News breaks the old way

AUTHENTICITY is the aim of the day on Wednesday when Bendigo commemorates a century since the city learned Great Britain had declared war on Germany. 

The moment when the news broke across town will be re-created in detail, down to the very telegram that communicated the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Great War.

The re-enactment will be staged in front of the town hall with Edwardian dressed actors, vintage cars, horse and cart, that day's Bendigo Advertiser and a paperboy. 

Morse code operator at Bendigo visitor centre, Peter Shaw, has written a telegram with the same text that appeared on August 6, 1914.

It reads: "England has declared war stop await further advice stop God save the King stop."

The telegram was sent by the Premier of Victoria to the Mayor of Bendigo.

The news came to Bendigo two days after Britain's declaration of war on August 4 - an indication of the limitations to communications at the time. 

The process was not as instantaneous as it is today. 

Mr Shaw, an old hand at sending telegrams from his 15 years in the industry in the 1950s and 1960s, explained the lengthy journey a telegram from England would have had to make.

Much like the game, Chinese Whispers, a telegram from the opposite side of the globe would be sent on from one telegraph station to the next, across continental Europe, through Asia to Indonesia.

From Indonesia, telegrams for Australia went to Darwin, the closest Australian location. 

Under Dutch colonial rule at the time, Indonesian telegraph operators were mostly Dutch speaking and had a limited knowledge of English.

Mr Shaw said it was common for the message to be unintentionally altered on its way through and it was up to operators at Darwin to decipher the message.

Messages from Indonesia travelled by cable under the sea at a speed of five words per minute. 

From Darwin, telegrams were sent across the country. 

It's hard to imagine a world that depended on the telegraph system in the same way it now depends on digital technology, but Peter Shaw keeps the old way alive through his demonstrations at the visitor centre.

Telephones were around in 1914 but were not ideal for mass distribution of information. Mr Shaw said, for an announcement like the declaration of war in 1914, the Premier of Victoria would have had numerous towns to notify.

He said the telegram meant the same message could be sent to numerous different addresses, rather than make hundreds of individual phone calls. 

Mr Shaw can send proper telegrams to the still functioning telegraph station in Beechworth. 


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