Australia’s first telegraph line was erected between Melbourne and Williamstown in 1853 and 1854 by Samuel McGowan, a recently immigrated Canadian telegrapher. The line covered 17km and went into operation less than 10 years after the opening on 1 May 1844 of the first public telegraph line in the world linking Baltimore and Washington DC.
By 1861 there were 110 telegraph stations across the eastern colonies of Australia and in 1867 there were 2697km of line within Victoria, handling 122 138 messages. Following immense physical hardship and considerable logistical challenge the Overland Telegraph connecting Adelaide and Port Darwin was completed on 22 August 1872, using 36 000 poles.
In 1901 the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) was established to take over all postal and telegraphic services from the states and administer them on a national basis. The PMG progressively improved telegraphic equipment and telegram usage continued to climb, peaking at 35 million messages in 1945.
Thereafter, the telephone progressively eroded the use of telegrams, both because of the relative price of the two services and network service improvements. From 1954, teleprinters handled more and more traffic and in 1959 the transmission of telegrams was further enhanced by the introduction of an automated switching system.
Telegram traffic increased at Christmas and New Year with many seasonal greetings and other ‘social’ messages. I recall joining other young boys – no girls! – prior to Christmas 1955 at Hawthorn Post Office as a Junior Postal Officer (JPO) in an unusual relay message delivery system. Messages deemed to be non-urgent were carried by a boy JPO down Elizabeth Street to Flinders Street station, passed to another boy on a train who handed them out to a third JPO at Glenferrie Station who took them to the Hawthorn P.O. for delivery by other boys on their bicycles. Messages not carried by train were transmitted in the normal manner via teleprinter. The bicycle relay system was abandoned a few years later.
After the Christmas rush, I continued as a JPO, delivering telegrams on Saturday afternoons for another two years. During this period, the PMG was, according to noted Herald columnist E.W. Tipping, “running amuck in its efforts to force people to use postal district numbers” such as Hawthorn E2, Hawthorn East E3 and Camberwell E6 for addressing mail and telegrams.
Mr Williams, Hawthorn telegraphist, and I recognised that confusion was principally caused by Hawthorn East E3 area being delivered from the Camberwell Post Office rather than the Hawthorn Office. We submitted a joint suggestion that all Hawthorn East mail be delivered from the Hawthorn Post Office.
Nearly two years later, we received thanks and I received an award of £5 (equivalent to approximately $170 today).