Western Australia: 1869-1900.
The first Telegraph lines.

After telegaphic communication had been successfully established in the other Colonies, a number of people from various parts of the Western Australia community began to agitate for similar facilities. The Colonial Government was very cautious about the nature of the development and of the costs involved.

The early agitation for telegraphic facilities in the Colony.

The proprietor of the Perth newspaper The Inquirer and Commercial News - Edmund Stirling - became increasingly annoyed with the Government apathy. He told the Government that the Swan River colony merchants of those days were frustrated by the slowness and expense of communications between Perth and Fremantle. Messages were delivered by horse, boat and foot. He noted that the telegraph had been operating in America from 1844 was widely used in Europe. Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were linked by telegraph in 1858.

The Perth Inquirer of 26 October 1864 (not surprisingly) continued this idea: "The feasibility of establishing telegraphic communication in the colony has of late been discussed and inquiries made respecting the probable cost. It is thought that the expense of constructing a telegraphic line between Perth and Fremantle will not exceed £10 per mile but the expenses of the establishment, which will be heavy, are not taken into account. A line between Albany and Perth would be of great service, and enable us to obtain the latest news from all quarters immediately on the arrival of the mail".

Stirling therefore offered to build a telegraph line between Perth and Fremantle to demonstrate the effectiveness of this mode of communication. He offered a deal whereby the government would supply and erect the poles and he would oversee construction of the line. This deal was accepted and Stirling - in conjunction with his colleague Cumming - established the West Australian Telegraph Company to run the operation. He also appointed an ex-convict from Scotland - James Fleming - as the supervisor of the project. Fleming had been transported to Australia in 1864 for defrauding fellow Glaswegian tea merchants.

The first Perth-Fremantle line

The first pole was placed in position at a spot near the foot of the Perth Jetty on 19 February 1869 by the Colonial Secretary - the Honorable Frederick Barlee - in the presence of the proprietors and Mr. R. R. Jewell, Clerk of Works and Mr. B. Von Bibra. There was so little interest in the introduction of the telegraph into the Western Australian Colony that only five people were present when the first post was erected at the Jetty (at that time the population of Perth was approaching 4,000). Apparently the inhabitants were not the only ones who expressed a lack of interest. The Perth Gazette of 17 February 1871 was later to lament that "the first post should have been a choice piece of timber and a little more artistic skill might have been displayed upon it, so that in times to come the curious might note at a glance the first Telegraph post erected for conducting  telegraphic communication with the interior. Unfortunately neither of these desirable points have been attended to, the first post itself being a very indifferent sample of our timber and so roughly prepared as to reflect both upon our taste and skill".

The line to Fremantle was about 12 miles long and it was completed on 21 June 1869.

The first message sent over the line was from His Exellency the Administrator of the Colony. The text of this telegram read:

TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE FREMANTLE TOWN TRUST.

HIS EXCELLENCY COLONEL BRUCE HEARTILY CONGRATULATES THE INHABITANTS OF FREMANTLE ON THE ANNIHILATION OF DISTANCE BETWEEN THE PORT AND THE CAPITAL AND HE REQUESTS THAT THIS THE FIRST MESSAGE MAY BE PUBLICLY KNOWN.

GOVERNMENT HOUSE 21ST JUNE 1869."

A copy of this telegram is held by the State Library of Western Australia. It is probable that several copies were made and placed in a presentation box as shown in the previous hyperlink reference. The West Australian Times of 7 May 1875 carries a letter of appreciation from the Colonial Secretary Fred. P. Barlee (countersigned by J. C. Fleming, Superintendent of Telegraph) for the copy he received. The paper described the box as follows:

The box alluded to in Mr. Fleming's letter is formed of the wood of the first telegraph post, having a silver plate on the lid with a design of telegraph poles and wires. The inside handsomely lined, contains a roller made of mother o' pearl round which the first despatch sent by telegraph in Western Australia is wound; on one side it bears the inscription: "Instrument Register of the first Telegraphic message in Western Australia" on the other "The first Telegraph Pole in Western Australia was erected by the Hon. Frederick P. Barlee, Col. Secretary, on 19th February, 1869".

