'A very enjoyable dinner'
Chicken, champagne, and a message from the King
7 March 2017
In late 2016, I commenced a volunteering project within the Library’s Pictures and Manuscripts branch. I was among those who signed up to the curiously-named ‘Removal of Obsolete Carriers’ project, which involves the extraction of audio-tapes, film reels and other non-paper material from manuscript collections for re-housing in more suitable preservation locations. There were some 18 000 items to be inspected, we were told, and it was with mixed excitement that we viewed the initial trolley of items which had been assembled by staff.
The very first box contained a plastic canister with a coil of paper tape in it, bearing a line of indecipherable squiggles. Accompanying it was a crumpled, yellowing typewritten note with the quaint title ‘Radiogram’ (Figure 1, below) – not, at first glance, terribly interesting. It was only when I saw the office of origin stamp that I really sat up and took notice: Windsor Castle. This was a message from the British monarch, King George V, in response to Australia’s first beam wireless transmission on 8th April 1927.
The radiogram of the King’s message was donated to the National Library in 1965 by Marien (or Marion) Devereux Ross, secretary of the Marconi Company, who transmitted the initial messages and was later given the King’s reply to keep. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company (London) was at the time under contract to Amalgamated Wireless Australasia to construct beam wireless stations in Australia.
Ross also donated her ‘Notes on the early history of beam wireless in Australia’ to the Library (NLA MS 1497), which relate the process of planning, site selection, and training of personnel; and additional photographs of the wireless stations and their equipment. Marien Barlow, as she was at the time, was asked if she would learn Morse code in order to send the first transmissions to England, according to the wishes of the Engineer-in-Charge, Mr H. Drake Richmond. A certain amount of secrecy surrounded the development of beam wireless: Ross’s papers state that the 1927 transmissions to England were preceded by a covert test run in December 1926.
To place the King’s message in context, I searched Trove’s digitised newspapers for accounts of the historic occasion and, delving further into the Library’s collections, uncovered information on the development of telecommunication in Australia. Wireless messaging had been achieved within Australia in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the first direct radio call received from Britain in 1918. But it was only on 8th April 1927 that the first beam wireless was transmitted from Australia to England, establishing a direct link to the ‘mother country’.
In the preceding years, two stations had been built with the assistance of British expertise at suitably flat, open sites in Victoria (Figures 2 and 3). It was from one of these – Ballan – that the historic messages were transmitted to England from Governor-General Lord Stonehaven and Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in April 1927.
The photographs capture the seclusion and expansiveness of land around Ballan and the receiving station Rockbank.
In his message, the King acknowledged the Governor-General’s expression of loyalty and devotion, and the happy conjunction of beam wireless’s commencement with the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York to ‘the Commonwealth’. The occasion warranting a royal presence was the opening of Parliament House in Canberra.
I was struck by how well suited Ross was to her job. Being requested to learn the skills to transmit confidential information and, particularly, to perform Australia’s first wireless message to England and to the King, would have been a tremendous privilege. Ross’s words that she ‘felt very honoured’ certainly affirm this (Figure 5).
The significance of that first transmission is caught in her description of the high tension which accompanied it, and the ‘wonderful news’ of its success (Figure 6).
At a time when women were mostly employed in clothing or food industries, Ross’s skills must have made a strong impression on her superiors. Imagining that she might have continued with a career in the newly flourishing and intriguing field of telecommunications, it was with some regret that I read her words: ‘I left the Marconi Company in February, 1928, to be married’. Legislation at the time barred women from working in government positions once they were married.
And what of the chicken and champagne in this blog’s subtitle? Some months prior to the momentous transmission in 1927, beam wireless had been secretly and successfully trialled, and ‘a little dinner party’ held to mark the occasion. Ross relates that the team ‘sat down to a very enjoyable dinner of chicken and champagne’. At the Ballan Transmitting Station, which relied on diesel to power the transmitters, there were perhaps no facilities for cooking apart from the camp ovens described by Ross. While the cooking method may seem crude, its results were – apparently - delectable, and the food exceptionally fine for its day. One can imagine the heady sense of excitement experienced by that small team in their remote location, sipping champagne while awaiting their slow-cooked dinner. Hopefully, a similar elation and sense of achievement awaits the re-housing of the eighteen-thousandth Obsolete Carrier from Manuscripts Collections!
I would like to thank staff of the Pictures and Manuscripts Branch and the Special Collections Reading Room for their assistance.