Victoria - Colonial: 1854-1900.
Telegraph lines in Melbourne CBD.

Telegraph lines were soon constructed not just to leave the city precinct for distant places like Williamstown and far away Geelong but also to link with offices within close proximity.

The 1862-63 Report by Samuel McGowan to both Houses of Parliament summarises the situation as follows:

Report CBD

McGowan attached a map to his Report "shewing the proposed system of Local Telegraph Communication within the City of Melbourne". Part of that map is shown below:

CBD map

McGowan's proposal shows two Electric Telegraph Offices - both in Flinders Street with one on the corner with Little Bourke Street and the other on the corner of Flinders Lane. The latter was close to the Telegraph Office at Customs House and was the office connected by McGowan to Williamstown. The proposal was to take the line (clockwise) past the Spencer Street Railway Station to the Government Storekeeper then the other Electric Telegraph Office. The line continued to Roads and Bridges, the Crown Lands Office and Public Works before linking to the GPO. The line then went to Parliament House, the Government Printing Office and the Treasury to then include the Audit Office and complete the circle with Customs House.

Some of these stations were already operating (for example at the Spencer Street Railway from 1861) while others took some time to include.

The 1876 Report notes that:

In the Report for 1878, the Postmaster-General J. B. Patterson noted: "The fire brigade station in Little Collins Street has been placed in telegraphic communication with the central telegraph office, and the persons in charge of the suburban telegraph offices have been instructed when they receive information of a fire in their district to immediately telegraph particulars to Melbourne, which will be at once sent to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Office (p.5)".


Pneumatic tubes.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, some communications between Government Offices in London were facilitated by using a network of pneumatic tubes. From time to time, they were also considered for Melbourne. For example, in The Age of 8 August 1870, it was reported:

"It may be remembered that some few months ago it was stated that the desirability of laying down pneumatic tubes between some of the principal Government offices had been under the consideration of the Cabinet. To obtain the latest information as to the use of this modern means of inter- communication (which, to a limited degree promises to supersede the electric telegraph), the Agent-General was communicated with to procure the latest authorities available on the subject. By the present mail Mr. Verdon writes that the required particulars will be forwarded in all probability by the next opportunity".

In the 27 April 1872 edition, The Age outlined the advantages of the pneumatic system as operating in London in the following way:

"Thus there are pneumatic tubes connecting the several metropolitan stations and when one office is overcrowded with business, the messages are placed in the tube and blown through to another station.

The central office in Telegraph street, London, is a marvel of ingenious construction, containing within itself the means of supplying immediately every requirement of this important service, even to a medical staff, with hospital comforts, to meet sudden emergencies in sickness. There are kitchens and dining rooms for the female operators and separate rooms for the male staff, writing apartments for the press, offices for the engineering staff, messengers' dining rooms, surgery and a number of other offices devoted to purposes incidental to the service".

A history of the development of the pneumatic tubes and their applicability to the telegraph was published in 1873.

The Age reported (18 September 1873) on the next development:

"The sub-committee appointed to inquire into the practicability and cost of an apparatus for the transmission of telegrams, &c., from the receiving room at the Custom House to the central post and telegraph office, instead of the present unsatisfactory system of sending them by boys, brought up their report, in which they described the pneumatic tube and apparatus, a model of which had been tested in their presence on Friday last, and which they deemed satisfactory. The report recommended that further representations should be made on the subject to the Hon, the Postmaster-General. After discussion the report was adopted, and the Secretary was instructed to communicate accordingly with the Minister in question".

The 1881 Report on the Victorian Telegraph Department for the Year 1880 included the following entry on page 18:


Further discussion on the linking of CBD offices was reported in The Age of 5 March 1884:


As the Government had partly determined to keep the head Telegraph Office in its present site, a general opinion was expressed that in view of the increased businesss at the office in the Custom House, a new building giving all the necessary accommodation of an important branch office should be erected in the Customs reserve and that such branch should be connected with the Elizabeth Street office by means of a pneumatic tube. It was pointed out by a member of committee that the present rule, which prevented foreign telegrams from being received at the branch office, was very inconvenient to the mercantile community".

