The Electric Telegraph Company

The Electric Telegraph Company

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David Charnick looks at The Electric Telegraph Company – the subject of one of the stops on his walk that looks at London’s engineering history

Founders Court


Founders’ Court is tucked away off of Lothbury behind the Bank of England, and I imagine virtually everybody who passes it doesn’t even look at it, let alone knowing its story. It is named after the Founders’ Company, whose livery hall was at the north end of the Court from 1531. But from 1 January 1848 this unprepossessing alleyway was to enjoy the best part of a century as the hub of national telecommunications.


The Company

On 2 September 1845 the Electric Telegraph Company was registered; the following June the Electric Telegraph Company Act was signed by Queen Victoria. Unusually the Company was given a monopoly, making it the first company in the world to be founded with the intention of connecting a whole nation to a single telecommunications network. So well did it develop in the years to come that, even when the monopoly expired in 1851, the Electric Telegraph Company would remain at the forefront of the telecommunications industry.


The Company was created to exploit, on a commercial basis, the patents taken out since 1837 by two British physicists, Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. They had been developing the electric telegraph, a method of communication which depends on messages being encoded as a regulated series of electrical impulses sent down a wire to a receiving machine. Of the two men, Cooke seems to have been the businessman, and was on the Company’s first board. Wheatstone allowed himself to be bought out; he was all for the science, having become hooked on the telegraph as a teenager.


With their monopoly, the Electric Telegraph Company was given powers enabling it to buy up not just the patents taken out by Cooke and Wheatstone, but also other peoples’ patents, to prevent the competition stealing a march on them when the monopoly ran out. Ordinarily this would have been illegal! It was also allowed to apply to extend its patents beyond the usual fourteen years, though in the event the Company’s application to do so was rejected in court.


Founders’ Court

What brought the Company to Lothbury? Having achieved its initial successes working with the railways, the Company relied initially on the burgeoning railway network to spread its own network of telegraphs. Think of those telegraph poles running by the railway tracks that Sherlock Holmes used to calculate the speed of his train in Silver Blaze. Accordingly, the Company started trading in July 1847 at 345 Strand, on the central street of London linking the City (home of trade and commerce) with Westminster (home of government). As the railways were forbidden to enter the City, there would have seemed no point in their being established there.


Very soon after opening however, the Company realised it had made a mistake, and that the financial institutions and businesses of the City offered a prime source of custom. After all, business depends on the speedy acquisition of information from as far away as possible. In 1847 the Company was able to secure the lease of Founders’ Hall, the Founders having moved south to St Swithin’s Lane, and it set about rebuilding the hall as its new Central Exchange. The Company occupied the building on 1 January 1848, announcing their counter to be open on 8 January.

central telegraph stationcentral telegraph station today

On entering from Founders’ Court, customers would find themselves in an imposing public hall. It featured a substantial colonnade, and in the ceiling was a great central skylight. Behind each of the two counters was, clearly visible, a room where messages were ‘translated’, or abbreviated to accepted codes, before being sent upstairs to the instrument galleries. The two open instrument galleries would have caught the customer’s eye, who would no doubt strain to see the flickering brass needles spelling out messages from around the country.


The wisdom of moving the Central Exchange to the City (another office at 142 Strand was given over in 1848 to the Company’s development of the electric clock) was vindicated almost immediately. Though the Company overstretched itself in 1848 and 1849, by 1850 it was operating at a healthy profit. Such was the demand for its services it established satellite exchanges at the Stock Exchange and on Cornhill and Mincing Lane (the focus of the provisions trade).


These exchanges in turn became so popular that on occasion they would themselves become overwhelmed. To deal with these surges, beginning in 1853 the Company laid pneumatic tubes between them and Founders’ Court. Surplus messages were placed into containers, which were inserted into the tubes. A steam suction machine then brought them to the Central Exchange, where they could be processed. More tubes would follow in the 1860s as demand from the Company’s customers increased.


