Story Of London

The First Telegram

The First Telegram
by Anthony Waldstock

The first ever public paid-for telegram was sent from London to Slough on May 16th 1843. The new system of instant communication wa made possible by the construction of the Great Western Railway and was an instant success. The word itself was coined in the U.S. and brought a storm of protest from Classical scholars outraged at its lack of Greeek correctness. They suggested the word telegrapheme – which didn’t take off for obvious reasons. The first commercial special occasion telegrams were available in Britain for Valentine’s Day 1936 and were sent by 50,000 young lovers. However, one young Romeo proved that he was no starry-eyed lover by keeping an eye on the cost!

The First Telegram

by Anthony WladstockThe completion of the Great Western Railway (GWR) from Paddington to Bristol in 1843 provided the opportunity to put in place the first public telegram service. For the first time, there was an uninterrupted connection between major towns along which the necessary cables could be laid and maintained with relative ease. The Board of the GWR were not slow to recognise this and, at their Meeting on January 10th 1843, they agreed to come to an agreement with William Cooke who held the patent for a telegraphic service. Under the terms of the agreement, Cooke would provide the Company with a free telegraph service and in return he, or his licensee, would be able to open the line to the public as a commercial undertaking.

Cooke granted the licence to Thomas Home for an annual fee of £170 which allowed him to use Cooke’s patented double-needle electro-magnetic telegraph over the 20 miles of cable between Paddington and Slough. On May 16th 1843 the service was made available to the general public. The charge was one shilling per telegram and there was no limit on the number of words in the message. A small army of messengers were kept in constant attendance at both ends of the line to deliver the telegrams to any address in London and Slough, Windsor and Eton or the neighbouring districts. Londoners who knew nobody in the Slough area could still try out the new system. They could send a question which would be answered by the operator in Slough or a simple message the receipt of which would be indicated by the ringing of a special bell in the Paddington despatch office.

The telegraph office at Paddington was situated on the arrival platform (today’s Platform One). Not so in Slough, however. There a separate building, Telegraph Cottage, had been built on a small hillock beside the railway line and which was accessed by two flights of stairs, each with a dozen steps. Both offices were open from 08:00 to 20:00 on week-days and there was an admission fee of one shilling. They were a great attraction and Home claimed that”in the list of visitors are the illustrious names of several of the Crowned Heads of Europe, and nearly the whole of the Nobility of England”,.

Home operated the service for four and a half years after which he surrendered the licence to the Electric Telegraph Company which had been founded in 1846 by Cooke and a Member of Parliament, J L Ricardo. Cooke sold his patents to the new company for £168,000 and by September of the following year they had established two networks north and south of London. The Northern system linked the major cities between Birmingham and Edinburgh whilst the southern system linked London with Southampton, Dover and Gosport. On November 14th 1847 at 17:00 the two networks were united when the stock-market quotations for that day were transmitted from London to Manchester. The Paddington to Slough service was closed in June 1849.

The Company abandoned the flat rate charge. It initially charged rates which were based on distance. For a 20 word message they charged one penny a mile for the first fifty miles, a half-penny for each additional mile for the next fifty miles and a farthing per mile beyond one hundred miles. This resulted in prohibitive charges for long-distance telegrams and a maximum charge of ten shillings was introduced in March 1850. The monopoly could not last of course and rival telegraph companies began to appear in the 1850s and rates were forced down. By 1860 it was possible to send an inland telegram for one or two shillings.

The word telegram itself was coined in the United States by E. P. Smith of Rochester, N.Y. who wrote to the Albany Evening Journal which printed the following on April 6th 1852:
“A friend desires us to give notice that he will ask leave … to introduce a new word….. It is telegram instead of telegraphic dispatch, or telegraphic communication.”
This brought a storm about the ears of the unfortunate Mr Smith. Classical scholars were incensed. The word was not properly based on Greek analogies which would require the term telegrapheme which they put forward as the proper term for the new instrument of communication. Smith’s term, however, rolled more easily from the non-Greek tongue and was a good deal easier to remember (and spell). By 1860 it had seen off all rivals.

The first ever Press Telegram was sent in the U.S. on May 25th 1844 and reported on a vote in the Houses of Congress. The Daily Sun in New York commented that”This is indeed the annihilation of space.”In Britain, the first Press Telegram was sent from Windsor Castle via the Slough-Paddington line on August 6th 1844 and announced he birth of a son (Prince Alfred) to Queen Victoria at 07:50. The edition of The Times that reported the happy event was published at 08:30 on the same day. The following day, The Times sniffly pointed out that although they had made the news public at eight-thirty, the authorities at the Tower knew nothing about it until 13:00 when they were commanded to fire a salute without further delay.

On July 24th 1935 the General Post Office (GPO) introduced the first Greetings Telegram. It was designed by Rex Whistler and launched by Sir Kinglsey Wood. For an extra threepence the special message was delivered on appropriately festive paper and enclosed in a golden envelope. On Valentine’s Day in 1936, the GPO had ready the first special-occasion telegram. Fifty-thousand starry-eyed lovers took advantage of it to greet their valentines. And the cost, well, one not so starry eyed young man finished his amorous message with the rhyming couplet:”And now I’ve asked you to be mine –
By gosh! It’s cost me eight and nine!”