Swingate Part 1 Marconi, South Foreland and Wireless Communication

Dover is a positive treasure-trove of historic jewels, many neglected, some forgotten and some, like Swingate Downs, described by one of the town’s moronic councillor/business person as wasteland while a stalwart on Dover’s tourism and Dover Harbour Board committees wants to see the area turned into a lorry park. In fact this supposed wasteland is nationally classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and further, the area has historically played, and continues to play, a pivotal role in international communication as well as tourism! The story of Swingate deserves international acclaim and on this website it is told in chronological order in three parts. Part 1 looks at:
1. Swingate Downs
2. Developments in Electronic Communication and Wireless Waves
3. Gugliemo Marconi meets William Preece
4. Marconi’s Dover Experiments
5. Swingate and pre WWI inventions and advancements

1. Swingate Downs

Swingate Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - openstreetmap thanks to Protect Kent - Branch of the CPRE

Swingate Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – openstreetmap thanks to Protect Kent – Branch of the CPRE

Swingate Downs, east of Dover Castle, as noted, are classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and originally straddled across the parishes of Guston, West Cliffe and the Dover-Deal (A258) Road. They have a varied history but have played a particularly important role in the development of communications and during World War I (1914-1918), aviation. Originally, Swingate Downs were part of the manor of Bere in West Cliffe that was established about 1274 when Swingate was given that name. In 1797, the track from Dover to Sandwich via Deal was turnpiked into a road and the Guston turn-off, opposite the Castle, was approximately where one of the tollhouses stood. The next tollhouse was near the present Swingate inn, where the road still kinks slightly. The inn almost certainly developed because of the tollhouse.

Swingate Mill, The Lane, Guston, Rightmove Website

Swingate Mill, The Lane, Guston, Rightmove Website

Opposite the Swingate inn is The Lane, once called Hangman’s Lane that goes to the village of Guston and along this lane is the Swingate Mill. Built in 1849 for John Mummery (1792-1845), it is a rare example of a tarred brick tower windmill in Kent and is Grade II listed. When built it had a projecting round house on the ground floor where the family lived. Subsequent members of the Mummery family worked the mill up until 1936 and it was entirely wind powered. About that time, or shortly after, an electric motor was introduced. During World War II (1939-1945), one of the sweeps was damaged by enemy fire and the mill ceased to function as such. The site was then used for stabling horses. In 1953 planning permission was given to change the use of the site to kennels and two years later a Kent County Council grant was sought for financial help to restore the mill but this was refused. The planning officer responsible had wrongly assumed that brick tower mills were common in Kent. Following this, the mill was abandoned and it became almost derelict. In the 1980s planning permission was given for the mill to be converted into a 4 bedroom domestic residence and it remains a residence to this day.

Letter from Swingate Jockey Club 1856. Dover Library

Letter from Swingate Jockey Club 1856. Dover Library

Swingate Downs had been common land for aeons but in the 18th and early 19th centuries the Dover horse races were held there. A letter from the Swingate Jockey Club circa July 1856, of which only part remains, tells of races being postponed and it is signed by Walter Sutton (1825- December 1856), James Risker Hammond (c1819 – 1879) and Gilbert Eastes (1815-1888). A postscript asks that the recipient let his brother William know and the Elwins. All those mentioned were members of South East Kent elite farming community. In the late 1850s it was believed that Napoleon III (1852-1870) was going to invade and Swingate Downs were taken over by the War Office. Mainly used as a field camp for brigades awaiting embarkation and military volunteers, a couple of huts, a cookhouse and latrines were built. When the annual Volunteer Reviews were held in Dover in the 19th century, the Field Hospital was located at Swingate Downs under the charge of a surgeon and a medical practitioner.

2. Developments in Electronic Communication and Wireless Waves

Semaphore signalling. Reeds Alamanac 1971

Semaphore signalling. Reeds Alamanac 1971

Naval communication between land and ships and between ships was, for centuries, by signalling, Until the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) signalling was by sail movements, firing of guns and/or displays of flags, the codes of which were privately compiled and limited in use. Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (1718-1782) in 1780 devised a code of flags by which several hundreds different signals could be made. Admiral Lord Richard Howe (1726-1799) revised these in 1790, just before the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. Semaphore signalling was adopted in 1795 from a system devised by Reverend Lord George Murray (1761-1803) and consisted of a screen containing shutters that could be operated to give numerous combinations. The Admiralty adopted this system and the signals were relayed by a chain of signal stations situated on hills or on the top of tall towers, within sight of each other. Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820) improved this in 1816 by a device that consisted of two moveable arms, lit by lanterns at night, and operated so as to form different angles. Land stations were closed down in 1848, after the introduction of the electric telegraph but their legacy lives on through the ubiquitous place name, ‘Telegraph Hill.’

In 1833 Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) and Eduard Friedrich Weber (1806-1871) used copper wire to carry an electric current to a sensitive galvanometer, or current detector. They found that its movements, caused by electric signals, could be used as a code to pass messages. At that time it was known that air was a great insulator of electric current and so transmission or telegraph wires, as they were called, along which the electric signals were sent could be supported on overhead poles.

Adapted by Sir William Fothergill Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), the first electric telegraph for public use was established in 1837. This was alongside the Great Western Railway line from Paddington, London to West Drayton, 13miles (20kilometres) away and led to the adoption by all British railway companies of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) This is the local clock time at Greenwich, east of London and from 1884 GMT was the international standard of civil time until 1972, when it was replaced by Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Morse Code - Reeds Alamanac 1971

Morse Code – Reeds Alamanac 1971

In America in 1838, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) demonstrated his Morse code where various combinations of short and long signals – dots and dashes – represented different letters of the alphabet and numbers. As electric telegraph transmitted on-off signals at varying lengths, Morse code was ideal for sending telegraph messages. At about the same time Morse introduced the relay, an electrically operated switch by which a signal sent along the wire was strengthened at intervals, making long distant communication possible.

Wheatstone gave evidence to the House of Commons in 1840 suggesting the possibility of laying a Channel telegraph link between Dover and Calais (see Channel Submarine Telegraph and Telephone Cables story). The same year he also patented an alphabetical telegraph, or, ‘Wheatstone A B C instrument,’ out of which he developed the type-printing telegraph that he patented in 1841. This was the first apparatus that printed a telegram in type using letters of the alphabet and numbers on revolving hammers. They were worked by two circuits actuated by the current that pressed the required letter on to the paper.

Laying the first submarine cable off Dover. Illustrated London News 1 October 1851

Laying the first submarine cable off Dover. Illustrated London News 1 October 1851

On Wednesday 28 August 1850 the first telegraphed message, in legible roman lettering, was sent by John Watkins Brett (1805–1863) using Wheatstone’s printing machine, across the Channel from Calais to Dover. The transmission was carried on the first cross Channel submarine telegraph and telephone cable and the epoch-making experiment cost approximately £2,000. By September 1851 a cable for commercial use, laid between the South Foreland at St Margaret’s Bay – east of Dover – and Cap Gris Nez, France, came into use.

The first successful submarine telegraph and telephone cable that was laid across the Atlantic ran from western Ireland to eastern Newfoundland and the first communication took place on 16 August 1858. At the time, in the United States, Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) and Elisha Gray (1835-1901) were separately working on a system for transmitting voices over a distance using wire by converting acoustic vibrations to electrical signals. Both filed the patents for the invention of telephones on the same day – 14 February 1876 – but as Bell was the first to arrive at the patent office it was he who was given universal credit. The following year Thomas Edison (1847-1931) developed his variable-resistance carbon transmitter and the modern telephone was born.

Like the telegraph, the telephone needed wires for communication but these were expensive to lay and easily broken. Between 1886 and 1889, Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), demonstrated the existence of wireless waves by generating electricity in a circuit between two terminals held slightly apart. He discovered that the electricity would jump from one to the other in the form of a spark. At the same time, about 12 metres (40 feet) away he placed a second, identical circuit and every time Hertz made the spark jump across the first circuit’s terminals an identical spark jumped across the terminals of the second circuit. He found that the first spark had generated electromagnetic radiation or wire-less waves that were picked up by the second circuit, as it was sensitive, or tuned, to the first circuit’s frequency. Thus, Professor Hertz had proved the existence of airborne electromagnetic waves, at the time called Hertzian Waves.

Map of the Goodwin Sands 1968 from Goodwin Sands Shipwrecks by Richard Larn

Map of the Goodwin Sands 1968 from Goodwin Sands Shipwrecks by Richard Larn

William Preece (1834-1913)  was an inventor and the consulting engineer for the General Post Office (1660-1969) in the 1870s. Later, in 1892, he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the General Post Office (GPO). Developing Professor Hertz’s observations, in 1889, Preece managed to transmit wire-less signals, using low frequency electromagnetic waves over a distance of a mile. Seven years later, in 1896, he tried to establish wireless communication using low frequency electromagnetic waves, between South Sands Head Lightship on the Goodwin Sands, and the South Foreland, St Margaret’s Bay – a distance of about 3miles. On the seabed, a cable was coiled in a ring about the size of the area that the lightvessel swung with the change of tide. Another cable was then coiled around the lightvessel above the waterline. Preece’s system actually used a mixture of induction and conduction waves and managed to transmit high frequency electromagnetic waves through the air. However, they were not considered viable due to their perceived lack of range and the screening effect of the sea-water and the iron hull of the lightvessel.

3. Gugliemo Marconi meets William Preece

Marconi Gugliemo (1874–1937) - Dover Museum

Marconi Gugliemo (1874–1937) – Dover Museum

It was beginning to look as if electromagnetic waves could be used to send wireless messages but only over short distances and not to ships. The perceived opinion was that there was no such thing as practical wireless telegraphy and that all long distance transmissions had to be carried by wires. Nonetheless, Preece felt that the problem could be overcome when he heard from the Admiralty that a young Italian, of good birth, had arrived in Dover with a contraption that the young man stated sent messages over distances without wires. They added that the young man, travelling with his mother, had come to Britain to gain the Patent for his invention.

The young Italian was Gugliemo Marconi (1874-1937), born in Bologna, Italy, the son of an Italian country gentleman and an Irish aristocratic mother who had family living in Bedford. From early childhood Marconi received formal education through enthusiastic tutors and had developed a keen interest in physical and electrical science, he also spent four years (1876-1880) in Bedford. When he was 18, Marconi was introduced to Italian physicist Augusto Righi (1850-1920) of the University of Bologna, who was a pioneer in the study of electromagnetism. Like Preece, Righi had carried out further research on Hertz’s observations and impressed by Marconi, Righi had allowed the young man to attend his lectures and to undertake experiments in his laboratory.

On Righi’s suggestion, Marconi had incorporated a coherer into his experiments – a radio wave detector invented by the French physicist Édouard Eugène Désiré Branly (1844-1940) in 1890. A coherer consists of a tube containing two electrodes spaced a small distance apart with loose metal filings in the space between. When a radio frequency signal is applied, the metal particles cling together or ‘cohere’, reducing the initial high resistance of the device so allowing a much greater direct current to flow through it. Marconi used Hertz dipole antennas, which consisted of two identical horizontal wires ending in metal plates, a coherer, a battery and an electric bell into his apparatus and created a storm alarm.

