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: http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/collections/2011/09/

Here is my dissertation on submarine telegraph cables (please note this opens a PDF document): http://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/3388/1/McIlvenna_MA_dissertation_2011_-_Experiment_to_Relic.pdf

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): http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=420762&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0020859005002312

Shane Ewen’s Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fighting-Fires-Creating-British-1800-1978/dp/0230517102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343582080&sr=8-1

Advertisements

Volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

In the last week of July I spent my time volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the easiest museum to get to from London, and so may a first appear to be an odd choice of museum to volunteer for. However it all becomes clear when I explain that Porthcurno was the site of the Eastern Telegraph Company telegraph office, and was at one point the biggest and most important telegraph office in the world.

Porthcurno World War Two Tunnels today

Established in 1870 this telegraph office connected Britain to the British Empire and the European Continent through networks of submarine telegraph cables. Porthcurno was chosen due to its remote location and sandy beach which meant it wasn’t used by fishermen and would present less hazards for the iron roped cables. By the Second World War this telegraph office was so important that heavy defences were established such as flame throwers on the beach and camouflaged tunnels in the valley walls. Today you’re more likely to see tourists on the beach than flame throwers, and the tunnels form part of the Museum’s buildings, housing most of its collection; and what a collection it has! One of the most popular activities is an interactive Mirror Galvanometer, and unsurprisingly one of my favourite cases contained a large variety of cable samples, ranging from samples dating back to first international submarine cables to more recent fiber-optic cables. The museum also has a gallery full of working instruments, helping to create the atmosphere and sound of a working building, transferring electrical information from the world to London.

As you can probably tell, this museum was right up my street, and what I thought it did very well was underline the modern significance of this Victorian enterprise. Even I was surprised to discover that 95% of our international communication today is still sent via submarine cables. Satellites are obviously used today, but are better for television broadcasting, GPS and satellite telephones; even mobile phones, though they initially send information wirelessly,  connect to a server or base station, which is connected to cables, consequently if the call is international underwater cables are required. Furthermore the location of the old submarine telegraph cables are still important today as the new fiber-optic cables follow their course, and fishing vessels and renewable energy companies need to know where they are. Frankly the sea bed is becoming an increasingly important area of real estate and there is a lot going on under the water that we just don’t know or think about.

Connecting Cornwall/Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition

As well as being an international telegraph office Porthcurno was also a training school for telegraph engineers, many of whom were subsequently sent off to remote outposts across the British Empire, and in later years trained engineers from around the world. Consequently the Museum has very strong collections relating to social history and local history, demonstrated through the Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition. As well as objects like the engineers tool boxes, important because they contain all the necessary tools to fix the telegraph machines, as help was a long time coming to these remote outposts, like the Cocos Islands or Ascension Island, and a ship could take days costing the company as well as other businesses a lot of money.

The other area the museum is exceptional at is interactives and education. Part of my role as a Volunteer Learning Facilitator was to help supervise a room with several science activities from magnets and optical illusions, to circuit building. This was extremely popular and complemented the other interactives in the museum, including the activity that enabled families to use Morse Code to telegraph each other across the Empire or dress up as Victorians. Many a visitor would exclaim their surprise at the amount of activities for children and the amount of fun they were having. And yes, the adults had as much fun and the children, I built circuits with pensioners as much as toddlers, and more often than not it was dad who wanted to dress up first.

As well as my volunteering I did get to do some research too. It was a treat to get into Porthcurno’s incredible archive, and all the staff were exceptionally helpful and interested in my work. I almost didn’t want to leave!

Porthcurno Beach

I will try and write a post on some of the information I found there but I finish this post with a few links:

Obviously here is a link to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum itself: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/

Here is also a link to it’s mention with other locations of communications history in Cornwall on the British Society for History of Science (BSHS) Travel Guide: http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/porthcurno-telegraph-museum-cornwall

Also Porthcurno are looking at ways to increase their national participation and impact, and one way they are looking at this is through Virtual Volunteers. So if you have any ideas of how you (or someone else) could help the museum in their many research, education, exhibition and outreach activities let them know. See their Virtual Volunteers site for more info: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286

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)