Australia: 1872-1988.
International telegram/cablegram rates.

Various rates are included on this page to facilitate comparisons:

    1. Australia to England:
      1.1: 1872;
      1.2: 1876 to 1902.
    2. Australia to New Zealand (from 1876);
    3. Australia to South Africa (from 1902).

In addition, some discussion about the important role of subsidies paid by the Colonial Governments is provided elsewhere.


1. Australia to England rates.

1.1: 1872.

The first telegrams sent from London to Adelaide cost £9 7s 6d for 20 words - which was the minimum message length. The tariff for telegrams of 20 words from Port Darwin to the following destinations were as shown:

Aden £8 2s 0d
France £8 6s 6d
Germany (North) £8 5s 6d
Great Britain and Ireland £8 10s 0d
London £8 9s 0d





For every additional 10 words - half of these rates.

Postage on messages:

in addition to the rates to those stations.

The above rates - which had to be prepaid - were exclusive of any charges the South Australian Government might impose for the conveyance of messages by the Horse Express established over the unfinished portion of the Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Port Darwin.

The charges were established after a complex balancing amongst the various companies involved - namely the China Submarine Telegraph Company (Limited), British Indian Extension Telegraph Company (Limited), British Indian Submarine Telegraph Company (Limited), Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company (Limited), Marseilles Algeria and Malta Telegraph Company (Limited), Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company (Limited) and the Anglo - American and French Atlantic Telegraph Companies.


1.2: Australia to England rates: 1876 to 1902.

In 1876, the cable rates were based on a per word cost as opposed to the previous 20 word message.
Subsequent rate changes (Australia to England) based on the new basis can be summarised as follows:

Effective date of change New rate per word
January 1876 10s 6d per word (see below).
1 January 1877 10s 8d. a word (an additional 2d.)
18 February 1886 2/8 per word (Press rate).
1 July 1886 9s 4d
May 1890

5s on ordinary rate cables.
4s 5d for Government messages.
1s 2d for Press messages.

1 May 1891 4s.
1 January 1893 4s 9d (the traffic did not increase sufficiently to make up the difference for the 1891 reduction)
7 July 1897 5/1 per word from Queensland to England.
1 May 1900 4s. on ordinary rate telegrams;
3s. on Government telegrams;
1s 6d on press messages.
1 January 1901 3s 6d
1 January 1902

3s. on ordinary rate telegrams;
2s. on Government telegrams;
1s. on press messages.

The introduction of a flat fee of 10s 6d per word to Europe, introduced in 1876, brought with it additional regulations as is shown in the following article from the Maitland Mercury of 27 January 1876.

"For some time, there was an agitation on foot amongst these who are compelled to use the submarine telegraph cables to a great extent, to procure an alteration in the system of doing business. They desire to have the rates fixed at per word, instead of having a minimum price fixed below which no message would be taken. The companies agreed after a while to comply with their wishes but they took care at the same time to accompany the boon by an alteration in the regulations which certainly appears to leave the balance of advantage greatly in their favour.

A correspondent, whose letter appeared in our issue of Wednesday, complains most bitterly of the new system. By the old arrangement a message to London was £9 8s 6d. Twenty words under the new tariff at 10s 6d per word cost £10 1s 0d ; but then the sender has the option of forwarding as many less as he may wish. But while any words were transmitted before, none must exceed ten letters now, or the excess is charged for.

But the greatest grievance remains to be noticed. Hitherto, it appears, when messages have arrived in an unintelligible state, and it has been necessary to repeat them, the Cable companies have granted repetitions for the particular portions of the message complained of. In the event of the error being found to rest with the administration, they have passed such repeats free to the receiver. Now, however, they not only refuse to repeat anything except at a charge of 50 per cent of the original cost, but they actually require the receiver to pay for the inquiry into their own blunders. According to Mr. Linden, Reuter's agent in this city, persons in Melbourne requiring to have two words repeated, must pay for nine, viz., £4 14s. 6d. It has seldom been our lot, notwithstanding a tolerably familiar acquaintance with the extraordinary proceedings of joint stock companies, to hear of more disgraceful imposition. The cable proprietors actually make profitable business out of their own wrong doings. If this is the best the celebrated St. Petersburg convention could do for tho telegraphing public, it is a pity it ever met. Surely such conduct must beget opposition".

The details of the rate changes for Cable Telegrams were as follows:

"The following regulations affecting cable traffic will come into action on and after the 1st January, 1876.
Postmaster-General and Superintendent. Adelaide,
December 31, 1875.


The following are the conditions under which messages will be transmitted on and after January 1, 1876:

1. The length of a word be limited —a maximum of ten letters.

2. Only ordinary dictionary words should be used. Artificially-constructed words are subject to the cypher rate.

3. Groups of figures may be transmitted and will be charged at the rate of five to the word; if expressing ordinary commercial quotations, but if used for code purposes they will be subject to the cypher rate.

4. Groups of letters or artificially-constructed words will be treated in the same manner as figures.

5. Cypher telegrams must be “collated” i.e., repeated back in their entirety from station to station. Half-rate extra is charged for collation.

