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Life on a remote cable station in the 1910s

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The Commercial Cable Company cable station, Fayal, Azores, 1911 to 1913

This information comes from office copies of the cable station manager's correspondence in the possession of the White family. They relate to a period before George White worked at the Azores.
Click here for the full archive.

There were three cable companies, each with independent offices at this time. The other two were the "D.A.T." or Deutsch-Atlantische Telegraphengesellschaftand the  "E & A." which was the "Europe & Azores Telegraph Co" but could by that time already have been subsumed by the "Eastern & Associated Telegraph Company".

CCC had two cables connecting to Canso, Newfoundland and Waterville, Ireland at this time.

The DAT had cables to New York and Emden in Germany (pretty much the first German landfall going east) - two each way.

The E & A had a cable to Carcevalos, Portugal, via other Azores islands and also two to the Cape Verde Islands and one to Porthcurno in Cornwall, UK.

The Manager of CCC in the Azores at this time was a Mr F Chevallier.

Cables Faults in cables at sea were reasonably frequent, as were faults in the "undergrounds" connecting the sea cables to the Cable Office. During this period Mr Chevalier had to carry out extensive work on the undergrounds - mainly with poor insulation at joints - where the Gutta Percha had failed to bond well.

In February 1912 the Waterville cable was damaged:

"On the 8th inst the C.S. Oldenburg arrived at Fayal to repair Emden No 2 cable, interrupted on January the 24th, and whilst grappling hooked the AZ-WV cable, which she was unable to lift. Not knowing that they had damaged it ... proceeded fifteen miles further from Fayal where they hooked their own cable.

[15th] It was then determined that ship should proceed to repair the AZ-WV cable before resuming their own work. On the 18th inst the weather was sufficiently fine for work, and cable was hooked on the 19th inst, but bad weather again coming on when cable was nearing the surface, a buoy was attached... . This buoy later on broke loose and the weather still being very rough, the ship, after waiting about until the 21st inst put back to Fayal.

On the 23rd inst the ship put to sea again, but returned on the 27th inst having experienced very rough weather.

Mr Ruhmkorf reported that the buoy which marked the position of the fault on our AZ-WV cable had drifted, and owing to the islands being covered with mist they were unable to get sights for locating the position. they were able to grapple on the 23rd and 245th insts, but probably did not cross our cable at all. the weather then became very rough. The ship has again put to sea today February 28th."

Finally:

"The AZ-WV cable which had been accidentally hooked and damaged on the February the 13th by the C.S.Oldenburg, whilst grappling for EM-FA No 2 cable, was repaired by that ship on March the 7th."

Earthquakes The Azores are in a geologically active zone.

"We had a slight earthquake at 4 a.m. on the 19th sufficient to wake everyone. Happily these disturbances have not been nearly as frequent of late." (30th November 1912.)

"It may interest you to know that there were 47 earthquakes recorded at St Michaels in 1911, some lasting four days. Col Chaves, the director of the Azores observatories tells me they are about the same here, but owing to want of cash no recording instruments have been set up in Fayal, as work here costs twice as much as in the other islands." (Next day.)

Illness Getting ill on Fayal was obviously a serious affair and their own company doctor, Dr Mesquita, fell seriously ill. He was intended to leave for Lisbon on 19th July 1912 to undergo treatment, but the ship being full he was unable to leave.

Eventually on 30th September we hear:

"…official message sent to Lisbon congratulating Dr Mesquita on his having been successfully operated upon. He is I believe recovering. It is uncertain when he will be able to return to Fayal, in the meantime Dr Neves is looking after his practise."

The superintendent of the E&A Co was luckier:

"Superintendent Wood sailed for England on the [14th July 1912], he has been very unwell for some time, and it is hoped that the change may be beneficial."

He returned in November:

"Superintendent, and Mrs Wood [E. & A. Co] arrived by this mailboat. He has been away in England on sick leave for four and a half months, and was expected to return some weeks ago; but was detained owing to the sudden illness of Mrs Wood."

Influenza struck in early 1913:

"Influenza has been prevalent throughout the month, whole families being down with it. Superintendent Schroeder (presumably DAT) has just recovered from a severe attack, eleven of his staff were off duty at the same time."

Paratyphoid was problem towards the end of the drought in 1913:

"A peculiar sickness in parts of the island, which the doctors call Paratyphoid, has attacked many people, several of whom have died. it is said to be infectious, and is spreading, but it is to be hoped that the change to better weather conditions will put a stop to it."

Local people There seems to have been quite a division between the Foreigners and Locals - at times giving a jarring tone by today's standards. But CCC did take on and train local young men.

