The first Telegram in Whanganui

In the Museum collection is the first telegram to be received in Whanganui.  Received at 3.40 pm on 3 November 1869, the telegram was addressed to the settlers of Wanganui and the district and was sent by then Premier William Fox. The message reads, “I congratulate you on the completion of the telegraph. May it strengthen the Bonds of Union + promote the prosperity of the Colony.”


The telegram sent to Wanganui by Premier William Fox on 3 November 1869 (ref: 1802.5812)

The first government-owned telegraph line in New Zealand was established between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1862, and the first lines in the North Island appeared two years later. Initially the North Island line was for military use only, to assist with the land wars of the time. By 1866 it had been purchased by the provincial government and incorporated with the wider public telegraph system.

The telegram, or electric telegraph, was revolutionary for its time. Previous attempts at communication were slow and cumbersome, limited to the speed a human could travel on foot, horse, or boat. The invention of the electric telegraph, however, hugely altered the face of global society and economy.

From the first days of electricity in the 18th century people have been finding ways to use it to improve our lives; communications benefited greatly. Various attempts had been made to use electrical currents to send messages but none were very successful until 1837 when William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone started experimenting. They devised a machine on which a series of needles was attached to a board, each of which could turn clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the electromagnetic charge it received. The operator would choose the direction of the current and the needles would turn to point to corresponding letters on the diamond-shaped board.

This system was gradually refined and simplified until only one needle was required. Numerals were then added to the repertoire. This format was closely followed by Morse code with its familiar dots and dashes, and some telegraph machines were developed with printing capabilities so the message was automatically printed for later deciphering and delivery. Improved communication methods removed the message from the object carrying it and enabled it to move much faster, requiring only someone on the receiving end to transcribe it and ensure its delivery.


Steve Veitch dressed in his uniform for delivering telegrams (ref: P-CH-006)

Almost instant communication saw the rapid growth of business and organisations, which in turn encouraged society to embrace telegrams for a more personal use. To keep costs down, the message had to be short and to the point – the average telegram was less than 15 words – and required the language to be free of any local or regional colloquialisms which could be misinterpreted.

The speed with which information could travel the globe changed the face of news reporting. Many newspapers began bearing the title of “Telegraph” indicating they received their news timely and accurately. Misinformation still got through, however; the New York Sun and Honolulu Evening Bulletin published on 15 April 1912 both reported receiving telegrams stating all passengers aboard the Titanic had been saved.


Settler Stories

In the nineteenth century the carte de visite photograph was very popular; affordable to the public, cheap to make, and of a standard size they were produced in great numbers and traded amongst friends and family members like calling cards.  The Whanganui Regional Museum has a significant number of these little photographs in our collection and has been embarking on some research into the sitters to try and find out a little more about them.  Here are a handful of some of Whanganui’s early residents.

Charles Thoren Aamodt

Charles Thoren Aamodt

Charles Thoren Aamodt was born in 1859 in Wilson Street, Whanganui.  He left Whanganui for Wellington in 1877 to take a position at Messrs Buckley & Co.  Upon leaving was presented with a ring from his comrades in the Wanganui Rifles, of which he was a long-standing member and an excellent shot.  He married Mary Josephine McKeegan on 28th April 1882 in Wellington and they have five children together: Leah Mary 1892, died aged 4 weeks; Elizabeth May 1895; Charles Herman 1896; Mary 1898, died aged 14 months; William 1900.  Charles passed away on 8th July 1917 at his residence on Jessie Street in Wellington.

George Stephen Bridge

George Stephen Bridge

George Stephen Bridge was born on Regent Street in London, England, on 21st December 1840.  He arrived in New Zealand aboard the ‘Hastings’ in 1859 and settled in Waverley where he worked as a farmer and Justice of the Peace.  He was a member of the Education Board for 26 years, Chairman of the First Patea County Council in 1878, Chairman of the First Waitotara Highway Board in 1879, member of the School Committee in 1882, and Church Office Bearer in Waverley from 1887-1905.  In 1897 he settled in Whanganui in Plymouth Street, and served as an Elder in St Pauls Church, Treasurer of the Wanganui Prohibition League, member of the Orphanage Committee, Director of the Library Committee, and member of the Borough Council in 1901.  In February 1865 George married Catherine McWilliam, daughter of Thomas McWilliam of Netherdale Farm in the Matarawa Valley.  They had the following children: Thomas Andrew born 1866; George James born 1867; William Wilkinson born 1869, died 1869 aged one month; William Wilkinson born 1872; Charles Harry born 1873; Francis David born 1888, died 1893 aged five years; Catherine died in 1901 aged 54 years, and George died in 1906 aged 65 years.

Duncan Blair

Duncan Blair

Duncan Blair was born in Scotland in 1833 and arrived in New Zealand in 1870, where he settled in Whanganui and became a farmer at Rapanui in Kai Iwi, Wanganui.  He was a pedigree Lincoln sheep breeder and was at one time president of the Kaierau Football Club.  In 1869 he married Agnes Barries who was born in Massachusettes, USA, and together they had the following children: Agnes (born in America, unknown date) married William Aiken April 1891; Jack Alexander (no birth date), married Ada Cutfield in 1911; Duncan born 1873, married Suzanne Gadra; Isabella Bell born 1876, married Peter Johnstone; Elizabeth born 1878, married Archibald William E. Montgomery; Florence (Flora) Lilian born 1879, married Gilbert Moyle; Edith born 1880, married Matthew Henry William Galpin in 1906; Maggie (Madge) Paterson born 1881, married Jack Callaghan.

George Henry Armstrong

George Henry Armstrong

George Henry Armstrong was born in 1852, the son of John Armstrong, a coach builder.  George owned a drapery business in Victoria Avenue, Whanganui.  On 6th June 1877 he married Mary Ann Sigley, a dressmaker, and they had one son, Norman Graham born in 1878, who went on to become a teacher and solicitor.  George died on 22nd October 1881 after an illness, aged 29 years, at Rose Hill in Waverley.