Thomas Downs’s Contract with the French Cable Company

Signature of Thomas Downs
Signature of Thomas Downs

Thomas Downs(#20) took a job as an operator on the Trans-Atlantic Cable and came to America in 1882.  When he took the job, he signed a contract, which can tell us a lot about the man.  Thomas was my great grandfather, and much of what I know about him can be gleaned from this document.

I will refer to the document as the “French Cable Contract,” and the company as the “French Cable Company,” but its real name is “Compagnie Française des Cables Télégraphiques.”  This translates to “French Company of Telegraph Cables.”  I have this contract in my possession in two forms and by identifying it here; I hope to eliminate a lot of sourcing at the bottom of the page.

The contract consists of a cover sheet, which was probably updated periodically but the one attached to the copy in my possession seems to be the final cover sheet, possibly at his retirement.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.  The remainder of the contract is dated 1 June 1884 and is just that, a contract.  It is mostly preprinted words to which Thomas Downs affixed his signature.

The contract itself is nothing surprising like he was not allowed to accept gratuities and he could be disciplined for breaking the rules.  There is even a section on observing the “utmost secrecy concerning all messages.”  When Thomas signed the document, on 1 June 1884, it was for a term of three years with allowances for continuation after that point, as long as he gave three months’ notice before leaving the service.  At the bottom, he signs it as “Thomas Downs of Limerick, Ireland” and it describes him as a “Morse operator” at the “Cape Cod Station.”  Finally, we learn that his salary was $900 a year.

Portion of the Cover Page
A portion of the Cover Page

The cover sheet, a portion of which is reproduced above, is where we learn a lot about Thomas and his family.  This sheet is not dated per se but does say that his salary had been $1400 [a year] since 1 July 1911, so that is the oldest that this page can be.  It shows he was born 18 April 1859 in London.   This matches well with what we know if we remember that Chelsea is part of the Greater London area.  We also see he is now married with six dependents, which again matches what we know of him in 1911.

There is a lot we can learn from this sheet about where he lived and worked, and we can use it to create a timeline.  He was hired by the French Cable Company at Liverpool, England, in September 1880 as an “operator.”  Before this, from 1874 to 1880, he lived in Limerick, Ireland and worked as an operator, four years for the Postal Service and two years in “commercial service.”  It is worth noting that if this is true, and there is no reason to doubt it, that he was working as a telegraph operator at the age of 15.  When he was hired, he was 21 years old and already had six years of experience.  He was transferred in March of 1882 as an operator to the “Cape Cod station.”

As a native English Speaker with eight years of experience, he probably was just what the French Cable Company was looking for as an operator to send to the American terminus of their three-year-old trans-Atlantic cable.  He didn’t sign the present contract until 1 June 1884, but this could be for a number of reasons.  This could have been a new contract superseding all previous ones that the operators in America needed to sign, or maybe there had been no contracts up until that time.  Either way, it is interesting that in 1884 he still described himself as “of Limerick,” and seems to imply he still viewed it as some sort of home base.

I had mentioned that this might have been a coversheet generated at or shortly before his retirement.  I base this on the fact that it was probably that last one filled out and also that it lists his health as “poor” and states he is “under a doctor’s care.”  He could have worked a couple of years in poor health and under a doctor’s care and maybe his retirement was later.  It should be noted that there is a whole back to this coversheet that no one ever bothered to fill out.