Singing their songs at the Central Telegraph Office, Elizabeth St, early 1920s

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

You see before you a group of telegraph dispatch operators at the Central Telegraph Office at Elizabeth St, taken in the early 1920s before its removal to Post Office Place. 

These highly skilled clerks were responsible for the telegraphs that sang their songs (apologies to Dire Straits) within suburban Melbourne, throughout regional Victoria and other states, and overseas.

The arrival of the telegraph some 70 years earlier had a huge impact on Australian society. No one had to ride from one place to another with dispatches. No one had to rely on the postal service to deliver messages by mail. With the coming of the telegraph, news could be delivered in an instant. 

Suddenly, Australia was less isolated from the rest of the world. Individuals could be connected quickly and relatively easily. This was as close to text messaging as it got. The first telegraph message to Melbourne brought the news of Eureka Stockade in December 1854 and the telegraph service thrived for the next 90 years before telephones started to take over in the mid-20th century.

It seems incredible now, but when this photograph was taken most people did not have telephones in their homes. Many did not have electricity or hot water. Some did not have running water inside their homes. There were whole suburbs yet to be sewered. The postie made deliveries twice a day and with a bit of luck you could get a reply to a letter you sent in the morning by the afternoon post. There was even a Saturday delivery. If that wasn’t instant enough for you, you could always send a telegram – expensive, but as close to instant as you could get. 

This photograph, part of the richly diverse images collection of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, was taken in the suburban section of the Telegraph Office in the early 1920s at a time when many returned servicemen were employed by the Post Master General’s Department. It is probable that some of the men you see here had served in the 1st AIF. The women appear to be older, most wearing their hair in the practical “bob” of the day. The woman in the foreground has been identified as Miss Williams, former postmistress of the great Menzies Hotel on the corner of Bourke and William streets.

In some respects, this scene reflects a modern workplace. Here was an employment opportunity for women that moved beyond what had been available traditionally. It is not a segregated workplace, only men or only women, although it appears that the men and women sat and worked separately even if they did share the workspace. This was a skilled occupation. Messages were sent in Morse code, the dot dash system familiar to most of us as the means by which the emergency SOS signal is transmitted. So, clerks in this workplace had to be proficient in Morse code, as well as be able to decipher the original handwritten message that the customer had submitted at the main reception desk. You can see the process here with Miss Williams holding the printed message in her left hand as she taps it out and sends it on its way.

It is clear, though, that this workplace would not pass today’s health and safety standards. Those hard chairs alone look daunting enough, but there were other difficulties. The Telegraph Office moved from William St to the Elizabeth St premises in 1872, so by the time this photograph was taken, it had been operating there for 50 years. From the first, it was an unsatisfactory workplace. A decade after its opening, newspapers referred to its “disgraceful” conditions. The lighting was poor. The room was stuffy. Staff complained of the stench from the Elizabeth St gutters, so it was preferable to keep the windows closed and work in stifling heat in the summer. 

Fifty years on, the conditions were not much better. As I look at this image, I feel the hardness of those seats after a long day (or night) shift. I long for quiet after a day of constant noise. Some of it is generated by the delivery of messages via pneumatic chutes from the main counter in another part of the building. But for the most part, it is the staccato tapping of the Morse code machines sending and receiving telegrams from all over the country that dominates. I doubt that I could have kept up the relentless pace of these dispatch clerks •

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