Telegraph Made World of Difference

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The South and North Islands were connected by an under-sea telegraph cable across Cook Strait in 1866. Ten years later, the telegraph connection between London and Wakapuaka, Nelson, spanned a fragile 15,757 mile (25,558 km) network via Gibralter, Suez, Bombay, Darwin and Sydney. New Zealand was connected to the rest of the world!  

In the mid-19th century, New Zealand’s early European colonists had to wait two months or more for mail to arrive by sea from the other side of the world. Meanwhile, an Industrial Revolution was sweeping Europe, with the rapid development of technologies such as the electric telegraph.

The New Zealand Government was keen to see the country connected by telegraph both internally and with the outside world. Australia was linked to Europe in 1872, with messages being sent to Sydney by sea and cabled from there. 1

Southern end of Cook Strait's telegraph cable - Whites BaySouthern end of Cook Strait's telegraph cable - Whites Bay 1871, Marlborough Museum,
0000.900.0735
Click image to enlarge

The first Cook Strait communications cable, between Lyall Bay in Wellington and White’s Bay in Marlborough, was completed on 26 August, 1866. The simple copper telegraph cable, laid across the Cook Strait seabed, enabled quick communication between the North and South Islands for the first time.

Whites Bay cable station groupWhites Bay cable station group, Marlborough Museum, 0000.900.0736
Click image to enlarge

The isolated and often stormy situation of the White’s Bay Cable Station made it an unpopular posting. The staff and equipment were moved to Blenheim in 1873, and the telegraph station finally closed in 1896, after a direct link had been established between Wellington and Christchurch. A building from the cable station is still at White’s Bay. 2

On Monday 21 February, 1876, a sub-marine cable was opened between La Perouse (Sydney) and Cable Bay in Nelson. Laid, owned and managed by the Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company Ltd, the cable was New Zealand’s sole communication link with the rest of the world until 1902. 3

The sub-marine engineering of the day was fraught with difficulties from weather, sea depth and currents. It was most important to keep the copper wire conductors protected and insulated, with gutta percha, a latex coating from Malaya (Malaysia), being used to cover them. The first cable was expected to last 10 years, but continued in use for 41 years. 4

Cable BayCable Bay, the Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection,179078/3
Click image to enlarge

The settlement at Cable Bay grew as the demand for telegraphic services increased. By 1888 there were 14 staff, including a superintendant, cable and telegraph men. A press man had the job of ‘filling out’ the international press briefs and sending them on to newspapers. 5

Cable Bay C1881Cable Bay, the Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection, C1781 
Click to enlarge

A second cable was laid in 1890, by which time 17 staff and their families lived at Cable Bay. By all accounts, the community enjoyed good relations with nearby neighbours, Huria and Hemi Matenga, and there was plenty of on-station fun, with a billiard room, tennis courts and water-related activities. 6

In the early 1900s other cables were laid, including Vancouver to Doubtless Bay (Northland) in 1901,7 and Sydney to Auckland in 1912. 8

The Cable Bay link was re-routed to Titahi Bay in 1917, with an underground cable to the Eastern Extension Company’s offices in central Wellington. The staff from Cable Bay were relocated to Wellington overnight on 22 August, 1917 and it was the end of an era for the small community. The cable station land was sold by the Crown in 1919. 9

Various Cook Strait cables have linked the two islands for nearly 150 years, but the route is fractured with fault lines. Telecom laid a new $38 million fibre optic cable between Levin (Horowhenua) and Cable Bay in 2001, to provide additional security should a large earthquake hit the region. 10

Year telegrams sent

International telegrams sent

International telegrams received

1900

62,275

55,601

1910

120,599

109,389

1964

753,750

679,089

McLintock, A.H. (ed) Post Office.In An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

2008 

Sources used in this story


  1. Newport, J. (1973). Cable and Delaware Bays. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(6), 24.
  2. Brayshaw, N.H.(1966) White’s Bay Telegraph Station Centennial. Unpublished Manuscript (NPM)
  3. Airey, E. (2005). The taming of distance: New Zealand’s first international telecommunications. Wellington, N.Z.: Dunmore Publishing. pp 1, 15.
  4. Airey, p.22.
  5. Airey, p.73.
  6. Airey, p.62, 80, 83.
  7. Newport, p.24.
  8. McLintock, A.H. (ed) Post Office.In An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/1966/P/PostOffice/en
  9. Airey, p.124. 
  10. King, P. (May/June 2001). Lighting up the South. E.nz magazine. 2(3),14-19

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  • Do you have any information on my Great Grandfather Henric Silvius who was employed as a linesman on the telegraph line? He came from Sweden but we don't know how or when. Could he be in one of those photographs? It is very interesting......

    Posted by Shirley Rose, 15/02/2015 12:04pm (2 years ago)

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Further sources - Telegraph Made World of Difference

Books

Articles

Other

Unpublished material

 

Held Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Blackett, John George.(1881). Court House and Post & Telegraph Station for Collingwood County of Collingwood. PL770 
  • Scott, John. (1895). Proposed addition to men’s quarters Cable Bay. PL39 

Held Marlborough Museum

  • Brayshaw, N.H.(1966) White's Bay Telegraph Station Centennial. For the Historical Community Whites Bay Domain Board. Unpublished Manuscript
  • Marlborough Historical Society. Whites Bay Telegraph research box
  • Riddell, Mary. Marlborough Postal History. Photocopies of stamp collection in a 100 leaf folder. Reference 2005.259.0001, Marlborough Historical Society Archives 

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