Porthcurno to Port Darwin: The Establishment of the Australian Subsea Telegraph Cable
The mission to connect England to Australia via telegraph cables was long and arduous, but deeply necessary. Where previously it would take months to deliver news to Australia, the promise of an undersea telegraphic connection would slash this time to minutes. However, the establishment of this link required cables laid in Java, Suez, Aden, Gibraltar, Malta, Bombay, Madras, Penang, and Singapore. As these cable stations were installed throughout the 19th century, Australia began to hotly anticipate a cable station being established domestically.
The Project Begins
The bid to secure construction rights for the undersea and overland cables was won by John Pender’s British-Australian Telegraph Company. Once the company was secured, a survey party was launched in 1869 to assess the northernmost areas of Australia for a fitting landing spot for the cable. The land had to be equipped with a cove or beach for landing the cable and to be towards the north of Australia to minimise the length of crossing between Australia and the next cable station.
Port Darwin is chosen as the onshore landing point
Eventually, Port Darwin, then known as Palmerston, was chosen. The town was small, hot, surrounded by mangroves, and sitting upon a steep hill that overlooked the cove where the cable would meet the land. Initially, it was through that the final stretch of cable from Java to Australia would be divided with an intermediary port at Timor Island. The engineers’ report from this project initially quoted the laying cost of the cable as £634,000 (equivalent to £77,411,462.60 as of 2021). However, the decision was made to forfeit a cable station on Timor Island, and instead run the cable the tremendous length between Java and Port Darwin without a break. In addition, the South Australian state government constructed, at its own cost, part of the overland cable line. These changes reduced the cost of the cable to £572,000 (equivalent to £69,841,256.48 as of 2021), a staggering cost in 1870. The final engineers’ estimate was that the cable would run 1,765 knots, with a total weight of 5,274 tons.
The cable comes ashore
Two years after the surveying, in October 1871, three ships approached the beach of Port Darwin- The Edinburgh, the Investigator, and the Hibernia. James Nichol, a crewman onboard the Edinburgh described in his journal how the Edinburgh and Investigator were responsible for digging the trench the cable would rest in and marking out its position with buoys. The muddy sea floor surrounding Port Darwin, he noted, was to be “a splendid bed for the cable”
On the 7th of November, 1871, the Hibernia laid the first metres of cable upon the sea floor. She steamed close to the cove, laying the cable in the trench with the assistance of the other ships, then retreated, leaving the cable to settle into place behind her. The cable was then linked to a metal hut on land so it could connect to the overland line.
William Brackley Wildley, a witness, described the scene as the cable came to rest in Port Darwin:
The huge cable was carried to the shore in bights held up by boats, the men on shore pulling the end by means of tackle. The scene was a most animated one, the men singing at their work, the officers waving flags, and the inhabitants of the settlement looking on.https://atlantic-cable.com/Cables/1871Java-PortDarwin/
Once the cable was settled in Port Darwin, it had to be linked to Java in order to complete the line between Australia and Porthcurno. On the 19th of November, the final length of cable was connected, Nichol, having witnessed this, wrote of this celebratory moment:
At midnight, [we] fired two guns which were answered from the fort, this was the day the first telegraph communication was between England and Australia. We had messages of congratulation from England and from Australia when we arrived that night, all working satisfactorily.https://atlantic-cable.com/CableStories/Nicol/index.htm
The legacy of the first cable
The planning and construction of the England to Australia subsea cable line was a true marvel of infrastructure. The successful landing of Australia’s subsea cable opened the door to more communicative advances throughout the nation. The cable station in Darwin became the origin of the Australian overland telegraph system, which reached 3,200 kilometres across the country. A second undersea cable was laid in 1909 to connect mainland Australia with the southern island state of Tasmania, completing the domestic telegraphy system. These technological advances not only revolutionised the way Australia transmitted information locally and within Oceania, but across the globe.
This article was researched by Isabelle Jones and Raquel Coning, and written by Isabelle Jones.
Isabelle Jones is a Young Curator and volunteer at PK Porthcurno. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, where she is completing her Masters in Museum and Heritage Studies at the Australian National University. As part of her studies, she is undertaking an internship with PK Porthcurno, where she has been transcribing volumes of The Zodiac magazine and researching the subsea telegraphy in Australia.
This blog was created as a part of our Digital Takeover Day 2021. To explore more articles from our Young Curators, Citizen Curators & International Volunteers head to our #digitaltakeover NEWS page.