In 1868 the Post Office absorbed the domestic telegraph function, closing down the various telegraph companies. So well established was the Electric Telegraph Company however that the Post Office allowed them to continue trading for another two years, intending to move into their premises on Founders’ Court and on Telegraph Street (see below).


The story of the Electric Telegraph Company shows an important characteristic of the City: that a forward-looking company developing ground-breaking technology was reliant on the centuries-old financial hub of the City for its clientele, and on medieval land tenure to acquire its premises. Thus it embodies the paradox of a City at once looking to the future and reliant on the past.


Regrettably, there is nothing on Founders’ Court to tell the public about its technological significance. Nor is there anything to mark a similarly significant venture, the United Kingdom’s first telephone exchange, which opened in 1879 at 36 Coleman Street. We are familiar with the importance of the internet to the business City and how it changed not only its ways of working but also its geography. Founders’ Court reminds us that the relationship between the City and telecommunications goes back much further.


Other City locations connected with the ETC are:


Royal Exchange Buildings

In 1853 a sister company was created, the International Telegraph Company, which was based on negotiations with the Minister of the Interior of the Netherlands. Sole rights were obtained to lay cables between the two countries beneath the North Sea. The new company was incorporated by Royal Charter on 13 June 1853. In order to allay Dutch reservations about foreign intervention, the sister company had to appear to be independent from the parent company, although their boards were identical!

paul julius reuter

The new company was based at the Continental Telegraph Offices at 1 Royal Exchange Buildings, sharing offices with Julius Reuter’s news agency. The relationship between the two was close. From January 1854 the International Telegraph Company was giving Reuter a rebate of 50% for using their system exclusively to communicate news.


Telegraph Street

In 1855 the two companies finally merged to form the Electric and International Telegraph Company. The Company was becoming so successful that the Founders’ Court exchange could no longer accommodate their business, and they negotiated with the Clothworkers’ Company to acquire land on the north side of Great Bell Alley, which crosses Moorgate, and in 1859 the new General Offices opened. The new building was to handle the principal business, with Founders’ Court retained as a public counter.


So important was this development to the City that the Corporation was persuaded to change the name of the eastern stretch of Great Bell Alley to Telegraph Street.

telegraph sttelegraph st today

According to a journalist from the Illustrated London News, the Company employed exclusively female staff for its great telegraph gallery at Telegraph Street; the overseas network was manned by males, ‘nearly all foreigners’. Prudential Assurance claims to have been breaking ground by employing female clerks in 1871 to keep up with the volume of business, but it seems the Electric and International Telegraph Company were taking the initiative twelve years previously.


Cowper’s Court

An interesting City location connected with the Electric Telegraph Company is Cowper’s Court, between Birchin Lane and Cornhill. It was on Cowper’s Court that the Jerusalem Coffee House stood, notable for its being used by merchants dealing with the Far East, most particularly India and China. It was also the place where the London Metal Exchange was born. However, it was because of the coffee house’s trading links with Australia that one John Tawell, the Quaker Poisoner, was arrested here on 2 January 1848 for murdering his mistress Sarah Hart at Slough the previous day, by putting cyanide in her beer. Tawell was at the Jerusalem checking up on his Australian investments.


Tawell became the first person to be arrested with the aid of the electric telegraph. It was from the Slough Station telegraph cottage (linked to Paddington Station along the Great Western Railway by Cooke and Wheatstone in 1842) that a message identifying Tawell was sent to London by the vicar, who ran after Tawell and arrived at the station just in time to see him leaving in a first-class carriage. As Sergeant William Williams of the Great Western Railway Police didn’t have the jurisdiction to arrest Tawell once he left the train, the arrest had to be effected the next day with the aid of Inspector Wiggins of the Metropolitan Police.




Picture credits:

  1. © 2013 Fay Bennett
  3. © 2014 Hazel Screen




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