Connecting the World from South-East London

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the new industries of chemicals, electrical engineering and pharmaceuticals increasingly took the place that cotton and railways had occupied as the leading sectors in an earlier phase of industrialization. Increasingly too, it was the fast-growing economies of Germany and the US that blazed the path for the new technologies.
One of the new industries, electrical machinery under the influence of German know-how put down roots in Charlton in south-east London, creating one of the most important industrial sites in Europe.
It was established by Carl Wilhelm Siemens, younger brother of Ernst Werner, the founder of Siemens Und Halske. The Siemens Brothers Telegraph Works opened in 1863 to make submarine cables. It made the first Atlantic cable, laid by the company’s own ship the CS Faraday, connecting Balliskelligs in Ireland with New Hampshire. Siemens also made and laid the first cable from Paris to New York.
The London site was large, covering six acres and employing 2,000 workers. Cables remained the main line of work until the 1880s, but the site had already diversified and production shifted to newer technologies.
The Siemens brothers were the first industrialists to make economically viable dynamos, exploiting the principles of electro-magnetism developed by Faraday, and the cables to go with them. Made in Charlton these generated the high-voltage electricity for the street lighting that was spreading over the country. The company also manufactured light bulbs and later telephones and batteries.
The derelict site is now owned by insurer Royal London which along with developer U+I and Galliard Homes wants to create another one of London’s many ‘pioneering new communities’.

The plan would maintain the more important of the site’s buildings, but as proposed include some twelve-storey buildings which look too high for the site.
Ian McDiarmid is a qualified City of London Tour Guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Ian’s walking tours.

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