Illustration showing the path followed by line of sight propagation. U.S. Army Wikimedia

Illustration showing the path followed by line of sight propagation. U.S. Army Wikimedia

Much to his delight, the bell rang when it picked up radio waves generated by lightning. This spurred Marconi’s parents to help their son with his experiments and encouraged him to read other researchers work and develop a number of practical gadgets, based on the use of radio waves, in the home. The main problem was that radio waves travel by line of sight propagation that is in a direct path from the source to the receiver and generally they cannot travel over the horizon or behind obstacles.

Marconi's first radio transmitter built in August 1895. Wikimedia

Marconi’s first radio transmitter built in August 1895. Wikimedia

From his studies, observations and experiments Marconi devised a groundbreaking apparatus that could transmit and receive radio waves over a greater distance than predicted by line of sight propagation. Marconi’s apparatus consisted of a Righi oscillator – spark producing wireless transmitter – a Branly coherer receiver, a telegraph key to send messages using Morse Code, and a telegraph register to record the Morse code on a roll of paper tape and powered by an induction coil. Initially he had used a Hertz vertical dipole antenna but found that if instead of the dipole, one side of the transmitter and receiver was connected to a vertical wire suspended overhead, and an opposing terminal connected to the ground, he could transmit over longer distances. This, in essence, was a monopole antenna that worked by reducing the frequency of the radio waves, which meant they travelled further. Indeed, at low frequency – below approximately 3 MHz- due to diffraction, using a monopole antenna radio waves can travel as ground waves and follow the contour of the Earth!

By August 1895, Marconi, using his monopole antenna apparatus found that he could transmit radio waves further than line of sight propagation predicted. However, he failed to rouse any interest in his work in Italy so with his mother he came to England. Already fluent in English, in early 1896, the Marconi’s arrived at Dover with his precious monopole antenna apparatus and shortly afterwards met Preece, who immediately took Marconi under his wing.

Parabolic Receiver used by Marconi in his 1896 experiments. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

Parabolic Receiver used by Marconi in his 1896 experiments. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

The following year, Marconi using a Parabolic Transmitter or Reflector – a Righi oscillator with a parabolic reflector – to send a signal three miles away on Salisbury Plain where he had placed his Parabolic Receiver. The parabolic reflector has a curved surface shaped like a dish that directs the high frequency electromagnetic waves it produces. The receiver has a coherer set at the focus of the parabolic reflector. When the electromagnetic wave was received it caused metal filings in a glass tube to cohere together. This enabled the electric current to flow registering a dot or dash on a Morse recorder, both the transmitter and receiver can be seen at the Oxford Museum of Science.

The Salisbury Plain experiment was followed by another experiment, using the same equipment, when the distance was increased to 9miles and then 32 miles. Representatives of the War Office and the Royal Navy were invited by Preece to witness the second Salisbury Plain experiment. Amongst those who attended was Captain John Nassau Chambers Kennedy (1865-1915) of the Royal Engineers, who subsequently assisted Marconi with many experiments and demonstrations. He also, as we will see later, played a key role in the deployment of the equipment to the military and it used to the navy in South Africa.

On 11 December 1896 Preece gave a series of lectures entitled ‘Signalling through Space without Wires,’ at Toynbee Hall, an educational and charitable institution in London’s East End. The room was packed when Preece described the nature of electromagnetic waves and the various experiments including his own. He then described Marconi’s system, in which he said that Marconi utilized Hertzian waves of very high frequency adding that the peculiarity of the Marconi system was that apart from the ordinary conducting wires of the apparatus, conductors of a very moderate length only were needed, and even these could be dispensed with if reflectors were employed. Preece went on to say that the transmitter was Righi’s form of Hertz radiator, consisting of two sphere’s of solid brass, 4inches in diameter, fixed in an insulated case filled with oil, in such a way that a hemisphere of each was exposed. The oil, he added, kept the surfaces of the spheres electrically clean. Using waves about 120cms long, the radiator was excited by an induction coil, controlled by a Morse key. A 6inch spark coil was needed for a distance of 4 miles and the greater the distance the larger the coils needed to be.

Marconi - Apparatus used at Tonybee Hall demonstration 11.12.1896. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

Marconi – Apparatus used at Tonybee Hall demonstration 11.12.1896. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

The Marconi receiver consisted of a small glass tube which, Preece said was about 4centimetres in length in which there were two tight fitting silver poles with a half-millimetre space between them. This was filled with a mixture of fine nickel and silver filings mixed with a trace of mercury. The tube exhausted to a minimum of 4millimentres, formed part of the circuit containing a local cell and a sensitive telegraph relay. Under normal conditions the metal particles were virtually an insulator but when electric waves fell on them, Preece said, they were marshalled and arranged in such a way that they became a conductor. Hence the current could be passed through that could ring a bell or indicate a signal in other ways. There was also a ‘tapper’ device for restoring the coherer to its non-conducting state after receiving a Morse-code character and finally, an inking printer displayed the output on a paper tape.

Then Preece, using Marconi’s instrument transmitted a signal and almost immediately a bell rang in a box carried by Marconi. Preece repeated the transmission and the bell in the box Marconi was carrying rang again. Marconi then moved to different parts of the room and on each occasion the bell rang immediately after Preece transmitted the signal!

The experiment caused a sensation and numerous other demonstrations followed. On 2 June 1896 Marconi filed his complete specifications for the Improvements in Transmitting Electrical Impulses and Signals and in Apparatus There-for, for which he was awarded British, patent No. 12,039 on 2nd July 1897. Preece and Marconi were invited to repeat the demonstration to the Royal Institution on 4 June 1897 but Preece was ill and in the interim returned home to Caernarfon, North Wales.

Post Office engineers inspecting Marconi apparatus for the Cardiff - Flat Holm experiment in May 1897. Wikimedia

Post Office engineers inspecting Marconi apparatus for the Cardiff – Flat Holm experiment in May 1897. Wikimedia

While Preece was on sick leave the GPO officials together with the War Office used the opportunity to collaborate in a series of secret wireless system trials using Marconi’s equipment. On 13 May 1897, the GPO engineers using the same Marconi apparatus transmitted radio signals from Flat Holm Island to Lavernock Point near Cardiff, Wales, a distance of 3miles. It was the world’s first demonstration of the transmission of radio signals over open sea. On hearing of this, to secure his patent rights, Marconi set up the Wireless Telegraph Company on 20 July 1897 and in November, the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Signal Company was officially registered.

Using the 1869 Telegraph Act, the GPO angrily responded saying that they held the monopoly rights of the public telegraph services ‘to deliver from a sender to a receiver.‘ They went on to describe Marconi’s company as a ‘serious challenge in the realm of public telegraph services.’ On the instruction of the Secretary of the Post Office acting on behalf of the Post Master General (1895-1900), Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk (1847-1917), the GPO officially suspended all support for the young inventor and his new commercial venture.

Swingate Down Map inc Military area, WWI Airfield, Masts, Memorials, Fort Burgoyne, South Foreland & St Margarets LS

Swingate Down Map inc Military area, WWI Airfield, Masts, Memorials, Fort Burgoyne, South Foreland & St Margarets LS

The GPO together with the War Office continued to undertake wireless system trials using Marconi’s equipment and moved their base to Fort Burgoyne, near Dover. Preece argued that Marconi should take part in the trials but the GPO officials refused. Further, they declined to say that they planned to use the experiment as an attempt to make wireless transmissions across the English Channel. Assisted by soldiers of the newly established Telegraph Troop of the Royal Engineers, they transported the transmitting apparatus on a horse-drawn trolley to the site and also to place receivers in two different locations. The first receiver location was on Swingate Downs and the second at the South Foreland upper lighthouse, St Margaret’s.

South Foreland two lighthouses c1900. Dover Museum

South Foreland two lighthouses c1900. Dover Museum

The village of St Margaret’s, on the south-eastern tip of Kent, is Britain’s closest point to France – just 21 miles (34 kilometres) away. To the west is Dover and to the north-east are the Goodwin Sands, a series of sandbanks approximately 3 miles (5km) from the coast, they are 10 miles (16kms) long and up to 2 miles (3kms) wide in places. Some of the sands are so close to the surface that at low spring tides cricket matches have been played on them! However, the Goodwins are justifiably called the Great Ship Swallower as they are deadly. For this reason, at the time of the experiments there were two lighthouses on the South Foreland. These were the second pair and were built in 1843, the previous pair had been erected in 1793 and both sets were designed to show a constant light. If mariners maintained a course that kept the two lights in alignment or sailed south of this transit line, they would avoid grounding on the Goodwins, if not, then they were courting disaster.

GPO Dover Wireless Experiements using Marconi instruments. Times 13 October 1897

GPO Dover Wireless Experiements using Marconi instruments. Times 13 October 1897

From the report in the Times newspaper of 13 October 1897, it would seem that the GPO experiment was a partial success. They wrote, ‘Both receiving stations had an aerial suspended between two masts. The accumulators (batteries) used in the experiments were charged daily at Dover Electricity Works in Park Street. The induction coil was so powerful that it produced a thick spark about 1 yard long and the messages were transmitted from a vertical wire carried up a tall pole.’ The article went on to say that ‘The experiments are now being made within a radius of three miles of the fort. Hitherto they have been confined to two miles with the most successful results, messages being freely and distinctly transmitted. At the three-mile radius, it is stated, the results are not so satisfactory. In order to make the transmission to such a distance the height of the vertical wire has to be increased, and as the pole at Fort Burgoyne is already a considerable height the use of a kite has been resorted to. The kite is composed of thin copper, with a wire running from the tail to the transmitter.’

The GPO continued to undertake experiments in the Dover area, transmitting from Fort Burgoyne using different locations for the receivers but not to a ship or across the Channel. Preece occasionally attended and noted that results varied depending on atmospheric conditions and distance. Marconi was not invited so was unable to give constructive advice. On completion of the Dover trials, the GPO suspended all further wireless experiments stating that wireless telegraphy, ‘Could scarcely yet be regarded as having reached a practical state.’ Preece was furious and went on to show that using low frequency electromagnetic waves, he was able to establish communication between Sark and the other Channel Islands.

Preece retired in 1899 and that same year was knighted and elected President of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

4. Marconi’s Dover Experiments

Following the breakdown with the Post Office, Marconi concentrated on communication with and between ships at sea and with the help of the Coast Guards later renamed Coastguards, established a wireless station at the Needles Hotel, Alum Bay, Isle of Wight in 1897. There, he carried out tests with two steamers, achieving ranges of up to 18 miles thus establishing the World’s first wireless station. A second wireless station at Bournemouth and at the Haven Hotel, Sandbanks, Poole Harbour, Dorset followed this, where he erected a 100foot mast for an experimental base. In December 1898 Marconi opened the world’s first wireless factory in Chelmsford, Essex. Earlier that year he had sent a message from the Isle of Wight to Bournemouth but the Post Office quickly accused Marconi of infringement of their powers pointing out that their monopoly covered all messages within a three mile limit.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight Queen Victoria's palatial holiday home. Alan Sencicle

Osborne House, Isle of Wight Queen Victoria’s palatial holiday home. Alan Sencicle

Cowes Week, on the Isle of Wight, is one of the longest-running annual regattas in the World and is held from the first Saturday after the last Tuesday in July, until the following Saturday. In 1898, Prince Edward (1841-1910), later Edward VII (1901-1910), hurt his knee at a ball in Paris. A keen yachtsman, he had every intention of participating in the event. In order to do this, the Prince decided to convalesce aboard the Royal Yacht Osborne, instead of staying at his mother’s, Queen Victoria (1819-1901), palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight. At the time the Queen was in residence. The Prince had already shown interest in Marconi’s experiments so asked him to install a communication system between the House and the Royal Yacht, moored about two miles away. There was no line of sight between the two.

Message sent from Prince Edward on the Royal Yacht to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, using the Marconi system August 1898. Osborne House

Message sent from Prince Edward on the Royal Yacht to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, using the Marconi system August 1898. Osborne House

Marconi and his engineers attached a vertical conductor, 83feet above the deck of the yacht and used a coil capable of producing a ten-inch spark. At Ladywood Cottage (since demolished) in the grounds of Osborne House, Marconi erected a 100-foot high mast for his antenna. While he was undertaking the installation, the Queen gave Marconi an audience and in the days that followed one hundred and fifty messages passed between the residence and the yacht.

At the time, Prince Edward’s son, Prince George the Duke of York (1865-1936) later George V (1910-1936) was in command of the first class cruiser Crescent, during a voyage lasting from June to August 1898. On 8 August he sent a message to Osborne House asking for the Queen’s approval for a cricket match to be played between the Crescent’s officers and the Royal Yacht’s officers. The Queen replied using the Marconi transmitter, later the same day, giving her approval. Like the rest of the Royal family, Prince George was impressed with the Marconi wireless transmissions. At that time he also held the position of Master of Trinity House (1894-1910).

Trinity House, City of London. Alan Sencicle collection

Trinity House, City of London. Alan Sencicle collection

Trinity House is an independent organisation that had its foundations in the earliest years of British shipping. Its headquarters is in the City of London. The institution was granted a Charter by Henry VIII (1509-1547) in 1514 and besides pilotage (see Cinque Ports Pilots Part II) the work of Trinity House includes the maintenance of navigation marks and lights round the British coastline. Prince George immediately brought their attention to Marconi’s apparatus and Trinity House was very interested. Albeit, on looking into the possibilities of the Marconi system, they were told of the GPO and the War Office’s 1897 abandoned Dover experiments on the grounds that wireless telegraphy, ‘Could scarcely yet be regarded as having reached a practical state.’

Marconi experiments from South Foreland to Goodwin lightships 09.01.1899

Marconi experiments from South Foreland to Goodwin lightships 09.01.1899

Newspaper reports of the Osborne House communications, however, supported the Duke of York’s observations. Newspaper reports of the Osborne House communications, however, supported the Duke of York’s observations. Further, in the previous February the German barque Ceres had collided with the South Sands Head lightship anchored off the Goodwin Sands. The weather that night had been clear and the sea calm but it was a new moon and so it was dark. The crew of the lightship saw the vessel approaching but was unable to attract the crews’ attention before she crashed into it. Although the barque was able to clear the catastrophe with little damage, the lightvessel’s light was smashed and her bulwarks and rigging were carried away. Totally incapacitated, she had to send up distress flares and the Dover Harbour Board tug, the Granville, came to her rescue. Although a little sceptical Trinity House decided to ask Marconi about his apparatus and if it would be possible to connect wireless communication between the South Sands Head lightship some 3 miles from the South Foreland, near Dover, with the mainland when she was back on station.

South Foreland Lighthouse from where, on Christmas Eve 1898, Marconi made the world's first shore to ship radio transmission. LS 2013

South Foreland Lighthouse from where, on Christmas Eve 1898, Marconi made the world’s first shore to ship radio transmission. LS 2013

On Monday 19 December 1898 Marconi began trials from a hut erected besides the South Foreland upper lighthouse, where the GPO had undertaken their questionable trial using the Marconi equipment the year before. The height of the pole used for transmission from the lighthouse was 130feet and the receiving wire on the lightship was run 80feet up the mast. On Christmas Eve, with members of Trinity House present, Marconi transmitted a signal to the South Goodwin lightship. This was the world’s first shore to ship radio transmission and was successful! Following the demonstration, Trinity House authorised the establishment of wireless communication between the South Foreland lighthouse and the South Sands Head lightship and also the South Goodwin lightship. Although the trials were due to officially end on Monday 9 January 1899, the South Foreland lighthouse wireless station stayed in operation for 14 months at the Marconi Company’s expense. A bell was installed at the lighthouse, which was activated by wireless transmission to alert the lighthouse keeper of messages arriving.

Marconi then turned his attention to cross Channel communication and the possibility of
syntonic tuning‘ to enable adjacent stations to operate without interfering with one another. On Monday 26 March 1899  he erected a 150feet vertical standard wire at his newly built wireless station, Chalet d’Artois, next to Wimereux lighthouse, 2miles north of Boulogne, France. On the following day, Tuesday 27 March, he made the first ever wireless transmission across the English Channel to South Foreland, a distance of 32miles. International wireless communication had begun. Using his three wireless stations – one of the lightvessels, South Foreland and Wimereux, Marconi then experimented with syntonic tuning. In essence, if a circuit is constructed to be a good radiator of energy – for example an open aerial – the oscillations set up by a spark discharge quickly die away as the energy is dissipated in radiation. Although a circuit can be constructed to maintain the oscillation between each discharge by sustained resonating, it would not be a good radiator as they are mutually conflicting.

He therefore combined within his apparatus two tuned circuits, one a highly resonant closed circuit and the other an aerial circuit with good radiating characteristics. Then by weakly coupling the two together, Marconi obtained a successful result, with greater range and selectivity. On 26 April 1900 he gained patent number 7777 for his `Syntonic Transmission and Reception‘ documenting a system for tuned coupled circuits that allowed simultaneous transmissions on different frequencies. Thus adjacent stations were able to operate without interfering with one another. He also discovered that range was increased. In his trials of March 1899, Marconi had made sufficient progress for South Foreland to communicate with the lightvessel without a single dot being received by Wimereux!

Still using the hut next to the South Foreland lighthouse, that month Marconi was joined by representatives from Trinity House including their scientific adviser, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919) and Captain the Hon. Foley Charles Prendergast Vereker, R.N. (1850-1900) of the Board of Trade. Marconi explained how his equipment functioned, including the aerial, which was the lighthouse flagstaff with a 150-foot wire running up it and terminating in the air like a lightning conductor. 30 miles across the Channel next to Wimereux lighthouse, he told his audience, was his Chalet d’Artois wireless station. Then Marconi demonstrated wireless communication to his Chalet d’Artois wireless station at Wimereux and also the lightvessel to the east of the Goodwin Sands, showing that each transmission took less then 10 seconds to reach the destinations, further, without the operations interfering with one another!

1930s Chart showing Dover, South Foreland, and the South Goodwin lightvessel close by the South Sands Head - the location of the former South Sands Head lightvessel. When Marconi was doing his experiments in 1899 the South Goodwin lightship was where the South Goodwin buoy is located on the chart

1930s Chart showing Dover, South Foreland, and the South Goodwin lightvessel close by the South Sands Head – the location of the former South Sands Head lightvessel. When Marconi was doing his experiments in 1899 the South Goodwin lightship was where the South Goodwin buoy is located on the chart

The Trinity House yacht Vestal then took Marconi and the rest of the party to the South Sands Head Lightship to see the Marconi apparatus on the vessel. Marconi transmitted a message to the hut at South Foreland and another to Chalet d’Artois. The party then returned to South Foreland and congratulated Marconi on successfully demonstrating the first practical shore to ship and ship to shore wireless communicating system. Marconi then showed the party the alarm bell, he had constructed, to prompt the South Foreland lighthouse keeper of incoming messages from the lightship. Only urgent messages were sent, for instance when there was a ship in danger,  so that the lighthouse keeper could communicate by telephone with the relevant authorities, such as the Dover, Walmer, Deal and Ramsgate lifeboat stations and coastguard stations. He then went on to say that earlier that month, on Sunday 11 March 1899, the first ever call for assistance and report of an accident at sea was made by wireless, on behalf of the sailing ship Elbe, from the lightvessel. On receipt of the then international distress signal, code CQD, that is the general call, ‘CQ,’ followed by ‘D,’ denoting distress and together meaning ‘All stations: distress,’ followed by a brief explanation, the lighthouse keeper at South Foreland Lighthouse telephoned Ramsgate Lifeboat station who went to the Elbe’s aid.

Before the British officials returned to London, the French authorities had informed Marconi, by wireless communication from Wimereux, that they were interested in setting up a transmission terminal at the Eiffel Tower, Paris! Marconi invited the appropriate French authorities to a demonstration. On board the French gunboat, Ibis, and using the ship’s mast as an aerial, Marconi successfully demonstrated that it was possible to send clear messages four ways – between the Ibis, South Foreland Lighthouse, the lightvessel and Wimereux. In answer to questions raised, over the following few days Marconi carried out a number of experiments successfully demonstrating that weather conditions did not affect transmissions. Concern had also been raised over the distance of the receiver from the transmission, in answer, Marconi proved that moving the ship either nearer or further way, made no difference whatsoever, as long as the height of the transmission was adjusted accordingly.

That month also saw Marconi’s experiments in wireless transmission, acknowledged and repeated by Professor Jerome Green at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States. In doing so, Professor Green became the first person to send wireless transmissions in the US. Towards the end of 1899 Marconi was in the United States personally covering the America’s Cup Yacht races at the request of James Gordon Bennett Junior (1841-1918), the editor of the New York Herald and Evening Telegram. The races were off Sandy Hook, New Jersey and Marconi made his transmissions from the passenger ship Ponce of the Puerto Rico Line. This so impressed the United States Navy Board that Marconi was invited to undertake further experiments, as a result he set up the Wireless Telegraph Company of America as a subsidiary of the British Marconi Company. Marconi left for England on 8 November on the ocean liner Sant Pau of the American Line. While on board he installed wireless equipment. On 15 November Marconi established contact with the Needles Hotel, Alum Bay, 60 miles away and reported the ship’s imminent arrival to Great Britain, becoming the first ocean liner to do so, by radio, while still at sea!

In England, senior members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) had been taking an interest in the Marconi experiments. Like Trinity House, the RNLI is an independent organisation that was founded in 1824 with the remit to go to the assistance of distressed vessels. In 1893 they had prevailed on the Government to set up a Commission to look at the possibility of electrical communication between rock lighthouses and lightvessels etc. with the shore as well as with Coast Guard stations. They also suggested the use of post offices near to lifeboat stations, where there were no Coast Guard stations, to have electrical communication installed. The Royal Commission sat for four years during which time they produced four reports and the fifth and final report was published in the autumn of 1897. This was about the same time as the GPO produced their damning report of their experiments in Dover and basing their final judgement on the GPO report, the Commission were happy to expand telephone communication but did not feel justified in recommending wireless communication. The senior officials at the RNLI did not agree especially when they heard the results of Marconi’s Dover experiments. Unable to overturn the Commission’s recommendations, the RNLI suggested to the Coast Guard that they should take the Marconi Dover experiments into consideration.

