Western Australia: 1869-1900.
Telegraph lines in the Kimberley.


The Kimberley region of Western Australia is roughly that region above Condon north to the Indian Ocean and east to the Northern Territory border.

The telegraph lines in the Kimberley came from two directions:

  1. from Roebourne in the south via Port Hedland;
  2. from the north-east from Java.

The second of these directions is described elsewhere.

The line to Derby.

The telegraph line into the Kimberley from the south extended the line to Roebourne and Cossack from Onslow by the end of 1885. It bypassed the Boodarrie (Port Hedland) area and was constructed via Roebuck Bay to Derby. At the opening of the Legislative Council on 21 July 1885, Sir Frederick Broome announced that "the Northern telegraph line will very shortly be completed to Roebourne and ... it may be found possible to carry it on to Derby without delay".

On 17 August 1886, the Council was read a statement from the Governor which said in part:

"As the Council is aware , a Contract for the extension of the Telegraph system of the Colony from Roebourne to Derby has been entered into, and is now in
course of execution. But it is also most necessary that the seat of Government should be connected by Telegraph with the Goldfields and with Wyndham and it would further be
very expedient that the Telegraph system should be extended, at a suitable point, to the border of South. Australia, if the Government of that Colony would engage
to connect with our system at the border, and so duplicate the trans-continental telegraph.

The Northern Districts of this Colony are now under the completely changed conditions of a large and sudden influx of population and trade, consequent on
the discovery of a Goldfield. They cannot possibly be administered from Perth, with satisfaction either to the Government or the people, unless they are at an
early date included within our system of telegraphic communication. Should the Legislative Council concur in this view, it will be well to make every
exertion to initiate the construction of the necessary lines of telegraph, at several points, and without delay — and probably, to save time and for other
reasons, the works should be undertaken by the Government in preference to contractors"

The long line was constructed from Roebourne to the north via Cossack to Roebuck Bay in 1888-89 because the extension had been curtailed. At that time, when the line was being constructed, Port Hedland was not regarded as being a suitable site in which to place a Telegraph Office. Indeed it was only regarded as being an appropriate place for a port in 1891.

The line to Roebuck Bay/Broome was immediately extended to Derby. A jetty had been constructed at Derby in 1885 to assist in the export of wool from the region and the Hall's Creek gold rush had began the following year. It was reported in the Legislative Assembly on 10 October 1888 that the line enabling communication from Derby to Perth "would shortly be open". The Telegraph Office opened at Derby on 3 April 1889.

The Eastern Telegraph Company had plans in 1887-88 to land the third cable from Banjoewangi to Australia at Beagle Bay (see elsewhere) but due to the thickly wooded and overgrown terrain, decided to bring the cable ashore at Roebuck Bay (Broome) to connect to the Western Australian line of telegraph. By the time plans were ready for implementation, construction of the land line was sufficiently advanced to ensure that either Roebuck Bay or Derby could be selected. On further inspection, it was found that the sea floor off Derby at the entrance to King Sound was unsuitable for cable laying.


The line to Wyndham.

In December 1885, a prospector named Charlie Hall had found a nugget weighing almost 1 kg in the place soon to be named after him. That discovery led to an immediate influx of more than 15,000 prospectors searching for their fortunes in the very desolate area.

The new goldfields therefore became a priority together with Wyndham in the north-west corner. The Fitzroy Crossing area had large sheep properties around it and was about half way between Broome (400 km to the north-west) and Halls Creek (300 km to the east). It is about 2,500 km from Perth.

Communications with Hall's Creek were important for both commercial and security reasons. A police station had been established at Fitzroy Crossing and Telegraph Offices were opened at both places in September 1892. The office at Fitzroy Crossing doubled as a Post Office (it cost £599 18s). The Crossing could then serve as a repeater station for messages to Broome. Most of the prospectors could not bear the conditions and soon left. Hall's Creek then became a trading centre - with a Telegraph Station, a police station, a government office and a racecourse to service the Aboriginals and miners who remained there.

The extension of the line through the far north of Western Australia to Derby and then on to Wyndham was discussed frequently in many places for a number of years. For example, the Perth Daily News of 5 August 1887 reported:


Sir, — I am sure it will be a source of pleasure to many Colonists to know that there are some gentlemen in the Legislative Council who will no longer allow the old state of lethargy to exist with reference to the execution of authorized public works in the colony. It is indeed gratifying to know that Mr. A. Forrest is to move in the House this evening 'that the construction of the above line should commence forthwith'. As you are aware, sir, many letters have lately appeared in public print on this subject; yet it seems that the 'Powers that be' care not at all for the public's opinion on any matters affecting the welfare of the colony. Therefore I am sure everyone desires that the member for Kimberley should be well supported by the people's representatives in his action to-night.

