Western Australia - Colonial: 1869-1900.
Administrative aspects.


Aspects of administration noted below are:

  1. Management.
  2. Personnell - Mr. Sholl.
  3. Personnel - staffing.
  4. Salaries.
  5. Sunday work.
  6. Other.


1. Management.

On 19 December 1894, the new Minister of Mines, Mr. E. H. Wittenoom, was duly sworn as one of the Executive. Mr. Wittenoom was to be in charge of three departments - those of Mines, Education, and Posts and Telegraphs. The West Australian of 29 December 1894 proffered interesting comments (in light of subsequent developments) as follows:

"In all of these he will find plenty to do. The best administered departments will always have those who are not pleased with what is done, but there can be no question that the Mines of Western Australia demand an unusual degree of attention at the hands of the Minister in charge, if even common satisfaction is to be given. It is not to be forgotten that when that department was formed the officers placed over it were totally ignorant of everything connected with the subject, practical or administrative. They have had to feel their way as they went along, and the time of a Minister, who was burdened with little else, should have been mainly devoted to it. In an innumerable number of instances our mining laws need in form. It is very doubtful whether, taken as a whole, they are as judicious as they might be for any individual field, while it is quite certain that it is impossible to apply them to all parts of the colony with equal justice and advantage".

The Coolgardie Miner 19 January 1895 in an Editorial covering various aspects of the WA. Telegraph Service. The first issues addressed:

"The Stock Exchanges of Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth have each deputationed the Ministers responsible for the management of the Post and Telegraph Departments of their various capitals to protest against the gross mismanagement of the Telegraph Department of this colony, and to explain the great loss inflicted on commerce by the existing condition of affairs.

Their utterances:

  • have been repeated by the entire Australasian commercial world;
  • have been echoed with considerable emphasis by the Press of the colony; and
  • the public have listened with sympathetic ear, for all alike suffer.

We always feel a measure of content when our telegrams come to hand, if they convey news not more than four days old, and we have grown so used to receiving and paying for messages announcing that the Eucla line is interrupted, that we have ceased to publish them, lest the continued reiteration should be mistaken for a standing advertisement ...

While the authorities are repairing the Eucla track, they might devote their leisure time to examining into the eccentricities of some of our officials for, besides the interruptions in transit, there are only too many instances where shameful delays have occurred, owing to the blundering incompetency of the Officials. There is no department of the Public Service, we should hope, which is worse served and managed than that of the telegraphs and, if Western Australia wishes to maintain a decent position commercially among tbe colonies, this state of things must be remedied forthwith".


Steps to improve (if necessary).

The Fremantle Messenger of 27 September 1895 reported an interview with two leaders of the commercial world in Victoria to obtain their impressions on a range of matters. In part:

"What do you think of this place, Mr. White?" we asked.

"Think of it! Well, I'll tell you presently. Before I do so let me say something about your Telegraph Department. I never heard of anything so disgracefully managed. I have been here eight days and have been unable to get a reply to a message to Melbourne. It is not very pleasant to think that I could have gone to Melbourne myself in less time is it. Your telegraph service wants reorganising badly I should say".

"And so say I!" interrupted Mr. Sniders. "Everybody seems to have ground for complaint with regard to the way this Department is managed. It is a most annoying thing for business men, I can tell you".

We admitted that nearly everybody complained of the manner in which the telegraph system was botched up and then ventured to enquire of Mr. White, where he thought things in Western Australia could be improved:

"Oh" he retorted "don't talk of improving things until you have a decent telegraph system. Why, it is impossible to be up to date in business when you are so far behind in facilities for communication with other parts of the world"

and Mr. Sniders intimated that he was in thorough accord with the sentiment".

Some steps at least to investigate the problems seem to have been taken. The Daily News of 27 February 1896 reported:

"From the Perth Chamber of Commerce meeting: Mr, Mills asked what had become of the report of Mr. Jenvey, the Victorian expert who was brought over, at great expense, to report on the telegraph lines. Mr. Randell said that the report was somewhere in the Government offices. Now, why on earth wasn't this report given to the people? Is Sir John Forrest contemptuously indifferent of public rights, or is it his pure cussedness?"

