Queensland: Colonial period: 1861-1900.
Brisbane to Sydney - the first telegraphic line in Queensland.


The discussion of the construction of the first telegraph lines in the Queensland Colony is arranged as follows:

  1. Beginning the construction;
  2. Brisbane to Ipswich;
  3. Ipswich to Toowoomba;
  4. Toowoomba to Maryland;
  5. the NSW line and "The Join";
  6. the Brisbane to Lytton line;
  7. discussion on other lines.

The beginning.

Construction on the first telegraph line - linking Brisbane to Sydney - began very soon after Queensland had separated from New South Wales on 1 June 1860. Once that critically important line had been started, intra-colonial routes were quickly constructed in various directions.

Actually there had been previous telegraphic messages related to Queensland - the first being on 7 February 1860 when a telegram was sent from Sydney to Newcastle and then by steamer to Brisbane.

By November 1860, Captain Martindale of NSW Public Works and Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs noted in his Report "It may be anticipated that the action of the Queensland Government will shortly place that country in telegraphic communication with this and the neighbouring colonies". Two previous inter-colonial connections had been made by that stage:

  1. between Victoria and South Australia on 22 May 1858;
  2. between Victoria and New South Wales on 29 October 1858;
  This map extends to the Dalby - Roma - Mackay region.  


This map extends to the south-west region.


This map extends to the south-east region

  This map extends south to meet the NSW line.  

The Queensland line was constructed:

The line reached the border at Maryland (or Bookookarara) - just inside the NSW border - and joined the main New South Wales line which had been extended from Tenterfield.

Tenders were called on 22 September 1860 for the construction of the first line in Queensland. This line was to run from Brisbane to Toowoomba and then south to the border. Tenders were let to Brown and Sherry on 13 October 1860 for an agreed cost of £38/5/6 per mile. The route was estimated to be 157 miles in length. In the Budget for 1860, the Treasurer did not include the funds for the telegraph line from Brisbane to the NSW border although £5,000 had been included in the Estimates. The view of the Budget sparked some straight-forward discussion and comment which makes interesting reading even for people with little interest in economic and financial matters.

To Ipswich.

In January 1861, progress was reported in Ipswich:

"The next work will probably be the erection of the Telegraph Office in Ipswich which is to be built as an extension of the present building on the south side of it. A great number of the long poles for the telegraph have already been brought in and laid in the places where they are to erected along Brisbane Street. These poles are charred at the end which is to be inserted in the ground. There is to be a little branch line from Mr. Thorne's corner to the Courthouse". (Moreton Bay Courier of 22 January 1861).

The Moreton Bay Courier of 12 February 1861 reported that "We have little to record respecting the progress made in our telegraph lines since the publication of our last summary, the principal work accomplished having been the clearing and other preliminary works necessary to their construction. The intercolonial line is now nearly finished to within four miles of Ipswich and is expected to be completed to that town in three or four weeks ... A site has been selected by the inspector and approved of by the Government, in Brisbane Street, Ipswich, where a station will probably be commenced immediately ... In connection with this subject, we may mention that Mr. Cracknell, the telegraph inspector for New South Wales, arrived in Brisbane on Sunday last by the Telegraph, from Sydney, to inspect the section of the inter-colonial line belonging to New South Wales. He will proceed thence along the other lines to the southward belonging to that colony".

On 23 March 1861, the Moreton Bay Courier gave an update on both lines:

"The wire between Brisbane and Ipswich has been all stretched on the posts with the exception of the portion crossing the river and this, it is expected, will be completed on Monday next. Hence it is almost certain that the line connecting the two towns will be opened for public communication on Tuesday or Wednesday next.

With regard to the intercolonial line, we are informed that it is progressing favorably and that an opening for communication between Ipswich, Drayton and Toowoomba and, as a matter of course, between those townships and Brisbane, will be effected in the course of six weeks or two months. The stations at present determined on for the inter-colonial line, so far as Queensland is concerned, are Brisbane, Ipswich, Gatton, Drayton, Toowoomba and Warwick. As the line progresses in traffic there will, no doubt, be many other stations established but it is thought that those enumerated will be sufficient for present purposes".