At the sports day organised by the Cable Companies the locals were allowed to take part but, when a "Mackay Cup" was introduced for the mile race, Mr Chevalier stipulated that it would only be available to Cable Company Staff. However he seemed to realise that this was unfair (a local did nearly win the first race for this cup) and decided that it would be an open award in future years.

"The silver cup presented by Mr Mackay ... is a particularly good prize, in fact, too good for the ordinary Fayal youth to win, which possibly mighty occur, and I consider it best to confine the race to members of the three Fayal staffs."

... then

"I should like, if Mr Mackay will be good enough to give a prize for next year's sports, to allow the Portuguese to compete for it as well as cable people."

It seems that relations with local officials were also variable:

"I have missed our friend Senhor Cunha de Brum, who was always helpful in getting us permission for opening the streets etc. His death … causes a great loss to this town, and I am afraid the help he always gave .. is not likely to be continued by his successor."

Personnel Conditions of employment were much more invasive of private lives in those days - and the remoteness obviously led to problems with home leave. eg we hear:

"I enclose an application from operator R.Bishop asking permission to marry. He is steady, well behaved, and a good worker, and with care would be able to live on his present payments. He is taking holidays early this year, and if not permitted to marry now, will have to wait another three years."

(He was allowed to get married.)

Operators were paid salaries of between $35 and $70 per month according to efficiency. There is no information about the salary levels of higher grades. Local workers were paid up to 20 milreis per month – no indication of the lowest rate. 20 milreis appears to have been worth about $20 or £4 at that time.

Supplies Of course they were very dependent on ship-borne supplies and this caused a problem when chemicals for the batteries were sent. We hear that:

"The sulphate of and bichromate of potash have been received in good condition.

The sulphuric acid is held in St [Michael's?] until a ship can be found to bring it to Fayal, the ordinary [?] boats refuse to carry it."

This was in January 1912. the acid was still undelivered by June that year when we hear:

"The shipment of six cases Sulphuric acid from London per S. S. FIX on December 15th and the six cases per S.S. MARIE on February 13th, have been received minus two cases, one thrown overboard the other broken and useless. Each case contained four 42 lb jars." (I believe shops masters have always - probably still do - had the right to throw dangerous cargo overboard if they consider it to pose a risk.)

Technology This was new and tricky at the time. Every effort being made to get the last bit of performance out of the cables by using magnifiers (pre-electronic amplifiers using hot wires etc) and duplex working (sending messages simultaneously both ways on a cable). During this period two rival inventors were demonstrating / trying out their magnifier apparatus, Mr Heurtley, whose Magnifier later became a standard instrument and a Mr Powell with a "Brown's Thermo Multiplier". These tests carried on from November 1911 through to at least April 1912. Mr Powell was not happy when he heard that Mr Heurtley would be arriving:

"Mr Powell is not at all pleased with the expected arrival of Mr Heurtley just at this time, and I am under the impression that a good deal of jealousy exists, and for this reason the Heurtley apparatus has been intentionally kept in the background."

Working Duplex required the cable to be well balanced by a dummy cable and any electrical leak or resistance in the cable tended to upset the balance. Mr Chevalier observes in passing that the weather played a part in how easy it was to get a "good balance".

Our team under Mr Chevalier seemed to be content to observe tests being carried out mainly on other company's cables.

Visiting Ships This clearly caused excitement among the cable community - and on 2nd June 1913 the ship "Terra Nova" called but was quarantined. This was usual for all ships arriving from South American ports.

"The captain, Doctor, and purser however were given pratique ["Formal permission given to a vessel to use a foreign port upon satisfying the requirements of local health authorities" Collins Eng Dict.], and came ashore for a short stay. They evidently were delighted at being homeward bound after their long and terrible experiences in the South Polar regions…." This was Captain Scott's ship returning after the ill-fated South Polar expedition.

Water The supply of this resource was limited and eventually the three companies agreed to pay jointly for a better supply to be made from a large crater in the centre of the island. Even so when the drought occurred in there were problems with shortage.
Weather Severe gales (94 miles per hour recorded in March 1912) and drought were both encountered.

The gale blew down the Fayal wireless mast - the competition from Marconi's invention was already there.

In January 1913 we hear that:

"Very heavy seas have caused much damage to the cable landing place"

(This cost the company about £30 for their share of the repair costs - strictly divided according to number of cables landing.)

The drought was in 1913 and by August we hear:

"The drought still continues, a little rain has fallen but not nearly sufficient to prevent disaster to the crops, and with a great depreciation in the value of Portuguese money the price of everything has been increased. I am afraid a very bad time is in store for these islands."

Eventually on 30th September:

"Some rain has fallen since my last report, but too late to prevent great loss to the crops, and at the present time one feel greatly relieved by the change from the damp heat to comparatively cold dry weather."

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