musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Remembering the Telegram

While rooting through my stuff in SA I found an envelope related to the passing away of my father in 1981. Apart from the usual cards and leaflets there were a few telegrams of condolence. It got me thinking about how telegrams were used way back in my day,

Telegrams broadly fall under “Telegraphy”,  and while I do not know how they were used in 1981 when these telegrams arrived at our home, in later years I did a course in the Siemens T100 range of Teleprinters and the idea is roughly the same. 

In short, you popped into your local post office, grabbed a form and filled it in. I think you paid by the word, or possibly by letter, either way they were not cheap to send. The operator at the sending station would then type out the message (or use Morse or a telex machine) to send it to the receiving station. The receiving station would then print or write it out on long strips of gummed paper and stick those to a form (as above) and it was dispatched via a special telegram messenger on his bicycle, the recipient signing for the telegram when they received it. 

The telegram messenger on his bicycle usually signified that somebody was going to get bad news as it was common to send telegrams of condolence to a family who had lost a loved one (as per my example above), or congratulations for the birth of a child or a special event. There were also the sinister telegrams from the military in their buff windowed envelope, cancelling your leave or calling you up for a camp or a parade.  They also had to be signed for, which meant that technically you received it even if you didn’t actually read it. The beauty of the telegram was that it was convenient and quick, and was one way to get your message across before the advent of the fax machine or email and instant messaging. 

During the wars many thousands of families would receive notification of the death of their family members in the forces, and it is possible that this was one reason that everybody seemed to dread the messenger on his bike with a small pouch on the crossbar.  The movie “We Were Soldiers Once” has a poignant scene in it that deals with the delivery of those dreaded telegrams and how they affected a community. If you consider the Pals Battalions from the First World War and how they were wiped out in battle, you can get some idea of what those messages did to a community when casualty notifications were delivered. 

Strangely enough the telegram is not dead, in the UK you can still send a telegram, although it is now handled by TelegramsOnline.

The first telegraph services arrived in South Africa in 1859 and in 1860 the Cape of Good Hope Telegraph Company opened its Cape Town – Simonstown line This was a single-wire earth return telegraph line (circuit run) on wooden poles between Cape Town and Simonstown. In 1922 The multiplex telegraph system (aka “teletype”) opened between Cape Town and Johannesburg. This allowed four telegraphs to work in each direction simultaneously on a single line. (More about the Telegraph system in South Africa at https://mybroadband.co.za/news/telecoms/133136-how-south-africa-went-from-its-first-telegraph-service-in-1859-to-100mbps-fibre-in-2015.html)

Westrex teletype machine (London Science Museum)

The whole concept of the telegram has changed since we can now sms or email somebody in another country almost instantaneously, in fact communication has changed so much that the days of the letter are almost coming to an end, and the fax machine clings on grimly as its market shrinks too. 

The telegram is rapidly heading into the history books, but I am  glad that I was able to see those telegrams from 1981 once again, Those forms with their gummed strips tell the story of people reaching out from far away places, to express their condolences. It was the right thing to do, that was just how people were. Today they would just send an sms instead.

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