Darwin subsea cables

Darwin subsea cables

Darwin subsea Telegraph cables heritage listed after 150 years

Before the establishment of the subsea Telegraph cables, mail could take anywhere between two weeks to nine months before it would reach the intended addressee. Which in comparison to today’s world of instant messages is a very long time. However, with the invention of the telegram a message could be sent and received within 5 to 10 minutes.

Why have the Subsea Telegraph Cables been heritage listed?

This is one of the main reasons the subsea telegraph cables in Darwin were heritage listed because these cables allowed Australia to be connected to the rest of the world. Being a part of the international telegraph system played a vital role in transforming Australia’s commerce and communication. The establishment of the Township of Darwin occurred because of the decision to land the cables at Port Darwin.

Stamp in the PK Porthcurno collection

The subsea telegraph cables later lead to the development of the Overland Telegraph which connected Darwin to Adelaide, this not only connected Darwin with the rest of the world but allowed the other Australian States and Territories to be connected to one another. This was not an easy task due to the size of the Australian continent. The Port Darwin cable service was operational until 1942, when the cable station was bombed by the Japanese and the island of Java was invaded. Java and Port Darwin were connected by three cables only two of the cables remain today. They can be found running parallel to each other in the mud flats below parliament house in Darwin.

The above image is from Pastmasters and shows where the 1871 and 1879 cables are located and highlight the close proximity to parliament house

The rest of the cables are located in deep water and are harder for the general public to observe. Some of the cables in the deeper section have been disturbed, such as in the image below where a cable has been allegedly caught by an anchor. Therefore, the visible parts of the cable in the mud flats are the main priority.

The process to become Heritage Listed

The heritage register receives nominations for places by members of the public or by the heritage council. There is a rigorous heritage assessment process that a nominated location goes through before it can be approved. The assessment criteria looks at the importance, information, rarity, aesthetic characteristics and cultural significance that the nominated location has with the Northern Territory or Natural History.

A part of the 1871-72 Port Darwin to Java telegraph cable – Image Copyright National Museum of Australia

What prompted the cables to be considered for heritage listing?

David Steinberg who is the senior Heritage Officer/Maritime Archaeologist of the Northern Territory Heritage Branch, started searching for the remains of the cables as a research project for the heritage office. Once the cables on the shore had been mapped and understood the council decided to nominate the remains on their own.

Photo: NT Heritage Branch – photo of the subsea telegraph cable on the seafloor, taken last year.

What are the Future Plans for the Cables?

The imminent plans for the cable landing site are to present a visual interpretation so that the significance and history of the remains can be understood by the visitors. The heritage branch is currently developing some inventive signage, where a historic image is etched onto glass, so that the historic image floats above the present seascape. Similar to the image on the right.

Photo: Bowen Foreshore Catalina Memorial – A similar concept will be used for the Darwin cables.

This is a very clever idea as the cables are not exactly aesthetic because they were never designed for that purpose, they were designed to be practical and durable, and they have lasted 150 years. In this sense it is fitting that the cables are heritage listed at a similar time that PK is making The Zodiac magazines’ catalogue records easily accessible to the public. This will take place in December 2021 and will allow people to view the rich social history that was written by the Eastern Telegraph companies staff from 1906 till the 1990s. The magazines contain poems, articles, drawings and photographs. It will be interesting to read what was written about the Darwin cables and what occurred at this remote cable station.


This article was researched by Raquel Coning and Isabelle Jones, and written by Raquel Coning.

Raquel Coning is a Young Curator and volunteer at PK Porthcurno. She is currently living in Perth, Western Australia, and is studying for a graduate certificate in studies at The Australian National University. As part of her studies, she is completing an internship with PK and has been transcribing volumes of The Zodiac magazine.







and David Steinberg who is the senior Heritage Officer/Maritime Archaeologist of the Northern Territory Heritage Branch, who was kind enough to reply to my emails regarding the future plans for the cables and what prompted them to be listed.

Darwin subsea cables
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