New Zealand’s humble telegraph – a communication revolution

Department of Conservation —  27/08/2015

Jackie Breen from DOC’s Heritage Team tells us why Whites Bay Cable Station is worth a look if you’re surfing, tramping or camping near Blenheim.

In this age of instant mobile communication, it is easy to forget that only 150 years ago all forms of correspondence and news relied on word of mouth, deliveries by land or sea, or on a limited and fragmented network of telegraph wire.

That all changed on 26 August 1866 when the first telegraph line was successfully laid between the North and the South Islands. After two bungled attempts and a near disaster at sea this amazing feat of marine engineering changed New Zealand and its relationship with the world.

Accompanied by a flotilla of MPs, the fragile copper cable was laid along the sea floor from Whites Bay, north of Blenheim, to Lyall Bay on Wellington’s south coast.

Whites Bay cable station, Cloudy Bay, Marlborough. CREDIT: Making New Zealand: Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-0627-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23123675

Whites Bay Cable Station circa 1900

Third time lucky

During the initial attempt on 27 July the cable snapped due to a tidal rip, littering the boat laying the cable with broken machinery and decking. The second attempt came up 32 km short because they laid the cable out too slowly, and it drifted sideways in the strong currents.

The engineers finally succeeded by recycling cable from the first attempt to overcome this shortfall.

Sunset at Whites Bay. Photo: Herb Christophers.

Sunset at Whites Bay

Social progress

This was a hugely important achievement because it meant that news, economic updates and political developments (and scandals!) could be quickly communicated across the country.

Just 10 years later New Zealand was connected to the rest of the world via a fragile 25,558 km copper cable network across the ocean beds that linked Gibraltar, Suez, Bombay, Darwin and Sydney.

This was our sole communications link with the rest of the world until 1902, more than a third of a century! No longer did we have to wait 2 months for international news to arrive via sea.

Unified time: a world first

New Zealand’s extensive telegraph network covered such a large area – from Napier in the north to Bluff in the south – that a single standard time across the country became necessary to ensure the telegraph offices all opened and closed at the same time.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to have a standard national time – contrary to popular assumption it was not Great Britain’s GMT. Although established by British Railways in the 1840s, GMT didn’t become Britain’s standard time until 1880.

A dull dog

The Governor in Wellington had the distinction of sending the first message on the new telegraph. Sadly he was no Neil Armstrong – rather than an inspiring ‘giant leap’ quote he sent what is probably the most boring historic message ever:

The Governor of New Zealand congratulates the Superintendent and inhabitants of the Province of Canterbury on the establishment of the telegraphic communication between the two islands of N. Zealand.

The first telegraph. CREDIT: Christchurch Regional Office, Archives New Zealand – Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga (ref: CH287, CP81, ICPS 1291/1866)

The first telegraph

The cable station

Whites Bay Cable Station is one of DOC’s actively conserved historic places and a remnant of the small community that served the telegraph station.

Although the telegraph staff carried out an essential – and historic! – communications role, postings to the seemingly idyllic bay were unpopular as it was isolated and buffeted by severe stormy weather.

Whites Bay Cable Station.

Whites Bay Cable Station

Black Jack White

Isolated Whites Bay has another story from New Zealand’s heritage. It’s named for black American slave Arper Ailsworth, known as Black Jack White, who came ashore as a teenager after deserting from a US whaling ship in 1828 and lived with local Māori. He was involved in New Zealand Wars for which he received a pension, and spent last 20 years of his life as a handyman for Marlborough Province superintendant Captain Baillie.

His death was briefly reported by the Marlborough Express, 6 July 1894.

Notice of Black Jack White’s death in the Marlborough Express.Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

A more heartfelt article appeared in the Picton paper, which ended:

One who knew him well says he was a trustworthy and faithful old man, and those in the valley who knew him well have nothing but kind words to say of him.

Things to do

Visit Whites Bay Cable station – DOC reopened this to the public in summer 2014/15 after a facelift. You can read more about the renovation in this Stuff news article.

The view from Whites Bay in Tasman Bay.

Whites Bay in Tasman Bay

As well as a DOC campsite and walking and tramping tracks, there are plenty of swimming, surf and picnic spots in the area.


If you enjoyed this month’s heritage story make sure you check out last month’s blog post ‘New Zealand’s original winter weekend getaway’.

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