Coast Guard signal station on top of Shakespeare Cliff. Dover Museum

Coast Guard signal station on top of Shakespeare Cliff. Dover Museum

The Coast Guard, as it was then called, is a government institution created in 1809 by the Board of Customs as the Preventative Water Guard to fight smuggling and in 1822 were renamed the Coast Guard. In 1861, the fledgling organisation was taken over by the Treasury, expanded and strengthened to work as a shore patrol in the fight against smuggling. Except for the Channel ports of Kent, their duties were expanded to include responsibility for shipwrecks and the safety of cargoes. At the Channel ports, which included Dover, the earlier Preventative Water Guards had been replaced by the Coastal Blockade under the auspices of the Admiralty. That organisation was made up of a reserve of seamen trained in combat and dealing with smugglers. In 1831 they were amalgamated with the Coast Guards taking on their duties at the same time as retaining the training and duties of the Coastal Blockade. All the men were issued with a naval style uniform and Coast Guard cottages were built with some adapted to be the local Coast Guard station as well.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 extended the Coast Guards responsibilities to include safety at sea under the Board of Trade who issued the Coast Guard stations with life saving apparatus. By 1900 the Coast Guards had proved themselves to be popular with the general public but they had three bosses, the Treasury (Customs), the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. The Admiralty, to save money, decided to reduce their numbers and sell their cottages. The general public and the other two government departments successfully opposed this, all of which made it clear that the Coast Guards were the eyes and ears of the many organisations with coastal interests. Instead of the threatened cutbacks, the numbers were increased and their duties expanded to include electrical communication. The organisation was renamed the Coastguard.

Map showing the location of Dover Coastguard Station c1910. Dover Library

Map showing the location of Dover Coastguard Station c1910. Dover Library

By electrical communication, this was telegraph and telephone communication augmenting the visual semaphore and flag signalling that the Coastguard had been using since their inception. With regards to wireless communication, because of the GPO report on their Dover experiment, it was decided that it was not sufficiently developed or reliable to be introduced. At the time, when communicating with shipping, Coast Guards – and sailors on board the ships – those participainting  were expected to read and/or send 18words a minute. Coast Guards used the arms of signalling towers and flags, while from ships flags were used. Both also used Morse Code with a flashing lamp at the expected rate of ten words a minute. That method, which used acetylene fuel, could be seen at sea 12 miles away on a clear day or night. The main Dover Coast Guard station, named Townsend, was on the Old Folkestone Road, Aycliffe with a look out/signal tower on the top of Shakespeare Cliff. From about 1877 the top room of the Clock Tower on the Seafront Esplanade was also taken over by the Coast Guard and semaphore equipment was set up on the roof.

At the instigation of the RNLI, the Coastguard in 1899, using Marconi equipment, did undertake a wireless communication trial from their station at the top of the Clock Tower, and they reported that it had possibilities. However, their various governing bodies were considering other forms of communication. On Sunday 28 May 1899 five to six hundred carrier pigeons arrived at Admiralty Pier in 11 crates a twelfth crate of homing pigeons was sent to London. The birds had been trained at Châtelet in Belgium and it was hoped they would fly across the English Channel to Châtelet. This was the second time such a trial had been tried, the first was the year before and after the birds were released, they flew in the direction of Belgium but a strong easterly wind blew them off course and they eventually landed in France. The Dover Coastguards reported that although the Royal Navy had their own carrier pigeons distinguished by their aluminium leg rings and were of use, due to their vulnerability to prevailing winds in the Strait of Dover, they were best used for relatively short maritime distances.

William Henry Preece (1834-1913), inventor and mentor to the young Marconi. Wikimedia

William Henry Preece (1834-1913), inventor and mentor to the young Marconi. Wikimedia

It was evident to Preece that the poor relationship between the GPO and Marconi brought about by the GPO Dover experiments was having a detrimental effect on the future of wireless communication. One of Preece’s last lectures before he retired from the GPO was at the Royal Society of Arts in London with senior staff of the GPO in attendance. Preece also invited Marconi to attend and he started his talk by referring to his own experiments. Saying that he was by no means satisfied that finality had been reached in aetheric telegraphy (high frequency electromagnetic waves). Preece then went on to say that he was able to report on the practicality of Marconi’s system at which point his GPO colleagues looked decidedly uncomfortable. With a saddened voice Preece said the Marconi Company preferred to experiment elsewhere, giving examples but, he concluded looking across at Marconi, that ‘the man was to be very sincerely congratulated on the success of his experiments and bringing to the attention of the public this fascinating field of electrical development.’ The two men then publicly shook hands and Marconi told Preece that he had that day received a Reuters telegram from the Trinidad Government, in the West Indies. The communication stated that Trinidad had adopted the Marconi telegraph system with the dependency of Tobago, 52miles away. Preece was delighted and expressed this to his audience. The GPO representatives buried their pride and shook hands with Marconi. Preece retired shortly after, was knighted that same year in 1899 and also elected President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He continued to take an active interest in his protégé’s developments until he died at his home in North Wales on 6 November 1913.

The Royal Navy, in July 1899, held their annual manoeuvres – a major training exercise that took place over several days and centred on naval encounters between two fleets. Besides keeping the officers and men alert the manoeuvres gave them chance to try out and report on the validity of new equipment. On this occasion the new equipment included wireless communication using Marconi apparatus. In one of the two fleets three of the ships were equipped with the apparatus. These ships were the ironclad battleship Alexandra and the protected cruisers Europa and Juno. The Juno was under the command of Captain (later Admiral Sir) Henry Bradwardine Jackson (1855-1929) who had conducted his own wireless experiments and in 1897 had successfully demonstrated continuous wireless communication with another vessel up to three miles away. For the annual manoeuvres Marconi and his staff ran wire antennas 170feet from the main topmast to the lower aft-bridge where the wireless equipment was housed. The wireless equipment on all three ships proved to be successful both by day and night and in a variety of weathers. Further, during the exercise Marconi introduced an impedance-matching transformer between the antenna and the transmitter and receiver and this successfully provided communication at approximately 85miles and over 95 miles using an intermediate ship as a repeater. As far as the manoeuvres were concerned, the use of wireless communication gave the three ships an advantage of about three hours over the rest of the fleet.

Marconi Mast on Dover Town Hall for Ambrose Fleming's lecture in Connaught Hall on the Marconi Dover wireless experiments 1899. Bob Holligsbee Collection Dover Museum

Marconi Mast on Dover Town Hall for Ambrose Fleming’s lecture in Connaught Hall on the Marconi Dover wireless experiments 1899. Bob Holligsbee Collection Dover Museum

The year 1899 continued to be eventful for Marconi and in the late autumn, as described above, he went to the US to cover the America’s Cup and open a subsidiary in that country. In September, the British Association for the Advancement of Science held their annual conference at Dover which comprised of a series of lectures given by eminent academics of the age. One of the speakers was Dr John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945), the subject of his talk being ‘A Centenary of the Electrical Current’. During the day of the talk, locals watched Marconi technicians under the supervision of Dr Fleming, erect a tall antenna on the roof of the Maison Dieu, then Dover’s Town Hall. The top was 140foot above the ground.

That evening Connaught Hall, where the lecture was taking place, was packed and the audience was in awe of two large what appeared to be screens but were part of the wireless equipment, that had been erected next to each other above the speakers’ lectern. The President of the Association, Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907) introduced Dr Fleming who started his talk by pointing out that the title referred to the discoveries by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), including, in 1800, the invention of the battery. He went on to say that at Volta’s birthplace, Como, the King of Italy, Umberto I (1878-1900), had opened a centenary commemorative exhibition that day. The King and Dr Fleming had communicated using the telegraph system. Adding that it was only a matter of time before such communication would be wireless. He then gave an account of Hertz and his brilliant discoveries and of the others that had made significant contributions to the understanding of the electrical current. Fleming illustrated his lecture with lanternslides.

Fleming then told his audience that he was the technical consultant to the Marconi Company. That just before the start of the lecture, using the equipment from the Marconi huts at South Foreland lighthouse set up in Connaught Hall and that the screens that dominated the Hall above him, were in fact ‘radiators’ that launched the wireless waves. These carried the wireless message to the Marconi station at Chalet d’Artois, Wimereux, – a distance of 30 miles away across the Channel. The message was addressed to Dr Paul Camille Hippolyte Brouardel (1837-1906), the chairman of the Association Francaise pour l’Avancement des Sciences and the Société Geologique de Belge, who were simultaneously holding their conference in Boulogne. When the message, which contained greetings and good wishes, reached Wimereux, Fleming told the audience, it would be taken by hand the two miles to Boulogne. The messenger had been instructed to take any reply back to Wimereux and for it to be transmitted back to Fleming in Connaught Hall.

Ambrose Fleming's lecture in Connaught Hall on the Marconi Dover wireless experiments 1899. Bob Hollingsbee Collection Dover Museum

Ambrose Fleming’s lecture in Connaught Hall on the Marconi Dover wireless experiments 1899. Bob Hollingsbee Collection Dover Museum

Fleming continued his account of the Marconi experiments at Dover and what had been achieved. He went on to say that he too was going to carry out an experiment that very evening using the equipment in the Hall and the 140foot antenna on the roof of the Town Hall. This was to transmit a message to the East Goodwin lightvessel, 16 miles away and that the first mile was to the top of the 400-foot high cliff on which stood the Castle. The topography for the following 3 miles were high cliffs dropping away to sea level and the Downs and across the Goodwin Sands to the East Goodwin lightvessel. He finished by saying that if the experiment worked it would successfully show that wireless waves would reach their destination regardless of an intervening obstacle! He then transmitted a message.

Using lanternslides, Fleming then continued to give an account of how the wireless system worked, stopping when the receiver sprung to life. This was a reply from Dr Brouardel in France which said, ‘Very much touched by proof of friendship which wireless telegraph transmits to us. I address to you our heartiest … congratulations and wishes for you and the British Association. The audience was delighted and barely had they settled when again a message was received. This time it was from the East Goodwin lightvessel acknowledging receipt of Fleming’s message … the experiment had worked and those in the audience were ecstatic!

John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) Page's engineering weekly 1906. Wikimedia

John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) Page’s engineering weekly 1906. Wikimedia

Dover’s Mayor, Sir William Crundall (1847-1934), the Recorder of Dover (1874-1901) Harry Bodkin Poland (1829–1928), Dover’s MP (1889-1913) and the Under Secretary State for War (1898-1900), George Wyndham (1863-1913) – as well as other dignitaries, were in the audience and the following day they accompanied Fleming to Marconi’s South Foreland huts. The weather was poor, with heavy rain and at the time Mayor Crundall sent his wireless message to Wimereux there was a thunderstorm in the Channel. Albeit, this did not appear to effect the communication is any way and by the end of the day Fleming had received confirmation that the scientific establishment acknowledged his experiment that wireless waves could reach their destination regardless of intervening obstacles.

