Chiswick’s unsung here: Sir Charles Tilston Bright

by Jane Watson, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal, 12, 2003

Many distinguished people have been buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Chiswick but the grave of one of the most eminent engineers of his day, who was knighted when only 26 years old, has lain unrecognised here for over 100 years. Jane Watson, Keeper of the Archives at St Nicholas, tells the exciting tale of the grave’s rediscovery and chronicles Sir Charles’ life and achievements

The story really starts early in 2002 when I reported in our church magazine a small fire in the graveyard. I had seen ‘smoke signals’ arising from what appeared to be a barbecue and the next week the lady in question was again seen brewing tea on the broken stones! Shortly afterwards, the Archive Group had a visit from a great-great-grandson seeking the grave of his prestigious ancestor, Sir Charles Tilston Bright, who laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic. We were told that he was buried in the graveyard in 1888 and we were shown an indistinct picture of the grave taken at the time of the funeral, but we failed to locate it. However, we knew he had been buried with his best friend and brother-in-law, Robert John Taylor, who had travelled with him on the voyage to lay the cable which connected Britain with America.

A week or so later we made another search and by pin-pointing surrounding graves, we found the word ‘Taylor’ on the remains of what was once a built-up cross but was now the very surface being used for the barbecue! Having probed with a knife into the mown turf in front of the broken stones we knew that there was definitely a stone four or five inches underneath the grass. The following week we decided to carry out a small archaeological dig. With a sense of excitement, we borrowed a grave digger’s spade and lifted a square of turf. To our delight, we found a beautiful stone, per¬fectly preserved, bearing the arms of Sir Charles. We also found that an inscription recording the burial of his wife, Hannah Barrick Bright, had been added in 1914. Sir Charles’s descendant, Mr Barry Gittins was delighted at the news. He likened our persistence and discovery to that of Sherlock Holmes, linking my name to the detective’s doctor friend!

Having photographed the stone, we replaced the turf pending the application for a faculty from the Diocese (now granted) and the raising of funds to restore the grave so that it can join the rest of the notable graves we care for in the churchyard. This will include the restoration of the Taylor cross which formed part of the original grave. We need to find a sum of between £3,000 and £4,000.

We then began to research the story of this extraordinary man. First we discovered an out-of-print biography written by his youngest son Charles. This told us that Sir Charles and his elder brother Edward distinguished themselves mostly in sport at Merchant Taylor’s School, including rowing with a fellow scholar, Lawford William Torriano Dale, who became the vicar of Chiswick Parish Church in 1857. The brothers were unable to progress to Oxford University as had been intended due to ‘pecuniary losses on the part of their father’ and, at the age of 15 and 16 respectively, they answered an advertisement and joined The Electric Telegraph Company. Charles was a telegraph clerk at Harrow Station on the London and North Western Railway and worked the telegraph instruments in a railway signalling box, sleeping in a local inn when off duty. Within a year of entering the company the two brothers both became inventors.

At the age of twenty Charles was appointed engineer of The Magnetic Telegraph Company. Writing to his fiancée in 1852, he described how he had to lay the cables in Manchester by night saying: ‘Can you fancy such a scene? A long row of men, the first set digging up the paving stones, the second laying pipes and wires, and, to con¬clude, another set re-laying the stones’. He achieved the laying of the cables in one night and subsequently was contracted to carry out the same system in London, Liverpool and other towns. He supervised hundreds of miles of telephone cables.

The young Charles’ inventive capacity was almost inexhaustible. The first patents he took out, at the age of 20, embraced 24 distinct telegraphic inventions including the insulator and shackle for aerial telegraphs; the means of locating a fault in a submarine cable or subterranean wires by an alternative circuit of varying resistance coils; the acoustic (Bell) telegraph instrument; automatic relays transmitting each current either way on a single wire, and other cable-related inventions including a system of paying-out gear for the transatlantic cable. He also patented a printing telegraph, an arc lamp, a dynamo machine and an alternate current dynamo. He even invented fire alarm systems for streets and for inaccessible areas such as the vulnerable holds of ships.

Laying the transatlantic cable
Sir Charles’s extraordinary early ability led him to be appointed to The Atlantic Telegraph Company as Chief Engineer, with the purpose of laying the first cable across the Atlantic between Europe and America. During the first attempt, the cable broke 280 miles off Ireland. He went back to the drawing board and, after some modifications to the winding gear, and after retrieving the broken cable, made a second attempt in the sailing ship HMS Agamemnon. The cable from Ireland to Newfoundland was successfully connected on 5 August 1858. Queen Victoria was able to transmit a message to President Buchanan and Charles Tilston Bright was knighted at the age of 26. Suddenly, as a result of his endeavours, a message could be sent by electrical impulse through a cable and a reply received instantly – before this a message would have taken weeks or months. This was the crowning achievement of Sir Charles’s successful life and placed him at the head of his profession. Thereafter he was associated with nearly all the great achievements in this field.

He then proceeded to lay the first cables to India and the outposts of the Empire including cables to the Canary Islands, from Portugal to Brazil, to Singapore and in the Mediterranean. The ship used for these voyages was the steamship the SS Great Eastern, the first ship to be constructed of steel which was designed by another great Victorian innovator, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The published biography of Sir Charles provides fascinating inevitably arose in his hazardous work. It is illustrated with meticulous drawings and includes illuminating letters describing his exploits to his wife who was left at home to bring up their six children. Appropriately, the announcement in The Times of the birth of his youngest son was transmitted to him by cable whilst he was laying the Indian cable.