In September 1884, The Age referenced the development possibilities twice:

"The (Telegraph) Department has under consideration the advisability of adopting a system of pneumatic tube by which messages from the suburban brunch offices can be forwarded to the Central Office in Elizabeth Street. The object is to relieve the present wires, and to enable the department to utilise the telegraph operators in other parts of the colony. (September 4). .. A similar system has been in use in London for many years, and has been found to work admirably. As the cost of erecting the necessary air compressing machinery and pneumatic tubes will be considerable, the Postmaster-General has communicated with the Agent-General, and requested him to furnish full particulars as to the general working and expenses of the English system" (Sept 30).

The underlying motivation for this increased attention was the scheduled introduction of 6d telegrams on 1 July 1885 which was expected to increase the number of telegrams which would have to be transmitted.


On 15 April 1885, The Age reported that

"The Postmaster-General has received a reply to the communication he recently forwarded (ed: in August 1870!!) to the Agent-General with reference to the working of the pneumatic tube system of transmitting telegrams. The reply covers a letter from Mr. W. H. Preece, the head of the telegraphic department in England, addressed to the Agent-General, on the subject. Mr. Preece states that the system is a proved success, and intimates that he intends to greatly extend its present operations in the London service. Mr. Campbell has now given instructions for the preparation of all the necessary details, in order that steps may be taken to connect the branch and suburban offices in and around Melbourne with the system, if that course should be ultimately decided upon. By its initiation it is stated that a saving of 50 per cent, will be effected in the telegraph operators' labor, but this will not cause any reduction in the strength of that branch, as the surplus labor will be required in the Central Office, to cope with the extra work that is expected when the reduction in the price of telegrams comes into operation on the 1st of July next".

On 26 June 1888, The Age described the possible system of pneumatic tubes as follows:

"The present organisation of the telegraph system of Melbourne and the suburbs is of such a character that messages lodged at any of the metropolitan branches for transmission country districts have first to he telegraphed by an operator to the central office in Elizabeth Street. and then re-transmittcd to their destination. This arrangement necessitates the maintainance of a complete system of telegraph and operators at the various branches, with the result that the working expenses are very heavy.

With a view of reducing the expenditure, the Postal authoritics have for some time past had under consideration the advisability of establishing a system of pneumatic tubes similar to those in use in London between tho General Post Office at St. Martin's, Le Grand, and the four city postal district offices. It is estimated that it would cost about £3000 to apply the system from the General Post Office in Bourke Street to all the branches, situated in e various public departments throughout the city.

The mechanism is exceedingly simple, and many years experience in London has proved that it works to an efficient manner. It consists of a small iron tube, bored out perfectly true and smooth in a lathe, held together by screw joints, fitted with great nicety, in order to prevent obstruction to tho felt roller, which travels through the tube with the messages. As the telegraph messages accumulate, five or six, or perhaps a dozen, according to the rapidity with which they come in, are placed inside the felt roller, and in less than thirty seconds the roller is sucked along a mile of tubing.

The suction power is obtained by Means of an engine situated at the central office. Each branch office is provided with a large number of rollers which are returned from the central office, together with a check book showing the number of messages received. By means of an ingenious piece of mechanism, attached to an electric wire running alongside the tube, a disc at the central office shows "roller full" whilst at the other end it intimates "roller empty." In fact, the arrangement is similar to the block system in use on the railways.

The postal authorities have not yet come to any decision iu the matter, but it is understood that if it is decided to establish such a system, the latest appliances will he obtained from London and laid down by the Telegraph department".

A number of news items were published over the next few months relating how the postal authorities were working on details about possible approval. In May 1889, the announcement was that the Postal authorities "were maturing arrangements for introducing the pneumatic tude system".

In the Report of the Post and Telegraph Department for 1888, it was reported that "the proposed installation of the pneumatic tube system has been postponed until the alterations to the General Post Office are completed".

