Last Updated: 5 January 2019
Thomas Downs (1859-1921)
Thomas Downs(#20), my great grandfather, was born in Chelsea, London, England to Thomas(#7020) and Harriet Downs(#7021) on 18 April 1859.[i] His father had a career as a gunner with the Royal Artillery but had been discharged as “unfit for duty” seven years prior to his birth, after 23 years of service.[ii] His father was working as a “greengrocer” the year Thomas was born[iii] and was still in that position three years later when his brother, Arthur, was born.[iv]
I really know nothing more about his childhood until he is in Limerick, Ireland in 1874 at about 15 years of age. I’m not sure if the whole family moved, but Thomas was there with his brother, John W. Downs(#7024), and his sister, Julia H. Downs(#7025).[v] All three were working for the Post Office, Thomas and his brother, John, were working as telegraph operators, and their sister seems to have been using her middle name, “Harriet,” according to postal records.[vi] (Alternatively, this could also have been their mother, Harriet, working there with her two sons.) In 1878, Thomas went to work for a commercial telegraph service but we do not know anymore.[vii]
In September of 1880, he was hired by Compagnie Française des Cables Télégraphiques (the French Cable Company) at Liverpool, England. In March of 1882, they transferred him to the Station at Eastham, Massachusetts.[viii] He probably fits the bill for what they needed. He was an experienced operator with English as his native tongue, and the French had just laid the first direct trans-Atlantic cable from Europe to the United States three years prior.
In 1884, two years after his arrival at Cape Cod, he signed a contract with the French Cable Company. This was for a term of three years at $900 a year, with the option to continue on after that time frame. The interesting thing is that he still considered himself as “of Limerick,” four years after being hired in Liverpool. Was his job in America a temporary thing in his mind?[ix]
Whether he saw it as a temporary thing or not, he had fallen in love with a girl in Ireland, and he sent for her in 1885. Anna Maria Watts(#21) was born in Bonmahon, Ireland on 26 October 1858 to Richard(#7022) and Jane Watts(#7023).[x] [xi] She departed from Queenstown, Ireland on the S.S. Cephalonia, arriving in Boston on 7 September 1885.[xii] That very same day, after Thomas met the ship, they were married in Boston at the Church of the Good Sheppard.[xiii]
Thomas undoubtedly lived at the station with the other bachelors up until this time. The French Cable company built homes for their full-time employees who were married and had families, and Thomas availed himself of one of these with his new bride.[xiv] These homes were of a French design and were unique among the homes in and around town. They can instantly be recognized by their French mansard rooves as shown at the bottom of the page in the picture of Thomas and Anna’s house. Their first three boys were born in Eastham in this house, Lionel Victor Downs (#32) in 1886, John William Downs(#18) in 1888, and Edgar Thomas Downs(#31) in 1890.[xv]
In 1891, the cable was extended to Orleans, the next town over, and came in through the Town Cove. A new station was built and is the current French Cable Museum in Orleans. Orleans was more of an “in town” location and better served both the public and the company, rather than the remote location in Eastham, hear present-day Nauset Light. At Eastham, the company homes were located on what is now present-day Route 6, a couple of miles away from the station and often caused issues in travel to and from the station in inclement weather. The French Cable Company moved the four homes they had built for employees from Eastham to Orleans for a total cost of $1000.[xvi]
After the family moved to Orleans, they had three more boys, Cyril Winfred Downs(#30) in 1896, Norman Alden Downs(#29) in 1898, and Reginald Valentine Downs(#28) in 1902.[xvii] The family has always been fond of saying that Thomas and Anna had six sons, three born in Eastham, three born in Orleans, and all in the same house!
Any good genealogist worth his or her salt will always look at the birth years of children in a family and see what they might suggest. In our list it soon becomes clear that we have a six-year gap between Edgar 1890) and Cyril (1896). If I didn’t know this family so well, I’d be looking for a kid that might be missing or maybe a stillbirth. I know the family and the records quite well, and I can rule this out, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility of a miscarriage or two.
