Australia: Our national stories
By Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney
Australian Heritage Commission, 2003
Chapter 7: Communication by Post, Telephones and Telegraph, 1800-1970
- The Origins of Colonial Australia's Postal Services
- The Golden Age of Colonial Postal Services
- The English Mails
- The Telegraph in Colonial Australia
- Early Australian Telephones
- Federation and Australia's Post, Telegraph and Telephone Services
Until the invention of the electric telegraph, transport and communications were, in almost all cases, the same thing. The only exception was signalling by flags and semaphores, normally between ships, although in revolutionary France semaphores were developed to convey messages over long distances through relay stations, albeit very expensively. Various forms of transport could be used in different ways to enable people to communicate without the need for them to travel. Letters and messages have been part of humanity's cultural repertoire since before the dawn of literacy and civilisation but, by the time of the foundation of British colonies in Australia, such communication had developed into a regular industry.
The concept of a postal service operated by the government for the use of the public at a set fee was English, and dated from the reign of Charles I, who had opened the Royal Mails to the public in 1635. It was an important innovation, for it created the possibility of communication across relatively long distances to all literate people of even moderate means. The concept of a Royal Mail service thus came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. In the early years of the colony virtually all mail was official mail, so police and other officials handled deliveries. They unofficially carried such private mail as existed, although to send letters to England colonists normally had to make arrangements with ships' captains or their agents, who, for a fee, would agree to carry letters and then put them in the (by then regular) English or Irish posts.
The first regular mail service, like the first regular transport service in New South Wales, was by boat along the Parramatta River between Sydney and Parramatta. In 1803 an advertised rate of twopence per letter was established for private mail between the two settlements. This marked the beginning of postal services in Australia, although deliveries in each town remained haphazard and largely dependent, it would appear, on the goodwill of the police (generally secured by a modest fee). Private correspondence was not a luxury convicts could afford or use (since most were illiterate) so, apart from official correspondence, only officers and their wives were able to send and receive letters with any reliability. Under these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that postal facilities in as remote and peculiar (because most of its inhabitants were convicts) a colony as New South Wales were extremely limited.
Nonetheless, a regular collection and distribution of mail in New South Wales dates from as early as 1809 with the appointment of Isaac Nichols as postmaster. This was an interesting time for such a progressive innovation, for it was after the 'Rum Rebellion', which had deposed Governor Bligh, and before the arrival of his successor Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Often this military interregnum is seen as a period when little was done, and its government as hopelessly inept and corrupt, but Lieutenant Governor Foveaux certainly started something important with Nichols' appointment. Initially his task was confined to collecting mail from incoming ships' captains, and then passing it on to addressees in his home for the set (and rather expensive) fee of a shilling for a letter and up to five shillings for a parcel. Nichols was an emancipist for whom transportation to New South Wales had provided a great opportunity. He had been one of the colony's first shipbuilders and shipowners as early as 1803, and, following the Rum Rebellion, sided with the insurrectionaries, who appointed him to a number of positions including that of postmaster. Nichols served as postmaster until his death in 1819, all the while maintaining his ship owning, agricultural and other official roles as well.1
Nichols used his home on the corner of George Street and Circular Quay as Sydney's first post office. His successor, George Panton's home was not as conveniently located, so he opened the country's first post office building. Both Nichols and Panton ran the postal service as private concessionaires, keeping the profits for themselves. However, in 1825 the government assumed direct control of the postal service when the Legislative Council passed its first postal act. The postmaster was now salaried and no longer a private entrepreneur. Henceforth, New South Wales could make its own postal regulations without reference to British postal practice (although in reality the British post office had never operated in Australia). Although the postal service was now firmly in government hands, many of its functions, especially transport and delivery of letters and parcels, were contracted to private individuals and companies. This mixture of public and private has remained a characteristic of Australian postal administration ever since.
From 1828 the government began to invite tenders for mail carriage and delivery by both land and sea, and quickly a modest postal network developed, with road services as far as Bathurst and Goulburn (albeit only weekly) and sea services to Newcastle and Hobart. Rates were fixed at quite high levels - for instance a letter cost fourpence delivered to Parramatta and a shilling to Bathurst. At the same time the colony's first letter carrier was appointed to deliver mail in Sydney, thus beginning the separation of letter delivery from policing. Letter carriers' equipment included a handbell, and a leather bag with two pockets: one for paid and one for unpaid letters. In 1830 the post office began to occupy the site of the present General Post Office (or GPO) in George Street, and the next year the first letter boxes appeared in Sydney's streets and postal rates within the city were cut to twopence, at which price they would remain until 1911.
By 1845, both Sydney and Melbourne had two official deliveries a day and in 1849 uniform rates of postage (including twopence for a regular letter) were introduced and established across the colony. There had been an unsuccessful experiment with prepaid envelopes (issued at the bargain price of 1s 3d a dozen) in Sydney as early as 1838, but the old practice of having the addressee pay for postage died slowly. The reason appears to have been snobbery: a prepaid letter implied that the addressee could not afford to pay the postage. The famous penny black, the world's first prepaid adhesive stamp, was issued in London in 1840. After the failure of the prepaid letters of 1838 this innovation took a while to gain acceptance in New South Wales, whose first stamps were not issued until 1 January1850. Victorian stamps were issued as soon as the new colony was proclaimed the following year. Stamps meant the introduction of compulsory prepayment, which much simplified the operation of the postal service. Previously, either the sender or (more commonly) the recipient of mail would pay for the letter, depending on the circumstances.2
Meanwhile, as other Australian colonies were established, so were their postal services. Van Diemen's Land's postal service reflected the penal nature of the colony in using convict foot messengers as postmen, while Western Australia's was interesting because from 1841 the mail from England was unloaded not at Fremantle, but at Albany on King George Sound, from where it was taken by road to Perth. South Australia, as befitted a planned and rational community of free men and women, had a regular and efficient postal service on the English model right from the beginning, while postal development was slowest in Queensland, where Brisbane did not have a fulltime postmaster until 1852. By the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s a basic postal network, and the bureaucratic machinery needed for further expansion, existed in all the Australian colonies. Naturally the gold rushes massively stimulated the growth of the post offices, because population and demand for postal services increased. Moreover, gold and banknotes were always sent by post for security, making postal services that much more important.
During the 1850s postal services became far more regular, and the great colonial investment in postal infrastructure got under way. In 1849 there were already over thirty post offices in what would soon become Victoria, but after 1850 there was a spurt of post office construction in all the colonies. From the 1850s, each major rural centre had a postmaster of its own. The post office became a symbol of the presence of civilisation in many an outback town. Government architects built enormous post offices in major provincial towns as statements of the authority and presence of the government. In many towns, the post office was part of an official precinct, with the police station and courthouse built adjacent. If topography permitted, the railway station would be part of the same civic precinct. These buildings were designed intentionally to make a statement that the Australian colonies were civilised British countries. They contrast forcefully with post offices in the United States, which were not nearly as imposing or central to the identity of American frontier towns, despite these towns' many similarities with their counterparts in nineteenth century Australia. The post offices of Australian country towns in all colonies were monuments and symbols of state power, and remain as such to this day.