The Coolgardie Miner of 11 April 1896 wrote as follows:

"The Government has at length taken a step in the direction in which it should have started two years ago by the appointment of a thoroughly competent official to inspect the Post and Telegraph Department. It would have been preferable had an experienced man been appointed to take charge of the system and effect the reforms which would at once suggest themselves.

As Mr Sholl within the last fortnight has stated publicly that, in his opinion, the service is perfect, he cannot with any pretence of consistency remain in his position. And if the visit of the Victorian has no other effect than to bring about the resignation of the venerable used-to-be who now mismanages the Department, the public of the province will not regard the cost of his visit as money altogether ill-spent".

In an Address-in-Reply to the House on 14 July 1896, Mr Illingworth noted, amongst many issues:

"Let us turn now to that wretched concern which we term the Post and Telegraph Office, and about which the curses of the public have been loud and deep.

It is unfortunate that while complaints against the administration of the department have been so strong and general that the Postmaster-General should have stated that he despised the criticisms of the public and the press.
[The Premier: Oh, no, no.]

But I say yes.

[Mr. Simpson: The statement was made in every paper in the country].

[The Premier: But there were no reporters present.]

I affirm that it was made; it was made in the presence of hundreds of witnesses and I defy the Government to dispute it.

The incapacity of the department causes serious loss to the people. I have received a letter with which I shall not now trouble the House giving a case in point. A man who had been advised that a registered letter awaited him at the Post Office made application at the office and was told that there was no letter for him. He was advised by telegram that the letter had been duly posted. He made a second application and was again told that there was no letter. He produced the telegram and demanded that there should be a search; then the letter which contained money was found, but too late for the purpose of the recipient, and the result was that he lost £150 — a very serious loss to a working man.

This is a sample of the way in which hundreds of pounds have been lost by the public during the year. In fact, what this country has suffered through the laches of the postal service is beyond description. If there was any possibility of the department being materially altered, we might hope for better things, but all the adverse criticism has failed to make any impression upon the Minister, who supports the Postmaster-General, while the department is thoroughly disorganised. There is not a single branch of the department that is not a hopeless wreck and the public, who ought to be aided and assisted by the Post and  Telegraph Offices, are injured by the mismanagement of the department".


2. Personnel - Postmaster-General: Mr. R. A. Sholl.

Richard Adolphus Sholl was born in Bunbury on 18 December 1846. He entered the public service as a junior clerk in the Post Office at the age of 17. He was appointed Chief Clerk in 1873 and Postmaster-General in 1889. At that stage he had a staff of 200 in the Head Offuce and 800 officials in the country.

Upon the Federation of the States in 1901, he retained the duties of his office and continued to discharge them until July, 1904, when he retired on a full pension.

For many years he was closely identified with the volunteer movement from its initiation in 1861. Beginning as a Private, he retired with the rank of major and was awarded the long service medal instituted by Queen Victoria. He secured many prizes for rifle shooting including the Governor's Cup in 1877.

In 1879, when the affairs of the Western Australian Turf Club were in a precarious condition, Mr. Sholl undertook the secretaryship and, with the assistance of Mr. George Parker, laid the foundation for the subsequent success of the institution. Upon his appointment as Postmaster-General he continued to act as a member of the governing body of the club and at his death was a member of the committee. His efforts on behalf of the club included the compilation of the first set of rules for its guidance. He interested himself in the breeding and training of his own horses and scored some successes on the course.

He was also a supporter of various athletic clubs, and has been active in the interests of football.

The Coolgardie Pioneer of 21 August 1895 noted as follows:

"It is rumoured that a petition is being prepared for signature in Coolgardie and the other mining towns on the goldfields, praying that the Postmaster-General, Mr. R. A. Sholl, may be graciously pleased to retire from the active management of the Post and Telegraph Department of the colony. It is thought that he might have sufficient patriotism to accede to the strong representations of the commercial and mining community who, however mistaken they may be in Mr. Sholl's eyes, believe that the infusion of new blood into the management would be an improvement.