The gap can probably be attributed to the events going on at that time. In 1891 they moved the station, homes and the entire operation to Orleans. Could Anna have moved with the boys while Thomas remained in Eastham? Could Thomas have been scarce for a few years around the family as they moved the operation from Eastham to Orleans, breaking down equipment, setting up equipment and all without taking the service offline except for the briefest of periods? Maybe we can attribute this gap to that.
At some point, Thomas rose to the position of Superintendent of the station. This was most certainly after the 1891 move to Orleans as a list of those staff members working at Eastham (1879-1991) includes him as an “operator” and not one of the three listed superintendents.[xviii] So, sometime between 1891 and his retirement, he was elevated to Superintendent as his portrait appears in the Superintendent’s Office and clearly states his name and title.
So, when did he retire? Was that 1 January 1911 cover sheet on his contract generated at his retirement? It states he was in poor health and under a doctor’s care. That sheet said he was an “operator” when he was hired in Liverpool in 1880, an “operator” when he was transferred to Cape Cod in 1882 but is curiously silent on his current position in 1911.[xix] Is that a further clue that it was generated at his retirement or could he have soldiered on? After all, on 1 January 1911, he was only 51 years old.
If we look at the US Federal Census records for 1910 and 1920, we learn that his occupation was “operator” in 1910[xx] and “none” in 1920.[xxi] It doesn’t narrow it down by much. He retired sometime between 1 January 1911 and 13 January 1920, the second day the census was taken. We do learn that both he and Anna became naturalized citizens in 1912.[xxii] If you recall, as late as 1 June 1884, he was still describing himself as “of Limerick.” Could his naturalization have somehow been tied to his retirement and finally acknowledging there was no intent to return; Orleans had become his home?
I have often wondered if he was still working on 15 April 1912 when RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. As the ships that responded and rescued passengers contacted North America by wireless, news came to the Orleans station of the disaster. Messages were then relayed via other cables to other cities like New York and beyond. A message was also sent on “le Direct” to Europe, bringing the news of the sinking to many in Europe who had loved ones on the vessel. In the following days, the Orleans station was inundated with messages from people seeking news of passengers and the station would transmit lists of survivors to Europe and down the line to New York and the rest of the country.
We really don’t know when he retired, just that it was sometime between 1 January 1911 and 13 January 1920. Thomas died on 14 February 1921 in Foxborough (Foxboro), Massachusetts. His death was a curious mystery, which I unravel in a previous an article, “Thomas Downs’s Death Certificate.”
I recall hearing something a number of times as a boy but I have no way of learning how true it was. I was told that Thomas could receive an incoming message with his right hand (writing it down) while sending a different one (tapping the key) with his left. Is there any truth there or is that just a bit of bogus legend that has built up around the man?
I’m going to leave you with a fun fact, more about the station than my great grandfather. I recall as a kid being told that I was in France while I visited the grounds of the station. The station closed in 1959 and soon there were people wanting to buy it and turn it into a museum. There was just one problem; that piece of property belonged to the French Government. When President Charles de Gaulle was consulted on the potential sale of the property in Orleans, Massachusetts, back to the Americans, he responded that he would “never allow one square foot of French soil to be sold.”[xxiii] De Gaulle died in 1971, finally paving the way for the purchase of the land and the creation of the museum in 1972. I always found it interesting and coincidental that this half acre of “France” could be found in a town with a French name, “Orleans.”
Vive la France!
Articles on DownsGenealogy.com
Thomas Downs’s Death Certificate
Thomas Downs’s Contract with the French Cable Company
[i] St. Lukes Parish (Chelsea, Middlesex, England), London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906, “Baptism of Thomas Downs, p.,”; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com : accessed 31 Oct 2009). Cit. Date: 31 Oct 2009.
