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A few lines printed in the Illustrated Usk Observer and Raglan Herald on 10 December 1859 provide a clue to the mystery of why the terrible news of the loss of the ROYAL CHARTER did not reach Liverpool via the Liverpool-Holyhead Telegraph. Rather, the news came, as the Liverpool Mercury reports, from a correspondent.

The Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was established by an Act of Parliament passed in June 1824, which gave authority to the Liverpool Dock Trustees to establish a speedy Mode of Communication to the Ship-owners and Merchants at Liverpool of the arrival of Ships and Vessels off the Port of Liverpool or the Coast of Wales, by building, erecting and maintaining Signal Houses, Telegraphs or such other Modes of Communication as to them shall seem expedient, between Liverpool and Hoylake, or between Liverpool and the Isle of Anglesey.

The following year the Trustees authorised Barnard Lindsay Watson to carry out a survey and provide a costing. Stations were erected at Liverpool, Bidston, Hilbre Island, Voel Nant, Foryd, Llysfaen, Great Ormes Head, Puffin Island, Point Lynas, Carreglwyd, and Holyhead. The signaling equipment was a ship's mast fitted with three pairs of moveable arms). The top pair indicated hundreds; the middle pair tens; and the bottom pair units. Signaling was based on the transmission of numbers based on a Code produced by Watson. On approaching Holyhead, an incoming ship would first transmit its number by means of signal flags and if any further information needed to be sent the appropriate signal would be sent from the ship. These messages would then be relayed to Liverpool where the owners or their agents could arrange a berth and storage facilities for their goods or provide any additional services required by the vessel. The first message passed over the completed line was on 5 November 1827.

This telegraph used a numerical system; that is, words, names, sentences, etc., were expressed by numbers. It was also capable of spelling, when a proper name or uncommon word occurred. The first 26 numbers were assigned to the letters of the alphabet - 1 signifies A, 2 = B, 3 = C, etc.. The numbers from 27 to 58 were given to the directions on a compass (27 signifies North, 28 N. by E, etc). The numbers from 62 to 185 are appropriated to portions of time, from a second to two years, and including the hours of the day, and days of the month. The numbers beyond this, to the extent of more than seven thousand, are appropriated to a vocabulary of common words and sentences.

In 1850, Edwin Clarke approached the Trustees with regard to replacing the Semaphore with an electric telegraph. However, it was not until March 1855, when the Liverpool Mercantile Association began to lobby the Trustees, that serious consideration was given to proposal. The Trustees approached the Electric Telegraph Co and the Magnetic Telegraph Co for quotes to undertake the work, but eventually decided to undertake the work with their own contractors.

Holyhead was linked to Point Lynas by landline; Point Lynas to Great Ormes Head by submarine cable; Great Ormes Head to Noel Vant, again by landline. There was then a submarine cable to Hilbre Island; another submarine cable to the east bank of the River Dee; a landline to Bidston; and finally a connection to Liverpool via a cable under the River Mersey. The cables were manufactured and laid by Glass Elliot & Co in 1858, using the chartered vessel RESOLUTE. The line suffered from continuing technical problems,not least being severed when the anchors of the ROYAL CHARTER were dragged across it. Ultimately, it was found impossible to maintain the cable between Point Lynas and the Great Orme and so it was replaced by a landline.

Submarine cables were a Victorian invention. Using such as cable for the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph was very forward thinking. The technology which made it possible resulted from copper wire becoming available to conduct the signals, plus the British Empire provided access to another vital component - gutta percha. The rubber-like sap of this tree is found only in Southeast Asia and northern Australasia, from Taiwan south to the Malay Peninsula and east to the Solomon Islands. The method of armouring the cable to give it strength during laying and protection was encasement with iron wire ropes, which has been developed to work the hoisting machinery in Germany's deep mines.

The first cable installed around the Welsh coast was between Holyhead and Howth in Ireland in 1852.

Although transmission was very slow, the benefits were obvious for news agencies, and trading and shipping companies (who could send new orders to their ship's captains even when the where oceans way). Previously, news and instructions to captains had to be sent by ship and were subject to the same vagaries of the weather as the ships themselves. Captains would head for certain main ports to take orders; these were transmitted offshore by flag systems from the messages left by their ship owners and agents. A cargo might have been sold on many times whilst the ship was on passage. Hence the captain would need his final instructions as which port was going to to be the most convenient for the customer. Being able to send instructions by electric telegraph greatly improved efficiency.

For the first Atlantic cable expeditions of 1857 and 1858, the British government lent HMS AGAMEMNON and the US government provided its new warship USS NIAGARA. The experience gained in laying cables on the three Atlantic expeditions of 1857/58 was used to good effect with new standard for cables being adopted in 1861. The spread of submarine cable installations eastward through the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean continuing rapidly through the 1860-1870s, with Britain retaining its dominance in the ownership of cable laying vessels right into the 1920s.

Submarine cables telecommunication cables are still vital to world's economy. They carry infinitely more messages and terrabytes of data than satellites and land tetephone lines. Modern submarine cables still have a conductor to carry the signal (now glass instead of copper), an insulator to protect the circuit against water (now polyethylene instead of gutta percha), and a strength member (now steel instead of iron).

Early submarine cable installations around Wales include:

1852: Holyhead to Howth Ireland, by R S Newall and Co, using cable laying ship BRITANNIA.
1855: Holyhead to Howth, Ireland, by Electric and International Telegraph Company ,using cable laying ship MONARCH
1862: Abermawr, Pembrokeshire, to Wexford, Ireland, by Electric and International Telegraph Company, using the cable laying ship BERWICK
1871: Porth Crugmor, Angelsey, to Howth, Ireland by Henlys Telegraph Works using the cable laying vessel LA PLATA
1883: Fishguard to Blackwater, Ireland, by General Post Office, using the cable laying ship DACIA

Use the historic Ordnance Survey mapping provided by the People's Collection Wales www site to locate the Liverpool-Holyhead telegraph stations.

Can you identify the landfall locations of other early submarine cables listed above on the maps?

What is the connection between submarine cables and the steamship GREAT EASTERN, which the ROYAL CHARTER passed in Holyhead harbour in the last hours of her fateful return voyage?

Using Lt Watson's code described above, can you spell out the message that might have been sent over the old Liverpool-Holyhead semaphore system?


The code more widely adopted for use by electric telegraph stations dates back to 1836, when the Americans Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail developed a system which sent pulses of electric current along wires controlled by an electromagnet. The code converting natural language used only these pulses and the silence between them. What would the above ROYAL CHARTER message have looked like, if it had been sent in Morse code?

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