The owners of Enderby and the site alongside have had a series of names through the years, from TCM (or Telcon) to STC to Alcatel to Alcatel-Lucent, but Enderby Wharf is the oldest continuously operating telecommunications factory in the world, the place which has built the information revolution we’re still living through. It’s as important to the UK’s industrial history as Ironbridge Gorge or Bletchley Park — and as important to the history of Royal Greenwich as the Royal Observatory, the Old Royal Naval College, the Maritime Museum and the Woolwich Arsenal.
First cable to France — and then across the Atlantic
The first telegraph cable to France was laid in 1850 after tremendous efforts to find technologies that worked. Until 1970s the cable was made here in Greenwich and loaded onto cable-laying ships moored on the riverside using the equipment that is still in place on the shore today. Enderby House became crucial to the history of the world’s communications after the Atlantic Telegraph Company was set up in 1856 to provide a telegraph link between the old and new worlds. The cable for the first attempt was partly made at Morden Wharf. The cable was loaded on to the cable-laying boat from Greenwich — but it lasted in service for only two months. In 1862 the cable pioneers were ready to try again, with a heavier and better designed cable — carried on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enormous ship Great Eastern, which was built on the Isle of Dogs. That broke, but a third cable was successfully laid to the new design in 1866, and the second cable was dragged up from the bottom of the ocean and repaired. Communications around the world had changed for ever.
The speed of news: 40 days to a few seconds
Until the first cables went into service, political, business and family news went by ship. Sailing ships took 40 days or more. The first paddle steamer to cross the Atlantic took 18 days. When the Atlantic cable was in service, people could send news from America to the UK in seconds — from the birth of a baby to grand politics. Within years, other cables — almost all of them made
here in Greenwich — were laid at the bottom of the sea to join up the world’s telegraph networks. And then, in the twentieth century, to connect the world’s phone networks —
followed from the 1990s onwards by the internet.
The optical fibre revolution
A century after Telcon made the first cables here in Greenwich, a young Chinese student called Charles Kao came to Woolwich Polytechnic — now part of the University of Greenwich — to study electronic engineering. By then Telcon had become part of the giant Standard Telephone
and Cables group, and Kao went on to work there — where in the 1960s he came up with the revolutionary idea that hair-thin strands of glass could carry information in the form of laser light. In 2009 Sir Charles Kao, as he now is, won the Nobel Prize for physics for the work he started here in what’s now the Royal Borough of Greenwich.
The people who worked at Enderby Wharf have had a leading role in building the technologies that connected the world — from the 19th century telegraph networks to the international phone networks of the 1970s to the internet today.
That’s why we believe this historic site should be preserved so that it continues to inform the people of Greenwich and further afield about their contribution to the information revolution. Without Enderby House and the work done there, we’d have no Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Skype.