This was also the era when each of the colonies built imposing, even pretentious General Post Offices in their capitals. For sheer bravado and statement making, nothing quite exceeded Sydney's massive effort with its innumerable busts of Queen Victoria, opened in 1874 and extended in 1887 so that it occupied an entire city block. Melbourne's earlier and more modest General Post Office had opened in July 1867. Adelaide and Brisbane GPOs both date from 1872, while Hobart's was built much later and opened in 1905. In all cases these buildings were among the largest and most imposing in the colonial capital cities. They became the points from which road distances were measured throughout each colony and were administrative offices and sorting centres as well as public facilities for sending letters, parcels and telegrams. All ultimately were surmounted by a clock tower visible widely across the city, a clear symbol of the post office's role in regulating the pace of business and social interaction throughout each colony.
Delivery and transport of letters has been and remains undertaken by a dazzling variety of means. In the early colonial period letters were delivered on foot either by convicts or the police - one extreme or the other. However, as a free society developed and services became more widespread, horse transport was used. Nearly all means of transport from foot to air, including saddle horse but not horse coach transport, are still in use, so it is difficult to state with accuracy when one mode replaced another. Saddle horse and pack animals were used where terrain was rough in colonial Australia, and have been used ever since when necessary and appropriate. Intercolonial services were carried by sea until rail systems were linked. Coaching companies sought the prized mail contracts as a means of maintaining their cash flow from the time coaching began in the second decade of the nineteenth century. In 1863 Cobb and Co's coaches became the official carriers of mail in both New South Wales and Victoria, although the company had won many postal contracts before then. It was the stability of this official monopoly that enabled Cobb and Co to develop the large and high quality network of coaches, operating from railheads, which characterised its operations from the early 1860s right through until its last horses were harnessed (on a Royal Mail service) in western Queensland in 1924.3
As Cobb and Co's coaches faded from the scene, they were replaced either by rail transport; or, in later years and on less frequented routes, by trucks or buses contracted to carry the mail. Rail transport was used for mail from the inception of regular train services in New South Wales in 1855. The colonial governments always gave preference to rail transport for mail contracts if it was available, not only because rail was easily the fastest and most reliable transport around, but also because nearly all railways were owned by the same colonial governments which operated the post offices. As early as 1865, the first travelling post offices (TPOs) operated in Victoria. These were special vans attached to trains in which post office employees sorted the mail en route, enabling its prompt delivery as soon as the train reached its destination. Postal employees would also drop bags of mail at intermediate stations where the mail train stopped. This enabled letters to be posted at metropolitan terminal stations right up until the departure of a mail train bound up-country. Letters would then be sorted in the train overnight and would arrive at their destination the next day. This was a remarkably speedy postal service, and indeed a faster service to rural centres than exists today.
The railway networks took a long time to construct, and of course many postal routes, especially in the more remote parts of the country, were never busy enough to justify a railway. Thus, for more than a century after the first trains began carrying mail between Sydney and Parramatta (which had also seen the first regular postal service by water back in 1803), Australia's letters and parcels were carried on rail, road and sea. Shipping companies competed for the sea mail contracts, which remained important until coastal and interstate railways were completed. Thus, mail from the big cities to destinations such as North Queensland, the north coast of New South Wales, and Western Australia continued to be carried by sea until railways were completed to these places in 1922, 1923 and 1917 respectively.
TPO operations began in Queensland as early as 1877, when the first vans were put into use between Brisbane and Roma and Warwick. Services were extended over the next fifty years to the remotest corners of the state, as it by then had become. In 1911, for instance, a TPO began to ply between Cairns and Almaden on the Chillagoe line, and there were not too many more remotes places in the world with a railway than that. TPO services, though, came to an early end in Queensland, most being withdrawn between 1930 and 1932. This was because Queensland was the first state to have effective, safe and reliable air services, thanks both to its climate and the expertise of Q.A.N.T.A.S.'s management. In 1948 the Postmaster General's Department considered reintroducing TPOs in Queensland, but Queensland Railways were not interested.4
Similarly, but for different reasons, the last TPO in Victoria also was withdrawn in 1932, not because distances were so long as in Queensland, but rather because they were so short that sorting on the train did not really save a great deal of time. However, the real centre of Australian TPO operations was in New South Wales, where they continued in service until 1984, basically because the distance of the major rail termini from Sydney (about 400 miles or 700km) was just about the perfect length of an overnight trip by the frequently stopping mail trains. These trains, conveying mail, parcels and some passengers, remained the backbone of postal services in that state far longer than anywhere else in Australia.
Rail conveyance of mails had begun in New South Wales, with the opening of the Sydney to Parramatta Railway in 1855. Until 1863, and again for some time after 1870, an armed guard accompanied mail vans attached to trains, much like the guards on horse coaches. In fact, no mail train in colonial Australia ever was the victim of an armed robbery. Bizarrely enough, the only serious armed robbery on an Australian train was as late as April1930, when two armed and masked men robbed the Mudgee Mail Train of 18,203 as it began is climb of the Blue Mountains just 60 kilometres west of Sydney.5 Until 1869, mails travelled in the guard's compartment on trains, but in that year the first purpose-built mail vans were introduced on the long runs from Sydney to Goulburn and the railhead advancing to Bathurst and from Newcastle to the railhead in the upper Hunter valley. In 1879 the first vans with sorting facilities, in other words TPOs, were introduced, although there is some evidence that sorting on board New South Wales trains may have occurred before this. Nine new bogie vans were built in 1892, and the Railway Budget boasted in 1896 that, 'the splendid mail vans attached to mainline trains leaving Sydney daily … travelled 900,000 miles a year … for which they received 67,703 from the NSW Post Office.'6 TPO services continued to expand until the last run (between Sydney and South Grafton) was introduced as late as 1950.
From the opening of intercolonial railway connections, beginning with Sydney to Melbourne in 1883, and including Melbourne to Adelaide in 1887 and Sydney to Brisbane in 1889, intercolonial mail generally went by train rather than ship, since it was that much more reliable. No train ever sank (although a New South Wales mail train did once dive into a swollen creek) and very few ever burnt, so the mails and bullion were far more secure on the rails than anywhere else. Even the comparatively rare derailments and collisions would only delay rather than destroy the mails. Within colonies too, rail was preferred to sea transport even though it was a lot more expensive. For instance, before the completion of the coastal railway in 1923, mails for the north coast region of New South Wales were taken by train to northern tablelands stations then by Cobb and Co coach to towns such as Grafton and Lismore, rather than on the direct steamers from Sydney. From 1883, when the railway bridge over the Murray opened completing the connection of the two cities by train, a letter posted in Sydney one afternoon would be delivered in Melbourne the next, a speed which has not been bettered since.
New South Wales TPO services came to an abrupt end in 1984, when Australia Post (as the PMG's Department had become by then) suddenly terminated all rail carriage of mail, and bought is own fleet of road trucks.7 This was because there were so many long strikes in the railway industry in the early 1980s that Australia Post was acquiring a reputation for unreliability it could not sustain. It was a sad end to what had been a close and mutually sustaining relationship between two industries for well over a century.
By the late nineteenth century, the colonial post offices operated to virtually every corner of the continent. The first mail arrived at Birdsville in the extreme southwest of Queensland as early as 1886, carried by saddle and pack horse over the long track from the new South Australian railhead at Marree. In 1898 the bicycle began to be used by postmen clearing pillar boxes and delivering mail. Bicycles were cheaper and easier to use than horses in many urban contexts. Soon after, the first deliveries were being made by motor vehicles. Around 1900 all different sorts of vehicles with an enormous variety of means of traction carried the bright red livery and yellow lettering 'VR' (later 'ERVII' and the 'GRV') and 'Royal Mail'. In Sydney, steam and then electric trams carried letterboxes where mail could be posted in the suburbs for prompt delivery to the post office. In the outback the saddle and packhorse still delivered much of the mail; and horse-drawn coaches (until 1924) and even camel-powered wagons were employed carrying the Queen's mails.
