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

The following aspects of early telegraphic developments in Western Australia are described on this page:

    1. early initiatives to establish telegraphic communication;
    2. the Perth to Fremantle line;
    3. Stage 2: the extension of the first line;
    4. Issues relating to the operation of the first telegraph lines.


The early agitation for telegraphic facilities in the Colony.

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 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:




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.

Nevertheless, the longer-term importance of the development was recognised at the highest levels almost immediately. In opening the new sitting of the Legislative Council on 26 June 1869, the Acting Governor (pending the arrival of Governor Hampton's successor) said:

"I cannot conclude this address without adverting to two events which will render the past half-year of our colonial history memorable. I allude first to the recent visit of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh; and next, to the fact of Telegraphic communication having been, within the last week, established between the Port and the capital. I think it but just to record that, for the latter of these two events, the colony is indebted to the enlightened enterprise of two private citizens — Messrs. Stirling and Cumming".

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.


Stage 2: the extension of the first telegraph line.

On 30 September 1869, another event happened - the 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. To review the situation of his new responsibility, in 1870 Governor Weld rode on horesback from Albany to Perth and then to Geraldton by the inland route and back to Perth along the coast - a distance of 2,100 miles in three months and reported his findings widely.

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:

The total number of messages transmitted by the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company's lines from the middle of January to the end of March was 2,299.

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

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

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


Issues relating to the operation of the first telegraph lines.

In the early 1870s, the Western Australia Post and Telegraph Department began the implementation of the organisational aspects of operating a Telegraph Service. An overt indication of the changes was that the status of various Post Offices was altered and they became known as Post and Telegraph Offices as telegraph lines were connected.

The question of who should have responsibility for the Post and Telegraph Office was also considered widely - especially as the telegraph service had a much greater emphasis on confidentiality. Messages in telegrams had to remain totally confidential and prospective customers demanded that right be respected. Sometimes, local people were trusted because of who they were (for example, Miss Clinch at Berkshire Valley). In other situations, unknown and unattached individuals had no credentials to put before the community. For example, the Fremantle Herald of 25 February 1871 published the following letter from a concerned reader:

To the Editor of the Herald.

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,



The construction and operation of the telegraph lines in Western Australia was also a matter of considerable debate. Although Victoria and South Australia had had some dalliance with the private sector in their early days, it was short lived. In contrast, it was proposed that the first telegraph lines to be constructed in Western Australia were to be built by private interests. As noted above, the Perth-Fremantle line was constructed as a joint venture between the Government and Edmnd Stirling.

To continue the construction of the telegraph lines, the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in January 1871, with a number of shareholders, to commence construction of the next two authorised lines. Its operation was determined by the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Act of 1871 (and is described through the last hyperlink).

For reasons not now clear, the Government changed its policies on 1 April 1871 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 - including to the Telegraph Company.

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".


By 1872, 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.