Internationally, on 11 Oct 1899 Britain became embroiled in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, then part of the British Empire. The men of Dover, as in other British towns, were keen to go and fight for King and country. Briefly, the seeds of the two Boer Wars were sown during the 17th century when a large number of Dutch farmers (Boers) settled in the hinterland of the Cape of South Africa and named it the Boer Republic. During the Napoleonic Wars the coastal area was occupied by the British in order to stop it falling into French hands and when peace in Europe returned, the Cape was formerly ceded to the British. In the years that followed, economically, Britain went into a major depression and due to the hardship many emigrated to the Cape. In the years that followed there was an uneasy peace between the Dutch and British settlers while the native South Africans claims were totally ignored by both sides. As the century progressed, the British increasingly encroached into Boer territory and this culminated in the First Boer War (1880-1881). Using guerrilla warfare tactics the Boers were successful but the British retaliated by encouraging emigration to South Africa from both the home country and from their other colonies, particularly India.

Initially, the Second Boer War went well for the British, who surrounded the towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith. Soon, however, the situation reversed and the towns were under siege by the Boers. Reinforcements from Britain were sent for and these included the volunteers from Dover as well as six young engineers from the Marconi Company. They were George L Bullocke (1874-1911), Harry Melville Dowsett (1879-1964), Charles Samuel Franklin (1872-1964) as well as Messrs Elliott, Lockyer and Taylor. All were under the command of Captain Kennedy of the Royal Engineers, who had assisted Marconi with many of his experiments and demonstrations and the contingent had with them five portable wireless transmitters/receivers made from Marconi apparatus. Their remit was to use the equipment for ship to shore communication, particularly the disembarkation of troops but instead they were sent to the front line. Unfortunately the equipment failed to function properly in the field, due to a number problems including dust storms causing the bamboo masts to splinter and intense lightning storms that occurred regularly on the Veldt – the open grasslands in South Africa – between November and April. This being the very time that they were trying to operate the Marconi equipment. Thus, Captain Kennedy received orders to dismantle the equipment and for the engineers to join the troops in relieving Ladysmith.

Leney's Brewery, Castle Street that had telegraph and telephone facilities so daily bulletins from the South African Front were posted. Dover Library

Leney’s Brewery, Castle Street that had telegraph and telephone facilities so daily bulletins from the South African Front were posted. Dover Library

The relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley in March 1900 resulted in celebrations in Dover by which time the daily bulletins from the Front, posted in the window of Leney’s brewery offices in Castle Street, had become a daily magnet for most locals. Leney’s had telegraph facilities as well as telephones and besides posting general news from the Front they also listed those from Dover or with connections to Dover, who had been killed or injured. On the day the town read that the South African towns had been relieved the bulletin also stated that 26year-old Lieutenant Francis Coventry Dudfield Davidson, son of Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Middlemass Davidson (1843-1922) of Victoria Park had died of his wounds. He was one of the increasing number of British soldiers who were killed, dying of their wounds or dying of sickness due to underlying poor health in South Africa. At a local level, this motivated members of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade to go to South Africa and a number were given the Freedom of the Borough on their return for their work there. The War ended on 31 May 1892 and in June Peace Sunday was celebrated in the town. The editor of the Dover Express, John Bavington Jones (1842-1922) wrote, ‘Soon the scars of war will be healed and South Africa will be self-governing, free and prosperous section of the British Empire,’

With regards to communication, Captain Kennedy, while the War was raging, reported that the Boers had an efficient system of telegraph communication that was enabling them to have the upper hand. Further, Paul Kruger (1825-1904), President of the Transvaal Republic between 1883-1900, in August 1899 had asked the German electrical engineering company Siemens and Halske, to provide wireless equipment. Captain Kennedy proposed to examine captured apparatus if permission was granted. Of note, Werner Von Siemens (1816-1892) and Johann Georg Halske (1814-1890) founded the German company in 1847 as Telegraphen-Bauanstalt Von Siemens & Halske

At about the same time as Kennedy filed his report, the Royal Navy, who were aware of the success of the Marconi equipment back in Britain, requested the five discarded Marconi wireless sets and the Army were pleased for them to have it. They were not so pleased that the Royal Navy also asked for Captain Kennedy and the six engineers to install, erect and operate the equipment but eventually relented. The Royal Navy ships, Dwarf, Forte, Magicienne, Racoon and Thetis, were operating a blockade in Delagoa Bay (now called Maputo and is a bay on the south-east coast of Mozambique, East Africa, near the South African border). This was to stop contraband, particularly German guns and ammunition, being smuggled in for the Boers.

Steamship equipped with wireless T antenna pre WWI. Charles R. Gibson Wikimedia

Steamship equipped with wireless T antenna pre WWI. Charles R. Gibson Wikimedia

It was possible that Captain Kennedy and his engineers erected what was called a T aerial that consisting of several horizontal wires suspended from spreaders between two masts, with vertical feeder wires connected to the centre extending down to the transmitter in the radio cabin. The vertical wires served as a monopole radiator, while the horizontal wires served as a top-load, adding capacitance to the antenna to increase the current in the vertical radiators. The wireless equipment lived up to expectations and it is generally believed that this significantly influenced the Royal Navy’s decision to equip 42 ships and 8 shore stations around Britain with wireless by the end of 1900.

5. Swingate and pre WWI Inventions and Advancements

The positive interest of the Royal Navy helped to ratify the Board of Trade’s interest in wireless telegraphy but Marconi still lacked trust in government institutions. In order to increase his control over inventions, on 24 March 1900 he officially had his UK Company renamed the Wireless Telegraph Company Limited. He also appointed Samuel Flood Page (1833-1915) as Managing Director. The following month on 25 April, the Marconi International Marine Co. was created and the maritime rights were sold to the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, which also held the controlling interests in subsidiary companies formed in the United States and Canada. At the same time he tightened his control over his scientific work by taking out his famous patent No. 7777 for ‘tuned or syntonic telegraphy’ (see above). And he confirmed what became known as Marconi’s Law – that is the relation between length of antennas and maximum signalling distance of radio transmissions that he empirically tested in the 1897 Salisbury Plain experiments and was confirmed in experiments by Italian Royal Naval officers in 1900 and 1901.

Financially the Marconi’s companies were only just the right side of being viable and therefore they were still trying to gain lucrative contracts. The main sea crossing route between Britain and the Continent was, and still is, from the port of Dover. Before 1899, two separate railway companies competed for railway traffic between London and Dover and they also held the government packet contracts on cross Channel ships from the port. The companies were the South Eastern Railway Company (SER) and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company (LCDR) and on 1 January 1899 they amalgamated to form the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company (SECR). At the time of the amalgamation SER had successfully negotiated with the Marconi Company for the installation of wireless equipment on all their cross Channel ships while the LCDR were still in the process of negotiation. Following the amalgamation, the government decided to review the proposed Marconi contract with the former LCDR and ‘temporary’ reduced aspects of the former SER – Marconi contract. This infuriated Alfred Willis, the former general manager of SER / following the amalgamation the senior executive with SECR. So angry was he that he publicly confirmed that all of the former cross Channel SER ships were allowed by the government to be in contact with both the English and French bases at all times by wireless. But ‘due to the British Government dragging their feet about allowing the installation of wireless on the former LCDR ships, passengers were no longer allowed to use the wireless service that was available on some SECR ships!

Princesse Clementine Belgium Marine packet ship drawn by PJ Clay. Dover Library

Princesse Clementine Belgium Marine packet ship drawn by PJ Clay. Dover Library

The British Government were unmoved so the Belgium government’s subsidiary, Belgium Marine cross Channel ferry company, used the situation to their advantage. Their first cross Channel packet ship to be fitted with Marconi’s wireless telegraphy was the Princesse Clémentine, a fast steel paddle steamer built by Société Cockerill for the Ostend-Dover Service in 1896.  The system was installed in 1900 and the antenna was connected to the foremast, the height of which had been considerably increased. The De Panne Marconi wireless station on the Belgium North Sea coast between Ostend and Dunkirk was already in operation for communication with Dover and the ship left Ostend at 23.00hours on Thursday 10 May 1900 under the command of Captain Romyn. With members of the Belgium government and Belgium Marine present, a message was transmitted from Ostend to De Panne and on to Dover to inform them that the Princesse Clémentine had left the port. The Captain then transmitted a message to Ostend that he had informed the crew and the passengers that the crossing would be rough as a gale was expected. This was confirmed by wind speeds of 8 and 9 on the Beaufort scale being recorded that night. Nonetheless, Captain Romyn made several further transmissions and on arrival in Dover at 02.40hours the Princesse Clémentine received a congratulatory message from Leopold II (1835-1909), the King of Belgium (1865-1909). Before the ship left Dover on the morning of 11 May, the Captain transmitted a wireless message giving the number of passengers and crew on board setting a precedence that still holds today by all cross Channel ferries.

Guards band playing at Archcliffe Fort c1905. The wireless mast behind is the Spioen Kop Coastguard wireless station in the Citadel. Dover Museum

Guards band playing at Archcliffe Fort c1905. The wireless mast behind is the Spioen Kop Coastguard wireless station in the Citadel. Dover Museum

This together with the Royal Navy’s order motivated the Admiralty to show an interest in the Marconi wireless telegraph system for their shore based establishments. A successful trial took place on HMS Vernon, a shore based establishment founded in 1876 at Chatham. Subsequently the Admiralty ordered 32 sets of Marconi apparatus for their shore based establishments and they also opened five Coastguard signal stations to house wireless telegraph systems bringing in Marconi staff to run them. One of these stations was at Dover and the others were at Portland Bill – Dorset, Rame Head – Cornwall, Roches Point, near Cork, Ireland and one was on the Isle of Wight. The Dover signal station / wireless telegraph station was in the Citadel on Western Heights and named, appropriately, Spioen Kop. This was the place name of a battle fought in the Boer War on 23–24 January 1900 and the official South African English and Afrikaans definition of Spioen is ‘spy’ or ‘look-out’, and Kop means ‘hill’ or ‘outcropping’ – hence the appropriate name for its location in Dover. Of note, at the battle of Spioen Kop the Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were killed and was classed as a Boer victory. Over 1,250 British were either wounded or captured and there were 243 fatalities. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) worked with the British as an Indian Ambulance Corps stretcher-bearer during the battle and was decorated by the British for his work.

Telephone receiver made by Collier-Marr of Manchester and used by Marconi in the Newfoundland 1901 experiment. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

Telephone receiver made by Collier-Marr of Manchester and used by Marconi in the Newfoundland 1901 experiment. istory of Science Museum, University of Oxford

At Poldhu, Cornwall, in October 1900, Dr Fleming started work on a spark transmitter powered by a 25 kW alternator designed to make transatlantic wireless communication possible. A second similar apparatus, with a 500-foot kite-supported receiver antenna was built 2,100 miles away on Signal Hill, St Johns’ Newfoundland. The first successful transatlantic transmission from east to west, in fact three took place from Poldhu to Newfoundland at 12.30 hours, 13.10 hours and 14.20hours on 12 December 1901. It was blowing a gale in Newfoundland but the message – three dots, Morse code for the letter S, was successfully received proving that wireless waves were not affected by the curvature of the Earth.