The first operator at Perth was James Fleming while the operator at Fremantle was William Holman (background unknown).

In contast to the commencement of services in the other Colonies, few telegrams were sent for a few weeks because the line was not made available to business or to the public. The Press did not use the line at all despite Stirling's association. When such access was authorised, usage increased significantly - and some of the ill-will and distrust between "these distant places" began to break down.

In October 1869, the first Quarterly Report of the operations of the West Australian Telegraph Company was presented to shareholders. It showed 1,084 messages had been transmitted in the three-month period of which 540 were commercial, 181 were domestic and 88 were Government. The Report also commends the directors for the low rates being charged yet the line is still profitable.

On 30 September 1869, another event happened - a new Governor (Frederick Weld) took up his position. Weld saw that the Colony had great development opportunities and the telegraph was an important catalyst for much of that development.

The next stage - lines to the South and to the East.

1st lines In May 1870, with the significant encouragement of Governor Weld, the Legislative Council passed a resolution authorising additional line construction.

The lines were to run:

  • from Perth to Albany (and later to Bunbury);
  • from Perth to York and later to Newcastle - then called Toodyay.

These towns established the main directions in which subsequent lines would be constructed:

Further developments along these lines can be accessed using the hyperlinks above.

Each of the towns targeted by these planned lines were important in their own right:

 

The Private vs Public dichotomy (again).

The proposed telegraph lines in Western Australia were to be operated by private interests. Hence, in addition to the Western Australian Telegraph Company established by Edmund Stirling (see above), the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company was also formed in January 1871, with several shareholders, to commence construction of the authorised lines. The two companies merged in January 1871.

The Perth Gazette of 24 February 1871 reported "The Contractor for the erection of the posts along the lines of this company is doing his work both rapidly and satisfactorily. On the Guildford Road, the posts are up as far as Depot Hill, more than half way to Guildford and the holes are sunk ready for the remainder all the way. On the Albany line the posts are erected to within two miles of the Canning Bridge".

On 1 March 1871, the Perth Inquirer noted "The contractors for supplying and erecting the telegraph posts between Northam and Newcastle are busy at work. The whole of the posts are erected on the Guildford line, and upwards, of twelve miles have been completed on the Albany section".

On Wednesday 15 March 1871, the Inquirer updated its report on progress:

"We have had a visit from Mr. Fleming, the active Agent of the Telegraph Company. This gentleman has been occupied in laying down pegs along the line of road, as guides for the Telegraph posts which are now being prepared, and may shortly be expected to be erected.

He reached Newcastle on Thursday, 18th instant (sic?), and on the following day proceeded to Northam. Mr. Fleming calculates that in about four months from the present time, telegraphic communication will be established with these districts. I understand that the setting of the first post is to be the occasion of a 'spread' at Findell's Hotel, at which Mr. Fleming is expected to be present. This will take place, I believe, some day next week. A similar ceremony will, no doubt, be enacted at Northam, as our worthy neighbours are always ready to come forward upon any public occasion having for its object the settlers' good".

On 30 March 1871, the Fremantle Herald noted: "The activity and judgement displayed by Mr. J. Flemming, in forwarding the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company's lines is beyond all praise. It is expected that the communication with all the eastern districts will be completed before the 1st of August, including a section of the Albany line as far as Bunbury. Even if never used, the outlay of money at this present time is a great relief to the working classes".

On 1 April 1871, the Government changed its policies and took full responsibility for the construction and operation of the telegraph lines. The Perth-Fremantle line was taken over during 1871. Proceedings were then initiated to wind up the Company. Both the other lines were purchased in 1872 although the line to York was completed on 6 January 1872 and the line to Albany was completed on 26 December 1872. The take-over, of course, made the guarantee legislation void. Tenders were let to complete construction of new lines.

On 24 May 1871, the Perth Inquirer reported that "The work of constructing the Inland Telegraph system projected by the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company, proceeds satisfactorily, upwards of one hundred and fifty miles of posts being erected, and the line cleared of timber, &c. The plant, we learn, is expected from London in about two months time and will at once be erected".

