Western Australia.
James C. Fleming

James Coats Fleming was probably the most significant person in developing the vision as well as the technical aspects for the telegraph lines in Western Australia. Certainly he was strongly supported by others including Governor Weld and the newspaper proprietor Edmund Stirling.

In England

Fleming was born in 1834 in Wickford, Essex UK, and was a shipbroker merchant.

He was a young
colonist who had an exceptional intellect. He had arrived from England in 1864 where he had gained much experience in telegraphic science. His wife Emma and his son John followed him out to Western Australia and they had two more children after they arrived - Arthur Colvie and Oswald. He worked as a servant school master between 1867 and 1869.

Introduction to WA Telegaphs

Fleming also had the opportunity to become acquainted with the enterprising colonist Mr. Edmund Stirling - the owner of The Inquirer and Commercial News who offered him a job on his newspaper. During their discussions, Fleming convinced Stirling of the feasibility of establishing telegraphic communication between Perth and Fremantle at a moderate cost.

As noted elsewhere, Stirling strongly lobbied the Western Australian Government for permission to set up a company to build and operate a line between Perth and Fremantle. He soon obtained permission from the Government to erect a telegraph line and was given full support for the success of the project - especially from Governor Weld and Mr. Frederick Barlee, the Colonial Secretary. Not surprisingly, Stirling placed all technical aspects of the construction work in the hands of Mr. Fleming who would work in collaboration with the then Clerk of Works, Mr. R. R. Jewell. The first pole was erected at the foot of Barrack Street by the Hon. F. P. Barlee on the 9th of February, 1869 and the line was completed and opened for traffic on the 21st June of the same year. James Fleming sent the colony's first telegram - a message from the Governor to the people of Fremantle congratulating them on "this annihilation of distance between the port and the capital".

Fleming takes charge

In 1870, James Fleming was appointed Superintendent of Telegraphs for Western Australia - a post he held until 1877. Those eight years then covered the entire history of Western Australia telegraphy. The East-West line was complete and Western Australia had access to the Overland Telegraph line and hence to England and Europe. Messages then took 24 hours to travel a distance that once took six months by ship travelling there and back.

Western Australia was no longer isolated from the outside world. The Colony had James Coats Fleming to thank for making it possible.

When the Albany to Adelaide telegraph line was being planned and constructed, Fleming was in charge of all aspects. He personally wrote specifications, inspected the construction activity and was responsible for the negotiations with Charles Todd in Adelaide. He was an associate of the London Society of Engineers and was given full membership in 1878 in recognition of his significant contributions.

It is interesting to compare the nature of stories about the same person but told some time apart.

In the 1860s, Fleming's past was barely mentioned except that he had come from England. When Fleming died in 1893, the Western Australian ran a story under the banner:

Ex-convict aids in helping State join age of telecommunications.

The opening paragraph read: "A convicted swindler and a progressive newspaper proprietor were together responsible for bringing WA into the telecommunications age".

The untold story was that Fleming had been convicted of 'falsehood and forgery' in Glasgow on September 18, 1862. He apparently swidled some Glasgow tea merchants. He was sentenced to 7 years transportation and arrived in Western Australia as convict 7688 aboard the Clara on April 13, 1864. He was granted a Ticket-of-Leave on May 19, 1865, then a Conditional Release on February 29, 1868 and finally a Certificate of Freedom on October 9, 1871.

Since he was a convict, a physical profile is also available. At the time of his conviction he was 30-years-old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a long oval face, a fresh complexion and a stout appearance. He was described as a ship broker and was married with one child.

In the 1860's - thirty years before his death - the story was quite different - James Fleming's convict past was not mentioned.

Throughout his period in Australia, James Fleming lived in Fremantle and Perth. In August 1884, Fleming commissioned Courthope and Co to auction his furniture because "he is about removing". It was advertised as "of the best English manufacture and having been carefully used is is all respects equal to new". Details are printed in the West Australian on 5 August 1884.

Fleming died at Rev. D. Shearer's home on Sunday afternoon, 21 June, 1885 when he was 48-years-old. Apparently his death was not entirely unexpected as he had been in a critical condition for quite a while and there was little hope of him recovering. By great coincidence, he died on the 16th anniversary of day on which the first telegram had been transmitted from Perth to Fremantle.

Emma had died on 9 February 1885 - aged 42 years. His first Australian-born son Arthur died 11 April 1880, aged 6 months and his second Australian-born son Oswald died on 12 May 1881 also aged 6 months.

James was buried on Monday afternoon in the Presbyterian Cemetery at East Perth which is an interesting revelation in itself since his tombstone is in the Church of England section today. Other Presbyterian headstones were relocated into a reclaimed roadway in the cemetery after the Presbyterian Cemetery was converted into school playing fields in the 1950s.

The funeral was attended by officials from his department and a large number of friends. Rev. D. Shearer, Mr. A. Helmich, Mr. K. Veall, and Master Shearer were the chief mourners, and Rev. Shearer officiated at the grave.

His obituary concluded with the observation that his death would be "greatly regretted not only by his friends but by the general public also, for during his nearly twelve years career in the telegraph service of this colony he gained a large amount of goodwill and esteem".