Waterville History

Waterville Commercial Cable Company Station

This information comes from Jim Hewison, who grew up on the station.

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The Cable station in the early 1900s showing the New Office building, Water tower, Staff Houses and Windmill with playing field in the foreground


In the early 1880's, Waterville, a small village on Ballinskelligs bay in South Kerry, having three hotels and about fifty dwellings, was picked by the Commercial Cable Co. Ltd., of New York as the landing place for its submarine cable under the Atlantic linking North America to Europe Waterville, adjacent to Lough Currane, had the three hotels because there was excellent salmon and trout fishing. It was therefore not unknown to many English and other visitors in season. This probably made it somewhat easier to deal with the three hundred telegraphists who came to staff the Cable station complex in the townland of Spunkane, just north of the village and right next to the existing coastguard station which had been built in the early 1800's. The land purchased by the Commercial Cable Co. for the new complex surrounded an existing Fishing Lodge which was the property of the Earl of Kenmare and was included in the purchase.

It was a two storey dwelling, stone built, with high gables and chimneys and had decorative timber fascias and finial pieces. It became the residence of the Superintendent of the cable Station, and was maintained in pristine condition for the next eighty years. It is still in excellent condition and is now a holiday home. More land was purchased to give ground access to the sea shore, where the cables were to come ashore under the sandy and stony beach. The need for communication had given impetus and direction to the science of sending electrical signals along metal wires in the early nineteenth century. Many systems were devised which could transmit and receive messages over short distances. In 1844 Samuel Morse, an American, devised the earliest commercially viable system, and in that year a telegraph Line was established between New York and Washington via Baltimore. Developments in the use of Morse's Dot and dash code to represent letters and the means to record them on paper tape, were rapid. By the mid 1850's there were 51 Telegraph Companies operating in America. The wire connecting these telegraph stations was carried on poles over ground and was not insulated.

The possibility of crossing seas and oceans with telegraph wires was being pursued by several of the existing telegraph Companies. The medium of Gutta Percha as a waterproof insulating medium, and the parallel development of a machine which could apply it to wire, eventually made the manufacture of submarine cable a possibility. To lay the cable in deep water it had to be strong and extremely durable.

The cable finally developed consisted of a heavily insulated copper core wound with jute fibres to protect the core from the strengthening layers of galvanised sheathing wires. The diameter of the deep water cable would have been about one inch. In shallower in-shore waters the diameter increased to about three and a half inches as extra protective wound wire armour was needed to protect the core from ships' anchors, trawling gear, rocks and icebergs. Special ships had to be designed to carry on cylinders and the enormous lengths of cable. The ships had to have equipment designed to lay the cable over rollers to depths of nearly 12,000 feet. The technical difficulties were numerous and many trials failed.

Eventually the first Transatlantic cable was laid from Hearts Content in Newfoundland to Valentia Island in County Kerry in August 1858. The Cable company was the Western Union. The Waterville cable Station was established by the Commercial cable Co about 1880. By this time technical developments has made submarine cable laying somewhat less of a risk. The Submarine Cables (eventually six) into Waterville were laid from Canso in Nova Scotia. The line was from New York to London. It went overland from New York to Canso, under Atlantic waters from Canso to Waterville and underwater again from Waterville to Weston-super-Mare on the Bristol Channel in Somerset and then overland to London. Canso and Waterville and Weston-super-Mare were repeating stations established to strengthen the electrical signals which became weak over the long lengths of cable In the early days in Waterville the cable messages in dot and dash Morse code were received and then manually transmitted; There was east Bound traffic and West Bound traffic, and it was constant twenty four hours every day. This necessitated high manpower. All had to be trained Telegraphists with an optimum receiving and sending rate. In the 1890's and early 1900's about three hundred men were employed in Waterville Cable Station.

There was a Superintendent, three Assistant Superintendents, eight Office Engineers, and the bulk of the workforce were Telegraph Operators. In addition to the people directly employed in receiving and re-transmitting there was a large building Maintenance Staff, an Engine Room Staff, a small Ground staff for Tennis courts and Playing Field. The original complex built around the Earl of Kenmare's fishing lodge consisted of an office building where the transmitting and receiving instruments were housed. There were six houses for married staff. There was a large building built and domestically staffed, to house the large number of single men. This was known as the Cable Staff Mess. The overspill were lodged in local hotels and houses. The complex has a gas Plant which provided domestic lighting and lighting for roadways. There was also an Electrical generator building with Diesel Engines. This kept the huge vaults of batteries charged to provide constant source of power and voltage for the cable operation.

Jim's annotated map of Waterville and the Cable Station

There was a Windmill which pumped the water from a well to two large timber storage vaults at high level. There was a carpenters Shop and Stores for the Building Maintenance Staff. There was a horse drawn manually operated Fire Engine and Fire Station.

