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by A. H. D. Freeman

From article in "DESCENT" The Journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists, June 1984, Vol 14, Part 2.

Like other artefacts, the poles and wires which are seen on so many photographs of outdoor scenes can provide clues to the date on which the photograph was taken. Their value is greatest for the period from 1880 to about 1920, since before 1880 wires were rare and after 1920 the changing models of cars in streetscapes are usually a better dating guide. This article shows how pole routes can be used in this way, with particular reference to the city of Sydney, New South Wales, and inner suburbs. The first step in dating a pole route is to identify the type of service it provides. Wires were erected at different times for telegraphs, telephones, electrical distribution, high-voltage transmission and traction, and each application uses different types of construction. In the case of telephone routes, the styles changed significantly with time and this can also help with dating.

Pole routes with a single wire carried by an insulator at the top of the pole, and possibly a few more in a staggered formation on the sides, as shown in figure 1, are usually telegraph routes, but the same construction was sometimes used for telephone routes if only a few wires were needed.

Pole routes with crossarms and numerous wires are always for telephone services. Because telephones and telegraphs in Australia were operated by the same authority, it is not always easy to differentiate between them on style alone. Some other criteria are discussed below.

Electrical distribution to provide street or home lighting can be differentiated from telephone construction by its more robust appearance with heavier and more widely spaced wires. On telephone routes the separation between wires on crossarms was usually 15 cm to 20 cm and crossarms were 35 cm apart. Power lines had no more than four wires on each crossarm, spaced more than 30 cm apart and seldom more than eight wires on a pole. The poles nearly always carry lighting fixtures since street lighting was usually the motive for the provision of electrical distribution. Since telephone poles never carried streetlights, this is a reliable indicator of the purpose.

Electrical transmission is the use of high-voltage lines to carry bulk power from the generating point to sub-stations or pole transformers. These lines used much higher poles, very widely spaced wires and usually three or four wires. More recent transmission lines have used distinctive steel towers. The only other use of wires is for electric trams and trains and it is unmistakable.

The earliest wires erected were for telegraphs which started in New South Wales in 1858 (ref 1) with lines from a telegraph office in the Royal Exchange to South Head and Melbourne. A line to Brisbane followed soon after and services were progressively extended to country towns and suburban centres. As a single wire could serve a dozen offices on an "omnibus" or "party" line, most routes had only one to three wires. The construction shown in figure 1 was nearly always used. A separate telegraph network was built by the Railways Department for signalling and operational needs and the two services often shared a common route.

The backbone of the public telegraph network was a route in George Street from the telegraph office to Redfern Station and a shared route along the railway line to Parramatta. By 1880 there were about 10 wires along George Street. This pole route appears from the General Post Office c.1890 on Arthur Streeton's 1893 painting of Redfern Station. From Redfern to Parramatta there were about 20 wires, and crossarms were used. At Granville the lines to the south diverged, still following the railway, and at Parramatta the lines to the north branched off to follow the road. Few other telegraph routes had more than three wires. Telegraph wires sometimes appear on photographs of country towns and the date of erection was sometimes known to the Telecom Historical Officer. It was the telephone which was responsible for the rash of wires which spread over the larger Australian cities, beginning in the 1880's. (ref 2) Each telephone service needed one or two exclusive wires back to the exchange and in the two years 1882 and 1883 the number of wires entering the Sydney General Post Office (G.P.O.) increased from about 20 to over 200. By 1890 this had increased to well over 1000. In contrast to the telegraph service which needed wires only along main roads, these telephone wires extended to business premises all over the city.

The needs were met initially by building large pole routes capable of carrying up to 200 wires. When the limits of this technique were reached, cables containing a number of separate insulated wires were introduced. It took some time before the best combination of the two techniques was established. The pattern which finally emerged was one with cables radiating from the G.P.O. to a number of distribution points from which the lines continued to the subscriber on pole routes. As the cable network expanded the need for very large pole routes diminished and by 1905 nearly all telephone wires had disappeared from the streets of the city. A similar sequence was followed in the suburbs and country towns when the telephone spread to these areas.

The consequence of all this activity was that from 1883 to 1900 nearly every street in the commercial area of Sydney had a pole route, the appearance of which changed frequently as wires were added and in due course were replaced by cables. Potentially, therefore, these poles form a valuable dating guide for the period by allowing a series of photographs of the same street to be placed in chronological order. In the case of George Street the writer has made some investigations which suggest that a dating guide can be produced, accurate to within two or three years, from the period from 1870 to 1900.

For other streets the changes were slower and there is less documentation. The earliest and latest possible dates can sometimes be established or inferred from records and a knowledge of the stages of growth. The following outline of developments in the inner city may be useful.

Growth from 1882 to 1884 was met by pole routes along George Street running north and south of the G.P.O. and along Barrack Street. Smaller routes branched off this backbone. Towards the end of this period aerial cables were carried on the lower cross arms, at least close to the G.P.O.