The post offices were so important in colonial social and economic life that they were under the control of a cabinet minister, known as the postmaster-general. Like all public institutions at the time, the colonial post offices became centres of pork-barrelling and political intrigue. Every rural electorate wanted improved postal services, just as it wanted new railways and improved roads and bridges, so the postmaster-general's position was a powerful one in the colonial cabinets. During the 1860s, the post offices rapidly acquired ancillary services, most notably the burgeoning telegraphs and banking facilities. All colonies had some sort of government savings bank, in some cases owned by the post office, in others using the post offices as agencies. All these services meant that post offices, like railway stations, were focal centres of social interaction on country towns in colonial Australia, and also played a similar role in the growing suburbs of the big cities.
The exact details of the management of post offices differed between the colonies. In most cases the Postmaster General was a politician with cabinet rank, although in South Australia Sir Charles Todd, who was a bureaucrat, held the office. At an intercolonial postal conference in 1887, delegates agreed on the need for uniform tariffs rates, as postal communications became so much faster and more frequent. They were less able to agree on exactly what these should be however, and uniformity had to wait until a decade after Federation. Interestingly enough, Todd, probably because of his status and continuity of service in running South Australia's postal services (and telegraphs and telephones as well) tended to be the strongest voice for maintaining state control of post offices after Federation.
Easily the most important postal service in colonial Australia was the English mails. Colonies by definition depended on the mother country for capital, management, news and decisions, so the English mails had a status which no other postal service could emulate. The routes by which the English mails reached the major Australian cities varied over the years. In the early period, when all shipping was official, mail was carried on vessels under charter to the government or by East India Company ships. Until 1833, the East India Company had an official monopoly of British trade in eastern waters. This meant that it was on Company ships that most mail reached the Australian colonies until this time. There were of course illegal trading voyages, since the East India Company monopoly was extremely difficult to police, and American ships also occasionally called at Sydney and other Australian ports. These rarely carried mail.
After the end of the EIC monopoly, its ships and similar vessels were given contracts for individual voyages, and the Admiralty also continued to take mail when it sent a vessel to Australian waters. The improvements in shipping in the 1840s and 1850s with the invention of the clipper ship, as discussed in chapter 2 above, greatly accelerated the mail service from England, which now regularly reached Melbourne in from ten to twelve weeks after departure, on the wild non-stop voyages which characterised those years. These were still on the basis of fee for each voyage, although this would change during the 1850s.
During the heyday of the clipper ships and auxiliary steamers (fast sailing ships fitted with an auxiliary steam engine which was only used when winds were unfavourable) in the 1850s and early1860s, the mails normally went direct to Melbourne from their English port, most commonly Liverpool at that time. These ships followed the so-called Great Circle route, which took them into the Antarctic waters. It was the shortest and fasted route, but had its hazards in the wild seas of the far south of the Southern Ocean. From Melbourne, the mails were forwarded to the other colonial capitals by coastal steamers.
This situation would change with the beginning of regular services by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. The first commercial contract for the carriage of mail by sea had been signed in London in 1837 between the Post Office and the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company. It provided for a weekly steamer service between Falmouth and a number of Portuguese and Spanish ports. Previously mails had been carried either by the Admiralty (these were, after all, Royal Mails) or, east of Suez, more commonly by vessels of the British East India Company. In 1840 the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company was reconstituted by Royal Charter as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (or simply P&O) and began a monthly mail service from England to Alexandria in Egypt. In 1842 P&O won the mail contract for steamer voyages between Suez and Calcutta, extended the following year to Singapore and Hong Kong. The Company used Galle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as the port where its services connected, although this was later changed to Colombo. Initially transport of mails and passengers from Alexandria to Suez was by steamer on the Nile to Cairo and then by the company's 3,000 camels across the desert, but the opening of Africa's first railways in 1854 from Alexandria to Cairo and in 1858 from Cairo to Suez, modernised this leg of the service.
Following the gold rush and the sudden commercial importance of the Australian colonies, the British government invited tenders for a mail steamer service to Australia. The plan was for it to operate as an adjunct to the China service to Hong Kong and Shanghai, connecting with the China steamers at Singapore. The ships were to run every two months, from Singapore to Sydney, stopping at King George's Sound (modern Albany), Adelaide and Melbourne. P&O predictably enough won the contract, and so sent their new steamer Chusan, named after an island off Shanghai indicating she had been intended for the China service, to Sydney instead. Thus, on 3 August 1852 the Chusan became the first steamer to bring mail to Australia, travelling on her maiden voyage via Cape Verde and the Cape of Good Hope. She then made the first regular mail steamer run to Singapore on the contracted route, taking six weeks. The run was shared by a similar vessel, the Shanghai.8
However, despite all the enthusiasm the arrival of the Chusan had generated in Sydney, P&O soon found the service hopelessly uneconomic and withdrew it after just two years. It was still far quicker and much cheaper to reach Australia from England by clipper ship or auxiliary steamer non-stop by the Great Circle route. The British government called fresh tenders, and the successful bidder was the European and Australian Royal Mail Company, which made a complete break with traditional maritime routes to Australia and operated its service from Sydney to Panama, crossing the isthmus on the new Panama Railroad, before continuing by steamer across the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Although the contract was for five years, the new route proved no more profitable than the old, and services ceased once again after just two years.
In 1858 a new contract was advertised, this time from Suez to the same Australian ports via Aden and Mauritius. P&O was the successful tenderer once again, and the service began, although it was rerouted from Mauritius to Galle in Ceylon after two years. Thereafter the service was permanent and, although there were variations in the exact route over the decades, continued in P&O's hands (shared after 1888 by the Orient Line which P&O eventually would absorb) until the 1960s. The 1858 contract provided for a transit time of 55 days from London to Sydney. At this time, and for 12 years after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the mails were transhipped by rail across Egypt (it was faster and cheaper than the canal), and once again at Galle. This service was extremely complex: a steamer from London to Alexandria; then rail across Egypt to Port Said on the Red Sea; then a steamer to Galle in Ceylon, stopping at Aden and Bombay on the way. At Galle (later Colombo), the fulcrum of the whole enterprise, the Australian mails were separated from the China and Singapore mails, then shipped across the Indian Ocean to King George's Sound (later replaced by Fremantle as the Western Australian port), Adelaide, and Melbourne and Sydney.
This remained the basic mail steamer route between England and Australia until the 1960s, when it was superseded by airmail. Thus, for more than a century, the history of the English mails essentially was the history of P&O and its rival, the Orient Steam Navigation Company. Services improved from monthly to weekly, and their speed increased too with improvements to ship technology. By the 1890s the voyage was taking about a month, a time hardly improved over the next century. The fastest passage ever by one of P&O-Orient Lines' Royal Mail liners was right at the end of the era: it was the maiden voyage of the RMS Oriana in December 1961, which reached Sydney from Southampton in just 27 days.
Although the most important mail contracts were those of the British government, many other mail steamers also operated to Australian ports. By the 1890s most major countries were running their own subsidised mail services to Australia, operated by famous lines such as the French Messageries Maritimes, Norddeutscher Lloyd, and Austro-Hungarian Lloyd (after 1919 reconstituted under Italian instead of Austrian ownership as Lloyd Triestino). The French and German services existed essentially to serve their colonies in the Pacific, and stopping in Australian ports was a useful way of attracting more patronage than their colonies could offer, as well as an opportunity to coal. There were also trans-Pacific services operated by British, Canadian and American companies.
