Post and Telegraph Service


Post offices have been the most prominent buildings in Australian towns, symbolizing the importance of communication in a vast country. Writing about his travels in the Australian colonies in the early 1870s, Anthony Trollope made particular note of the importance placed on post office buildings:

The one building in Adelaide on which the town most prides itself, - and of which at the same time the colony is half ashamed because of the expense, - is the Post Office. I was gratified by finding that the colonies generally were disposed to be splendid in their post offices rather than in any other buildings, - for surely there is no other building so useful. At Brisbane, when I was there, they were building a fine post office. At Sydney they had nearly completed a magnificent post office, of which I have spoken in its proper place. At Melbourne I found a very large post office indeed, - though, as I thought, one not very convenient to the public. And here in Adelaide the Post Office is the grandest edifice in the town. It is really a beautiful building, with a large centre hall, such as we had in London as long as we could afford ourselves the is a credit to Adelaide, and would be an ornament to any city in Europe.1

Early Colony of New South Wales

The ships of the First Fleet, which brought the original European settlers to Sydney Cove in 1788, were the first mail service; they took the return mail back to England and left the settlers to wait until 1790 for the replies brought by the Second Fleet. Within the colony personal letters were delivered by friends or servants and, as settlement developed upstream at Rose Hill on the Parramatta River, the mail was ferried for a fee by private boatmen.

Initially official news was read by proclamation to the assembled settlers. In 1803 the Sydney Gazette began publication using the printing press which had been brought to the colony on the First Fleet. Now notices could be published giving information about mailing points where ships’ captains would collect outgoing mail. Notices were also lodged to advise the collection points for incoming mail; for example, when Lynda Moss arrived in 1809 with mail from England, she advertised in the Sydney Gazette that she was happy to distribute the letters from her home at the back of the timber yard owned by Mr. Reibie.

Unless delivered personally, a ship’s incoming mail was supposed to go through the Naval Office, but frequently settlers would row out to a ship to take delivery of their mail and that of others as well. In 1806 Governor Bligh imposed a fine of 10 pounds for such an offence. In 1809, when Isaac Nicholls was appointed as Assistant to the Naval Officer, he was responsible for handling mail from his home and offered to deliver it for a charge determined by weight. The following year, Governor Macquarie appointed him to the position of Postmaster with the responsibility of boarding ships to collect the private mail. Fortunately he held other responsible positions in the colony, as his reimbursements did not cover the costs of handling the mail. There was no organised inland mail service, and many private letters languished uncollected because their recipients did not know of their existence.

In an attempt to improve the system, the Postal Proclamation of 1825 regulated the rates of postage and provided for the establishment of post offices at sea ports and inland centres. These measures did not receive approval from England until 1827, and were finally enacted in 1828. Coach companies took responsibility for the transport of mail from Sydney to Parramatta, Windsor and Liverpool. In 1828, when the General Post Office was established, a charge of 4 pence per letter was imposed, and a stamping system introduced. Post offices were opened in Parramatta, Windsor, Liverpool, Campbelltown, Penrith, Newcastle and Bathurst. George Panton, who had been appointed as Postmaster in 1819, was now allocated a salary of 100 pounds and a five per cent commission on postal charges. Most positions of deputy postmasters at country offices were filled by the local clerks of the Magistrate’s Court on a five per cent commission on the postal charges. In 1845 there were 79 post offices for the population of 149,669; by 1852 there were 56 staff working in the GPO as sorters, letter carriers and clerks. By 1855, with the impetus given by the gold rushes, the number of country post offices had increased to 155.

Van Diemen’s Land

The first postal officer was appointed in 1812, with mail delivered on foot by convicts. A regular fortnightly delivery was provided by carriers between Hobart Town and Launceston in 1824, but in 1835 a coach made the journey in 19 hours twice a week. By 1832 there were 32 post offices in the colony. In 1842 the rate of postage was determined by weight rather than distance. The colony introduced penny postage in 1852 along with a system of pre-payment for mail, and adhesive stamps were introduced when the compulsory use of stamps was required in 1853. The colony enjoyed a period of agricultural and pastoral expansion following the end of the convict system in 1853, and in the mid 1850s experienced the most rapid increase in the number of new post offices of any colony.

