National Archives of Australia: Perth, an Accidental History

August, Daily 12pm

Developed in collaboration with the National Archives of Australia

A group of young men claim a street corner as their own, staring defiantly at the camera. A policeman directs trams, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians at the intersection of Wellington and Barrack streets. Women shop for groceries at a Murray Street fruit shop, exhorted by signs to ‘Eat more vegetables’. A soldier strolls down London Court; a kiosk for ex-servicemen and women, conveniently located in front of the Perth train station, has its doors open for enquiries. A businessman boards a trolley bus on a wet day on the Terrace.

These moments from Perth’s history were captured by photographers from the Engineering Branch of the Postmaster-General’s Department. From 1911, the department dutifully photographed telephone poles and exchanges, telegraph wires, post offices, postal trucks, public telephones and other aspects of Western Australia’s telecommunications network. Almost by accident, they also created a pictorial history of Western Australia, its capital and its people. The earliest photographs in this collection depict the scramble of telephone wires that dominated Perth’s inner-city streets in the early 20th century. More wires were added as increasing numbers of businesses and residents chose the convenience of their own telephone connection.

The expensive and disruptive task of moving these connections underground took more than 10 years – the transformed streets were recorded for posterity by the Postmaster-General’s photographers. This collection of more than 70,000 photographs held by the National Archives of Australia includes images captured using glass plate negatives. These fragile plates provide extraordinary detail and a sense of immediacy, even in images more than a hundred years old.

Most of the photographers remain unknown officers of the Engineering Branch. They have left, however, a record of the work of the Postmaster-General’s Department over the breadth of Western Australia, and the opportunity to view Perth through a different lens.

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