The Australian colonies were themselves subsidisers of mail steamers, since their post offices operated independently of the British mails. Thus, the New South Wales government even began operating its own mail service from Sydney to London from 1883. It contracted the Orient Steam Navigation Company to run the service, specifying a transit time of 39 days from Melbourne to London. The mails went from Sydney to Melbourne by rail, both to save time and to provide revenue for the railways. This service began when the railway was completed from Sydney to Melbourne, and broke the P&O monopoly. This monopoly was never recovered, for from 1888 the British government's mail contracts were shared between the two lines as well.9 During the 1880s the Queensland government also had its own mail contracts for a service from Brisbane and other Queensland ports to Singapore through the Torres Straits and stopping in Surabaya or Batavia. This was a hazardous route, abounding in reefs and cyclones, and, after some spectacular shipwrecks the Queenslanders learned to live with their geography which meant that they were the last Australian colony to receive the mails from England.
This transhipment of the English mails onto trains to complete their journeys, beginning with the service between Melbourne and Sydney, became more widespread with opening of other Australian intercolonial railways. When the railway opened between Melbourne and Adelaide in 1887, Port Adelaide became the transhipment point for all the eastern colonies. Special mail trains ran from Largs jetty (near Port Adelaide) to the Adelaide GPO. These trains were arranged as soon as the lighthouse keeper at Cape Borda (on Kangaroo Island) sighted the steamer from Colombo and telegraphed Adelaide with news of the ship's imminent arrival. From Adelaide, a special mail train ran to Melbourne with the mails for Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.10 The Victorian Post Office sorted the Melbourne mails on board the train as soon as it cleared customs at Serviceton on the South Australia-Victoria frontier, so they could be delivered the day after their arrival in Adelaide.
From Melbourne, another Victorian special train carried the English mails on to Albury, where the New South Wales special took over for the overnight leg to Sydney, as fast as the locomotives could run.11 By 1900, these trains were scheduled to run weekly, and arrived in Sydney very early in the morning - so that the English mails could be delivered with the first mails of the day - after a fast overnight run from Albury. From Sydney, the special train ran north to Newcastle and then on to Wallangarra for transhipment to a Queensland train for Brisbane and other Queensland destinations. Thus, a day after the mails arrived in Sydney, they reached Brisbane. This transhipment of the English mails at Port Adelaide and the connecting special mail trains lasted until 1917, when completion of the Trans-Australia Railway enabled Fremantle to take up the role. There was no question of running special trains for the English mails right across the continent, however, so, although faster, the English mail service via Fremantle never had quite the same sense of urgency and style as the Port Adelaide service had enjoyed.
The P&O domination of the English mails lasted until the beginnings of airmail services in the 1930s. As discussed in chapter 8, most of the flights in the pioneering age of civil aviation in Australia carried small quantities of mail. Mail was even carried by aeroplanes participating in air races such as the MacRobertson race from London to Melbourne in 1934. The critical event in establishing regular airmail services across the world was the experimental flights by Imperial Airways of April 1931. The experiment was none too successful, since the scheduled aeroplane crash-landed near Kupang in Dutch Timor, and the mail was 'rescued' by Charles Kingsford Smith, arriving after the contract time had elapsed. However, the return flight was sufficiently successful for regular services to commence on 10 December 1934. At first terminating in Cootamundra (from where the mail was sent on to Sydney and Melbourne by rail), from 1938 it was covered by flying boats landing in Sydney. This was part of a gigantic Empire airmail scheme, which had Cairo as its fulcrum. For a set fee, airmail could be sent to any destination in the British Empire. Cairo was the central junction, where services from Asia and Australasia to the east, Britain and Canada to the west, and Africa to the south all met and mailbags were exchanged.
Airmail services to England were suspended along with the air passenger service after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1944. When an alternative route was opened via Colombo, the distance of non-stop flying was so enormous that airmail letters could not be conveyed. As an alternative, the Post Office offered the airgraph letter. This had been developed in England to enable large quantities of mail to be conveyed extremely economically. Letters were written on a standard form, then microfilmed. The microfilms were flown to their destination, where photographic prints were made of the letters which could then be delivered. It was expensive and cumbersome, but it certainly saved weight on desperate wartime flights. The airgraph service was abandoned at the end of the War, and indeed, such were the improvements in aircraft design, that from July 1944 regular airmail services were resumed, still using the route via Colombo.
After the War, airmail services quickly resumed and expanded rapidly, to the extent that by 1970 the regular P&O-Orient Line services had come to an end, and virtually all letter mail was taken by air. Prices for airmail fell rapidly after World War II, as aeroplane technology improved and payloads increased. The aerogramme or air letter, written on a standard form which could be sealed and with a set fee for delivery anywhere in the world, was a very popular post-war innovation which replaced the airgraph. Such mail as went by sea, mostly parcels, was shipped in containers by freighters, anonymous vessels compared with the old liners, no longer running to regular schedules and certainly no longer carrying the prestigious prefix RMS, or Royal Mail Steamer. For more than a century this prefix had been a guarantee of punctuality and style across the oceans separating Australia from what most Australians had once but no longer saw as the Mother Country.
The telegraph was developed more-or-less simultaneously in Britain and the USA. The first patent of an electric telegraph dates back to 1837, but the more general adoption of the telegraphic system did not occur until after Samuel Morse's successful trial in May 1844, when he sent a message from Washington to Baltimore. Suddenly the telegraph became enormously popular and rapidly spread in the USA. By 1851 there were over fifty companies operating telegraph lines, twelve of them amalgamating to form the Western Union Company in 1856, a unified service from coast to coast in America.12 Samuel McGowan brought the telegraphy technology to Australia in 1853. Australia's first electric telegraph connection ran from Melbourne to the nearby port of Williamstown, the first message being received in March 1854. Later in the year the wire was extended to Geelong and Queenscliff. One of the early important messages transmitted by telegraph in Australia was the first account to reach Melbourne of the Eureka rebellion on the gold fields at Ballarat later that year. From the beginning, the telegraph service was run by the colonial post office administration.
Telegraphs were cheap to install, the main cost being the copper wires. No heavy engineering was involved, and the telegraph machines themselves were cheap and easy to manufacture. By 1858, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were connected. Tasmania, not far behind, was connected in 1859. The telegraph provided a means of exchanging messages between the distant cities and towns of Australia, thousands of miles away in the mere space of minutes. The reality of connecting people so immediately enhanced the desire to connect Australia in a similar way with the world. News from afar came on the Royal Mail Ships, but it typically took sixty to eighty days to reach Australia from Europe in the 1850s, reduced to about forty days in the 1870s.
The idea arose to connect Australia with the world by telegraph. There was initial scepticism surrounding the task of establishing an international telegraph line. Scepticism arose because of language barriers involved in crossing other countries and the wires crossing the seas. This, however, was soon overcome with the success of Cyrus W. Field in joining Ireland to Newfoundland with the first lasting and successful transatlantic telegraph in 1865. There had been earlier attempts at laying cables under the Atlantic, but all had failed. Field's cable, laid by I. K. Brunel's enormous vessel the Great Eastern, established that it was possible to inaugurate - and more importantly maintain - immediate intercontinental communication. All this of course was at a cost, for in its early years an intercontinental telegraph message typically cost about a day's wage per word. It was not a tool for social greetings!
