New South Wales - Colonial: 1858 -1900.
The first telegraph line.


After the introduction of the Electric Telegraph to Victoria in 1855, discussions were held in all Colonies about its implications. The Sydney Morning Herald of 2 June 1855 noted the following - a long time before the first NSW line was even contemplated:

"A project for establishing magnetic telegraphic communications between Sydney and Melbourne, by means of the magneto-electric telegraph (Henley's patent) has been started in Sydney by Messrs. A. and V. G. Sprigg, who have recently arrived in Sydney. The working of the instruments in the presence of the members of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and the Sydney Exchange Company, and other gentlemen interested in scientific and mercantile affairs has attracted much attention. We fear, however, that the immense expense which it is estimated must be incurred in laying down the telegraph from Sydney to Melbourne (£500 per mile) will be a barrier in the way of practically considering the project for some time to come. Even from Sydney to Newcastle and the other towns of the rich districts of the Hunter, whose present postal steam communications with Sydney are often impeded by reason of bad weather, and the impediments in the way of the navigation of the port of Newcastle and the River Hunter, the plan of laying down a magnetic telegraph is not considered with favour on account of the heavy expenses which, it would appear, must be involved".

The actual telegraphic history of New South Wales began after a Committee from the Legislative Assembly had visited Victoria and South Australia to see for themselves the telegraphic operations in those Colonies. Their recommendation was to establish a Select Committee to investigate the issue further and this was put to a vote in the Legislative Assembly on 31 October 1856. This recommendation was against the view of the then Governor who stated in July 1856 that

"in the present state of the Colony there does not appear to be any such demand for the adoption of these rapid means of conveying intelligence, as would justify an application to the Council for its sanction to the large outlay which would be required for the establishment of an electric telegraph on the most economical principle".

Nevertheless, the Report of the Select Committee recommending the introduction of the Electric Telegraph to New South Wales was tabled in December 1856. An amount of £38,000 was allocated as an additional estimate on 6 January 1857 to facilitate work towards introducing the telegraph.

Work did not commence for some time because of the awarding of a contract for the Liverpool to Albury line in May 1857 to connect Sydney to Melbourne (details in first line south).

The first two lines

The first line was from Liverpool to Sydney - a distance of 22 miles. Work commenced on 7 June and was completed in the first part of October 1857. It was not opened until later.

Soon after, on 27 October, construction was commenced on a 7 mile line from the Sydney Exchange to the South Head signal station. It was completed in January 1858.

The South Head and Liverpool lines were opened by His Excellency the Governor-General on 26 January 1858 and opened for general use by the public the following day.

South Head
The telegraph poles along South Head Road about 1858.
Source: NLA C4076.

During the Budget debate in the Legislative Assembly on 1 February 1861, the issue of the profitability of telegraph lines arose. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Henry Parkes arose and said:

"That (issue of profitability) hardly applies to the South Head line. That line was established for a peculiar purpose, more, perhaps, with a view of saving life, and whether that particular line pays or not I think, for the interests of humanity, it ought to be maintained (Hear, hear). We might get important intelligence at the dead of night, when there was no other means of getting news, by which we might save a shipload of valuable lives".

In various newspapers such as the Empire of 21 January 1858, contained the following announcement:



Notice is hereby given that on and after the 26th instant, the line of electric telegraph between Sydney and Liverpool and Sydney and the South Head will, by order of the Government, be open to the public for the transmission of messages.

Messages can also be transmitted between the South Head and Liverpool direct.

Printed copies of the Regulations, containing the rate of charges and other necessary information, can be obtained at the Telegraph Offices or at the Office of the Railway Department on and after the 23rd instant.

The following Offices will be open for the transmission of messages from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, Sundays excepted, till further notice :

SYDNEY OFFICE: At the Exchange.

SOUTH HEAD OFFICE: At the Signal House.

LIVERPOOL OFFICE: At the Railway Station.

B. H. Martindale, Superintendent, 10 January 1858.

Captain Martindale was a strong supporter of the development of the telegraph and was really responsible for the early administrative and construction activities - in his joint capacities of Undersecretary for Public Works, Commissioner for Main Roads, Commissioner for Railways and Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs.

Liverpool was the hub for lines to the south beginning with a line to Picton.

The Department for Internal Communication (later renamed the Department of Public Works) constructed the first telegraph lines. As noted elsewhere, the Liverpool-Albury line was contracted by this Department to the private sector who was responsible for the construction. This line of authority continued until 1 July 1867 when the NSW Postmaster-General was also given responsibility for telegraphs although the Department of Electric Telegraphs continued to operate as a separate section (see NSW Administration).

Additional lines in 1858

Short additional lines were also needed immediately within Sydney - these being authorised before construction had even commenced on the Liverpool-Sydney line:


The cost of the South Head line was £657 6s 8d - about £91 per mile. This total was more than expected "by most of the holes having to be put down in rock for the posts and by the additional labour in coming through the City" (p. 6 of Martindale's 1858 Report).