Cable Bay History

Telegraph Made World of Difference

The following text and photos are from The Prow, a website featuring historical and cultural stories from Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough.

The Early Days

The South and North Islands were connected by an under-sea telegraph cable across Cook Strait in 1866. Ten years later, the telegraph connection between London and Wakapuaka, Nelson, spanned a fragile 15,757 mile (25,558 km) network via Gibralter, Suez, Bombay, Darwin and Sydney. New Zealand was connected to the rest of the world!  

In the mid-19th century, New Zealand’s early European colonists had to wait two months or more for mail to arrive by sea from the other side of the world. Meanwhile, an Industrial Revolution was sweeping Europe, with the rapid development of technologies such as the electric telegraph.

The New Zealand Government was keen to see the country connected by telegraph both internally and with the outside world. Australia was linked to Europe in 1872, with messages being sent to Sydney by sea and cabled from there.

The First Sub-Marine Cable

The first Cook Strait communications cable, between Lyall Bay in Wellington and White’s Bay in Marlborough, was completed on 26 August, 1866. The simple copper telegraph cable, laid across the Cook Strait seabed, enabled quick communication between the North and South Islands for the first time.

The isolated and often stormy situation of the White’s Bay Cable Station made it an unpopular posting. The staff and equipment were moved to Blenheim in 1873, and the telegraph station finally closed in 1896, after a direct link had been established between Wellington and Christchurch. A building from the cable station is still at White’s Bay. 2

On Monday 21 February, 1876, a sub-marine cable was opened between La Perouse (Sydney) and Cable Bay in Nelson. Laid, owned and managed by the Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company Ltd, the cable was New Zealand’s sole communication link with the rest of the world until 1902.

Whites Bay Cable Station

Whites Bay cable station group (from a glass plate neg.)0000.900.0736 - Credit Marlborough Museum

Early Cook Strait cable

Telegraph cables, shown here in cross section, were 26 millimetres in diameter. Seven strands of copper conductor carried electrical impulses that translated into telegraph messages. The copper was insulated by a natural latex called gutta percha, two layers of jute fibre, steel, and another two layers of jute. The exterior layer was a protective covering of steel reinforcing coil. Although the cable laid between New Zealand and Australia in 1876 held up well, the Cook Strait cable was frequently out of action because it was scoured by strong tides. In 1880 a second, longer cable was laid under calmer waters, from Cable Bay to Whanganui – a distance of 202 kilometres. This is a cross-section of an early Cook Strait cable.

Keith Lewis, ‘Engineering on the sea floor – Submarine cables’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2020)

A Settlement Forms

The sub-marine engineering of the day was fraught with difficulties from weather, sea depth and currents. It was most important to keep the copper wire conductors protected and insulated, with gutta percha, a latex coating from Malaya (Malaysia), being used to cover them. The first cable was expected to last 10 years, but continued in use for 41 years.

The settlement at Cable Bay grew as the demand for telegraphic services increased. By 1888 there were 14 staff, including a superintendant, cable and telegraph men. A press man had the job of ‘filling out’ the international press briefs and sending them on to newspapers.

A second cable was laid in 1890, by which time 17 staff and their families lived at Cable Bay. By all accounts, the community enjoyed good relations with nearby neighbours, Huria and Hemi Matenga, and there was plenty of on-station fun, with a billiard room, tennis courts and water-related activities.

Disestablishing the Cable of the Bay

In the early 1900s other cables were laid, including Vancouver to Doubtless Bay (Northland) in 1901,7 and Sydney to Auckland in 1912. 

The Cable Bay link was re-routed to Titahi Bay in 1917, with an underground cable to the Eastern Extension Company’s offices in central Wellington. The staff from Cable Bay were relocated to Wellington overnight on 22 August, 1917 and it was the end of an era for the small community. The cable station land was sold by the Crown in 1919. 9

Various Cook Strait cables have linked the two islands for nearly 150 years, but the route is fractured with fault lines. Telecom laid a new $38 million fibre optic cable between Levin (Horowhenua) and Cable Bay in 2001, to provide additional security should a large earthquake hit the region.

Cable Bay Settlement

Cable Bay, the Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection, C1881

Water Sport Was Always Popular

Cable Bay, the Nelson Provinical Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, 179078/3