William Whitfield Mills, Overseer of Section C of the Overland Telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin, was heading north with men and heavy equipment, on the way to the starting point for his section of the line.
He wrote in a report to his boss, Charles Todd, Superintendent of Telegraphs:
“On the 7th (March 1871) I started again for the Ranges, the drays in the meantime following the Hugh (River). On March 11th I again arrived at the MacDonnell Ranges and was successful in finding a pass, about 30 miles east of Stuart’s track, with numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Spring which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd.”
Lady Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, inspired not only the name of the town, Alice Springs, but also the Todd River. Who was she, and why did she deserve such adoration?
Alice Gillam Bell was born in 1836 in Cambridgeshire, England. When she was twelve years old a young man, Charles Heavitree Todd, assistant Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, came to call on her mother. Alice was lying on a bear skin rug in front of the fire, watching the visitor, impressed by his serious ways and dark good looks.
“If no one else will have you, then I will marry you, Mr Todd,” she told him.
Unlikely as it must have seemed at the time, the pair exchanged vows a few years later and Charles whisked her away to Adelaide, Australia. After many years at Greenwich working on electrical apparatus for the transmission of time signals he had been appointed as the Superintendent of Electric Telegraph by the South Australian Government.
Over the years, away from home setting up a link between Adelaide and Melbourne, then the Overland Telegraph to Darwin, Charles wrote to his wife daily. Each letter started out with, “My Dearest Alice.” He talked of his life in remote places, and his troubles with getting the telegraph lines across some of the most rugged and isolated terrain on earth.
From the Roper River, near a particularly difficult part of the construction, he wrote, ‘I wish you could see it, especially at sunset, when the tints and reflections on the water are most beautiful.’
The strength of Charles and Alice’s relationship shows through in those letters, feelings growing stronger from the foundations laid all those years earlier in that little home in Cambridgeshire. All who knew Alice loved her, and as her daughter Lorna later wrote:
“No one could look into my mother’s blue eyes, which always had a twinkle of fun in them, without being sure of her enjoyment of life.”
The couple had two sons and four daughters, and were regular churchgoers as well as members of Adelaide society in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Alice died in 1898 at the age of just 62, when the town she gave her name to was well on its way to becoming a vibrant outback community. Her husband’s middle name was used to name Heavitree Gap, the location of Alice Spring, and site of the original Telegraph Station. Charles died at Semaphore, Adelaide, of gangrene, in 1910.
“I will marry you, Mr Todd,” Alice said as a twelve year old. But she could surely not have imagined that with those simple words her name would live on as the title of arguably Australia’s most iconic outback city.
Please like the Stories of Oz page for weekly posts on Australian history.
(Researched and Written by Greg Barron/Photo of Alice credit State Library of South Australia/Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)