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Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Time Event
Historical submarine-cable remnants glimpsed near Fremantle

Along the rocky foreshore at Cottesloe just north of Leighton Beach are some corroded artifacts which in their time were highly significant for Australia’s external business and defense communications. They are the remains of submarine cables which traversed some 1721 nautical miles between Cottesloe to a relay station at Direction Island, one of the Cocos group in the north eastern Indian Ocean, and thence to other parts of the British Empire. The first cable to Cottesloe was activated in 1901, the year of Australian federation. It was owned by the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company (EEAC).

In WW1 the cable’s strategic significance was immediately recognised by the Germans. A raiding party from the warship SMS Emden tried to close down the Cocos Islands facility in November 1914, but were thwarted when HMAS Sydney I which had been escorting the first convoy of Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZACs) to the Middle East, diverted and destroyed their ship.

The undersea circuit was extended in 1920 with the laying of a cable 1,525 nautical miles from Cottesloe to Adelaide in South Australia. This was omitted from a map on a cast-bronze commemorative plaque currently on display at the Cottesloe site.

In 1926 another cable was laid between Cocos Island and Cottesloe. This coincided with the opening a grand purpose-built relay station overlooking the ocean at the Western Australian end.

On the domestic scene, a small cable was laid from Cottesloe to nearby Rottnest Island in 1900. A larger replacement became operational in 1935.

The main overseas cables and the Cottesloe relay station ceased operation on 31 July 1966. By then it had become owned by the federal government’s Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC). The building still stands today, but is known at the McCall Centre. It’s become a state government residential facility for children with severe emotional and behavioral conditions.

Last week I noticed the storms had exposed two differing sections of redundant cable I hadn’t seen previously. Because they were slightly south of the main terminal building they may have been related to the Post Master General department’s 1935 Rottnest circuit.

Possible Rottnest cable remnants

Of particular interest to me was the cleanly cut cross-section. The black rubber component still had some flexibility when squeezed with my thumb. The green verdigris betrays the presence of the copper conductor.

I went back to the area at low tide yesterday with my wife and our 17 year old daughter to take some photos of the remains of another three cables still visible on the shallow but jagged limestone reef further north, directly in front of the old Cable Station.

Long distance submarine cable remnants

Presumably the three cables included the ones that linked to the Cocos Islands. The top right photo shows a broken section of cable revealing three internal conductors. The center two images show where the cables were laid over the shoreline. A protective channel was hewn into the limestone to where the steps are. The steps used to lead onto a narrow beach, but all the sand has been washed away. The bottom-left image shows a 1975 commemorative plaque without the inclusion of the south Australian cable link. The bottom-right image shows the old Cable Station building as it appeared yesterday afternoon. My wife informed me that when she was a young girl she’d visited the interior with her father when it was operational.

There is an excellent online resource by Bill Glover detailing the history of submarine cables, including the ones linking to Australia at http://atlantic-cable.com/ One of his web pages has an early postcard image of the Cottesloe Cable Station when the hill was bare. Immediately behind the hill is the Perth-Fremantle railway line. I’m guessing it was a factor in selection of the location.

John Moynihan, a Western Australian historian and retired telco engineer produced an outstanding 1988 book about local telegraph and telephone technology titled, All the News in a Flash - Rottnest Communications 1829-1979. I spoke to him on the phone a couple of days ago to tell him about the recently exposed artifacts.

© MMIX Paul R. Weaver.

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