Bridge Across The Channel

No matter what you think about the Victorians, one thing that most certainly cannot be denied is that they were problem solvers to whom obstacles, such as the Channel, were merely hurdles to be overcome.

In October 1890 numerous reports began appearing in the British press about a scheme to connect England and France with the construction of a bridge across the Channel.

Several papers were also reporting on the fact that efforts were in progress to connect London and Paris by a telephone line that would enable “two persons to speak simultaneously.”

An illustration showing the laying of the London Paris telephone cable.
From The Illustrated London News, 14th March 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As The Graphic put it, when it reported on the proposed Channel Bridge in its edition dated October 11th 1890:-

“It would seem that the promoters of a Channel bridge are not daunted by the reception which the Channel Tunnel Scheme periodically receives when brought before the notice of Parliament, for we learn that experiments are going forward in the sea near Folkestone with a view to test the geological structure of the bed of the Channel upon which the piers of the proposed bridge are to rest.

On the French side similar observations have already been satisfactorily concluded, and, so far, the English experiments suggest that there is nothing to stand in the way of the accomplishment of the enterprise, save a few sandbanks which could be bridged over.

The modern engineer has long ago expunged the word “impossible” from his vocabulary, but the financier, unfortunately, is still bound to retain it in his service,”


On the 27th December 1890, the Pall Mall Gazette went into a little more detail about the tests and soundings that had been going on throughout the summer and autumn with a view to connecting the two countries:-

“The preliminary scheme for the construction of a bridge between France and England was, the Paris correspondent of the Times writes, prepared from incomplete and, to some extent, old hydrographic and geological documents.

As the previous surveys did not appear sufficient to the promoters of the enterprise, it was resolved to make a complete exploration of the Straits of Dover in order to collect precise information with reference to the hydrography and sea bottom of the Straits.

With the authority of the Minister of Marine the management of the surveying company was entrusted to M. Renaud, hydrographic engineer, to whom was added as assistant M. Duchanoy, mining engineer.


An analysis of their report was published last night.

Soundings and borings were taken from July 3 to September 1, and, from the observations made, M. Renaud has come to the conclusion that the most advantageous line for the bridge is not that fixed on in the preliminary scheme. The line he recommends is straight.

It starts from a point 350 metres north-east of the light to the west of the South Foreland, and it terminates 300 metres north-east of the entrance of the tunnel near Cape Grisnez.

Its length is 33,450 metres.

The greatest depth of water met with on the line was from 50 to 51 metres, a depth extending only over a distance of 1,700 metres.

The length of the bridge along the line now proposed is shorter by 5,150 metres than that suggested in the preliminary scheme. Moreover, it avoids depths of 55 metres, and those over 50 metres extend only over a comparatively short distance.

The soundings show that the submarine soil is solid everywhere, and that there is in no place mud or soft clay.


The study of the fauna made for the survey by M. Giard, professor at the Sorbonne and director of the Laboratory of Marine Zoology at Wimereux, near Boulogne, and M. Bouner, sub-director of the same laboratory, proves that between Cape Grisnez and the Colbart only a rocky bottom occurs.

The apparatus only brought up animals which live on rocks, and none which live in gravel, sand, clay, or mud.

From this it is concluded that there is no chance of the Straits ever being silted up.


As regards the bridge itself, the line being shortened and the height of the piles diminished in consequence of the greater shallowness of the water through which it passes, considerable diminution of expense is secured as compared with the first scheme.

Instead of four millions of metres cube of masonry, there will only be three and a half millions.

About 50,000 millions of tons of metal will be saved.


Lastly, there will be ninety-two piles instead of 112, and of these ninety-two piles seventeen will be sunk in depths of 30 to 40 metres, thirty-one in depths of 40 to 50 metres, and the others in depths of less than 30 metres.

In summing up the advantages of the new scheme, the report says the new line gives greater facility for sinking the piles, a better shelter from the wind and seas from the south-west along the French coast, a slight lowering of the height of the bridge, and a considerable diminution of the masonry and weight of the metallic structure.”


Meanwhile, an article on the same day reported on progress being made on connecting London and Paris by telephone or, as the article so wonderfully put it, by “telephonic communication.”

The article read:-

“Progress is being made in the task of placing London and Paris in telephonic communication.


Between the metropolis and Dover the line has advanced as far as Ashford, and an additional twenty-five miles will complete the English land wires.


This work is being performed by men belonging to the Telegraph Battalion of the Royal Engineers, who number altogether about sixty, and proceed in gangs at different points on the route.