Chiswick connections
In 1853 at the age of twenty one, Charles had married Hannah Barrick Taylor of Kingston-upon-Hull. Hannah accompanied him on board ship during the laying of the first cable between Scotland and Ireland. They moved from Kingston-upon-Hull to Harrow Weald in 1856, the same year that Hannah’s father died and the Taylor family moved to Chiswick. By 1867 Mrs Taylor was living at Little Sutton but moved out in 1868, probably to 2 Bolton Road where she is recorded as living in 1870. In 1861 Sir Charles and Lady Bright moved to Upper Hyde Park Gardens, Kensington and then, in 1868, they too moved to Chiswick to live with the Taylors. The 1871 Census shows that the household at 2 Bolton Road consisted of Mrs Taylor, her son Robert John and her daughters Tabitha and Hannah Bright, also four of Hannah’s children and three servants.The Bright family lived in Chiswick for five years while Sir Charles was engaged in his arduous and dangerous exploits in the Caribbean.

Agnes King (née Bright), Sir Charles Tilston Bright, Sir Charles Bright, Hannah Barrick Bright (née Taylor) & an unidentified sitter, perhaps Mary Angela Jardine (née Bright) or (Annie) Beatrice Bright about 1862 (NPG)

The Brights moved to a new town house at No 20 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington shortly after Sir Charles’s return from the West Indies in 1873. In 1886 he was in poor health, as a result of the malaria he had contracted while abroad and, following some heavy financial losses, the family moved to a smaller house in Philbeach Gardens, Kensington. Sir Charles died of a heart attack at Abbey Wood, Kent on 3 May 1888 at the age of 55 while visiting his elder brother Edward. His funeral took place in St Cuthbert’s Kensington, near his home, but he is buried in Chiswick Old Burial Ground close to his mother-in-law, Ann Taylor (buried 1873) his brother-in-law, R J Taylor (buried in 1884) and his wife (buried in 1914). The burial service was conducted by Sir Charles’s old schoolmate and fellow rower, the Reverend Lawford Dale, the Vicar of Chiswick and was attended by many eminent engineers and scientists.

There is a further connection with Chiswick which I literally stumbled on quite by accident while looking for yet another grave not too far from where we now know that Sir Charles is buried. There is a Celtic cross inscribed ‘Claude Greville Way, Captain 80th Regiment, died 12 January 1896 aged 33 years’. On the back of the cross is inscribed ‘Anne Beatrice Bright, Born January 1861 Died in May 1940’. She was Sir Charles’s youngest daughter. We know that she was a talented portrait painter who lived with the family in Chiswick and who never married. Why then was she buried in this grave and not in the family grave? Surely there must be a love story here.

When we began our enquiries into Sir Charles Tilston Bright, one of the helpers at the Archive Group, Liz Crocker, mentioned that a friend of hers was the grand-daughter of someone called Henry Clifford who had sailed on the first cable-laying voyage of HMS Agamemnon. Liz had been shown a piece of the original cable set in gold, and a slice of very thin cable made into a pendant, also an impressive model of the hull of the ship which was presented to the Maritime Museum. Liz contacted the Clifford family and, though most of the mementos had gone to the museum, the family still possessed two oil paintings, both by Henry Clifford. One showed the Agamemnon, the other the Great Eastern. Colour scans of these interesting oil paintings are now in our archives. If Sir Charles Tilston Bright and his friend Henry Clifford knew that the pictures had been transmitted to us via the Internet they would indeed have been excited! We now possess a complete family tree of the Bright family dating back to the early 1500s, and also that of the family of Clifford. This shows that Henry was in fact a cousin of Hannah Bright and, when we read the biography, it also became clear that Henry Clifford was Sir Charles’s right hand man in all his expeditions. This truly has become a detective story with surprising offshoots.

Other achievements
Sir Charles Tilston Bright became Liberal MP for Greenwich in 1865. He declined to stand again after 1868 since his Parliamentary duties were conflicting with his engineering work. He became President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Founder Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and British representative at the Paris Exhibition in 1881, when he was awarded the Legion of Honour.

Many of the organisations with which Sir Charles was associated still exist – the Institutions of Civil Engineers and Electrical Engineers, the Royal Geographical Society, the Geological Society and the Royal Aeronautical Society, even Cable and Wireless. The Sir Charles Bright Masonic Lodge is still in Teddington, Middlesex; he was the first Master of the Lodge and the Deputy Grand Master for Middlesex. It is hoped that, in his memory, contributions will be received towards the restoration of his grave.

Many obituaries appeared at the announcement of his early death. That in The Electrical Engineer reads: ‘the work of Sir Charles Bright has been of a wide and varied character – both in land and in submarine telegraphy – dating from the earliest days of the electric wire. He was a leader in the rise and progress of the electrical industry. There are some men whose talents impress us more than any other of their merits. His past services may well command our admiration, but the better part of our praise is that, those who have had the pleasure of his acquaintance, love rather to remember the kind and sociable qualities of the man rather than the successes of the engineer.’

In a few short years Sir Charles Tilston Bright made the world a smaller and safer place, paving the way to the modern communication systems of today. Colonial administrators in India, missionaries in Africa, builders of railways in Argentina and businessmen, diplomats, sailors, soldiers and spies all over the world could communicate vital intelligence in a matter of minutes, whereas previously it took weeks or even months for information to pass by horse riders, stage coaches, ships and railways. Sir Charles was indeed the man who shrunk the world.

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