As us usual, an expert in the system was sent to London in March 1890. A handy little volume The Electrical Engineers Pocketbook was published in April 1890 "with calculations as to the diameter and the time of transit of pneumatic despatch tubes &c".

Two Annual Reports of the Post Office and Telegraph Department commented on the pneumatic Tubes:

18891890 Annual Report for 1889, p. 14.
18901891 Annual Report for 1890, p. xvi.


On 18 October 1890, The Age gave the next update in the saga:

"The important question of conducting postal operations in the city and suburbs by means of the pneumatic tube system is still allowed to slumber. Melbourne is very far behind the times in being without this expeditious convenience. In London there are no fewer than 16 pneumatic services in daily operation. There is reason to believe that some 'laches' has taken place in the Agent- General's office over this matter. Three years ago, when the idea was first mooted Sir Graham Berry was asked by the Victorian postal authorities to apply to tho British Postmaster-General for copies of the requisite plans and specifications for constructing similar works in Melbourne. It was intimated that the Government would become responsible for any expenditure involved in getting this done, but nothing further has been heard of the matter. An amount of £11,000 was voted by Parliament for tho purpose of constructing pneumatic tubes about two years ago, and that sum has since been annually re-voted. Furnaces have been erected in the General Post Office mainly for the purpose of providing an electric light supply, but also constructed with special applicability to pneumatics. Arrangements have therefore been made here which will enable the matter to be put in hand as soon as the necessary particulars are furnished. It is stated that the Agent-General has not replied to the last letter which the Postmaster-General sent him, urging him that expedition should be used".


On 21 December 1891, The Age at last was able to report some progress:

"The plans for the pneumatic service to be instituted in connection with the General Post Office and branch offices in the city are now nearing completion. The first work undertaken will be the laying of a pneumatic tube between the General Post Office and Spencer Street, where a new office is to be opened in connection with the station. Definite arrangements have, however, not yet been completed, but everything is expected to be in order by the time the Postmaster-General is in possession of the compteted plans. Tenders will then be called for carrying the work out immediately".


Very soon after - on 27 April 1892, tenders were called for the supply and laying of pneumatic tibes between the General Post Office and the Stock Exchange.


On 11 March 1893, The Age was able to announce the opening of the new system:

"The first section of the pneumatic tube system of transmitting telegraph messages from different parts of the city to the central telegraph office in Elizabeth Street, whence they are despatched over the wires to their destination, was started yesterday afternoon in the presence of the Postmaster-General, Mr. A. Wynne, the deputy postmaster-general, Mr. J. Smibert and the telegraph engineer, Mr. G. Smibert. The installation is between the central office and the Melbourne Stock Exchange, in Collins Street, but it is intended to extend the system gradually to the Spencer Street station, and the post offices at the Rialto, Customs Department, also to Parliament Houses, the Flinders Street and Princes Bridge railway stations, the post office in Bourke Street East, and other places as may be required".

For the full article see elsewhere.

The Age of 17 April 1899 (p.5) reported on further developments within the Melbourne CBD which would assist in making the telegraph service even more efficient:

"Tenders will shortly be invited by the Postal department for the work of extending the pneumatic tube service from the Exchange to the Rialto and Spencer Street post offices. It is estimated that the extension, which will cost only £1300, will result in a saving of over £1000 a year. There is at present a pneumatic tube service between the General Post Office and the Exchange for the despatch of telegrams between these two offices. The tubing is of lead, and the carriers, which hold about 20 telegraph forms, are of leather, with felt ends. The motive power is obtained from the engines which generate the electric light at the General Post Office. When the service was laid on to the Exchange, two sets of tubes were put down, in view of the extension which is now to be undertaken. At present only one of the tubes is being used. The principal saving effected by these pneumatic tube services is in connection withe the salaries of telegraph operators. At present the telegraph work at the Rialto and Spencer Street necessitates the maintenance of two staffs, aggregating about a dozen men. With the pneumatic tube the work of sending the messages to the head office will be effected even more expeditiously by four or five boys, and the operators may then be withdrawn and stationed elsewhere".