Very quickly following the transatlantic success, telegraph lines were being laid around the world, and in 1870 cables from England reached India, Singapore, Batavia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan.13 Messages could be relayed and received within hours across the globe. Neither business nor diplomacy would ever be the same again. At this stage submarine cables were actually easier to lay and maintain than overland cables, since the latter could more easily be damaged, and also they required repeater stations at regular intervals. Once the cable network had reached Batavia, it was not that far from Australia, but the great problem was not the submarine connection to Darwin but the overland route across the sparsely inhabited and rather hostile interior of the continent.
No other telegraph project in Australia, and few anywhere in the world, had quite the same renown or ambition as the overland telegraph from Adelaide to Port Darwin. It was conceived and executed amazingly quickly after the continent was first crossed from north to south. The lavishly funded Melbourne-based Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-1 had this end in mind, but ended in spectacular failure and the death of its protagonists. The rapid advance in transport and communications at this time, though, is illustrated by the fact that the expedition set out from Melbourne mounted on camels, and its emaciated survivor completed his return to the city in the comfort of a first-class railway compartment. Burke and Wills' tragic failure, though, was quickly followed by John McDouall Stuart's rather less spectacular (because less publicity and fewer expectations were engaged) success in 1862. Certainly, much was learned about how to survive in inland Australia in the few years after Burke and Wills' failure, but it was still difficult terrain indeed for a project as ambitious as an overland telegraph.
No sooner had Stuart returned to Adelaide than the South Australian government conceived the plan of building an overland telegraph to Port Darwin to connect with the submarine cable from Singapore which the Eastern Extension Company then was planning to lay. There was some discussion of the other colonies assisting with the costs, but these came to nothing, and this truly national work was funded in its entirety by South Australia, indeed often in the face of outright hostility from Queensland.
Nonetheless, in 1870 the South Australian government (which had acquired the Northern Territory in 1863) built the telegraph from Adelaide to Port Augusta, in effect the first stage of the line to Darwin. Then it entered into negotiations with the British Australian Telegraph Company, then laying a submarine cable from Java to Darwin. This cable would have no traffic without the overland connection to the populated parts of the continent. South Australia, confronted with rivalry from Queensland (whose route from Darwin in truth was rather easier) signed a contract promising to build a telegraph to Darwin in just eighteen months. Thus it called for tenders for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line which would connect Adelaide with Darwin (a distance of 3200km) and thus Australia with the rest of the world.
Charles Todd (1826-1910), the very eager and talented South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs who had successfully connected South Australia to Melbourne by electric telegraph in 1865, was in charge of the project. Todd was talented and intelligent, having been appointed direct from London where he had worked at Greenwich Royal Observatory, the place where so many great advances in communications and navigation had their origins. Todd at first had preferred a route through Perth and along the western coast of the continent, but soon rallied to the idea of following John McDouall Stuart's pioneering route to Darwin straight through the centre of the continent. This route, like many in the semi-desert conditions of the interior, followed indigenous tracks linking permanent water which had been used for many millennia.
The route north from Adelaide was divided into three regions. The northern section from Port Darwin to Roper River and the southern section from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta were both let out to private contractors, while the government took on the most isolated and difficult 970km central section. As Todd had fifteen years of experience in telegraph line construction he gave detailed instructions to all contractors with meticulous attention to detail. He was very much a hands-on manager, and spent much of early 1872 in the Northern Territory personally reassuring workers of the importance of the project and cleaning up after a contractor's failure. Indeed, it is interesting that all the serious problems and causes of cost overruns and delays were on the northern section, and were caused by flooding and the extremes of the monsoonal wet season. On the southern and central sections, passing through the arid heart of the continent, the contracts were so well managed that there were no serious problems at all. And this was just a decade after Burke and Wills had perished in precisely such country.
For various reasons such as drought, monsoonal flood, strikes, contractors' incompetence, and above all the remote and often-inhospitable nature of the terrain, completion took two years. This was longer than anticipated and worried both the government and the British Australian Telegraph Company, both of whom stood to lose badly from delay. Moreover, a competing line running across Queensland was in the offing. However, the British Australian Telegraph Company continued its contract with South Australia. The completion of the Overland Telegraph on 22 August 1872 and of the submarine cable from Java to Darwin two months later created Australia's link to the world and was one of the milestones in Australian history. It had an enormous psychological impact, as suddenly news from Europe arrived in Australia the day it happened. The Sydney Morning Herald labelled the Overland Telegraph as 'a great instrument of modern civilisation'. Todd of course became a celebrity and was on his way to high honours, ultimately becoming Sir Charles Todd KCMG FRS.14
On its opening day, Todd sent the first message: 'We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousands miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert.' Despite the need for repeater stations and changes of cable, messages from England to Australia from October 1872 only took about 24 hours. The Overland Telegraph was an amazing feat for its time, although it was of course technically far easier than the subsequent railway building across the continent. The cost of the line, including eleven repeater stations, was 239,588; double the original estimate and no fewer than 36,000 poles had been erected. The work had cost the lives of six men, a remarkably low figure in view of its many difficulties, variety of climatic extremes, the isolation of workplaces, and the medical technology available at the time. The eleven repeater stations were about 200 kilometres apart and located (northwards from Port Augusta) at Beltana, Strangways Springs, The Peake, Charlotte Waters, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Powell Creek, Daly Waters and Yam Creek. The line and its repeater stations led to the regional development of Australia in the central regions as travellers began to move along the telegraph route, while employees and workers also moved along the line maintaining it.
The Overland Telegraph was responsible for the development of Alice Springs as a significant settlement, and later as the centre of the pastoral industry and railhead for Central Australia. It also boosted the grazing industry and desire to explore the Northern Territory, explorers and graziers using the repeater stations as bases. The Overland Telegraph's repeater stations, like the coaching inns before it on the roads of early colonial New South Wales, formed the basis of the new towns of the Territory. Gold was discovered in the Northern Territory the same year the line opened, Adelaide investors ensuring the construction track became the new north road. Mail services also developed as a result, with the regular delivery of mail to Government Gums (later optimistically renamed Farina) and Hergott Springs (later Marree) from 1870 onwards along a 3,000km track.15
The Overland Telegraph achieved the aims of the builders, connecting Australia to the rest of the world and paving the way for rapid development of the rest of the colonies' telegraphic connections. By 1877 there were 23,474 miles of telegraph line in operation. That same year, Todd completed his last great pioneering work, the telegraph connecting Perth with Adelaide and the rest of eastern Australia. The telegraph service continued to grow and expand in both size and speed over the next twenty years. In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century telegraph traffic nationally increased from 8 million to 18 million telegrams lodged per year. As part of the moves towards Federation in 1901, the Todd Committee, chaired by the now septuagenarian builder of the Overland Telegraph, was established to analyse the telecommunications systems for a future federated system, and recommended many changes to improve efficiency and speed.16
Independent and quite separate from the post offices' public telegraphs were the railway administrations' own telegraph networks. These were built as part of the railways and were used both for railway safeworking purposes (most crucially on single lines) and for the railways' commercial and administrative communications. Telegraph wires were strung along virtually every railway line in the country, and staffed stations were all in telegraphic communication with each other. Once telephones were introduced, the railway administrations all developed their own telephone networks, using the existing railway telegraph lines. Because railways needed communications engineers to develop and maintain their signalling systems, their installation and maintenance of independent telegraph and telephone systems was a relatively straightforward matter. These railway telephone networks have been upgraded progressively and remain in use to the present.
Soon after the Canadian Alexander Graham Bell's invented the telephone in 1876, it took on many forms as it was developed and improved by various users. The first words spoken over the telephone had a far greater impact on the world faster than its creator could ever have imagined. The incredibly rapid rise and spread of the telephone mirrored the equally rapid rise of the telegraph a generation earlier. It was an invention whose time had come.