"The communication between Brisbane and Ipswich was completed yesterday (11 April) and the line tested and found to be satisfactory. The office will be opened for the transmission of messages tomorrow (Saturday)". (North Australian 12 April 1861).

To assist with the acceptance of the telegraph by the public, the Superintendent - Mr. J. J. Austin - announced at the end of April 1861 (soon after the completion of the line to Ipswich) that "the Telegraph Office will henceforth be opened to the public to allow them to observe the instruments from half-past three to four o'clock on each day" . As the transmission of messages by telegraph was a great novelty to many, he had plenty of visitors who wanted to inspect the working of the instruments.

The Moreton Bay Courier of 13 April reported that:

"on 11 April 1861, the current of communication with Ipswich was completed and the first message was sent through. Yesterday (Friday) the line was further tested, and found to work satisfactorily and it will be opened this morning for public accommodation. The office used temporarily in Brisbane is in the upper story of the old Commissariat Store, the inclemency of the weather having delayed the prosecution of the alterations in course of progress at the head station. A visit to the office yesterday was well repaid as Mr. Austin kindly explained the 'modus operandi' of the apparatus and made his visitors thoroughly acquainted with the main principles of the telegraphic system - although they may not have been able, in one inspection, to master all the details. The lecture to be delivered by Mr. Austin on Wednesday evening next, will go far towards the enlightenment of the public and we cannot venture — while such an explanation of the science of telegraphy is pending — to sound the mysterious depths of battery cells to speak of the electric circuit, of indicators, of magnetization and demagnetization, of magnetic coils and all the other paraphernalia which go to make up the "fixins" of a telegraph office and add to the bewilderment of the uninitiated.

While we were present yesterday, the manipulator at Ipswich informed us that the weather was fine and the wind south, that there was no news of importance and that he was not cognizant of the cause of the detention of the Ipswich papers, although he knew they had made their appearance in due course.

The office will open at 10 o'clock this morning for public business and we would suggest that the Worshipful the Mayor should exchange a pleasant word or two in a friendly conversational style with his brother Mayor of Ipswich — or that somebody else should congratulate somebody else on the opening of the line and hail the event as an earnest of the advent of that unity which is one day to come about when Brisbane shall no more vex Ipswich or Ipswich be cantankerous with Brisbane — and when the citizens of the two towns shall realise some at least of the prophesies relating to the long expected age of Peace.

We may observe that, for the present, the office will open at 10 a.m. and close at 5 p.m on every day of the week except Saturday when it will close at 1 p.m. not, of course, being opened at all on the Sunday".


Ipswich to Toowoomba.

The North Australian of 30 April reported progress on the next stage of the line: "The Intercolonial Electric Telegraph is completed as far as Bigge's Camp, the posts laid as far as Gatton and the whole line surveyed to Toowoomba".

On 14 May 1861, the Brisbane Courier reported that, since the line to Ipswich had been completed, the line to Gatton had also been completed. Gatton was to be a repairing station. It had been hoped that the line to Toowoomba and Drayton could have been completed by about the middle of June. Unfortunately delays held up the Toowoomba connection due to the state of the roads and bad weather preventing the officer sent to establish the communication reaching Toowoomba. On 30 July 1861, the Northern Australian observed that "The batteries and the furniture for the telegraph offices at Gatton and Toowoomba passed through Ipswich yesterday. As in the case of Ipswich, the chairs and tables are sent from Brisbane; by this proceeding, the country will be put to an expense of carriage which will probably exceed the cost at which the article might be obtained at the towns for which they are destined".

The temporary telegraph station at Gatton was closed about 31 December 1862. The station had only been established for the purpose of effecting repairs on the wires between Ipswich and Toowoomba when the line had just started being constructed.

In November 1873, an additional wire between Brisbane and Toowoomba, to be erected immediately, was announced because of the significant increase in traffic.

Toowoomba to Maryland.

