Archives staff often unearth exciting or unusual records from among the millions of items held in the collection. The ‘What a gem!’ series showcases amazing finds from the Archives’ holdings. In this issue, Archives staff member Amy Lay discusses a 1913 telegram sent by Cecil Madigan in Antarctica to his sweetheart in Adelaide.
In the early 20th century, life in Antarctica was cold and difficult, particularly without the modern technologies that now accompany expeditioners to the southern continent. Expeditioners would leave behind loved ones without the convenience of email or satellite telephone and communication was slow.
In 1911, Cecil Madigan travelled to Antarctica with Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Madigan’s role on the expedition was chief meteorologist, but he also took part in sledging. By 1913, when he sent this telegram, it had been two years since he had seen his sweetheart, Wynnis Wollaston, living back in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg.
Letters from Antarctica could be sent back to loved ones with the SY Aurora, but they took months to arrive. In early 1913, the first radio mast on the Antarctic mainland was mounted, enabling the expedition members to use the telegram service to send brief messages back home.
How does a personal message like this telegram end up in the Archives’ collection? It may be as simple as an unpaid bill. In general, telegram messages were not sent unless paid for in advance. However, due to the extreme and remote Antarctic environment, and a fear of being cut off at any stage, Postmaster-General personnel sent through the telegrams on government credit.
The messages were kept by the Postmaster-General’s Department so staff could later work out which ones were personal, and therefore needed to be paid for. Files in the Archives contain a paper trail of the Postmaster-General’s attempts to pin Douglas Mawson down for payment on behalf of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. The same files show that the clerk responsible for forwarding the messages received a slap on the wrist for not awaiting payment for the messages.