Early Telegraphs In London

Running wires in a city was not an easy thing to do


An interesting look at the problems of early telegraphs was presented by John Durham in Telegraphs in Victorian London (Cambridge: Golden Head Press, 1959). The electromagnetic telegraph began to spread along railway lines (the rights-of-way problem was much simplified thereby) in the 1840's, soon carrying news (the Daily Telegraph) , share quotes, lottery and race results, and even private messages. In cities, however, and notably London, wires along streets had to be buried underground like water and gas, and even electricity. This made a low-capital enterprise like telegraphy practically impossible, a fact not deplored by the courier services that would be hurt by it. In 1857, Sidney Waterlow hit upon the idea of leading wires from house to house under the authority of wayleaves obtained from the owners, as the colliers of Tyneside had obtained for their waggonways. This was subject to the same invitations to extortion, but most property holders were appreciative of the few shillings a year they received for giving permission for a wire above their roofs, out of sight from the pavement. A single No. 8 steel wire was the conductor, with earth return, activating single-needle telegraphs. The London District Telegraph Company was formed in 1859 with 100 offices within a four-mile radius of Charing Cross. Lady telegraphists, called telegraphistes, handled the messages on Morse apparatus. Telegraphy was a suitable employment for women, and they were no doubt cheaper and more tractable then men. From the speeds of transmission reported, the apparatus could have been the Vail sounder. 5 wpm was a starting speed, working up to a maximum of perhaps 25 wpm. This is a little fast for the Morse register, and even for the single-needle telegraph. International Morse Code was probably in use by this time. The messages were delivered by hand to the addressees.

Competition was furnished by the Universal Private Telegraph Company, formed in 1860, which operated on a completely different principle. Each subscriber had a private line, as was later the practice with telephones. The Wheatstone ABC telegraph was used, so skilled operators were not required. This company appears to have invented the multicore cable, with 30 conductors in a 1/2" diameter cable, greatly easing rooftop installation. The new telegraphs opened the opportunity for police telegraphs, placed in the new police booths and giving instant communication with a police station. Sidney Waterlow was remembered for this innovation.

Telegraph wires were later buried in streets, along with water and gas mains, as their profitability became assured with intensive use. For testing and connection alterations, they were brought up above the surface at intervals in hollow cast-iron bollards. In some places, these bollards collected the gas leaking from mains, and repairmen learnt not to use a candle to look inside. One taxi rank made it a habit to light the gas issuing from the keyhole to the access door of a nearby bollard to provide continuous fire for smoking and other purposes.

Private telegraph companies were taken over by the Postal Telegraphs on 4 February 1870. The reason for this unification was to aid the public interest, assuring uniform access and eliminating useless competition and duplication.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created March 2000
Last revised 14 April 2000