Chris Watson


Letters from The Little Digger

OpinionChris Watson

Billy Hughes.

This will be something of a departure from the usual offerings on The Grip. I was going through some personal effects following relocation and came upon something I have been meaning to share for a while.

What follows are precise transcriptions of two letters from William Morris (Billy) Hughes, Australian Prime Minister 1915-1923 (known fondly as The Little Digger), to a Mr. JW Kitto, the deputy director of Posts & Telegraphs. The letters are dated February 1934, over a decade beyond Hughes’ stint as PM. Their content and context is self-explanatory. How they came to be in my possession is fairly simple: my father’s great uncle, Sir Albert (Bertie) Chadwick was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) in August 1963; these were among his papers when he died and were passed to my father and then to me. (Lest anyone suspect fabrication, I have the originals and am happy to send you a PDF scan.) I’d like to think that the letters had remained in Uncle Bertie’s collection due to their notoriety within OTC circles. Perhaps Mr Kitto had retained them with a sense of some pride, and they’d been handed down through the leadership of the OTC as some sort of customer service parable. But that’s all conjecture.

These letters came to mind again recently during an exceedingly tortuous month long process of trying to gain connection to PM Turnbull’s wonderfully antediluvian steampunk version of the NBN. During that month of constant bureaucratic bungling, just as my frustration was approaching flashpoint, I found the letters and my sense of humour (not to mention my sense of perspective) came rushing back. It is with great mirth that I note Billy had a full response to, and action on, his entreaty within a week. It’s a wonderful mirror image of my wranglings with present day telecommunications. The rapturous gratitude evident in the second letter was felt just as intensely in this household when the NBN eventually deigned to connect us.

But so much for all that; the Little Digger clearly had a flair for language. I enjoy the letters for his use of language alone and hope that you may do likewise. But just as he includes a Latin quotation from Horace in the penultimate paragraph of his thank you note to Mr Kitto, it brought to mind another well-known Horace quotation that I’m sure Mr Turnbull will be familiar with:

Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.

Change only the name and this story is about you.






February, 7th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy Director, Posts & Telegraphs,



Dear Mr. Kitto,

                       For the last month I have been rusticating in this delightful spot and, although lulled to lethargy by its beauties and sleep-inducing air, I have from time to time been compelled to recognise that there is a world outside its Elysian scope, in which foolish men and women rush furiously and futilely hither seeking they know not what, but demanding with angry insistence that they get it – pronto, toute de suite, and without a moment’s delay. Some of these irrational and impatient people want me. And they will not desist from their importunity unless and until they get me. Not for them the snail-like mail; like greyhounds straining at the leash, they spurn with contemptuous gesture the rushing motor, and laugh derisively at mention of those Noah’s Arks, the trams, and turn with furious haste to the “Winged Light” and telegraph or telephone their peremptory demands. About the telegraph I say nothing, but about the telephone I feel something must be said. Hence this letter.

                First, let me tell you something about Palm Beach. Probably you know it quite well. But I do not think you have stayed down here for any length of time. If you had, I am quite sure this letter would not have been necessary. The permanent population of Palm Beach is not large, but is growing rapidly. Every week end, however, and on public holidays and for some months during the height of the summer the number of visitors runs into thousands. Many of these from time to time have occasion to use the telephone. And this brings me to the point I wish to make. The telephone at the Post Office – the only public telephone available – is housed in a box outside the Post Office, exposed to the fierce glare of the sun and the biting westerlies and heavy rain. There is no privacy. Every word a sender utters can be heard by the crowd on the Post Office verandah, and by passers by along the road – to say nothing of the neighbours in the adjoining house. The other day it happened that I had occasion to ring up my Broker to give him an order in reply to his telegram which had just come to hand. The whole of Palm Beach knows the stock I bought, the price I paid for it; in short, knows all my private business.

                The telephone is not lit up, and the approach at night is a dubious adventure. The Postmaster does his best and provides at his own expense a light when he hears people at the box. But they have to make their way there as best they can. When they get there, the light may be switched on – or it may not.

                As this phone is fairly rushed from 7 to 10 during the season, it ought to be properly lighted, so that it can be seen from the road and the pathway to it plainly seen. And in place of this wretched box, there ought to be a modern sound-proof, weather-proof cabinet.

                If you refer to the office records, you will find that this phone did hundreds of pounds worth of business in December-January this year. The business done amply warrants the small expenditure involved in substituting a modern cabinet for the present primitive box, and for provisions for lighting.

                I should be glad if you would look into this little matter at your early convenience. If you care to run down here some day during the next week or two, I shall be delighted to give you a cup of tea despite the stringent provisions of the Anti-Bribery and Corruption Act.