The first installation of a regular telephone service in Australia was as early as 1878 when the Melbourne firm of Messrs McLean Brothers and Rigg connected their Elizabeth Street head office with their Spencer street office about a kilometre away. A Melbourne man, J.S. Edwards, made and installed the telephones using information he gleaned from an article Bell had published in the Scientific American in October 1877. Around the same time the New South Wales Superintendent of Telegraphs, Edward Cracknell, successfully trialled a connection between La Perouse and Sydney. Cracknell had migrated to Australia with Charles Todd, and the two were the leading figures in Australian telegraphy and telephony, controlling their electric fiefdoms from their Sydney and Adelaide offices.17
In Adelaide, it was this same Charles Todd, who by then had been promoted to South Australian Government Astronomer and Postmaster General, who conducted the first experiments. At the same time, a Mr Challon, of the Central Telegraph Office successfully experimented with the use of the telephone over long distances: from Melbourne to Ballarat (115km); from Port Augusta to Semaphore (400km); and from Sydney to West Maitland (225km). All within a month of each other, these scientists had used instruments they had made according to the technique outlined in Bell's article. By November 1880, all of Sydney's wharves were connected to the exchange. The Sydney Royal Exchange, basically a merchants' association, set up a 'Telephone Bureau' with Australia's first switchboard in October 1881. Its subscribers had to pay charges for the poles, telephone instruments, maintenance and installation set at 5. By 1882, there were thirty lines connected to the switchboard. By 1883 similar business exchanges were open in Hobart and Adelaide.
The rapid and successful experimentation provided real working models. The first government telephone exchange opened at the General Post Office in Sydney in 1882. On his appointment as Chief Telegraph Mechanic of the Electric Telegraph Department, a German, G. A. Kopsch, installed the exchanges. This helped the expansion of the GPO and built logical bridges between varied forms of communications. Thereafter, the colonial post offices (which already controlled all but the overseas telegraphs) would rapidly take over the private telephone exchanges. The two Sydney exchanges used different and incompatible switchboards. This problem was soon rectified by an accident: an electrical short circuit which occurred when wires were crossed during a thunderstorm. The first exchange burnt out and as a result, the Royal Exchange Company handed its business over to the postal office at no charge rather than invest in a new switchboard. By 1883, the Sydney GPO exchange had 405 subscribers and the first comprehensive system was under government control. In Melbourne, the Melbourne Telephone Company began operations in 1881, but it was notoriously inefficient and unwilling to invest in exchanges adequate for its rapidly growing traffic. Following pressure from the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, whose members were not ideological champions of private enterprise, it was taken over by the Victorian Post Office in 1885.18 Thus, private enterprise had proved to be a failure in its efforts to provide Australia 's first telephone services.
Although telephone networks developed rapidly under the management of the colonial post offices, they remained confined to each city or town. Long distance and intercolonial links (called trunk lines) were slow to develop. The first trunk line was not opened in Australia until 1888, improbably enough a 35km line connecting exchanges in Hobart and New Norfolk. After five years and with over 700 subscribers, the post office in Sydney decided to install a more efficient system with an updated switchboard. The rapid expansion meant that the system constantly needed updating, but finances were not always available, even under government ownership. It was not until 1900 that a new central exchange was opened in the GPO in Sydney. It was designed for expansion, and with it the modern age in telephony had arrived. Telephone poles lined the streets, becoming more and more laden with wires, as each connection then required its own line. Some poles were carrying up to 200 open wires.19
The growing importance of telephones and telegraphs was reflected in the politicians' deliberations at the first Australian Federation Conference in 1890. In his opening address, Sir Henry Parkes stated that 'the means of communication carried in all directions constituted one of the major reasons for the union of the colonies'. Alfred Deakin endorsed Parkes' proposal that communications by post, telephone and telegraph be handed over to the proposed new federal government. Delegates agreed it was obvious that there was a need for a federal system of control with uniform rates and regulations.
Thus, in 1901 the Australian Constitution gave all power over postal, telegraph and telephonic and 'other like services' to the federal government. The Commonwealth Postmaster General's Office was established and officially began operating in March 1901 from its headquarters in the new federal capital of Melbourne. This was universally known as the PMG's Department, a name it retained until July1975 when it was divided into Australia Post and Telecom Australia. The PMG's Department was headed by a Minister in the Commonwealth Government called the Postmaster General, who had final authority (under the Crown of course) on matters of post, telegraph and telephone policy. Responsible to the Postmaster General for the department's administrations was its permanent head, the first of whom was a former Queensland postal official, Robert Townley Scott. The former colonial postal, telegraph and telephone departments, together with all their assets, including the post and telegraph offices and telegraph and telephone systems, were handed over to the new Commonwealth Government.
The PMG was easily the infant Commonwealth's largest department, with about 10,000 permanent staff, another 6,000 contractors of various types, and assets with a capital value of about 6 million. To put this into perspective, it had a staff only a little smaller than the largest state enterprise, the New South Wales Government Railways, although its assets were only a fraction of the value of most of the state railway systems. The transfer of authority from the former colonies to the new Commonwealth was far from instant. The colonial post offices had co-operated on many matters before Federation and had had only one common vote in the International Postal Union, which regulated postal policies across the globe from its Paris headquarters. In this way the Australian colonies' postal services already had been united and independent from Britain for decades before Federation.
Although most country towns had acquired post offices during the colonial period, there were new post offices built after Federation, especially in growing suburbs and expanding rural centres, and in coastal and holiday districts. In such suburbs and towns, the Commonwealth built new post offices to standard designs. The Commonwealth did not much intrude on the everyday life of Australians until the 1940s, and these post offices, together with branches of the new Commonwealth Bank and telephone exchanges (often located within post offices) were the only Commonwealth buildings in many districts.
The separate colonial postal rates and separate colonial (strictly speaking now state) stamps remained in use for more than a decade after Federation. Letter rates varied between the states. Victoria had moved to the penny post as in England, but other colonies, with more dispersed populations and consequent higher costs, charged higher rates. In New South Wales the standard letter charge was 2d, as it had been since 1849. A common postal rate of a penny was not introduced until May 1911 when it became not just Australia-wide but Empire-wide as well. State stamps remained in use for a further two years until the first Commonwealth stamps were issued.
The Labour Government then in office was nationalistic (although the Labour Party did not drop the u from its name until 1922), and outraged conservative opinion by opting for a simple design on which a kangaroo appeared on a map of Australia. Not a crown or image of the monarch was to be seen. This did not last long for, following the government's fall within months of the first Commonwealth stamp issue in early 1913, an alternative series bearing the new sovereign's (King George V) profile, flanked by a kangaroo and emu but surmounted by a crown, also was issued. Both series were in circulation until 1938, a duality symbolising the Australian Commonwealth's prolonged confusion between national and imperial identity. The same Labour Government also established the Commonwealth Bank under government ownership, its reaction to the banking scandals of the 1890s. Post offices across Australia acted as agents for the new bank, much as they had for the old colonial government banks.20
Unforeseen at the time of Federation, but soon very critical in improving postal service in remote parts of Australia, was the rise of civil aviation. Just as steamship services had only become viable because of postal contracts in the nineteenth century, so civil aviation was highly dependent on postal contracts for its economic survival in its early years. The first two airmail contracts were in remote Australia. Norman Brearley's Western Australian Airways carried the first regular contracted airmail from Geraldton to Derby in December 1921. It was no great success at first, and two men died when the first plane crashed, the airmail being sent on by steamer. Incidents like this, the first of many crashes in early civil aviation history, show why trains remained the preferred method of transporting mail where decent rail services existed. The second airmail contract was Q.A.N.T.A.S.'s service from Charleville to Cloncurry, which began operating in November 1922. Not so far away and still in western Queensland, Cobb and Co were still harnessing their last horses on PMG mail contracts.