[ii] Thomas Downs, discharge record (gunner and driver, Second Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Artillery), WO 97: Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents, online at Fold3 https://www.fold3.com/image/1/585466388, downloaded 5 December 2018.
[iii] St. Lukes Parish (Chelsea, Middlesex, England), London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906, “Baptism of Thomas Downs, p.,”; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com : accessed 31 Oct 2009). Cit. Date: 31 Oct 2009.
[iv] Holy Trinity Parish (Chelsea, Middlesex, England), London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906, “Baptism of Arthur John Farquhar Downs, p. 75,”; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com : accessed 31 Oct 2009). Cit. Date: 31 Oct 2009.
[v] Thomas Downs, contract with Compagnie Française des Cables Télégraphiques (1884, 1911), from a large format photographic copy in the author’s passion.
[vi] Hector Davie, his personal website including his genealogical and family history, Richard Watts of Bonmahon (1810-1875), online < http://hector.davie.ch/misc/Watts.html>, section “9 ANNA MARIA WATTS (1858-1928),” While Hector’s page is undocumented, I know he researches sources and records carefully, we have corroborated before in past.
[vii] Thomas Downs, contract with Compagnie Française des Cables Télégraphiques.
[x] John William Downes [sic], birth certificate (B 4154 (1888), The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of the Secretary of State, Archives Division, Vol. 385; page 8; No. 4). Rec. Date: 4 Feb 1889. ID: DVD0005, Cit. Date: 1 May 2005. On this document, “Downs” is consistently misspelled as “Downes.” This is taken from an official copy in the possession of the compiler and dated July 10, 1989.
[xi] Downs Family cemetery monument, Orleans Cemetery, Orleans, Massachusetts.
[xii] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Series Title: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1820-1891; Record Group Title: Records of the U.S. Customs Service; Record Group Number: 36; Series Number: M277; NARA Roll Number: 098.
[xiii] Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1910 (From original records held by the Massachusetts Archives. Online database: NewEnglandAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2004. Boston Massachusetts.), marriage of Thomas Downs and Anna Watts, Vol. 361, page 11. Cit. Date: 16 Aug 2006.
[xiv] Warren S. Darling, “The French Cable Museum,” “Museum Tour Book,” (no publication information provided), copy in the possession of the author, page 11.
[xv] [Dorothy (Downs) Kucks], “Descendants of Thomas Downs” (No information given. The title is the author’s assigned working title and it’s author is provided by him, as he knows this through correspondence and conversation with numerous family members including Ms. Kucks granddaughter-in-law, Jane (Graff) Kucks), unpaginated. Cit. Date: 2 May 2005. This is a copy printed and bound from Dorothy Kucks and made its way into my possession. Again, there is no source information given, however I know she relies on verbal information given to her from people involved with, or near to, the events. In other words, I have provided Dorothy and Jane with information concerning the birth of my nieces and nephews, marriage of my brother and myself, and the death of my other brother. I will therefore put great weight on the information contain therein concerning events starting with the sons of Thomas and Anna Downs.
[xvi] Warren S. Darling, “The French Cable Museum,” page 11.
[xvii] [Dorothy (Downs) Kucks], “Descendants of Thomas Downs.”
[xviii] Warren S. Darling, “The French Cable Museum,” page 4.
[xix] Thomas Downs, contract with Compagnie Française des Cables Télégraphiques.
[xx] Thomas Downs Household, 1910 US Census, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Orleans, enumeration district [ED] 14, sheet 9 (written), dwelling 241, family 245, online <http://www.Ancestry.com>, August 9, 2004, Cit. Date: 3 Sep 2005.
[xxi] Thomas Downs Household, 1920 US Census, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Orleans, enumeration district [ED] 16, sheet 9 (written), dwelling 271, family 285, online <http://www.Ancestry.com>, August 9, 2004, Cit. Date: 3 Sep 2005.
[xxiii] [xxiii] Warren S. Darling, “The French Cable Museum,” page 45.