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Folkestone Harbour Railway Ltd

The Electric Telegraph

Folkestone Harbour was not where the electric telegraph was invented but it was the area in which it was proven to be more capable than was previously considered.

There were a number of stages in the development of the electric telegraph.   In 1746 the French scientist and abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet gathered about two hundred monks into a circle about a mile in circumference, with pieces of iron wire connecting them. He then discharged a battery of Leyden jars through the human chain and observed that each man reacted at substantially the same time to the electric shock, showing that the speed of electricity's transmission was very high.

Eventually in 1835 Joseph Henry invented the critical electrical relay by which a weak current could operate a powerful local electromagnet over very long distances.

The South Eastern Railway was an early adopter of this technology and on the right is the network of cables after Folkestone Harbour was opened.   Notice how important the harbour was to the network.

Charles V Walker was the South Eastern Railway's Superintendent of Telegraphs and in 1850 he wrote a report of his experiment that took place off Folkestone Harbour the previous year.

As the South Eastern moved closer to opening the world's first rail-sea-rail service it was realised just how important it was for up-to-date information to be exchanged about timekeeping, passenger and freight loadings etc.

Walker wanted to prove a long held theory that salt water would allow electrical pluses to pass so he went about gathering an experiment whereby a telegraph cable was laid from Folkestone Harbour for about 2 miles into the English Channel.   He also fitted equipment into the South Eastern & Continental Steam Packet Company’s vessel Princess Clementine.

For those interested, a reconstruction of Tonbridge Telegraph Office equipment is on display at the STC exhibition at the Science Museum in London.   The original was visited by Charles Dickens at about the time that Walker's report was issued and he published details in his 'Household Words' magazine.

Use of the telegraph for railway business was high for that time and about 45 messages a day were sent by the Tonbridge office.   Folkestone Harbour with its ferry connections was seen to potentially be at least as busy as Tonbridge.

Walker suggested that information was key by noting "On a railway like the South Eastern, which is the High Road between the Continent and the Capital of the British Empire, couriers may arrive from abroad, as indeed they do at all hours, and without any previous notice, require immediate means of reaching London". Clearly the business objective was for special trains to be quickly offered at a price.

Walker resolved to test the theories and he connected a 2 miles long submarine cable to the railway's 83 mile link with London.

On 10th January 1849 at 12.49 the first telegraphed conversation, using a submarine cable from Folkestone Harbour, took place between Charles Walker onboard the South Eastern & Continental Steam Packet Company’s vessel Princess Clementine at anchor over 1 mile off Folkestone and the South Eastern Railway’s Chairman at their headquarters in London and afterwards with various stations on the line of route.

This was a week after opening the London - Paris service and the first message was simply "Mr Walker to Chairman,-I am on board the Princess Clementine: I am successful".

When comparing the electric telegraph with texting on mobile phones it seems that they are at least on a pare with Walker recording 14 words per minute as being a reasonable rate of transmission.   By all accounts messages were exchanged with other stations on the route "for a few hours" before the submarine cable was pulled in and reassigned to Merstham Tunnel in Surrey.