Where Birkenhead Meets the World
Birkenhead is a small place in a very big world. Most of the world does not know we exist yet millions of messages pass by our city as surely as materials on a conveyor belt in a factory. In a global sense we are on a vital highway.
I refer to Birkenhead's place in international telecommunications. From almost the earliest times of telecommunications in our country Birkenhead has been “on the line”.
Our part in this story began in 1912 when a telegraph cable was laid from Australia’s Bondi Beach to Muriwai. That cable was hand dug across the isthmus between Muriwai and Harkins Point in the upper Waitemata. To bring the cable into central Auckland to its terminal at the Chief Post Office a submarine cable was laid from Harkins Pt to Curran St, following around the Birkenhead coast. That cable was withdrawn from service in 1964, but is still in place. I suspect I have snagged it more than a few times while fishing.
Also in 1912 Birkenhead became host to the route of a different telegraph cable. The cable from Norfolk Island that had terminated at Cable Bay in Northland was extended to Auckland’s Takapuna Beach. It then crossed the narrow spit of land, extended across Shoal Bay and relanded close to the area of the old Harbour Bridge Toll plaza. The cable re-entered the water at Chelsea Bay and terminated at Curran St.
In 1923 a further telegraph cable was laid to Suva, following the route of the Norfolk Island cable into Chelsea Bay and across Birkenhead.
By the 1950’s the demand for voice communications had grown such that the first part of the Commonwealth Pacific cable (Compac) was laid, in 1962 from Sydney to Muriwai Beach. From Muriwai the cable was laid across the isthmus, re-entered the water at Scotts Point, Hobsonville and landed again at Island Bay. The harbour crossing was laid from a scow, the Jane Gifford. From there the cable travelled by road across Birkenhead to the Terminal station in Northcote Road directly opposite today's Shell service station on the corner of Sunnybrae Road. The station was located on land that had been owned by the Army, perhaps a leftover from efforts of the Second World War. The cable travelled under roads we know well: Island Bay Road, Waipa St, Mokoia Road, Hammond Place, and Onewa Road. From the Northcote Road station another cable was laid out through Takapuna Beach to Fiji and onward to Hawaii, and Vancouver. Onward linking provided connections to London. The Telecom photo album shows snaps of what Birkenhead looked like in those times. For the project the Post Office used a winch truck built out of an old 1923 Thorneycroft truck, affectionately known as Gertie.
Such major advances in telecommunications were subjects of immense national and political pride and accompanied by pomp and fanfare as they were completed and brought into service. The Prime Minister, Sir Keith Holyoake, opened the Sydney part of the Compac cable in 1962 and his name was signed in the cable station visitors book. The names in the book grew as years wore on and considerably later the name of Brian Potter was added. As the Compac cable represented the activities of four nations there were four flagpoles out the front and on some days the flags of Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were flown. In 1963 the Pacific side of the cable was opened by the Queen.
The 80 circuits on the cable made a big difference to NZ. We now had reliable voice connection to the rest of the world and our operators could dial directly into cities like Sydney and Vancouver.
Perhaps the peak of the cables' importance came during the Apollo moon missions of the 1960’s. Those space craft had to be in continuous communication with Mission Control at Houston and during the times when the US side of the earth was in darkness the communications were continued via the Australian radio telescope at Parkes. This arrangement is humorously represented in the recent movie “The Dish”. What the movie does not cover is the method by which the communications from the radio telescope reached mission control; that being over the Compac Cable from Sydney to Canada and thence down to Houston. So “one small step for man, one great leap for mankind” represented a leap forward in Birkenhead's global importance.
By the 1980’s the Compac Cable had been outgrown by larger capacity cables and it was finally decommissioned on 7 November 1981 after a trawler cut the cable at Bondi Beach. It did seem incongruous that the Compac cable was turned off exactly 40 years after the Pearl Harbour tragedy, that had so demonstrated the need for secure communications.
Today much larger capacity communications cables pass through Birkenhead as part of a Pacific wide ring of communications carrying voice, computer and internet traffic. We remain on the line. However today the bringing into service of a new cable no longer warrants the pomp and ceremony of former times. We now take these things for granted.
- Brian Potter, July 2006