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Saturday, 31 July 2010


It remains a family mystery why Adolphe Cooper, son of a prosperous Irish gentleman farmer should take a job laying submarine telegraph cables in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mind you, his father didn’t do much actual farming either, having spent much of his youth yachting around Europe. Adolphe was born in Brussels, the youngest of three brothers, all of whom opted for more modern sources of income. Austin, the eldest, was a railway manager in County Roscommon (the landlocked one north of Co. Galway); Sam became a chemical manufacturer in Peckham, South London. And for Adolphe, telegraph engineering was just the start. 

John Thomas Adolphus Cooper (1836-1897)

Finding himself the regional manager for the Levant Telegraph Company in Smyrna at the age of 23, Adolphe made the most of being an Englishman abroad. Five years later he married his Italian wife in Monastir, Tunisia, and his children were born in Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki in Greece) and Scutari (Shkoder in Albania). All these places were at that time still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Britain was held in high regard by Ottomans, having fought with the Empire against Russia in the Crimean War of 1853. Adolphe’s career advanced easily in the service of a regime eager to modernise its infrastructure; he was Superintendent of the Ottoman Government Telegraph Station in Salonika, and in Skutari he acted as the local Imperial Commissioner of the Ottoman Railway.

He survived massive political upheaval in the Empire in 1876, which saw one military coup, two regime changes and an attempt at constitutional reform. In fact the emerging new leader, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, greatly favoured Adolphe Cooper, who became his Chief Telegraph Engineer and Surveyor. The Sultan promoted him to “Imperial Commander of Roumelian Railways” (roughly speaking, Roumelia stretched from Albania to Bulgaria) and also made him responsible at some point for “the irrigation of the whole of Asia Minor south of Konya” (Konya is a city in southern central present-day Turkey).

I must say this seems quite a stretch of territory and professional responsibility for one man, however British he may have been. But Adolphe’s contribution to the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire cannot be disputed, based on the number of awards showered on him by the Sultan and others. These included:

in 1876, the Order of the Medjidie (4th Class) from the Sultan

in 1879, a Diploma of Honour from the Red Cross (for services to sick and injured Ottoman soldiers), not illustrated here!

in 1884, a Knighthood of the Order of Pius IX from Pope Leo XIII

in 1897, the Order of the Osmanieh from the Sultan

and in 1897, the People’s Order for Civil Service (Commander’s Cross 3rd Class) from King Ferdinand of Bulgaria (for being Inspector of the Eastern Railways in Odrin – Edirne in present day Turkey), 2nd Class version shown here

Adolphe's grandfather and my 4x great grandfather were brothers, so I'd be the first to admit this is a fairly tenuous ancestral connection. But who'd pass up the chance to enjoy all those gongs?

The picture of JTA Cooper and some of the information in this article comes from Butterhill and Beyond, a history of the Coopers by R Austin-Cooper.

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