Every day we see hundreds of them, more likely thousands, yet we never give telegraph poles a second thought.
They’re one of the most vital utilities on planet earth but they mostly go unnoticed until there’s a storm, an election or a dog.
Gales occasionally fell poles across roads, political parties are currently fixing countless posters to them, and canines have other fixations!
Never mind the inestimable part they play in industrial, commercial and domestic life, the role of telegraph poles in politics has never been properly analysed.
They’re always ignored and rarely recounted.
But thanks to the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society (TPAS), there’s a veritable world-wide ‘church’ of pole worshippers devoted to ‘pole stars’ of all shapes and sizes.
“We get about 10,000 visitors on our website every month,” TPAS-founder Martin Evans told me yesterday.
TPAS members aren’t just obsessed with these much-ignored pieces of rural and urban furniture, they’re also intrigued by all the fixtures and fittings - the ceramic insulators and the little signs and notifications that are attached to them or etched into the wood.
“We don’t care what the wires contain either,” 56-year-old Martin admitted, “they all carry electricity in some way, be it the sparky stuff which boils your kettle, or the thinner stuff with your voice in it when you’re on the phone!”
Yesterday marked the day in 1844 when Samuel Morse put an advertisement in a Washington newspaper inviting “proposals for furnishing 700 straight and sound chestnut posts with the bark on.”
Earlier that year the US Congress granted Morse $30,000 to build a 40-mile telegraph line between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, which Samuel began laying underground.
The first seven miles of cable was so faulty he dug it up, stripped off its sheathing, and strung the wires overhead, on poles.
It worked brilliantly.
So on February 7, 1844 Morse advertised for 700 more poles “of not less than eight inches in diameter at the butt and tapering to five or six inches at the top. Six hundred and eighty of said posts to be 24 feet in length, and 20 of them 30 feet in length” – the long, the short and the tall of America’s first overhead telegraph system.
Martin Evans referred me to TPAS’s ‘bible’, aptly called The Telegraph Pole, written in the early 1930s by WH Brent BSc (Hons) for the Institution of Post Office Electrical Engineers.
Before confirming that Scots pine is “the ideal wood” for telegraph poles Brent explained that his “comprehensive survey of the subject” would include “the structure and strength of a pole, its ‘birth’ from the forest tree, its ‘life’ in service, its ‘death’ whether from disease, fatal accident, or exposure to blizzards and finally, a proposal for securing longer life and better construction by a scheme called ‘pre-cutting’.”
Brent recounted “wood poles were used in the local construction of the first telegraphic lines in 1836 by private companies and railways who used larch and Scots pine of homegrown origin and, more often than not, without preservative treatment.”
A pole thought to be the oldest surviving in the UK is in Orkney Museum, date-stamped 1894, and there’s a 30ft pole near Oilmills Bridge in Ebley, Stroud, from around 1895/96.
“All wire-carrying wooden poles, as far as I am concerned, have an essence of whimsical poetry all of their own,” mused former software designer Martin Evans, “there they stand, silent sentinels, forever observing us who scurry about beneath them, oblivious.”
Evans has one in his garden in Meifod, Wales, where his house is stuffed with all sorts of telegraphic sundries - wooden cross arms, ceramic insulators, spindles, pegs and “galvanised tin hats fitted to the top of the poles for weatherproofing.”
He’s been mesmerised by telegraph poles since he was a child when he “loved the way they lined up across the fields, so pleasing to the eye, and the way they disappeared into infinity.”
For a dozen years TPAS enthusiasts have shared their passion for poles on their website, where there’s fact as well as fun.
The Pole Liner is a film where Martin plays one of the few remaining Telegraph Pole Alignment Officers, at work on his patch somewhere in Wales.
There are photos and stories from “simple telegraph poles; space age telegraph poles; telegraph pole hieroglyphics to the downright sexy ones,” Martin explained.
The society organises a Telegraph Pole Appreciation Day every September 21.
“Put it in your diary,” ordered Martin, “and hug a pole, admire one, draw one, love one, climb one and write a poem about one!”
There’s a decorative TPAS coffee mug and a pole of the month competition - a recent winner was in Durham.
“It’s a lovely one,” swooned Evans, “It fills my heart with joy. Poles like this are so rare that it should be a Listed Monument or at least have a Pole Preservation Order put on it.”
I wondered how he rated Northern Ireland’s poles.
“There are some interesting ones,” he considered thoughtfully, “but all the old ones with lots of wooden arms on them have gone.”
There was tangible emotion in his voice.
But he chuckled over his concluding admission “We get asked an awful lot of questions here at the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society, not least, why do we bother?”
Visit them at www. telegraphpoleappreciation society.org