I am, etc.,
Perth, August. 5th, 1887.

In the House on 16 August 1886, the Speaker recorded that a message had been received from the Governor that " the sum of £60,000 should be appropriated ... for the construction of a line of Telegraph from Wyndham (Cambridge Gulf) to the Gold Fields". On the following day "The Director of Public Works moved the consideration of His Excellency's message submitting a proposal for the construction of a telegraph line to establish communication between the seat of Government and the port of Wyndham, in the Kimberley district, and also with the goldfields in addition to the line now in course of construction from Roebourne to Derby. His Excellency pointed out in his message that the Northern districts of the colony were now under the completely changed condition of a large and sudden influx of population and trade, consequent on the discovery of a goldfield and that they could not possibly be administered from Perth with satisfaction, either to the Government or to the people themselves, unless they were at an early date included within our system of telegraphic communication. Should the Legislature concur in this view, His Excellency thought it would be well to make every exertion to initiate the construction of the necessary lines at several points and without delay; and, in order to save time and for other reasons, it was proposed that the works should be undertaken by the Government, in preference to contractors. The maximum cost might approach the large sum of £60,000". 

A problem appears to have arisen in implementing an effective strategy for the construction and indeed those problems lasted in one form or another for quite some time. The West Australian on 17 August 1887 published the following letter:


SIR, - With your usual courtesy to correspondents, I beg you will grant me a small space in your valuable paper to again allude to the above subject.

In offering up my thanks for your reply to my previous letter, I must say your opinion is altogether inconsistent with the action the Public Works Department are taking, to give effect to our member's motion in the matter. The facts are simply this: The Department, contrary to the resolution passed by Council, intend calling tenders for one portion of the work only viz., Derby to the Goldfish, and when that is completed, to construct the line from Wyndham to the fields, which means that we shall be without telegraphic communication for at least 2½ years, allowing 15 months for constructing each section. Now why does not the Director of Public Works commence the line at Wyndham at once as well as at Derby?

Sir, I trust you will be able to explain to the residents of Wyndham why they are treated thus and who is responsible for it, so that we may know how to act when the time arrives. Probably you have noticed an article in your contemporary the other evening, stating that one surveyor only had received instructions to proceed to Derby - which verifies the assertions I have made. etc,

I am, etc, WYNDHAMITE.

Wyndhamite's views must have been shared by many others. The Western Australian of 8 September 1887, carried the following article expressing more positive action:

"The determination arrived at during the late session of the Legislative Council, that telegraph communication with the Kimberley Gold fields shall be opened up as quickly as possible, has been promptly acted upon by the Government. A contract for the construction of a line from Roebourne to Derby has been in progress for some time and will, in all probability, be completed in the course of a few months.

It has been determined to continue the work still farther to the northward, as far, for the present, as Wyndham in Cambridge Gulf. This line will be taken by way of the Goldfields which are about midway between Derby and Wyndham. No surveys have yet been made, and the route which the line shall take has yet to be determined.

For this purpose, two gentlemen have been appointed to take charge of parties of survey and exploration. One of these will start from Derby, and the other from  Wyndham, each working towards the goldfields, where they will meet. The party starting from Derby will be under the change of Mr. C. E. May, who will have as professional assistant, Mr. P. A. Ross. Mr. F. S. Brockman will take charge of the Wyndham party, and will have Mr. Monaghan as his professional assistant.

The first duty to be performed is to make a flying survey of the route to be traversed. For this purpose each party will consist of the officer in charge, his assistant, three European field hands and a native. On the completion of the flying surveys, the officers in charge of the expeditions will, we understand, send in reports to the Public Works Department here, referring to the distance and character of the routes selected. After these have been duly considered, and the course to be pursued fixed upon, tenders will be at once invited for the construction of the line, which will be commenced, it is understood, within three months of the completion of the survey. Mr. Brockman and Mr. May will superintend the construction of the permanent work, for which purpose, and that of the more minute survey, their respective parties will be enlarged.

