The Porthcurno Story

Gareth Parry discusses the history of Porthcurno and its importance to the efforts of the first submarine cable projects.By Gareth Parry
May 18, 2020

Four years ago, we celebrated the anniversary of the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. That was a huge achievement in itself and it also gave confidence to investors and Victorian entrepreneurs to embark on under-sea cable projects in the Far East. John Pender (later Sir John Pender) was one such entrepreneur. His story takes us to the quiet sandy cove in Cornwall at Porthcurno.

The landing of the first cable in 1870 from the illustrated London News

The landing of the first cable in 1870 from the illustrated London News

Porthcurno, a village that became home to thousands of trainee engineers before they set off to live on remote locations all over the world and provide communication initially across the British Empire, and soon after, communication to the east and west. Porthcurno was initially a hub for Britain. It became the hub of the British Empire and by the 1920’s was the most important international telegraph station in the world. It all started in 1870, 150 years ago.

The story of technical progress in the early days of international telegraphy is documented in many excellent texts. Less well recorded are the stories of the lives of the young people who joined the organisation, often with little or no idea of what lay ahead of them. It is fascinating to compare, and contrast these, with the career paths of our current generation.

The complete Porthcurno story is possible because of the comprehensive archive housed at Porthcurno. It stores documents from the Eastern and Associated Telegraph companies as well as the archives of the company Cable and Wireless. Two important publications are held there too. The first is “Snapshot in Time” written by the St Levan Local History Group and is a transcription of the diaries of George Spratt who entered the service of the company in 1870. The second is an unpublished article, a “A History of Porthcurno” by D. Cleaver who was manager of the combined Cable Station and Engineering School at Porthcurno in 1954. (John Packer, Honorary Curator at PK Porthcurno, reproduced Cleaver’s document in 1988).

To continue reading the rest of this article, please read it in Issue 112 of the SubTel Forum Magazine on page 30 or on our archive site here.