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


Volunteering for London Oral history Projects

British Library Sounds Archive webpage

For a while now I’ve been interested in oral history, wanting to learn more about its contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the past. Consequently last year I started volunteering on oral history projects.

Oral history was a practice that was first cultivated by the folklore and linguistic scholars. With the popularity of social history in the middle of the twentieth century, it began to talk to social historians. Oral history was initially seen as a way to discover ‘hidden histories’, to give a voice to the every-man (or woman) in industry or agricultural.

With the cultural turn came a new critical and literary understanding of the technique. Cultural history encouraged the use of oral history, especially as a way to research the everyday, but underlined that it’s value is best realised alongside other sources to help evaluate its reliability and factual content.

Advert for Female Telephonists, Museum of London

Today oral history is used to cover a breadth of people and topics, made all the easiesr by the growing British Library Sound Archive and other smaller archives. It is also extremely popular in museum exhibitions and in community projects, this may be because it is one of the simplest ways to get communities involved and engaged in history. I have been volunteering on such community two projects, based on opposites sides of London to try to learn more.

The first project is Britain at Work: 1945-1995, and focuses on the employment history of ordinary people in the West London area after the Second World War. The idea is to record how ordinary people helped rebuild the country after the War through their jobs as factory workers, teachers, bus conductors etc. It is run by the local history society, HistoryTalk and funded by the TUC, which also leans the project towards an interest in union history, but it is an overwhelming influence.

The other project is a bit different and mainly focuses on an area in East London called the Hackney Cut, part of the canal that cuts away from the River Lee, and now sits in the shadow of the new Olympic Park. This is an artist lead project, so we volunteers conduct the oral history interviews with locals who have memories/experience of the Cut and the artists use them as inspiration for art work. This is run by [SPACE], an arts organisation, based in Hackney that provides studio spaces for artists to work in and exhibit work, and is funded by the HLF.

Olympic Stadium from the Hackney Cut, Jonathan Eudall Nov 2010

Both projects, though quite different in style and focus have one main objective in common, to record a part of history that may otherwise be forgotten or at least not recorded in some way.

Many interviewees ask why their story is important, and it’s my job to explain that in years to come we’ll have the official record of how a company functioned, or where houses were built, but that isn’t the same as an account of the atmosphere of a factory, or why they enjoy living on the canal. The small human details.

Consequently through these projects I feel that I have learnt a lot about oral history, what it is and how it is used. I also feel that I have helped contribute to worthwhile historical projects and through my role as interviewer become a part of those histories.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to get involved with these projects, I’d be happy to forward the project coordinators details. It would also be great to hear about any other Oral History projects going on in London, or indeed the country or world!!