1871-72 The electric telegraph reaches Hong Kong | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

1871-72 The electric telegraph reaches Hong Kong

When the British first arrived in Hong Kong at the start of the 1840s, it took months to send a message to London and then receive a reply - messages only travelled as fast as the quickest sailing ship.

Just 30 years later, the electric telegraph reached Hong Kong: a message could be sent and the reply received on the same day. It must have had a huge impact on how business and government was run.

When exactly the first telegrams were sent Hong Kong needs a bit more explanation, as there were two cables heading towards Hong Kong from different directions, built in different orders:


Southern cable via Singapore and India

The southern cable was laid in segments by a group of British companies. It linked Britain to Hong Kong via Malta, Suez, Bombay, and Singapore. The final Singapore-Hong Kong section was laid by the China Submarine Cable Co., and landed at Hong Kong's Telegraph Bay. 

The cable was completed on the 4th of June, and the event was reported the next day on page 2 of the Hong Kong Daily Press:


We have received information that the final splice of the China Submarine Cabin was made yesterday afternoon at half-past 4 o’clock, under the supervision of Messrs. London and Laws with efficient staffs, on behalf of the China Submarine Cable Co., thus placing Hongkong in communication with Singapore and the other ports of the telegraphic world as far as San. Francisco. [...] 

About 100 knots being paid out, the cable was cut and the end buoyed about 43 miles from Hongkong, the Belgian remaining outside to keep watch over the buoy. The Minia then steamed in for Taitowan where she anchored, at the spot selected for her, at about 6.30 pm, on Friday. Arrangements were then made to land the shore end as speedily as possible, in order that there might be sufficient time to get out to the buoy and make the final splice before dark. Notwithstanding the thick, unfavourable weather, this operation was finished by 4.30 p.m., the two ends having been previously tested, aad the electrical condition of the cable found satisfactory thus completing the communication with Singapore, India, Europe and America, the total length of cable laid being 1567 knots, actual distance 1483.

The new cable was soon in action, as several congratulatory telegrams were reproduced on page 2 of Hong Kong Daily Press, 1871-06-15. The earliest shown was sent on 11th June.


Northern cable via Shanghai and Siberia

The Great Northern China and Japan Extension Telegraphic Company was a Danish company, created to build and operate a telegraph cable linking Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan with each other, and to Vladivostok on Russia's east coast. From Vladivostok a cable ran along the Trans-Siberian Railway, linking Hong Kong to telegraph networks in Britain, Europe, and America.

The Shanghai-Hong Kong cable landed at Deep Water Bay, and was first used on the 18th April 1871. They beat the southern cable to send the first international telegram from Hong Kong, but took second place in the race to send telegrams to London. The connection to Vladivostok was only completed at the end of the year, and the first telegram to London via the northern cable was sent on the 1st of January, 1972.


Timeline of firsts

  • April 1871: First international telegram sent from Hong Kong (telegram to Shanghai via northern cable)
  • June 1871: First telegram sent from HK to London (via southern cable)
  • January 1872: First telegram sent from HK to London via the northern cable

The information about the northern cable comes from an outline of the history of The Great Northern Telegraph Company. The outline is reproduced on the website http://atlantic-cable.com, which describes itself as "History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network".


Telegraphic communication with the outside world has been established, but so far it has been limited to official communication and the free telegrams granted by Cable & Wireless to prisoners-of-war and internees. China Mail 14 September 1945 refers. Futher information on the restoration of cable service and plans for improvement can be read here

The Hongkong Government Gazette

No. 28.           VICTORIA, SATURDAY, 15TH JULY, 1871.       VOL. XVII.

No. 102


At the request of D. CRUIKSHANK, Esquire, Agent of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, the following Notice is published for general information.

By Command, J. GARDINER AUSTIN, Colonial Secretary

Colonial Secretary's Office, Hongkong, 12th July, 1871.


Notice to Commanders of Vessels and others.

Commanders of Vessels and others are hereby notified that the China Submarine Cable runs out for a distance of 2/3 of a mile, in a direction S. ¼ W. from the small white house on the beach at Tachowan bay, on the west side of the island of Hongkong, where it is intended to erect two beacons on the shore, which brought in one will mark the line of the cable.

From the above point it follows a course S.S.E.¾ E. at a distance of about 400 yards from the Hongkong shore and Tree island, off the entrance to Aberdeen, it then takes a line S.E. by E. passing about two cables length off the South end of Taplechow, and the island of Maskong, from which it runs S. East to a point about 2/3 of a mile East of N. East Head on the Lema islands, it then tends South two miles, and afterwards carries away to the South West.

Should any vessel anchoring during the night unfortunately hook and raise the cable to the surface, the Commander is respectfully requested to have a ship rope passed round the same, and when clear of his anchor drop the bight again, reporting the circumstance with the position where it was hooked, to the Harbor Master of the Port at which he first arrives, and by letter to the Superintendent of the China Submarine Cable Company, either at Hongkong or Singapore.

D. CRUIKSHANK,  Agent, Telegraph Construction &. Maintenance Company.

Source HKGRO




Whereas certain evilly-disposed Persons have maliciously cut the Cable of the Great Northern Telegraph China & Japan Extension Company, within the vicinity of this Colony, and have stolen a considerable portion thereof:—

Notice is hereby given that a Reward of Two hundred and Fifty Dollars will be paid to any Person or Persons who shall give such information as shall lead to the apprehension and conviction of the Offenders.

A Free Pardon will be granted to any Person implicated in the Crime, who may give such information, provided he be not the actual Perpetrator.


By Command, CECIL C. SMITH, Acting Colonial Secretary. Colonial Secretary's Office, Hongkong, 4th May 1872. 



Whereas it has been reported that the Cable of the "Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company," has been maliciously cut within the Waters of the Colony:—

Notice is hereby given, that a Reward of Two hundred and Fifty Dollars will be paid to any Person or Persons who shall give such Information as shall lead to the apprehension and conviction of the offenders.

A Free Pardon will be granted to any Person implicated in the crime,--provided he be not the actual Perpetrator,--who may give the required information.

By Command,  CECIL C. SMITH, Acting Colonial Secretary.   Colonial Secretary's Office, Hongkong, 20th October, 1873




Whereas certain evilly-disposed persons have maliciously cut the Cable of the Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company, Limited, about 10 miles distant from Reef Island, and have stolen and carried away a considerable portion thereof:

Notice is hereby given that a Reward of $300 will be paid to any Person or Persons who shall give such information as shall lead to the apprehension and conviction of the parties who stole the said property

And that a Reward of $200 will be paid to any Person or Persons who shall give such information as shall lead to the detection of the Receivers of the same.

A free Pardon will be granted to any Person implicated in the crime who may give such information.

By Command, J. GARDINER AUSTIN, Colonial Secretary.  Colonial Secretary's Office, Hongkong, 9th May, 1874.