Immediately, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company forbade any further experiments involving Newfoundland on the grounds that they would infringe the Pender group monopoly of communications in Newfoundland. At the same time the Poldhu – Newfoundland experiment came in for justifiable scepticism, the main one of which was that it had taken place during day light hours when it was known that radio signals travel further at night than during the day. In 1902, during a voyage in the American liner Philadelphia from England, Marconi experimented with the ‘daylight and night time effect’ and found that radio signals for medium and longwave transmissions travel much further at night than in the day – 2,100 miles at night and 700 miles during the day. This was/is due to heavy absorption of the skywave during the day in the ionosphere – an electrically charged layer of the upper atmosphere. More research and experiments took place by Marconi but due to the Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s objection to communication with Newfoundland, he moved the experimentation to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. On 17 December 1902, a transmission from the Marconi station in Glace Bay, became the world’s first radio message to cross the Atlantic west to east.

An operator receiving wireless telegraphy message using a Marconi magnetic detector. Archie Frederick Collins 1905. Wikimedia

An operator receiving wireless telegraphy message using a Marconi magnetic detector. Archie Frederick Collins 1905. Wikimedia

That year, Marconi patented his magnetic detector which then became the standard wireless receiver for many years, superseding the coherer and was based upon the effect of high frequencies on the magnetic characteristics of iron. Further, by 1905 all Royal Navy ships, from first class battleships down to third class cruisers were fitted with wireless telegraphy apparatus and the operators were trained by the Marconi Company. The British Beaver Line was the first Merchant shipping company to have the apparatus installed while the Italian Navy not only acknowledged the achievement of Marconi, they arranged for his apparatus to be fitted on all their warships.

Although Fleming continued to work with Marconi in a consultative capacity, their relationship was far from congenial. It had soured following the Poldhu – Newfoundland transmission when the credit for Fleming’s part was claimed by Marconi at the same time that he blamed the cause of any criticism on Fleming. Indeed, Marconi verbally downgraded Fleming’s role in the Company, saying that he just did ‘some work on the power plant’ and failed to give Fleming 500 shares of Marconi stock, as promised. Unlike Marconi, who had come from a privileged background, Fleming had worked his way through the college education system by undertaking menial jobs and later with consultancy work. In 1884 he joined University College, London in the newly formed Department of Electrical Technology where is equipment was a blackboard and chalk! Nonetheless, it did open the door to more lucrative consultancy work and enabled him to undertake experiments.

Sheaves and paying-out gear on the bow of the Dominia Cable ship c1930. AS Collection

Sheaves and paying-out gear on the bow of the Dominia Cable ship c1930. AS Collection

Back in 1896, the founder of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, which had objected to the Newfoundland experiment, John Pender (1816-1896), died. The Scottish born businessman had already made his fortune in textiles when, in 1866, he headed a consortium to lay a transatlantic cable from Valentia Island, one of Ireland’s most westerly points, to Newfoundland. The design of the cable was based on the Submarine Telegraph Company’s, Dover – Calais cable – see the story on the Channel Submarine Telegraph and Telephone Cables. That was a copper conductor – the cable’s core, insulated using gutta-percha, a type of latex for under-water use and wrapped in a casing of iron wire, thicker at the shore ends to provide protection from anchors and tidal chafing. Successfully overcoming numerous technical and financial difficulties the trans-Atlantic cable was laid and this encouraged Pender to promote long-distance telegraphs through companies that once successfully established were consolidated into the parent company – Anglo-American Telegraph Company Ltd – part of the Pender group of Companies which, in 1934, became Cable and Wireless.

In commemoration of John Pender’s achievements a memorial fund was set up that raised £6,277. Out of this money, the committee donated £5,000 to the Department of Electrical Technology of University College, to enable an expansion of its facilities. This included the founding of the Pender Laboratory and the inauguration of the Pender Chair of Electrical Engineering in 1899. Dr John Ambrose Fleming was appointed the first Professor, a post he held until 1925 during which time he became known for inventing the first thermionic valve or vacuum tube (see below) and is famous for the left hand rule for electric motors -– if the forefinger, second finger and the thumb of the left hand are extended at right angles to each other, the fingers indicate the motion in an electric motor. He was also a consultant to the London Electric Supply Corporation, the Swan Company, Ferranti Limited, Edison Telephone, the Edison Electric Light Company, the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Co. and the British Admiralty Coastguard signal stations.

Admiralty Pier joint Royal Navy signal station 29 and Lloyds merchant shipping station being rebuilt 1907. Nick Catford

Admiralty Pier joint Royal Navy signal station 29 and Lloyds merchant shipping station being rebuilt 1907. Nick Catford

The responsibility of the Coastguard passed to the Admiralty and on 21 May 1903 and the office of Admiral Commanding Coastguard and Reserves was established the first incumbent being Admiral Sir Ernest Rice (1840-1927) of Dane Court, Tilmanstone and the son of former Dover MP Edward Royce Rice (1790-1878). A further eight Admiralty Coastguard signal stations were opened, they were at Bere Island, Castletown – Ireland; Spurn Head, Easington, Yorkshire; Alderney, Channel Islands; St. Abb’s Head, Berwickshire, Scotland; St. Ann’s. Head, Pembrokeshire; Landguard, Felixstowe, Suffolk; Port Patrick, Wigtownshire, Scotland and Duncansby Head on the north eastern tip of the Scottish mainland. That year, an agreement had been reached between the Admiralty and Lloyds of London insurance and reinsurance market with its roots in marine insurance. The agreement enabled Lloyds to operate commercial signalling stations for merchant shipping and one was jointly rebuilt at the end of Admiralty Pier with the Royal Navy in 1907. The station continued operating through two World Wars until February 1951 when it was transferred to the Harbour Board signal station on the Eastern Arm.

This joint operation, from the signal station on Dover’s Admiralty Pier, had come about due to the Admiralty’s concern that the maritime airwaves were becoming overcrowded. Trinity House had planned to install Marconi equipment on all their light vessels but this required the sanction of the Admiralty and they were only allowing one at a time in order to see what effect this had on the transmissions from existing stations. The same reasoning was also being applied to the SECR cross Channel ships, Lloyds, the Royal Navy and Coastguard signal stations. Experiments and innovations were also still taking place, some in order to answer questions as to why Morse Code was used in transmitting wireless messages. This was because only the ‘on-off‘ signal could be transmitted and to make radiotelephony possible.

Commercial Thermionic Valves from TheValve and its Developments in Radiotelegraphy and Telephony by John Ambrose Fleming 1919 The Wireless Press, London, p. 53, fig. 28A

Commercial Thermionic Valves from TheValve and its Developments in Radiotelegraphy and Telephony by John Ambrose Fleming 1919 The Wireless Press, London, p. 53, fig. 28A

In 1904 Professor Fleming invented the forerunner of the thermionic valve that he called the oscillation valve. This acted as a pump and the concept was then developed by the American physicist Lee De Forest (1873-1961). He created the vacuum tube, which he named the electron tube although it is better known colloquially as the radio valve. The valve enabled wireless signals to be received, amplified and transmitted  by controlling electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied and thereby creating radiotelephony!

The introduction of the thermionic valve was one of the many innovations in wireless transmissions that were been made at that time. In order for the government to maintain overall control of the wireless industry, the Post Master General, Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby (1865-1948) submitted a Bill to Parliament requiring all wireless stations/companies to be licensed. On 15 August 1904, the Wireless Telegraphy Act became law and 73 stations applied for licenses of which 64 were scheduled as experimental or lecture installations. Although the Marconi Company applied, its company policy forbid, except in the case of emergencies, shore and ship stations to communicate with vessels using wireless equipment manufactured by other companies. This sort of monopoly was beginning to be prohibited by international treaties but at that time this did not include the UK.

Of the other companies that applied for British licences, one was the German Telefunken Company, a joint venture of Siemens & Halske – mentioned above in the relation to the Boer War – and the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) founded in 1903. Also, the National Electric Signalling Company – with headquarters in Washington, USA and the American de Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, which was developing Fleming’s thermionic valve. The British contingent included Lodge-Muirhead Wireless and General Telegraph Syndicate Limited. This was founded by physicist and writer Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940) together with electrical engineer Dr Alexander Muirhead (1848-1920) and was particularly favoured by the British military. In 1912, they sold their patents to Marconi. The 1904 Act remained in force until 31 July 1906 then it was extended year on year until the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1924 came into force. This too was extended year on year until superseded by the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 2006.

Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Meanwhile, Swingate Downs, since the end of the Boer War, had virtually been abandoned by the military except when Royal Engineers based at the Castle used the Downs to try out searchlights and associated equipment. Also when, as part of the Castle based Royal Engineers, Captain Kennedy had overseen the set up of a military wireless station in a decommissioned battery in the Castle grounds. This, in 1914, was adapted as the Port War Signalling Station. During Captain Kennedy’s time at the Castle, it was reported that he took interested parties to the Downs when giving talks on the Marconi experiments in Dover. Albeit, with the proposed building of the Duke of York’s School on the landward side of the Dover-Deal Road, of the Downs. Locally, rumours were rampant that the Downs were to be sold.

This was well founded for in May 1895 the Admiralty had announced that it was going to use the port of Dover as a base for the Royal Navy and would build an Admiralty Harbour to enclose Dover Bay. The following year, in August 1896, the Undercliff Reclamation Act received Royal Assent for the laying out land on the South Foreland where a new ‘Dover’ was to be built (see Dover, St Margaret’s and Martin Mill Railway Line part 1). The Act had been sponsored by John Jackson (1851-1919) and Weetman Dickinson Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray (1856-1917), both were involved in the building of the proposed Admiralty Harbour and Sir William Crundall (1847-1934) – thirteen times Mayor of Dover from 1886 to 1910, and Chairman of Dover Harbour Board between 1906-1934. He had also attended Dr Fleming’s lecture in Connaught Hall and had been awed the following day when he had tried out the equipment (see above). Be that as it may, although the new road to the proposed St Margaret’s development was expected to go under the cliffs, in the short term it had been agreed that it would go over the cliffs crossing land including Swingate Downs.

Admiralty Harbour map 1909 Daily Telegraph 1909

Admiralty Harbour map 1909 Daily Telegraph 1909

Under the direction of Viscount Cowdray, the Admiralty harbour was created by extending Admiralty Pier and building the Eastern Arm and Southern Breakwater and on 15 October 1909 George, Prince of Wales later George V (1910-1936) opened the new Harbour. It was he who had been impressed with the Marconi wireless transmissions at Osborne House, Isle of Wight such that he brought them to the attention of Trinity House – see above. As the new Harbour was being built, the Royal Navy undertook trials and these tended to produce negative results due to the natural tidal flows (see Tides, Flooding, Western Docks & Esplanade Lock story). Thus, it was increasingly believed that the possibility of Dover becoming a national naval base would be abandoned. Further, although Dover was a long established garrison town, following the promotion of the commanding officer, Major-General Henry Fane Grant (1848-1919), his position had not been filled.

