14 October 1851 – Opening day for Reuters Telegraphic Despatch Office – was a Tuesday. The tenancy may have been no more than weekly. Monday may have been spent ordering stationery and some coal for the fire. An advertisement was placed in The Daily News the day before.
Here is an instance where time and reminiscence have distorted a picture, producing an image which, although picturesque, is incomplete.
Any suggestion that the Reuters were lone pioneers venturing into new territory is inaccurate. They had thrown their hats into an overcrowded business, surrounded by a maelstrom of competitors.
Reuters Telegraphic Despatch Office sets up in 1850s ‘Canary Wharf’
The early 1850s witnessed startups of many electric companies. Some vanished immediately; many soon amalgamated; a tiny number grew and prospered. It was a new industry for a new era.
Contemporary business directories make clear not only the number of telegraph companies but also their geographical proximity. About sixty were to found within a stone’s throw of the Royal Exchange, all clustered around Old Broad Street, Threadneedle Street and Cornhill. Within Royal Exchange Buildings itself, as well as Julius and his wife Clementina, the International Telegraph Company and Gamble & Nott’s Patent Electro-Magnetic Telegraph were tenants. There were many others. In the 1850s this was the ‘Canary Wharf’ business district of London.
Julius was a facilitator, owning no telegraph lines. Virtually no private offices were connected to the telegraph. He and his competitors offered the business-world specialist expertise in forwarding and receiving of telegraphic messages. Unlike most laymen, he actually understood how telegraphy worked. Using his contacts, he knew which lines were available; which were under construction; which companies ran them. He knew where the gaps were and the best means of bridging them. He knew the most efficient choice of routes. He offered his clients efficient and speedy management of the process at a competitive cost.
Technology aside, he still relied on someone else running to the office of each telegraph company to collect and dispatch messages. Clementina helped with transcribing and, where necessary, translation. Soon, the team of two was increased by a messenger boy. Eleven year-old Fred Griffiths would spend a lifetime with Reuters, becoming Company Secretary from 1865 to 1890 and a director until 1912. But at this early stage, receipt of any general news from overseas was peripheral. The principal business was a Telegraphic Dispatch Office; not a news agency.
Despite a faltering start, over the previous six years Julius and Clementina had learnt much about business in general. For this industry, an office in Royal Exchange Buildings – even one at the rear – was the only place to be.
How could the Reuters afford an office within such a prestigious building? There is no clear answer. Initially childless, rather than setting up a home they poured every resource into their new business.
A disruptive technology becomes business as usual
Technology moved on. The time was fast approaching when businesses could send telegrams themselves. However, as Julius’s facilitating role diminished, ‘news’ – which at first had little importance other than affecting markets – began to take on life as a commodity in its own right. Slowly the future became brighter. New challenges in the lives of the Reuters were about to begin……
Baron Paul Julius Reuter retired as Managing Director of Reuters Telegram Company Limited in 1878. Prosperous and successful, with fashionable homes in London and Nice, he headed a company known and trusted throughout the world. Seventeen years later, at their home in Kensington Palace Gardens, he and the Baroness celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their London wedding. With friends, family and former colleagues present, they looked back to how it had all started – on a November day when they were married at Alie Street German Church in Whitechapel.
Julius died in Nice on 25 February 1899. Clementina lived on a further twelve years, dying at her London home on 5 August 1911.