6. Any combination of code, employing in the same message groups of figures and letters, is strictly prohibited and telegrams composed in this manner cannot be accepted.

7. Address may be written in code at the sender’s risk, under arrangement with the administrations concerned. The signature may also be a code word or the first word of the message may replace it.

8. The following abbreviated forms for expressing “reply paid”, “acknowledgement of receipt”, “collating” and “telegram to follow” have been agreed, so that only one (1) word need be paid for to convey these instructions:

  • Reply-paid, RP;
  • acknowledgment of receipt, Cr.;
  • collating, TC;
  • telegram to follow: ES.

Scale of charges for telegrams, inclusive of name and address, from any station in South Australia to places situated in following countries:

Destination Price per word
Aden 10s. 1d.
Algeria and Tunis 10s. 6d.
China-Hongkong 8s 2d
Amoy 9s 10d
Shanghai 9s 1d
Cochin China 6s 10d
Egypt 11s 4d
Europe 10s 6d
India—west of Chittagong 7s 10d
east of do 8s 1d
Ceylon 8s 1d
Payan (Nagasaki 11s 6d
Java 4s 3d
Penang 5s 8d
Persia (via Persian Gulf) 9s 11d
Russia in Asia 11s 6d
Singapore 5s 8d
Turkey in Asia (seaports) 9s 3d
do inland 9s 6d
do Archipelago 9s 9d
Europe via Hongkong and Amcor 16s 3d

Soon after the Australia-England cable commenced operation, strategies for reducing tarifs were proposed. One of these strategies was for participating governments to subsidise the costs. This strategy was indeed sound as is shown by the significant costs of submarine telegraphy to the public purse of sending financial statements to England. A note on the charges for Press telegrams is included elsewhere.

A note on the 1893 rate increase clarifies the situation especially with respect to the role of the subsidy:

"In May 1892 an agreement was made between the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania and the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, that the said colonies should bear 50 per cent of any loss for one year on the reduction of the telegraph rates to 4s. per word. Queensland and New Zealand declined to join the agreement and their rates of 9s. 5d. and 10s. 4d. respectively, remained the same as before.

At the close of the year, it was found that a loss had been sustained of £55,040, which was apportioned according to the agreement. It is now proposed by New South Wales and the other guaranteeing colonies to raise the tariff to 4s. 9d. per word, which is expected to reduce the loss to about £17,000, of which only about £8,000 would fall on the colonies. New Zealand is expected to join the other guaranteeing colonies and thus Queensland will be the only member of the Australian group standing out.

Some people wanted to point out the hardship borne by persons in Great Britain in having to pay 9s. 5d. a word for telegraphing to Queensland when the tariff to the other colonies will be only 4s. 9d. a word; and the loss to be made up by the colony if she joined the others, would, according to estimate, amount to only £800. It was however thought that this shortfall would be more than made up by increased business. It was further pointed out that Queensland would save considerably by being enabled, as a guaranteeing colony, to send Government messages for about 3s. 10d. a word, and thus save the pockets of the taxpayers in another direction".

From 1 June 1953, ordinary (full rate) messages rose:

Proportionate increases were made in the rates for letter telegrams and for social greetings telegrams.


2. Rates to New Zealand.

From 21 February 1876:

Queensland to New Zealand:

Ten (10) words, ten shillings and sixpence (10s. 6d.) and one shilling for each additional word;
the address and signature were counted as part of the message at the cable rate of ninepence (9d.) per word.


3. Rates to South Africa.

When the agreement between the Governments of South Australia and Western Australia with the Eastern Extension Company was reached in July 1899, cable rates were reduced for the whole of Australia, including Tasmania, to a uniform tariff of 4s. per word on private or ordinary messages, 3s. per word on Government messages and 1s. 6d. per word on Press messages.

The establishment of the Cape cable had the effect of reducing the cost of messages to South Africa by more than one-half. There was an immediate and significant increase in the business being transacted. Formerly the messages had to go to South Africa via England. The saving on a single cablegram was of the order of £5 to £6.


All this talk about lowering cable rates reminds us of the comment by Henniker Heaton who said there will not be the least difficulty in reducing cables rates by at least 50%. This is another way of saying that we have been paying double for years.

A problem often arose when Australian rates and procedures were at odds with international conventions. The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the problem on 7 February 1948 in Column 8:

THERE'S a sliding scale for overseas telegrams - urgent, full-rate, deferred letter telegrams, and so on. The real idea is that your deferred message, which costs less, should wait until the other, more expensive messages have been transmitted.

But this has been perverted, under international regulations, to mean that the message can't be sent to you earlier than the second morning after the date on which it was lodged. This often means that the message lies in the Sydney office waiting for the time to expire.

And that, of course, is what Mr. Chifley would call just plain silly.

It's made sillier by the fact that airmails are catching up with the overseas telegram and that the forty-hour week is causing offices to close from Friday evening till Monday morning - so that a telegram lodged in London or New York on a Thursday is not delivered until Monday, although it may have been received here on a Friday.