We understand that if Mr. Sholl does not feel disposed to be patriotic, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs will be requested to place the position before him in another and more convincing light. We have already explained to the Postmaster- General something of our views on the matter but, as he makes it a boast he never reads the papers, he probably has not read our remarks. Perhaps his contempt of the Press is responsible for his ignorance of what is going on in his department".

Mr. Sholl was arguably the most hated person in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the mid 1890s and for some time after. The fire which destroyed an important block of Coolgardie in 1895 was alleged to have been accidentally started by protesters burning an effigy of Mr. Sholl. He was also central to the actions leading to, during and subsequent to the big strike of telegraph officers at Coolgardie in November 1895.

In another comment on his perceived lack of administrative ability, the Evening Star from Boulder of 15 March 1899 noted as follows:

"Despite the fact that complaints regarding the working of the telegraphic system of this province are frequent, and painful and free, the authorities will not permit their gross stolidity to be interfered with. Some time ago the Postmaster-General, at the expense of the country, took a pleasant trip to the Eastern capitals, the announced object being to inquire into the various systems in force and, from knowledge gained, endeavor to improve the W.A system. Mr Sholl, when he returned, told interviewers, and also officially reported to the Government that, although he had made careful inquiries and had been treated with every courtesy, he still failed to see how it was possible to improve the systems of working the various departments under his immediate control.

All the gentleman's training in postal and telegraphic work was obtained in Perth during the prehistoric days. For him to positively assert that the system he adopts is in every way superior to those in use in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane is to court disbelief in his efficiency.

The extreme length of time it takes a telegram lodged in Fremantle to reach the goldfields is an eloquent testimony of inadequateness of the system and, by inference of course, of the incapacity of those who may be responsible for it. The working of the line between Kalgoorlie and Adelaide causes more exasperation and deep mouthed expletives than a fire in Hannan Street. It is no uncommon thing for a wire lodged in Adelaide at noon to reach Kalgoorlie an hour before another lodged at 11 a.m. The unfortunate broker or speculator who receives the later wire first is puzzled as to what is meant and then, when its predecessor is handed to him, he perhaps finds that the delay has cost many pounds.

Complaints have been made on the score and the Westralian department puts all the blame on to South Australia. On complaint being made to the sister province, the blame is thrown upon Westralia and so, buffeted about by one department and jostled by the other, he gets no satisfaction and at once becomes a violent supporter of Federation and longs for its achievement, so that all the telegraph departments of Australia may be placed under the one guiding hand.

The Premier is a great believer in the capacity of Mr Sholl and, from his place in Parliament, has defended him from attacks. The Premier boasts that he has never deserted an old friend, and he shows absolutely no inclination to pension off the Postmaster General and appoint some one to initiate a new order of things, and bring what is to many the most important of all State departments up to date. The goldfields' residents will next week have an opportunity of seeing Sir John Forrest. Those who may happen to receive any curiosity in the way of long-delayed telegrams should keep them alongside and use as evidence to convince the head of the Government that the Postmaster-General is not quite the Heaven-gifted genius that his admirers claim him to be. The mal-administration of the Post and Telegraph and Money Order Offices is notorious and as it appears to be quite a recognised affair that any agitation for reform should come from the goldfields, those who mostly use the wire in the transaction of their business should have a deputation ready to talk to the Premier when he visits Kalgoorlie".

Mr. Sholl died on 9 May 1919.


3. Personnel - staffing.

The strike by Coolgardie Post and Telegraph staff - supported by officers at Kalgoorlie, Kanowna dna Perth - was probably the most significant single evernt related to staffing.

Subsequent to the 1895 strike - and presumably in Mr. Sholl's vision - totally independent of the strike six months before, a new sources of staff was considered:

"As the supply of good operators is getting scarce in the Eastern colonies, it was recently decided by the Minister for Post and Telegraphs Mr.Wittenoom, on the recommendation of Mr. Snook, the Inspector of Telegraphs, to import a number of fully qualified operators from England.