In 1885 a cable support disguised as an ornamental verandah front was erected along the western side of George Street from the G.P.O. to what is now Railway Square. (ref 3'4'5) This is a distinctive feature which can be seen on many photographs. It became the backbone of the network with pole routes branching off at every cross street. The pole route in this section of George Street was replaced by a smaller one carrying only telegraph wires. The cable support was superseded before 1900 but was not all demolished. Shopkeepers had been allowed to use it to support awnings, and where they had done so it was left in place.

Telephone services north of Martin Place continued to be served by pole routes for several more years and at one time there were pole routes on both sides of George Street and one in Barrack Street feeding the Wynyard area. Aerial cables on the lower crossarms were added at an early stage.

Starting in the 1890's a network of underground cable tunnels was built and this allowed almost complete elimination of pole routes in the central city area by 1905. Some wires could not be placed underground for technical reasons and there were still two major pole routes from the G.P.O. One was the previously mentioned telegraph route in George Street and the other followed Elizabeth Street and carried long-distance junction and trunk lines. The George Street route lasted until at least 1920. Not much is known about the Elizabeth Street route.

In suburban Sydney and large country towns, similar developments occurred but with delays of ten to twenty years. Documentary evidence is usually confined to the opening date of an exchange and it may be necessary to try to date a pole route from its structural details.

Pole routes using the construction shown in figure 1 were used for new work from 1858 almost to the present day (1984) but after about 1880 this style was only used if the expected growth was very small. A pole route of this type, therefore, is difficult to date. If it is along a main road, it was probably erected for telegraphs and if the telegraph office it served can be established, the date of erection can be found. Any pole route of this type not in a major street, or carrying more than three wires, was probably used for telephones.

After about 1881 crossarms were nearly always used for routes with more than five wires. Three distinct styles can be recognised. The earliest had crossarms of varying length designed to give a tapered outline as shown in figure 2 and was normal up to about 1900. It was superseded in about 1900 by a style with crossarms of equal length as shown in figure 3. A further change took place about 1908 when the former practice of putting crossarms on both sides of the pole was discontinued. This change is shown in figure 4.

Telephone numbers are also useful in dating photographs, books, and other printed matter on which they appear. These numbers are subject to change as the network is extended and new telephone exchanges are established. In the city of Sydney from 1882 to 1900 the numbers were listed without an exchange name. From 1900 to 1908 the use of the prefix "CENTRAL" gradually became common. From 1908 to 1915 there were two exchanges, called "CENTRAL" and "CITY". From 1915 to 1920 there was only the one exchange, "CITY". From 1920 automatic numbers prefixed "B" and "BW" appeared in the city north of Market Street while the rest of the city remained manual. After 1926 the southern part of the city was converted to automatic with numbers prefixed "M" and "MA". It must be recognised that an advertising sign may remain long after the business it advertises has closed down. For example, there is a sign still existing in the Sydney suburb of Crows Nest (1984) showing a telephone number which was changed in 1938. However, if treated with due caution, changes in telephone numbers can be useful dating aids.

Electrical distribution began in the Sydney city area about 1900, soon after the telephone wires faded away. The main reason for providing electricity was for street lighting and the poles almost invariably carry lighting fixtures. The switching on of streetlights was always a major civic event and the date is often recorded in local histories. If not, details may be found in council minute books or local newspapers. Unfortunately, once erected these pole routes changed very little over the years, so only an earliest possible date can be established.

High-voltage power lines are mentioned for completeness, but they seldom appear on photographs and generally belong to more recent years. The Sydney Municipal Council sold electricity in some suburbs before 1920 and erected high-tension lines for the purpose, while in the 1920's the Railways Department supplied the Southern Tablelands.

Overhead wires for electric trams are only one aspect of transport history. This is a subject which has attracted much interest and an enthusiast can often point out several features in a photograph which help to determine the date. Much helpful information is contained in books on tramway and railway history. (ref 6)

This article concentrates on the principles involved in using pole routes as an aid to dating photographs. A companion document providing specific details useful in dating telephone line plant in New South Wales has been prepared and a copy is held in the library of the Society of Australian Genealogists.


1. Nelson, J. Y., Notes on the Telegraph System of New South Wales. Electrical Association of N.S.W. Papers, 1897 to 1902.
2. Dircks, A. A., The Sydney Telephone Exchange. Electrical Association of N.S.W. Papers, 1897 to 1902.
3. Sydney Mail, 2 August 1884, page 216.
4. N.S.W. Government Gazette, 21 March 1884, p. 1955, and 27 May 1844, p. 3445.
5. Chinn, N. and McCarthy, K., A Century of N.S.W. Tramcars, Vols. 1 and 2 (South Pacific Electric Railway), 1975.
6. Denham, W., Tramway Byways North Sydney (South Pacific Electric Railway), 1973.

All the above are held in the State Library of New South Wales (Australia).

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