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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cable Stamps - Australian Overland Telegraph
by Bill Glover

THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH

In June 1870 the Government of South Australia and the British-Australian Telegraph Company signed a contract in which the cable company agreed to the laying of a cable from Java to Australia on the condition that the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin would be in operation by 1 January 1872. Charles Todd, Superintendent of Telegraphs, was in charge of the project.

CHARLES TODD

Charles Todd was born in Islington, London on 7 July 1826. At the age of 14 he began work at the Greenwich Observatory, followed by a move in 1847 to Cambridge, where he became assistant astronomer. Staying there for seven years he returned to Greenwich this time in the electrical research department. A short time later he accepted the position of Government Astronomer and Superintendent of Telegraphs for the Colony of South Australia. Just before he left England to take up the post he married 17 year old Alice Gillam Bell of Cambridge. His first major undertaking as Superintendent of Telegraphs was the construction of a telegraph line from Adelaide to Port Augusta, beginning in November 1855, which became part of the Overland Telegraph. Todd was knighted in 1893 and remained in charge of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs until federation when he became Deputy Postmaster General. He retired in 1906 and died on 29 January 1910.

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THE OVERLAND LINE

The route of the 2000 mile single wire line was for the most part based on the journey made by John McDouall Stuart completed in 1862, when he made the first south to north crossing of the territory. He had not made a thorough survey during his trek so his notes could only give a general view as to the conditions the construction teams would meet during the building of the line.

It was the lack of information that prompted Todd to employ John Ross to survey a route using Stuart's expedition as a basis. Ross selected three to make up the party, with the Government supplying the surveyor. Ross's instructions were to find the most suitable route for the line, taking into account the need for trees for poles and water and feed for the stock as well as being suitable for the heavy transport. He was required to be back at Mount Margaret by mid October by which time the construction crews would have reached there.

Initially the job was to be split into two parts, Southern and Northern with each being split into three sections. Todd accepted tenders from J. Rounsevell for the southern part and Darwent and Dalwood for the northern part. Rounsevell however refused to sign stating that clauses had been added which were not in the original specification. Todd altered his plans splitting the job into three sections, Southern, Central and Northern. The Southern and Northern sections were put out to tender with the Central section being built by the Government.

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SOUTHERN SECTION

The contract for the southern section was awarded to Edward Meade Bagot and the first pole was erected at Stirling on 6 October 1870. This was five miles north of Port Augusta, where the line built by Todd in 1855 terminated. The 510 mile route lay through settled country and was completed on time. As with the Northern section the Government supplied wire, insulators and pins, the contractor would supply transport and poles, except where metal poles were required.

Iron Poles
Site visitor Milan Kovac photographed these cast iron poles in the far northwest of Western Australia. While the telegraph did not come to this area until 1884 (the Perth to Roeburne line), the iron pole was patented by William Siemens in 1863 and similar poles to these would have been supplied for use when the Overland Telegraph was being constructed in the early 1870s.

Siemens Brothers London

Le Grand

Map showing locations on the telegraph line between Perth
and Wyndham
, constructed between 1881 and 1884.
The iron poles were found in the area of marker B.

View Larger Map

CENTRAL SECTION

The Central Section was the longest and most difficult of the line. Todd split it into five sub sections, each section being supervised by a Government Surveyor, with an assistant Surveyor and a Junior or Cadet as they were known.

Section A ran from the Hamilton River, latitude 27 degrees south to latitude 25½ degrees south finishing to the north of Charlotte Waters a distance of 120 line miles. Surveyor on this section was Richard Randall Knuckey, assisted by Christopher Giles, whose brother travelled with John Ross, and Cadet J.H. Aldridge. Sixteen men completed the party. Poling began in January 1871. This section was completed 10 October 1871.

Section B took over at that point running to latitude 24 degrees south, to the Macdonell Ranges, a distance of 142 line miles. Surveyor was G. R. McMinn (brother of the Northern Section Overseer); with assistant, C. Musgrave and Cadet Tom Bee with a further sixteen men. Work on this section commenced February 1871 and was completed on 15 November.

Section C took over and ran as far as latitude 22½ degrees south covering 131 line miles. The Surveyor was J. Beckwith with W. W. Mills as assistant and Cadet A. G. Burt, plus seventeen men. It was Mills who found the pass through the Macdonell Ranges as well as finding and naming Alice Springs and the Todd River. Beckwith was taken ill and returned to Adelaide where he died, his place being taken by Mills, with G.R. McMinn being in overall control. Work began on 22 March 1871 and was completed on 29 December 1871.

