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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Telegrams - Ancestors' Personal Writings

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Amongst family papers, you may come across carefully preserved telegrams offering congratulations at a family nuptials. Telegrams had been sent for all sorts of business and official reasons from as early as the late 1840s, but the fashion for sending messages for a wedding  -  or a Silver, Ruby, Diamond or Golden wedding anniversary – was most popular between the 1920s and the 1970s. Indeed, newspapers in the 1930s, reported that it had become twice as common at that time to send a telegram of congratulation as it had to send a telegram importing bad news.
Telegraph Machine

Before the advent of fast, modern aids to travel such as a localised rail network, cars and aeroplanes, relatives who lived at a distance were often unable to make wedding celebrations in person and had to communicate their good wishes in other ways. After the advent of telephones – few ordinary people had telephones in their own homes until after the Second World War - a well-wisher might have sent a telegram dictating a message over the phone to a telegraph operator in one of a countrywide network of telegraph offices. Alternatively, customers might appear in person at a telegraph office and write their message on a blank form. In either case, a telegraph operator would then render the message into Morse code and then transmit it as a series of electrical impulses over long distances via a telegraph machine. Very early telegrams were then deciphered and written out by hand by a telegraph operator at the receiving end, but by the 1930s, most modern post offices had a tele-printer. This printed incoming messages onto strips of paper which were then stuck on to a card and delivered to individual addresses by messenger boys on bicycles. At the wedding, it was customary for telegrams -  often judiciously edited -  to be read out by the Best Man after the other speeches were finished.
General Post Office - Telegraph Office

Telegram rates varied depending on the distance the message had to be sent, the speed with which it needed to be delivered, and its length.  Because they cost more than a straightforward letter or postcard, telegrams indicate a certain degree of affluence on the part of their senders and by association on the part of their recipients. It’s worth checking local newspaper accounts of family weddings to see if telegrams are mentioned. The following example shows how a useful snippet of information may be gleaned in such a way. On the Golden wedding celebrations of Mr and Mrs William Blackwood, of 4 Roselea Terace, Church Street, Ladybank, the Dundee Courier, 15th December 1942, commented: ‘Telegrams of congratulation were received from friends in Ladybank, Culross, Newburgh and Liverpool, where Mrs Blackwood’s sister resides.’   

But telegrams at weddings did not always bring messages of congratulation, and newspapers, of course, revelled in those occasions where a telegram in one way or another broke up the happy proceedings. A particularly heartbreaking case reported in the Framlington Weekly News of 15th December 1934 told the story of Ivy May Holton aged 22 of Stretham who had returned from the hairdressers on the morning of her wedding to find a telegram from her fiancĂ©e, Richard James Baldock, an invoice Clerk, aged 23, simply stating, ‘WEDDING CANCELLED, COMING UP, BALDOCK.’ Whether or not Baldock ever in fact ‘came up’ to explain himself is unclear but the wedding did not go ahead, Such an experience was the interwar equivalent of being ‘dumped by text’ and its repercussions were dramatic as the newspaper continued:   ‘You can imagine the state of mind of a young woman receiving such as message within an hour of her wedding. The shock was terrible. She became hysterical and, as a result, was ill for three weeks… at one time there was a serious risk that her mind would become unhinged by the shock.’

In another intriguing case, The Dundee Courier reported on January 8th 1923, that a London wedding between Mr Howard Elliott Booker, an American citizen and director of several London dance clubs, and Miss Ivy Featherstone, had been delayed because Miss Featherstone’s brother had received a telegram alleging that the groom was already married to a named woman. The groom begged to be allowed to visit the American consulate. This he did and it was proved that the woman mentioned in the telegram was in fact not married to him but was the wife of an American army officer. The marriage to Miss Featherstone went ahead with the bride asserting that she had never for one moment doubted her prospective husband!

Tips for thinking about your family wedding telegram

Dates and other factual details - As far as the family historian is concerned, telegrams may present a double boon – evidence of the date, time, location of the marriage and the names of the participants, and evidence of the whereabouts of the sender at that particular time. Bear in mind that wedding telegrams were often addressed to the Best Man or Maid of Honour rather than the groom.

Wording - Telegrams were priced (in part) by the word, so senders tended to be succinct. Hyphens, speech marks and the like were generally omitted as each counted as a word and had to be paid for, and individual words were usually not more than seven letters long. Conventional terms of politeness were also often eschewed in telegrams as a means of cutting costs. Fortunately for family historians, the messages in telegrams tend to be very clear and unambiguous, written in capital letters, with numbers spelt out in full, for example. After World War One, the word ‘STOP’ instead of an actual full stop was commonly used for clarity.

Cryptic Wording - Latin, Italian and French were commonly used as a method of keeping messages secret from prying telegraph operators and some telegrams were written in code (‘cablese’). Regular telegram users could purchase code books which enabled them to convey a great deal of information in an abbreviated form, rather like the acronyms used in text messaging today. A couple of examples show how guesswork might not be enough to help you decode your old family telegram: EMOTION = ‘think you had better wait until…..’ and NALLARY = ‘it is not absolutely necessary, but it would be an advantage’.  To help you, try purchasing such a code book (eg. The Telegram Code (1880) RareBooksClub, 2012)) from an online bookstore such as or 

Useful Books and Websites - The history of telephones in the UK The history of Morse Code and the telegraph system

Kieve.  J. L.,  Electric Telegraph: A Social and Economic History, David and Charles, Newton Abbott, 1973.

Marvin. Carol,  When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, OUP, 1988.

This article was first published in Family Tree Magazine UK  2016

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