                In the meantime, I am,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES



February 12th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy-Director, Posts and Telegraphs,



Dear Mr. Kitto,

                All Hail! Thane of Cawdor and Worker of Mighty Miracles. You have restored my fading faith in the efficacy of petitions respectfully worded and ending, as is seemly, in a prayer. Wonderful! Wonderful! On Friday, going to the Post Office whilst yet the day was young, musing on things in general and the inanity and ineptitude of governments in particular, contrasting sadly, the degeneracy of the present age with the bounding vivacity of other days, I raised my eyes in mute appeal to the Heavens, when LO! a wondrous vision swam before them. In the place of that rank and hideous ruin that had disfigured the fair landscape and by its rude and wretched mechanism had provoked even the righteous to profane and lurid works and evoked scornful derision from the ungodly there stood, passing fair, a lovely CABINET, standing shyly like a young maiden in some Arcadian Grove, awaiting the coming of her lover. For a moment I stood motionless, frozen in my tracks, gazing at this amazing metamorphosis, in wonderment. Was this a Cabinet of the Mind, a vision conjured up by vivid imagination impregnating the womb of Hope, a Mirage, a spiritual emanation, or was it real? And then all doubts vanished. It was there, a thing of substance. Like Alladin, I had rubbed the Magic Lamp and whispered in the ear of the Genii. And he had gone straight away and got the dashed thing.

                Wonderful and splendid. The poor postmaster is beside himself with pride and joy, and is going about with his hands outstretched trying to satisfy himself that he is awake.

                When you come down to Palm Beach – as you will do some day, if not to take tea with me, at all events to dip in its life giving waters – you will come to the Post Office and look at that Lovely Cabinet and be able to say with Horace “Exegi Monumentum perenius aere”. “I have reared for myself a monument more enduring than brass and loftier than the pyramids”.

                And you are going to have it all lighted up so that Barrenjoey Lighthouse will look like a tallow dip alongside it.

                For this relief much thanks.

                With kindest regards,

                I am, dear Mr. Kitto,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES

NBN Failure and the Ghost of Old Heavitree

OpinionChris Watson

“We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert” – Sir Charles Hedley (Heavitree) Todd, the first message passed along the completed Overland Telegraph Line, 22nd of August 1872

One of these men is an innovator, talented leader and telecommunications pioneer. Pic - @leftocentre

Anyone who knows anything about Charles Todd, knows that we could have a world-class National Broadband Network (NBN) and soon. Listening to most of our political leaders though, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’ll take the best part of 15 or 20 years to deliver a sub-standard one.

Colonial Australia in the 1860s was an unimaginably isolated place by today’s standards. Before the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), any message might have taken as long as three months to reach England with a corresponding three month wait for a response – half a year round trip for the merest of personal or business correspondence. In the simple act of connecting the lines at Frews Ponds, south of Daly Waters, and sending the telegraph message repeated above, Todd banished an age in which an inconceivable tyranny of distance held the emerging nation of Australia in check.

In that instant, the communication time with London went from 6 months… to 7 hours.

Absorb that for a few moments. 7 hours compared with 6 months. If you had your affairs in order at the start of the day, you might even get a reply by the close of business the same day!

Of course, there had been years of exploration, planning and construction leading up to that moment. The OTL still ranks beside the Snowy Mountains Scheme as one of the greatest achievements in engineering and infrastructure construction in Australian history. But once the project began it was completed in a dazzlingly short amount of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the OTL project, and I can recommend it as a cracking yarn and a crucial bit of Australian history, there are plenty of resources available. One of the best is the book by Todd’s great-great-great-granddaughter Alice Thomson, The Singing Line.

The salient points are these: until 1862, a route south to north through the centre of Australia was unknown to the colonists. In that year, after six exploratory expeditions, Scotsman John McDouall Stuart finally succeeded in pioneering the route that the OTL would follow. The final contract for construction of the OTL was signed in 1870 and Todd was put in charge of the project. 30,000 poles and 3200km of line later, relying only on the Great Scot’s notebooks, maps and diaries and despite the vicissitudes of operating in the unknown and extreme environs of The Outback; despite striking work teams (at one point work ceased for a full five months) and still just seven months late, the job was done. Adelaide was connected with Darwin and from there to the rest of the world.

From the time they decided to build it, across the entire continent, through virtually unknown territory, it was finished in a shade over two years.

Two. Years.

From the time colonists first crossed the continent, to the time they'd spanned it with a line of communication, was less than ten years.

Now, 143 years later, our leaders are trying to tell us that it’s going to cost tens of billions of dollars and take 15 years or more to build a national network; with modern techniques and machinery; with a larger and more highly-trained workforce; in a landscape which is utterly well-known and accessible. Workers on the OTL faced death by disease, heat, cold, starvation, snake bite, crocodile attack or spearing. The greatest risk faced by an NBN worker will be a lingering bitterness on the tongue when the local barista burns the milk for their fifth latte of the day; perhaps a deep paper cut while filling out their daily Job Safety & Environment Assessment.

Furthermore, we’re now being sold an antediluvian Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) version of the network constructed, at least in part, of the same materials used by Todd – metal wire – when optic-fiber technology is readily available and preferable.

The numerous delays and budgetary blowouts involving the NBN fiasco are a matter of public record. If it weren’t for the constant changes of leadership and gamification of infrastructure projects, the thing could almost have been built by now.

Doesn’t it all smack of leaders behaving out of narrow self-interest despite a universal acknowledgement of the significance of this project to the national interest?

What would Old Heavitree make of all this? Sir Charles Todd passed away in 1910 at his home in Semaphore, Adelaide. I wish more people knew about him and the many things he achieved. Perhaps a better acquaintance with the extraordinary people from our history might make us less willing to accept the rampant ineptitude and chronic obfuscation that is currently on offer under the misnomer of leadership in our nation’s capital.