Section D: Covered from latitude 22½ degrees south to 21 degrees south in all 124 line miles. Surveyor, A. T. Woods; assistant, S. Jarvis. Cadet, C. M. Bagot and nineteen men. Construction started 1 May 1871 and finished in December.

Section E: The final section was to run to Tennant Creek a distance of 108 line miles. Surveyor, W. Harvey, assistant, J. L. M. Roberts; Cadet, A. Y. Forster and nineteen men. This group spent eight months travelling before they started work. Poling began on 25 May 1871 and the section was completed on 1 November.

Each of these parties was equipped with fifteen horse wagons, seventeen bullock drays, one bullock wagon and five express wagons, plus 165 horses and 210 bullocks. These were to be used to move stores and equipment on site. To bring up the materials from Port Augusta to the depot and from there to the various working parties contracts were awarded to hauliers to undertake this work.

Along with the above went 100 camels and two Afghan camel drivers who were to become a legend in their own lifetime in Central Australia. The train that runs from Alice Springs to Port Augusta the "Ghan" is named in their honour.

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NORTHERN SECTION

Joseph Darwent and William Dalwood were awarded the Northern contract, and one condition was that they had to be ready to leave Adelaide for Port Darwin within four weeks of the contract being signed. They chartered the steamer Omeo to carry the bulk of the stores, horses, wagons, and bullocks, as well as eighty men, leaving Adelaide on 20 August. Prior to this the barque St Magnus had left with stores and equipment for the expedition. W. A. Paqualin was in overall charge; J. Darwent (contractor's nephew) was second in command; and Charles Tymn was third officer. William McMinn was the Government Surveyor.

The original plan was to split the work into two sections, one from Port Darwin to the Roper River and the other from the Roper River to Tennant Creek. When the construction party arrived at Port Darwin, G. G. McLachlan, the Government Surveyor sent out to survey the route, had not returned so vital information was not available to McMinn, who baulked at the idea of sending men and materials through unknown territory. So instead McMinn began working from Darwin to Southport and from Southport towards the Roper River.

The first pole was erected on 15 September 1870, the opening ceremony being performed by Harriet Douglas, daughter of the Government Resident of the Northern Territory. McLachlan finally arrived back on 25 September with a favourable report on the route but McMinn was already committed to a more southerly route.

All went well, with 89 miles of line built in 54 days. Then came the rains, but work continued for a while. Problems getting stores to the construction site increased as the rains continued. By 28 January 1871, 205 miles of line had been erected with the line reaching the Katherine River, which was in flood. They waited until 24 February for the rain to stop but in the end built rafts to get themselves and equipment across the river. In the next ten days they poled a further ten miles but by now stores were running out and the men realised that it would be impossible to get any across the river. On 7 March they held a meeting and then sent a deputation to Tymn telling him that they would not carry on. With nothing offered, fifty-six of the men voted to strike. Paqualin told them they would lose their pay and bonus if they did. The following day eleven men refused to work and were sent back to the Katherine. The rest continued poling, eventually reaching the King River, but refused to go any further and Paqualin decided to return to the Katherine. By this time they had completed 225 miles of which 156 miles had been wired, but McMinn, dissatisfied with the overall progress, cancelled the contract on 3 May. It was to be seven months before another pole was erected.

The first Todd knew of this was when McMinn, Paqualin, Darwent, Tymn and fifty-five men arrived in Adelaide. He immediately sent instructions to the Central parties to continue working until they met up with the Northern parties. At the same time he set about organising supplies and equipment to be sent to these parties to enable them to continue.

On 11 July 1871 the Government took over responsibility for completing the Northern section. Robert Charles Patterson was put in charge and was offered a bonus of £1500 if he could complete the line by 31 December 1871. This amount was reduced progressively to £300 depending on how much he overran that date. Five vessels were chartered; the steamer Omeo and the barques Bengal, Golden Fleece, Laju and Antipodes. Todd wanted the party to land at the Roper River depot but the Government overruled him and the Omeo landed her stores at Port Darwin, the rest being offloaded at Southport.

Of the 500 bullocks loaded aboard the Omeo 110 died during the voyage, 13 were lost during landing and a further 21 were too weak to be of use. It was a similar story with the horses. The lack of suitable grazing for the animals added to Patterson's problems, the chief of which was to get men and materials on site before the "wet" started. Further losses of animals and wagons occurred while travelling south.

As most of the work would be south of the Roper River, Patterson sent the Gulnare with stores and equipment to the depot there, but the vessel ran aground thirty miles out from Port Darwin. The Bengal was chartered to help by offloading some of the stores and pulling the vessel off the reef. The Gulnare was declared a wreck on its return to Port Darwin.