The Western Australia Post and Telegraph Department also then began the organisational aspects of operating a Telegraph Service by changing the status of various Post Offices to become Post and Telegraph Offices.

By this stage, even the Press were using the telegraph lines. For example, almost every issue of the Perth Gazette would include the heading "BY ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH" with a reference to one of the main (telegraph) towns above the main article. Shipping news was a main activity for the Press.

Nevertheless, other news was being reported. For example:

Geraldton 10 December 1874 7:40 am.

J. Jackman was drowned at Shark's Bay near Foury Island.
Zephyr sailed for London this morning via Fremantle.

Perhaps that is not critically important news on the Colonial developments - but nevertheless it was a start on the acceptance of the telegraph by the wider community.

As the lines were constructed, intermediate Telegraph Offices were opened according to the need. The map above shows that, by the end of 1872, there were seven new P&T Offices in addition to the original two offices. These new Offices were:

It is also possible that another line was extended from Bunbury to Vasse (Busselton) in 1872 but the data are not complete at this time.

The line from Perth to York via Guilford, Newcastle and Northam was about 100 miles in length.

The Fremantle Herald of 25 February 1871 published the following letter from a concerned reader:

To the Editor of the Herald.
SIR,

Now that we are about commencing our Telegraph communication through the colony I would, with your permission, lay before the public a few evils which may arise if the present arrangements are carried out according to the rumours now in circulation, it being reported that the Postmasters at Guildford, York, and Northam (all being storekeepers) are to be appointed clerks in charge of the Telegraph Department.

This certainly is open to very serious objections; for instance, being myself a storekeeper, and learning that there is a probability of an advance in the market, the result is that I must inform my fellow-storekeeper, Postmaster and Telegraph clerk, who can, of course, telegraph at once, upon hearing the result of my enquiry, and even purchase indirectly before I receive my reply. Again, a person may have some transaction in barter, and in case of a sudden rise or fall in any arcticle, upon my making enquiry, he will again have first call.

In the first named place (Guildford) there may not be any serious objection; but, in York and Northam being a long distance from the market, this arrangement will have a different effect. In Newcastle, the telegraph station is to be at the Court House; then, why not in York and Northam? In these places, they have a Local Court, with clerks appointed, who have little or nothing to do, but are still obliged to be in attendance. Their salaries certainly are small and insufficient but, with the addition of Postmaster and Telegraph Clerk's salary, would command and secure respectable and competent persons, and entirely do away with the evil complained of. Personally there can be no objection to any of our Postmasters, but having clerks paid by Government I think they are the most fit and proper persons for the appointment.

Yours truly,

A SHAREHOLDER.

After the line to York was complete and construction of the line to Bunbury had commenced, the Perth Inquirer of 31 January 1872 paid tribute to the accomplishments:

"It is very encouraging and gratifying to us to be able to report the continued success of the construction of the inland telegraph and we cannot help congratulating those through whose untiring energy the work is being carried out.

When the extension of the telegraph into the inland districts, and through to Albany, on the one hand, and to Champion Bay on the other, was first projected, there were not wanting those who were disposed to prophesy a speedy but complete failure of the undertaking, alleging as their reasons that the nature of the country to be traversed by the aerial lines was, in many places, not only such as would certainly dishearten the most energetic contractor, but also presented physical difficulties which the concentrated wisdom of the directors of the undertaking and of the Superintendent would fail to overcome. But, up to the present date, no insuperable obstacle has prevented the accomplishing of the work. Directors, Superintendent and workmen are putting their shoulder to the wheel and vigorously prosecutiug their respective duties, and all who have the interest of the colony at heart will unite with us in wishing a speedy and successful accomplishment of their arduous undertaking.

The eastern line, embracing Guildford, Newcastle, Northam and York, is now open for communication and the wiring party have just commenced work on the Southern line via Narrogin and Pinjarrah to Bunbury. The rate of progress hitherto has been thirty miles per week, with a party of eighteen men".

 

The Bunbury area was named by the Governor in recognition of Lieutenant William St. Pierre Bunbury who developed the very difficult inland route from Pinjarra to Bunbury.

http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/52967996?searchTerm=york telegraph 1872&searchLimits=l-availability=y