Cable stations

Here in the womb of the world – here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth
Rudyard Kipling, 1902 


‘WANTED, BOYS FIFTEEN years of age to learn submarine telegraphy and serve overseas.’ This type of advertisement attracted young men to serve in the Pacific Cable Board’s (PCB) network of stations across the Pacific. Among them my great-grandfather, David Cuthbert, and my grandfather, Robert Cuthbert, who worked as cable operators, with David becoming a manager. The peregrinations of this cable family took them from Tobermory, Scotland, to Ballenskelligs in Ireland. From the snow in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Bamfield, Canada, then later to the warmer climes of Southport in Queensland, Norfolk Island, Fiji and strangest of all, Fanning Island, nearly 2,000 kilometres from Honolulu.

Robert Cuthbert was born in Ballenskelligs in 1885. His son, Martin, my father, was born in Suva in 1918, and lived on cable stations in Fiji, Fanning Island, Halifax, Norfolk Island, and finally settled in Auckland when his father retired. As a child I was probably the only person at school who could point to Fanning Island on a map. I grew up in a ‘Cable Family’, and relished the stories my father told of his childhood including descriptions of huge coconut crabs that prowled around the houses on Fanning Island. My father built crystal sets for us, using skills passed to him by his father and his grandfather. I have been told that after he died, David Cuthbert’s house in Auckland was festooned with aerial wires for crystal sets and other ‘wireless’ devices as his descendants carried on his fine tradition. A cable man’s skills live on. Memories of life on Fanning Island stayed with  my father and his sister. Both my great-grandfather and grandfather lived and worked there and my uncle David was born there, I can only look on my grandmother with awe at her courage to take her childen to live on isolated Fanning Island, let alone to deliver a baby there.

NEW ZEALAND WAS, like Australia, connected to Britain by the Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company cable, which ran through the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean to Australia, and across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia. Its frequent breakdowns, however, meant that the New Zealand government was keen to support any endeavour that promised a more reliable connection.

The Pacific Cable Board was formed by the British and Canadian governments in 1896 with additional members from Australia and New Zealand. 

With Britain’s territorial possessions coloured red on the map in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the dream was for a cable that touched only British soil – an ‘All Red’ route. The plan to establish a submarine telecommunications cable across the Pacific would realise this ideal and circumnavigate the globe. One of the first highways across the Pacific was the almost ‘All Red’ route of PCB cable. ‘All Red’ shipping lines were popular with tourists in the dying days of the Empire – from Australia to Fiji, Honolulu and Vancouver. The dream was, however, never fully realised. Ships had to refuel at non-British ports and airlines had to share facilities. These enterprises were ‘All Red’ in spirit only.

When the cable was connected in 1902 the Brisbane Courier described the cable as ‘the world’s great ocean highway’. In The Tentacles of Progress (1988), Daniel R Headrick described the British Empire as, ‘stronger than death dealing war-ships (sic)…stronger even than the unswerving justice of Queen Victoria’s rule are the…two or three slender wires that connect the scattered parts of her realm.’ Headrick argued, ‘The web of iron that tied the colonial empires together was [now] made of electricity as well as steam and iron.’

In pursuit of the ‘All Red’ cable line, the PCB needed relay station sites. Stations needed deep water so the cable did not snag on the seabed or get caught by the anchors, a sloping beach to bring the cable to shore; land to locate an office and connect the cable ends, and sites suitable for building staff residences. The most propitious seabed was soft and muddy, known as globigerina or radiolarian ooze, which allowed the cable to sink into the mud, protected from most damage, except volcanic eruption and earthquakes.

While it was relatively easy to select Bamfield in Vancouver for the first Pacific relay station in 1901, the next link was more perplexing. With cable-laying technology still embryonic, distance was critical. The nearest British territory on the route between Vancouver and Fiji was Fanning Island, but that would require the cable to be laid over nearly 6,500 kilometres. This was considered impossible at the time – the trans-Atlantic cable, laid by the ship the Great Eastern was only 3,680 kilometres long.

The alternative was to use an unclaimed island in the Hawaii group, Necker Island, which would have reduced the length of cable to 5,120 kilometres. Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming, a leading proponent of the cable, asked a colleague to travel to Necker Island and claim it for Canada, but discovered that Britain had already ceded sovereignty over the island to Hawaii and had only requested landing rights for the cable. When Hawaii learnt of Fleming’s intentions, it sent the steamer ship Iwalani to take possession of the rocky island and ensure its sovereignty was protected.

Fleming’s proposed route had been from Vancouver to Necker Island, then to Apamana Island in the Gilbert group, and on to San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, then to Australia at Port Denison, Queensland. This would have bypassed New Zealand.

This route did not eventuate. Despite the higher cost of Fanning Island and a possibly a slower message rate, it was the chosen route.

