Electric telegraph in NSW

The electric telegraph revolutionised communication throughout the colony. It also made it easier for police to track down bushrangers.

During the early 1850s, mail was delivered to goldmining towns by horse. News, no matter how important, might take days or weeks to arrive.

But the arrival of the electric telegraph in NSW was a significant event.

Traditional postal services (like mail coaches) remained important. For example, more than 10 million letters, parcels and newspapers were sent throughout NSW in 1870 alone.

But the new technology had many advantages.

  • the wooden poles and wires were simple to build and install;
  • it did not cost a lot of money to set-up; and,
  • the infrastructure did not require a lot of maintenance.

Once established, people could send messages around the colony very quickly (sometimes within minutes).

Bathurst, a major gold mining town, was connected to Sydney in 1859.1

Other, smaller, rural towns were connected in later years.

Tens of thousands of kilometres of telegraph lines were built throughout the colony during the gold rush.2

The system would eventually connect all over Australia, as well as overseas to places like New Zealand and London.

How did it work?

For a small fee, messages were sent (using Morse code) from one telegraph station to another.

At the final destination, the message was written down and given to the recipient.

The electric telegraph became available to the public in late 1858 and quickly became popular.3

40,000 messages were sent in the first year. Six years later, this had increased to more than 140,000. By the end of the 1880s, millions of messages were criss-crossing the wires.

People used the electric telegraph for all sorts of important communications, including:

  • personal or business messages;
  • reporting news and events;
  • transferring money;
  • sharing information about the weather, or farm crops;
  • items for sale, or the results of sales;
  • for police, tracking criminals.

How did the telegraph affect bushrangers?

During the 1850s, because news was slow to travel in rural areas, bushrangers were able to stay ahead of the police. 

But by 1863, many of the rural areas, where bushrangers operated, had a telegraph station.

This made it much easier for the police to report bushranger crimes or sightings, then send reinforcements to where they were needed.

For example, when Ben Hall's gang was spotted in NSW, near the town Forbes in March 1865, the police used the telegraph to track them.

These are some of the telegrams police sent as they hunted Ben Hall in 1865.

Read them carefully to find out what happened.

28 March, 1865
Sighting and a robbery
'There is no doubt Hall & mates were in Forbes on Saturday they stated in the Store who they were and the description given corresponds with that gang. They were at Grudgery Mr Cummins stated on Sunday morning and stole a horse, two saddles and bridles, leaving a horse and their own saddles and bridles behind. Hall's clean shaved now.'

29 March, 1865
Horse theft and police on their tail
'Hall & gang were at Towyell and Drugery near Forbes yesterday afternoon [and] stole two Race Horses. Mr Davidson and party on their track.'

11 April, 1865
Another robbery
'Yesterday Hall's gang stopped the mailman between Molong and Stoney Creek [but] took nothing. I think they went not for purpose of stopping Gold Escort from Stoney Creek yesterday but were not frightened to attack.'

11 April, 1865
Robbery of an inn and a store
'Watt's Inn Newrea Austin's Inn and Gallernore Store Black Rock [illegible] stuck up yesterday between three and five pm by Hall, Gilbert and Dunn the same parties [took] from Mr Maxwell's paddock this morning two horses by post went in the direction of Molong.'

12 April, 1865
Robbery of public houses
'Hall's gang stuck up two public houses and a store at Newrea tens miles from Wellington on yesterday. Stoney Creek Police on Gold Escort will be in pursuit today Jaggens will go across from Carcoar side and Davidson party is waiting until he [illegible] get away from Court. Will leave today.'

6 May, 1865
A day after Ben Hall's death
'Hall's death known early information sent to all stations on the route the men are likely to go.'

Ned Kelly destroys telegraph lines!

Bushrangers sometimes destroyed telegraph wires and poles because they saw them as a threat.

For example, Ned Kelly's gang bailed up the town of Jerilderie in NSW, in 1879 they went to the telegraph station and destroyed the wires and cut down the poles.

A witness describes what happened:

'We next went to the telegraph office, where we found Byrne [a member of the gang] who had all the wires cut. Ned Kelly pulled them about, and satisfied himself that they were broken.

Ned Kelly informed the telegraph master ... that he would shoot him if they attempted to mend the lines...'4

After the gang left someone rode ninety kilometres to the nearest town, Deniliquin, to report the crime using their telegraph office.

Student activity: what's missing?

orbes - a gold mining town in NSW - was connected to the electric telegraph in 1862. When the police were hunting for the bushranger Ben Hall in 1865, the Forbes office played a crucial role in sending messages (see examples above).

Activity: Source analysis

While the town was connected in 1862, this grand telegraph building was not actually built until late 1881. Even then it was not entirely finished.

Q. Look closely at the photograph - can you see anything that is missing?

If you think you've found what's missing, how do you think the people in the town managed without one?

Click here for the answer and find out how the people living in the town solved the problem. Find the article on 'Forbes' and read the third-last paragraph carefully.5

Source: NSW State Records


  1. Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 31 December 1859, p2.
  2. The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1863, p11.
  3. The Goulburn Herald, 19 May 1858, p2.
  4. 'Mr Lyving's narrative', The Mercury 15 February 1879, p3.
  5. Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 January 1885, p27