These men will have to be up to a standard of sending at least forty messages an hour. The telegraphic code of this colony being very much the same as that used in England and India, the men will be able to set to work as soon as they land which is not the case with operators coming from Victoria, New South Wales or South Australia where the codes vary considerable from the one in vogue here.

It is proposed that the Agent-General shall, for the present, send out say ten operators by each steamer until the demand is well supplied".
(Golden Age, 1 May 1896) .


4. Salaries.

The Murchison Times of 25 May 1895 commented on salaries:

"Postal officials and telegraph operators wretchedly paid. The Cue postmaster, who has to work at all hours, receives £4 per week, The Day Dawn postmaster £3 per week, and operators £2 10s each. Surely such niggardliness is most unjust".

During a discussion in the Legislative Assembly on 18 September 1895, Mr Simpson moved that the item Government electrician and electrical engineer be struck out. He charged the officer filling that position with not being properly accredited - the position being made for him after he had been discredited in another branch of the service.

The Premier admitted that the officer in question did not give satisfaction formerly as Superintendent of Telegraphs for he did not understand the duties, but now he was doing well.

The House divided: Ayes 11, Noes 10. The amendment was negatived and the item passed.


In November, the major incident of a strike by the Coolgardie Post and Telegraph Department - over pay especially - was reported widely within the Colony and across the other Colonies.


The West Australian of 7 November 1896 noted:

"In Mr. E. W. Snook, who is known officially in the department as Chief Inspector of Telegraphs, the Government have a very capable and efficient officer. Mr. Snook is now on an official visit to the eastern colonies, and we understand that before his return he will be known under a different designation to that of Chief Inspector of Telegraphs. The intention is to confer on him the title of Superintendent of  Telegraphs, under Mr. R. A Sholl, the General Superintendent of the Department. It is probable that this recommendation will be laid before the Executive Council for approval at its next meeting".

On 21 November 1896, "The following change has been made in the designation of Mr. E. W. Snook - to be now Superintendent of Telegraphs instead of Chief Inspector of Telegraphs".


5. Sunday work.

The Western Australian Times of 11 March 1879 reported the following exchange regarding Sunday work:

"Sunday work in the Post Office and Telegraph Department.

A short time ago, the clergy of the various Protestant denominations, forwarded a memorial to His Excellency the Governor, praying that he would take steps to obviate the necessity for the clerks engaged in the Post and Telegragh department being employed on Sundays. The memorialists, have received the following reply, addressed to Bishop Parry, who was one of the subscribers to the petition:

"Colonial Secretary's Office, Perth, Feb. 28th
My Lord, I am directed by His Excellency the Governor to acknowledge the receipt of a memorial, without date, signed by your Lordship and some of the clergy of the colony, praying that His Excellency will give instructions that the Post Office at Perth and the seaports shall not be open for the delivery of letters to the public during any portion of Sunday and that the transmission of messages at the Telegraph Offices on that day, may be limited to those of absolute necessity.

In reply I am directed to inform you that His Excellency would be very glad, if it were possible, to relieve all the officers employed in the different Post Offices from the necessity of performing any work on a Sunday but that this has been found impossible and the present arrangement has been adopted, after several trials, as that which affords the greatest amount of necessary convenience to the public, with the least amount of Sunday work to the officials. I am to add that His Excellency is not aware what are the arrangements for Sunday postal work in the Australian colonies, but that letters are sorted and delivered in every post town in England on the Sunday morning, the London post offices being alone excepted from this duty.

With respect to the Telegraph Offices, His Excellency observes that you do not ask that they should be closed on a Sunday, but that the transmission of messages shall be limited to those of necessity. His Excellency is not aware of any country where such a rule has been established and does not see how it would be possible to ensure its being fairly and properly carried out. His Excellency regrets therefore that he is unable to comply with the memorialists' request.

I am, etc., Laurance S. Eliot, for Colonial Secretary".


6. Other.

In an interesting insight into an important social problem, the West Australian of 3 March 1897 reported that women convicts made all the twine used at the G.P.O. and the canvas bags used in the Post Offices.