In Vancouver, a site was selected at the junction of Bamfield and Grappler Creeks in Barclay Sound. The cable from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company until 1910 when it was handed over to PCB. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company constructed the Vancouver cable station between 1901 and 1902 on the top of a cliff, including a fifty-room bachelors’ quarters, with library, billiard and music rooms, for twenty men and twelve Chinese servants. There was also a manager’s house. The married staff lived in twelve houses. One cable operator said that had PCB used isolation as one of the criteria for selecting Bamfield, it was a good choice, and it reduced the distance to Fanning Island by a few miles. Although money may have been saved on the cable, the station was very expensive to maintain. The staff included a plant engineer, fulltime carpenter, servants, a cook, two waiters, night duty cook, cook’s helper, two laundrymen, and an office boy. There was also ‘outside staff’, a Chinese foreman and several workers. Everything was shipped by sea, using a ‘three boat a month’ service run by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

THE SELECTION OF the landing site in Australia was comparatively easy. Land at Southport was acquired and the Australian postmaster-general oversaw the project. This became the training school for the young operators from the British Empire. There was a gymnasium, tennis court, and library on site, which was close enough to town for the trainees to venture out on social occasions – dressed in navy blazers trimmed with red embroidery, a red crown on the breast pocket to indicate they were on imperial service.

The next relay station, Norfolk Island, was where three separate parts of the cable landed; the Queensland line, the New Zealand line and the Fiji line. Anson Bay was chosen, the only location on the island with a gently sloping sandy beach, but far from the island’s main settlement and its ‘easygoing indolent people’. Hopes that the station should become self-sufficient were expensive to realise. Staff needed a lot of extra assistance to be self-sufficient. Even more, apparently, than the isolated atoll, Fanning Island.

A survey of the Northland area by cable steamer Britannia led to Doubtless Bay being chosen as the New Zealand station in 1901. The isolation of Harris Green was likened to an island. The land was desolate, unable to support any form of agriculture, but there was space for station buildings. Harris Green finalised the link between New Zealand and England by an (almost) ‘All Red’ line.

A new cable was eventually laid to speed messages between Southport and Sydney, and Doubtless Bay to Auckland. Harris Green cable station became redundant by 1912. In time, the cost of routing all messages from New Zealand to Australia through Norfolk Island became unsustainable. Instead a cable was laid directly from Bondi Beach in Sydney to Muriwai Beach in Auckland in 1912. Now New Zealanders flock to Muriwai Beach to surf, as they do to Bondi Beach. The favoured gathering points for young Australiasians were first linked by cable.

FIJI WAS MORE of a problem. A landing place for the cable at Suva was difficult to find because the cables had to be stored in tanks onshore to avoid them drying out, then floated out to the cable ship, which had to moor as close as possible because there was a limit to the time that the cable could drift in the sun. The best solution was to reclaim land which would also accommodate any future extensions, but this increased construction costs.

Britannia arrived at Fanning Island – an atoll almost 3,500 kilometres from Suva – on 23 August 1901, with a letter of introduction from the acting Western Pacific high commissioner which advised long-time resident, and one of the so-called ‘Kings’ of Fanning Island, William Greig, that the British government had the right to take any part of the land on Washington or Fanning Island for the cable. Known to the people of nearby Manihiki as Tabuaeran (‘the place of the heavenly footprint’) because of its shape, the area of land on Fanning Island is approximately 34 square kilometres with a lagoon covering about 110 square kilometres. The rim of useable land is about a kilometre wide. A site had been selected on an earlier visit by Captain Field on HMS Penguin who described the land as ‘a howling wilderness of barren stone-covered ground’ where Greig had established a sort of oasis, with enough soil to allow grass (of a sort) to grow. Shade from coconut trees created a pleasant site for the buildings, in comparison to the rest of the barren atoll. Greig imported potatoes and onions twice a year from San Francisco, and kept pigs, cattle and poultry, which fed on the meagre grass, leaves and other greenery.

There is no trace of an earlier occupation of the atoll. Several people had previously claimed the island for England, even purchased it from those already living there. Caroline Ralston described how Joseph Navarro, a member of the ‘beach community’ in Honolulu, was banished to Fanning Island in 1825 for assaulting his wife’s lover. In 1848 George Collie and Edward Lucett from Tahiti stayed briefly, taking possession of the island for Britain. Lucett found a ‘man of Crusoe habits’ on the island, with his ‘Kanak’ wife from the Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands and a large number of children and grandchildren. Henry English probably paid Lucett and Collie for possession in 1852, and set up a plantation using Manihikan labour. Later, the Scot William Greig and American G Bicknell and their families took over the island, and worked with JT Arundel to set up what became an unproductive guano business between 1879 and 1883.

The ownership of the little island continued to be subject to underhanded dealings and intrigue. In 1906 the Los Angeles Times published an article headed ‘Fanning Island, A Queer Little South Sea Spot Which Is To Be Auctioned Off By England’. After several changes of ownership by 1935, Burns Philp purchased both Fanning and neighbouring Washington Islands, and formed Fanning Islands Plantations Limited. The cable station there operated until 1963.

