In an age of post office closures, it is interesting to look at the grand buildings that once housed our postal services in large cities. The Melbourne GPO is no exception. The post office is now closed but houses up-market shopping arcades. This article gives a history of this important GPO and is a reminder of the golden age of post offices.
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CENTENARY OF MELBOURNE’S GPO building, in Elizabeth Street, was commemorated during July  by a Postal Exhibition in the Postal Hall of the building.
The Exhibition and celebrations were officially opened in a brief ceremony on Monday, July 3, by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Cr, Ian Beaurepaire. The exhibition consisted mainly of a series of large pictorial panels showing various phases of development of Post Office activities over one hundred years or more.
The original Melbourne Telephone Company’s exchange and its brief list of subscribers was shown, together with illustrations featuring the rapid growth of this now indispensable service.
The first post-office, in Collins Street in 1837, was pictured, as was the first structure built in 1841 on the present site. This was extended in 1853 and partly demolished in 1859 to make way for the present building which was opened on July 1, 1867.
This view of the Postal Hall in the GPO, Melbourne, was taken on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1871, and was published in the “Illustrated London News” later the same year. At that time, apparently, prior to the extensions, the hall was used as the mail room.
Various types of mail transport over the years; different kinds of uniforms worn by postal employees; development of the co-axial cable; and many other relevant subjects were also shown in the photographs.
Two tele-printer machines demonstrated the simplicity, and the time and labour-saving advantages of the Telex system. Elsewhere a colour film pictured trends in the development of suburban and country Post Office buildings. In this display the sound-track could be heard by listening in on one of the rows of nearby handset telephones.
Upstairs in the gallery, another film, showing continuously, explained the advantages of the new POSTCODE system and showed its application in the Sydney Mail Exchange.
Special provision was made for philatelists who wanted souvenirs of the occasion. A street pillar-box, brought from England about 1853 and in use in South Melbourne until a few years ago, was installed in the Postal Hall as a receptacle for philatelic mail and all articles posted therein received a special commemorative postmark. Beside the box stood dummy figures dressed in the colourful bright red and blue postmen’s uniforms of many years ago. Unfortunately, these were stolen during the first week of the exhibition.
Guests at the opening ceremony included many prominent businessmen, civic leaders, the press, philatelic societies and the stamp trade. After the ceremony the guests were formed into small groups of five or six and taken on a conducted tour of the exhibition by post office officials, and were afterwards entertained at morning tea.
Planned to run for two weeks, the exhibition proved so popular that it was extended for a third week.
Visitors to the exhibition received an attractive, illustrated folder giving the history and many interesting facts about the building. The notes that follow are taken from this folder.
For 100 years Melbourne’s General Post Office at the comer of Elizabeth and Bourke Streets has been the centre of the city’s busy commercial life.
When it was opened on July 1, 1867. to replace the first official GPO, a wooden structure on the same site, it was one of the first of many new city buildings of architectural grandeur which began to reflect the rapid growth of Melbourne from a pioneer settlement to a major centre of commerce, and the financial heart of Australia.
With its famed clock tower, the General Post Office has become the focal point not only of the city, but of Victoria.
Described by the “Victorian Gazetteer” of 1879 as “by far the handsomest and most magnificent structure in Australia” the GPO with its elegant colonade is in dramatic contrast with the modest wooden structure that was the first official GPO building on the same site from 1841 to 1859.
The present GPO building was born out of the gold rush days of the State.
The discovery of gold in 1851 brought a rapid increase in Victoria’s population and with it a dramatic rise in the volume of mail. This was 14 years after Mr. E. J. Foster was appointed Melbourne’s first official Postmaster in 1837.
The Post Office then was a crude bark-covered hut in Collins Street. It was the first year that the Post Office was conducted on an official basis, and, in nine months, a total of 1,050 letters and 1,355 newspapers were handled.
The GPO was moved from temporary premises four times from 1837 until the first permanent timber building was erected on the present site in 1841 at a cost of £1,415.
When Mr. David Kelsh took over the first permanent GPO premises in 1841 he had a staff of one clerk and one letter carrier, and mail deliveries began from that time.
The first letter receivers, a completely new innovation, were erected in 1844. One was placed at each end of the city and clearances were made twice a day.
By 1851 the mail could be counted in thousands of articles a year, but the gold rush increased this dramatically to 1½ million items in 1852. By this time the staff had increased to 22 clerks and 12 letter carriers.
In 1853, considerable additions were made to the building, and a record three and a half million postal items were handled in twelve months. There were then 54 Post Offices in Victoria, the total staff for the State being 97.
The old wooden G.P.O. quickly became inadequate and the Government of 1857 offered cash prizes for the best exterior and interior designs for a new GPO. They wanted not just accommodation for handling mail and other post office business, but a prestige building worthy of an important and growing capital city.
A notice duly appeared in the “Argus” of January 19, 1859, calling for tenders to demolish and remove the first GPO. The old wooden building, a link with the very early pioneer days of Melbourne, soon disappeared. A section, facing Post Office Place, was left standing to enable business to be continued during building operations, but it was to be nine years before the new building in all its nineteenth century grandeur, was completed at a cost of £140,000. It comprised two floors, an attic, a large and elegant Postal Hall, and an impressive colonnaded exterior.
Building materials came mainly from local sources. Bluestone from Brunswick quarries was used for the foundations, Gabo Island red granite for the basement, and sandstone from a Tasmanian quarry for the facing on the superstructure.
The great day finally arrived, and on Monday, July 1, 1867, the new Elizabeth Street GPO was opened.
For some time before the new GPO was opened, the tower, which apparently had long been completed, was used to display flag signals whenever a new consignment of mail arrived.
A report in the “Age” on July 1, 1867 – the day of the opening – said that a special “monster lamp” fitted with 12 gas jets, had been made locally and was to be hoisted to the top of the flagpole at nightfall. It was clearly visible from all directions. and coloured slides were to be employed that corresponded with the coloured signal flags that were used during the daytime.
The GPO remained much the same for 18 years, until 1885, when the Stamp Printing Section was transferred from the attic to the Government Printing Office to enable alterations and additions to be made to the building.
The following year, 1886, Messrs. Goss and Masson were given the contract for the construction of a third floor at a cost of £83,835 At the same time, the clock tower was raised to its present height of 188 ft. Work was completed two years later. Grampian sandstone was used for the facing of the third floor.
The next and last major alteration to the building was made 22 years later, in 1910, when two storeys of the building were extended by 113 ft. along Elizabeth Street.
A locally made clock was installed in the tower during 1869. It was made at the Locomotive Workshops at Williamstown. Five bells were cast in Glasgow and were first heard in Melbourne during May, 1871.
The present GPO clock was installed in September, 1890, by Messrs. T. Gaunt & Co., of Melbourne. The number of bells was increased in the following February to provide a carillon of 12, antomatically controlled to play any one of 28 tunes.
In the early days, a tune was played every quarter of an hour throughout the day and night. Today, tunes are played only at three-hourly intervals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the bells are automatically silenced after that time.
The GPO clock was first illuminated on the night of July 29, 1891, when the Postmaster-General of the day, Mr. Gavin Duffy, switched on the electric lights at an official ceremony.
A mail staff of 200 people now sort 550,000 city letters and 30,000 packets and newspapers a day and deliveries are made on 128 postal rounds in the City of Melbourne.