Clifden

CLIFDEN WIRELESS STATION 1907 — 1922

The development of a transatlantic wireless telegraph service commenced at the Marconi station at Poldhu in Cornwall in 1902, until the discovery of directional propagation of short waves and their unique properties for long distance communication. The result of experience at Poldhu, and elsewhere, directed all development effort towards higher power and longer wavelengths to increase the working range.  This required larger aerial systems and the necessity for more ground space than was available at Poldhu. Clifden in Ireland was chosen as providing the necessary area of ground and also offering the shortest wireless link with Glace Bay station on Cape Breton island across the Atlantic.

Construction commenced in October 1905 and a new design of spark transmitter and new receiving equipment with greater sensitivity was installed.  Steam driven power plant had an output of 300kw, the boilers being fired principally with peat cut from the surrounding bog. Living accommodation for the staff was built on the spot and a narrow gauge railway was constructed linking the various buildings and providing communication with the nearest road about one and a half-miles from the site.  It also was used extensively for collection and transport of the peat fuel.

After an extensive test period a limited press service for transatlantic wireless telegrams was opened on the 17th October 1907, and a full public service commenced on the 3rd February 1908. This service between Clifden and Glace Bay was the first point-to-point fixed wireless service in the world and represented the culmination of over six years of intensive effort and experiment. In 1913, to enable duplex or simultaneous operation in both directions across the Atlantic to be carried out, the receiving equipment at Clifden was moved to Letterfrack, some 25 miles from the transmitting station.

Clifden was used as one of the principal stations for communication with the airship R34 during her transatlantic flight in 1919. In the same year, Alcock and Brown after their historic west to east crossing of the Atlantic by aeroplane, landed their plane in the bog behind the station, mistaking it from the air for firm grassland. The machine was damaged but the airmen escaped injury and received a great welcome at the hands of the wireless staff and the inhabitants of Clifden village.

The service operated satisfactorily for 18 months until a disastrous fire at the Glace Bay station in the autumn of the 1909 interrupted communications. It was re-opened in 1910 and continued  (except) for the war period 1914–18, when Clifden station itself was severely damaged during the political troubles of 1922.  By that time, however, reliability and speed of the wireless link was proving greater than that of the landline connection between Clifden and London on which the service depended. The shortest wireless section possible was no longer an important factor. The service was therefore transferred to a station already in existence at Caernarvon in Wales, thereby speeding up the landline connections to the benefit of the service. Clifden station eventually completed closed in 1925.

This long wave service was eventually superseded by world developments in wireless communications.

Gordon Scott Whale 1893 – 1966

My father Gordon Whale, born in 1893, first took up employment with The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in 1912 and was sent by them to their station at Derrygimla near Clifden in 1913 – 1914 following training as a Wireless Operator. Having come from a relatively poor background in the East End of London (both his parents had died when he was only 12 years old, and he was left to fend for himself), he thought that he head found paradise. He often talked about the very comfortable accommodation, marvellous food and off-duty recreation facilities by the company. In particular there was a very good Billiards Room. At this time he had become engaged to my mother Ethel Turner and wrote many letters to her telling her about Clifden and the beautiful surrounding areas. My mother told me that he used to pick the red Fuchsia flowers and collect shells from the Coral Beach and send them to her. During this time he purchased a motor bike and enjoyed driving around the country side, which was so different from where he had been brought up.

In 1916 at Easter he was returning home to London, driving across Ireland on his motor bike to catch the Mail-boat from Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) to Holyhead. Unfortunately this was the time of the Easter Rising, and he got caught up in cross fire near to Athlone. His motor bike was put out of action, so he was delayed getting to London. My mother and her family feared that he had been killed, and were obviously very pleased to see him arrive home safely. The couple decided to get married immediately, but my mother’s mother (my grandmother) would only allow this on condition that they did not return to Ireland, because of the troubles. They got married, and my father transferred to the Marconi Station at Waunfawn near Caenarfon in North Wales, where their neighbours spoke only Welsh.

After about three years there, he realised that there was a growing demand for trained Radio Officers for the Merchant Navy, and founded the North Wales Wireless College, in Colwyn Bay.

He did not return to Clifden until he came over for a holiday in 1946 accompanied by his wife and their three youngest daughters (Anne, Pamela and myself). The following year he bought a five-acre site between the Beach and Sky Roads from Rita King, and built a holiday bungalow there. In those days, there was no electricity or water services in the area outside Clifden, so he installed an electricity generator, and also damned a spring on the hill behind the house (which incidentally provided an excellent supply). He came to be known by many of the business people in the town, where I believe he was referred to as the Marconi Man.

He subsequently built a tennis court and a swimming pool. The pool was filled from the sea at high tide. We are told that the Clifden youth of that time learnt to swim in the pool, when we were not there. I know that this would have amused my father greatly.

He built an aerial on the hill behind the bungalow, and during his time in Clifden, he used morse code to keep in daily contact with his Wireless College business in North Wales. My parents always felt most welcome by the people of Clifden, and spent many happy months of the year staying in the house, until my father’s death in 1966.

As a family, we have come to Clifden for the Marconi celebrations:

  • My eldest sister Eira Larner (90 next year) and her husband Peter; also my brother Bill and his wife Ilyffe, all from Colwyn Bay.
  • My sister Ann Culhane, her daughter Denise Liddy, her son-in-law Brendan, also my sister Pamela Campbell and her husband Forbes, all from Dublin
  • The party also included Tony Griffiths (the eldest grandson of Gordon  & Ethel Whale) and his wife Janet from Bournemouth.
Louise Bower (the eldest granddaughter of Gordon & Ethel Whale) from Cheshire.
[ Tony is the son of  my second eldest sister, Marjorie who could not travel, due to ill health. Louise is the daughter of Eira. ]
Our other sister Betty lives in Canada.
  • Myself (Angela Clarke) and my husband Gordon from Dublin.

We enjoyed all the activities which were part of the celebrations, including the guided tour of the site at Derrygimla, and all of the lectures which we found most interesting.

Congratulations and a big “thank you” to the Clifden Chamber of Commerce, who did a marvellous job in planning this commemoration

Angela Clarke 20th October 2007

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