Telegraph Made World of Difference


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,
Click image to enlarge

Pukatea/White's Bay

The first Cook Strait communications cable, between Lyall Bay in Wellington and Pukatea/White’s Bay2 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 Pukatea/White’s Bay.3

Rotokura/Cable Bay

On Monday 21 February, 1876, a sub-marine cable was opened between La Perouse (Sydney) and Cable Bay/ Rotokura4 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 1902.5

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.6

Cable BayCable Bay, the Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection,179078/3.

The settlement at Rotokura/Cable Bay grew as the demand for telegraphic services increased. By 1888 there were 14 staff, including a superintendent, cable and telegraph men. A press man had the job of ‘filling out’ the international press briefs and sending them on to newspapers.7

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 Rotokura. By all accounts, the community enjoyed good relations with nearby neighbours, Hūria and Hemi Mātenga, and there was plenty of on-station fun, with a billiard room, tennis courts and water-related activities.8

In the early 1900s other cables were laid, including Vancouver to Doubtless Bay (Northland) in 1901,9 and Sydney to Auckland in 1912.10

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 1919.11

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.12

Year telegrams sent

International telegrams sent

International telegrams received










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

2008 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Newport, J. (1973). Cable and Delaware Bays. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(6), 24.
  2. Ngāti Rarua records that Pukatea was the first landing place of the Ngāti Rarua taua in the fight for Wairau,  a former fishing reserve of Rarua, Toa and Rangitāne, and a campsite and mahinga kai site. Rangitāne history: Puketea translates as a type of tree. This was where a Kurahaupo tupuna killed a taniwha. It was an occupation and fishing area. Ngāti Toa history: Pukatea was a traditional tauranga waka and was used by Te Rauparaha and his allies during the invasion of Te Tau Ihu in 1827. This site was taken as a reserve in the 1950s. Retrieved from NZGB Gazetteer, September 2021:
  3. Brayshaw, N.H.(1966) White’s Bay Telegraph Station Centennial. Unpublished Manuscript (NPM)
  4. Rotokura was the name of a Ngāti Tama pā site at the Pepin Island end of the causeway, which itself was named after the small lagoon which lies adjacent to the site - Rotokura or Red Lake, which provided ethereal reflections of the tall native trees, great solitude and peace of mind. Retrieved from NZGB Gazetteer, September 2021:
  5. Airey, E. (2005). The taming of distance: New Zealand’s first international telecommunications. Wellington, N.Z.: Dunmore Publishing. pp 1, 15.
  6. Airey, p.22.
  7. Airey, p.73.
  8. Airey, pp.62, 80, 83.
  9. Newport, p.24.
  10. McLintock, A.H. (ed) Post Office.In An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  11. Airey, p.124. 
  12. King, P. (May/June 2001). Lighting up the South. magazine. 2(3),14-19

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  • I am preparing a book on the history of Whites Bay and would like to include two of your images. They are "Whites Bay cable station group ref 0000.900.0736" and "Southern end of Cook Strait's telegraph cable - Whites Bay 1871 ref 0000.900.0735". Could you please advise how I can get a high quality copy and how much it will cost? Thanks.

    Posted by Dallas Elvy, 29/05/2019 6:23pm (5 years ago)

  • 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 (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Telegraph Made World of Difference




 Recent Archaeological Excavations in the Northern Part of the South Island


Author: D. G. L. Millar


In: Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 2, June 1967



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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