Work was also progressing quickly towards Maryland. By mid-August, 1861 the line had been constructed to 30 miles beyond Drayton and it was then expected to be finished at Maryland about the beginning of October. Unfortunately further delays resulted at the beginning of September.

Telegraph poles were erected through to Warwick and it was estimated that the wires would be stretched within two weeks. That would enable Warwick to be in direct telegraphic communication with Adelaide - a distance of about 2,000 miles. Further delays resulted in the line being unable to establish a connection at Warwick until 22 October. Warwick was sometimes described as being "the last Queensland station on the line which is to connect this colony with her Australian Sisterhood".

By the end of 1869, Mr. Cracknell reported that the portion of the first line between Toowoomba and Warwick required extensive alterations. He suggested an agreement between the Railway Department and the Electric Telegraph Department for one line each xnstructed within the railway fences. If that proposal could be agreed, the original line could be taken down.


The NSW line.

Mr E. C. Cracknell had met with his counter-part (Mr. J. J. Austin) to agree upon a location at which the two telegraph lines could be joined. There was an anticipation that the location would be on the dividing range near Marsh's Station at Maryland.

The Ipswich Herald of 16 July 1861 summarised the position at that time:

"The wire that is to connect Queensland with the rest of the colonies was completed past our office on Thursday last (11 July) and we understand that, for a considerable distance beyond Drayton, the posts are up and only wanting the continuation of the wire to be ready for use. We hope soon to be enabled to record the opening of telegraphic communication from Toowoomba to Brisbane.

The Sydney Morning Herald has the following with regard to their portion of the intercolonial line:" During the past month, the first portion of the Northern telegraphic extension, from Maitland to the boundary of Queensland, has been completed. Stations for transmission of messages were, on the 12th instant, opened at Muswellbrook and Murrurundi. The total length of this portion of the extension is 104 miles and it has been finished a month before the contract time.

The second portion of the Northern line, which will carry the wire from Murrurundi to Maryland on the Queensland boundary, is completed as far as Tenterfield, leaving only forty miles to be done, towards which the holes are sunk and the poles driven for a considerable distance.

The contract will have been finished and the wire probably stretched from Sydney to Queensland before we publish our next summary; but the Queensland wire will not be ready for connecting with it for some two or three months after that time. Telegraph stations are to be established at Tamworth, Armidale, Glen Innes and Tenterfield".

The Courier reported that, by 17 July 1861,

"As the mention of the progress made by the line in Queensland will give no idea as to the probable period at which the whole work will be completed, it will be as well to state that the New South Wales portion, which is to connect Sydney and Brisbane via Maitland, has been completed as far as Tenterfield, the nearest town to the south border of Queensland, and that messages are already transmitted between Sydney, Murrurundi and the intermediate towns where stations are erected".

The line from New South Wales reached the border in September.

The meeting of the two wires!!

On Saturday 2 November, the Courier carried the following report:

"The Queensland and New South Wales wires have been united at the boundary, near Maryland, and we learn that the connection has been found to be perfect on trial. As far as the department in this colony is concerned, everything is in perfect readiness and a similar completeness of preparation on the part of our neighbors is all that is now needed to render perfect and available our communication with all the sister colonies.

The advantages which will accrue from the opening up of this extensive telegraphic traffic may be well understood when the length of the line along which messages will travel - over 2000 miles - and the number of places in either of the colonies through which the wires pass are taken into account. It is probable, from all we can gather, that the intercolonial line will be opened to the public on Monday next - at all events, on some day early in the week - and as the occasion will be one of no small interest and importance, we do not think it should be allowed to pass without some kind of demonstration".

The first formal message was sent by the Governor of New South Wales - Sir John Young (NSW) on 6 November 1861:

" I congratulate the two colonies, New South Wales and Queensland, on the completion of the communication between them by telegraph. The wire is an emblem of the congenial feelings which unites them to rejoice, each in the resources and advancement of the other".

