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Lines of inquiry

Carolyn O'Grady joins pupils on a visit to Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and learns how Britain kept in touch with the world.

On first view Porthcurno looks just like many other pretty Cornish villages. Few would guess that this little huddle of houses, snug in a valley leading down to the sea, was of major importance in the expansion of the British Empire and a hive of activity during two world wars. There are a few clues, however: blocks of flats and some tennis courts. And there's the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in the heart of the village.

Set up by the Eastern Telegraph Company, now Cable and Wireless, in 1870, the building was once the home of the first telegraph station. It was from this village that 14 cables were laid joining the UK to places as distant as North America, Australia, India, enabling high-speed communication to smooth the expansion of the British Empire.

During both world wars, the equipment, guarded by guns on the surrounding hills and flame-throwers on the beaches, was moved into the blast-proof tunnels just behind the station to transmit key messages (unlike radio, telegraph cannot be intercepted).

Most of the vast collection of beautifully preserved and often still working electrical and telegraphic equipment is still housed in these underground rooms and here visitors, including school parties, can see how the station looked during the war - full of ticking, whirring machines working 24 hours each day. They can also see models of cable-laying ships and objects taken from them, look at the old radios and telephones, play with hands-on exhibits and seek information from the many touch-screen computers.

After the Second World War, the station was used to train telegraph operators - hence the flats which housed the students and the tennis courts. The station was closed in 1970 and the building became a museum, funded mainly by Cable and Wireless.

Today pupils from Penzance Junior School are attending a day-long workshop on the Electrifying Victorians. Education officer Lesley Allen begins by asking them to imagine life without electricity, showing them a dip pen, a candle, an old iron and other pre-electricity items and moving on to a short history of the telegraph.

"Telegraph was the first use of electricity - long before lighting," she explains. A telegram sent by Queen Victoria to the Sultan of Zanzibar congratulating him on the opening of the telegraph station there, and a "house telegraph" with which Victorians upstairs could summon those downstairs, are among the exhibits she shows.

Later, the children will go down into the eerie tunnels behind the building, but first they move into "The Great Eastern Exhibition" which will run until next year, marking the bicentenary of Brunel's birth.

Brunel's mammoth liner of that name was never used as intended, and its building and launch were a catalogue of death and disaster. However, with the invention of the telegraph, it found a purpose: carrying and laying the huge amount of submarine cable required for the international links.

Unfortunately, Brunel, worn out by creating it, did not live to see a use found for his leviathan.

During the workshop children follow trails, draw pictures of the ship, dress up as Brunel and as Victorian ladies, write their own telegrams using dip pens, send messages using a shutter telegraph, practise Morse code, draw the pathways of the cables on a map of the world and use equipment from the collection, including the Morse machines and the Wimshurst machine, which produces static electricity. There's something for everyone.

In her telegram, Shannon, aged nine, writes: "I could stay all year just looking at this exhibition."

On the map

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. Eastern House Porthcurno, Cornwall TR19 6JX. Tel: 01736 810966. Email:

On the spot

Jessica Ryan. Year 5 teacher at Penzance Junior School.

It was absolutely great. The whole workshop gave us so much more than we thought we would get out of it. Lesley was a teacher before working here, and she totally engaged the children. Her presentation was great. The children were mesmerised. There was a lot of hands-on work and they were able to play with machines which helped them understand what was going on.

The children got involved in Morse code, shutter code, writing telegrams and learning how electricity is created.

Both Year 5 classes are studying the Victorian era and it linked directly with the history curriculum, but also related to science, design and technology and geography. It taught them about different sorts of communication other than those they have grown up with. And being local, it gave them an understanding of just how important this part of the world was.

The trip really justified a whole day out, and I would highly recommend schools to come.

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