Portraits of Sir John Pender: 1816-96

By Stewart Ash and Bill Burns
May 18, 2020

The celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the first all-British submarine telegraph cable to India were to include an exhibition at the PK Porthcurno – Museum of Global Communications pkporthcurno.com.  The programme was intended to be launched on 4 June with a special ceremony to open the Porthcurno exhibition, and this was to be co-ordinated with a similar event in Lisbon, at the Museu das Comunicações. These locations are the two ends of the final segment of the cable to India that went into service on 23 June 1870.  However, because of the ‘Lockdown’ due to Covid-19, the Museum is currently closed and the exhibition has been postponed, with a tentative new date of spring 2021.

The exhibition was intended to have two main themes: the 1870 cable, known as ‘The Red Sea Line’, and the life of Sir John Pender, ‘The Cable King’.  John Pender was dubbed ‘The Cable King’ by the Liberal MP Henry Du Pré Labouchere (1821-1912) during the battle for control of the Direct United States Cable Company, in 1877.  Lebouchere was a shareholder in that company and the proprietor of a magazine called The Truth, which he had founded to expose what in his view were scandals.  He used the magazine to vilify Pender and coined the term to describe him in a derogatory manner, intending to imply that he was a draconian dictator.  However, this was to backfire on Lebouchere, as the epithet would later be used as a term of respect and endearment.

Over John Pender’s lifetime a wide range of drawings, etchings, photos, portraits in oils and watercolours of him were produced, and each has its own story, but there are five portraits that are perhaps the most interesting, with the final two being linked together in an intriguing tale.

John Pender was elected as Liberal MP for Totnes in a by-election on 12 December 1862, and the news of his election was reported in an article that appeared in the Illustrated London News, together with an engraved portrait, on 21 February 1863.  This is the first known image of John Pender MP.

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