Electric telegraph in NSW





How did the electric telegraph help the police?

The Australian Colonies
Stage 3 | History

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Postman on horse riding through thick bush 1864
Activity: source analysis

Delivering mail by horse could take days or weeks to reach some rural areas.

Q. What does this artwork tell you about the challenges of delivering mail by horse?

Source: 'The postman in the fern tree gullies - road to Wood's Point', N Chevalier, April 25 1864, The Australian News for home readers. State Library of Victoria

The electric telegraph revolutionised communication throughout the colony. It also made it easier for police to track down bushrangers.

During the early 1850s, mail was delivered to goldmining towns by horse. News, no matter how important, might take days or weeks to arrive.

But the arrival of the electric telegraph in NSW was a significant event. 

Traditional postal services (like mail coaches) remained important. For example, more than 10 million letters, parcels and newspapers were sent throughout NSW in 1870 alone.  

But the new technology had many advantages.

  • the wooden poles and wires were simple to build and install;
  • it did not cost a lot of money to set-up; and,
  • the infrastructure did not require a lot of maintenance.

Once established, people could send messages around the colony very quickly (sometimes within minutes).

Bathurst, a major gold mining town, was connected to Sydney in 1859.1

Other, smaller, rural towns were connected in later years.

Tens of thousands of kilometres of telegraph lines were built throughout the colony during the gold rush.2

The system would eventually connect all over Australia, as well as overseas to places like New Zealand and London.

  • 1. Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 31 December 1859, p2.
  • 2. The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1863, p11.
Map showing

Was the electric telegraph our first NBN? Kind of.

By 1863 over 3000 kilometres of telegraph wire had been installed around the colony; there were also dozens of receiving stations.

A decade later, there were nearly 100 stations and almost 9000 kilometres of wire.

In 1880 there was 21,000km of telegraph wire and 1.3 million messages were sent.

How did it work?

For a small fee, messages were sent (using Morse code) from one telegraph station to another.

At the final destination, the message was written down and given to the recipient.

The electric telegraph became available to the public in late 1858 and quickly became popular.3 

40,000 messages were sent in the first year. Six years later, this had increased to more than 140,000. By the end of the 1880s, millions of messages were criss-crossing the wires.

People used the electric telegraph for all sorts of important communications, including:

  • personal or business messages;
  • reporting news and events;
  • transferring money;
  • sharing information about the weather, or farm crops;
  • items for sale, or the results of sales;
  • for police, tracking criminals.
  • 3. The Goulburn Herald, 19 May 1858, p2.

How did the telegraph affect bushrangers?

During the 1850s, because news was slow to travel in rural areas, bushrangers were able to stay ahead of the police. 

But by 1863, many of the rural areas, where bushrangers operated, had a telegraph station.

This made it much easier for the police to report bushranger crimes or sightings, then send reinforcements to where they were needed.

For example, when Ben Hall's gang was spotted in NSW, near the town Forbes in March 1865, the police used the telegraph to track them.

Ned Kelly destroys telegraph lines!

Bushrangers sometimes destroyed telegraph wires and poles because they saw them as a threat. 

For example, Ned Kelly's gang bailed up the town of Jerilderie in NSW, in 1879 they went to the telegraph station and destroyed the wires and cut down the poles.

A witness describes what happened:

'We next went to the telegraph office, where we found Byrne [a member of the gang] who had all the wires cut. Ned Kelly pulled them about, and satisfied himself that they were broken.

Ned Kelly informed the telegraph master ... that he would shoot him if they attempted to mend the lines...'4

After the gang left someone rode ninety kilometres to the nearest town, Deniliquin, to report the crime using their telegraph office.

  • 4. 'Mr Lyving's narrative', The Mercury 15 February 1879, p3.

Student activity: What's missing?

Forbes telegraph office NSW

Forbes - a gold mining town in NSW - was connected to the electric telegraph in 1862. When the police were hunting for the bushranger Ben Hall in 1865, the Forbes office played a crucial role in sending messages (see examples above). 

Activity: Source analysis

While the town was connected in 1862, this grand telegraph building was not actually built until late 1881. Even then it was not entirely finished.

Q. Look closely at the photograph - can you see anything that is missing? [click on it to enlarge]

If you think you've found what's missing, how do you think the people in the town managed without one?

Click here for the answer and find out how the people living in the town solved the problem. Find the article on 'Forbes' and read the third-last paragraph carefully.5

Source: NSW State Records

  • 5. Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 January 1885, p27


About the author

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Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the Sydney Living Museums learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he received the Ruth Pope Bequest Annual Travelling Scholarship for international travel and study.