Swan River Colony, Western Australia

On the settlement of the colony in 1829, Commander M. J. Currie, RN, was appointed as postmaster at Fremantle. Perth was given a postmaster in 1830, and a runner was paid to take the mail between the two centres. The Perth Gazette of Saturday April 6, 1833, reported:

The Post-man on his way down to Fremantle yesterday, happened to fall in with one of the sheep which had strayed from the flock lately driven up to a farm on the Swan, and from the exhausted state in which he found it, he carried it to the bush inn, a distance of about a mile and a half, for which he received 2 shillings.2

Albany, an important strategic port in the far south, was the third postal centre. The imposing building built in 1869 to house the postal facilities is a good example of the many purposes for which early public buildings were used. The ground floor housed the customs office and bond store, the first floor was occupied by the post office and mail sorters, and the top floor was devoted to the court and facilities for the magistrate.

In 1867, when mail contracts were to be renewed, the Colonial Secretary’s records listed twelve mail runs in the colony. The Perth/Fremantle run operated twice daily and Perth/Guildford once a day; some services such as Fremantle/ Rockingham were weekly; and some, such as the Perth/Northampton route which went via six small settlements, ran once a month. The Colonial Secretary’s Records also tabled the number of letters sent between the colony and England: 20,000 were sent from the colony and 16,930 were mailed to it from England in 1866.

South Australia

Mr. Thomas Gilbert, a store keeper who acted as the Postmaster until 1838, used his home in Adelaide for the collection, sorting and distribution of the mail. A charge of one penny was imposed on each incoming or outgoing letter handled by sea captains, who were reimbursed from these funds. By the end of 1838, the growing postal system required an official Postmaster-General, a position filled by Mr Henry Watts, assisted by a clerk who acted as a messenger also. In 1839 when the Post office Act was passed, the charge for inland mail was fixed at three pence per letter, regardless of size or weight; and the charge for shipping mail was set at one penny. This was changed, however, by another Act in 1841 which calculated charges for inland mail on distance. By 1841, post offices had been established at Port Adelaide, Port Lincoln, Morphett Vale, Willunga, Encounter Bay, and Gawler, in addition to the General Post Office in Adelaide. Over the next five years, services extended to Mount Barker, Angaston and Mount Gambier, and by 1868 there were 260 post offices in South Australia.

Port Phillip District

John Batman, who founded the site of Melbourne, handled the mail at first until the Chief Customs Officer undertook the task. Mr. E. J. Foster was appointed officially to the position of Postmaster in 1837, and in the following year a fortnightly mail service to Sydney was established. Initially it travelled by pack horse to Yass and continued by coach, but by 1841 the entire journey was made by coach. By 1849 the settlement could boast of 36 post offices.

Moreton Bay

Like the Port Phillip District, the Moreton Bay area was initially part of New South Wales. As it was established as a convict colony, the mail was handled by the Commandant’s staff. William Whyte acted as the Commandant’s clerk and postmaster from 1830 to 1842. After it was declared a free colony in 1842, regular fortnightly mail services to Sydney were provided by steamships. In 1848 post offices were opened in Ipswich and Warwick and the following year in Gayndah and Maryborough. John Barney was appointed as the full-time postmaster in 1852 and in 1855 his widow, Elise, became the first Australian postmistress.

There were fifteen post offices in operation when the colony separated from New South Wales in 1859, and continuing expansion of pastoral settlement necessitated expanded mail services. By December 1860 there were 1912 miles of mail routes, 88 by coach from Brisbane to Drayton and the rest by horseback. Some post offices were situated in stores or inns, others on the large pastoral stations, and, during the gold rushes of the sixties, they occupied tents or crude huts. A system of receiving offices was introduced in 1869 with the postmaster or receiving officer often employed in another capacity, for example, as mining warden, teacher or policeman.

