Western Australia: 1869-1900.
Telegraph lines through the Wheatbelt Region.

The Wheatbelt Region is defined, for the purposes of describing the construction of telegraph lines to the Goldfields, as extending:

The following aspects are discussed on this page:

      1. the line from Perth to York;
      2. the inland line north from Newcastle via New Norcia;
      3. the westerly line north from Guildford via Gingin;
      4. the eastern line from York to Southern Cross.


The line from Perth to York.

As discussed elsewhere, the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company had responsibility for constructing the line from Perth to York. This line was a priority because:

One of the first reports of the construction activity was published in the Perth Gazette of 24 February 1871: "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 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".

The Perth-Guildford line was opened in December 1871.

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".

To reflect the importance of the telegraph line to the people east of Perth, the Perth Gazette of 10 November 1871 included the ANNUAL REPORT OF THE TOODYAY, NORTHAM, AND VICTORIA PLAINS AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY in which the Society noted "The establishment of telegraphic communication in these districts will doubtless in time be of great service in saving settlers the inconvenience of long and expensive trips to Perth and Fremantle. As the system will be in operation before the close of the present year, its utility will shortly be tested. Your Committee anticipates success for the undertaking".

The Fremantle Herald of 6 January 1872 noted that "Mr. J. Fleming was busily engaged in completing the extension of the telegraph line wires to Newcastle and the Eastern districts". A week later, the same newspaper updated their news with " The Telegraph wires, already complete to Newcastle are, under the direction of Mr. J. Fleming, being further extended to Northam and York".

On 17 January 1872, the Perth Inquirer noted: "The Eastern line, comprising Guildford, Newcastle, Northam and York is open and the work will be finally completed in about a fortnight's time, when the wiring party will commence work on the Southern line. The rate of progress has been thirty miles per week, with a party of eighteen men. Much credit is due to the Chairman of the Company Mr. Carr and to the Secretary Mr. Hillman for the interest they manifest in the work - more especially as we hear that few of the directors exhibit any at all".

The Perth Gazette of 19 January 1872 summarised as follows:  

"On Saturday, the 6th instant, telegraphic communication was completed as far as Newcastle and on Thursday, the 11th instant, it reached Northam. The first signal was received in Newcastle on Tuesday last, the 16th instant. Judging from the succession of telegrams which have thus far passed between these portions of the Eastern Districts, this great boon is fully appreciated. Advantage has already been taken of it in more than one instance, whereby a considerable saving of time and expense has been effected.

At different places along the lines, some of the posts are already out of the perpendicular, arising from the strain upon them when the wires were being tightened and from the ground having become loose from the recent heavy falls of rain. These little matters can easily be rectified by Mr. Fleming. Meanwhile I do not know that communication is in any way impeded on these accounts". 

Indeed, after completing his activities in York, Mr. Fleming returned to his headquarters - and as he passed (it is reported) he did straighten the posts which had been pulled askew.

On 31 January 1872 the Perth Inquirer followed up their praise of a fortnight earlier by paying further tributes 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 prosecuting 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 line north from Newcastle via New Norcia to Geraldton.

The next priority in the Wheatbelt region was to construct the telegraph line north from Perth and the Guildford-York region to Geraldton (then called Champion Bay). Geraldton was a major centre in the north - now in the Mid West Region beyond the Wheatbelt. It had been established as a military outpost but later developed through the influx of pastoralists as well as through the discovery of lead deposits which led to the establishment of the Geraldine mine. It had a good harbour which was developed for various ships and, by the 1870s, it was the port through which the lead from mines at Northampton further to the north was shipped. Geraldton was proclaimed a town in 1871.

