Remembering Chatham Islands radiotelegraph

From a newspaper clipping in the Chatham Islands Radio Scrapbook. The original publication is unknown. Published between 1968 and 1991.

Chatham Islands Radiotelegraph Station

The Chatham Islands Radiotelegraph Station.

Chatham telegraph service set up in 1913

(Contributed by the Canterbury Museum)

Among the more unusual documents in the Canterbury Museum archives is the first message sent over the newly-established radiotelegraph station near Waitangi, on Chatham Island, in 1913.

Addressed to “Florance-Registrar-Gisborne,” and dated 22 September 1913, it reads:

“Your efforts re wireless for Chathams have borne fruit. Kind regards. Fougere.”

Robert Stone Florance,1 then Stipendiary Magistrate and District Land Registrar at Gisborne, was from 1989 until 1904 Resident Magistrate, as well as postmaster, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Commissioner of Lands and Deeds and receiver of wrecks. And as if these were not enough he was also in charge of education, health and the customs office, and represented other Government departments in the Chatham Islands.

Mr Florance was a keen advocate of anything he thought would benefit the people of the Chathams, and consequently he made enemies of some of the big landholders there, who put their own interests before those of the ordinary people.

Among the things Florance advocated ardently was the establishing of a radiotelegraph station. Hence his receipt of the first “Marconigram,” as such messages were then called, from James J Fougere, a Justice of the Peace, and a well-known and respected resident of Chatham Island. Mr Florance’s2 return “Marconigram” to Mr Fougere read:

“Heartiest congratulations. Florance.”

Incidentally, the Canterbury Museum possesses a valuable collection of sub-fossil bird bones from the Chathams, gathered over many years by My Fougere.

The Gisborne Times of 20 September 1913 carried this news item:

The Post Office advises that a radiotelegraph office has been opened at Chatham Islands. The hours of attendance are 9am to 1pm, 3pm to 5pm and 7pm to midnight, week-days, Sundays and holidays inclusive. The charge for messages to and from New Zealand is 6d per word.

Whenever Chatham Islanders use it as a transmitting station a transmittal rate of 4d per word is chargeable. All messages are to be sent to Wellington, who will transmit.

The opening of the radiotelegraph station to some extent ended the long isolation of the Chatham Islands.

The first radio superintendent was Mr John L Davies3 who was appointed on 26 May 1913. He was succeeded on 24 May 1914 by Mr RS Wheeler, who was in turn replaced on 6 September 1916 by Mr WFC Whiteman.

Mr LJ Steel took up the post on 8 October 1917, and also became postmaster on 30 June 1919.

From then on until the appointment of a permanent postmaster, Mr WJ Porter on 1 January 1968, the successive radio superintendents (12 of them after Mr Steel) also acted as postmasters. Ships did not call with mail very frequently, so until the advent of the Sunderland flying boat service, the postmaster’s job was not very onerous.

One of the uses of the radiotelegraph station at the Chathams these days is to transmit weather information and this is incorporated into daily forecasts from the New Zealand Weather Office. I must say that when I was in the Chathams last summer the weather was often better than than predicted for us.

– RJS

Notes:

  1. Spelled Florence in some records. He was also a poet. 9 Sep 185624 Apr 1928
  2. The original text incorrectly refers to Fougere
  3. In the original text, this name is spelled incorrectly as Davis