The proposed site of the cable station, where the old guano works once stood, was one of the highest points on the island, and received the full benefit of any winds. Fresh water was scarce, so large cement underground tanks were needed. The construction of a wharf for unloading supplies from ships was also suggested, as it was dangerous for ships to approach too close to the shore. Britannia landed a building to house the shore ends of the cable.

The cable station buildings on Fanning Island included a manager’s house, bachelor quarters, and houses for married staff. There were amenities to keep the men occupied, including a swimming pool, night and day tennis (on a court which was painted green to absorb the glare from the sun), billiards and movies. There was good fishing and the lagoon provided many pastimes – sailing and outrigger canoe racing. Some had their own dinghies with outboard motors for fishing trips and excursions.

The hall had a stage, piano and a pianola with several hundred rolls and a gramophone with twenty records. The married quarters and the doctor’s house were on the same side as the lagoons -– airy open concrete villas about ten feet above the ground surrounded by verandas. On the ocean side there were workshops, engine rooms and freezing chambers, boat houses, the cable hut and the little settlement where the Indian and Gilbertese servants lived. Alcoholic beverages were permitted, and because the island was considered to be a ship at sea for customs purposes, it was duty free and so each man could keep a good supply of ‘liquid refreshments’. While my family stories were not recorded, the archives hold some tales from Fanning Island. The single men’s quarters were spacious and built in three parts which soon acquired names, such as ‘Snobs Alley’, Posh Lane’, and ‘The Bastard’s Retreat’. More recently, a retired telegraph operator recalled the ‘Bomb’ parties when Britain tested nuclear weapons on nearby Kiritimati Island in the 1950s and cable staff would celebrate by watching the explosions after listening to the countdown through the wireless equipment.

IN 1902 THE Pacific cable was ready for operation. On 3 March, the Anglia anchored offshore at Southport, ready to splice its end of the cable to the prepared one onshore. Landing  the cable was more difficult than expected. There was big surf and the crew of the surf boat that rowed out to the ship with the cable aboard was unable to continue. The ingenious solution was to float a rope in from the ship, with the cable attached to a row of barrels. (A similar method was used in 1999 to land the new Southern Cross cable at New Zealand’s Takapuna Beach.) The winch was not strong enough for the extra weight of the heavy rope, so twenty men helped heave the heavy rope on to the beach. As they pulled the row of barrels ashore, the waiting crowd cheered as the end of the cable appeared. The cable was tested and messages were successfully sent and received.

Despite its somewhat ignominious arrival, the cable was in place and  Anglia departed for Norfolk Island, landing the shore end of the cable there two weeks later. Then Anglia steamed to Doubtless Bay and by the end of the month New Zealand was linked to Norfolk Island and Australia. The welcoming party included New Zealand postmaster-general Sir Joseph Ward who sent a message to his  Australian counterpart deputy postmaster-general, HH Buzacott; ‘I have attended at Doubtless Bay today and have had the pleasure of witnessing the landing of the Pacific cable between New Zealand, Norfolk Island and Australia…’ Messages captured the excitement and possibilities: ‘The cable…will unite Canada with New Zealand and Australia’, and this from Brisbane, ‘this event will tend to bind closer these bonds of kinship between the contracting colonies.’

The Anglia sailed on to lay the cable to Suva, splicing the ends on 10 April. The first message sent over the cable was from the governor of Fiji to the governor of New South Wales, congratulating him on the success of the enterprise. There was then a delay of five months until the northern Pacific section was laid.

An understated but nevertheless triumphant message was sent from Suva on 31 October, ‘The Pacific Cable was completed at 5.15 today’. The next day the shore end of the cable linking Fiji with Fanning Island was joined at Suva to ‘unite the two hemispheres’, as the Fiji Times reported. With the final splicing, the ‘crimson thread which will bind Queensland in friendly handgrip with kinsmen beyond the seas…’ was complete. One of the first messages was handed to King Edward VII on Newmarket Racecourse.

The Brisbane Courier waxed lyrical in its tribute. Headlined ‘The Encircled Earth’, the article spoke of breaking down boundaries, reconciliation of racial animosities. ‘Puck’s metaphor of putting a girdle around the earth in forty minutes became yesterday an embodied reality…’

On 3 November 1902, the cable was officially commissioned by the Australian postmaster-general, JG Drake. The celebrations were marked by speeches by politicians and the superintendent of Pacific Cable, in the presence of celebrities including soprano Nellie Melba and the famous body builder, Eugen Sandow.

A ‘Great Ocean Highway’ now crossed the Pacific; silence was replaced with chatter as messages sped back and forth under the sea between the islands. They brought the news of the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I, and the panicked message sent by an operator as Germans entered the cable building at Fanning Island in 1914, about to cut the cable and destroy equipment. This message was received at the Bamfield cable station by its manager, my great-grandfather among others. The cable also brought up-to-date news and information about prices for export products from Australia.

This highway invigorated the Pacific, it connected previously isolated islands, and provided work for many New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians – ‘Gentlemen On Imperial Service’.

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