Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Newcastle West (2302)

By the time Australia Post decided to vacate the Newcastle West Post Office, in 2003, that area of Hunter Street had fallen onto hard times with dilapidated & boarded up buildings dominating the streetscape. I remember clearing the Post Office drop boxes on a Sunday morning and finding the alcove had become shelter for the homeless, with the smell of urine and vomit overpowering. I don't think there was one Newcastle transport driver who shed a tear with its closure.

But that wasn't always the way
As Newcastle continued to expand westward in the mid 1800's, residents and business began to call for better postal and telegraph facilities be made available. This was mainly due to the distance from the west end of Newcastle to the 'old' Newcastle Post Office located on the corner of Hunter and Watt Street, which was already straining from increased patronage and was unable to deliver the service that was required by a fast growing community..
Following successful representations to the Postmaster-General a Post Office was finally established and began operating on the 6th September 1889 at 525 Hunter Street (located in a building opposite the later Hunter Street site). However, it wasn't long before the community outgrew this building and so the good citizens began agitating at every possible occasion for a more 'officious' building be made available. 

One of those occasions was at the opening of the Newcastle Technical College in 1896, which was attended by the Postmaster-General, Mr Joseph Cook (later to become our 6th Prime Minister) and where the case for a new Post Office was put forward by local Alderman, even citing figures that stated  that the Post Office had made over £600  ($86,000) profit in the preceding year! Mr Cook promised that a new Post Office would indeed be built as long as they could secure a vacant block from the Railways Department at no cost (the Railways were holding the only vacant land on Hunter Street at the time).

Finally a block was secured at 582 Hunter Street, next door to the Technical College and in 1898  the contract was awarded to Mssrs. Wooden & Frost for the construction of a Walter Liberty Vernon designed Post Office at a cost of £1435 ($1.1 million).The style that Walter Vernon settled on was the Queen Anne Federation style which featured strong colours, textures and ornaments applied fairly evenly over the whole building, with red brickwork with flush joints, terracotta tiled roofs and the extensive use of lead lights.

While Walter Vernon may have been happy with his design, the locals were horrified.

The Newcastle Herald fired a withering salvo at the new Post Office on the 24th February 1899 calling the building "an abortion" and looking little better than  "a pigeon house". However, the most damning condemnation was the assertion was that the building was " - just about sufficient to accommodate a fat pay Saturday mother with her children and parcels" ... ouch!

However the Post Office did eventually open in June 1899 and became part of the fabric of  the Newcastle West  community. The wonderful Queen Anne facade was replaced in the 1930's with a rather bland looking frontage and again in the 1980's Australia Post updated the look of this fast fading icon.

By the end of the century the prospects of Newcastle West were looking ominous as local business's and residents moved away from the area, ultimately forcing the closure of the Newcastle West Post Office after 114 years of dedicated service, with most of the postal business shifting to Dangar (Marketown) LPO, or in a nice twist of irony, back Newcastle PO. The building lay dormant for a number of years while its fate was debated, but eventually the building has become an attractive public art gallery the 'Front Room Gallery' part of the Newcastle Art School (for further information click on this link Front Room Gallery )

Newcastle West is again being revived as business's and residents move back to the area on the back of the Lee Wharf and Honeysuckle redevelopment ...  if only Australia Post had held firm!

I'd like to thank the staff at Newcastle City Library & The Newcastle Herald for the use of their time and resources in compiling this blog. 

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