Another link across the Pond

Another ramble across the heaths with a friend from Shanghai, following the track to East Budleigh and the family home of Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan courtier whose pioneering expeditions led to the birth of a new English-speaking nation in America. There in the church of All Saints where Raleigh worshipped as a boy I discover to my pleasure and surprise a stained glass window commemorating Vice-Admiral George William Preedy, another Budleigh worthy about whom I knew nothing. Strangely, there is no mention of Preedy and his window on the information display in the car park outside the church.

I had read many years ago, perhaps in one of my childhood encyclopedias, of the ship that he commanded, HMS Agamemnon, and the transatlantic cable it laid in partnership with the USS steam frigate Niagara. And thinking about this, and the way in which Columbus, Raleigh, Marconi & co all led inevitably to Microsoft, Google and my own humble use of Blogspot made me keen to learn more.

Admiral Preedy is buried in East Budleigh because of course it had been the only parish church serving the area. St Peter’s church in Budleigh Salterton was completed only the year before his death. But he did actually retire to live in Budleigh, having played his part in the forging of links between Britain and the USA. So he naturally finds a place in my musings alongside Sir Walter, Roger Conant and General Simcoe, all three of them local residents who shaped the history of America.

As local historian Eric Delderfield has written in The Raleigh Country, "It is a coincidence that in the church where the first man to found a British colony in the New World once worshipped, another, who completed the union between the Old and New Worlds, should be remembered."

The early 1850s saw the completion of a vast telegraphic system using underground gutta-percha-covered wires throughout the United Kingdom under the direction of The Magnetic Company and its Engineer-in-Chief, Charles Bright, later to be knighted for his achievements. Telegraphy was further developed with the laying of cables from England to France, Ireland and Belgium.

A transatlantic cable linking the Old and the New Worlds seemed to be the obvious next step. The distance involved, the amount of material to be transported and the equipment required presented an extraordinary challenge. But Samuel Morse, the American telegraphy expert was consulted and confirmed that transatlantic messaging would be possible via such a cable. In the US, the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, led by the American businessman Cyrus Field, was set up on 10 March 1854 with the aim of reaching a transatlantic partnership with its British equivalent: the result was The Atlantic Telegraph Company registered on 20 October, 1856.

The idea was to lay a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Negotiations with the British Government resulted in the supply of HMS Agamemnon as a cable-layer, with HMS Leopard and HMS Cyclops to assist, while on the American side the cable-layer was USS Niagara, assisted by USS Susquhanna. A 91-gun vessel with a crew of 850 - the first screw line of battle ship built as such - the Agamemnon had been launched only four years earlier.
Left: HMS AgamemnonIt was a gigantic project involving national prestige, accompanied by ceremonies heavy with symbolism. On 30 July 1857 the Niagara and the Agamemnon arrived in Queenstown, Ireland, and one end of the cable was brought ashore at Valentia. “Valentia Bay was studded with innumerable small craft decked with the gayest bunting,” reported one newspaper. “Small boats flitted hither and thither, their occupants cheering enthusiastically as the work successfully progressed. The cable boats were managed by the sailors of the Niagara and the Susquehanna. It was a well designed compliment, and indicative of the future fraternisation of the nations, that the shore rope was arranged to be presented at this side of the Atlantic to the representative of the Queen by the officers and men of the United States Navy, and that at the other side the British officers and sailors should make a similar presentation to the President of the great Republic.”
Above: Paying out the land end of the cable from the stern of the Niagara

The 1857 attempt ended in failure with the breaking of the cable, due apparently to a fault in the cable-laying machinery. The following year, a new attempt was made using improved equipment and it was on this expedition that Captain Preedy, as he then was, played his epic role.
Left: Machinery used for paying out the electric telegraph cable on board the Niagara and the Agamemnon.

George William Preedy was born in Worcestershire in 1817, and began his future career at the age of 11, entering the Royal Navy in November 1828. Appointed Lieutenant in June 1844 he progressed steadily through the ranks, becoming Commander in 1853 and second in command on board HMS Duke of Wellington. Then on 31 March 1858 he was appointed Captain of HMS Agamemnon. It was a post that he would hold for less than six months, but the short tenure was enough to guarantee him a place in history.

The choice of Captains Preedy and Hudson to lead the wire-laying ships Agamemnon and Niagara must have been a reflection of their immense reputations in their respective navies: they were, in the words of Cyrus Field’s brother David Dudley Field, in his speech at the 1858 Crystal Palace celebrations, “as accomplished and gallant commanders as ever trod the quarter-deck.”
Right: The coiling of the Atlantic telegraph cable on board HMS Agamemnon
In June 1858 a grand dinner took place on the eve of the fleet’s departure, with the healths of the Queen and President being drunk to great applause. Months of frustrating work with the cable-laying, accompanied by terrible sea conditions, were to follow. Captain Preedy in particular would find his leadership and skill as a mariner tested to extraordinary lengths during the voyage across the Atlantic. The weight of the coiled cable that she was carrying, along with her coal supply, almost resulted in disaster during a mid-ocean storm on 10 June 1858.

