In the winter of 1891, quite a spirited debate broke out between the citizens of Cessnock and it was played out publicly in the local newsapaper, The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, over whether Cessnock would be better served by the existing telegraph or by the new fangled invention .... the telephone.
The genesis of this debate focused on the then Postmistress, Mrs Margaret Gouldsbury and whether she could be trusted to handle the privacy of telephonic communication. When the telegraph arrived in Cessnock in August 1888, it was placed in the Court House, directly opposite the Post Office. This was quite common in the early days of the colony and was not unusual, even though it necessitated the employment of a skilled telegraph operator, Mr Joseph Lord (paid a salary of £75), to perform the task.Later that year, a Postmaster-General inspector recommended that the two offices be combined to alleviate the cost of running two separate offices. This idea was ignored until the Postmaster-General decided to upgrade Cessnock to the 'new' telephone system.
Then all hell broke loose!
The first shots of the debate were fired in June 1891 when Mr Francis Stewart, in Maitland District Court, sued Margaret Gouldsbury and John Gouldsbury (official letter carrier and Margaret's husband) for alleged negligence in the delivery of a registered letter posted on the 24th January, it was not picked up by Mr Stewart till the 2nd February of that year. Plaintiff claimed £30 compensation (that would be around $24,000 in today's money!). As all mail was picked up from the Post Office at that time, the judge decided that the Post Office was under no obligation to inform Mr Stewart of the arrival of the letter and dismissed the case.
In July 1891 a public meeting was convened to insist to the NSW Government that Cessnock was entitled to have a new Post and Telegraph Office built, that the existing telegraph be retained and the Postmaster-General employ the services of a suitably qualified civil servant to run the new venture. Although never publicly stated, but framed in innuendo, was that Mrs Gouldsbury should lose her position to a person, who was civil, courtesy and obliging (a pre-requisite for employment in the postal service at that time). This colonial soap opera was played out in the newspaper, between June till August as each side openly slandered the other.
On the 12th September 1891, following an investigation by Mr O'Connor, the Postmaster-General and several local MP's, it was decided that a telephone would indeed replace the telegraph equipment and that it would be placed in the existing Post Office. However, Mrs Gouldsbury stepped aside as Postmistress and her 17 year old niece, Miss Agnes Lappan, would assume the duties of the Postmistress (Agnes had already served as Assistant for many years previous). The Post Office building was still owned by the Gouldbury's.
The above story represents how passionate locals were about the Post Office and the important role that the Post Office played in Australia's early history.
The early history of postal services to Cessnock is in itself quite a colourful read as the town struggled to establish itself and become a thriving independent community. The towns big problem was that it was situated on The Great North Road , (then the only road to NSW's northern districts) between the two major inland towns of Wollombi and West Maitland. In September 1863, the residents asked that a Post Office be established, however due to the costs involved their request was denied (mail for Cessnock was dropped off at the local Inn by the passing mail service). Then in August 1864 another petition with 50 signatures was submitted to the Postmaster-General and in this instance they were successful, with local storekeeper Mr James Melville being appointed Postmaster. An interesting fact is that for the next 43 years a relative of James Melville ran the Cessnock Post Office from the same site (now the site of the Holden dealership) and Miss Agnes Lappan, was quite possibly the youngest ever official Postmistress, quite a feat indeed!
Mail for Cessnock from Maitland arrived Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2 pm. It then arrived from Wollombi on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1pm. All mail at this time was picked up from Mr Melvilles Post Office as there was no home or business mail deliveries.
It wasn't till 1908, with a population of 5,000 and residents demanding better postal services, that Cessnock attained the prestigious status of an official Post Office. In addition to the Postmaster, there was also a permanent assistant and a messenger attached to the new office. Also by July 1908 a twice daily letter delivery service was in place (delivered by contractor). It appears that the Post office was still run from the original Gouldsbury site as the new Post Office wasn't yet completed.
The Vincent Street building was eventually completed in 1909 (but not commencing operations until 1910) for a total cost of £1,200 ($800,000) and was designed during the Walter Vernon (NSW Government Architect) period and featured the favoured Federation Bungalow style of the time. Unfortunately the Vincent Street site went through numerous changes, including a couple of 'new' facades to keep the building looking modern and fresh, however those changes obliterated the wonderful Vernon design. Examples of Federation Bungalow Post Office style can still be found at Weston and Kurri Kurri.The Cessnock council was forever asking the PMG Department for new premises, including in 1964 when deputations from local MP's could only illicit a vague promise that something would be done in 10 -15 years! That promise only achieved another remodelling, with a $24,000 refit and according to the District Postal Manager, Mr K.Frost " ... has been designed to suit the needs of the people in Cessnock for many years to come".
The 3rd and current Post Office site is now located in Cessnock Marketplace shopping centre and is a pleasant, functional enough shop front with easy access for postal services, but it does lack the panache of of a Federation Bungalow style building . Also, when Australia Post moved from the Vincent Street site, they split the postal functions as well, with the sorting and delivery functions moved to a purpose built site in South Avenue.
So Cessnock has grown from one letter a week from Wollombi in 1863, to be the dominant postal provider in the area and will be for the foreseeable future..I suppose we are lucky that we are no longer sued for late mail deliveries!
I'd like to thank the Newcastle Library Local History section and the online resources of the National Library of Australia for their assistance.