Telegraph stamps
Telegraph stamps

The telegraph will become a thing of the past in the next few weeks. The sorrow over its impending demise is nothing compared to the excitement surrounding its introduction. Like the other Presidency cities, Madras was connected by telegraph in 1853, with Henry Nelson, Director of Parry & Co and Chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, sending a message to Marseilles on 13 October, at a cost of Rs. 10. The general public had to wait till 1854, when on March 1, telegraph offices were opened in the Fort, Guindy, Mount Road and Poonamallee. As a promotional feature, the public was invited to send one message, not exceeding six words, free of cost on inaugural day.

There were howls of protest when the charges came into effect from 2 March. These, which had to be paid by purchasing telegraphic stamps that are in the picture, were found to be exorbitant. Messages sent within the city cost the same as those sent abroad! This was soon corrected. Sending messages to England was beset with problems. There was no sea link and telegrams were cabled from England to Aden and then brought from there to Bombay or Galle in Ceylon by steamer. These were then retransmitted to their destinations. A study done in 1860 showed that messages to Madras took anywhere between 30 to 50 days to reach. Frequent breakdowns in the Ceylon line led to the unearthing of a scam wherein four people were arrested for tampering with messages and bribing transmitters. The opening of the Indo-European line in 1865 brought Madras closer to London. Messages took three days from then on.

Even then, getting operators who knew English was difficult. Alexander Forrester Brown of Parry complained that a word such as shipment sent from England, became shipace in Karachi and shipoyo in Madras. By the same logic he added, “ferocious could pass to garocious or even garrocimbs.” But over time, Indians mastered the technique and language. The post of Telegraph Master was a coveted one and we still remember an incumbent, Telegraph Abboyi Naidu in a street-name in George Town. Interestingly, the Telegraph and Postal services were distinct and separate early on. When the Madras GPO was constructed in 1875, it was designed to accommodate the Telegraph Offices. This was prescient, for in 1913, the two were combined to form the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

The heyday of the telegraph was during the British raj when the Empire practically ran on the service. Cables could be on high matters of state or ones such as the message from a panic-stricken stationmaster, minutes before ME Grant Duff, the Governor of Madras was to arrive by train. “Tiger jumping about on platform. Staff much alarmed. Please arrange.”

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories Column