Firemen and the Sea

‘Torchlight Procession Around the World’, NMM object no. PAG8264

You know that frustrating moment when you discover something that would have been really useful for your previous piece of work? Well I had that joy a few weeks ago when looking into the employment culture of occupations to compare to the Post Office.

This story starts with this engraving, an image I discovered during a research internship at the National Maritime Museum as part of my MA. I was intrigued as to why an image created to be sold and celebrate the landing of the Atlantic submarine telegraph cable in New York, in 1858, would have firemen as the central figures.

At one point my dissertation supervisor and myself discussed the use of firemen and the possibility of looking at the American use of the image as an opener to my dissertation. However my research didn’t get very far and I went with the evening celebrations at the Imperial Institute marking the jubilee of submarine telegraph communication with the Far East in 1894. But those firemen have continued to bug me.

Then, some six months after I have handed in my dissertation and subsequently started my PhD, I came across an article by Shane Ewen called ‘Managing Police Constable and Firefighters: Uniformed Public Services in English Cities, c.1870-1930’ in the International Review of Social History, 51 (2006). In Ewen’s article I was introduced to the relationship between firemen and the Royal Navy in British cities. Ewen details how in Birmingham, between 1880 and 1920, approximately half of new firemen were recruited from the Royal Navy due to perceptions of an overlap in the need for disciplinary procedures and control. This wasn’t universal, Leicester and Edinburgh principally targeted semi-skilled and skilled workers, seeing the value in having practical skills among recruits. So it seemed, the origin of firefighter recruits stemmed from the perceived importance of certain attributes, either their skills or their ability to follow orders and live in a quasi-military regime.
Ewen didn’t go into too much detail about the American system, though he did note that the nineteenth century saw the transition from a voluntary to municipal paid firefighting system. This was partly in an attempt to deal with the ‘acute ill-discipline’ suffered by the service in the 1840s and 1850s. Perhaps due to the bad behaviour, sailors were first choice for American firefighter recruiters too.

From a review in April’s Labour History Review, I see that Ewen has written a book on the development of the fire service in Britain: Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800-1978. Robin Pearson’s review is full of praise of this work and through his review one of my questions is answered: why sailors and not the army? Sailors were preferred as they had the physical strength, and were used to working at heights and extreme conditions – heat, cold and damp conditions especially.

Truly fascinating stuff, and I will definitely be keeping an eye for Shane Ewen’s book (it’s currently over £50 in Amazon which is a bit over my budget). It also shows that as historians, our work is never done. Even once the work is handed in/published you still make new discoveries and these revelations give some way to shedding more light on this intriguing engraving.


I discuss the engraving in more detail in the blog I wrote for the NMM:

Here is my dissertation on submarine telegraph cables (please note this opens a PDF document):

Link to Shane Ewen’s ‘Managing Police Constable and Firefighters: Uniformed Public Services in English Cities, c.1870-1930’ in the International Review of Social History, 51 (2006). (Please note you’ll have to pay to get this article):

Shane Ewen’s Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, on Amazon:


Collecting Cables

From Sheerness to Valentia, on board Brunel's paddle steamer 'Great Eastern'. Copyright National Maritime Museum. The NMM got some cable samples thrown in when they bought this at auction!

Last week I got into the National Maritime Mmuseum’s institutional archives, held at the LTE stores, to try and find out a bit more about the provenance of some of the cables now at the NMM. As with most museum archives the records held on objects were a bit hit and miss, some had a large file full of correspondence, and others didn’t even have a file, well not one I could find!

However, from the files I did get a look at, there did seem to be a pattern emerging; the cables themselves were not something the keepers of yester-year found exciting. More often than not the bits of cable appear to have been acquired along with other objects, and was often just listed on an inventory list or, my favourite, appeared as a condition for acquiring a painting at auction. (It appears the presentation box of cables wasn’t listed along with the painting and just suddenly turned up on the later paperwork, I imagine the Museum was very surprised).

Interestingly some of these objects were family papers, or other items, linked to men that either worked in the cable-laying industry or had another maritime or naval connection. It is generally assumed that the section was acquired in their line of work, though I found it interesting that one set of objects were part of an Admiral’s collection of ‘relics’.

Another large group of cables came from the Royal Artillery Museum along with a number of ship models, I think, and I’ve found documents relating to transfer of the ship models, but not the cables. A book on ship models at the NMM does detail that a number of objects were transferred over as the Royal Artillery Museum realised they had a lot of objects not related to artillery in their collection, but I seem at a dead-end for paper work related to this.[1] Furthermore the Royal Artillery Museum couldn’t find any documentation related to the move either (though I have to commend them on the speed at which they got back to me!)