With all the losses Patterson realised he needed horses, bullocks, wagons, and extra men to be able to finish the job. He sent his requirements to Todd via the Dutch corvette Curacao which was on a courtesy visit to Port Darwin. It took the message to Batavia where it was telegraphed to Galle, Ceylon and then put aboard the next Australia-bound mail ship. The vessel left Port Darwin on 25 October but the message didn't reach Todd until early December.

Todd set out from Adelaide on 4 January 1872 aboard the Omeo arriving at the Roper River three weeks later. He succeeded in persuading the Captain to sail up the uncharted river to the depot. In addition a steam tug, Young Australian, was sent to help to tow the larger vessels up the Roper. The Bengal, which had taken on stores from the Gulnare, also arrived, as did the steamer Tararua with horses and men.

Splitting the men into three working parties, Patterson sent Walter Rutt, his second in command, to start work from where Darwent and Dalwood had finished at the King River to build the line to the Elsey River. They arrived there on 2 December 1871 and began poling immediately, but only managed fourteen miles before they had to retreat to higher ground because of floods. McLachlan in charge of the second party would build from the Elsey to Daly Waters. He began erecting poles on 6 December and poled eighteen miles before being stopped by the weather. Burton with the third party would build from Daly Waters, which he reached on 12 December, until he met up with the Central parties. He began poling on 4 January and had erected four miles of poles when forced to stop.

The rains stopped in early April and work could start up again. Rutt's party began poling on 11th and McLachlan's and Burton's on the 15th. Work now proceeded rapidly and the final part to be wired was between Ferguson Creek and Lawson Creek in the Ashburton Ranges, this being completed on 22 August 1872. But to ensure that he made the final splice Patterson cut the wire at Frew's Pond and at 3 pm on that day telegraphed Adelaide with the news that the line was finally completed.

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LATER YEARS

A second wire, this one being copper, was added in 1898 and the original wire was replaced in 1941 with copper. A partial telephone service was provided in 1925 and a full service started in 1942. On 19 February 1942 the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese was reported over the line. As this happened an Army Officer cut the cable to prevent it being used by the Japanese and it was never repaired.

ALICE SPRINGS

Building work on the Alice Springs station began in November 1871, the initial building being the telegraph office and men's quarters. In the following years, a harness room, buggy shed, barracks, police station, and Station Manager's house were added. Initial staffing was the station manager, one assistant telegraphist, and four linesmen, the latter maintaining almost three hundred miles of line. The station remained in service until 1932.

After closure the station served as a school for aboriginal children (1932-42), an army camp (1942-5) and an aboriginal reserve (1945-63). In 1963 the Conservation Commission designated the site the Alice Springs Telegraph Station National Park. Shortly after this, work began on the renovation of the buildings to how they were during the period 1895-1905. The whole scheme took around 16 years.


Station Managers at Alice Springs

1872-9 Johannes Mueller
1879-87 Ernest Flint
1887-92 Joseph Skinner
1892-99 F.J. Gillen
1899-1908 Thomas Bradshaw
1908-16 John McKay
1916-24 Frederick Price
1924-32 Ernest Allchurch

FIRST TELEGRAM

The first telegram transmitted over the Overland Telegraph Line, sent by Charles Todd, read as follows:
"We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communication two thousand miles long
through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert."

THE CABLE

On 25 October the cable fleet, consisting of CS Hibernia, CS Edinburgh, and CS Investigator anchored in Port Darwin. The shore end of the cable was landed on the morning of 7 November and the three vessels began steaming towards Banjoewangie, arriving there on 16 November. Four days later the cable was connected to the land line and Port Darwin was in touch with England. CS Investigator was to remain as repair ship.

When the cable landed at Banjoewangie there were still 600 miles of line to be erected. By January 1 1872, the completion date, 394 miles still had to be built. The cable company began to press for compensation, then on 24 June 1872 the cable failed, giving a much needed breathing space to the construction crews. The cable was finally repaired, and on 21 October 1872 communication was established between England and Australia.

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THE CENTENARY

The centenary of the line was celebrated in a number of ways, including a Philatelic Exhibition. In connection with this it was possible to have a telegram transmitted from the Old Telegraph Station at Alice Springs by Morse Code to anywhere in Australia. Another souvenir telegram was available at the exhibition.

In 1997 a PSE (Pre Stamped Envelope) was issued to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Overland Telegraph, with Sir Charles Todd depicted along with a telegraph pole and insulator on the imprinted 45c stamp. The route of the line was also printed on the envelope.

Many additional stamps are shown on the pages linked from the Stamps Index page

Last revised: 30 December, 2010

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