The social side was extremely well catered for. There was a Recreation Hall with a Stage and a First Class Dance Floor. There were four Tennis Courts, a Football Pitch, a Cricket Field, and Bathing Huts at the beach. There was a Library and a Billiards and Snooker Table. All the equipment was supplied and maintained. There was a Nine Hole Golf Links set up on the local dunes. There was a small shop run on cooperative basis which sold groceries, fruit, sweets and cigarettes. The Superintendent was provided with Domestic Staff and had a Horse Drawn Coach and coachman at his disposal. This Coach was still in use in the early 1930's.

By 1912 the Complex had grown to twenty eight Staff Houses and a new Office Building built of stone. It was a vibrant and thriving community.

Technical developments in automatic receiving and re-transmitting of signals brought about systematic reductions in staff numbers required and by the late 1920' s the staff was down to about sixty.

By 1962 the Satellite Systems had revolutionised communications and Waterville cable station ceased to function. To assess what the arrival had on the local community and how it affected it over its eighty years of existence is at first sight a simple matter.

In the first place it must have brought a welcome boost of prosperity to the locality. The establishment of the station brought wealth to the local builder. The wages content brought increased prosperity to the seven or eight local shops, and of course the hotels did well.

The influx of such a large number of males, mostly unmarried, mostly in their early twenties must have had an enlivening effect locally. The lads were nearly all English with some Scots and welsh, and a few from farther away parts of the world. On the subject of prosperity, the local doctor was paid by the Company to look after staff members when required, and the local Roman catholic parish priest and his opposite number, the Church of Ireland rector both got annual donations from the Company. An interesting note here is that there were very few pews in the local R.C. Church at the time and the Company provided six pews on the Epistle side of the Church. Each had a small brass plate on it which said - "Cable Staff". The Church was re-furbished in the 1950's and these pews were disposed of.

It could be expected that with such a large number of single men coming into the area, there would be a high rate of marriage to local girls. This does not seem to have been the case. It would seem that there were about 20 marriages to local girls.

The following names were in this category; Hogbin, Cubitt, Wright, Noxon, Howatson, Graham, McKimmie, Mason, Tomge, Domoney, Begg, Patterson, Hewison, Boag, Chantler, Dunn, Duff, Tranfield.

All those except one became converts to Roman Catholicism. Of the families they started only one son is still in Waterville, two more have holiday homes in the village. The choir of the local R.C. Church for many years was made up exclusively of wives from the above group. To some of them it was a comforting thought that Clarence W MacKay of New York, President of the Commercial cable Co. was a catholic. He was in Waterville only once.

The Cable Station employees housing (right block) seen from the road.


On the social activity side the greatest area of contact with locals must have been the dances in the Recreation hall. It had an excellent Dance Floor and they could not have had dances without girls. So there must have been need for local girls to attend these social functions.


There were numerous Tennis Tournaments throughout the Summer and there was a Cable Staff Men's and Ladies Championship each year. Contact here was only slight as not too many locals played Tennis.


Oddly enough Cricket provided quite a bit of contact in Co. Kerry, if not locally. There were clubs in Tralee, Killarney, Kenmare and Valentia who visited regularly each summer and sometimes Cricket teams from Buttevant and Cork traded visits.


The football played was Association football and this was only played between the staff themselves. Sometimes the Western Union Cable Station in Valentia had a side, so there was no contact locally from Football.

The Cable Station employees housing (left block) seen from the road.


One of the Cable Station Staff Wives who had been a teacher in England, Mrs. Kathleen Warwick ran a Primary School for staff children and some locals in a building provided by the Cable Co. Mrs. Warwick was a Church of Ireland member and there was often some friction with the local R.C. Parish Priest about Religious Instruction at Confirmation time for R.C. children. She ran the school from 1923 to 1932. This provided only minor local contact with locals. As mentioned earlier the advent of the communications by Satellite finally put an end Waterville Cable Station in 1962.

The houses and Buildings were all sold and the playing field divided into building plots.

The staff houses of 1600 and 1800 sq. feet made about £13,000.00 each. The main Office Building is now a Hostel for Student Tourists. The houses are nearly all used as Holiday Homes. There only six permanent residents in the twenty eight houses. The Kerry County Council looks after the roads and other services. One permanent resident is a grandson of the Superintendents Coachman of the 1890 's whose name was Mike Courtney.

It could be said that Waterville Cable Station, except for the buildings that remain, has left very little permanent mark on the townland of Spunkane or the village of Waterville.

The Graveyards at the local Church of Ireland Church and the Roman Catholic Church have many gravestones marked with English, Scottish and other non Irish names.

The people of the live Cable station and their times are gone.

The self contained little colonial-like enclave has disappeared as an institution and only one or two of those who lived and died there became more "Kerrymen than the Kerrymen themselves"

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Iveragh Lodge
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A morse sounder used at the station