How Warley helped spread the English word in India

In India, goods were loaded on the backs of tall elephants. Picture: PA

In India, goods were loaded on the backs of tall elephants. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A huge sub-continent, India has 22 major languages, many complex alphabets, and 1.3 billion people. Two elements underpin political unity – modern technology, and the use of English as a common language.

Brentwood made a forgotten contribution to both.

In 1837, the first telegraph systems were developed, by Cooke and Wheatstone in Britain, and Edison in America. Samuel Morse’s dot-dash code made it easy to send messages.

Until 1858, British India was run by the semi-state East India Company.

William O’Shaughnessy, a young Irish doctor working in Calcutta (Kolkata), began experiments to adapt the telegraph to Indian conditions.

In 1852, he returned to England and persuaded the Company’s directors to establish a 3,000-mile network around the sub-continent.

The East India Company had purchased an abandoned barracks at Warley, near Brentwood, in 1843, to train and support their army of soldiers from Britain which underpinned their dominance of the sub-continent.

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The barracks included around 100 acres of Warley Common. Here O’Shaughnessy established his training camp.

Two miles of posts and cables were erected to teach teams of soldiers how to install telegraph wires under Indian conditions.

In Britain, starlings twittered on thin wires slung low alongside railway lines.

In India, huge storks and vultures had perched on O’Shaughnessy’s experimental telegraph. Destructive monkeys swarmed over them. It was impossible to use European-style thin wires.

O’Shaughnessy designed thick galvanised cables.

In India, goods were loaded on the backs of tall elephants. Telegraph wires had to be raised at least fourteen feet above the ground. This required strong poles, bolted into the ground to resist monsoon winds.

O’Shaughnessy also developed special lightning conductors, to prevent India’s savage electrical storms from knocking out the system.

He even designed a method for running the telegraph underground. Cables were cased in wooden sleepers, which were saturated in arsenic to deter white ants from eating them.

One winter day, the East India Company’s directors took a special train to Brentwood to inspect O’Shaughnessy’s project.

They were led by their chairman, Sir James Hogg, ancestor of colourful Tory politician Lord Hailsham.

The directors enjoyed watching a soldier demonstrate the strength of the cable by climbing along it. They watched admiringly as cannon were fired by remote control along six miles of coiled wire. The gunpowder flash was observed the instant the button was pressed.

Pleased with their visit, the directors adjourned to Brentwood’s White Hart (now the Sugar Hut) for a “cold collation”. There they drank toasts to the project, and congratulated themselves on their far-sightedness.

In 1857, India was convulsed by the Indian Mutiny, a national uprising against foreign rule.

At first, the telegraph helped the revolt. British officials panicked as the horrific news rapidly spread, and abandoned large areas of north India. However, eventually, the telegraph helped the British re-establish control through savage repression.

Like Twitter, the telegraph encouraged brief messages. When General Sir Colin Campbell relieved the British garrison besieged by rebels at Lucknow, jokers claimed he announced his arrival in Latin: Nunc fortunatus sum. (Sum = I am; nunc = now; fortunatus = lucky.) Translation: I’m in Lucknow!

In fact, the telegraph encouraged the use of English as India’s common language. Its simple Western alphabet was well suited to Morse code, unlike the complex writing systems of Indian languages.

Anybody who phones call centres will know that India is a world leader in telecommunications. It all began with a carefully rehearsed training programme at Warley in 1853.

Ford’s UK headquarters replaced Warley barracks in 1964. But the attractive garrison church, built in 1857, survives as the Royal Anglian Regiment’s chapel.

O’Shaughnessy was knighted in 1856. Another of his bright ideas causes problems today. O’Shaughnessy pioneered the medical use of cannabis as a pain killer, and our legal system still does not know how to respond.