On 21 October 1872 readers of Melbourne newspapers scanned the latest news from Europe. The reports included news that the Emperors of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary had met to discuss the uneasy peace after the recent Franco-Prussian war, the Portuguese government was battling against a mutiny in the army, and that Catholics in Bavaria were rioting against the Bismarck governments treatment of Jesuits. But this ‘latest news’ was already six weeks old.

The long delay in getting the news is hard to imagine for someone today. Still harder to imagine is the experience of the early colonists in Sydney who first heard of the July 1789 French revolution eleven months later, in June 1790, (1788 by Watkin Tench, p.128).

However, by late October 1872 the speed which news travelled was increasing exponentially. Long distance communication with Europe had become ‘instantaneous’ according to a 19th century perception. By 23 October 1872, Argus readers only had to wait 24 hours to learn about the English dock worker strikes and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England. The completion of the final chain in the electric telegraph link with Europe had made this possible.

News from Europe arrives in 1872.

The Argus, 23 October 1872

This direct link with Europe was the highlight of decades of building telegraph lines in Australia in the 19th century. The Melbourne to Williamstown telegraph service opened in 1854 and was the first in Australia. By the 1870s the network of telegraph lines had made communication much quicker.

Map of Victoria showing railway system, post offices, telegraph offices and lines.
Railway postal & telegraph map of Victoria 1887

But it was not until the 21 October 1872 that the direct link with Europe was consistently operational for the public. The final stages of the links to Europe were in the Australian outback, as well as the submarine cable from Darwin to Java.

An 1876 engraving shows the submarine telegraph cable during repair in rough seas.
Repairing the Port Darwin and Banjoewangie cable, 

The impact of this development was revolutionary, and was perceived to be so at the time. The Sydney Morning Herald hailed the event as ‘the last great triumph of telegraphy’. It was something that ‘spread its ramifications over the surface of the whole world; and it possesses a capacity beyond any other thing known to place universal mind under one power’. But it was not long before there were complaints.

A little more than a week after the direct cable link to Europe was established the Bendigo Advertiser was complaining. News of events occurring in England over the weekend did not reach Australia for 2-3 days. The wires, it seems, were not operational on Sundays. ‘Not satisfactory’ thundered the Advertiser. Ignoring sabbatarian concerns, and in keeping with the sentiments of today’s online generation, it opined that it was ‘utter folly that communication should be stopped at any time’

The direct linkage of the telegraphic service was one of the high points of the age of telegraphy. Another was the direct link with North America in 1902. But the advent of radio and television during the 20th century saw the gradual erosion of telegraphic services and by 1993 Australia Post had ceased the telegram service altogether.

Written by Tim Hogan, Australian History and Literature Librarian


This article has 6 comments

  1. Nice post on telegraphy in C19 Australia. The technology lasted for over 100 years and had a late half life as a carrier of wedding tributes. The “romance of the telegraph” inspired both literary and musical tributes about Melbourne – https://gregtangey.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/one-perfect-day-ill-get-your-telegram/

  2. Thanks Greg, I had one of those wedding telegrams myself!

  3. How about the SLV presenting an exhibition on 1887 or that era , a transect across the globe, from Melbourne, through South and Central Australia(an amazing period for cross-cultural contact) through Batavia, Singapore and the British Raj in the subcontinent on into Europe and to the center of Empire in London. Rich stories, books , photographs and artefacts all the way. The world measured and assayed along the ‘thin red line’ of the telegraph! I would like to see that!

  4. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog.
    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you
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