The overall route to be followed by the telegraph line to the north needed to be cost-effective. In 1867, the mail route had been changed from the coastal route from Perth via Dandaragan to an inland route passing through New Norcia, Walebing, Berkshire Valley, Marah, Coorow, Carnamah and on to Geraldton. The route was designed to cater for the inland settlers and was surveyed in 1870 by Alexander Forrest. Of the three proposals for the proposed telegraph line which had been submitted for evaluation, that favoured by Governor Weld followed the mail line. "How the telegraph line northward was to run depended, to some extent, on the expense of the different proposed lines. Of the three alternative proposals, the cheapest one - from Newcastle via the Victoria Plains (New Norcia) instead of along the coast or from Guildford - was adopted by the Governor after he had received suggestions from the New Norcia Mission and other station owners along the route to the Irwin. Bishop Salvado's opinion carried the greatest weight. The contract with Nunnan and Smith for £19/9/- a mile was accepted on 2 November 1872 and the work was to be completed by 4 August 1873" (The Western Australian, 4 December 1954).

Construction work on the telegraph line following the inland mail route commenced reasonably soon after and the line was constructed from Newcastle to New Norcia and then, in a north-westerly direction, to Geraldton.

The interaction of various Government initiatives to bring about economic development is highlighted by the following report in the Fremantle Herald of 30 November 1872:

"Messrs. Wanliss' railway from the timber range to Rockingham is expected to be finished in the course of a few weeks. It is a substantial and desirable work, and reflects great credit upon the enterprising capitalists who have constructed it. The Rockingham Jarrah Timber Company is now ready to execute orders. The contract for the supply of telegraph posts, required by the Government for the extension of the line from Newcastle to Champion Bay, is in course of fulfillment. The posts will be commenced to be delivered at Rockingham immediately on the completion of the Railway".

The Newcastle to Geraldton (Champion Bay) line was completed on 4 August 1873 but the late arrival of plant delayed the opening of the line until 5 June 1874.

All the Telegraph Officers along this line were female. One - Mary Ellen Cuper - was a half-caste native from the New Norcia Mission who became postmistress of the New Norcia Office on the day it became a P&T Office and changed its name from Victoria Plains.

The Berkshire Valley Telegraph Office was operated by Miss Clinch at her homestead.


The alternative northern line via Gingin.

In 1886, a line was constructed from Guildford to Gingin to serve the rich agricultural production there. The Perth Inquirer of 31 March 1886 reported "We understand that Messrs. Donegan and McKnoe, the contractors for the Gingin telegraph line, are getting well on with their work, which they hope will be completed much within the contract time".

This extension marked the beginning of a second line in the northern region. It roughly followed the old mail line. Gingin was an important rest-stop for horses travelling between Perth and Geraldton and there was also a Police station there - all good reasons to open telegraphic facilities. The population was about 200. A new Telegraph Office was opened at Gingin following the construction. The cost of constructing the 35 mile line from Guildford was £610.

On 19 July 1886, Mr Shenton addressed the House to ask that "a humble address be presented to the Governor, praying his Excellency to place on the Estimates for 1887, the sum required to provide for the extension of the telegraph line from Gingin to Dandarragan".

No further activity took place to extend that line until 1894. In that year, an intermediate Office was opened at Mingenew (in the Mid West Region) on the first northern telegraph line (in the heart of ideal cattle country). Then, in 1896, the second telegraph line in the Northern region was extended from Gingin and laid out via Dandaragan and Moora to link with Mingenew. Hence there was then a back-up facility which made the push to the far north a more reliable proposition.

The line to the east - to Southern Cross.

The first discoveries of gold in the Yilgarn region (i.e. the eastern Wheatbelt) had occurred around Southern Cross in 1887. Gold rushes then followed at other locations including those further east in the Goldfields Region especially at Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893. York was the Telegraph Office in the west from which the line extensions were constructed.

The area was very remote even for those early days. There was no made road from York to Yilgarn and Southern Cross. During the summer, carriage was greatly obstructed by the want of feed and water along the line of route while in winter the ground was rendered practically impassable by reason of the heavy rains rendering the soil so 'rotten' as to be unable to bear the weight of vehicles loaded with machinery, stores and similar heavy articles. The successful development of the gold mining industry required more. Road development was costly and took time. The Perth Daily News editorial of 29 June 1889 therefore suggested the construction of a telegraph line under similar financial guarantee conditions as for the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company but with a two year not a six year period. Two days later, the same newspaper suggested that the Government could sell township lots in Yilgarn and Southern Cross to pay for the cost of the telegraph line. Finally the road from York to Southern Cross was constructed but only in the last 3-4 months of 1890.