Airmail services attracted a 3d surcharge on ordinary letters, and heavier letters and parcels were enormously more expensive. As discussed in chapter 8, Australia's early civil aviation history was littered with crashes, both financial and those involving aeroplanes hitting the ground when they were not intended to do so. However, in isolated regions, airmail quickly proved its worth. In addition, air services were safer and more reliable in the clear skies of the outback than in the damper, more temperate climates of the southern corner of the continent, where most of the population and most of the good railway services could be found. This meant that airmail was far more popular and developed faster in remote regions than, for instance, between Sydney and Melbourne, where, for postal purposes, air transport had little practical advantage over overnight rail transport. Eventually the domestic airmail fee - which had remained at 3d per letter - was abolished in 1959, making airmail the standard form of letter carriage where there were adequate air services. Parcels, though, continued to go by rail, and trains were still used for letters where the railway could offer a superior service, for instance on the TPO routes in New South Wales.
Under the PMG, postal services expanded into the most remote parts of Australia and its colony of Papua New Guinea. As always, this expansion progressed hand-in-hand with changes in transportation technology. In these regions there were either no railways, or only the most rudimentary lines with very infrequent services, like the fortnightly train to Alice Springs which began operating in 1929. Traditionally saddle horses, packhorses or light buggies had carried the mails in these regions beyond the railway's reach, but between the wars they were largely replaced with four-wheel drive vehicles and even light aircraft. Every locality has its own individual history of changing technology in mail transport. The most remote regions had the most romantic stories, although these were also the regions that caused the most headaches for the accountants in the PMG's Melbourne headquarters, since these services cost a lot to maintain for very limited revenue. However, there was an absolute political will to maintain and extend such services. Moreover, the use of private contractors who carried mail ancillary to other transport tasks kept costs within reasonable bounds. In some cases, though, it is doubtful if any transport service would have been provided without the mail contracts.
Probably the most remarkable outback story was the development of motor transport services for mail contracts along the Birdsville Track in northeast South Australia and southwest Queensland. This stock route traversed the driest part of Australia where there were viable pastoral stations, running north from the South Australian railhead at Marree into Queensland. It skirted Lake Eyre, meaning that, although for most of the time it passed through very dry, hot and dusty territory, that every decade or so it was flooded for months at a time. The Birdsville Track was designed for drovers and their cattle, so it had good wells and camping spots, but it had never been intended as a motorable track and there was no formed road of any sort. Until the 1930s, mail was taken along the track by saddle horse and packhorse. In 1936 Harry Ding won the mail contract for the Marree to Birdsville run, agreeing to do the journey by four-wheel drive truck every fortnight. His driver, Esmond Gerald (Tom) Kruse became something of a national legend for his feat in keeping the mails and supplies coming through in such terrain. He eventually took over the run which he handled for 27 years. His trucks, battered and filthy as they were, always carried a red plaque emblazoned with the words Royal Mail, just like generations of mail coaches, trains, buses and trucks throughout the length and breadth of the continent, and indeed throughout the British Empire.21
While the postal services dominated the PMG's activities at the time of Federation, its telegraph services were crucial to interstate communication, and its telephone services were rapidly becoming more significant. Each colony's telephone services had developed in isolation, and at the time of Federation there was no link between them. The PMG set about standardising equipment and charges, and the new Commonwealth government appointed Sir Charles Todd to chair a committee 'to inquire into all matters connected with the telephone systems of the several states.' Todd, who had wanted to keep post offices under state control, had been passed over for management of the newly formed PMG, so his prodigious talents and energy instead was directed to planning the new national telephone system. (Todd was also by then 75 years of age!) He found that in 1901 there were 116 exchanges, 24,708 telephone lines and 32,767 telephone instruments connected. With a population of 3.3 million, that meant less than one telephone service per hundred of the population. He also found that standardising the different telephone equipment inherited from the colonial post offices would be very expensive at 462,000. Funding was not provided, and progress was slow on interstate telephone connection.
Todd's committee examined the possibility of building a national telephone network, but concluded that it would not be viable. Predictably enough, he suggested that 'it is considered that the first inter-State telephone line which would be likely to return a profit would naturally be that between the two largest centres, Sydney and Melbourne.' Strangely enough, though, the first interstate trunk line was far more modest and opened from Mt Gambier (South Australia) to Nelson (Victoria) in 1902. The Sydney to Melbourne line was opened on 11 July 1907, but it was only capable of handling about 40 calls per day and these cost the astronomical sum of six shillings per minute.22 By 1910, Australia had more telephones relative to population than most other comparable countries. Despite the high cost of calls, the Sydney to Melbourne trunk line was an enormous success; and Melbourne and Adelaide were connected in 1914; Sydney and Brisbane in 1923; and a trunk line was completed across the Nullarbor to Perth in 1930. The world's second submarine co-axial cable was built connecting Tasmania with the mainland, via King Island in 1935. In 1925 a carrier system was installed between Sydney and Melbourne, and soon after extended elsewhere. This reduced costs and increased capacity dramatically, by enabling a single pair of wires to carry multiple connections through high-frequency separation. Initially it carried 12 circuits, increased to 30 in 1939. The 1925 carrier installation was the first in the world outside the USA.23
Meanwhile, the telegraph system was also upgraded, since it remained the main means of long-distance instant communication. Over the first twenty years following the establishment of the PMG there were drastic improvements in the telegraph equipment being used. In 1905, Wheatstone equipment used on the Adelaide and Perth routes improved speed to 220 words per minute. In 1912-13, the Creed re-perforators and printers further improved this system and by 1922, the Murray Multiplex System allowed one line to be used for eight transmissions (four in each direction), at a speed of fifty words per transmission. A multiplex telegraph system was thus established between Sydney and Melbourne. Right up until World War II, there was far more telegraph than telephone traffic on the busiest line between Sydney and Melbourne, largely because the telephone was still so expensive. The next (and last) important innovation in telegram transmission was the teleprinter re-perforator system, introduced in 1959, whereby multiple messages were sent instantly and printed out on arrival. Morse, though, remained widely used in rural areas, and the last Morse code telegram was sent in Western Australia as late as 1963. Morse lasted a little longer on railway telegraph systems.24
Before World War II, Australians were among the greatest users of the public telegram system of any people in the world. It was cheap, effective and reliable. Telegram costs fell dramatically under PMG administration. When the overland telegraph had opened in 1872, a 20-word telegram to England had cost the enormous sum of 9. In 1934 that same telegram would cost just 10s, which was still a significant sum. After 1945 the rate of usage peaked at 35 million telegrams, about four every year for every Australian man, woman and child. However, by 1975, usage was down to 18 million, and the end of the telegram was in sight, as telephone services became ever cheaper and new methods of data transmission started to emerge. These began with the telex and exploded almost exponentially with the new information technology introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, all of it using telephone lines or wireless communication.25
Under the PMG, the use of the telephone continued to increase as many users found it easier and faster than the telegraph, especially within cities. As early as 1889 an undertaker from Kansas City Missouri had created an automatic telephone exchange from a cardboard collar box, some pins and a pencil, because he felt operators were not doing their jobs correctly. From invention to innovation was a longer journey for the automatic exchange, though, than it had been for the telephone, and it was not until 1912 that Australia's first automatic telephone exchange was opened in Geelong. The success of the experiment in Geelong meant that automatic exchanges spread rapidly all over the country. Sydney and Melbourne began conversion of their systems to automatic in 1914. These automatic exchanges made communication much quicker and more efficient, saving the usage of an operator. In cities they soon became widespread, but the change took many decades. The original 1912 design lasted in some places into the 1990s. The last city manual exchange in Sydney city was closed in December 1927, and in the suburbs at Ryde as late as 1950. Most smaller country towns were still on manual exchanges into the 1960s, and the last lingered into the early 1990s.