There are four wires, the object being to enable two persons to speak simultaneously either at the Bourse in Paris or the Royal Exchange, in London, where the instruments are to be respectively fixed.

Communication is expected to be open by the end of January.”


As it happened, the forecasts for completion by the end of January 1891 were a little on the ambitious side; and it was on 14th March 1891, that the Illustrated London News was able to provide its readers with a detailed account about the new miracle in communications:-

“The laying of the telephone cable across the Channel from St. Margaret’s Bay, near Dover, to Sangatte, near Calais, is an operation of much scientific and practical interest.

During the past ten years many large cities have been connected by telephone lines.

A merchant in London can talk with one in Birmingham, a citizen of Edinburgh with a friend in Dundee.

Paris can speak through to Brussels and Marseilles; Chicago to New York, by a line over 1000 miles in length.

But submarine telephony is yet in its infancy.


The late Mr. R. A. Proctor predicted that a whisper would ere long pass beneath the Atlantic Ocean, which none of the waves above it would drown.

We are still far from this imaginary consummation, though a beginning has been made.

Fourteen years elapsed from the opening of the first land telegraph line to the laying of the first submarine cable, and only fourteen years have passed since the telephone was invented.


But submarine telephony is more difficult than overland.

The same process which insulates a telegraph wire will insulate a telephone line, but the trouble lies with induction.

When a charge of electricity traverses the core of a submarine cable it induces an opposite charge in the surrounding water, and these two charges attract each other.

The signal currents in a long cable are delayed from this cause; at the sending end of the line they are distinct pulses of current, but at the receiving end they are blended into a continuous undercurrent.


In like manner, the fine electrical undulations of the telephone, corresponding to the vibrations of the voice, are blurred even in a short cable, as cables have been hitherto made; the speech they are intended to reproduce is muffled or altogether silenced.

Fifty miles of ordinary cable are enough to thicken the articulation, and one hundred miles would destroy it.

The limit of good speaking on the telephone line depends on the product of its total resistance and total inductive capacity – that is to say, the resistance of the wire to the passage of the current multiplied by its capacity for induction.

Mr. W. H. Preece. F.R.S., the chief electrician to the Post Office, has worked out the calculations for different kinds of telephone cables.

These conditions determine the design of a telephone cable; the size of the wire, the thickness of the insulator, and its inductive capacity.”


The next day, on March 15th 1891, the first conversation took place using the new line, albeit, as the Illustrated London News  reported on 28th March 1891, this initial communication was an informal affair:-

“The completion of the Anglo-French Telephone across the Channel was first practically exemplified, in an informal communication, on Sunday evening, March 15, when the submarine line was spoken through from the cable hut at St. Margaret’s Bay, near Dover, all the way to Paris.


M. Amiot, the Inspector-General of French Telegraphs, was the first person to speak. Lieutenant O’Meara, RE., followed, and was the first Englishman to speak across the Channel.

On the following Tuesday, M. Amiot, who had proceeded to London, thence addressed his colleagues in Paris.

The Gower-Bell apparatus was that employed.

Professor Hughes, the discoverer of the microphone, Mr. Graves, Mr. Preece, and others afterwards spoke through the line.


On Wednesday, March 18, the establishment of telephonic communication between London and Paris was officially inaugurated.

The first message transmitted was one from the Prince of Wales to M. Carnot, President of the French Republic.


An exchange of congratulations then passed between Mr. Raikes, Postmaster-General, and M. Jules Roche, Minister of Commerce, Industries, the Colonies and Posts and Telegraphs.

They spoke in the French language.

At the Paris Central Telegraph-station, Lord Lytton, Madame Roche, M. Reinach, M. Broquisse, and M. de Selves were present with M. Roche.

An illustration showing the first London to Paris phone calls.
From The illustrated London News, Saturday 28th March, 1891. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Mr Raikes spoke from Room 90 of the Post Office, the instruments being fixed against the wall on a board covered with red cloth, inscribed, “Paris-London,” and decorated with the Tricolour and Union Jack.”


And thus the world grew a little smaller as a major advance was made to enable better communications between Britain and her European counterparts.

I can’t help wondering if those long ago telephonic communications pioneers ever envisaged where those early breakthroughs would lead.

Did they, for example, ever envisage that, by connecting the Globe in this way, they were laying the foundations for a future age in which uncountable information would be available to anyone with an internet or mobile phone connection; that billions of hours of cats falling off things would be watchable on a device that would fit in their pockets; and that people would be able to comment, share, like and emoje in a fraction of a second, and share their thoughts, news and feelings at the tap of a button?

No doubt they’d be amazed at how far their technology would have advanced in a little over 125 years.