The rumours appeared to be confirmed on 14 January 1907, when it was officially announced that the headquarters of the military South Eastern District and the 5th Division, which had been for many years at Dover, would be transferred to Woolwich. Dover was downgraded to a Coast Defence Command and a Colonel Owen was appointed commander of the coast defences until he retired later that year. A Colonel F A Curteis was appointed his successor but escalating rumours stated that this was purely temporary. Volunteer camps were still taking place at Dover but in 1907, neither took place on Swingate Downs. The 1st Volunteer battalion of the Buffs trained on the Ropewalk Meadow in June and the 1st Volunteer battalion of the Sussex Regiment trained at Fort Burgoyne in August. Meanwhile the Dover garrison continued to be reduced and this had a direct effect on the economy of the town. Not that long before, Dover had been one of the top ten wealthiest towns in the country.

Canadian Pacific Atlantic Liner SS Montrose c1910 sank on the Goodwin Sands 1914. Wikimedia

Canadian Pacific Atlantic Liner SS Montrose c1910 sank on the Goodwin Sands 1914. Wikimedia

On 17 October 1907 between the Marconi wireless station at Clifden in Ireland and the station at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, the Marconi transatlantic wireless service was inaugurated. In 1910, on board the Canadian Pacific Company of Montreal Atlantic liner, Montrose, built at Middlesbrough in 1897, was murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910) and his mistress Ethel le Neve (1883-1967). They had embarked in Antwerp travelling on false passports and she was trying to pass herself off as a boy.

The Master of the ship, Captain Henry George Kendall (1874-1965), had become suspicious of the couple and sent a wireless telegram from the ship to England. Detective Chief Inspector Walter Drew (1863-1947) took a faster passage to Montreal from Liverpool and arrested the pair off Father Point in the St Lawrence River. This was the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal. The Montrose was brought to Dover in World War I, to be used as a Blockship, but during a gale broke free from her moorings. She was wrecked on the Goodwin Sands not far from the South Goodwin Lightship, which had also broken her moorings that night.

At the beginning of March 1909 the Atlantic Fleet arrived and spent a little over three months out of twelve based at Dover and the town became optimistic. But it was in the summer of that year that another invention that was to become directly connected to Swingate bringing the world’s attention on Dover, thus lifting the town’s spirits. That story goes back to 17 December 1903 when two US, bicycle manufacturers undertook an experiment near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) and they had made the first controlled and sustained powered flights, landing on ground at the same level as the take-off point. By 1905 the two brothers had built a flying machine with controls that made it completely manoeuvrable. They immediately applied for the patent but in the US little interest was shown in the achievement. When the patent was granted in 1906 the Wright brothers looked to enter agreements with European firms where airships were being developed and seemed to be preferred.

First Zeppelin ascent 2 July 1900. Library of Congress. Wikimedia

First Zeppelin ascent 2 July 1900. Library of Congress. Wikimedia

The first aerial crossing of the English Channel had taken place on 7 January 1785 by Dr John Jeffries (1744-1819) and Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) from Dover in a lighter than air balloon. From then on balloon and then airships were developed and in 1888 German bookseller Friedrich Hermann Wölfert (1850-1897) successfully produced an airship that could be manoeuvred by control and used a Daimler petrol engine. In the following decade, Croatian-Hungarian Dr David Schwarz (1850-1897) built the first rigid airship. This was filled with gas contained in a rigid aluminium envelope, riveted on a metal framework and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) turned the development into a commercially successful industry. Between 1910 and 1914 his airships carried over 10,000 passengers on the world’s first schedule airline service. During the 19th century the British Army had used balloons and later airships and in 1890 the Royal Engineers were granted a full Balloon Section with its own Balloon Factory on Farnborough Common, Hampshire. However, as the decade and developments progressed, the War Office only saw the potential of air flight in reconnaissance and having spent £2,500 on the research cancelled funding by which time Germany had spent £400,000 on aeronautical research!

Orville & Wilbur Wright followed by Horace Short. The Short brothers won the right to build Wright planes. Eveline Larder

Orville & Wilbur Wright followed by Horace Short. The Short brothers won the right to build Wright planes. Eveline Larder

The first British aeroplane manufacturing company to gain the right to build Wright aeroplanes was the Short Brother’s factory at Mussell (Muswell) Manor, at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, north Kent. This was owned and run by Horace Short (1872-1917) and his brother Oswald (1883-1969) and opened in February 1909. Later that year, on the morning of Sunday 25 July 1909, on Northfall Meadow between Swingate Downs and the Castle, Louis Blériot (1872-1936) landed. He had crossed the English Channel from Sangatte, France to England in his Blériot No XI 25-horsepower monoplane and it was the first heavier than air flight to make the Channel crossing. When he landed, 36minutes 30 seconds after take off he made history and initiated the meteoric interest in aviation.

Charles Rolls postcard, commemorating his two way non-stop flight 02.06.1910. Dover Library

Charles Rolls postcard, commemorating his two way non-stop flight 02.06.1910. Dover Library

With the popularity of aviation increasing, a considerable amount of private money was invested in developing and building aircraft. Landing places for the aircraft quickly proved to be problem and airfields – open, relatively flat, grassy areas – were sought after. In the spring of 1910, wealthy Charles Rolls (1877-1910) saw Swingate Downs plateau as a potential for an airfield and persuaded the War Office to rent him the site when it was not required for military purposes and this was readily agreed to. On acquiring the Swingate Aerodrome, as Rolls renamed the site, he had an ‘aeroplane garage’, or hangar as they are now called, erected. On 20 May 1910 a Wright Flyer aeroplane, belonging to Rolls, arrived at Dover and at 18.30hrs on Thursday 2 June he took off from Swingate Aerodrome. Rolls passed over Sangatte, France, at 19.15hrs and after circling round Dover Castle in triumph, he landed back at Swingate aerodrome at 20.00hrs having made the first two way Channel crossing in an aeroplane. Over 3,000 people witnessed the event, after which Rolls was carried through the town shoulder high. A month later, on 12 July 1910, Charles Rolls lost his life due to a controlling wire breaking, which had been added to his Wright Flyer.

Bleriot XI aeroplane aviator Louis Blériot and the type of aeroplane that John Moisant accompanied by his French mechanic Albert Fileux and cat, Mademoiselle Fifi made their historic crossing of the Channel . US Library of Congress Wikimedia

Bleriot XI aeroplane aviator Louis Blériot and the type of aeroplane that John Moisant accompanied by his French mechanic Albert Fileux and cat, Mademoiselle Fifi made their historic crossing of the Channel . US Library of Congress Wikimedia

Later that year, on 17 August 1910, American John Moisant (1868-1910), accompanied by his French mechanic Albert Fileux (bc1884) and his cat, Mademoiselle Fifi, flew from Calais to England in a Blériot XI, making the flight the first Channel crossing carrying a passenger as well as a cat! He landed at the East Kent Brickfield, Telegraph Farm, Tilmanstone and watching was Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith (1888-1989), who went on to build aircraft.

Wealthy Baron Maurice Arnold de Forest (1879-1968) motor car racer and aviator, offered £4,000 to the aviator who flew the furthest from England, having crossed the Channel, in an English-built aeroplane by 31 December 1910. On 7 December 1910 a group of aviators gathered at Swingate including Claude Grahame-White (1879-1959), Robert Loraine (1876-1935) and Cecil Grace (1880-1910). The weather, that day, was against them and continued to be so. Ten days later, a south-westerly storm reaching force 10 on the Beaufort scale, smashed one of the wooden and canvas hangars destroying Clement Hugh Greswell’s (b1890) biplane. It looked as if no one would even set fly due to the state of the appalling weather then on Sunday 18 December the aviators woke up to ideal weather conditions.

Howard-Wright Biplane. piloted by Tommy Sopwith, winner of the Baron de Forrest £4000 prize 1910. Imperial War Museum. Wikimedia

Howard-Wright Biplane. piloted by Tommy Sopwith, winner of the Baron de Forrest £4000 prize 1910. Imperial War Museum. Wikimedia

Thomas Sopwith, set off in a Howard-Wright Farman type biplane with a monoplane tail borrowed from the then recently opened Royal Flying Corps Naval Wing Station at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey north Kent. He successfully flew 169 miles in 3 hours 40 minutes to Beaumont, Belgium winning the £4000 prize and used the winnings to set up the Sopwith School of Flying at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey. Claude Grahame-White set off from Swingate in a Bristol biplane equipped with a 60-horse-power E.N.V. engine (an acronym for V8 engines made by London and Parisian Motor Co). His biplane rose easily from the ground but then suddenly heeled over and crashed to the ground. As medical equipment was on site, this was prepared but was not required as Grahame-White manage to crawl out from underneath the wreckage and sustained nothing more than a bloody nose! Of interest the Twentieth Century Fox 1965 film, ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,’ set in 1910 and tells of an air race between London and Paris, to prove that Britain is ‘number one in the air’. The story was inspired by the 1910 de Forest race, authentic aircraft was used and the location of the filming around Dover was principally shot on Swingate Downs!

The weather again augured well on 22 December and several airmen took off from Swingate including Cecil Grace. Tommy Sopwith had arrived at the airfield the day before with his biplane, in case anyone beat his record in which case he would have another go. Grace was one of the first to leave, at 09.26hrs in his Short 7 biplane. There was a light wind from the west but there was mist over the sea. In case of accidents, in the Channel there were two Calais steam tugs and one from Dover with the Dover lifeboat, Mary Hamer Hoyle, standing by. On the other side of the Channel fog was rolling in but Grace eventually landed at Les Baraques, near Sangatte. At 14.10hrs, he filled his biplane with enough petrol to fly for 4-5hours and started on his return flight to Swingate. However, he never arrived and on 6 January 1911, pilot’s goggles and a cap was found on the beach at Mariakerke, in Belgium. They were later identified as belonging to Cecil Grace.

The King’s harbourmaster for the Admiralty Harbour was Captain WS Chambré RN and before World War I he took over Clock Tower making it his headquarters. During his time the Coastguards, which had a station on the top floor of the Clock Tower, replaced the semaphore equipment and erected a wireless antenna on the roof. At Dover’s main Coastguard station at Aycliffe, wireless apparatus installed and a Marconi signal tower was erected on Shakespeare Cliff. At the end of 1910 it was proposed to erect quarters at Fort Burgoyne for an Infantry Battalion comprising of 500men. This was estimated to cost £25,000 and local builder, George Lewis (1850-1923), won the contract. Further military accommodation was erected at the Castle on the site of the former Debtors’ prison then in 1911, the War Office banned aviators using Swingate and the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Division of the London Territorials camped there. Although, aviators continued to come to Dover they mainly used the airfield at Whitfield.