The matter of the telegraph line was debated in the Legislative Council on 7 August 1889:

Mr Harper moved that, in the opinion of this House, it is of urgent importance that immediate steps should be taken to construct a line of telegraph between York and the Yilgarn goldfields. The hon. member referred to the report recently furnished by the Government Geologist and said he thought from the tone of that report they were justified in saying that a goldfield of sufficient magnitude existed to warrant the expenditure of capital. That being so, he thought every reasonable means should be taken to develop the country. They were all aware of the difficulties which existed in the way of keeping up a supply of food for horse and man, and one of the best means of obviating that difficulty would be the construction of a line of telegraph. The suggestion he had put forward was that a cheap line should be constructed of the timber along the line, of which there was an abundance. If it were done in this way, it could be done rapidly and cheaply and, if the fields turned out as they expected, they would be warranted in constructing a more permanent line.

Mr. A. FORREST seconded the motion, and said the line ought to be built without delay. They had it on the authority of the Government Geologist that the success of the field was assured and, in a very short time, would warrant the construction of a railway as well as a telegraph line. Those who invested money in the development of the fields wished to know how things were going on there and, with the present means at their disposal, they were unable to gain that information. He agreed with the hon. member Mr. Harper that for the greater part of the distance the timber could be got along the line. He hoped the Government would not say that there was not enough money for this work, as it could be constructed out of revenue which might be recouped out of a future loan.

Mr. MARMION had great pleasure in supporting the motion. He believed, from the report of the Government Geologist, and the information they had from other sources with regard to the fields, they would be quite justified in spending a comparatively small sum of money in expediting the development of the country, and in hastening the progress of the colony which had to a very great extent been retarded by the recent action of the Imperial Government. He would not advocate the erection of an expensive line of telegraph, but rather that advantage should be taken of the timber along the line of route, and that a light line of wire should be run to Southern Cross, making that the centre of the present field. The other places might communicate with that centre by other means. He believed the cost would not be very great, and that the line might be erected for a sum which would be trifling compared with the benefits which would be derived. He believed £5,000 would be sufficient, and assuming that this amount or even £6,000 or £7,000 would be sufficient, they would be justified in spending it. As to where the money was to come from, he would point out that the loan of £100,000 had realised between £7,000 and £8,000 over that amount. This, together with the contingencies vote of £5,000 gave them £12,000 or £13,000 which they might spend in public works of utility. The expenses of floating the loan would not cost more than 2½ per cent., and he would ask whether the balance could not be spent upon this work. A gentleman had just handed him a memo stating that a competent authority had estimated the cost of the work at not more than £4,500. He strongly advocated the expenditure of money upon this work to show that the Government were ready to do what they could to accelerate the development of the fields or to show they had as much faith in them as the elected members had. It would be some guarantee to those outside the colony of faith in the fields, and if they did not show it, those outside the colony would not feel justified in spending money on them.

The Hon. Sir M. FRASER said they were all aware this special session was for the consideration of the Electoral Bill and one or two other measures. Owing to the unfortunate delay in passing the Enabling Bill, they would be obliged, probably in a couple of months to consider these questions of ways and means. The Government would be quite prepared, as he had said sometime ago, to carry on the Government for another year, but they must be allowed to bring forward their proposals in their own way. He quite admitted the desirability of developing the fields, but said they must have time to do it. With regard to the wants of these auriferous reefs in the Eastern fields, it appeared the roads also wanted attention but these were matters which they would have to consider when they were discussing ways and means for next year. Although he was prepared to allow the advantage to be derived from the line, he failed to see what advantage could be gained by discussing such an abstract question as that now before them at the present time and he was prepared, if necessary, to divide the House on the subject.