The undertaking is a huge and costly one, as well as presenting many difficulties which the gentlemen in charge of the two expeditions will have to overcome. There is a general consensus of opinion, however, that the Government have made a wise selection in entrusting the important work to the hands of Messrs. May and Brockman, whose past experience in the field gives ample guarantee that it will be properly and energetically carried out. Both Mr. May and Mr. Brookman leave to-day in the Perth for Derby and Wyndham, and will commence their labors as soon after arrival as possible".


The Western Mail of 3 December 1887 reported on Contract negotiations:


For this line, which was divided into two sections - from Derby to the Goldfields and from the Goldfields to Wyndham - four tenders, competed : Messrs. Wishart, Atkins, Richards, and Latimer, Clarke, & Muirhead, the contractors of the Roebourne-Derby line. Mr.Wishart's was the lowest tender for both sections, but owing to a mistake in the distance due to some misleading reports, the tenders have been referred back for further consideration.


On 6 October 1888, the Perth Western Mail reported on the commencement of the line from Wyndham:


"The first pole of the telegraph line from Wyndham to the Hall's Creek Gold field was erected at Wyndham on August 15. The Government Resident, Mr R. Hare, in the presence of about a dozen spectators, including Mr J. W. Wright, representing his brother, Mr A. B. Wright, the contractor for the line.

After the post had been erected, an adjournment was made to a neighbouring store, where light refreshments were provided. Here the company drank the success of the line, coupled with the health of the contractor, to which Mr. Wright responded in suitable terms. The event was further celebrated on August 18th by a dinner given by the Wyndham townsfolk to Mr Wright, the Resident magistrate occupying the chair. After the conclusion of a repast which reflected considerable credit upon the culinary capabilities of Wyndham, the usual toasts were drunk, and responded to in due form; the proceedings were also enlivened with songs.

As to the progress of the line, we understand that on September 14th, twenty-five miles had been erected, and the material for as many more had been disembarked and placed along the route of the line. All the men employed are in good health. The contractor has two horse and three bullock teams engaged on the line, and he hopes to get over the worst of the road before the wet season sets in. The natives have proved somewhat troublesome. On one occasion at the 20 miles camp, they tried to burn its occupants out by setting fire to the grass. Fortunately the camp had been fixed on a spot where the grass had previously been burnt and therefore the attempt was a signal failure".

A most informative interview was published in the West Australian on 7 November 1890 with Mr. A. B. Wright the constructor of the recently finished telegraph line from Hall's Creek to Wyndham, the second half of the line which connects East and West Kimberley with each other and with the southern portion of Western Australia. It is included elsewhere.

The two telegraph lines (from Derby to Fitzroy Crossing and from Wyndham to Hall's Creek) were finished in 1892 and Telegraph Offices were open for traffic.

On 29 July 1891,The Inquirer reported on the outcome of a Court Case brought by Arthur Bridge (Mr. A.B.) Wright against the Government regarding the construction of the line from Wyndham to the gold fields at Kimberley. The Court found in Wright's favour and ordered the Government to pay £3,480 to Mr. Wright plus all costs in the matter. Clearly insufficient gien the interview referenced above.

Management and proper operation of the Wyndham line continued to be a major problem for residents of the region.

The second session of the first Parliament under Responsible Government was opened on Monday 7 December 1891 by His Excellency the Administrator and in his speech he noted

"telegraph material will also shortly arrive for repairing and re-wiring the lines between Derby and Wyndham via Hall's Creek and no time will be lost in placing these important lines in thorough working order. Owing to the size of the wire used on the line from Derby to Hall's Creek constant breakages occur while principally from the same cause, and also from the damage done to it by the natives, the line from Hall's Creek to Wyndham has never yet been in working order".

The West Australian of 2 June 1893 carried the following note:

"THE guardianship of our telegraph line by the police has proved a signal and disastrous failure. Between the Denham Camp and Hell's Gate, no less than 100 insulators have been broken by the blacks and they stand on the summits of the poles as a memorial of misfortune and misapplied energy. Although the breakage does not actually prevent the line working, nevertheless it renders the transmission of messages a very difficult task.

Nor could the failure have been otherwise. How was it to be expected that untutored men could repair a line requiring delicacy of manipulation and technical knowledge? What is required is a linesman. The cost of his upkeep would be infinitely less than that of the police, whilst the benefit accruing would be inestimably greater.

Whilst on the subject of the wants and requirements of the district, I may as well mention one or two more. A telegraph office is badly needed. I, for one, have a certain amount of misgiving in despatching a wire when the receiving office is occupied by two or three officers of different branches of the service".