George Wyndham Dover's MP, former Undersecretary of State for War 1898-1900. Photographer A J Grossman c 1885

George Wyndham Dover’s MP, former Undersecretary of State for War 1898-1900. Photographer A J Grossman c 1885

The rapid developments in aeroplanes was beginning to make an impact on the British government’s thinking and on 12 May 1911 there was an impressive display of military aircraft at Hendon aerodrome (1908-1968), Colindale, seven miles north west of Charing Cross, London. In November, the Committee of Imperial Defence set up a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation and they reported on 28 February 1912. The Committee recommended the establishment of a flying corps made up of a military and naval wing with a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations were accepted and on 26 March 1912 George V gave his approval to the title ‘Royal Flying Corps’. It received Royal Assent on 13 April. In 1911 the Royal Engineers had been given permission to form an air battalion of two companies, Number 1 for airships and Number 2 for aeroplanes and they became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps on 13 May 1912. The establishment of the new Flying Corps, however, was not without controversy especially as it was not that long before, that the War Office had cancelled aviation research by the Royal Engineers as being too costly. This angered Dover’s Member of Parliament, George Wyndham who had served as Under-secretary of State for War (1898-1900). He made it clear in the parliamentary debate, that in his opinion more money should be spent on providing more aircraft and pilots, adding that the British armed services, ‘should never be tinged with partisanship or bitterness as this creates weak spots.’

An example of a Nissen hut, this one was used in France c1918. National Library of Scotland Wikimedia

An example of a Nissen hut, this one was used in France c1918. National Library of Scotland Wikimedia

At Swingate, due to the mounting demands of a possible war, its use as an army training ground became paramount. Then on 14 October 1912, a 450-foot long Zeppelin paid a clandestine visit to north Kent. Shortly after the War Office made £45,000 available to extend the Swingate site and build a flying depot. This was formally established in June 1913 and named St Margaret’s Aerodrome. Three large hangars constructed of brick 180feetx100feet were erected. Twelve portable timber and canvas Bessonneau hangars were also erected and eventually the aerodrome covered 219acres. Besides the hangars, the site included administrative and recreational buildings, workshops, motorised transport garages and a coal yard. The majority of accommodation was to be in Nissen huts, prefabricated steel structures made of arcs of corrugated iron that could be assembled in a few hours. Tents were to be used to augment them if necessary. When completed, the aerodrome was categorised as First Class.

During the summer that year, allegations were made that Members of Parliament had profited from insider trading with respect to a government issued contract to the British Marconi Company. At the time the Prime Minister (1908-1916) was Liberal Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) and the scandal centred on the contract for the Imperial Wireless Chain, a strategic international communications network of powerful long range radiotelegraphy stations linking the countries of the British Empire. Although the scandal was never effectively resolved one way or another in the 1920s the Marconi Company built the Imperial Wireless Chain radio stations for the GPO. Back in 1912 George Wyndham took an interest in the case, as there was a possibility of Swingate becoming one of the long-range radiotelegraphy stations. However he was never to see the eventual outcome for Wyndham suddenly died in June 1913 from a blood clot.

Titanic being towed out on her maiden voyage from Southampton 10.04.1912. Evelyn Robinson Collection

Titanic being towed out on her maiden voyage from Southampton 10.04.1912. Evelyn Robinson Collection

The first decade of the twentieth century had seen a rapid expansion in wireless technology, by mid-1910, approximately 300 mercantile marine ships had been fitted with Marconi equipment and each one had been specifically listed at Lloyds of London. One such ship was the White Star Line Olympic class ocean liner Titanic launched in 1909. In April 1912 she was sailing from Southampton to New York, the official total number of passengers and crew on board was 2,229. Classed as crew were two Marconi wireless engineers, senior wireless operator John George Phillips (1887-1912) and junior wireless operator Harold Sydney Bride (1890-1956). At 23.40hours on 14 April, about 375miles south of Newfoundland, the Titanic hit an iceberg and over 1,500 people lost their lives. It would appear that there had been a wireless breakdown the previous day and on the evening of the disaster Philips was working to clear a backlog of passenger messages while Bride was asleep in preparation for coming on duty at midnight. Bride was with Phillips in the wireless room for hand-over when the Titanic struck the iceberg and Captain Edward Smith (1850-1912) asked Phillips to prepare to send out a distress signal. Shortly after midnight, the Captain told the wireless operators to call for assistance.

Replica of Titanic's radio room. SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, Bellingham, Washington, U.S. Joe Mabel

Replica of Titanic’s radio room. SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, Bellingham, Washington, U.S. Joe Mabel

Phillips sent out the international distress signal, see above, that had been used by the Marconi Company since 1904 – code CQD – the general call, ‘CQ,’ followed by ‘D,’ denoting distress and together meaning ‘All stations: distress.’ Beside the continually repeated wireless distress signal, rockets, and lamps were used to try and get help, but no ships were near enough to reach Titanic before she sank at about 02.10hours. The two wireless operators stayed until the end and had managed to get in touch with the Cunard transatlantic ship Carpathia. She arrived on the scene at about 04.00hrs and rescued 710 people. Both Captain Smith and wireless operator John Phillips died that night. Harold Bride was washed off the sinking ship and although seriously injured managed to hold onto an upturned lifeboat and was rescued by the Carpathia. The sinking of the Titanic demonstrated the value of wireless communication and from 23 November 1913 to 20 January 1914, the first International Conference for ‘Safety of Life at Sea’ was convened in London and attended by representatives from 65 countries. One of the key recommendations was to launch an international 24-hour wireless watch and this was immediately instituted throughout the English Channel.

Maurice Farman Biplane - Flight International March 1910. Wikimedia

Maurice Farman Biplane – Flight International March 1910. Wikimedia

The growing possibility of War instigated the government into making a further £10,000 available to enable the Army to build Connaught Barracks in Dover. George Lewis won the building contract but when World War I broke out, work on the Mess was suspended. In October 1913 two Maurice Farman bi-planes of the RFC 5th Squadron were flown in to St Margaret’s aerodrome or Swingate airfield, as it was generally called, and the pilots together with newly arrived ground crew were billeted at Langdon Prison. On Wednesday 5 November, some 350-400 locals walked up to Swingate Downs to watch members of the RFC 5th Squadron flying. They were under the command of Major John Frederick Andrews Higgins (1875-1948), who had been elected to head up the RFC’s Training Wing. Lieutenant Ernest Vincent Anderson (1887-1914), Lieutenant Reginald Cholmondeley (1889-1915), Lieutenant Eric Lewis Conran (1888-1924), Lieutenant Robert William Rickerby Gill (1883 -1951) and Lieutenant George Beresford Stopford (1886-1961) put on an impromptu display using the Maurice Farmans plus a Blériot monoplane and two other newly arrived aeroplanes.

This was much to the delight of the crowd but as the planes landed the crowd surged onto the designated airfield. Mounted military police and mechanics soon restored order and kept the crowd back. The highlight of the afternoon came when Lieutenant Stopforth took Duke of York Military School pupil, Searle Mott (1895-1976) and the Reverend RCT Williams, the school’s chaplain, for a flight in one of the Maurice Farman biplanes. When the plane reached an altitude that the occupants could just be still seen by the crowd, Lieutenant Stopforth switched the engine off. He then made a ‘splendid spiral descent and the plane was landed in a graceful style.’ The young Searle said that he enjoyed the flight!

Map showing the Guilford Battery - the site of the WWI Seaplane Base in Dover.

Map showing the Guilford Battery – the site of the WWI Seaplane Base in Dover.

With War becoming an increasing possibility, development in aeroplane engineering grew rapidly and in the military, any doubts over their capabilities were on the wane. Many saw the use of aeroplanes in reconnaissance and perhaps even combat but there were some, most notably Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928), who were of the opinion that aeroplanes were strictly for recreational use. Saying that pilots, who were soldiers, ‘would be best undertaking reconnaissance on horseback!’ In the Admiralty there were many that were ready to accept airships but some were sceptical over the use of aeroplanes. Nonetheless, there was a belief that seaplanes could be of use in reconnaissance, particularly over the Channel. On Dover’s Seafront, the Admiralty requisitioned Guilford Battery and the surrounding grounds for the Royal Naval Seaplane Patrol. This was part of the Naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps that on 1 July 1914 separated to become the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

Site of the Needles Wireless Station, Isle of Wight were Marconi carried out some pioneer work - the pionerering work carried out by Marconi and Fleming in the Dover area remains forgotten. Pix Alan Sencicle

Site of the Needles Wireless Station, Isle of Wight were Marconi carried out some pioneer work – the pionerering work carried out by Marconi and Fleming in the Dover area remains forgotten. Pix Alan Sencicle

In the last week of July 1914, the Dover Company of the Royal Engineers and the London Electrical Engineers arrived in the town to operate searchlights. The War Office, on 29 July, issued a notice to the RNAS to confine itself to home defence and the protection of vulnerable points from possible attack by enemy aircraft and airships. The RFC were told that they were to support the Army and all thoughts of wireless communication at Dover was forgotten. On Saturday 1 August, in accordance to the Schlieffen plan (see World War I – the Outbreak), Germany declared war on Russia, invaded Luxembourg and crossed the French frontier at several points. The First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-1915), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), issued the order to mobilise the Royal Navy and the warships that were in Dover harbour were put on a war footing. The crews were immediately engaged in getting rid of all surplus woodwork in preparation for action. Channel ferries were crossing the Strait of Dover at speed and out of schedules endeavouring to bring back to England as many people as possible before the War commenced.

In the town, crowds surrounded the information posts, such as Leney’s brewery office on Castle Street, which received telegrams. They were also in contact by telephone with the Coastguard at Spioen Kop wireless telegraph station on Western Heights and quickly posted the latest news. On Sunday 2 August 1914, Russia joined in the conflict on the side of Serbia and France was immediately embroiled. Germany declared war on France and proceeded to march through Belgium, thus violating the Treaty of London of 1839. This recognised and guaranteed the independence and neutrality of Belgium and confirmed the independence of the German-speaking part of Luxembourg. At 23.00hrs on Tuesday 4 August Britain declared war on Germany in accordance with the written obligation of 1839 to uphold the neutrality of Belgium.

Treaty of London (1839) signatories - Britain, Austria, France, German Confederation, Russia, and the Netherlands.

Treaty of London (1839) signatories – Britain, Austria, France, German Confederation, Russia, and the Netherlands.

 

Dedicated to the Memory of Patrick Quinn 1910-1991 Marconi Wireless Officer on the Townsend cross-Channel ships

Part 2 of the Swingate story continues.

Thanks to Dover Museum – as always. Also Michael Hunter, Curator, Osborne House, Isle of Wight and the History of Science Museum, University of Oxford. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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1 Response to Swingate Part 1 Marconi, South Foreland and Wireless Communication

  1. rnbidgood4@btinternet.com says:

    Dear Lorraine,

    Thank you for this superb piece of history. I have printed a copy for The St. Margaret’s History Archive as South Foreland Lighthouse comes under my brief for Archaeology of the St Margaret’s Area. The archive has been consolidated and worked on since 2011 and if you look us up you will get an idea of the level of work done so far some 13000 plus items catalogued so far, 300 + items relating to local archaeology. I shall of course mark it as copyright. Can you please provide your full name and e-mail address so that we may correctly log it so that we can contact you if any of our researchers wish to use any of your material. Members research and give some of our talks. The amount of work you have done on this is obvious and I would like to ensure you are always acknowledged

    Kindest Regards

    Richard Bidgood

    Researcher

    St Margaret’s at Cliffe History Society

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