“Our ship, the Agamemnon, rolling many degrees, was labouring so heavily that she looked like breaking up,” recalled one member of the party. “The massive beams under her upper deck coil cracked and snapped with a noise resembling that of small artillery, almost drowning the hideous roar of the wind as it moaned and howled through the rigging. Those in the improvised cabins on the main deck had little sleep that night, for the upper deck planks above them were ‘working themselves free,’ as sailors say; and, beyond a doubt, they were infinitely more free than easy, for they groaned under the pressure of the coil, and availed themselves of the opportunity to let in a little light, with a good deal of water, at every roll. The sea, too, kept striking with dull heavy violence against the vessel’s bows, forcing its way through hawse holes and ill closed ports with a heavy slush; and thence, hissing and winding aft, it roused the occupants of the cabins aforesaid to a knowledge that their floors were under water, and that the flotsam and jetsam noises they heard beneath were only caused by their outfit for the voyage taking a cruise of its own in some five or six inches of dirty bilge. Such was Sunday night, and such was a fair average of all the nights throughout the week, varying only from bad to worse.”
Above: The Agamemnon, with the Atlantic cable on board, in the great storm on 20 and 21 June, 1858. Reproduced by Leslie's from the Illustrated London News, in turn reproduced from an original drawing by Henry CliffordThings were indeed to worsen, with many members of the crew severely injured, crushed by displaced cargo and coal supplies.

“The Agamemnon took to violent pitching, plunging steadily into the trough of the sea as if she meant to break her back and lay the Atlantic cable in a heap. This change in her motion strained and taxed every inch of timber near the coils to the very utmost.

The upper deck coil had strained the ship to the very utmost, yet still held on fast. But not so the coil in the main hold. This had begun to get adrift, and the top kept working and shifting over from side to side, as the ship lurched, until some forty or fifty miles were in a hopeless state of tangle, resembling nothing so much as a cargo of live eels.”

Following the storm numerous breakages in the cable delayed the operation; on one occasion a whale brushed against it, narrowly missing the ship. There was also a near collision between the Agamemnon and an American vessel.

But at last, on 5 August 1858, soon after the Agamemnon’s arrival in North America a signal was received from the Niagara that they were preparing to land, having paid out 1,030 nautical miles of cable. The British ship had accomplished her portion of the distance over 1,020 miles, making the total length of the wire submerged over 2,050 geographical miles.

It was a historic moment greeted with celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the first transatlantic communications by the new telegraph was an exchange of greetings between Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan. The latter’s message in particular illustrates the significance of the event:

“The President cordially reciprocates the congratulations of Her Majesty the Queen on the success of the great international enterprise accomplished by the skill, science, and indomitable energy of the two countries.

It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind than was ever won by a conqueror on the field of battle.

May the Atlantic Telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilisation, liberty, and law throughout the world.

In this view will not all the nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communication shall be held sacred in passing to the place of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities?”

As for Captain Preedy, his role in the success of the enterprise was widely acknowledged. The heartfelt words of Professor William Thomson, a scientist involved in the operation on the British side, were acknowledged with cheers during a speech he made during the celebrations.

“We must regard the skill, constancy, and unflinching performance of duty manifested by Captain Preedy, his officers and men, as having saved the ship and cable and all on board. I cannot pass from the Agamemnon without expressing the sense I entertain of the value of the assistance and support rendered by Captain Preedy to the engineers of the Company in some of their most difficult mechanical operations. The part taken in the actual laying of the cable by the officers and men under his command was, I believe, the most essential contribution towards the success which was achieved.”

In September 1858 Captain Preedy relinquished command of HMS Agamemnon and was appointed CB (Companion of the Bath) by Queen Victoria in recognition of his services. He was also honoured with a gold medal specially struck by the New York firm of Tiffany and Company.

A total of 732 messages were sent before the cable finally failed within months of being laid. The precise cause of the failure was never discovered. But the lessons of this initial success at transatlantic cable-laying and telegraphy were put to good use with a second attempt in 1865, when the Brunel-designed Great Eastern steamship took part in the operation, concluded the following year.

Captain Preedy went on to command four more Royal Navy ships during his distinguished career, retiring as Vice-Admiral in January 1879. At the age of 74 he is recorded as living at Park House, Knowle, on the outskirts of Budleigh Salterton, along with his wife Elizabeth, his sister Anna, his three daughters and one son, four servants and a governess.

He died on 30 May 1894. And having discovered the full story of his epic voyage across the Atlantic and the terrible hardships that he and his companions endured, I now understand why the image of Christ calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee was chosen as his memorial window in East Budleigh church.

Text and photo credit: I am most grateful to Bill Burns, of Long Island, New York for permission to reproduce material from Website at
Incidentally, for my Cape Cod readers, Mr Burns tells me that Brewster is only a few miles from another major centre of cable history - Orleans - where in 1891 a cable station was built to work the 1879 French cable:
It is now an excellent working museum with a website at


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