Developments after the opening of the Offices.

Regardless of the problems which had beset the Derby to Wyndham telegraph line, plans for alternate uses were being developed. The West Australian of 4 March 1899 published a letter dated 3 February:


To THE EDITOR Sir,-The South Australian Government, with the advice of their Postmaster General, Sir Charles Todd, have with commendable zeal recently duplicated their overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Port Darwin, and have also introduced the duplex system of working on each wire, thus enabling four times the amount of traffic to go over that country than has hitherto been the case, or facilitating the despatch of cables as far as Port Darwin in a quarter of the time that previously obtained.

So far, South Australia has done everything in its power to meet the press of business, but what advantage has been gained beyond minimising delays, if, as the electrician of the South Australian Department, when on a recent visit to Port Darwin, stated to the editor of the Northern Territory Times, when the land line is working well, they can flood the cable line in an hour. The obvious meaning of this is, that the present cable from Port Darwin is inadequate to keep pace with its feeder during the busy portion of the day, and that cable business when heavy is consequently retarded at Port Darwin.

Now the question arises, why not make use of the duplicate from Broome, by connecting the land line from Port Darwin to Wyndham, which would give a straight and good circuit over a comparatively idle line, which maintains, owing to its inland route, an unvarying good circuit, and would thus enable the Broome cable, which has only the business of one colony to despatch, to relieve any congestion that may arise at Port Darwin. It would also prevent the annoying delays that frequently arise when the Port Darwin cable is interrupted, as the business could be sent via Broome over the Wyndham line to Port Darwin, thence to Adelaide, instead of over long lines that have their daily heavy business to get through via Eucla.

In addition to the advantages already enumerated, there is also the further advantage to be gained locally by Western Australia and the other colonies of substituting this route for local business to the Eastern colonies at any time the coastal line via Eucla should be down. With the present duplex system on the Nor' west coast of Western Australia, and the vastly-improved system between Port Darwin to Adelaide, it could cope with the heavy traffic at any time diverted from its usual route and thus reduce the possibility of annoying delays to zero. It would be another step towards federation, and one of vast importance to the whole of Australasia to bridge over this small piece of country, thus completing a circuit almost round Australia of over 6,000 miles.

This question could be brought before the next Postal Conference of the colonies as the advantages are of paramount importance to the whole of Australasia. The advantages are so patent and of so much importance to Australasia that I hope to soon see the line un fait accompli.

Yours, etc.

J. W. DURACK. Wyndham/February 3.

On 12 June 1901, a public meeting in Wyndham called for the Postmaster to replace the Post & Telegraph building in the town "as the present structure is in a state bordering upon collapse, and is altogether inadequate, for the requirements of the place". The meeting also called for a telegraph line to be constructed to link Wyndham to the Katherine River.

On 9 April 1925, the Postmaster-General announced that "for a considerable time the Perth-Wyndham telegraph line had been subject to interruption between Condon and La Grange owing to the heavy sea mists which induce leakage of current. Approval had therefore been given for the removal of the line from its present coastal route to one further inland. Material had been forwarded and the work, which was to cost £16,000, was now in hand".

Generally a break in a telegraph line is deemed to be a bad thing but it was a marvel in 1934 - as reported in the Kalgoorlie Miner of 28 December 1934:

Derby. Dec. 27.

By cutting the Perth-Wyndham telegraph line, when in desperate straits, on Sunday morning, Donald Cameron, who was walking from Broome to Derby, was enabled to save his own life and indirectly that of another man, who was walking the same track, but not in Cameron's company.

The men were unlucky that the line was cut on Sunday, for it is rarely used after 8.30 a.m. on that day, and it was not until Monday morning that the interruption was discovered by postal officials. To discover the break and effect repairs, a party left Broome at mid-day on Monday.

When about 70 miles out, a man was found, suffering badly from want of water. He informed them that there was another man ahead of him, in a similar plight. A short distance further on they found a swag, a sugar bag and a billy can and indications that some one had been scraping in the sand for water. At a spot 89 miles out from Broome, the party came up with the break in the telegraph line. The time was then about 9 p.m., and reports were sent to the police at Derby and Broome. Constables Cooper and Gray set out immediately from Derby along the line. About 12 miles from where the line had been cut the headlights of the car showed up Cameron on the track. He was exhausted and said he could not have gone any further.

The first man found returned to Broome with the line party, and Cameron was brought to Derby, where he was taken to hospital. He is reported to be making satisfactory progress.