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The Imperial Connection: Telegraphic Communication between England and Australia, 1872–1902

On the evening of 15 November 1872 nearly three hundred men assembled at the Cannon Street Hotel for a banquet arranged by the Royal Colonial Institute.2 ‘The hotel was decorated with flags’, their historian writes, ‘ladies filled one gallery overlooking the dining hall, and the band of the Honourable Artillery Company filled the other as it played music for dinner, during which a large number of toasts were drunk with cumulative enthusiasm’.3 For a body devoted to strengthening imperial connections it was a grand occasion, and for Trevor Reese, writing 100 years later, it was an event to savour: his subjects had met to celebrate the opening of telegraphic communication with the colonies of Australia. The first toasts, proposed from the chair by Lord Kimberley, the Colonial Secretary, were ‘Telegraphic Enterprise’ and ‘The Integrity of the British Empire’. Telegraphic enterprise actually brought wires into the dining hall, and before the company sat down Kimberley sent a message on their behalf to the governors of the Australian colonies, ‘rejoicing at this fresh bond of union between the

different members of the Empire’.4 These words, tapped in Morse code by a man from the post office and relayed by other operators along the line, travelled by overland wire to Falmouth, by submarine cable via Lisbon to Gibraltar and Alexandria, overland to Suez, by cable to Aden and Bombay, overland to Madras, by cable to Penang, Singapore and Batavia, overland to Banjoewangi, by cable to Port Darwin, and overland to Adelaide, terminal of the imperial line, from where it was sent through domestic telegraph systems to Melbourne, Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane. A map on the wall showed diners the route taken by their greeting. ‘The list of the various lengths into which the whole wire is divided’, wrote The Times next morning, ‘is a list of the successive advances made by British political and commercial energy.’ A reply from the governor of South Australia made the return journey of 12,650 miles to the hotel before the company had drunk the last of the toasts. ‘Your message received. All passed off happily.’