From 1857 until 1975, Enderby Wharf was where successive companies made most of the undersea cables that connect the world’s telegraph, telephone and now fibre optic internet networks. Over its first hundred years the Enderby Wharf factory made 82% of the world’s subsea cables, a total of 713,000 km of telegraph and coaxial cable. All these cables were hauled out of the factory and loaded on to ships moored in the river via jetties on the river bank. More than 165 years after the first cables were made on the Greenwich Peninsula, a factory behind Enderby Wharf still makes vital equipment for subsea cables to connect the world’s internet services.
This part of the Greenwich Peninsula has been used over the centuries for a variety of purposes. To learn more about the early history of this site (Click Here). For many years this area was known as Greenwich Marshes and the land, which was subject to regular flooding, was used for hunting, fishing, wildfowling and osier harvesting for basket making. Over the centuries several attempts were made to hold back river erosion with limited success. However, in the early 17th century engineers (probably Dutch) were brought in to build seawalls, dig drainage ditches and construct sluices. The term ‘seawall’ was used because the River Thames at Greenwich is tidal. This work was completed in 1625. One of these major dykes still feeds out into the river, next to the main Enderby jetty. This outflow is known as Bendish Sluice. It is possible that the engineers placed the sluice gate there so that the outflow would create a viable landing place. After that the land was used mainly as water meadows for grazing sheep and cattle.
At the end of the 17th century, Enderby Wharf was Crown land, it was part of the original Manor of Old Court but at that time said to be part of the Manor of Pleasaunce. The Government of the time needed a new Gunpowder Magazine to support the early armaments industry through the storage, testing and distribution of gunpowder. This had previously been carried out solely at the Tower of London magazine, but this could no longer support the volumes necessary. In early 1694, the Ordnance Office advised the Treasury that a new ‘Powder Magazine’ was to be built. What was required was a remote riverside site near London, and Greenwich Marshes were seen as the ideal location.
The construction of the Gunpowder Magazine necessitated the building of the first jetty, steps and causeway at this location. The jetty was used for bringing in the gunpowder barrels and loading them onto boats for the passage down river to the Woolwich Arsenal. It is shown on the plan below as the Magazine Bridge, and the causeway with steps, for disembarking and embarking crew, is shown on the plan as the Landing Place.
The gunpowder magazine went into operation in 1695. However, as the town of Greenwich expanded, the location of the magazine became a major cause of concern for the local populace, and there is a record of a petition submitted in 1758 by the affluent residents of Greenwich concerning the state of the magazine ‘a quarter of a mile distant from their dwellings,’ and asking for its removal, in view of the dangers it posed to them and their property. Due to ongoing public protest about the risk of explosions, the magazine was finally shut down in 1769 and the gunpowder was moved to Purfleet, although it appears that the gunpowder store itself was not entirely demolished until 1771. The land then fell into disuse for several years, and the ruins of the magazine, as well as the dilapidated jetty with the abandoned steps and causeway, were still there in 1794.
It would appear that from 1799 onward John Hounson (1754-1823) paid rates on this Crown Land for a rope walk, rope house and warehouse. Hounson continued to lease the land from the Crown and operated the rope works until 1808, when the rope works came under the control of James Littlewood.
Around this time the land was acquired by Henry Vansittart (1777-1843), who allowed Littlewood to continue operating the rope works under a new lease. It has been suggested that it was Henry Vansittart who was, during the period of his ownership, responsible for refurbishing the existing dilapidated wharf, jetty and causeway. Littlewood was declared bankrupt in 1817, and the rope works with the lease of the land were made over to a Mr Young. When Henry Vansittart was promoted to Rear Admiral in July 1830, he sold the land to Messrs Enderby Brothers: Charles Enderby (1798-1876) and his younger brothers Henry (1800-76) and George (1802-91). The Enderbys also acquired the rope-making business from Young. From 1830 onwards, the wharf was known as Enderby’s Wharf and appears as such on all maps throughout the 19th century. Early in the 20th century the possessive ‘s’ was dropped, and it has been known as Enderby Wharf ever since.
The jetty and causeway continued to be used by the Enderbys until their factory was destroyed by fire on 8 March 1845. They then fell into disuse until the land was bought by Glass, Elliot & Co to manufacture cable for the first attempt to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, in 1857. The ships were moored in the River Thames around 100m off the factory wall and cable was loaded using the existing jetty, with the causeway being used to ferry personnel between the ships and the shore.
In 1864, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company Ltd (Telcon) took over the site and a more substantial jetty was added to accommodate the gantry that supported the bearer wire with its pulleys that formed the catenary suspended between the wharf and the ship, through which the long lengths of cable were hauled out of the factory tanks. This arrangement remained virtually unchanged until the end of the century, as can be seen from this rare photograph from 1886 below, which was taken by Telcon’s Chief Engineer at the time, Henry Clifford (1821-1905).
The jetty is ‘L’ shaped with the long side of the ‘L’ running along the river bank, as it is today. On the river end of the short side of the ‘L’ was a steel ‘A’ frame to support the catenary of pulleys out to a ship moored offshore. Using steam-driven machinery on board the ship, the cable was hauled out from the factory tanks and through the arch behind the ‘A’ frame. To the left of the jetty are the steps and causeway used to access the ships by small boats. Two men standing in a skiff, at the end of the causeway, can be seen in the foreground. Just to the right of the second set of steps you can see the gates of Bendish Sluice, and to the left of the steps is another small jetty with a steam crane on it. This is known as the ‘Coal Jetty’ and was built by Telcon to bring coal supplies into the factory. To the left of the Coal Jetty is a catenary of pulleys, suspended from a temporary tripod, behind the factory wall. Strung between the pulleys is a hauling rope, ready to pull cable into or out of the factory.
As well as making cables, Telcon diversified into other products, and in 1935 it merged its telegraph cable division with that of Siemens Brothers, the only surviving British competitor to Telcon in this market. It was agreed that Enderby Wharf would be the headquarters of the new company, Submarine Cables Ltd (SCL). SCL remained the only submarine cable supplier in the UK until 1956, when Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) opened its own cable factory in Southampton. During the Second World War, Telcon was one of the manufacturers of the ‘Pipe Line Under The Ocean’ (PLUTO), which was loaded onto the waiting ship over the same route as the submarine cable. PLUTO was used to supply fuel to the troops in Normandy after D-Day, in June 1944.
With the advent of coaxial submarine cables for telephone conversations and the use of polyethylene to replace gutta percha as the insulant for the cable, the equipment on the main jetty need to be upgraded. So in 1954 the two jetties and the causeway were given a major overhaul and the gantry and cable hauler which can be seen today were installed. The gantry supported the cable catenaries, and the cable hauler could be used to assist the ship’s cable engine in pulling the cable out of the factory tanks onto the ships, where the cable weight or the length of pull required it. In addition, the jetty hauler could be used to off load cable from the ship, if required.
There were several engineering innovations at the beginning of the Telephone Era, most of which were British and led by the General Post Office (GPO) and Cable & Wireless, supported by SCL and STC. As far as the jetties were concerned, the most important change was the introduction of Lightweight (LW) cable, which had the strength member in the centre of the cable structure, and no external protection. Until then, the strength of the cable had always been provided by external armour wires, but due to the relatively benign nature of the seabed in very deep water, external protection was unnecessary. This design had first been proposed by the GPO in 1951 and it was included in the joint development programme. Prototype cables were successfully manufactured and trialled by SCL and STC in 1956 and 1958 respectively. As the lightweight cable was more vulnerable to external damage, to accommodate the hauling of this product the pulleys and haulers had to be modified to be less abrasive to its medium density polyethylene outer coating.
In the early 1960s the Greenwich factory was very busy making LW cable for the Commonwealth Cables. There were three systems commissioned by the Commonwealth Governments to interconnect the leading Commonwealth countries. These systems were CANTAT, inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 19 December 1961; COMPAC, inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 2 December 1963, and SEACOM, inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 31 March 1967.
In 1970, STC acquired SCL and cable manufacture was gradually transferred to the Southampton factory. The last system to be manufactured at Greenwich was for Australia to Papua New Guinea, and the cable for this project was loaded on to the Cableship John W Mackay in early 1975. After 118 years of continuous production, this brought to an end cable manufacture on the Enderby Wharf site.
From 1975, the gantry and machinery lay idle, but the steps and causeway were kept in good condition. When the John W Mackay came back from Australia in 1977, she was retired after 54 years of service and was tied up on the dolphins (timber structures set into the bed of the river) until the mid-1980s, when she was towed away and finally scrapped.
The dolphins were then removed from the river and the jetties and steps were left unused for over a decade. In 1994 STC Submarine Systems was taken over by Alcatel Alsthom to form Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN), retaining the Enderby Wharf site but closing Southampton site in favour of their Calais cable factory, thus ending the manufacture of submarine telecommunication cables in the UK after almost 150 years.
In 1999, a number of Millennium projects took place on the Greenwich Peninsula. There were three relating to this area of the riverfront: the development of the Enderby Wharf jetty as a public open space with information panels, the retention of the cable winding gear, and the display of a subsea optical repeater and seating; the restoration of the adjacent Enderby steps to provide safe pedestrian access to the beach at low tide and as a visual account of the history of the industrial Greenwich Peninsula; and the laying out of a raised flower bed on the Coal Jetty, by then structurally unsafe for public access.
Deptford-based sculptor Richard Lawrence was commissioned to undertake the carving and installation of the new steps. Following research aided by Alcatel, consultation with local people and Dr. Mary Mills, Carol Kenna and Richard Lawrence produced a set of designs, then Richard undertook the carving in his studio before installation on site.
The 29 new steps and 25 replacement supports were constructed from Opepe wood, an African hardwood chosen to withstand the strictures of Thames tides. The carvings made reference to the various industries that have existed on Greenwich Peninsula, from the early farming of reeds for basket making through to the development of rope manufacture, iron and steel cable production and the 143 years (at that time) of the subsea telecommunications industry’s tenure at Enderby Wharf.
In 2008, ASN sold the waterfront property, including Enderby House, to West Properties, but retained responsibility for the causeway, jetties and steps under licences from the Port of London Authority (PLA). At that time, ASN lost CCTV coverage of the jetties and so the PLA agreed that for safety reasons, public access should be temporarily stopped. West Properties subsequently went into administration and in 2013 the distressed asset was acquired by Morgan Stanley. In July of that year they appointed Barratt London to be their agent and develop the site as it is today. It is understood that once the development of Enderby Wharf is complete, ASN will once again open up the Enderby Jetty and the steps for public access.
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