Newfoundland, Canada.


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