South Scotland

The Cable Guy: Captain James Anderson

James Anderson Image copyright Look and Learn

The people of Dumfries were in a mood to celebrate 150 years ago.

One of their own was coming home to be given the freedom of the burgh after achieving what was something akin to the moon landing of its time.

Captain James Anderson, by then Sir James Anderson, was in command of the ship which laid a telegraph cable under the Atlantic.

On 14 December 1866, his fellow Doonhamers put on a banquet worthy of such a significant achievement.

The menu for the 200 invited guests at the Assembly Rooms was of a quality - and scale - reserved for only the most special occasions.

'Bill of fare'

"The dinner was plentiful, rich and well diversified," reported the Dumfries and Galloway Standard.

"The bill of fare including four kinds of soup, as many varieties of fish, a haunch of venison, roasts of beef, braised beef, mutton roast and boiled, pigeon pies, venison pasties, rabbit curries, chicken curries, cutlets, blackgame, grouse, pheasants, woodcocks and many other articles.

"A second course followed of puddings, souffles, mince pies, tarts, creams, jellies, blancmanges, trifles and other pastry.

"The wines supplied were champagne, hock, port and sherry."

Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Archives
Image caption James Anderson was seen as the ideal candidate to captain the Great Eastern on its mission

It crowned an incredible journey for a boy born in south west Scotland with a passion for the sea.

Dumfries and Galloway Council archivist Graham Roberts explained: "He was born in 1824, he was the son of a bookseller who had a shop on the High Street near the top of the vennel, John Anderson.

"He was the fourth son - so he wasn't going to go into the family business.

"He had a brief apprenticeship as a printer - he got totally fed up and said he wanted to go to sea."

A passion - and aptitude - for being out on the water had been with him since his time as a schoolboy in the town.

"It was when he was at the Academy that he entered the Dumfries regatta but he didn't have a boat," explained Mr Roberts.

"All he had was a tin tub - which became known as Anderson's canister - and he still won the race."

Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Archives
Image caption The scale of the operation is estimated to have cost the equivalent of $100m in today's money

His family, somewhat reluctantly, eventually allowed him to join T&J Brocklebank in Whitehaven where his career went from strength to strength.

His abilities as a navigator and a leader were quickly recognised.

"He shot through the ranks and became a master of a ship in his early 20s and by the 1840s or 1850s he was basically head hunted," said Mr Roberts.

"You didn't go from sail to steam but he did and the steam ships were the biggest."

Before he reached 40, he was put in charge of the biggest of them all.

'Hard to manoeuvre'

"In 1862 or 1863 he was head hunted to be captain of the Great Eastern where they were trying to lay the Transatlantic Cable," said Mr Roberts.

"The Great Eastern was five times bigger than any ship there had ever been before that.

"It remained the biggest ship until the series of ships which included the Titanic.

"When you were captaining that ship it wasn't just a small step up navigationally - it was very hard to manoeuvre it."

And yet Anderson seemed to have the skills required.

"A lot of people who knew him remarked on his calmness," said Mr Roberts.

Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Archives
Image caption A first attempt under Captain Anderson failed in 1865

Bill Burns, who runs the History of the Atlantic Cable and Undersea Communications website, said Anderson was a remarkable individual involved in one of the biggest logistical operations of the day.

"After the partial success of the Atlantic cable in 1858, which proved the feasibility of the project, the 1865 and 1866 expeditions were without doubt the most significant events in the industry's history up until that time and for many years to come," he said.

"The Atlantic cable route, as it remains today with multiple fibre optic lines, was the most important in the world for trade, finance, and government."

Mr Burns said the successful completion of the project - which cost the equivalent of $100m in today's money - was the responsibility of Samuel Canning, the engineer in charge of the expedition.

'No ordinary captain'

However, he said that Anderson, as the captain, had "many additional responsibilities" to ensure the success of the operation, including directing the complex manoeuvring of the ship required when laying and recovering cables at great depth.

"Add to that the fact that Anderson was at the helm of the Great Eastern (the largest ship ever built at that time and for many years after), which had already survived many disasters and had bankrupted its owners, and you can understand that he was no ordinary captain," he said.

His first attempt to lay the cable would test his abilities to the full.

"In 1865, everything that could go wrong did go wrong - they actually feared sabotage at the time," said Mr Roberts.

"They were very worried there was some saboteur on board from some rival firm."

That mission ended in failure, with the cable lost, but the story had gripped the nation.

Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Archives
Image caption The link was made from Valentia Island in Ireland to Newfoundland

"Because they were laying the cable they could still keep in communication with the mainland and the reports were constantly in the papers," said Mr Roberts.

"When they came back instead of being treated as losers they were treated as heroes."

It prompted a big effort for a renewed attempt in 1866.

"It was world news - it was the first time that a really long cable was being laid under sea," said Mr Roberts.

"This was far, far bigger than anything before and they had so many challenges.

"Everybody knew that if they could do that then the whole world would be linked up.

"We had the railway age in the 1840s - this was the big thing, it was really the story of the 1860s in technical terms."

Image copyright Dumfries and Galloway Archives
Image caption The success of the mission opened business opportunities for Anderson

The tale of the journey from Valentia Island, one of Ireland's most westerly points, to Heart's Content, Newfoundland generated huge interest.

Not only was the 1866 attempt successful, they were also able to pick up the lost cable from the previous year and complete two telegraph links under the ocean.

Anderson's part in the mission, the brainchild of American businessman Cyrus Field, brought him both recognition and proved to have a profitable side.

He was seen as the ideal person to be a director of a large number of telegraph companies, including the firm that would eventually become Cable and Wireless.

He was honoured by Queen Victoria but recognition in his hometown still meant a lot to him.

"I should like to let you know, if I only could, how deeply I feel this your kindness," he said.

"I know very well that as long as my life lasts, I shall remember it, and shall do nothing to forfeit the kindness and praise which you have now bestowed upon me."

'Devoted son'

Although he lived in London by this time, he still had a soft spot for south west Scotland making regular trips back home.

"He built the house at Kirkconnel Lea near Glencaple in 1872, that was his fun place," said Mr Roberts. "He also came back to give talks."

His death, in May 1893, was the subject of a large obituary in the local papers and his body was brought back to Dumfries for burial in St Mary's churchyard.

"In his death, Dumfries has to mourn the loss of a distinguished and devoted son," wrote the Dumfries and Galloway Standard.

"His life-story, moreover, is an instructive illustration of the possibilities that wait on persevering, self-reliant, and intelligently directed effort."

Not bad for a boy who once had to work overtime to save up the money needed to buy a metal "tub" to race in a regatta.


A special display about Sir James Anderson is going up in the archives and local studies section of the Ewart Library in Dumfries starting on Thursday 15 December.

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