Delivering the Mail

Growing settlements in all the colonies regarded the mail delivery as vital to their existence, especially as it brought the newspaper delivered free of charge. In many cases the initial move towards a mail service was made by the settlers, with one of them volunteering to act as the receiver until the population and quantity of mail reached a level sufficient for the government to approve the establishment of an official post office.

The earliest forms of delivery within each of the colonies were by foot or horseback: the first overland delivery is reputed to be the 210 kilometre distance from Launceston to Hobart ridden by the government messenger in 1816. Until 1835 the mounted police were an integral part of the delivery system of New South Wales and even after that time they were still crucial for mail delivery to newly developing areas, providing a backup in emergencies. Shipping services were also a vital link between Sydney and its outpost settlements in Van Diemen’s Land, Newcastle, Moreton Bay and the Port Phillip district. The colony on the Swan River (Western Australia) depended on shipping long after South Australia which enjoyed an inland mail link with Melbourne via Mount Gambier.

The feasibility of overland mail services improved during the 1820s when inland coach routes developed. At first the coach proprietors operated independently of the government, but in 1824 the Governor of New South Wales ordered that 400 Spanish dollars be paid for the carriage of government mail, and from 1825 the title “Royal Mail Coach” was used. As services extended, private contractors tendered for the regular routes advertised by the government. Records in all the colonies describe the hazards of inland mail delivery - flood, fire, accidents, and attacks by bushrangers and Aborigines. Despite hostility from some Aborigines whose territory was threatened, there was co-operation from others: they delivered the mail between Fremantle to Vasse (now Busselton) in Western Australia when the service opened there. In 1863 Cobb & Co. won the title of official mail carriers; new American coaches had been imported to cope better with the rough roads and the company was set for a prosperous future. It was at this time, however, that their greatest competitor was emerging - the railway. In 1855 the first mail delivery was made by rail between Sydney and Parramatta. Despite the triumph of the railways by the 1890s, Cobb & Co. continued to operate in Queensland until 1924, and small privately operated runs were still needed in remote areas until 1940.

Postal Charges

Postage was first charged on the basis of weight, which led to the practice of writing in two directions across both sides of the note paper. In 1831 Sydney adopted the two penny post for mail delivered by mailmen in red uniforms. Postal boxes known as letter receivers were provided, and the postal charge could be prepaid at the GPO or on delivery. As early as 1838, embossed postage covers costing one shilling and three pence were available in Sydney.

In the early days the individual colonies set charges independently of each other, using factors such as weight, distance and type of mail to determine the price. The point at which payment was to be made was subject to change, and varied from one colony to another. By 1850 uniform postage rates were applied throughout the colonies, and the use of prepaid adhesive stamps, first introduced in New South Wales and Victoria, soon spread to the other colonies.


The second half of the century saw the development of the telegraph, which became closely linked to the postal service. The first line, using technology being developed in Britain, was opened in 1854 between Sandhurst (Port Melbourne) and Williamstown in Victoria. In South Australia, the government offered the position of Superintendent of Telegraphs to the assistant of the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich. He duly arrived with his assistant Mr E. C. Cracknell, who almost straight away became Superintendent of Telegraphs in New South Wales. The equipment which was brought from England was set up in small rooms in Adelaide, Port Adelaide and Semaphore, and in 1856 transmissions by morse code were sent along the telegraph lines linking these three centres. A rival private operation, which went into service a few weeks earlier than this facility, was eventually taken over by the government. New South Wales opened a line from Sydney to South Head in January 1858; Tasmania’s first line opened in 1859, and Queensland’s followed in 1861. In Western Australia a private line which opened in 1869 was taken over by the government in 1871. By 1886 Western Australia could boast 2654 miles of wire line with a contract pending to connect Roebourne and Derby, and eventually continue on to Port Darwin.

After the initial establishment of the services, the challenge was then to connect the colonies and eventually provide an overseas link. Melbourne had been linked to Adelaide and Sydney in 1858, Brisbane to Sydney in 1861, and Perth to Adelaide in 1877. The most ambitious project was the overland telegraph link between Port Augusta (already linked to Adelaide) and Darwin. In 1870 the South Australian government signed an agreement with the British-Australia Telegraph Company to provide the Darwin to Java connection for Australia’s communication with the rest of the world via Singapore. Completed in 1872, the Overland Telegraph Line stretched for 3000 kilometres with transmitting stations along the route. By 1900, the staff of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station not only included the stationmaster and his family, but also four linesmen-telegraph operators, a blacksmith-stockman, a governess and a cook. Many of the stations around the country were equipped with rain gauges, and weather reports were telegraphed through to central information centres.

