Tell me by telegram: Ashburton joined telegraph system in 1871

Once upon a time, before texts, emails, and apps like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat there was… talking to each other!

Aside from sending letters, the telegraph system provided a relatively quick means of communication across Aotearoa. It developed first across the South Island and then up into the North. What was once a technological marvel has been superseded by generations of new inventions, which led incrementally to a global communications network comprised of cables and satellites: the internet.

Fleron official Boy Scout signaller, from the USA. It would have had wires to plug into radio and telegraph equipment, allowing the user to tap out messages in Morse code.

A quick history of the telegraph

The electric telegraph was just one step in the evolution of long-range messaging, which began with things such as smoke signals, beacon fires and gesturing at a distance (including the use of flags, known today as flag semaphore.)

There existed an optical telegraph system that operated in France as early as the 1790s, which could convey messages great distances very quickly by means of towers equipped with a mechanical arm which could bend in several places, to represent numbers and letters. Each semaphore tower would copy the pose made by the previous tower’s arm, thus passing a message down the line.

This system was invented by Claude Chappe. Similar systems spread across the world and were heavily used for decades, mainly by militaries. While the lines were government-controlled, there was a risk of misuse as evidenced by what can be described as the first ever case of wire fraud.

In 1834, two French bankers bribed station operators on the Paris-Bordeaux line to pass on information about the Paris stock exchange, which gave them an edge above everyone else who learned of changes via the newspapers. While the information travelled down the line (which took three days) they played the stock market to net large profits. This scheme remained secret for two years until they were caught.

Fast-forward to the 1840s and the optical telegraph is replaced by the electric telegraph everywhere except for France. They clung on to their Chappe telegraph towers for a while longer.

Telegrams from the Ashburton Museum’s archives, relating to two visits to Ashburton by Governors G A C Phipps and Hercules Robinson, in 1878 and 1879 respectively.

New Zealand’s first telegraph line was set up in 1862, which ran between Lyttelton and Christchurch, before the technology spread across the South Island and eventually reached Ashburton.

Ashburton gets the telegraph

Ashburton was connected to the telegraph system in February 1871. The building which was William Turton’s original accommodation house, the Ashburton Arms, served as a combined post and telegraph office, magistrate’s court, and police headquarters. The town’s first operator and line inspector was Charles Doherty.

Despite the Electric Telegraph Department being separate from the Post Office until 1881, both departments shared the Postmaster-General as their Commissioner and many telegraph-masters were also postmasters. In 1875 what was so gently described as an “unsightly and inconvenient” building was erected as the new post and telegraph office, on the north side of Baring Square. According to W H Scotter, “the public counter especially was ludicrously insufficient.”

Ashburton’s first purpose-built post office, which was used after the old Ashburton Arms building had served its purpose. Built in 1875.

The Ashburton P&T office’s only saving grace was the “courtesy and good management” of William St. George Douglas, who replaced Charles Doherty in 1877 and held his position until 1897. In 1895, a telephone exchange serving eighty connections had to be accommodated, which only made things worse in the awkward building, yet under Douglas’ management the office’s staff increased from five to sixteen.

Scotter says, with a perceivable sense of relief, “at last in the early hours of 22 March 1900 one of Ashburton’s less regretted fires removed the building and obtained, what repeated requests had failed to secure, a new office of the standard usual in towns of the size of Ashburton.” After the fire, Ashburton’s once iconic post office and clock tower were built on the corner of East and Cameron Streets. The architecture and style of Ashburton’s third P&T office was a point of pride for many years until the tower was pulled down in 1946 and the rest of the building was demolished in 1962.

Send me a telegram

In the earliest days of the electric telegraph in New Zealand, a telegram to London cost 15 shillings per word ($100 in 2009) and the charge was 1 shilling and sixpence per word to Australia, according to Te Ara.

View from Ashburton’s P&T office clock tower, showing telegraph poles stretching as far as the eye can see down East Street. Taken around 1904.

In 1870, the ‘shilling telegram’ was introduced; 10 words, no matter the distance within New Zealand, could be sent for a shilling. From then, rates dropped significantly over time as evidenced by how the shilling telegram dropped in price to sixpence in 1896.

As New Zealand became more connected to other countries via cables, radio and eventually satellites, a sense of value has been lost. It seems like we take the internet and instant messaging for granted these days.

Just remember next time you message or email a friend or loved one halfway across the world that once upon a time, that message could have cost you $100 per word!

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 2 October 2021.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: