Telegrams in WA

A Short History of the Telegraph Network in WA

Busselton Historical Society

Friday, 12 August, 2022 - 12:07

An electrical telegraph was a point-to-point text messaging system, used from the 1840s until the late 20th century when it was slowly replaced by other telecommunication systems. At the sending station switches connected a source of current to the telegraph wires. At the receiving station the current activated electromagnets which moved indicators, providing either a visual or audible indication of the text.

In 1837 Samuel Morse developed and patented a recording electric telegraph. Morse's assistant Alfred Vail developed an instrument that was called the register for recording the received messages which embossed dots and dashes on a moving paper tape by a stylus which was operated by an electromagnet. Together Morse and Vail developed the Morse code signalling alphabet, thus completing the components required for the first commercial Telegraph system. The first telegram in the United States was sent by Morse on 11 January 1838, across two miles of wire at Speedwell Ironworks, New Jersey.  However, it was a later transmission in 1844 over 44 miles from Washington to Baltimore that is credited as the first Telegram ever sent.

In the fledgling colony of WA Perth Newspaper proprietor Edmund Stirling, frustrated by colonial apathy, offered to build a telegraph line between Perth and Fremantle if the government would supply and erect the poles.  This was granted under the supervision of a conditional release Scottish ex-convict, James Fleming, who had been transported to Australia in 1864 for defrauding fellow Glaswegian tea merchants.  The first pole was placed in position at a spot near the foot of the Perth jetty by the Colonial Secretary, the Honourable Fred Barlee.  This was start of a long story which ended in 1993 when when other technological solutions rendered the Telegram redundant.

1869 21st June A 12 mile line to Fremantle was opened.  This was 25 years after the first telegram was sent in the USA from Washington to Baltimore and 15 years after the first telegram was sent in Australia from Melbourne to Williamstown.  Text of the first telegram transmitted by James Fleming:

To the Chairman of the Fremantle Town Trust.  His Excellency Colonel Bruce heartily congratulates the inhabitants of Fremantle on the annihilation of distance between the Port and the Capital and he requests that this first message may be publicly known.

Government House 12st June 1869

1870 May The Legislative Council passed a resolution authorising the construction of telegraph lines which would connect the towns of Albany, Bunbury, York, Newcastle (Toodyay) with Perth.  The Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed to construct those lines.  Initially all telegraphs in WA were privately owned. 

1872 28th December The connection between Perth and Albany was opened.  More telegraphists were urgently needed as the lines extended.  The resourceful superintendent overcame this problem by training new operators as he went.  With manpower scarce, many of the first telegraphists were young ladies.

1873 1st January 1873 The West Australian Post and Telegraph Department, who had been operating the lines since 1871, despite not owning them, became sole owners and operators of the colony’s telegraph system.  Stations then in service were Perth, Fremantle, Guildford, Toodyay, Northam, York, Pinjarra, Bunbury and Albany.

1881 Lines had been extended to Eucla in the south-east, Northampton in the north and Beverly and Busselton in the south. Planning started for the Northampton to Roebourne line.

1884 Planning started on extending the lines to Wyndham.  At 2000 miles long the Perth to Wyndham line is perhaps the longest direct line in the Commonwealth.  It was worked duplex from Perth to Broome and extended on a simplex line to Wyndham with repeaters at Mullewa, Marble Bar and Broome.

1886 Perth to Fremantle line upgraded to duplex.

1889 A submarine cable was landed at Broome providing international access and making WA independent of the Darwin to Adelaide line which connected to cables to Java laid in the 1870s.

1890s The typewriter was introduced relieving telegraphist of the burden of pen and ink.

1894 Perth to Coolgardie line was opened to cater for the influx of messages from the goldfields.

1896 Second wire added to the Perth to Adelaide line to cope with demand.

1900 The Postmaster General Richard Scholl reported that WA had 161 Telegraph Stations.

1901 The annual salary for a Telegraphist ranged from £130 - £170 depending on experience.

1923 September The Chief Telegraph Office (CTO) opened in Perth when the GPO building was completed in Forrest Place.

1929 The Imperial model 55 or gothic typewriter was introduced.

1954 The public telex service (TELetypewriter Exchange service) was introduced and offered a national and international system for sending and receiving information using teletypewriters which were better known as teleprinters.

1959 The Teleprinter Reperforator Exchange Switching System (TRESS) offering fully automated telegram switching was introduced.  This innovation signalled the end of Morse telegraphy.

1968 5th November the last message in Australia using Morse telegraphy was sent between Roebourne and Wittenoom Gorge in the north-west of WA.  This was just 8 months short of 100 years after the transmission of the first telegram in WA.

1986 21st June the Governor of WA, His Excellency Professor Gordon Reid, witnessed the end of an era with introduction of Australia’s first computer-based telegram service, known as the public message service which used the telex network.  Mechanical transmission was a thing of the past.  On this day Telecoms Chief Telegraph Office Supervisor, Jack Fleming, arranged for the same message to be sent to the Mayor of Fremantle as that which had been sent precisely 117 years ago by his namesake James Coates Fleming.

1989 28th January Perth Central Telegraph Office closed its keys and switched off its teleprinters at noon for the last time.  Fewer than 30 telegrams and telexes were handled on the last day.  Although the office had not handled WA generated telegrams since 2nd December 1988, it had continued to handle public telexes and overseas telegrams.   From this point forward all telegrams were handled by the Melbourne Telegraph Office.

1989 30th June Australia Telecom disposed of the national telegram business to Australia Post and the Lettergram service was born which was transmitted by telex and then mailed to the addressee.  Charging was per sheet not per word as the telegram.

1993 1st October The last mail-delivered Lettergram was sent in Melbourne by Australia Post at 1700 hours EST.

Whilst telegrams can now be sent from numerous online sites and the trademark telegram is now owned by a private company, the Telegraph Network was a fundamental part of the rollout of Australia's telecommunications network.

1880s photo showing telegraph / telephone line along Fremantle Rd, now Mts Bay Rd, Swan Brewery and Perth in the background. Image source RWAHS

1880s photo showing telegraph line along Fremantle Rd, now Mts Bay Rd, Swan Brewery and Perth in the background. Image source RWAHS