Expanding Postal Services

Post and telegraph services were combined in all the colonies by the 1870s. The small room facilities, which provided the initial telegraph service for the capital cities, had grown to vast floors with lines of operators. In major towns and cities imposing new post offices were built, often with the telegraph office incorporated in an adjoining building. Post offices were extending their services to meet needs other than the collection and delivery of mail. In 1875 postcards were sold at the Sydney GPO for the first time. Queensland offered customers the service of private locked boxes at the post office for their mail collection in 1876. Four revolutionary facilities were introduced for the handling of money: the money order was pioneered by the South Australian postal service in 1859 in conjunction with the savings bank; money could be transferred by telegraph; postal notes were introduced to serve as legal tender, eventually replacing money orders for small amounts; and post offices introduced a facility for the Government Savings Bank in 1871.

Mail by Rail

British mail was first delivered by train in 1838. From 1855, the development of railways in the Australian colonies allowed for the transport of mail by rail. Increasing quantities of mail were causing delays in the sorting depots, so the advantages of sorting mail in transit were obvious. By 1870, some passenger carriages in New South Wales were converted to mail carriages which allowed sorters to operate en route; they used special “TPO” obliterators and date stamps. Queensland’s first Travelling Post Office commenced on the Southern and Western line in 1877, and in the same year mail traveled overnight by rail between Hobart and Launceston. With the expansion of demand, mail vans were custom built to provide specialized facilities.

Sea Mail

At the turn of the century, the Australian colonies remained dependent on sea transport which was very slow, very expensive, subject to natural disasters, and influenced by foreign treaties. Booby Island in the Torres Strait could boast the most unique postal shipping service in Australasia - passing ships left incoming mail in a cave and collected any that was relevant to their route.

During the 1850s various contracts were signed for the transfer of mail by steamer companies. Many were short lived, and the colonies vied with each other for the most speedy and reliable services. Albany in Western Australia was in a strategic position as a refueling station and steamers called here before proceeding to Melbourne and Sydney. Adelaide was in the unenviable position of sending steamers to Albany to collect its mail, but made it worthwhile by sending supplies at the same time, with the result that Albany was more closely linked to Adelaide than Perth. Sydney preferred a more direct route from Singapore. An inter-colonial conference was convened in Melbourne in 1867 to sort out the confusion, but, although three different routes were recommended, nothing was achieved. By 1878 a monthly steam service had been established from Britain to Port Adelaide and then on to Melbourne and Sydney. Costs were dramatically reduced and the system simplified when the Australian colonies joined the Universal Postal Union in 1891.


The federal Constitution gave the Commonwealth the power to administer the post and telegraph service; and accordingly the Post and Telegraph Act was passed in 1901, ensuring that a national, well co-ordinated system was provided. Over the following century there were dramatic changes which revolutionised the post and telegraph service, especially in the field of electronic communication. The development of radio raised the issue of the power of the Commonwealth to control new forms of communication and the matter was referred in 1935 to the High Court, which ruled that new forms of communication were covered by Section 51 (v) of the Constitution relating to ‘Postal, telegraphic, telephonic and other like services’.

The buildings which housed the post offices continued to serve the public well as a focus for community transactions. By the end of the 20th century, the development of regional shopping centres moved commercial outlets away from traditional business centres. Owing to this, and the need for economic rationalisation of management, the Commonwealth has been disposing of many post and telegraph properties. Since they have played a crucial role in Australia’s history, it is very important that their original function will not be forgotten.


1 P. D. Edwards & R.B. Joyce, (eds), Australia. Anthony Trollope, University of Queensland Press, 1967, pp.639, 640.

2 Perth Gazette, Saturday, 6 April, 1833.


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