The Governor of Queensland - Sir George Bowen - was however unable to make an immediate reply as had been planned. A severe storm at Tenterfield had caused lightning to fuse conductors and so the telegraph was down. A three day delay caused the reply to be sent on 9 November 1861:

"Cordially reciprocate on behalf of Queensland, your congratulations of the reunion by the telegraphic wire of the two great neighbouring colonies whose feelings and interests are so nearly identical. With you, I pray that this new bond may prove an emblem of mutual good will and of rapidly increasing prosperity".

The line was opened to the public for telegraphic communication soon after. The first English news to be received by telegraph rather than by steamer was received on 13 January 1862.

The Maryborough Chronicle of 5 June 1862 - so only about six months after the first two lines had been completed - noted that:

"A return of income and expenditure on the electric telegraph lines shows that already they have become nearly self-supporting. This, considering the scattered state of the population of the colony, is certainly very gratifying and will, we hope, lead to further extensions of telegraphic communication. Indeed the Colonial Treasurer, in his financial speech, hinted that such extensions were in contemplation adding that, if determined on, a further loan must be obtained for the purpose".

In March 1873, "the second wire from Brisbane to the New South Wales border had been completed and the New South Wales department was then bringing up the wire on their side" (Brisbane Courier 21 March 1873).



The first intra-colonial line - that to Lytton.

When the tenders for the intercolonial line to NSW were decided, offers were then invited for the construction of a line between Brisbane and Lytton - the Customs station at the mouth of the river. The estimated distance was 11 miles: "The Lytton line will advantage the metropolis by enabling it to receive the earliest intelligence of shipping arriving in the Bay and the overland line to New South Wales will be the means of opening up speedy commercial intercourse with all the other Australian colonies besides laying the foundation for a continuation line to the Gulf of Carpentaria whereby a junction may be easily effected with Indian telegraphic communication so as to shorten very materially the interchange between the new and the old world" (Moreton Bay Courier 15 December 1860).

Full details of that line and of its extension to Cleveland and Cape Moreton are provided elsewhere.


Additional lines.

Construction recommenced towards the end of 1864 with a second line from Ipswich to Toowoomba constructed to place Brisbane in direct communication with the northern stations.

The previous May 1861 Brisbane Courier article also reported that "In addition to the present two lines, the sum of £22,000 has been placed on the estimates for the erection of lines to the northern parts of the colony. These lines will commence from the intercolonial line at Toowoomba, thence to Gayndah, via Dalby, with a branch line to Maryborough and from Gayndah to Rockhampton, via Gladstone. The whole distance is estimated at about 440 miles and the estimated cost per mile is £50". This line is described elsewhere.

However, plans can change and the Courier of 17 July provided the following:

"When we last referred to the progress that was being made in the electric telegraphs of the colony, we stated, as one of the most important items, that the sum of £22,000 had been placed on the estimates for the erection of telegraphs to the Northern districts. Since then, however, the proposition has been discussed by the Legislative Assembly and refused on the grounds that they would tend to the encouragement of a centralising policy - of which the more remote districts are already becoming very jealous - that the returns from them would not pay for the outlay and that the money could be better spent in the construction of roads and bridges for the more remote districts".

Although the desire was strong to create additional lines - especially to the north-west and to the north-east - planning for these lines proceeded slowly because of the vastness of the Colony and also because of the extremely difficult terrain of the great Dividing Range.


Leasing the telegraph lines.

In the early 1860s, the Chief Secretary was considering a proposal which had been made to him to lease the telegraph lines. In the Legislative Assembly on 19 June 1861, he objected

"to this particular proposal as throwing too much responsibility on the Government. It would be difficult to get a proper person to become lessee of these lines, and herein lay the main objection to the project. He should be sorry to find the line handed over to parties incapable of fulfilling their contract.

As to buildings for telegraphic offices, in the case of Brisbane and Ipswich, the House had already voted for buildings and in the towns in the interior, the government did not intend to erect buildings but to lease the most suitable buildings they could get.

The item was then put and passed".

For a full and really excellent description of Queensland's telegraphic history, it is essential to read:
P. J. Gribble "What Hath God Wrought: A history of the Queensland Telegraph Service from 1861".