Telephone subscriptions rapidly grew and the single wires which were used to transmit speech were not designed to cater for such a load. After World War I, the thermionic valve was invented which was able to accept weak incoming signals and automatically boost them. Thinner wires could go underground, but more wires closer together resulted in muffled transmission. In 1923, thermionic repeaters allowed the opening of the Sydney to Brisbane telephone line. The really big step, though, came with 'multiplexing', introduced on the carrier system between Sydney and Melbourne in 1925. This provided for several telephone circuits to be on one pair of open wires, meaning many telephone conversations could be held simultaneously over a single pair of wires. This contributed to the phenomenal growth in telephone services with the length of channel increasing from 4,000km in 1927 to 28,000 in 1930 and 124,000km in 1939. It was in the interwar period that the telephone acquired a mass market in Australia, and in April 1930, the first overseas telephone calls were made from Australia.
The next important innovation was the coaxial cable. This provided a solution to the need for increasing channel capacity. The first such cable was laid across Bass Strait in 1935 and provided Tasmania's first telephone link with the mainland. The 1940s saw 12 channels in use. Trunk calls, however, still had to go through an operator, causing congestion problems. Some operators were forced to divert calls via different exchanges to put them through. The capacity of the system always needed to increase, since every improvement stimulated new demand. Prices too fell as long distance transmission became more efficient with enhanced capacity on one wire. The development of a cross bar exchange in 1956 alleviated demand, providing a way for Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) between first Dandenong and Melbourne; and then between Sydney and St. Mary's. This enabled trunk calls to be made as quickly as a local call, and marked the beginning of a truly fast, national telephone system.
Revolutionary change in the Australian national trunk network, however, accelerated in the late 1950s with the installation of a microwave link carrying 600 channels between Melbourne and Bendigo. By 1962, the broadband network from Sydney to Canberra to Melbourne was opened for all telecommunications traffic, being the first interstate broadband system. It was expanded rapidly across Australia, covering 11,200km. This was followed in 1963 by operator-assisted international calls to subscribers in Canada, the USA and Britain. Broadband is so termed as it carries signals on a wide range of frequencies and has a great capacity for high quality communication circuits, providing hundreds of circuits for telephone and the telegraph, data transmissions and a television relay. It transformed Australia's trunk telephone network by 1970 into an efficient and technically advanced communication system.
This transformation complete, the old order of post, telephone and telegraph management established as part of the federal settlement in the 1890s was brought to an end in 1975. By then it was clear that profitable telephone services were subsidising unprofitable postal services, starving the rapidly growing telephone network of the capital needed for its increasingly complex technology, while diluting the need for increased efficiencies in mail handling. The Commonwealth's solution was to split the Department. The PMG had been an important institution in the lives of every Australian. Its functions had increased dramatically since its inception. It was the single Commonwealth body which impinged most directly on the lives of every Australian throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Its telephone exchanges and post offices built to standardised designs throughout the country were as constant symbols of its presence as the postman's whistle, its scarlet letterboxes adorned with a golden crown and the words 'Royal Mail', and its similarly scarlet public telephone boxes. These were present on every important street - and many very unimportant ones too - in the country. Thus, it was because of rather than despite its importance and diversity, that the Postmaster General's Department was abolished in 1975. Telecom Australia and Australia Post were created as commercial corporate (although still government-owned) entities to take over its functions.
1 ADB, Vol 2, p 283.
2 On the early history of Australian postal services, see Marcella Hunter, Australia Post, delivering more than ever, Edgecliff, Focus Publishing, 2000, pp 8-41.
3 Australia Post, 175 and Beyond. A Bicentennial Decade Salute to Australia's Postal Service, 1809-1984, Melbourne, Australia Post, 1984 is a general history with a very Victorian bias and some inaccuracies as a result. See also J. Maddock, Mail for the Outback and Beyond, Kenthurst, Kangaroo Press, 1986.
4 John Kerr, Triumph of the Narrow Gauge: a history of Queensland Railways, Brisbane, Booralong Press, 1998, p 80.
5 Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1930, cited in William A Bayley, Lapstone Zig Zag Railway, Mount Victoria, Locomotion Publications, 2001, p 57. No conviction was ever recorded and the robbery was anything but the work of a quasi-romantic bushranger. An 'inside job' was suspected but never proved. A rather similar robbery (although without the use of firearms) occurred a year later on the Canberra Mail Train.
6 David Cooke, Don Estell, Keith Seckold and John Beckhaus, Coaching Stock of the NSW Railways, vol 1, Sydney, Eveleigh Press, 1999, pp 42, 70, 108.
7 Ibid, pp 179-180.
8 On the history of P&O and its mail operations, see Malcolm R Gordon, From Chusan to Sea Princess: the Australian services of the P&O and Orient Lines, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1985.
9 Ibid, pp 32-34.
10 For the operation of these mail trains in Adelaide, see Malcolm Thompson, Rails through Swamp and Sand: a History of the Port Adelaide Railway, Adelaide, Port Dock Railway Museum, 1988.
11 The evidence for the operation in New South Wales of these special English mail trains, presumably consisting of nothing more than a mail van or two, comes from a reference in Alex Grunbach, A Compendium of New South Wales Steam Locomotives, Sydney, Australian Railway Historical Society, 1981 to Locomotive No 16 of the NSWGR (a light, not very powerful but very speedy machine) being fitted with Westinghouse brakes in order to work the 'English Mail Specials', between Albury and Junee. (p 30)
12 Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: the remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's online pioneers, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998, pp 49-58.
13 Ibid, pp 85-86, 96.
14 ADB, Vol 6, pp 280-282.
15 See Frank Clune, The Overland Telegraph: an epic feat of endurance and courage, Sydney, Angus and Robertson , 1955.
16 K. M. Clark, Busy Wires: the telegraph and Australia, Sydney, the author, 1991.
17 ADB, vol 3, p 189.
18 Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1978, p 26.
19 K. T. Livingstone, The Wired National Continent: the communication revolution and federating Australia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1996.
20 Hunter, Australia Post, pp 62-69.
21 On mail services on the Birdsville track see Leith Yelland, Pads, tracks and waters, South Australia's pastoral stock routes, Adelaide, South Australia Department of Primary Industry and Resources, 2002, pp 54, 61.
22 Bob Langevad, 'Telecommunications, in Don Fraser (ed), Sydney from Settlement to City, an engineering history of Sydney, Sydney, Institution of Engineers Australia, 1989, p 247. This would be roughly equivalent to $50 per minute in the values of the first decade of the 21st century.
23 Ibid, p 248.
24 On the development of telephone systems and the decline of telegraphy see Ann Moyal, Clear across Australia: a history of telecommunications, Melbourne, Nelson, 1984.
25 Livingstone, The Wired National Continent.