Connecting Cornwall

Telegraph workers at Porthcurno. Image courtesy of Porthcurno Telegraph Museum.

A research project looking at the lives and careers of the ‘ordinary’ men who operated the Victorian and Edwardian British submarine cable network has been fundamental in building a working relationship with the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (PTM) that now paves the way for future research based collaborations.

The ‘Connecting Cornwall’ project, led by History lecturer Dr Richard Noakes with Professor Alan Booth and Dr Wendy Gagen, focussed on the lives and aspirations of the ordinary men who worked at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum; the project’s ‘bottom-up’ approach differed from other museum displays, television documentaries and popular histories that concentrate on the ‘heroic’ inventors rather than the ordinary workers.

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum celebrates Cornwall’s important place in telecommunications history. The area was once home to the world’s largest cable station and telegraph training school and academics agree that Porthcurno provided an excellent opportunity to explore how the lives and aspirations of ‘ordinary’ men were transformed by operating the ‘nervous system’ of the British empire.

Profile raising

The project also raised the profile of PTM; a new section of the museum was created for the Connecting Cornwall ‘Nerve Centre of the Empire’ exhibition which generated significant local interest. Between July 2010 and Feb 2013, 59,783 people visited the museum. In the same period visits from schools brought 507 children to the museum.

The museum exhibition consisted of 47 panels which showed images, text and diagrams in addition to interactive exhibits and display cases. The project has also helped the museum considerably improve its online presence and user experience: it digitised a plethora of previously unseen materials from the PTM archives – including staff records, photographs and diaries and linked these with the text and images from the museum; the project also introduced interactive features, including a sensitive map and timeline.

Between July 2010 and Feb 2013 the PTM website has received 215,000 hits with 84,476 unique visits. The public have benefitted enormously from having access to previously unseen material, whilst other impacts include the preservation and displaying of cultural heritage artefacts and educating people with regards to their local history.


The project also helped PTM overhaul its archive, which is used by academics and non-academics. The archivists in the ‘Connecting Cornwall’ team recognised that they could significantly improve their service by making four key changes:

  • Adding internet access to and significantly increasing the size of the room at the PTM in which archive users work.
  • Purchasing new archive boxes to improve the preservation of (often fragile) historic materials.
  • Identifying gaps and errors in the electronic archive catalogue which stimulated a long-term overhaul of this crucial database of information.
  • Constructing a small enclosed area within the archive for digitally photographing and scanning.

All four of these initiatives have long outlasted the project and are appreciated by users outside the project. To date, there have been 186 onsite researchers and 489 museums enquiries using the archive remotely for research

The research attracted national and international interest; Dr Noakes was interviewed for the BBC History Magazine and featured on their podcast, he also drew on project findings about telecommunications research in his contribution to the BBC2’s Genius of Invention series. Since the project was finished it has been included on BBC Radio Cornwall’s ‘Cable Wars’.

The success of the project helped the PTM secure approximately £2.5million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others organisations which was used to revamp the main museum and to construct a sophisticated new building housing the archive.

The Communicating Cornwall project ran from February 2009 to July 2010. It was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.