Last year marked 100 years since the beginning of The Great War. Whilst the newspapers and magazines of Britain understandably focused on the lives and tales of the brave soldiers who battled away in the trenches of mainland Europe, myCornwall decided to focus on the vital role the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno played in WWI.

The Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno was once the epicentre of international communications and below the feet of the modern day beach bathers lie the remains of some of the many cables that connected Britain to the rest of the world during the conflicts of the 20th century.

In the lead up to and during the First World War Porthcurno was an essential tool in the fight against the enemies of Britain as many of the young men (for it was all men) who came to train there were to find out. Porthcurno at that time was the largest cable station in the world and it included a training college to the communications industry that remained in operation until 1993. Trainees in those early days came to Porthcurno, learned their trades and were later shipped out to the many outposts owned and maintained by the Eastern Telegraph Company, which was set up by John Pender (1816-1896), a pioneer in the communication industry.

ETC Cable Map 1894 the great warThe Exiles

One such trainee was the young Alfred Izzard who came to Porthcurno in February 1911. Unlike many of those who passed through the doors, Alfred’s training days and further adventures where recorded by the man himself in his diary, a copy of which is kept at the museum .

According to the records held at Porthcurno he was appointed to the staff at Porthcurno in 1911. It wasn’t until the war, whichPorthcurno Main Street 1911 - the great war started on the 28th July 1914, was almost a year old that he was transferred to the C.S. Electra (Cable Ship) as third electrician. At the time Porthcurno was an unusual place as Alfred wrote in his diary “The main street has electric lamps every 50 yards in most up-to-date manner”. Although many towns and cities had electric lighting in their centres the streets surrounding the homes of the recruits did not. Apart from the hard work and training, life at Porthcurno was pretty good for the trainees. Despite this the staff and students at Porthcurno often felt very isolated and referred to themselves as ‘Exiles’. It was because of this isolation that the Exiles had to make their own entertainment by putting on theatre shows, parties and dances, playing cards and swimming.

The diary also describes the way in which the cables of Porthcurno connect with other telegraph stations around the world. “The work that comes from London is directed to all parts of the world, and, when it arrives here it is sorted out in a certain order for certain cables according to the addresses.”

Messages could be sent directly or relayed via the company’s stations around the world. Someone in Britain could send a message to any one of the receiving stations in minutes rather than weeks. This gave Britain and all those who used telegraphic communications tremendous power which explains why the enemies of Britain attacked the network on numerous occasions during the war.

All Aboard

Like many staff based in Cornwall Alfred Izard left the comfort of Porthcurno to carry out vital works to assist the war effort. In November 1915 he was assigned to the Cable Ship Electra which was based in the Mediterranean.

CS Electra at St. Lucia 1956According to Charlotte Dando, Collections Manager at Porthcurno, Alfred’s skills were of great use aboard the ship: “He was one of the crew involved in repairing damaged cables or cables destroyed by Britain’s enemies.”

Understandably Alfred and his comrades worried about German submarines or warships. Shortly after joining the C.S. Electra he wrote “I am writing down things now exactly as I feel at the present moment. Being very much perturbed, having already had one unpleasant though successful encounter with submarines.”

He was worried that should he be injured or worse things would be difficult for his family: “As for actual fear, I fear nothing, thanks to my Theosophical beliefs but I do fear the blow it would be to Mother and Sisters were I to get scuppered, or worse, to be permanently disabled.”

The fears were based on incidents that took place during the early months of the war when Cable Ships and Cable Stations were attacked. One such incident, which is highlighted in the permanent exhibition at Porthcurno, involved the station on the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Shortly after the First World War started, the German light cruiser Emden, disguised as a merchant boat, landed a party of soldiers on the Cocos Islands to destroy the communications network based there. One of the staff at the Cable Station realised what was happening and sent an SOS message before the Germans were able to disrupt communications…


Want to see more like this?

‘The Great War & Porthcurno’ is taken from our August/September 2014, Vol.2 Issue 25. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine for more stories like this one.