Sir John Pender (1816–1896)

Sir John Pender was a pioneer of telegraphic communications whose work transformed the nature of the British Empire and of international diplomacy and commerce.

He was born in Dunbartonshire, the son of a textile merchant, and gained a gold medal for design at Glasgow High School. By the time he was 21 he was managing a Glasgow textile firm, and soon afterwards set up his own textile business, trading principally to China, India and other countries in the Far East.

He invested in 1856 in the unsuccessful Atlantic Telegraph Company, which laid a cable in 1858, although it never carried commercial traffic. In 1864 he brought together Glass, Elliot & Co, cable manufacturers, and the Gutta Percha Co to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co (TCM), which he chaired, with Sir Daniel Gooch, chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway, as a co-director. The company employed I K Brunel’s ‘great leviathan’, the SS Great Eastern, to lay their cable. It was the only ship capable of carrying 2500 sufficient quantities of cable. Pender provided a personal guarantee of ?250,000 when the cable broke in 1865, and the following year transatlantic communication by telegraph was successfully established.

In 1868 Gooch became chairman of TCM, while Pender formed a group of companies to lay cables connecting Europe with the Far East through the Mediterranean. A spectacular party at his home in Piccadilly, with 700 guests including the Prince of Wales, marked the completion of the cable to India on 23 June 1870. The prince exchanged messages with the Viceroy.

Pender was later chairman of the Metropolitan Electric Supply Co in London, and had a fitful career as a Member of Parliament.