Mr. SHOLL supported the motion. If the Government could not construct this line which would cost only £4,000 or £5,000, it showed either that the colony was in a bad state or that the Government were very incompetent. In such an important matter as this, they ought to stretch a point and do all they could to develop the fields instead of placing an obstacle in the way.

Sir THOMAS CAMPBELL pointed out that this was merely an expression of opinion which the House had a right to give and which did not bind the Government to any expenditure of money. If the Colonial Secretary divided the House on this question, it would appear to the outside world that the Government had very little faith in the development of these fields. The construction of this line was within the resources of Government and, if they did oppose this motion, it would create a bad impression outside.

The Hon. C. N. WARTON said the Colonial Secretary had been misunderstood. The Government had no wish to act against the interests of the colony and, if they divided the House, it would be to mark their sense that this was not a fit time to move in the matter. To show this he would beg to move the previous question.

Mr. PARKER said he should have thought the Government would have been glad to hear the views of the hon. members to guide them in preparing their estimates. If this motion were agreed to, the Government would have it before them when they were framing their estimates and they would be able to see whether the line could be built. He urged that it was of importance that this line should be immediately constructed.

Mr. HARPER, having replied, the question that this question be now put was put and, on a division, was agreed to by a majority 15 to 4. The motion was then put and agreed to on the voices.

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 that the 162 mile telegraph line from York to Southern Cross and Yilgarn was being erected and would be completed soon.

The West Australian of 2 February 1892 reported "The Southern Cross telegraph line has not yet been opened. It appears that from some unascertained cause - possibly an accident to the wire or the non-arrival of the operator at the fields - communication has not been commenced by the Government. Consequently it was not found possible to open the line to the general public yesterday as was at first intended".

The Telegraph Office was opened at Southern Cross on 4 February 1892. There are few details available on this construction but there appears to have been some odd decisions according to some letters published in the Western Mail.

About 1895, an intermediate Office was opened at Kellerberrin closer to York. It was opened at the newly established railway office which resulted in the town being relocated about 5 kms south so that residents could be near the railway.

There was much disagreement with the juxtaposition of operations at the Telegraph Offices and at the Railways. The Northam Advertiser of 5 December 1896 summarised the problems as follows:

"At Kellerberrin, where no one I would expect to find a telegraph office and where no passenger ever has time to go to a telegraph office, you have the only one between Northam and Southern Cross, whilst at Hines' Hill where all trains stop for half-an-hour and where all strangers expect to be able to wire on business or to friends, they can only do so by getting the Station Master to telephone the message to Kellerberrin, provided he has time and is in the humour. Worse than all this is the novelty that presents itself at Boorabbin. Here the telegraph office is nearly a mile away in the bush from the Railway Station, left there since the days of the teamsters when travellers camped near the dam, as we jocularly say for the purpose of getting the Post Master to stretch his legs twice a day in having to call to see the trains in and out, and if he might find a letter in the mail-bag. These Post and Telegraph offices of Kellerberrin and Boorabbin are utterly useless. The one at Boorabbin should be brought to the Railway Station, and the other should be removed to Hines' Hill".


A more recent gold find in the Wheatbelt was that in 1910 at a location to be called Bullfinch - about 35 km north of Southern Cross. There a prospector named Charlie Jones unearthed a fabulous reef containing gold beneath only 6ft of clay. The ore which was so rich that special treatment processes had to be used. In six months, 11,117 ounces of gold were recovered from just 964 tons of ore. The Adelaide Register of 26 October 1910 reported that "In the House of Representatives on Tuesday (25th) Mr. Mahon (W.A.) drew attention to the great rush to the Bullfinch Goldfield and urged the immediate construction of a telegraph line from Southern Cross. The Minister for Customs (Mr. Tudor V.) said extra telegraph operators had been sent to Southern Cross and personal investigations were being made in regard to what was required".

The Bullfinch gold deposit quickly ran out to leave only lower quality ore and so, by 1912, miners were returning their leases to the Government and leaving.