British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Patrick Cowan
 The Story of Cable and Wireless
Laying Submarine Cable
The Colonial Office, prompted in many cases by the Dominions, worked closely with Sir John Pender and his Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies between 1860 and 1900 to build a network to connect all parts of the Empire. By 1890 the commerce of the Empire, involving one billion sterling a year, was influenced and controlled daily by cable communications. These cables connected the UK through the Mediterranean across Egypt through the Red Sea to Aden and on to Bombay. This had been extended across India to Madras, linking to Penang, with connections to Rangoon and Singapore, with the latter connecting to Foochow and Shanghai.

From Singapore, Australia was added to the network with links through the Dutch East Indies to Port Darwin. Africa was connected from UK via Portugal, Madeira and St Vincent, to Bathurst where a coastal cable looped down the West coast to Cape Town. From Durban a similar cable continued up the East coast to Mombasa and Zanzibar with links to Seychelles and Mauritius. A cable then linked Zanzibar back to Aden. A cable from Halifax in Newfoundland to Bermuda and on to Cuba provided a connection to the British West Indies.

The South African war may well have been prevented if there had been better communication between the Colonial Office in London and the Governor of the Cape conducting negotiations over the Transvaal with President Kruger. The breakdown of these negotiations prompted the building of a more direct cable linking Cape Town to St. Helena, Ascension Island and St. Vincent and on to the UK in 1899. A further cable built between Australia and South Africa in 1901, also linking Mauritius to Durban, not only supported communications for Australian troops fighting in the Boer war but also provided some rivalry between the Australian states. The Eastern states supported a new cable across the Pacific, constructed at about the same time, linking Norfolk Island, Suva, Fanning Island and Vancouver.

This provided the nucleus of a network that stayed in place until the late 1950's. However, from the early 1900's the development of wireless supplemented the cable network and produced the first telephone communications. This led to the linking of East Telegraph with Marconi, to finally form Cable and Wireless in 1935, headquartered in the new Plectra House on the Thames Embankment.

Although nationalised on 1 December 1947, with a licence to operate telecommunications outside the UK, there were repercussions as many Commonwealth countries took control of their own communications. Despite this Cable and Wireless continued to provide and maintain the 155,000 nautical miles of telegraph and then telephone cable systems linking the territories of the Commonwealth, both self-governing Dominions and Crown Colonies. Operating from over 130 stations abroad, and sharing some fairly isolated locations, there continued to thrive a strong bond between Cable and Wireless and HMOCS through a considerable period of change worldwide, as the new Commonwealth evolved. Although a very changed company following privatisation in November 1981, C&W continues to service a major part of the Commonwealth under a variety of licence conditions.

Africa Map
Cable and Wireless Map, 1947
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 77: May 1999
Cable and Wireless Timeline
Further Reading
Girdle Round the Earth


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