From the 1850s to the 1970s Enderby Wharf in Greenwich is where people made most of the undersea cables that connect the world’s telegraph, telephone and now internet networks. In its first 100 years the Enderby Wharf factory made 82% of the world’s subsea cables, 713,000 km of cable. More than 160 years after the first cables were made there, a factory behind Enderby Wharf still makes vital equipment for subsea cables to connect the world’s internet services. It was where the world’s first telegraph cables were made in the 1850s, pioneering technologies that for the first time allowed people to send and receive messages in minutes rather than days or weeks. 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. In its first 100 years the Enderby Wharf factory made 82% of the world’s subsea cables, 713,000 km of cable.
Ditches and Gunpowder – The Early Years
The Enderby Wharf site in Greenwich has been used by many people over the centuries for a variety of uses. At one time the site was just fields and drainage ditches. One such Tudor ditch, called the Bendish sluice, runs through the site. In the 17th century the government built its official gunpowder testing department here. Gunpowder was made in private factories, brought here by boat, tested and then distributed to the army and navy as necessary. Greenwich people eventually petitioned to have it removed because they thought it was dangerous. In the 19th century part of the site was used by Joshua Beale. He developed there an important type of steam driven pump used in the manufacture of coal gas called an
Exhauster —-but also in the 1840s built a number of steam propelled private cars: see picture above. More recently, Telcon used the Enderby Wharf factory during the Second World War to make PLUTO, the ‘pipeline under the ocean’ that was used to deliver fuel to the troops in Normandy after D-Day in 1944.
The wharf is named after Samuel Enderby, who had an oil and chandlery business in the area and bought an existing ropewalk on a former gunpowder test site to develop a factory to make canvas and rope. Enderby House was built on the riverside in the early 1840s. Woolwich-born General Charles Gordon is believed to have spent his last night in Britain at Enderby House before leaving for Sudan, where he met his end.
Enderby Wharf and Telecommunications
The whole area around Enderby Wharf — and on the other side of the river — has had a long connection with telecommunications, running through to recent times. It was where the world’s first telegraph cables were made in the 1850s, pioneering technologies that for the first time allowed people to send and receive messages in minutes rather than days or weeks.
A century after TCM made the first cables, a young Chinese student called Charles Kao came to Woolwich Polytechnic — now transformed into the University of Greenwich — to study for his first degree, in electronic engineering. By then TCM 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 idea that fibres 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 his work. Part of the cable for the first, unsuccessful attempt to build a transatlantic cable was made by Glass, Elliot at Morden Wharf, just downriver from Enderby Wharf. In 1862 Glass, Elliot used the Enderby Wharf factory to build a better protected — and successful — cable. The ship used to lay it across the Atlantic was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, built on the Isle of Dogs just across the river.
Enderby House, on the Greenwich riverside just north of the old Royal Naval College, 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 UK and North America. Originally called Telcon (for Telegraph Construction and Maintenance, created in a merger between Glass, Elliot and Companyand the Gutta Percha Company) this is the oldest continuously operating telecommunications factory in the world. In its first 100 years the Enderby Wharf factory made 82% of the world’s subsea cables, 713,000 kilometres of cable. During the Second World War Telcon used the factory to build Pluto, the ‘pipeline under the ocean’ that delivered fuel to Normandy after D-Day in 1944.
From then until the 1970s the Enderby factory continued to make subsea telecoms cable, which was loaded onto cable-laying ships via gear that still survives on the riverside — though the ownership of that is still unclear. The Enderby Group wants to preserve the cable-laying gear and Enderby House as the birthplace of the international communications revolution.
Enderby Wharf Today
Enderby House was given Grade 2 listing in xxxx in recognition of xxxxxxx.
Several years ago Alcatel-Lucent, the current owner, sold the riverside part of its site, including the Grade 2 listed Enderby House, to Barratt, the house development company. Alcatel-Lucent continues world-leading work on telecommunications technology on the rest of the site, while Barratt is well advanced with building houses and flats.
Barratt began demolishing the existing property on the site in the summer of 2014, part of Alcatel-Lucent’s historic cable factory, where most of the world’s undersea telegraph and telephone cables were made from the 1850s to the 1970s.
Fortunately, Barratt is required to keep the Grade 2 listed Enderby House, which is badly deteriorated in condition, and is fenced off from the rest of the site. But the company has not yet found a function for it. That is why locals have set up the Enderby Group, to find a secure long-term use that honours and recognises its role in the telecommunications revolution.
From the 1850s to the 1970s Enderby Wharf in Greenwich is where people made most of the undersea cables that connect the world’s telegraph, telephone and now internet networks. More than 160 years after the first cables were made there, a factory behind Enderby Wharf still makes vital equipment for subsea cables to connect the world’s internet services.
Alcatel-Lucent still employs skilled people in Greenwich, over 160 years after the first subsea cables were made here, to develop and make submarine repeater equipment in its labs and factory behind Enderby House.