Overall I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about the difficulties in obtaining an object biography of particular objects, you’re often relying on the administration principals of past policies of a museum, and record keeping culture, like collecting culture, changes over time. Some of these records seem to portray the perceived importance of what the object represents and the larger story it can tell rather than an interest in the object’s individual story. This leaves me at looking for the bigger picture myself, but taking into consideration the individual clues left by the object, in this case clearly pointing in the direction of the cable repair ships in collecting and possibly disseminating the sections of cable.

[1] B. Lavery & S. Steohens, Ship Models: Their Purpose and Development from 1650 to the Present, (London, 1995)

First Week of NMM internship: First thoughts on the submarine telegraph cables

National Maritime Museum from the Royal Observatory. © Jonathan Eudall

This week I have started a 6 week internship at the National Maritime Museum. This is a great opportunity for me to work within a national museum and a museum I really admire. This is a particularly exciting time at the NMM as it is building up to the opening of their new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, in July, it is also exciting for me as I can get my hands on their world-renowned collection!

I’m there to do some research into the Museum’s collection relating to submarine telegraphy (unsurprisingly), and am particularly interested in the commemoration and celebration of the various cables. The majority of their collection relating to submarine telegraphy consists of samples submarine telegraph cables, and this week I was lucky enough to get into the stores with Curator of Navigation, Richard Dunn, to have a look. This blog post is to convey  my initial thoughts on the cables as examples of a material culture relating to submarine telegraphy, or perhaps the ‘cult of the telegraph’, (I admit that might be a bit strong).

These thoughts are purely based on the aesthetics of the objects and so are quite superficial observations. I am still working on the object biographies, making my way through the paper copies of acquisitions and other material, and will hopefully be able to share a more critical analysis of the objects in due course. I should also mention that unfortunately I’m unable to put any pictures up, so I hope you can visualise the cables by my descriptions!

What strikes me the most is the variation in presentation and appearance of the submarine cables. They can vary from very small sliver of cross-sections of cable to large wooden boxes lined in blue felt and a glass top containing five or six differing size cables with their comparable cross-sections or sections finished with a shiny black jute tar with brass bands at either end to stripped back layers displaying the copper wire core and layers of gutta-percha and hemp.

The different styles and methods of display suggest different audiences or targets, as well as the obvious different designs of cable. The use of a display case is the more clearly designed presentation of the cables. The expense and size suggest that these were of a certain importance, perhaps presented to an investor of the corresponding cable, or a display case for a company involved. These cases are large and heavy and would appear to demand a prominent place of display. Some detail on the plaque inside the case also invites some discussion about the cables, why they are different and how they are used.

In contrast, the small pieces of cable could easily be pocket-sized souvenirs, some have an inscription of the relevant cable e.g ‘Dover to Calais’, and also a company. There is an element of advertising in the use of company name. In fact, some companies appear to have a style of display, for example in the collection are a series of Siemens Bros & Company inscribed sections of cable. They are of different widths and possibly different cables, but they have the same black tar and brass end finish, but what I find interesting about these pieces of cable is that they are all numbered. Unlike other inscribed sections of cable they don’t have the locations they are associated with, just the company name and a number.  R. S. Newall’s cables are also presented in the same way with an outer layer of nine galvanised iron wires with brass ends, though these have locations inscribed as well as the company. These sections of cable are earlier than the Siemens cables and some are associated with cables that failed, such as the Red Sea cable of 1858, perhaps Siemens learnt a lesson from this and wanted to avoid any unfortunate association with future failures. 

Finally this are also a group of cables that don’t appear to be ‘finished off’, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to display them or note a company or cable association with it. They could easily be left over parts, or unofficial souvenirs, perhaps found or sawn off. The intrigue of these bits of cable is enhanced with some of their obvious deterioration, perhaps these are sections that have been recovered from the sea.

With these clear distinctions there seems to be an obvious hierarchy of display and commemoration. There also appears to be a contrasting very formal setting for some of the cable alongside a very unofficial setting for others. Sitting within the ‘Miscellaneous Antiquities’ category of the Museum’s collections means the submarine cables sit in a classification alongside preserved food, geological specimens, musical instruments and items relating to maritime custom and superstition. To me this highlights the relationship between maritime culture and these sections of submarine telegraph cables, these cables were one of the first uses of the seabed, only recently measured by Matthew Maury, so I wonder if there is a level of superstition surrounding the cable. There is clearly a feeling of prestige and respectability surrounding the submarine telegraph cable for those that wanted to large presentation boxes, there is also an element of education and possible interest in the workings of the cable for the layered and cross-sectioned items. Though the small and also nondescript items suggest a more popular interest.

I haven’t really discussed the different cables in terms of location, needless to say that the transatlantic cable definitely generated a lot interest. Though the interest did not end there, and the sections of cable do cover many locations, however as many cables do not have an inscription I need to go through the paper records in more details before I try to draw any conclusions regarding relations between presentation and location.